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Commentary on Mark 11

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Jesus Enters Into Jerusalem As The Prince of Peace, Purifies the Temple, and Withers A Fig Tree With A Word (11.1-25).

This passage in Mark is one whole, woven around the acted out picture of the fig tree. After His entry into Jerusalem Jesus goes and surveys the Temple, looking around and considering it, then He goes and surveys the fig tree and condemns it, after which He returns to the Temple, enters it and clears it of traders. Once that has occurred He and His disciples return to the fig tree and find it withered. The symbolism of the fig tree is clear. It represented Jerusalem and its false worship, outwardly promising much and making a great show, but inwardly fruitless. It was now cursed and would be allowed to wither and die, which, as Jesus will make clear in chapter 13, is also the destiny of the Temple.

On His final visit to Jerusalem Jesus first reveals Himself to the world as the coming Messiah and King by deliberately fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, Oh daughter of Zion, shout, Oh daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king comes to you. He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on an ass, even on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9.9).

But it only had meaning for those with eyes to see. Many pilgrims were arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover, and some would ride on asses, although they would be the exceptions for it was not usual for pilgrims to ride into Jerusalem at the feast. There was a tradition that at Passover time Jerusalem should be entered on foot. So Jesus was deliberately drawing attention to His uniqueness. However, at Passover time pilgrims generally would be greeted by festive crowds shouting out to God, ‘Blessed is he who comes, in the name of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26) and ‘Save now’ (‘hosanna’ - a cry for deliverance - compare Psalm 118.25)’, for it was a time of high excitement. Psalm 118 was in fact a Psalm regularly used at the Passover. ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’, was probably a further excited cry brought about by their enthusiasm as they thought about the coming expected Messianic kingdom, for it was a time when hopes were high. It was always thought possible that the Messiah might reveal himself at the feast.

Thus when the great prophet that they had heard about, and many had probably actually seen in action and had dealings with, arrived in this way, they greeted Him even more enthusiastically than they did ordinary pilgrims. But they did not on the whole realise the truth of their words, that the king was now here to bring salvation, although no doubt some probably did cherish such hopes (John 7.31). They rather described Him as ‘the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee’ (Matthew 21.11). To them the whole scene was like a religious carnival. And we must not judge them too harshly, for the disciples did not realise the full significance of the entry either (John 12.16).

Mark does not mention that it was an ass on which Jesus rode, but Matthew 21.2 does, and ‘a colt’ was unlikely to be anything else in Palestine. The ass was looked on by the Jews as a noble beast. When kings rode in peace they rode on an ass (e.g. 1 Kings 1.38). Thus the prophecy, and Jesus’ action in riding on an ass, revealed that He came, not as a warrior on His war horse, but as the lowly Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6; Zechariah 9.9). Not the kind of Messiah most Jews were expecting.

Collecting the Colt (11.1-6).

Jesus now arranged for His disciples to go to ‘the village opposite’ in order to collect an asses colt that had never been broken in, for Him to ride on. It may be that it was by pre-arrangement with the owner,

Analysis.

  • a And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, He sends two of His disciples and says to them, “Go your way into the village that is over against you” (1-2a).
  • b “And immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no man has ever sat. Loose him and bring him” (2b).
  • c And if anyone says to you, “Why do you do this?” You say, “The Lord has need of him”, and immediately he will send him back here” (3).
  • b And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street, and they loose him” (4).
  • a And some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”, and they said to them just what Jesus had said, and they let them go (5-6).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus sends two disciples into the village, and in the parallel the people in the village ask why they are loosing the colt. In ‘b’ Jesus tells them that they will find a colt tied, and they are to loose it and bring it back with them, and in the parallel they find the colt tied, and loose it. Centrally in ‘c’ the Lord has need of it.

11.1-3 ‘And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sends two of his disciples and says to them, “Go your way into the village that is over against you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no man has ever sat. Loose him and bring him. And if anyone says to you, “Why do you do this?” You say, “The Lord has need of him”, and immediately he will send him back here.”

We may probably see from this that Jesus had made arrangements with friends, either in Bethany or in Bethphage, for an asses colt to be ready and had arranged a password (‘the Lord has need of him’) for its collection. It was quite normal in such outlying villages for asses to be available for hire. Or it may be that He was making use of the custom of ‘angaria’ under which a major religious figure was entitled to procure for himself the use of a means of transport for a period of time by a simple act of appropriation. ‘The Lord has need of them’ would then be seen as indicating this.

We are in fact probably intended by the evangelists to see in the use of the title ‘the Lord’ a deliberate indication that this was an unusual situation by which Jesus’ supreme authority was being revealed. Alternatively ‘The Lord’ may refer to God, in Whose Name Jesus was acting (see verse 9 - it is not commonly used of Jesus in Mark) indicating that what He was about to do had God’s approval, for He was coming in His Name. A third possibility is that it was the title by which the owners themselves acknowledged Jesus. Whichever way it was the whole arrangement indicates that Jesus has a special significance in what He is about to do. It may well therefore be that the ass’s colt was in fact being offered for His free use as a major religious figure in accordance with the custom of angaria without previous arrangement. It is interesting that it was an asses colt on which no one had ever ridden. It was thus unschooled and not broken in. To ride such a colt would require great skill and an affinity with the colt. A famous jockey who read these words for the first time was hugely impressed and was heard to cry out, “My, what hands He must have had”.

But this ass was to be used for a sacred purpose and therefore it had to be unused and unbroken as had all that was first used in the Temple and its worship (compare Numbers 19.2; Deuteronomy 21.3, and see also 1 Samuel 6.7; ). And Jesus had clearly carefully made such an arrangement. It was an indication of the wholeness and spotlessness of the One Who rode it (Solomon rode on his father’s mule).

In spite of appearances from this Gospel, however, this was not His first visit to Jerusalem since He began His ministry. Nor could it be. We have seen earlier that there are indications that a few years have passed, and each year He would certainly have attended Passover and probably other feasts as well (as John tells us) for as a pious Jew He would seek to fulfil the requirement to go to Jerusalem at least once a year during one of the three great feasts, and Passover was seen as especially significant. And it helps to explain His great friendship with Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany which would have arisen during these visits. This also explains why He could say to Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not’ (Matthew 23.37 compare Luke 13.34). That also demonstrates that He had come to Jerusalem a number of times ,and it shows that He had been treated coldly.

