What would you do if you knew with certainty that your life was going to end in a week? What action would you take? How would you spend the limited time that remained? Well, this is the position that Jesus found Himself in as we enter Mark chapter eleven.
This chapter opens with the account of Jesus’ public entry into Jerusalem, an event that is sometimes referred to as His “Triumphal Entry.” This episode from Jesus’ life is one of the few that is recorded by all four Gospel authors- and it began in a somewhat unusual manner…
“Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here'” (Mark 11:1-3).
Two of the three locations mentioned in this passage (Bethphage, Bethany, and the Mount of Olives) are generally well-known while the third is somewhat less so. For instance, the Mount of Olives is situated about one mile (1.6 km) east of Jerusalem and rises to a height of 2700 feet (823 m). As the name implies, a large number of olive trees populated this area and this location will become prominent later in Mark chapter 13 as the place from which Jesus will provide His followers with some detailed information about some important future events.
Bethany was located about two miles (3.2 km) east of Jerusalem and is perhaps best known as the place where Jesus raised Lazarus to life as recorded in chapter eleven of John’s Gospel. Then there is the town of Bethphage. While the exact location of Bethphage is no longer known, commentators generally place it somewhere along the southeastern portion of the Mount of Olives near Bethany and about 1-2 miles (1.6-3.2 km) away from Jerusalem.
Today, Bethphage (as well as Bethany) would be considered to be a “suburb” of Jerusalem but the name of this now-obscure town is more significant then it may appear. You see, “Bethphage” will help provide the explanation for a seemingly inexplicable action taken by Jesus a little later in this chapter. But before we get to that, we’ll first take a closer look at the mission that Jesus gave His disciples in these verses.
“…Jesus sent two of his disciples on ahead with these instructions: ‘Go to the village there ahead of you. As soon as you get there, you will find a colt tied up that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here'” (Mark 11:1-2 GW).
The appearance of a prominent person riding upon a majestic stallion is a sight that would certainly catch the attention of anyone who had the opportunity to witness such an event. While Jesus might have selected such an option for the purposes of entering Jerusalem, He chose instead to send His disciples to retrieve a young colt, a choice that was both deliberate and symbolic.
You see, unlike the conquering military hero who returned from battle astride a mighty war-horse, Jesus instead chose instead to enter Jerusalem riding upon a lowly young colt. For those who knew the Scriptures, this act would be seen as a fulfillment of an important Old Testament passage…
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
So Jesus dispatched His disciples to complete this mission but He also provided them with a contingency…
“And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.’ So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. But some of those who stood there said to them, ‘What are you doing, loosing the colt?’ And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go” (Mark 11:3-6).
It seems clear that Jesus made some sort of pre-arrangement in respect to His Triumphal Entry but what exactly did that arrangement entail? For instance, it seems plausible to assume that Jesus made certain to ensure that this animal would be available for His use prior to His arrival. Yet those who questioned the disciples appear to be little more than bystanders who just happened to in the vicinity of this colt when Jesus’ men arrived.
If this is the case, then it appears that Jesus did far more then simply ensure that this animal would be available for Him upon His entrance into Jerusalem. He also did something that would be impossible for a mere human being- He also made sure to notify those who would be in the vicinity at that future date as well.
“Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (Mark 11:7-8).
The prototypical image of a chivalrous gentleman is the man who spreads his coat over a puddle to prevent a lady from having to step through the mud. In a sense, this image is something like the scene we see portrayed here in Mark 11:7-8.
First, the disciples created a type of saddle that enable Jesus to ride comfortably as he entered Jerusalem. Next, those among the crowd spread leafy branches and even their own clothing upon the ground in order to smooth Jesus’ pathway into the city. As the people of that time generally did not own more than just a few sets of clothing (if that), this is something that was more of a sacrifice than it may appear.
For those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, these represented acts of respect that one might offer to a dignitary or other honorable person. Today we might also use the analogy of “rolling out the red carpet” to communicate a similar idea.
We should also remember that the colt that Jesus was riding upon had never previously been ridden by another human being. As such, the act of riding this animal would have ordinarily been impossible until it had been broken. Nevertheless, this colt did not attempt to throw Jesus or do anything other than carry Him to His intended destination. This small detail is just another example of what a prosecutor might refer to as “corroborative evidence.” You see, Jesus -as Creator- had the ability to control this animal’s natural inclination just as He had control over natural and spiritual elements as well.
