I like the strange stories in the Bible, the ones that don’t seem to make sense when you first look at them. For example, God tells Moses to go to Egypt and talk to Pharaoh but on the way his wife has to perform an impromptu circumcision on their son in the middle of the night, she did this because God was going to kill Moses.
That seems crazy to me. Why was God going to kill His own messenger? Why was that confusing detail included in the story? I think the simple answer is because it’s true.
A couple years ago I told a friend that Judges is one of my favorite books in the Bible because of how weird it is. A few days later he called me and said, “I don’t get it, I’ve been reading through Judges and it’s just confusing and depressing. It’s a bunch of selfish, rebellious people who do evil in the sight of the LORD. It doesn’t make sense, how is reading Judges supposed to help me?”
I said that’s exactly what I love about it. A bunch of selfish, rebellious, horrible people—and it’s hard to find God in the story at all most of the time—which sounds like real life to me. That’s the world we live in. It’s not easy to make sense out of the things that happen in life.
A lot of the books in the Bible barely mention God and are filled with horrible people doing terrible things.
God’s Word isn’t what most people think it is. Most people think it’s something like Aesop’s Tales, a collection of stories with good moral values. Clearly defined good guys and bad guys with obvious lessons of virtue at the end. Here’s the truth, it’s hard to find a good role model in the Bible. Most of the people it tells us about are a lot like us.
There is one obvious exception. Jesus is our ultimate example of how to live our life worshiping God and loving people but even with Jesus we are given some strange details in the story now and then.
Are you ever so hungry that you become a bit of a grouch? In Mark chapter 11 we are told about a hangry Jesus who couldn’t find a Snickers bar so He got mad and killed a tree. This is a really hard verse for tree hugging hippy environmentalist types. Listen to this, Mark chapter 11:
The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus cursed the tree saying, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it.
So, it sucks to be that tree. It even says it wasn’t the season for figs! What the heck? Why would He get mad at a tree for not having fruit when it wasn’t even the season for fruit? Why would He get mad at a tree?
Here’s another one that people have trouble with, it’s in the same chapter:
When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”
How does this fit with the standard picture of Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild? Or maybe you have heard this story so many times it doesn’t seem shocking anymore. If that’s the case then listen to how people responded to what He did at the time:
When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.
I have to imagine them rolling their eyes and using sarcastic quotes when they say “so amazed at His teaching.” They must have thought the general population were a bunch of simpletons, easily amused by a snake charmer. These were the most famous teachers and leaders in the nation, and this made them mad enough at Jesus to want to kill Him. That’s pretty mad. These were people who were not usually in the business of murder, they were Bible teachers not thugs—normally they were good citizens. He really got under their skin.
See, their usual way of teaching was to read a Bible passage and have long conversations about all the potential things it could mean. To the general population it probably sounded like “come let us reason together Blah blah I’m so smart blah blah blah.” Then Jesus comes along and all His teaching is hidden in riddles and simple stories. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who bought a field. The kingdom of Heaven is like people sitting in lawn chairs on plastic grass.” Huh? Sometimes He explained what He meant to the disciples when they were alone and sometimes they were just left scratching their heads along with everyone else.
The cursing of the fig tree was one of these parables and I think the point might not have been so obvious to them. After Jesus cleared the temple they left the city and passed by the same tree the next morning, listen to this:
The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
See, they were amazed that He could speak to a tree and it would wither. “Move a mountain” was a figure of speech for them just like it is for us. It means “to do the impossible,” so Jesus is telling them that if they have belief, seemingly impossible things are possible with God. He warns them that having doubt in their heart and holding a grudge can get in the way of moving mountains, doing impossible things, like forgiving sins—or cursing a fig tree.
But I don’t think He explained the parable of the fig tree to them in this passage. I think it’s connected to what He did in the temple courtyard.
The temple was built in Jerusalem to be the central place for worship. It was enormous and beautiful, people traveled from all over to see it. The Jews had to travel to the temple to make sacrifices, offerings, pay their tithes and attend feasts. The Temple was the center of their spiritual life, and they prayed facing in its direction no matter where they were. It’s where they understood the very presence of God on earth to be manifest.
God’s design instructions for the Temple included various layers of access depending on who you were. Only the High Priest could go inside the Holy of Holies at the center of the Temple and only once a year. Priests were allowed access to the area surrounding the Holy of Holies and performed sacrifices on various altars. There was the priest’s court, the men’s court, the women’s court, and an area by the South Gate called the Court of Gentiles. This was an area for people from all nations to come and pray to the One True God. He made it clear that all people should be welcome in His house.
