Jesus has arrived at Jerusalem, and these first three days are carefully thought out and strategic.
On day one, he enters Jerusalem on a donkey, in fulfilment of Zechariah 9:9-10:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
People are expecting great things, however he disappoints them by going to the Temple and simply looking around, and then leaves to stay at Bethany (about the same distance from Jerusalem as Norwood is from the Adelaide CBD)
On day two, things are not so happy. On the way in he curses a fig tree for not having any fruit, then he enters the Temple and drives out the traders and money changers, accusing them of turning the Temple into a den of robbers.
This is not a spontaneous fit of anger. He was there the evening before, and saw how things were. John tells us that he made a whip himself to drive the traders out. This is a carefully planned action, and like riding in on a donkey, it was also in fulfilment of Scripture:
“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:8-11 8)
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:1-4)
When we say that ‘Jesus fulfilled Scripture’ we often mean that the things that happen are under the sovereign hand of the Father and in that sense we may point to them as a ‘miraculous’ sign that verifies prophecy. But we also see Jesus at times invoking Scripture; doing things ‘in order that the Scripture may be fulfilled,’ in order that the truth of that Scripture may be brought to bear on the situation and the people in it. This is what Jesus is doing here. He wants people to say not only, ‘What the Prophet said has come to pass!’ but also ‘The word that the Lord had for the people then in that Scripture, is also the word that He has for us here today!’
As we have heard, this word is a word of great hope, but it is hope that comes through judgement.
On day three, as they approach Jerusalem again, they see the fig tree, withered from its roots.
Unfortunately, this passage has been largely misunderstood and misapplied, taken to be an object lesson about the power of prayer in general, or how the seemingly impossible can be achieved by those who believe. Now, obviously Jesus does teach about prayer in this passage, but it is not so much about the principle of prayer in general, but about the content of the disciples’ prayers.
We saw last week that faith in not merely believing as hard as you can, but placing our trust in the Father in light of who Jesus is as the Son, and what he has done at the cross. Prayer is a simple act of faith. To pray is to acknowledge that the Father is sovereign, and I am not.
Jesus had taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” Note that the list of requests – for daily bread, forgiveness, and help in temptation, come after these opening three petitions, and are in the light of them:
- That the Father’s name be honoured as holy;
- That His kingdom come;
- That His will be done on earth.
We know that Jesus is wanting his disciples to remember this prayer he taught them, because he finishes with similar words used in Matthew’s account of the sermon on the mount about the need to forgive others if we want to know the Father’s forgiveness.
These petitions in the Lord’s prayer are not mere general theological ideas; they have a direct relation to the Jewish hope that God would send the Messiah, who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth, in which righteousness would dwell, and in which ever person – every creature – would honour God and live in obedience to His law. The ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is a prayer for God to bring about the fulfilment of the ages and usher in His kingdom of righteousness and peace. It is a prayer of great expectation, as well as great longing to see God’s power made manifest among the nations and to restore the kingdom, and redeem His people.
So the establishment of God’s Kingdom was the central focus of their prayers, and their understanding – albeit limited – was that it would be in Jesus that this would happen; they were at the turning point of history, and their prayers were to reflect this momentous time.
Jesus is linking this withered fig tree to the prayer of faith that asks for the Father’s kingdom to come.
Notice that he does not say ‘Whoever says to a mountain…,’ but ‘Whoever says to this mountain, Be taken up and thrown into the sea…’ Where they were, on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem, they would have been crossing the Mount of Olives, and they would have had a view to the East of the Dead sea. As Jesus is speaking, we might imagine him pointing to the mountain on which they were walking, and then across to the horizon where they could see the sea.
The mount of Olives today is covered in tombs, as for over 2000 years Jews have wanted to be buried there, because of a prophecy in Zechariah:
‘Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal…’ (Zechariah 14:3-5)
And a little later:
‘The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s winepresses. And it shall be inhabited, for there shall never again be a decree of utter destruction. Jerusalem shall dwell in security.’ (Zechariah 14:10-11)
The imagery here is of the Lord tearing the mountain in two to allow His people to flee to safety when their enemies attack, and then after the enemies are defeated by the Lord, of the whole land being levelled except for the hill on which Jerusalem was built. In ancient times, the safest place for a city was on a hill surrounded by plains; no enemy would be able to sneak up on you and attack you by surprise. This is a picture of the final defeat of God’s enemies, and Jerusalem being established in such a way that it would never be under threat again.