Finally, the fact that Jesus rode into town on a borrowed colt is actually something that is representative of his entire life when we really stop to consider it. For example, Jesus’ birth took place in a manger that had been rented from someone else. He spoke to the crowds who came to hear Him from a boat that had been temporarily appropriated for that purpose. Following His death, He was laid to rest in another man’s burial chamber. In fact, when one of His followers told Him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
“Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: ‘Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!'” (Mark 11:9-10).
While large groups of people often came to hear Jesus speak, it seems that there were some (or perhaps many) who seemed more interested in what Jesus could do for them then with Jesus Himself.
For example, there were those (like the rich young ruler) who wanted access to Jesus’ wisdom but were unwilling to make a commitment to follow Him. Others wanted Him to act as an arbiter or enforcer. Then there were those who followed Jesus simply because He had once provided them with “something for nothing” and perhaps might do so again. So while many came to hear Jesus, there were at least some who came to use Him- and fewer still who actually sought to bless Him.
But on this day -for one brief moment- things were different.
Those who were present when Jesus entered Jerusalem responded to His arrival with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD.” The word hosanna means “save now” and the idea behind this exclamation is, “The promised Messiah has now arrived- Lord, we ask that You save us now.” The phrase, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD” is a quote from Psalm 118:26 and while many would later turn upon Jesus and demand His death in just a matter of days (including perhaps, some from among this crowd), it’s clear from this passage that He was accepted as the Messiah- at least at this point.
This event also represents the first time that Jesus permitted a group to publicly acknowledge Him as Savior. In fact, the Gospel of Luke’s account of this event details the reaction of the religious leaders to this public response and indicates that they were fully aware of what these exclamations represented…
“And some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out'” (Luke 19:38-40).
The Pharisees wanted Jesus to silence this crowd because they knew what their response meant- their reaction was equivalent to blasphemy because it acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah.
“The people who were in front and those who followed behind began to shout, ‘Praise God! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! God bless the coming kingdom of King David, our father! Praise be to God!'” (Mark 11:9-10 GNB).
While it may be easy to picture Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem as a great procession full of pageantry and fanfare, we might wish to consider how Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem may have appeared to others who happened to be there during this time. For example, one commentator helps to separate perception from reality in looking at this event…
“We call this event the “Triumphal Entry,” but it was a strange kind of triumph. If you spoke of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” to a Roman, they would have laughed you in the face. For them, a Triumphal Entry was a honor granted to a Roman general who won a complete and decisive victory, and had killed at least 5,000 enemy soldiers.
When the general returned to Rome, they had an elaborate parade. First came the treasures captured from the enemy, then the prisoners. His armies marched by unit by unit, and finally the general rode in a golden chariot pulled by magnificent horses. Priests burned incense in his honor and the crowds shouted his name and praised him. The procession ended at the arena, where some of the prisoners were thrown to wild animals for the entertainment of the crowd. That was a “Triumphal Entry,” not a Galilean Peasant sitting on a few coats set out on a pony.” (1)
So even though there were surely some who thought little of the response of those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, Jesus did not get caught up in any of the praise and adulation He did receive. You see, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus adopted a much more somber perspective upon His arrival…
“Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).
(1) David Guzik Eduring Word Commentary on Mark http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/4111.htm
“And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11).
Jesus had clearly made a number of enemies among the religious elite of His day. These enemies were powerful and influential leaders with a determination to eliminate Jesus as a threat to their authority and the means by which to accomplish it. In fact, Jesus’ own disciples were fully aware of the threat that these men represented.
For instance, when Jesus proposed to visit the region of Judea for the purpose of restoring His friend Lazarus to life, His disciples objected by saying, “But Teacher, some people there tried to stone you to death only a short time ago. Now you want to go back there?” (John 11:8 NCV). When Jesus insisted on making this trip, Thomas responded with an apparent display of gallows humor: “Come on, then, let us all go and die with him!” (John 11:16 Phillips).
In light of such dangerous realities, one might assume that Jesus would seek to make Himself as inconspicuous as possible. The threat posed to Jesus’ life might have led Him to quietly and unobtrusively enter the city of Jerusalem, perhaps under the cover of darkness. Yet we’re told that Jesus not only boldly entered into Jerusalem -the very center of Israel’s spiritual leadership- but went to visit the temple itself. This indicates that Jesus was a man who was clearly unmoved by the danger posed by those who were strongly opposed against Him.