Bethany (House of Dates) and Bethphage (House of Figs) were villages very close to Jerusalem, Bethany being on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. They were within a Sabbath day’s journey (Acts 1.12), and Bethany, ‘fifteen furlongs off’ (John 11.18 - but much depends where it was measured from) was treated as an overflow lodging-place for pilgrims to the Passover when Jerusalem was full. Bethphage, nearer to Jerusalem, is often mentioned as the outer limit within which sacred things could be prepared or used.

Even the password is significant. “The Lord has need of him.” By ‘Lord’ Jesus may well have meant God, or possibly even the owner (‘the master’) if the owner was seen as being with Jesus and His disciples and he had made such an arrangement with him, but Mark probably intends us to understand its full meaning and refer it to Jesus as King.

‘Immediately he will send him back here.’ Possibly a part of the message and a confirmation that the colt was only being borrowed and would be returned shortly. Alternately Jesus was saying, ‘do not worry, they will immediately respond’ (see Matthew 21.3).

11.4-6 ‘And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street, and they loose him. And some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”, and they said to them just what Jesus had said, and they let them go.’

The two who had been sent (verse 1) found things just as Jesus had described them, and returned with the colt. Matthew tells us that its mother followed, as would be expected of an untried colt. It was quite a common sight in Palestine to see a mother ass accompanied by its colt.

‘A colt tied.’ In Genesis 49.10 a colt tied is connected with a coming ruler of the house of David (named symbolically Shiloh) to whom the people will gather. But there it is the person himself who ties up the colt

‘Some of those who stood there.’ Not necessarily the owner.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem (11.7-9).

Jesus now portrayed Himself in terms of Zechariah 9.9, although Mark does not mention this latter. But in view of his descriptions, which reproduce the signs of the proclamation of a king of Israel, he certainly wants us to see it in terms of the king entering to take possession of what was His. It was, however, a view tempered by his later understanding. There is no suggestion that he sees Jesus’ ‘offer’ as rejected by the people. The people welcome Him. His emphasis will be on His rejection by the Jewish leadership.

Analysis.

  • a And they bring the colt to Jesus, and throw their clothes over it, and He sat on him (7).
  • b And many spread their cloaks on the roadway, and others foliage (layers of leaves) which they had cut from the fields (8).
  • b And those who went in front, and those who followed, cried, “Hosanna (‘save now’)! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (9).
  • a “Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David. Hosanna in the highest” (10).

Note in ‘a’ their action in putting their cloaks on the asses colt for Him to sit on, symbolic of the coming of the kingly rule of David in the parallel, while in ‘b’ they spread their cloaks in the way and lay the leaves of trees in the way, symbolic of the acceptance of One Who represents a king coming in the Name of the Lord (YHWH).

11.7 ‘And they bring the colt to Jesus, and throw their clothes over it, and he sat on him.’

The colt being brought they put some of their clothing on its back to make the equivalent of a saddle or to provide a softer seat. It was a sign that they were joining in with whatever He was attempting to do. They clearly saw it as having some kind of symbolic significance. Then Jesus sat on the colt and it seemingly accepted His presence without demur. Matthew tells us that its mother followed it, determined to keep her eye on her youngster, but Mark is less interested in the detail and more interested in the significance, for the future. Here was the portrayal of His kingship.

11.8 ‘And many spread their cloaks on the roadway, and others foliage (layers of leaves) which they had cut from the fields.’

Matthew 21.8 has ‘cut branches from the trees’, John 12.13 says ‘took the branches of the palm trees’, and speaks of ‘a great crowd that had come to the feast’. Luke 19.37 speaks of ‘the whole crowd of disciples’, clearly using disciples in its widest sense. Thus central to what happened were His followers, and other disciples who had joined them on hearing of their approach, but also joined by enthusiastic pilgrims. For many, however, it was all part of the festival and not a unique occurrence. They knew not what they did.

This spreading of things before Him was the regular kind of treatment offered to important personages and was a spontaneous expression of appreciation and respect. Rabbinic literature offers parallels, and Plutarch tells us that when Cato Minor left his troops they spread their clothes at his feet. When Simon Maccabaeus entered in triumph into Jerusalem he was received ‘with praise and palm branches’ and with music ‘because a great enemy was destroyed out of Israel’ (1 Maccabees 13.51). Compare also 2 Kings 9.13 where clothes were lain before Jehu in homage. But the crowd were not on the whole representing Him as the Messiah. They were using this entrance of One Whom they saw as a prophet as a means of expressing their acted out hopes. He was seen by them as prefiguring the future.

11.9-10 ‘And those who went in front, and those who followed, cried, “Hosanna (‘save now’)! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David. Hosanna in the highest.”

These cries are mainly taken from Psalm 118. ‘Hoshi‘ah na’ - save now’ (Psalm 118.25). ‘Blessed be He Who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Psalm 118.26). These were extracts from a Psalm used at the Passover, and were regularly shouted out at visitors to Jerusalem at the Passover as they streamed into the city. Year after year the same had been done, and the coming of that kingly rule had been seen as being as far away as ever. But it was always a time of enthusiasm and fervour. And at such times there was always hope. Patriotic passions were aroused. And here it reached a deeper intensity because they saw Jesus as a great prophet, and many of them were disciples. But His entry on an ass helped to dampen Messianic expectations. Zechariah 9.9 was not a favourite Messianic passage, for the Jews did not look for a lowly king.

The words of the crowd are presented in a balanced format.

a “Hosanna!”
b “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
b “Blessed is the kingly rule of our father David which is coming.”
a “Hosanna in the Highest.”

‘Hosanna’ means ‘save now’. Compare Psalm 118.25. It was a cry to God to bring about His promised deliverance. They little realised that this One Who entered was about to do exactly that but in a way that they could not even have dreamed of.

‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’ See Psalm 118.26. All those who came for the feast were seen as coming ‘in the name of the Lord’. We may, however, translate Psalm 118.26 as ‘blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes’. It was a regular welcome for pilgrims. But this then constantly reminded them that one day a king would come, for ‘he who comes’ was an expression denoting the Messiah (compare Matthew 11.3). So every pilgrim they greeted was a reminder that one day Messiah would come. And who knew whether that one might be he? Indeed Luke renders it, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Luke 19.38). Thus the enthusiasm of the crowds and of the disciples turned the thoughts of many to the coming Messiah, which is why they added, ‘Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David.’ Those who were close to Him, and later very definitely saw Him as the Messiah, would later think of the shouts in those terms. But it seems that they did not at this point in time, for John declared, ‘His disciples did not understand these things at the first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him’ (John 12.16). Thus it would seem that His dampening words to them had squashed, at least temporarily, their false ideas concerning Messianic hopes (10.32-45; compare Acts 1.6). Once they did understand it, however, that day would be seen as a day to sweep away all gloom.

‘Blessed is the kingly rule that comes, of our father David.’ The people were looking forward in hope to the restoration of the Davidic kingship under the Messiah and all the festivals in which they participated brought this to the fore in their minds. Thus for most this was a cry of hope for the future rather than an anticipation of what Jesus was going to do.

‘Hosanna in the highest.’ Probably a cry to God meaning ‘save now You Who are in the highest’ or something similar. A stereotyped phrase easily shouted by the crowds as one.

We may in passing consider the effects all this excitement would have had on the untrained asses colt. Yet it apparently remained calm throughout, for the One Who rode it had authority over all things.

To summarise then, what are we to make of all this? Firstly we must emphasise it was not a general recognition by all that He was the Messiah. Had it been so it would certainly have been cited at the trial. Of course it may have been, and simply not mentioned in the Gospels, but as they were looking for solid evidence, and this would have been solid evidence if the crowd as a whole had seen Him as the Messiah, it is unlikely. Furthermore if such a crowd had really seen Jesus as the Messiah entering in triumph things would have got totally out of hand, to say nothing of the fact that an excited crowd acclaiming a Messiah would also have caused the Roman soldiers, present in Jerusalem in large numbers at the Passover, to intervene at once.

Outwardly, as Matthew makes clear (Matthew 21.11), this was therefore the welcome of a popular prophet into Jerusalem in the time honoured way, although we need not doubt that there were some in the crowd who would like to have stirred Him into Messianic action. There were very mixed views about Him (John 7.12, 26-27, 31). But that it had not raised great expectations comes out in that He was able quietly to go into the Temple seemingly without the crowd following. Most of them moved on in order to greet more pilgrims, not aware of the deeply significant things that were now happening.

To the closest disciples it was obviously more than this, but they still clearly saw it as puzzling. They knew He was the Messiah because He had virtually said so (8.29-30), but they also remembered His severe words on the subject of what was to happen to Him and what He had come to do (8.30-31, 34-38; 9.12, 30-31; 10.42-45). They must therefore have been in two minds. For they did not then connect what happened here with Zechariah’s prophecy (John 12.16), and it could hardly be seen as a call to rise up in arms. We are left to imagine what their present thinking might have been. They had been warned not to reveal Him as ‘the Messiah’, so they would to some extent be restrained, and yet they were probably both exalted and puzzled at the same time, not knowing what to make of it. However, they would have been to the feast too often to be mistaken about the mood of the crowd and the excited cries. They knew that much of it was mere festal enthusiasm. On the other hand they were aware that Jesus had carefully planned it. What then was He about to do? There can be no doubt it would have raised some kind of expectation in their hearts. That they too, however, did not associate it with Zechariah 9.9 until later, after His resurrection is clear from John’s Gospel (John 12.16).

To Jesus it was a deliberate portrayal to Jerusalem and all who would see it, that He was the King of Peace promised in Zechariah. In a sense He was offering Himself to them, and especially to the leadership, but only if they were willing for their whole approach to God being purified, as He demonstrated by what He did in the Temple. But it was not with any expectations of His being accepted, for He knew perfectly well what was going to happen and was under no illusions about the condition of their hearts, as He has already made clear. He knew that His hour had come (John 13.1). It was all part of His self revelation which to others would later mean more than it did then. He was deliberately and symbolically riding in as One Who would be rejected. Israel and its leaders must have its opportunity of recognition, but as He had been making clear to His disciples, He had no doubt as to what was to come. He knew that He was riding to His death, and all that would follow. Thus this was a prophetic sign, rather than in any sense a real offer.

The Temple and the Fig Tree (11.11-25)

Having made clear to those with eyes to see both Whom He was and the spirit in which He had come, meek and lowly and in peace as far as politics was concerned, Jesus moved on to the Temple, and there we are significantly told that ‘He looked around’. Remembering what He had previously done as a young firebrand (John 2.14-17) this gains in significance. But that is not specifically what Mark has in mind. He has more in mind an examination that looks around and is angry at what it sees (compare Malachi 3.1-2), just as He will shortly examine the fig tree in the same vein. In fact this whole passage is a mixture of symbolism and reality. He is hungry, because He sees the crowds in their hunger, and wants to meet their need. But He is angry with those who are responsible for their continuing hunger, those who see themselves as the fig tree who should be feeding His people. And He wants to demonstrate that the Temple can no longer meet the needs of the people and must be replaced by a spiritual Temple. And he does it by parallelism

For as mentioned above the Temple and the fig tree are closely interwoven here. His careful scrutiny of the temple is paralleled with His scrutiny of the fig tree, He finds fruitlessness and deadness in both, and His subsequent action in the Temple is to be explained in terms of the withering of the fig tree because of its barrenness. In a sense He was giving the leadership the opportunity to put things right. But He knew that they would not. Pruning would not be sufficient. The fig tree/Temple was only fit to be destroyed. Judgment must inevitably fall on Jerusalem because it too was withered and dead.

Analysis.