The Jews wanted to be buried on the Mount of olives because they believed it to be the place where the Messiah will arrive, and where the resurrection of the dead would begin – and they wanted to be first in the coming of the Messianic age.
Jesus is picking up on this cataclysmic, earthquake imagery. His disciples would have been very familiar with these prophecies, and would have immediately picked up on this. They were to have complete confidence in their praying for God’s kingdom to come; in fact they could have confidence as if they had already received it – because, technically, in Jesus they were receiving it; the Kingdom of God was already among them.
So rather than being a name-it-claim-it formula, or a way for us to ‘overcome the mountains in our lives,’ this is a declaration by Jesus that the kingdom of God was coming, just as the prophets had foretold, and that His disciples should not lose heart in praying for it to come about.
Now, remember, this is Jesus’ response to Peter noticing the withered fig tree that had been cursed by Jesus. You may still be wondering what that has to do with the coming of God’s kingdom?
The fig tree represents Israel. As God’s chosen people, they were called to bear fruit – fruit that would last. The Old Testament prophets pointed to the fruitfulness of the land – the vine, the olive, the fig tree, the crops – as a symbol of the spiritual fruitfulness – or otherwise – of the people:
‘…from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among the fallen;
when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.
When I would gather them, declares the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jeremiah 8:10-13)
Jesus has come to His people; ridden into the City as the King in fulfilment of Zechariah, amid shouting and rejoicing from the people who thought he had come to fix things up and drive out the Romans and set up his kingdom. Yet when he came to the heart of the city – the Temple – he did not find a house of prayer, but a den of thieves. Instead of driving the Romans out of Jerusalem, he instead had to drive the commercial traders out of the Temple courts. The worship of God had been replaced by the idols of religiosity, and these idols bore the fruit not of prayerful dependance on the Father, but on all the things required to maintain the religious system, including selling animals for sacrifice and changing money so people could pay the Temple tax to fill the coffers of the Priests.
The Lord had come and appeared in the Temple, as Micah has prophesied, and he had come to bring judgement.
The judgement that Jesus brings will be like no other judgement before it, as it will bring about the conclusion of his Father’s purposes for this nation. The coming Kingdom of God will mean a history- shifting change in the way in which His purposes are manifested; the old system of Law, Temple, Priests and sacrifices, political systems and geographical boundaries will be upended and replaced by a new era of Grace and Truth centred not in a nation, but in the person of Jesus Christ. And the definition of who God’s people are will no longer be one of those who belong to a particular ethnicity or nationality, but those who live by faith in the One who died and rose for them.
This is a solemn time, as Israel and her leaders are confronted with their Messiah, who will bring the judgement that begins at the household of God (Jeremiah 25:29; Ezekiel 9:6, 1 Peter 4:17). Yet, as he predicted, Jesus is entering Jerusalem with the goal of entering into this judgement himself. He comes to be with His people – despite their rejection of him – and to himself come under the righteous wrath of the Owner of the vineyard whose tenants have refused to bear fruit. (12:1-10). The judgement he brings will also be the judgement he bears. The Father sends his Son to call the fruitless tenants to account; but he does so knowing they will kill him. The tenants think they are doing their will, but in fact they are doing the will of the Father, and their rejection of the Son will mean that others may be brought in.
The Fig tree that is Israel will wither from the roots, because its time has come. But it is not the end of God’s purposes. Something much greater will replace this small fig tree – another tree that Jesus described as a great tree, grown from a tiny seed, with great branches in which the birds will be able to make their nest in its shade. These ‘others’ who have received the kingdom are us – we who have heard the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and reign, and who have been called in to be members of God’s household.
We who look back on these events have even greater reason to pray with confidence than Jesus’ disciples at that time. They were yet to see what we can see – the cross and the resurrection; Jesus’ cry, ‘It is Finished’ – completed, fulfilled. When we pray ‘Father, hallowed be your name,’ we can look to Jesus who through his obedience to the point death has displayed his Father’s Holy love and brought glory to Him; we can see that the Father’s will has been perfectly done on earth as it is in heaven by Jesus the Son; and we see Jesus raised from the dead and crowned with glory and honour, and in him the Kingdom is secured and guaranteed.
If we know this, how can we not be confident in prayer?