This passage also finds Jesus engaging in something of an inspection as He “…looked at everything in the Temple area” (ERV). We’ll see the result of this inspection in due course but first, we’ll have a short -and somewhat puzzling- interlude…
“Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, ‘Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.’ And His disciples heard it” (Mark 11:12-14).
The obvious question that arises from this passage is this: “Why would Jesus look for figs on a fig tree when we’re specifically told that it was not the season for figs?” We’ll look at the answer to that question next.
“The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs.” (Mark 11:12-13 CEB).
So why would Jesus look for figs on a fig tree when we’re specifically told that it was not the right time for figs? After all, you wouldn’t normally seek to find fruit on a tree when it is out of season- and you certainly wouldn’t hold a tree accountable for producing fruit when its not supposed to. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus appeared to do.
The key to unraveling this mystery is found in verse thirteen: “Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, (in other words, a mature tree) he went to find out if it had any fruit…” (NIV). Notice that this passage doesn’t actually say that Jesus went looking for figs- it says that He went to find if there was anything edible on this tree. With this in mind, here’s a short botany lesson courtesy of author and apologist Josh McDowell…
“(There is) a pre-season fruit which grows on the fig trees of the area. The fruit is called “phage” in Hebrew and appears in the spring with the first leaves. Did you ever wonder why Jesus was looking for figs on the fig tree when the text specifically says ‘it was not the season for figs’?
…Even though it was not the season for figs, (Gr. sukon meaning ripe figs) the fact that the tree had leaves indicated that it should have had the preseason figs (phage) which were edible. Since the tree contained no fruit, Jesus seems to have used it as an object lesson to warn against professing something by our appearance but having no fruit to back it up.” (1)
Just as a tree can be identified by the type of fruit it produces, a person can also be identified by the result or “fruit” that his or her actions produce. The spiritual lesson from this passage is that we shouldn’t have the appearance of spirituality without the fruit (or results) to back it up. In other words, a truly God-honoring person is someone who should be known for displaying God-honoring characteristics (see 1 Corinthians 13).
By the way, we read earlier that Jesus was in (or near) a town called Bethphage during this time. “Bethphage” literally means “house of phage” or “house of preseason figs,” the very same fruit that Jesus sought here in these verses.
(1) A Ready Defense Josh McDowell, Bill Wilson pg .84
“Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry” (Mark 11:12).
Think about this passage for a moment: “Jesus was hungry.” While it may seem to be an irrelevant question, did it ever really occur to you that Jesus actually became hungry? Another portion of Scripture tells us that Jesus once became tired after completing a long journey (John 4:5-6). Have you ever considered the fact that Jesus became physically tired from time to time? Did you ever stop to think that Jesus perspired when it was hot and shivered when it was cold just like any other human being?
With all the crowds that followed Jesus, did you ever consider the possibility that some (or perhaps even many) people may have accidentally stepped upon Him, jostled Him, or inadvertently pushed Him from behind? Did it ever occur to you that Jesus had to attend to bodily needs just like anyone else? Did you ever stop to think about how utterly degrading it must have been for Jesus -as God- to bring Himself down to the level of human existence?
Why is this important? Well, the book of Hebrews tells us “(Jesus) had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17 NIV).
Philippians 2:5-8 goes on to say, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (TLB).
In Christ, God became a human being who subjected Himself to the effects of the environment that humanity had created in rejecting it’s Creator. In becoming a human being, Jesus subjected Himself not to the perfect world He had created, but to the world of Mark chapter eleven- the world that His creation had become due to humanity’s sin.
Because of this, Jesus knows exactly what it is like to live in the world we inhabit. He knows all about love, joy, pain, and suffering. He is familiar with things like acceptance and rejection, respect and humiliation, happiness, sadness, and every other human emotion- and no one will ever be able to truthfully say to God, “You don’t understand.”
“So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves'” (Mark 11:15-17).
