The Passion of the Servant, Part One
Contrary to popular opinion, none of the four Gospels found in the beginning of the New Testament are biographies in the truest sense of the word. Instead they are divinely-inspired accounts of the three-year earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, written in such a way as to evoke certain images of Him for specific audiences. Their purpose is to present Jesus as the Son of God, sent from heaven to earth in order to fulfill the role of the promised Messiah who would deliver His people from their sins.
In crafting their material under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel writers devote approximately one-third of their writing to Jesus’ final week. In the Gospel of Mark it is more like forty percent.
In recent days you and I have been studying this Gospel. Thus far we have covered the first ten chapters, which summarize the first three years of Jesus’ ministry. We have moved from the time of His baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, through His wilderness temptation, His calling and instruction of the apostles, His teaching the multitudes and many miracles of healing and provision, His conflicts with the Jewish religious leaders, and now His journey to Jerusalem for the final time. It is a trip that will culminate in His death.
As the reader discovers, all of these events have merely been pointers leading up to that final week...the week in which Jesus would accomplish the redemption of His people.
For the next several Sundays, we—along with Mark—will be slowing the pace and focusing on the final days of Jesus’ life as He makes His way to the cross that awaits Him. Tracing His steps, I trust, will enable us to live with the tension of those final days and final hours.
Today we will look at chapter 11, where we witness our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Then we will consider His cursing of the fig tree. And finally, we will listen in as He counters the religious leaders who question His authority. We might refer to these three sections as the Servant’s welcome, wrath, and warning.
We’ll begin in verses 1 through 11 with...
The welcome of the Servant (verses 1-11)
1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back her immediately.’” 4 And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. 5 And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. 7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
The story is a familiar one. Jesus had repeatedly told His disciples of the fate that awaited Him when they arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover. But they never quite understood what He was talking about. Whether they thought His words were exaggerated or that they had the wherewithal to overcome any anticipated threat to Jesus’ life, we cannot say. What is clear—and, as we shall see—is that they were in no way prepared for what that week would hold and what it would mean for them.
Bethany was a village located on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about two miles from Jerusalem. It was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and a place where Jesus and His disciples would often find lodging when they were in that region. Although the exact location of Bethphage is not known, it was believed to have been a smaller village a mile or so away, through which travelers would pass on the way up to Jerusalem.
It was Sunday, and as the group made their way by foot from Bethany and drew near to Bethphage, Jesus dispatched two of them to go on ahead and secure a donkey’s colt (cf. Matthew 21:2) upon which He might ride the short remaining distance into Jerusalem. Whether the scriptural significance of that act was lost on the disciples, we cannot say for certain, but it seems as if the owners of the colt may have understood (cf. Luke 19:32-34). Therefore, they released the animal to them without much delay. According to Luke’s parallel account, merely saying, “The Lord has need of it” seemed to be sufficient.
The reason that Jesus “needed” the donkey was in order to fulfill the prophetic word written by Zechariah (9:9) five centuries earlier. You may recall that prophet’s words in anticipation of the Messiah’s entrance into Jerusalem. It would be a sign by which that Promised One would be identified:
“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.”
The infinite God—in the Person of Jesus—was coming to present Himself to His people...where they live and where they worship. What kind of reception would He receive?
It was probably early-to-mid morning when Jesus and the Twelve slowly made their way the last mile or so from Bethphage to Jerusalem. Perhaps the morning sin had not been long in clearing the crest of the Mount of Olives. As a crowd began to gather near the city’s Eastern Gate in order to conduct their daily business, their eyes would have been looking toward the brightness of a clear blue sky. Out of the morning glow, some of them would have spotted Jesus and His disciples approaching, now just a few hundred yards away. Word would have spread rapidly that the “miracle worker” was drawing near. Some ran out on the well-trodden path to greet Him.
Mark writes in verse 8, “And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.” This would have been for the purpose of keeping the dust down, as well as displaying honor to Jesus. How much of the acclaim Jesus received was sincere and how much was result of “group-think” we may never know for certain. Nevertheless, many did seem to grasp the fact that what was happening that day was fraught with biblical significance. By shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” the people cited Psalm 118:25 and 26. It was a cheer reserved for a king, but not just any king...the King through whom the Messianic promises made to King David would find ultimate fulfillment (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-13).
