Journey to the Cross: Monday

[This is part two in a series I’m doing following Holy Week in the Book of Mark. You can see part one here.]

Jesus Curses a Fig Tree and Cleanses the Temple

Here we get to see the beginning of a classic example of a “Markan Sandwich.” Mark was a very intentional writer. He often used a literary device than many people refer to as the sandwich method. Really it’s just a chiasm (half of the letter chi in Greek – or X in English). He starts off the story by talking about Jesus and a fruitless fig tree. He seemingly randomly gets very upset about it not having fruit (even though it was not the season for figs, as Mark notes), and then curses it. Then the story quickly moves to Jesus getting angry in the temple.

Mark 11:12-19

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree,“May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 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.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

The temple story seems to make sense. People were setting up businesses and ripping people off in a place that was meant was for true worship and prayer. The worship and events that took place in that temple were a far cry from what Jesus believed should have been happening. But what in the world was up with that whole ordeal with the fig tree? It seems so random, unnecessary, strange. But the story doesn’t end there. But before looking ahead what conclusions could been drawn? It’s got to be related to Jesus’ actions in the temple somehow, right?

I’m going to include the rest of the sandwich even though it happens the next morning.

Mark 11:20-25.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly, I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

So in the morning they’re walking along and they come across the fig tree again. Only this time, the tree is withered from the roots. Peter recognizes the tree and remembers what happened the day before. And then we get a very interesting, and perhaps a bit confusing, lesson and conclusion from Jesus.

But this is the bottom half of Mark’s sandwich. And he’s written this story the way he did with a purpose.

Ok, this is what I think is going on:

Jesus is hungry. He wants something to eat. He sees a fig tree from afar and it has leaves on it. I’m no expert on trees, but from what I have been told about fig trees, if a fig tree had leaves showing it often would have fruit, because figs generally grow before the leaves appear and often have multiple crops. It was a bit early in the season for a fig tree to have fruit, but since it had leaves it wasn’t crazy for them to expect it to have figs.

Ok, so that deals with the question of why Jesus would be mad that there weren’t figs in the tree even when it wasn’t in season. But why does he curse it? It seems to be a bit of an overreaction. I guess Jesus must have been really hungry. No. That’s not really what I think is going on. I think Mark wants us to hold onto this story and the questions is raises. That’s why he tells the story the way he does.

Jesus then goes into the temple. He had quickly visited the temple courts the night before and looked around. But it was late, and even though he was probably mad by the things he saw, he didn’t want to get into it then. But I bet he stewed on it that evening, though. He had gone from being praised as king to going to the temple and seeing merchants scamming people within the temple courts before Passover.

When Jesus came back into the temple, he didn’t just wander around and look at the people. He was angry. He walked in and started driving people from their merchant tables. Both those selling and those buying. He overturned tables, flipped over the benches of those selling doves. He stopped people from carrying merchandise around. He was mad. But then he began teaching them. I wish we had everything he said, because I don’t know how you go from flipping over tables to teaching or preaching, but I have a feeling he wasn’t sitting down and perfectly calm as he taught. I’m sure his voice was raised and he was very stern.

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.’

I feel like this is the statement that everyone remembered. It’s the quote that everyone remembers the next day. Like everyone is hearing him teach and he drops that line and half the people are like, “Oooooh, snap!” and the other half just get really mad because he’s talking about them. (Kind of reminds me of Obama during the 2015 State of the Union address when he came back with that witty quip after Republicans clapped after he said he had run his last campaign).

Anyway, Jesus was not happy with Israel’s empty worship and their scamming shortcuts to religious rituals. He let them know about it. And this event is commonly referred to as Jesus cleansing the temple.

The next morning they pass that fig tree again and Peter is shocked to see it dead already. In his defense, that would be shocking. Also, I’m pretty sure this is the only time Jesus does something supernatural in a destructive way. (Let me know if I’m incorrect in this in the comments). But that makes it stand out to the disciples and probably should to the reader as well. So what’s up with it?

This is not the only time a fig tree is mentioned in Scripture. And a fig tree is sometimes symbolic for the nation of Israel. Here it would make sense for that to be the case in this context. A fruitful fig tree would be representative of a blessing and prosperity, and a fruitless fig tree, and especially one that is cursed and withered, would be representative of judgment and rejection.

As Jesus publicly condemned Israel’s worship in the temple, he symbolically condemned the nation of Israel through the cursing of the fig tree.

And this is how we see the two stories come together. It takes a bit of investigation, but it’s all quite reasonable (and fun). But then we have Jesus’ response to Peter and the disciples. There’s a lot going on in this short passage and it sounds very promising at first, and a bit scary by the end. He says,

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly, I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Because this is not a perfectly clear passage and it is the conclusion to Mark’s sandwich, I am confident that I am going to miss a lot of what is meant in this passage. At face value it seems to promote a prosperity gospel message. If you pray to God you can get whatever you want as long as you believe hard enough. If this were the only passage in the Bible that dealt with prayer, then maybe one could conclude that (but find their prayer life extremely frustrating), but I am very confident there is much more going on here than simply thinking we can just pray and get whatever we want. What would that have to do with all that just happened with the fig tree and the temple?

