Scripture Reading: The Cursing of the Fig Tree (Matt 21.18-19a; Mk 11.12-14) and Request of Some Greeks (Jn 12.20-36a)
Yesterday marked the first day of what has been deemed the Passion Week of our Lord Jesus - passion in the sense of suffering. The word has taken the primary meaning of a strong, physical desire toward someone. When Jesus predicted that He must suffer during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, He used the Greek word πάσχω (paschō). This term basically means an experience of suffering.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the story of Mary anointing Jesus for burial a bit later than John does. It is good to remember that the Gospel writers often placed the content within the confines of a context that best suited their emphases. This was not always chronological. Matthew, Mark, and Luke desired to contrast Mary’s anointing of Jesus for burial with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for money. More than likely this occurred on Saturday.
Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey on Sunday. He was claiming to be the promised Messiah of the OT. That the crowds shouted, “Hosanna” is very significant. The term means “God save us.” The religious leaders reacted to this entrance with a determination to make this the final confrontation with Jesus.
Jesus entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple a second time in His ministry (see Mt 21.12-17). John records that He also presented the kernel of wheat teaching (Jn 12.20 ff.). Both of these events belong together. John speaks of Gentiles who were God-fearing worshippers along with the Jews. Both groups were present during this Passover week. The Greeks could participate with the rest of the Jews, but there was a problem.
The outer court of the Temple was reserved for Gentiles. When Jesus entered, He became righteously indignant because of all the clutter within this court. There was no room for the Gentiles to pray. For them, it ceased to be a house of prayer. It had been made a den of thieves. So, Jesus cleansed the temple and the Jewish leaders seethed with rage.
It is interesting that Philip has a Gentile name and that he was from Bethsaida, a Gentile area of Galilee. It could be that these facts attracted the Gentiles to him at first (Jn 12.21-22). Philip, a Jew, appears to be hesitant in bringing them to Jesus. He went and told Andrew. Andrew favored bringing them to Jesus (see Jn 1.40-42) because Andrew favored bringing everyone to Jesus. The disciples continued to bring people to Jesus. The Jews should have been an evangelistic people. Are we bringing people to Jesus? All people?
Jesus’ glorification was at hand. The Gentiles were present as He taught about a kernel of wheat falling to the ground. The presence of both Jews and Gentiles at this teaching foreshadows the establishment of Paul’s teaching concerning the breaking down of the middle wall of partition between both these groups.
By dying, Jesus would produce a great harvest. His death was necessary for the seed of life to germinate. The sacrificial death of Jesus would result in eternal life for many other people (12.24). The application of this principle is that anyone who lives for self loses his or her life. That is, they lose it in the sense of wasting it. Nothing good comes from the self-life. Conversely, anyone who hates his or her life in the sense of disregarding self and pursing the welfare of others, that person gains life. That is, they gain true life and blessing for the other person. This is the sacrifice of something temporal for the gain of something eternal.
The disciples of Jesus need to learn to put others first, but also they must put Jesus first (12.26). True servants and disciples stay close to their Master. Jesus said these words as He moved toward the Cross at the end of the week. When we follow Him, we move toward our own crosses - for some they are figurative and for others they are literal. But beyond our crosses, we anticipate the joy and glory that comes from the Father. Our lives must essentially duplicate the experiences of our Lord - even experiences of suffering.
On Monday, Jesus cursed the fig tree (see Matt 21.18-22). He did so because it was not useful - not serving its purpose. When asking about this startling event, the disciples learned a lesson on faith. When you read the event, you think that Jesus may be responding to missing breakfast with anger - maybe like a petulant child throws down his toy.
Yet Jesus was always teaching. Here the barren fig tree represents the barren religion of Israel and her leaders. Any religion that seeks to duplicate what Israel was doing would end up in a similar condition: withered, dry, and barren. It is a teaching that the disciples would catch in time. Verse 20 tells us they struggled with capturing the heart of what Jesus was saying.
Jesus didn’t respond by saying, “You guys are missing the point.” Instead, he taught them a principle regarding prayer and the need for faith. It fits well with the cleansing of the Temple. “The House of Prayer” had become a “Den of Thieves”. Prosperous temples mean little if they don’t serve their purpose. They are withered and dry.
External appearances are always deceiving. Herod’s Temple was beautiful and a financial success, but spiritually it was dead. Jesus had no time for religious leaders who crowded out prayer and worship for material success. Spiritual power is not derived through sound economics or politics, but through prayer. Jesus drove this principle home on Monday.