Yes, Jesus had come in fulfillment of those prophecies to present Himself as Israel’s promised and long-awaited King. But as we shall see from the events of the next several days, the tide of public opinion would turn against Him, suggesting that the people had been looking for a different kind of king. On this day, few could have foreseen—even though Jesus had often spoken of it—that the cross that awaited Him was less than a week away.
The hoopla that surrounded Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem must have lasted the better part of that Sunday. In verse 11 we are told that the hour was “already late” when He made His way to the area where the Temple was situated and “he looked around at everything.” He was merely surveying the situation that day, but He would be back. In fact, this verse actually previews the rest of the chapter.
Before leaving this first section, however, I do want to point out the fact that the people of whom we read obviously held Jesus in high regard...just as many do today. But the estimation of Jesus on the part of most of them appears to have fallen woefully short of what He was looking for. They considered Him to be a messianic figure, one who could lift their immediate burden and restore their self-autonomy. But they didn’t go far enough with Him and, therefore, they did not recognize Him to be the Messiah whose coming was for the purpose of meeting their deepest spiritual needs and to fulfill the deepest longings of their soul. Which leads me to ask, who is this Jesus to you?
Before you agree to go along with the crowd in welcoming Him as they did, there is another aspect of Jesus that we need to see. So, in verses 12 through 25, we are also told of...
The wrath of the Servant (verses 12-25)
It is now Monday, and so we read...
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
We are better able to understand the seemingly unrelated events of chapter 11 if we view them as connected rather than separate. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem to great public acclaim. Once the immediate excitement subsided, He made His way to the Temple mount and “looked around.” The text doesn’t specifically tell us what He saw or what He was thinking, but I believe we can determine that as we work through the rest of this chapter.
His so-called “cursing of the fig tree” on Monday was not done out of spite because it wasn’t able to supply His need for a snack. If that were the case, He had already proven that He could go forty days without food, or He had also shown that He could have summoned food from another source...or from nothing at all. The reason Jesus cursed the barren fig tree was because He wanted it to become a visual parable of what was happening to Israel.
The fig tree was a standard symbol for Israel, as numerous Old Testament passages attest (cf. 1 Kings 4:25, Jeremiah 8:13, 29:17; Hosea 9:10, 16; Joel 1:7; Micah 7:1-6). The fact that we are told that the tree was “in leaf” but bore no fruit portrayed exactly what Jesus has witnessed in Jerusalem—and particularly at the Temple—the day before. There was “luxuriant foliage” to be sure, but all that did was hide the nation’s “spiritual nakedness,” just as similar fig leaves had been used in an attempt to cover the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden (cf. Genesis 3:7). One cannot help but recall Jeremiah’s condemning words which were spoken to His people more than five hundred years earlier: “When I would gather them, declares the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree” (Jeremiah 8:13).
The fig tree was meant to be a visual parable to Israel, to the disciples, and later to the Church. It is meant to remind us that just because we may look good, because our “leaves” are large and colorful, that does not mean that we are bearing fruit that is pleasing to God.” The words of Jesus should serve as a warning to us that the “fruitless” life is one that will be judged...and judged severely. This is discussed in greater detail by Jesus in John 15 when He speaks of our need to abide constantly in Him as a vine does the branch.
It is noteworthy that this is the only “destructive” miracle that Jesus ever performed. Every other miracle resulted in healing and well-bring. Keep that in mind as we move into verses 15 through 19 and notice what happened next. It is Monday, remember, just one day removed from His triumphal entry.