The outer court area of the Temple (also known as the Court of the Gentiles) was a place where wine, salt, oil, and animals were sold from booths that had been erected by various merchants. These items were sold for use in connection with the Old Testament sacrifices and ceremonies that were observed during that time. Items that were purchased within this outer court were said to be “sacrifice-ready” and guaranteed to be totally perfect as required by the Old Testament law.
Working along with these merchants were a group of people known as “moneychangers.” Their services were necessary because much of the coinage in circulation during Jesus’ time carried the image of the Roman emperor. The issue was that the use of such money for any purpose related to the Temple was seen as a violation of the Bible’s commandment against “graven images” (see Exodus 20:4).
This represented a problem because every Israeli male aged 20 years or older had to pay a tax each year for the service and upkeep of the Temple. The solution was provided in the form of a moneychanger who took the unsuitable coinage of that time and exchanged it for an appropriate from of money that was acceptable for use in paying the Temple tax.
Now its important to remember that all of this action and activity took place outside the Temple, the house of God. In fact, this whole scene outside the Temple has been described as something like a bazaar or a marketplace. In addition to these ceremonial/sacrificial related transactions, it’s also possible that these vendors were partaking in other business activities that were unrelated to those associated with the Temple. That would explain why “Jesus would not let anyone carry things through the temple” (Mark 11:15 CEV).
If this was the case, then it indicates that these merchants viewed the Temple area as little more than a storefront for their wares.
“They came to Jerusalem, and He went into the temple complex and began to throw out those buying and selling in the temple. He overturned the money changers’ tables and the chairs of those selling doves, and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple complex.
Then He began to teach them: ‘Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!'” (Mark 11:15-17 HCSB).
The most unfortunate part of this merchandising arrangement had to do with the fact that the people who came to the Temple to offer sacrifices were at the mercy of the merchants offering these sacrificial animals.
For instance, a person traveling to Jerusalem would have ordinarily found it very difficult to transport a sacrificial animal all the way to the city unless the distance involved was very limited. To transport an animal for sacrifice and then have that animal rejected for some reason would have resulted in a significant burden for an average family. Since the animals sold by the temple merchants were the only ones that were guaranteed to be accepted, this made the local purchase of a sacrificial animal almost a necessity.
Then there were the moneychangers. These men profited by charging an exorbitant rate when converting secular coinage into money that could used in connection with the Temple. This was a great deal for them but not so good for those who had to pay the tax. More important was the fact that this practice didn’t represent God very well before the people.
This was especially true for the non-Jewish population of that area since the outer court of the Temple (also known as the Court of The Gentiles) was the only place within the Temple complex where a non-Jewish person could legally enter. So much like the 19th century business tycoons who sought to “corner the market” of their respective industries, these religious authorities controlled virtually everything related to these business activities in addition to the money that was involved in completing these transactions.
It was at this point that Jesus had apparently seen enough. He went into this area, turned over the tables, and prevented any further buying and selling from taking place. He then quoted from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah by saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers'” (NIV).
“Then he taught them by saying, ‘Scripture says, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a gathering place for thieves” (Mark 11:17 GW).
After He had thrown out the Temple vendors, overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and eliminated the use of the Temple courtyard as a shortcut or storefront, Jesus went on to provide an explanation for what He had done. It doesn’t appear as if Jesus offered this explanation as He was in the act of clearing out these vendors; instead, it seems that Jesus engaged in a subsequent teaching to help others understand the justification for what He had done.
But Jesus didn’t simply provide an explanation- He turned to the Scriptures in order to establish a basis for the action He had taken by saying, “Is it not written…” (ESV). This is important to remember especially when we seek to validate or justify a spiritually motivated act or movement today. You see, Jesus not only took action against those who were utilizing the Temple in an inappropriate manner but pointed to a Scriptural basis to explain His response as well. In addition to Jesus’ example here in the Gospel of Mark, this approach is something that was practiced by a number of other important New Testament leaders.
For example, when the Apostle Peter sought to validate the move of the Holy Spirit as seen in the New Testament book of Acts, he did so by saying, “…this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). In other words, Peter provided a Scriptural basis for the events that had occurred within the previous verses. He then went on to speak about the meaning of Joel’s prophecy as found within the Scriptures and how that prophecy applied to what had taken place.
We also have the example of the Apostle Paul in this regard. A little later in the book of Acts we read, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (Acts 17:2-3 NIV).