There are probably all sorts of interpretations, but I think that taking this passage in context is probably pretty important. This is how I understand it:

Jesus is not talking about any mountain. He’s talking about the mountain that the temple is located on. It stood in opposition to the kingdom that Jesus was ushering into this world. The fig tree was symbolic of Israel, and stood in opposition to Jesus and to the true worship of God. He cursed the fig tree and he cleansed the temple. He was throwing that mountain into the depths of the sea. We too, when things stand in the way of true worship of God or the purposes of his kingdom in this world, can command such things to be thrown into the depths of the ocean. Our faith must be in God and his kingdom. There may be opposition to Jesus and his ways on this earth, but don’t doubt. Have faith in God and those mountains will be removed, but that doesn’t mean things are always going to be easy. By the end of the week Jesus would be crucified on that mountain. (Perhaps another hidden irony in the passion narrative?) Surely there is a lesson in that as well. (Like I said…this passage is probably rich in meaning and depth. Just a few years after Mark wrote this book the temple was destroyed, so there may be hints of prophecy that I am missing, too.)

There is probably much more to be said and drawn from this passage, but that’s just a basic interpretation.

And now we come to the last verse:

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

Of course this is part of Jesus’ teaching we were just looking at, but I think this verse stands out. Forgiveness is central to understanding the Christian faith, and so I think this is an important verse that should not be overlooked.

It is more important to make sure that we are at peace with others, that we have forgiven others for anything and everything, than it is for us to worship God if harboring any unforgiveness in our hearts. To ask for, or even expect God’s forgiveness while harboring unforgiveness is a slap in the face to God. How can we ask God to do something for us that we are not willing to do for others? That mimics the faulty and hypocritical worship of the Jews that Jesus was condemning. If we want God to forgive us, then we should forgive others. It’s an act of faith. It’s an emulation of God’s greatest gift to us.

I have written a few other posts about forgiveness if you want to read them you can here and here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgiveness is possible.

I heard an incredible story of forgiveness on RadioLab. To me it shows the power of forgiveness, and that forgiveness is always possible. It is rarely easy, but it is so powerful. If you have the time, listen to the incredible story:

http://www.radiolab.org/story/317629-dear-hector/

Another story of forgiveness that has always had an impression on me comes from Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who survived the concentration camps of WWII was an amazing woman of faith and forgiveness. Her story, The Hiding Place, is a highly recommended read from me. She lives out what it means to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. She mentions forgiveness from time to time. Here are a couple good nuggets of truth on forgiveness:

“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”

and

“Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”

Hector’s story from that RadioLab is incredible. Even he recognizes how not normal his forgiveness and relationship was. But it didn’t sound like he regretted it at all. What a story!

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness.

I was contemplating this morning on a number of things revolving around violence and the flippancy we treat the lives of those around us. This happened after a brief back and forth with someone on Facebook regarding capital punishment (according to the Bible) and I was a bit flustered. Anytime I have Facebook banter with someone my emotions rise and my blood pressure probably goes up. I realize this has something to do with not wanting to get into a debate on Facebook because it never really goes anywhere. Forums and Facebook never seem to be a place where people actually change their deep rooted beliefs or values based on some comment someone made. Also, it’s a public debate. It just encourages others to get involved.

The only reason I commented today is because I have committed myself to calling out my friends when they flippantly talk about violence, the lives of human beings, or marriage. This is especially true of my Christian friends, and especially true of my very vocal Christian friends. If you talk about loving people and post Bible verses all the time, then you shouldn’t be flippant about things that should be taken very seriously.

Anyway, while he believes, as many do, that it is God’s will that the government kill those “who have given up their right to live” because they have “killed a life they didn’t create,” I argued for mercy and forgiveness.

Forgiveness and mercy is not the natural human response. Forgiveness, in our minds, negates justice. But for a Christian to seek out death for another human being instead of forgiveness seems ignore what makes the “good news” so good. Of course that doesn’t mean we do not live with the consequences of our actions. I just do not believe that death is the necessary means of punishment. That’s core to what we believe as Christians. Does a murderer deserve death? Yes. But that death has already been paid. Once. For ALL. Because we ALL deserve death.

So as Christians, it’s ok to go marching around saying that someone deserves death, as long as that person is also pointing to themselves, and then explains that they have already been forgiven.

And that is what makes forgiveness so powerful. When we forgive, we are imitating God. It’s not natural for us. That is why I like the quote from Alexander Pope, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

I also love the quote,

“We are most like beasts when we kill, most like men when we judge, most like God when we forgive.”