15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
The Servant’s anger is now more directly vented toward the objects to whom it is due, “those who sold and those who bought in the temple.” Allow me to describe the scene as it likely would have been that day:
The bright morning sun would have illumined the gleaming gold of the Temple’s pillars. Huge Passover crowds would already be flowing up the steps, and great throngs would have been pressing against the tables of the money-changers. Moses had commanded a half-shekel to be the price every male worshiper twenty years of age and older. Roman currency must be converted because it bore the image of Caesar, and pilgrims would have been gouged by exchange rates of 10-12 percent or higher. Jesus also would have observed huge crowds lined around the stalls selling livestock, fowl, wine, and salt for sacrifices. The noise would have been terrific. Merchants would have shouted from their stalls to the customers, and noisy, haggling, pushy pilgrims would jostle one another for position. There also would have been the constant bawling of the animals. The aroma of the livestock, accentuated by the close and warm atmosphere, would have made it nearly unbearable. To top it off, despite ordinances which forbade it, many used the Temple court as a convenient shortcut for making their way to and from the Mount of Olives. In short, what Jesus would have seen was a monstrous desecration of holy ground...one mad “religious circus.”
In his commentary on Mark, James Brooks suggests that such buying and selling on the Temple Mount was a rather recent phenomenon. For generations markets had been set up on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, but the lax enforcement of rules and regulations had given way over time to the lucrative practice of making space available for vendors on the actual Temple grounds.
All of this filled Jesus with such holy indignation that He “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold.” Quoting Isaiah 56:7, He reminded all who would listen, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” And then citing Jeremiah 7:11, He added, “But you have made it a den of robbers.” The anger in His voice would have been easily recognizable.
This incident speaks to our “worship lives” today. And while it may seen more natural to draw comparisons between what was going on in the Temple that day with what goes on in places of worship in ours—let us remember that it is “we”—both individually and corporately—who are identified as God’s “temple” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:10-20). Therefore, “we”—not this building—are “a house of prayer.” And “we” must be diligent in guarding our lives—again both individually and corporately—in order that we do not become “a den of thieves.” So, the real question is how well we are carrying out Jesus’ exhortations. Were He to show up among us today, what “tables” and “seats” in our lives would He overturn? What aspects of our “temple” dishonor Him? May it be that our every action and attitude testify that God is alive and well in our church, our homes, and our individual lives. May our devotion to Him and service toward Him demonstrate that we love Him with all our hearts.
Needless to say, Jesus had once again riled the religious establishment. So we read, not unexpectedly, verse 18: “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.” Here we discover the motive for the Jewish leaders’ anger toward and hatred of Jesus. As Jesus had gained favor in the eyes of the people, their own authority over them was weakened. That was something they simply could not tolerate. We’ll come back to that in the final section of this chapter.
Monday had been another full day, and so Jesus and the disciples depart to spend another night in Bethany. When we come to verse 20, it is now Tuesday morning. The group is returning to Jerusalem once again.
20 And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
The disciples were amazed that the tree Jesus had cursed had withered so quickly. One might think they would have been able to connect the dots and see the relationship between the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the Temple, and the condemining of God’s people. Apparently, they still did not understand. Jesus’ response to Peter is both curious and appears out of place. In verses 22 and following, we read:
22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
The question is, what do “faith” and “prayer” have to do with cursing the fig tree and cleansing the Temple? At the risk of shattering preconceived notions we may have about this passage, I want to suggest an alternative way to interpret Jesus’ words. Most Bibles translate it as an imperative statement: “Have faith in God.” It is possible that Jesus spoke it as an indicative...in other words, as an encouragement rather than an exhortation. If that is the case, it should then read, “You have the faithfulness of God” or, to paraphrase it, “You can rely on God’s faithfulness.” If that is the correct reading, then the assurances of verses 23 and 24, are grounded in our confidence in God’s trustworthiness to carry out His revealed will. And when we believe Him and witness the execution of His sovereign plan, then our faith in Him increases. To say it succinctly, our faith is not the active agent in bringing about the will of God, but it is the outcome of seeing God do what He says He will do.
The way, then, that “faith” and “prayer” relate to one another is that we are able to enter into the presence of God with quiet confidence in the power and goodness of God who accomplishes everything according to His sovereign will. This verse is not a “blank check,” as some erroneously teach, whereby the Lord promises to grant our any and every request if we will but meet His conditions. When we pray with “faith” and with a “forgiving spirit,” we enter into the very heart of God so that His will becomes our own.