  • a And He entered into Jerusalem, into the temple, and when He had looked round about upon all things, it being now evening, He went out to Bethany with the twelve (11).
  • b And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, He hungered (12).
  • c And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came, if perhaps He might find anything on it, and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season of figs (13).
  • d And He responded and said to it, “No man eat fruit from you henceforward for ever.” And His disciples heard it (14).
  • e And they come to Jerusalem, and He entered into the temple, and began to cast out those who sold and those who bought in the temple (15a).
  • f And He overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of those who sold the doves (15b).
  • e And He would not permit that any man should carry a vessel through the temple (16).
  • d And He taught, and said 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 brigands,” and the Chief Priests and the Scribes heard it (17-18a).
  • c And they sought how they might destroy Him, for they feared Him (18b).
  • b For all the crowd was astonished at His teaching (18c).
  • a And every evening He went forth out of the city (19).

Note that in ‘a’ having entered Jerusalem and surveyed the Temple, He went out of the city, and in the parallel He went out of the city every evening. He had come to minister there, but the city was not for Him. In ‘b’ He was hungry, and in the parallel the people on whose behalf He hungers hear His teaching with ‘astonishment’. In ‘c’ He finds nothing but leaves on the fig tree, and in the parallel those represented by the fig tree reveal their barrenness by seeking to destroy Him. In ‘d’ He condemns the fig tree’s fruitlessness, and His disciples heard it, and in the parallel He condemns the Temple’s fruitlessness and the Chief Priests and Scribes heard it. In ‘e’ He cast out the dealers who profaned the Temple, and in the parallel He prevented from proceeding through the Temple those who profaned it by using it as a short cut. In ‘f’ He dealt with the profaner’s tools of trade.

Jesus Surveys the Temple (11.11).

11.11 ‘And he entered into Jerusalem, into the Temple, and when he had looked round about on all things, it now being evening, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’

Leaving the enthusiastic crowds behind to greet more pilgrims Jesus went into the Temple, and Mark brings out that His purpose was in order to look around and survey what was there. The Lord has come suddenly to His Temple (Malachi 3.1). He would not be surprised by what He found in it, for He had been there many times before, but it no doubt revived His feelings of righteous anger against the behaviour of those responsible for the house of God. As far as He was concerned They were preventing proper worship by the Gentiles, and He therefore knew what His intentions were. The twelve, however, who were probably with Him, had no idea what was on His mind. They simply looked around at the busyness of the Temple. However, as it was by this time evening Jesus did nothing, but left the Temple and returned with the twelve to where they were staying in Bethany, but His mind was no doubt busy over what He intended to do. The time for secrecy was over..

Jesus Surveys the Fig Tree and Declares It Barren (11.12-14).

11.12-13 ‘And on the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree at a distance with leaves, he approached to see if perhaps he might find anything on it. And when he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.’

What is now being described Mark undoubtedly saw as an acted out parable connected with His visits to the Temple. This is demonstrated by the way in which he treats the material. The fig tree and the Temple were clearly to be seen as similar. in that they made a great show for visitors, but inwardly they were fruitless and barren.

‘He was hungry.’ If this is taken literally we would probably say peckish. He may well have been up for many hours in private prayer. But Mark also recognises here another hunger. His hunger for the response of Jerusalem to His pleas, and for the crowds who are astonished at His teaching (unlike the Chief Priests and Scribes).

At what point Jesus realised that this fig tree could provide a profound object lesson we are not told. That He is mentioned as being hungry may suggest that His hunger brought the idea to His mind of a divine demonstration of what was to happen to Jerusalem, but that He expected to find figs so far out of season, unless they were dried up old figs or it was an early fig tree, is questionable. He knew as well as the next man that there would be no figs at Passover time (although this may not necessarily be so. Some do claim that figs have been known, although rarely, at Passover time).

What then was He expecting? He may rather have expected to find the barely edible green knops that come before the actual figs arrive (possibly the ‘green figs’ of Song of Solomon 2.13). But when He found none from His inspection of the fig tree it seemingly brought home to Him what He had discovered about Israel. That they too made a great outward show of godliness, but were really totally fruitless. Presumably from this point on what He really wanted to do was portray a lesson that would later be understood by His disciples.

‘On the next day.’ This links the incident with the previous verse. Such connecting links are rare in Mark demonstrating its importance as a deliberate link.

‘With leaves’ stresses that to outward appearance the tree might be expected to be fruitful. It was making a great show, just as Jerusalem was.

‘He approached to see if perhaps He might find anything on it’ just as He had entered the temple and ‘looked around’ (verse 11) at a scene which demonstrated that Israel produced no fruit. Perhaps He did hope to find on the fig tree some remnant of old figs or of something edible such as the barely edible green knops that come before the actual figs arrive. We must remember that He was used to roughing it. The absence of these would actually indicate the fruitlessness of the tree. Isaiah 28.4 mentions ‘the firstripe fig before the summer, which when he who looks on it sees, he eats it up while it is in his hand’. That may have referred to the same thing. But some claim that fig trees in Palestine have been known, to produce early figs, or that there is a particular type of early fig tree, and that therefore the leafiness may have suggested this as a possibility. Which is true we will never know.

‘He found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs.’ This does not necessarily indicate that Jesus was expecting to find figs. It simply explains to the overseas reader why He did not. It was because there was ‘nothing but leaves’. Mark is not concerned to show what Jesus was looking for. He is concerned to bring out the significance of the event, that the outward show did not fulfil its promise. So he explains to the reader that it was without fruit or edible material, just as, on Jesus’ inspection, the Temple, and thus the centre of the Jewish religion, had revealed itself to be. (The last phrase was simply an explanation to Mark’s readers who did not know Palestine).

Jesus probably intended that by His action they would remember His parable of the fig tree (Luke 13.6-9) when a man who had planted a fig tree came looking for fruit on it and found none. At that stage it was to be given another chance to see if it would produce figs. But now it was too late. The fig tree had been given abundant opportunity. Now its probation was over. It had failed to produce figs.

11.14 ‘And he answered and said to it, “No man eat fruit from you from now on for ever.” And his disciples heard it.’