The Temple was in Jerusalem, the Holy City, and when God’s people traveled to pay their tithes and give their offerings they would usually convert their crops to money. It was much easier to carry coins than to haul a tenth of their crop or livestock across the country. When they arrived at the Temple they would buy whatever animals or grains they needed to make sacrifices for worship. The Temple tax had to be paid with Jewish coins, so they would exchange their Roman money for shekels. The people who ran this currency exchange were called the money changers. It was all a religiously enforced extortion ring and tourist trap.
Now, where do you think this little marketplace was set up at the Temple?
Here’s a hint: the religious leaders didn’t see why all those dirty gentiles needed an official court to pray to the Jewish God. They had a much better idea for how to make use of the space.
So, Jesus walks into the Court of Gentiles and kicks out everyone who wasn’t praying—everyone who was there for the wrong reason.
Israel never seemed to understand their role as a priest nation. They were supposed to be the example of what it looks like to worship God so that all the other nations would see how to do it. It wasn’t supposed to be an exclusive club. Other nations were supposed to see them worship God and believe in Him. They were supposed to bear fruit.
Jesus sees a fig tree in full bloom but bearing no fruit, He curses it and says “no one will ever eat of your fruit again.”
That same day Jesus drives out the money changers and a week later He becomes the final sacrifice, the curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom, there will no longer be fruit from any of the sacrifices at the temple again. No burnt offerings of devotion, no grain offerings of thanksgiving, no fellowship offering and meal, no sin offering for the forgiveness of sins, no guilt offering for atonement and restitution. No true worship will ever be the fruit of this Temple again. In a few years the Romans will completely destroy it.
I’ve often wondered why people are not more amazed by this. There has not been “Old Testament Temple Sacrifice and worship” since the generation when Jesus said “It is finished.” We believe when Jesus died on the cross it put an end to all that.
There have been attempts to rebuild the Temple and re-institute the sacrificial system but all of them failed. There are stories of miraculous events shutting down the people and the armies who tried. Many have understood that it would go a long way toward challenging the true claims of the Gospel if an Old Testament Temple was active in Jerusalem. Like I said, I’ve wondered why people aren’t more amazed at this.
It’s also interesting to me that since the year 691 there has been an Islamic shrine sitting in the place of Solomon’s Temple, making it impossible for anyone to even attempt to rebuild. And it’s not like it’s a Christian church sitting there, keeping the Jews out, protecting the claims of Jesus.
Anyway, I find all of that to be faith building. Jesus was the final sacrifice.
The fig tree had grown just fine, it had full leaves, it looked healthy but it didn’t bear fruit so Jesus cursed it to die. It wouldn’t be a blessing to have an entire field of giant, leafy fig trees that did not have any figs.
In the same way, the Temple was beautiful. It was huge. But the Sadducees, who were the religious leaders that controlled it, no longer believed in the supernatural power of God, they did not believe in resurrection or life after death. They were a Jewish culture club. They saw absolutely no reason to be a witness to non-Jewish unbelievers. They would have said the stinking gentiles could go to hell except they didn’t believe in hell. They didn’t believe in heaven either.
They had grown big and powerful but it was not a blessing to have more elaborate, well attended, faithless sacrifices.
We’re very excited about NewChurch and we want to see it grow. Do you see where I’m going with this?
When a seed is planted it has to grow or it will die. Once it is fully grown the purpose is to bear fruit, not to keep growing.
There is so much talk about church growth. How to grow your congregation, get bigger, more people, bigger and bigger is better.
We’re just a little church seed planted in the astro turf right now. We obviously need to grow or we are not a healthy church, but God won’t be more pleased with 400 people showing up instead of only 60 if we are not bearing fruit. There’s no point in becoming a big growing congregation that produces none of what God actually planted us for. Growth for growth’s sake is more like cancer than the Gospel.
As individual followers of Jesus we want to grow in our faith but not so we can have great big extra layers of faith making our pants too tight and hanging over the top of our “Jesus Fish” belt buckles. We want to grow in our faith so we can produce fruits of the Spirit. The Fruits of the Spirit are Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, sexual purity.
