In the Fulness of Time/Part 128

By: Dr. Thomas O. Figart; ©2010
Two cleansings of the Temple by Jesus occurred; one at the beginning of His ministry in John 2 and the other near the end of His ministry here in Matthew 21. Those who insist on one cleansing of the Temple emphasize the similarities but neglect the differences.

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The Cleansing of the Temple, Matthew 21:12-13

Mt. 21:12-13 “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

Two cleansings of the Temple by Jesus occurred; one at the beginning of His ministry in John 2:15-17 and the other near the end of His ministry here in Matthew 21:12-13 (and in Mark and Luke). Those who insist on one cleansing of the Temple emphasize the similarities but neglect the differences. For example, in John 2 at the first cleansing, Jesus made and used a scourge, the disciples quoted from Psalm 69:9 and Jesus referred to the destruction of His physical body as a temple. The synoptic Gospels have Jesus quoting from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11; plus a quotation from Psalm 8:2 with reference to the children crying Hosanna to the Son of David. These differences are too great, in addition to the contexts of the two cleansings which are too different, to consider these one event.

It is rather common knowledge that the money-changers may have simply been tolerated at first, but that their business became rather lucrative, secular and mercenary as time went on. Thus, the function of the Temple as God’s house of prayer had degenerated into a den of thieves. If this is surprising to some that Jesus became angry concerning all of this, it should be much more of a surprise had He not cast out all them that sold and bought in the Temple.

The Curing of the Afflicted. Matthew 21:14

Mt. 21:14 “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.”

This is not the last miraculous ministry of Jesus, but it is the final instance of His miracles in the Temple precincts. Perhaps Matthew alone recorded it because he also mentioned the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:6: “But I say unto you that in this place is one greater than the temple.” Since all His public miracles were proof of His Messiahship, this gracious demonstration was to supply additional confirmation that Jesus was indeed: “He that should come” (Matthew 11:3).

The Criticism of the Rulers. Matthew 21:15-16

Mt. 21:15-16 “And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David! they were very displeased, and said unto him, Hearest thou not what these say? And Jesus said unto them, Yea, have ye never read, Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?”

It was not merely the children crying: “Hosanna to the Son of David” which displeased the chief priests and scribes, but also “the wonderful things (thaumasia, ‘marvels’) that he did” including the healings of the blind and the lame. There was no rational explanation for this except that Jesus was God manifest in the flesh! Then, to add the same praises of the day before, ascribing salvation to Him as the Son of David, was no less than recognizing in Jesus of Nazareth the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. The quotation of Psalm 8:2 is the sixth of seven Old Testament passages used by Christ in Matthew 21.

The Jewish leaders asked Him: “Hearest thou what these say?” and Jesus replied: “Yes,” and then added immediately a question of His own, namely Psalm 8:2, ascribing deity to Himself! As Carson puts it: “Jesus is therefore not only acknowledging his messiahship but justifying the praise of the children by applying to himself a passage of Scripture applicable only to God” (Carson, Donald A., “Matthew” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984. Volume 8, p. 443).

While it is true that later verses, Psalm 8:4-8 refer to man’s dominion over the earth, and are even applied to Christ’s eventual dominion over the earth as the perfect man (cf. Hebrews 2:6-10), still, the Psalm begins with an ascription of praise to the LORD. This is the claim of Jesus; He is the LORD! If the people, nor the children had not said it, then even the stones would have immediately cried out (Luke 19:40). And, indeed, the very stones of the Temple did cry out in 70 AD as they were toppled one from another in the destruction of both Temple and city, demonstrating that Israel had missed “the time of thy visitation” (Luke 20:44). Each time an archaeologist overturns a stone and corroborates some biblical truth, the stones continue to cry out that Jesus is God!