There are no grounds for suggesting that Jesus was angry. It was a straightforward declaration. Nor did he ‘curse’ the fig tree in any bad sense. Rather He destined it to failure because of its outward profession which was not accompanied by fruitfulness. It may well be that He recognised that the fig tree was past its best and would no longer produce fruit. But what He was wanting to portray justified His performance of the miracle in His hastening its end by His word. He wanted to portray the most solemn of messages, the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (chapter 13). In Jeremiah 24.2 good and bad figs depicted blessing on the captives in Babylon and punishment on those who remained in the land (compare also Micah 7.1). While the application is different it illustrates the use of the product of a fig tree to denote judgment on ‘Israel’.

‘Now and for ever.’ Temple worship would never rise again. It was finished.

‘And his disciples heard it.’ Mark wants us to know where his own information came from. It came from the disciples. But the phrase also parallels ‘and the Chief Priests and Scribes heard it’ in verse 18 indicating a connection of the ideas.

Jesus Enters the Barren Temple and Purges It (11.15-20).

Having declared His sentence on a barren fig tree, Jesus now turns His attention to something even more barren, Jerusalem and The Temple.

11.15 ‘And they come to Jerusalem, and he entered into the temple and began to cast out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold the doves and he would not allow that any man should carry a vessel through the temple.’

‘And they come to Jerusalem.’ Presumably the fig tree had been outside the boundary of Jerusalem proper, which was seemingly Bethphage. But Mark wants us to recognise that Jesus is ‘coming to Jerusalem’ because the whole city is under sentence. It is Jerusalem as a whole, what men called the holy city, that is the object of Jesus’ attention (which is partly why He symbolically leaves it each night. Perhaps there is a hint here that He does not want to be too closely identified with it).

In the light of what He had observed the previous afternoon Jesus now entered the Temple and began to drive out those who were trading there by the sheer force of His personality and stern eyes and words. This time He did not need a scourge, for He did not drive the animals out. This action was not because He disapproved of the sacrificial system as a whole, which was God ordained, but because of His concern for the holiness of God’s house and because of the nefarious practises being carried on. As the Sanhedrin rightly recognised this was a claim to unique authority from God (11.28).

This was the second time that Jesus had purged the Temple. John 2.13-17 tells us of the first time, early in His ministry, when His prime concern had been the treating of God’s house like a marketplace and a stable. Then His main opponents were the traders, and His aim had been to drive out the cattle as well. He had wanted to clear the house for prayer. It had not been a direct attack on the leadership. That may well have been treated as the spontaneous action of a young hothead, a demonstration, which some even approved of to some extent, (especially the people). But when He came to Jerusalem again the next time they would have been on their guard. However, as year succeeded to year He had not done it again and they had no doubt felt able to relax. Thus they were simply unprepared for it when it happened again.

The fact that this first cleansing is not mentioned by the Synoptics is not surprising. They ignore the whole of Jesus’ original ministry in Judaea. And the position of this one at the end of His ministry indicated symbolically what they wanted to convey.

But here His accusations reached much deeper than in that first clearing of the Temple. Here He called it not just a marketplace but a ‘haunt for rogues’. He was now, by implication, involving the Chief Priests themselves in it. On the first emptying He had possibly not known of the chicanery that would certainly have been going on, but had only been aware that they were using it as a marketplace. Now through His ministry He had learned more of what was happening there. He had learned of the skulduggery that was the talk of the marketplaces.

‘Those who sold and bought in the Temple.’ Those who came to the Temple would need to have suitable sacrifices that could pass the test of being unblemished. Thus sacrificial animals and birds were sold in the Temple by traders commissioned by the chief priests with a certificate guaranteeing that they were satisfactory, together with such things as wine, oil and salt, . And this was done in the Court of the Gentiles under the sanction of the authorities with little regard for what it meant for worshippers. It was not a far cry from this to making the test very stiff for sacrificial beasts brought in from outside by individuals so as to ensure that they often failed the test, so that the prospective worshippers had then to buy certificated beasts or birds at ultra high prices, with suitable commissions paid to the authorities. And this undoubtedly happened regularly, or at least was rumoured to do so. No doubt the ‘rejected’ beasts were included in the price as part exchange and some no doubt were later sold on again as certificated beasts.

‘The tables of the moneychangers.’ The Temple tax (Exodus 30.12-16; compare Matthew 17.24) had to be paid in the Tyrian two drachma piece which was the nearest available equivalent to the Hebrew half shekel. (This was the equivalent of well over a day’s wage). This was because it had no image of man or beast on it. Thus moneychangers sat at tables and accepted other currencies in exchange for it, charging a comparatively large fee for the exchange and a further fee if change had to be given, while the chief priests again claimed their commissions. The noise of typical Middle Eastern negotiation and haggling would have been deafening, and the whole process was designed to extract as much money as possible from the unfortunate pilgrims, many of whom were poor, and to line the pockets of the chief priests and their cronies. When Jesus overturned their tables and their beloved money went rolling round the floor, it would have been to the delight of the crowds. They at least would be on Jesus’ side.

The result of all these practises was that those who came into the court of the Gentiles of the house of God, instead of being filled with awe and a realisation of the presence of God, found themselves in a busy, hectic marketplace, with buyers and sellers arguing and disputing loudly and furiously, prospective sacrificial animals and birds adding their own particular protests, and moneychangers calling out their rates. But such potential worshippers were only Gentiles and so it did not matter.

‘He would not allow that any man should carry a vessel through the Temple.’ The Temple courts were also being used as a thoroughfare to provide short cuts for those moving about that part of the city. Jesus, no doubt with the help of His disciples, prevented such movements. This emphasises that His main concern in both cases was for the purity of the Temple. It was for worship, not for convenience. The later Rabbis cite a provision that a man ‘may not enter into the Temple Mount with his staff, or his sandal, or his wallet, or with the dust on his feet, nor may he make of it a short by-path’. Thus in this He was probably following what was strictly the law, which had seemingly fallen out of use through carelessness and neglect, or lack of policing.

11.17 ‘And he taught and said 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 brigands’ cave.”

In John His action had merely been to clear the Temple, telling them not to turn the Temple into a shop, but here He not only did that but also ‘taught’ and drew the attention of people to the full situation. The quotation is a combination of two Scriptures, made up of Isaiah 56.7 ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ and Jeremiah 7.11, ‘is this house, which is called by my name, become a brigands’ cave in your eyes?’ ‘For all the nations’ was particularly relevant because it took place in the Court of the Gentiles. That was where the God-fearers, non-circumcised Gentile believers, could come to pray.