There’s already enough death in this world.There’s already enough injustice. People are shot to death when they are just trying to find help. The world doesn’t need more death and killing. The world needs more mercy and forgiveness. Because ironically, true justice and life is found in the greatest unjust death that has ever occurred: that God died for all mankind and through Him any human being can have eternal life. That’s the Gospel.

Forgiveness brings and breeds justice.

 

A Look at Psalm 51:9-15

Psalm 51 is a cry of a repentant heart and a transparent plea for forgiveness. As the psalm’s title explains, this psalm of David takes place after Nathan the prophet came to him because of his affair with Bathsheba. David’s entreaties are sincere and heartfelt, and the language used is direct, intentional, and expressive. In verses 9-15 (11-17 in the BHS), David pleas for cleansing and praises God for his forgiveness. David in hope of forgiveness makes vows to God promising to bring God the glory by bringing sinners to Him. This passage is a look at true repentance – David offers God his broken heart and contrite spirit.

PSALM 51:9 (51:11BHS)

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”

Here in the middle of the Psalm David is deeply ashamed of his sins. He continues calling out to God in distress. For the one thing that David desires more than anything else is the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins.[1] David already stated in verse three that his sin was ever before him. He now asks God to “hide His face” from his sins. David does this by using the hifil imperative הַסְתֵּ֣ר. In his entreaty of God, David is not asking God to turn away from him, but away from his sins. David is keenly aware of his sin and that it is a sin against God alone (vs. 3-4). It is this confession which enables David to ask God to hide His face from his sin.

David asks God to “blot out” (מְחֵֽה) all of his “iniquities” (עֲוֹ֖נֹתַ). The qal imperative מְחֵֽה is not only seen here, but also in verse 1(v. 3 BHS) when he asks God out of His tender mercies to blot out his transgressions (פְשָׁעָֽ). The word עֲוֹ֖נֹת, here translated as iniquities, is also used in verse 2 (v. 4 BHS) when David asks God to wash him from his iniquity. David is seen repeating his ideas and even words in his fervent pursuit of God’s forgiveness. This verse is chiastic, as is verse two. David here again employs chiasmus as a poetic device in his petition to God to remove all his sins.[2]

PSALM 51:10 (51:12 BHS)

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

David wants more than a mere cleansing (v. 7), he wants God to create a new clean heart in him. David tells God to בְּרָא a clean heart in him. The word בְּרָא does not mean to make something from nothing. It is used to show that something is far above the ability of man. As God created the heavens and the earth, so God is the only one who can forgive and create a new heart within David.[3]

David also tells God to “renew a steadfast spirit” within him. This ר֥וּחַ is not to be confused with spirit as opposed to body, but rather the attitude of one’s will. David desires a renewed ר֥וּחַ which is נָ֝כ֗וֹן. This word is commonly translated “right,” but can also mean in the Niphal “established” or “steadfast.” Here David uses this participle to show that he wants a fixed and resolute spirit. He desires a spirit which is unmoved by the assaults of temptation.[4] David is asking God for things which he cannot provide for himself.

David desires God not to bring him back to a place of restoration where he has been before with God. He desires something new – a radical change of both heart and spirit.[5] David knows he cannot purify, much less create a new heart within himself, so here he surrenders himself before an all-powerful God who is the only one able to do such great things. Forgiveness is not enough for David. He does not want to be an old person cleaned up; he wants to be a new person.[6]

PSALM 51:11 (51:13 BHS)

“Do not cast me away from before your face, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”

After David asked God to hide His face from his sins in verse nine, he here asks God to not hide His face from him. David knew that to be cast away from his presence (תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ) was to be cast out of His covenant, and deprived of his favor.[7] David is fearful. He knew that his sin was great. Perhaps, he thought, it was so great that God would remove (תִּקַּ֥ח – Qal, Juss, 2MS) His Holy Spirit (ר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁ) from him. This was not an unreasonable fear for David to have. He knew that Saul was removed from kingship due to his sin, and David could very well have the same thing happen to him. The anointing by Samuel to the kingly office upon David marked the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s presence with David and the end of His presence with Saul (1 Kings 16:13). [8] But God had been gracious thus far towards David, and He had not taken His Holy Spirit from him.

The phrase Holy Spirit (ר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁ) is found only twice in the Old Testament. It is found here and in Isaiah 63:10, 11. Because of this, some argue that it really does not carry the same idea as what we perceive as the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, namely, the third person of the Trinity.[9] They argue that it is God’s power, which is called holy only because it is of God and because it does His will.