So this example provides an important reminder for God’s people today: whenever we seek to take action against a perceived wrong or evaluate the validity of an action taken by others, we should be able to point to a valid Scriptural basis for such a response.
“And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark 11:17 NIV).
One aspect of Jesus’ response that may be easy to overlook in this passage is His mention of the House of God as a “…house of prayer for all nations.”
You see, the fact that non-Jewish people were permitted to enter the outer court of the Temple indicated that such “outsiders” were not necessarily excluded from approaching God to pray, worship, and seek Him, provided that these individuals were willing to approach God in a manner that was acceptable to Him. This is something that would have held great importance for Mark’s original audience, a group that is thought to have largely consisted of non-Jewish people. Unfortunately, Israel’s spiritual leadership had rendered such access virtually impossible due to the merchandising efforts that had been taking place in that area.
But there was something more ominous to be found within Jesus’ message. You see, Jesus’ response tells us that this was not just a matter of a few individuals who had been buying and selling in an area where it was inappropriate. Instead, Jesus associated those who had been involved in such activity with “…a den of thieves.” This indicates that these transactions had been taking place in a fraudulent, dishonest, or unlawful manner. In effect, the Temple complex had become a place where swindlers, extortioners, or unscrupulous merchants could feel at home.
In light of this response, there are at least two important things we can learn. First, we should consider the identity of these “thieves.” While a thief is generally identified with someone who unlawfully takes the property of someone else, Jesus associated this term with the business practices of these merchants instead. So this passage helps provide a valuable lesson for commercial relationships and reminds us that such transactions should be conducted in a manner that honors God.
Next, a true house of God should hardly be a place where a “den of robbers” might feel comfortable. Instead, it should be a place where those who engage in such practices are challenged to repent (or turn back) from such activities in order to pursue a God-honoring lifestyle. Any religious institution where such people can comfortably and regularly attend services without feeling challenged to abandon such practices is likely to be a place where Jesus might seek to “clean house” just as He did here in Mark chapter eleven.
So Jesus had taken the step of clearing out those who had turned the Temple complex into a marketplace. Unfortunately, this action provoked the members of the religious establishment to respond in a less-than-spiritual manner…
“And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching” (Mark 11:18).
In one respect, this response seemed motivated by simple jealousy. Judging from their reaction, it appears that these men had said to themselves, “Jesus is becoming more popular than we are. People no longer look to us to provide spiritual leadership- now they look to Him instead.” Of course, the fact that Jesus put an end to their profitable business operation outside the Temple probably didn’t help much either.
We’re also told that these men were afraid of Him. But what would these leaders really have to fear from a man like Jesus? Well, these men likely feared Jesus because He represented a threat to their authority. They were fearful of the potential danger that He represented to their power structure and the system of tradition that sustained it. The following passage from the Gospel of John helps provide us with some additional insight in this regard…
“But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation'” (John 11:46-48).
This passage provides us with a window through which we can observe the reason for their fear of Jesus. You see, it really didn’t matter if Jesus was the promised Messiah. Jesus’ miracles, His message, His healings, and the fact that He raised a man from the dead didn’t count for very much either. The important thing for these religious leaders was holding on to their acquired power- and that intense desire later drove them to murder an innocent Man.
Although the decision to eliminate Jesus had actually been made at a much earlier point in His ministry, it seems these men had now recommitted themselves to that effort. And just as we saw earlier, the wording of this passage indicates that these men didn’t just want to kill Jesus- they wanted to completely annihilate Him. In other words, these men wanted to execute a plan of total destruction that would crush Jesus physically and discredit Him spiritually as well.
“When evening had come, He went out of the city. Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.’
So Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them'” (Mark 11:19-24).
So Jesus used the occasion of Peter’s response to provide an impromptu lesson on the subject of faith. Of course, its easy to read this passage and ask, “Is it true that God will give us anything we ask for in prayer if we simply believe it?” Didn’t Jesus also say, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14)? Well before we start making out a wish list based on these verses alone, let’s make some observations from the Scriptures to get a more complete picture.
First, there are definitely some limitations on the things that God will give us. For example, God would not grant a request to to make us greater than He is for that is something that is literally impossible (see Hebrews 6:13). We should also remember that God is completely good and because of this, He would never give us something that is ultimately bad for us (Matthew 7:9-11).