Jesus’ first concern was thus that the Temple was intended to be a house of prayer where all people could come and meet with God. But what chance were the Gentiles being given here?

However, to call that part of the Temple a shop, as He did the first time, was one thing (no one could really deny it), to teach that it was ‘a brigands’ cave’ was quite another. That involved the very highest authorities in dishonesty. They were being accused of swindling the people. How far the swindling and profiteering went we do not know for certain, but some of the High Priests had a reputation for greed and avarice, (one 1st century High Priest, Ananias, was called ‘the procurer of money’ by Josephus) and anyone who suggests that all was straight dealing does not know human nature, especially as regards Jewish businessmen. In fact Rabbinic evidence points to the excessively high price of the doves, and the avarice and hatred in connection with the Temple is mentioned in T.Menahoth. Everyone, of course, knew of the feared brigand’s caves in the country between Jerusalem and Jericho. It would not be a nice thought to be associated with them.

11.18 ‘And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought how they might destroy him, for they feared him, for all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.’

The chief priests, who ran the Temple and controlled its ministries, were inevitably angry because He had hit at their pockets and at their reputation. And the problem was that they knew that everyone believed it was true. The scribes here might be Sadducean scribes who naturally sided with the leading Sadducees, the chief priests. But we need not doubt that many scribes of the Pharisees were also willing to side with them as well in this particular case. Jesus’ teaching was getting too uncomfortable and as a result some of the people were beginning to question their authority. There was only one answer, and that was to destroy Him. Mark has already described the same intention in Galilee (3.6). Now the rot had spread through the whole country.

‘They feared Him.’ Because He was undermining their authority and revealing the inadequacy of much of their teaching.

11.19 ‘And whenever it was evening He went out of the city.’ This was necessarily so because their camp was on the Mount of Olives near Bethany. But in Mark’s eyes it probably also symbolises His unwillingness to be fully identified with Jerusalem. He would not accept the hospitality of those whom He had sentenced.

‘Whenever.’ Each night He returned with His disciples to where He was staying in or just outside Bethany (verse 12; Matthew 21.17), on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives (Luke 21.37). In view of their number they may well have set up camp there. Each day they again entered the city and passed the fig tree. During the day He was preaching in the Temple (see Luke 19.47; John 12.17-50). One can imagine the feelings of the authorities every time He arrived as they waited on tenterhooks for what He would do next.

The Lessons Of The Fig Tree Which Has Withered (11.19-25).

When Peter calls Jesus’ attention to the fact that the fig tree has withered, Jesus uses the fact to draw a number of lessons. Firstly that anything is possible to the one who has faith, secondly that even the mountain that they could see before them (symbolic of the withered Temple) could be cast into the sea (symbolic of judgment) by faith, and thirdly of the necessity for forgiving and being forgiven if they too were to avoid becoming withered.

  • a And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots, and Peter calling to mind the situation says to Him, “Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which you cursed is withered away” (20-21).
  • b And Jesus answering says to them, “Have faith in God” (22).
  • c “Truly I say to you, Whosoever shall say to this mountain, ‘Be you taken up and cast into the sea’, and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that what he says comes about, he shall have it” (23).
  • b “Therefore I say to you, All things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them” (24).
  • a “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one, that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (25).

Note that in ‘a’ Peter calls attention to the withered fig tree, withered because it represents the unspirituality of Jerusalem, with its unforgiving and arrogant behaviour towards sinners and Gentiles, and in the parallel Jesus provides the basis on which the ‘new Jerusalem’, His church, can avoid becoming withered, by being based on the twin pillars of forgiveness and being forgiven. In that way it will avoid the curse that has come on Jerusalem. Forgiveness was always intended to be central to God’s deliverance and salvation (compare Matthew 6.14-15; 18.15-35; Isaiah 43.25; 44.22). In ‘b’ He tells them to have faith in God, and in the parallel He exemplifies this by describing how faith works. Centrally He depicts the downfall of Jerusalem and the Temple as flowing from His faith as expressed in the destruction of the fig tree.

11.20 ‘And as they passed by in the morning they saw the fig tree, withered away from its roots.’

‘They passed by.’ Possibly, but not necessarily, the day after the cleansing of the Temple. The point is that they saw it when they were re-entering the city whose end it portrayed, which was probably the next morning.

‘They saw the fig tree withered away from its roots.’ It is emphasised that its roots were dead, just as the supposed source of religious sustenance for the Jews was dead.

11.21 ‘’And Peter, calling to memory what had happened, says to him, “Rabbi. See. The fig tree which you cursed is withered away.’

As usual it was Peter who spoke up on behalf of the group, even though they had no doubt been pointing it out to each other (for Jesus replied to ‘them’). Note that it is Peter, and not Jesus, who speaks of the fig tree being ‘cursed’. That was the ‘popular’ way of looking at it. Interestingly the lesson that Jesus draws from this is one of the power of faith, and He supplies an outstanding example of what faith can accomplish. It can enable the casting of ‘this mountain’ into the sea. Overtly this is just an example of a remarkable accomplishment of faith, but a moment’s thought brings out that it goes deeper than that. For ‘this mountain’ is probably the Temple mount, and being ‘cast into the sea’ is pictorial of judgment (compare 9.42; Luke 17.2 where the one who causes little children to stumble would be better to be thrown into the sea, which suggests that being ‘cast into the sea’ was a symbol of judgment (compare Exodus 15.4; Jonah 1.15; 2.3).

Notice that Peter saw Jesus as having cursed the fig tree, although neither Matthew or Mark actually say that Jesus cursed it. Jesus’ quiet word of power was clearly seen by His disciples as a curse, bringing out the awe in which the disciples now held Him. Little did they then at that stage realise that by it He had in fact ‘cursed’ Jerusalem.