The Cursing of the Fig Tree. Matthew 21:17-22

Mt. 21:17-22 “Now in the morning, as he returned into the city, he was hungry, And when he saw a fig tree along the way, he came to it and found nothing but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever. And presently, the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, if ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea, it shall be done. And all things, whatever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”

A number of problems present themselves with regard to this miracle. Jesus usually performed cures for disease even though sometimes it included casting out demons; or He demonstrated His power over nature, even to the point of creating bread and fish. But this “destructive” miracle almost stands alone, the only other one like it being the swine which were drowned in the sea (but even there, demons were involved). Here then, there seems to be no reason for Jesus to curse a fig tree for having no figs, particularly since Mark 11:13 says: “for the time of figs was not yet.” This immediately distinguishes it from the fig tree of Luke 16 which was barren for three years.

The difficulty in interpreting this action lies partly in a misjudgment of what Jesus did, and what He sought to teach by His actions. Further complication arises when this historical event is made to parallel certain uses of the fig tree in parabolic form. As a matter of fact, except for this account, the fig tree is always used in parables in the Gospels. The barren fig tree of Luke 13:6-9 has already been mentioned. After three consecutive years of its failure to bear any fruit, the vinedresser asked for an additional year to aerate and fertilize the tree, but there is no completion to that parable except a threat to cut it out of the ground if it bore no fruit the fourth year. The cursing of a fig tree is recorded by Matthew and Mark only, and the finality of the result was observed by the disciples the next day. One other mention of a fig tree, and this in parable form, is given in all three Synoptic Gospels, and has to do with the future (Matthew 24:32-33; Mark 13:28 ad Luke 21:29-33). That parable has nothing to do with cursing or digging out; it is merely a comparison; “When its branch is yet tender and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near; so likewise when ye shall see these things, know that it (the return of the Son of Man) is near, even at the doors” (Matthew 24:32-33).

Our concern here centers around the cursing of the fig tree, an actual historical event. But why did Jesus do this, and what was He signifying by this action? The answer to “why” is given in Matthew 21:19: “And when he saw a fig tree along the way, he came to it and found nothing but leaves only.” But then, someone is certain to point out that Mark 11:13 seems to argue against Jesus by saying: “for the time of figs was not yet.” Why should Jesus expect figs at the time of Passover? According to Hunsinger: “The fruits are distinguished as early and late figs. The early ones begin to form in March and are ripe at the end of May” (Hunsicker, Claus, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, Vol. 7, p. 793). Further, Edersheim comments: “In regard to the unripe fruit we have the distinct evidence of the Mishnah, confirmed by the Talmud, that the unripe fruit was eaten as soon as it began to assume red color—as is expressed ‘in the field, with bread,’ or, as we understand it, by those whom hunger overtook in the fields, ‘whether working or traveling.’ But in the present case, there was neither old nor new fruit, ‘but leaves only’” (Edersheim, Alfred. Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956. Vol. 2, pp. 374-375).

But what of the second question; what exactly was Jesus teaching by this act? The lesson of faith is obvious in both Mathew and Mark. In Matthew, the lesson is repeated from 17:20 in almost identical form, using the illustration of the possibility moving a mountain into the sea. Jesus intends this to include : “all things whatever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (21:22).

Many commentators see a second lesson in this miracle, namely, the cursing of Israel. Some point to the destruction of the city and Temple in 70 AD and the subsequent dispersion of Israel into the nations as fulfillment of the curse. However, as Carson adequately observes: “This does not mean that the common interpretation—that the fig tree represents Israel, cursed for not bearing fruit—is correct. In light of the discussion on the relation between leaves and fruit, Jesus is cursing those who made a show of bearing much fruit, but are spiritually barren” (Carson, p. 445). While it is true that Israel as a nation was destroyed and dispersed, it is not possible that Jesus could say of the entire nation, “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever” (Mark 11:14). There has always been and always will be, a faithful remnant, and the Apostle Paul assures us of a time when “all Israel shall be saved” (Romans 11:26). Interestingly enough, Paul uses another tree, the olive tree, in Romans 11:1-24 to show how this will come about!

The barren fig tree of Matthew 21 rightly depicts some in Israel, specifically their unbelieving leaders who never bore fruit and who prevented many Israelites from entering the kingdom (Luke 11:52). The woes pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 will explain more than adequately upon whom the curse of the fig tree is to fall, “in the fulness of time.”

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