The Scriptures also tell us that certain prerequisites are necessary if we desire to see God answer our prayers. These would include things like…
- Faith (which Jesus mentioned in the passage quoted above; see also Hebrews 11:6)
- Remaining, staying, or abiding in Christ (John 15:7)
- Asking for things that are in alignment with God’s character and not generated out of a selfish desire (James 4:3)
- Asking for things that are in God’s will (1 John 5:14-15).
If these qualities influence the things we pray for, then we are free to follow Jesus’ encouragement to us from the Gospel of Matthew: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NIV).
“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).
Forgiveness can be defined as, “The act of excusing or pardoning another in spite of his slights, shortcomings, and errors.” (1) This definition is important to remember for as God has forgiven us in Christ, those who represent Him must follow His good example and forgive those who have wronged us as well. But what of those who do not forgive, hold grudges, or remain angry over a perceived injustice? Well, Jesus once addressed this question by way of a parable…
“The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him $10 million! He couldn’t pay, so the king ordered him sold for the debt, also his wife and children and everything he had.
But the man fell down before the king, his face in the dust, and said, ‘Oh, sir, be patient with me and I will pay it all.’ Then the king was filled with pity for him and released him and forgave his debt. But when the man left the king, he went to a man who owed him $2,000 and grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. The man fell down before him and begged him to give him a little time. ‘Be patient and I will pay it,’ he pled. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt would be paid in full.
Then the man’s friends went to the king and told him what had happened. And the king called before him the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil-hearted wretch! Here I forgave you all that tremendous debt, just because you asked me to– shouldn’t you have mercy on others, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to the torture chamber until he had paid every last penny due. So shall my heavenly Father do to you if you refuse to truly forgive your brothers” (Matthew 18:23-35 TLB).
Virtually everyone can look back on one or more occasions when God responded with far more mercy than our actions really deserved (Ezra 9:13) and as Jesus said in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
(1) forgiveness Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
Despite the religious leaders’ clear displeasure with Jesus over the incident involving the Temple merchants, things seemed to have quieted down- for the moment, at least. But after a seemingly quiet night (probably spent within the suburban village of Bethany), a confrontation developed when Jesus returned to the city the next day…
“Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. And they said to Him, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?'” (Mark 11:27-28).
So Jesus faced an interrogation from this group of high ranking religious authorities with this question: “Who gave you permission to throw these vendors out of the Temple?” This question actually represented a clever approach when you stop to consider it. You see, Jesus’ credentials were no more valid than anyone else’s if He claimed no authority other than His own. (1)
But if Jesus claimed to have authority from God to stop these merchandising efforts then He might have been accused of blasphemy, a charge that carried a death sentence if convicted. Since these religious leaders had been looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus anyway, that response would have suited their purposes quite well.
But these questions were useful in another regard. If these leaders could get Jesus to admit that He lacked the official training and spiritual authority that they possessed, they could then return to the people and say, “This man is not qualified to teach religion and he has no authority to change the way we’ve been doing things.”
From our 21st century vantage point, these questions also provide an opportunity to consider this question of authority and the fact that all authority is ultimately derived from God or other human beings. One commentator explains the importance of examining the authority behind our actions in this manner…
“When you refine any issue down to its essentials, what you have left is the whole issue of authority in life. Why do you act the way you do? How do you justify what you say and do? No man ever is his own ultimate authority. We all refer to something other than ourselves — something that compels us, or something we feel is important — that governs our decisions. When we deal with this question of authority, therefore, we are dealing with what is absolutely basic and fundamental to all human behavior.” (2)
(1) While Jesus’ miracles might have been presented as proof of His divine authority, the religious leadership preferred to claim that His miracles originated from a demonic source instead (see Mark 3:22 and following)
(2) Ray C. Stedman, By What Authority?http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/mark/by-what-authority
“They asked, ‘What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you this authority?'” (Mark 11: 28 CEV).
If these religious leaders were intending to place Jesus in a “no-win” situation with such questions then they were surely unprepared for the response that followed…
“But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me'” (Mark 11:29-30).
These religious leaders often presented Jesus with questions that seemed to be purposely designed to make Him look bad (see John 8:1-11 and Luke 20:20-26 for some examples). But here in this passage, Jesus turned the tables on His questioners with a question of His own. In reality however, this was not unusual, for Jesus often utilized this “answer with a question” technique to encourage these leaders to consider their statements more carefully.