And later Jesus will draw attention to the fig tree which had a great show of leaves but was barren. For in 13.28-29 He says, “Now from the fig tree learn her parable. When her branch is now become tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near, even so you also, when you see these things happening (including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple) know that He is near, even at the doors. Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things be accomplished.” Once again the fig tree and its leaves were to be seen as a sign, a sign paralleled with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

11.22-23 ‘And Jesus answering says to them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you that whoever will say to this mountain, ‘be you taken up and cast into the sea’, and shall not doubt in his heart but will believe that what he says happens, he will have it.’

Jesus’ reply to Peter and the others was that, as He Himself had demonstrated, they must have faith in God. He was pointing out the lesson of what faith can accomplish. The one who truly has confidence in God can not only wither fig trees but can even remove mountains. This general idea of moving a mountain was one that Jesus used fairly regularly. See Matthew 17.20 (but not there cast into the sea); and compare Luke 17.6.

This kind of faith was in complete contrast with those who had turned the house of prayer into a haunt for brigands. They had turned from faith to worldliness, and that was why they could be seen as withered. Any true faith was dead. But the faith that had enabled the withering of the fig tree was available to all who truly believed God. So if the leaders of the people were preventing the Temple from being a house of prayer, His disciples must not make the same mistake. Rather they must demonstrate their faith in God, and it is prayer of this kind that will prevent them from withering. Then impossible things will be possible. For when men trust God fully they will be able to cast a mountain into the sea with a word.

Certainly we may see His promise here as including the fact that their Father could deal with any and all difficulties that they met, if their faith was strong, and Jesus may well have had in mind Zechariah 4.6-7 where for Zerubbabel ‘the great mountain shall become a plain’ through the action of God’s Spirit. There the idea was of the great mountain was of difficulties removed. And so, He promised, it will be for all who serve Him fully and pray believingly. There may also be some truth in the comparison often made with Jewish writings where a great teacher who explained difficulties in Scripture was called a ‘mountain remover’. They too would through faith in God become ‘mountain removers’.

But in this context we must see it as pointing to more that that. For when He said ‘this mountain’ He may well have indicated the Temple Mount. Isaiah 2.2 had spoken of ‘the mountain of the Lord’s house’, and Isaiah 2.3 had paralleled ‘the mountain of the Lord’ with ‘the house of the God of Jacob’. This would indeed explain why He spoke of it being ‘cast into the sea’ (there was no sea near enough to be significant), for being cast into the sea was a picture of judgment. In 9.42; Luke 17.2 to be cast into the sea was the fate envisaged for sinners (compare also 5.13; Exodus 15.4; Jonah 1.15; 2.3). So in the context of the withering of the fig tree and His actions in the Temple He must surely have been hinting here at the future that lay in store. This mighty Temple and this great city were to be ‘cast into the sea’ of judgment because they were spiritually barren. And it was at His word, as He had demonstrated with the fig tree. Jerusalem would be destroyed and its house would be left to it desolate (Matthew 23.38; Luke 13.35).

To ‘have faith in God’ in this way is to trust God fully, it is to walk in His ways and be fully taken up with His will. This promise is not therefore for the sensation seeker but for those who are dedicated to Him and will shy from asking for anything that is not in accordance with His will.

Note what is required. ‘Shall not doubt but will believe that what he says will happen.’ There is no doubt that Jesus knew that He could have cast the Temple into the sea had it been necessary, but that would have been contrary to His mission. He had not come to do the spectacular. Rather His prayers would carry forward into future history when the Temple would indeed be destroyed. Nor was He suggesting that others should do so either. His point is that nothing is impossible to the one who truly prays. But in the end it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the destruction of the Temple was in Jesus’ mind, for the mountain is ‘cast into the sea’.

11.24 “Therefore I say to you, All things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received them and you will have them”.

This and the following verse could well be a teaching of Jesus which Mark knew of and put here in order to provide it with a context. It could be seen as a more general saying rather than as fitting the context directly. In that case it is a promise to the dedicated follower of Christ that whenever, in His service for God, he or she has a great need, they can come with confidence to the Father to meet that need. But note that their spiritual state must be such that they can come with confident faith. Then their confidence will be reflected by the certainty that they have that their prayer will be answered, and thus it will be. This is no promise to be used lightly for personal benefit or for trivialities. It is for those who are seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness.

But again it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that its context indicates that included in the idea of the response to faith as exemplified here was what Jesus had Himself demonstrated, that just as the fig tree had withered at His word, so also finally will the Temple.

11.25 ‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone, that your Father who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’

This is another saying of Jesus which at first sight appears to be even more ‘unattached’. Looking at it from this point of view it is a reminder that if we want our prayers to be answered our hearts must be right with God, and that means having a right attitude towards our fellowman. As we have the heart to forgive, so will we be forgiven (compare Matthew 6.12, 14-15, and note the reference here to ‘your Father Who is in Heaven’ which connects with the Lord’s Prayer). And the corollary of this is that those who are unforgiving cannot expect God to answer their prayers, for they are unable to receive the forgiveness of God. The centrality of such an idea for prayer comes out in that it is such an essential part of the Lord’s prayer.

But if we think about it further we can see that Jesus may well have a specific purpose in mind in bringing in the need to forgive here. For such willingness to forgive, together with its parallel of being forgiven, is elsewhere central to Jesus’ view of what He requires from His new people. It is stressed in connection with the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6.14-15), and it is seen as basic to His instructions to the new community (Matthew 18.15-35). Thus in the context of the idea of the spiritual failure of Jerusalem there is good reason to see this as being the alternative that could succeed in enabling the church to triumph where Jerusalem had failed. They were to be the house of prayer. And the secret of true spirituality and prayer lay in forgiving one another and being forgiven by God. Such people would never suffer under His curse, and would be able to pray in faith, knowing that they would be heard.

Members of The Sanhedrin Challenge His Authority (11.27-33).

Mark has made abundantly clear the stir that Jesus has caused since approaching Jerusalem. He has been demanding that all notice His arrival, and He is doing so as One with the right to proclaim Himself and to exercise His authority. He is making quite clear that He has come from God as God’s chosen One, with a view to setting right what was displeasing to God. It was therefore inevitable that the religious leaders would challenge Him. Indeed they could hardly have allowed these events to pass without comment. So at this point the whole Sanhedrin come to challenge Him.