PSALM 51:12 (51:14 BHS)

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

David continues in his petition to God by asking for the joy of His salvation to be restored. He was not praying that his salvation be restored, but the joy of that salvation be restored. Sin had destroyed that joy, but David knows that God is able to reestablish it. There is no assurance of joy when plagued by guilt of sin. There was a time in which David had experienced that joy. David had forgotten what that joy was like. David says הָשִׁ֣יבָה to me that joy. David continues in his string of imperatives. This time he uses the hifil. Literally the word means “bring back.”[10] He has experienced it before, and he wants God to bring it back to him.

More than experiencing that joy for a fleeting moment, David wants to be upheld by a willing spirit. He wants to desire to do right continually – a sort of disposition to obey Him.[11] The end of this verse is translated differently depending on whether the willing spirit is the power of God or the psalmist’s own inner strength. Many translators see it as being a spirit of God’s strength. But it is probably correct to see it as the spirit of David, rather than that of God. David is asking to be upheld by being given a “free” or “noble” spirit – the opposite of the “spirit of bondage” which Paul discusses in Romans 8:15.[12]

PSALM 51:13 (51:15 BHS)

“I will then teach rebels your ways, and sinners will return to you.”

David here turns from petition to promise. He has asked God for much, but David says that if he is restored to favor, and his spirit is renewed, then he will give back to God in wholehearted service to Him and to others. A truly grateful heart desires to give back to God for his goodness.[13] David is determined to promote God’s glory by bringing others to salvation in Him. He has much that he can teach others, he just needs to be pulled from this nightmare of guilt.[14] He wants to help those who have fallen like him, and he desires to see them return to God and he has returned to God.

The beginning of this verse can be seen as “Let me teach” rather than “I will teach.” The word אֲלַמְּדָ֣ה here is a piel cohortative, 1cp. The promise or request is not what one would expect as the result of the repentant David. Usually one would expect a sacrifice. But here David desires to teach transgressors, rebels, the ways of God. These ways are the requirements of God as expressed in the Torah.[15] He wants to see others experience the return to obedience and to experience the joy of God.

PSALM 51:14 (51:16 BHS)

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.”

David now asks to be delivered from דָּמִ֨ים (literally “bloods”). There are various ways of rendering this request by David. It could be referring to David’s own death or it could refer to the shedding of the blood of others. Some even alter the Hebrew text to get “deliver me from silence.”[16] It can also be translated “deliver me from deadly sin.” To interpret it this way would leave three options: 1) keep me from offering sacrifices, 2) keep my blood from being shed 3) purify me from the blood I have shed.[17] Perhaps David is thinking of Uriah. Some suggest that “bloods” refers to crimes which the death penalty was appropriate, such as his crimes of adultery and murder (2 Sa 12:5, 13).[18] It seems that in the context here of deliverance and salvation, David is most likely talking about his own life being saved from a violent death.

David calls out to his God – the One who not only created the world, but is the One who can create a new heart within an individual. David promises that he will sing praise of His righteousness if he is delivered from bloodguiltiness. God is indeed righteouswhen He sends judgment, but he is also equally as righteous to remove chastisement.[19]

PSALM 51:15 (51:17 BHS)

Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

David’s heart is hopeful of his forgiveness. Here, David says that all that God has to do is to open his lips and his mouth will declare praises of Him. This request of “Lord, open my lips” is a metonymy, where the use of one aspect of an action or thing represents the whole.[20] David is telling God to forgive him so that he can open his mouth and praise. He is once again setting up a condition, that if it is met, David promises to do something. Up to now the guilt of his sin has kept his lips closed. Once he experiences forgiveness, David feels that he will be open to declare God’s praise. As David addresses the Lord, he does not call upon the name of God, Yahweh, but calls upon his אֲ֭דֹנָי. David is not asking the Lord to enable him to praise, but rather is still focused on being forgiven – the one thing his heart longs for more than anything else.

CONCLUSION

In Psalm 51:9-15 David is seen humbly coming before his Lord. He exemplifies what true repentance looks like. He comes to God admitting his own sin and pleads for God to change him. David understands that he has no power of his own to create a new heart within himself. He so longs for the joy which comes from forgiveness and a right standing before God. He appeals to God, making promises that he can win people to Him if He just only forgives him of his sin. He desires to be seen as righteous. If God grants him this mercy, then David promises to be an instrument of praise and song to God.


[1] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), Ps 51:9.

[2] Robert G. Bratcher and William David Reyburn, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, Helps for Translators (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 472.

[3] Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991), 362.

[4]James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ps 51.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 836.

[7] The Pulpit Commentary: Psalms Vol. I, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 395.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bratcher and Reyburn, 473.

[10] William Lee Holladay, Ludwig Köhler and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 363.

[11] Bratcher and Reyburn, 473.

[12] Spence-Jones, 396.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Andrew Knowles, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 239.

[15] Bratcher and Reyburn, 473.

[16] Bratcher and Reyburn, 474.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Smith, Ps 51:14.

[19] Spence-Jones, 397.

[20] Cabal, 836.