As individuals, If we spend an hour a day reading our Bible and then another hour praying, and we show up to every worship service but we don’t love people, if we don’t experience joy and peace, if we have no patience with people, if we are unkind to difficult people. If we have no interest in goodness—things that are good, pure, true, right and holy—if we are just selfish and greedy, unreliable and rude, vain and narcissistic with no self-control over our appetites or sexual desires then we’re just a big stupid tree bearing no fruit. We’re not only missing the mark, we’re also missing the point.
As a congregation, If we establish a new church with big ideas, a great band, cool graphics, an engaging message, and have 400 people sitting in comfortable chairs but God is not glorified, His Word is not preached, His forgiveness, grace and love are not shared with the people who need it. If people aren’t led to follow Jesus, and no one’s baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit then we are not bearing fruit as a church.
I’m excited about NewChurch and I’m so thankful you’re all here. It’s obvious that God’s pouring out His blessing on what we are doing. I believe God has called us to do what we are doing. I love our Saturday night gatherings, they have been an incredible source of joy for me and my family. I know it has been the same for a lot of you. It’s been fun so far.
Very soon we’ll move into the next phase of this ministry. We’ll have lights, a stage, and a backdrop to make it look like church in here. We’ll get some speakers and sound equipment so everything sounds really good, and we’ll get some screens so we can read the lyrics together and show videos when we want to. We’ll get some comfortable chairs and invite the community to come sit in them and join us, and I think a lot of them will and we will grow. Unless a seed grows it will wither and blow away or be eaten by birds. We have to grow.
But the point of what we are doing is not to grow, that’s just a necessary step in order to accomplish the actual goal: which is to bear fruit.
What does it look like if we are bearing fruit?
It looks like a church where people are finding out about Jesus and following Him. A church focused on Jesus, not our brand. When we talk about NewChurch we want people to hear us saying “come and see Jesus,” we want to be a church that is so excited about what God is doing here that we can’t contain it. A church where we look forward to seeing each other when we come together to worship. A place where all of us are friends, our children are friends, and we share life together outside these walls, too. A place where we lift up our hearts in prayer and our voice in singing: We thank God and give Him glory for who He is and what He has done and for the new life He has given us. A place where we hear the Word of the Lord and it cuts us to the bone, we’re challenged to repent and believe. We hear the Word of the Lord and it is healing medicine for our soul, we are refreshed and comforted by the promise of grace. A place where we are washed clean, baptized and forgiven, a place where we eat and drink salvation. We serve each other, we will be there for each other. We pray for each other, visit each other, and hold on to each other to keep any of us from falling. A place where no one is an outsider, we want to invite everyone and anyone into our community.
Why are we here? Why do we go to church? I think most of us probably started going for one reason but kept going for another, or a bunch of other reasons.
When I was fourteen I started believing in God and I started going to church because I wanted to get to know Him. I wanted to be around other people who believed, other people who knew Him. I kept going because I made friends with people there, I looked forward to seeing my friends at church and if I didn’t show up I would be missed.
Maybe you started going to church because your parents took you and you didn’t have a choice. Maybe you still go now and then out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Maybe you think going to church is just part of a well balanced, wholesome, all American way of life. Maybe you started going to church again once you got married or had kids. Maybe you show up for them, a way to keep peace in your relationship, keep from rocking the boat. Lots of things get us in the door—obligation, hard times, sickness, tragedy—churches across the nation were full of people after 911. These might be the reasons you started going but they’re not why you kept going. You kept going for your own reasons.
Jesus went to the fig tree because He was hungry and He liked figs.
My hope is for NewChurch to grow from the little seed we have planted into a strong, healthy church that worships God and loves people. A place where people come to learn more about the LORD. A place to rest in Him, to abide in Him, to remain in Him. Listen to these words from John chapter 15 about Jesus:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean (you already belong here, are forgiven and redeemed, and are part of Jesus, the body of Christ) because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Growth isn’t the point. Bearing fruit is the point, and we can only bear fruit if we abide in Jesus.
I like the weird stories in the Bible, the stories with strange details that don’t seem to make sense. I like how God went out of His way to show us we don’t have to be perfect to follow Him or do what He is calling us to do. He didn’t call a bunch of super holy, impressive people with flawless pedigrees and impeccable track records to start this new church—He called us. We are the ones who are here to roll up our sleeves and do His work, to worship God and love the people He sends us. We just have to show up with willing hearts, make sure the house of prayer is open for everyone, Jesus will do the impossible part if we abide in Him and His words remain in us, whatever we ask will be given to us. This is to our Father’s glory, that we bear much fruit, showing ourselves to be His disciples.
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