Analysis.

  • And they come again to Jerusalem, and as He was walking in the Temple there come to Him the Chief Priests and the Scribes and the Elders, and they said to Him, “By what authority do you do these things, or who gave you the authority to do these things?” (27-28).
  • And Jesus said to them, “I will ask of you one thing (Greek - ‘word’), and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John. Was it from heaven or of men? Answer me” (29-30).
  • And they reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we shall say, from heaven, he will say, why then did you not believe him? But should we say from men -” - they feared the people, for all truly held John to be a prophet’ (31-32).
  • And they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know” (33a).
  • And Jesus says to them, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things” (33b).

Note that in ‘a’ they ask for His authority, and in the parallel because of their refusal to answer His question He refuses to give His authority as they have proved themselves unable to judge it rightly. In ‘b’ He puts His question and calls for an answer, and in the parallel they admit that they are unable to supply an answer. Centrally in ‘c’ are their grounds for being unable to do so.

11.27-28 ‘And they come again to Jerusalem, and as he was walking in the temple there come to him the chief priests and the scribes and the elders, and they said to him, “By what authority do you do these things, or who gave you the authority to do these things?” ’

We must see this as at least a semi-official approach from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body, and probably as an official deputation, for the Chief Priests, representing the priesthood and the Temple, the Scribes representing both Sadducees and Pharisees, and the Elders, as important lay people representing the people generally, were constituent parts of the Sanhedrin and were responsible for overseeing Jewish affairs.

They had clearly been waiting for Him and they came to Him as He was walking in the Temple. He was there to pray and to teach. He did not try to hide Himself. His challenge was now open. But they came there deliberately in order to show Him up before all the people, for they knew that it was necessary to get the support of the people for what they wanted to do to Him. And their first aim was to demonstrate to the crowds that he had no authority.

Their question seemed reasonable. It was their responsibility to check the credentials of any who claimed religious authority and they were also responsible for public order, especially in the Temple, and He had undoubtedly caused some disarray. But they had had plenty of opportunity for questioning Him and weighing Him up before, and they could first have spoken with Him in private. The way Jesus dealt with them demonstrated that He saw their challenge now as hostile, not neutral.

That their approach was over more than just His actions in the Temple comes out in the strength of the deputation. His act in the Temple could have been dealt with by the Temple police. It was His whole activity that was in question and the hidden claims that He thus made.

The approach was high handed and officious. ‘By what authority -- who gave you this authority?’ Their first hope was that He would have no answer and be caught unprepared. Then the people would see He was a charlatan. Alternately they were hoping to make Him declare Himself, and say something ‘foolish’, and whatever He said they would use against Him. They would accuse Him of self-exaltation, or worse, of being a Messianic claimant and a rebel. Was He claiming to be a prophet? Was He the Messiah? Was He the coming Elijah? And if He was not claiming to be anyone important how could He claim to have God’s personal authority? Compare 6.15; John 1.19-25. This was what they wanted to know.

‘These things.’ In context this includes the cleansing of the Temple but only as one example of a wider activity, including the preaching and miracles in the Temple, and His public entry into Jerusalem.

11.29-30 ‘And Jesus said to them, “I will ask of you one thing (Greek - ‘word’), and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John. Was it from heaven or of men? Answer me.” ’ .

Jesus knew what they were up to and His reply was subtle. All knew that He had been associated with John the Baptiser. Thus if John, who had acknowledged Him, was from God, He was from God. And His question deflected the emphasis from His own claims to the claims of another, to one of whose credentials the crowds had no doubt and who had proved it by martyrdom. But if they declared John and his work to be from God (‘heaven’ was a euphemism for God), they would be validating His own claims, and He could go on to point out what John had said about Him. And if they did not they would be discredited before the crowds. The very question was an indirect demand for recognition that He was sent from God.

‘The baptism of John.’ Even more subtle. They were surrounded by people who had been baptised by John, who would not be pleased to have their cherished baptism called in question, and it would remind many that Jesus and His disciples had baptised alongside them.

11.31-32 ‘And they reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we shall say, from heaven, he will say, why then did you not believe him? But should we say from men -” - they feared the people, for all truly held John to be a prophet.’

The deputation knew what the crowds believed about this, and they did not know how to answer. So they began discussing the matter among themselves. The reasoning was probably muttered and whispered. The sudden break and words unspoken are psychologically effective. They dared not even think of the consequences of not acknowledging John as a prophet before all these people. It would infuriate them. Yet they could not admit that John was sent from God, for that would mean that they had to believe what he had said about Jesus, and would lay themselves open to the question as to why they had not believed in him. But to deny that he was ---, they dared not even think of it because of the temper of the people. For the people were in an excitable state because of the feast and their confidence in the fact that John was a prophet was unquestioned. As they pondered the question they could see that the crowd were already won to Jesus’ side.

11.33a ‘And they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

It was they who had been caught on the hop, and their reply demonstrated that they were admitting that they did not feel able to make a spiritual judgment in such matters. Of what use for Jesus to answer their question, then, if they were unable to make a judgment about the matter of authority? How angry they must have been. They had been made to look utterly foolish. They had come with a great show of authority in front of the crowd, who had always looked to them for religious guidance in the past, and now had had to admit that they could not tell whether someone was from God, even when it was such an obvious case to the crowd as John the Baptiser. And they knew that by implication Jesus’ authority had been vindicated in front of the crowd. All knew that He and John had ministered alongside each other.

11.33b ‘And Jesus says to them, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” ’

Jesus’ final refusal to answer because of their failure would win the crowd over to His side even more, for they were disillusioned with the answer they had heard. And His reply held within it a certain level of contempt. These ‘authorities’ had shown themselves not worthy to be given an answer on such matters, for they were not willing to face up to what all knew to be true. By His reply Jesus was setting Himself up as a higher authority, answerable only to God, because they had demonstrated that they were incapable of judging. The whole incident was reminding the people of what John had said about Him. It was a veiled reminder that He was the Coming One, a reminder that He then goes on to amplify in the parable of the wicked tenants and vinedressers.

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