Jesus’ response, therefore, serves as a reminder that God will indeed accomplish His every purpose as we depend upon His faithfulness in carrying His revealed Word in both judgment and blessing. No matter how great the obstacles in life are—including calling from among a rebellious people a remnant for Himself—He will always prove Himself faithful and trustworthy. Within this context, William Lane has written, “The man who bows his head before the hidden glory of God in the fullness of faith does so in the certainty that God can deal with every situation and any difficulty and that with him nothing is impossible.”
Back along the path the next day, Jesus and His men arrive in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. Having instructed the disciples with regard to God’s control over all circumstances —most notably those which lay immediately before them during this fateful week—the scene is now set for what will become a prolonged debate with the religious leaders. Tuesday will be the final day of His public teaching, and what He has to say will more clearly draw the battle lines separating those who are with Him from those who are against Him.
Beginning in verse 27, we find...
The warning of the Servant (verses 27-33)
27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Three years of public ministry have brought Jesus to this critical point. Although the religious leaders have openly questioned and challenged Him, their opposition toward Him will greatly intensify during these final days. “The chief priests and the scribes and the elders” represent the Sanhedrin, the Jewish “supreme court,” if you will. In reality, Jesus had already been tried and found guilty by them. But now they needed to find “just cause” to condemn Him to death. How would they do that? Perhaps they could catch Him in His own words. They needed to find some violation of Jewish—or even Roman law would do—by which they could accuse Him. So they come to Him and question His “authority.”
We, of course, have been here before. These self-righteous religious leaders had already charged Him with blasphemy (cf. Mark 2:7), violating Sabbath-day regulations (cf. Mark 2:23-27 and 3:1-6), and being in allegiance with Satan (cf. Mark 3:22-30).
Once again, Jesus does not fall prey to their deception. In response to their question, He asks a question of His own, a question relating to John the Baptist. Was his baptism of heavenly-origin or did it come “from man?” After huddling together and considering how they might answer, they sheepishly return with a “We do not know.” While they didn’t fear God, we are told that “they were afraid of the people.” So what they did was to take the coward’s way out. In the same way that some of us do. The chapter concludes, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Although Jesus refused to tell them the source of His authority, never did He refuse the claim. It was a claim to divine authority as clearly as if it had been said the words.
During the final week of His earthly life, Jesus was engaged in a terminal conflict. He had entered Jerusalem and was openly proclaimed as Messiah. He had cursed the fig tree, which was symbolic of spiritually barren Israel, and it was found withered the next day. With righteous anger He had cleansed the Temple. And now we find Him—perhaps standing on Solomon’s porch—surrounded by the vaunted and esteemed leaders of the Sanhedrin and refusing to tell them where His authority came from because of their malevolent unbelief. With effortless brilliance, He asked them a counter-question that they dared not answer, thus freeing Him from any obligation to answer their evil-intentioned query. Jesus had caught them in their own trap, and they were helpless to free themselves. To borrow from Francis Thompson’s classic poem, “there is no escaping “the Hound of Heaven.”
I remind you that the purpose of Mark’s Gospel is to present Jesus Christ as the ideal Servant, the One who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice both of those statements: He came “to serve,” yes, but also to “give His life.” As those who name His name, you and I have been called to do the same. We can never give our lives as a ransom for others, but in serving them we are able to point them to the One who did.
So in closing let me ask, have you “welcomed” Jesus into your life? Do you know Him as Savior and do you yield to Him daily as Lord? If you do know Him, do you still greet Him each day with the praise of “Hosanna” on your lips? Or has your “welcome” of Him grown cold over time?
Although the Gospels frequently portray Jesus as gentle and mild, His “wrath”—both then and now—continues to be directed toward the abuse and misuse of His mercy and grace. Where He looks for fruit and finds barrenness, His anger is kindled. So, is He seeing fruit where He looks for it in your life?
Finally, are you recognizing Jesus’ “authority” in your life? If not, then He has issued a “warning.” Sooner or later, we must all give an account. The Savior has come and He has spoken. If you haven’t yet heard His voice, then you may want to remember that His silence is sometimes His “warning.”
other sermons in this series