For instance, when some of the scribes questioned Jesus’ authority to forgive sins, He responded by saying, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts?” (Mark 2:8). Later when these men claimed that Jesus’ power was of demonic origin, He asked, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (Mark 3:23). Yet even though Jesus answered their question in the form of this now-familiar response, there were certain things that were different in this instance.
First, Jesus qualified His response with an “if-then” condition; if they were able to answer His question, then He would answer theirs. Another difference can be found in the forcefulness in which Jesus demanded their response: “Answer Me.” This challenge (found only within Mark’s account of this exchange) indicates that Jesus was just as determined to deal with the hypocrisy of these religious leaders as He was in dealing with the vendors and moneychangers that He had ejected from the Temple complex.
We also shouldn’t miss the brilliance of Jesus’ question regarding John the Baptist. You see, these religious leaders certainly recognized that John’s ministry had been authorized by God since a number of them had attended and observed his baptismal services (see Matthew 3:1-10). However, there were some important factors that prevented them from supporting, encouraging, or endorsing his ministry. For example, the “court of public opinion” held that John had been a prophet sent by God. But since John had challenged these religious authorities concerning their hypocrisy (Matthew 3:7), they found themselves in a difficult (and unenviable) position regarding his work. We’ll see why this question presented such a problem for these religious leaders next.
“Jesus replied, ‘I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!'” (Mark 11:29-30 NIV).
This question posed a significant dilemma for the chief priests, scribes, and elders who questioned Jesus’ authority- a dilemma that these men freely admitted to one another…
“And they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men”—they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed” (Mark 11:31-32).
Even the most reluctant member of this group of religious elitists would have difficulty denying that John the Baptist had been authentic representative of God. Yet to admit such a belief would invite Jesus to question why they didn’t accept or endorse his ministry.
On the other hand, to say that John’s ministry hadn’t been established by God would have led to a loss of credibility among the population. John’s messages had been well received (Luke 3:10-15) and well attended (Matthew 3:4-6) by large numbers of people and many clearly believed John to be a genuine prophet of God- perhaps even more so now that he had been put to death (See Mark 6:14-29).
Because these religious authorities were so greatly concerned about looking important before others, they seemed to be hesitant to answer Jesus’ question in a way that might somehow lower their standing. That led to the following response…
“So they answered and said to Jesus, ‘We do not know…'” (Mark 11:33).
So in answer to Jesus’ question, these men responded by taking the coward’s way out: “We don’t know.” While these religious leaders were among the most highly educated members of society at that time, this answer also tells us that these men may not have been quite as smart as we might think.
You see, anyone who has had the experience of posting in an online forum knows the importance of staying “on topic” in the midst of a discussion or debate. Yet these men allowed Jesus to change the entire focus of their conversation from the subject of His authority to their opinion of John the Baptist’s ministry with a single question. A group of genuine intellectuals would have been prepared for such a response and would not have been so easily maneuvered.
So its possible that these men were less than what they seemed to be- and Jesus used this simple question to remove their facade of religious and intellectual superiority, if only for a moment.
“They began to argue among themselves: ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men'”—they were afraid of the crowd, because everyone thought that John was a genuine prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things'” (Mark 11:31-33 HCSB).
In Matthew’s account of this incident, we’re told that Jesus then went on to follow His response with this parable…
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to Him, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him'” (Matthew 21:28-32).
There were a number of people from different walks of life who came to hear John’s message. Many of these people -like the first son in Jesus’ parable- sought to make real changes in their lives after hearing God’s Word as preached by John (see Luke 3:10-14). The religious leaders however, were a very different story. Like the second son in Jesus’ story, these men said one thing but did something else when it actually came to doing what God wanted them to do (Matthew 23:1-3).
So through this incident with Jesus, these religious authorities became a living example of something we read of in the New Testament epistle of 1 Peter: “…it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15 NIV). Jesus’ words and deeds clearly had the effect of silencing the foolish talk of these men and since they refused to answer his question, He declined to answer theirs.
Yet as we’ll see in the opening verses of the next chapter, Jesus will actually go on to provide an answer of sorts to their original question. However, He will do so in an indirect manner and in a way that they will find most uncomfortable.