When, in AD 70, the emperor Titus marched on Jerusalem with four legions of soldiers he decimated the Jewish population and destroyed the thousand-year-old temple built by King Solomon. Some forty years earlier another King had entered the city. He brought no sword or shield, but only a small group of fisherman and whatever ragtag crowds might have followed Him from the surrounding countryside. He made no overt declaration of war. Nonetheless, in His triumphal entry Jesus shook the city. The responses He evoked from both friend and foe offer important insights into how we should respond to the King of kings.
Beginning in chapter 11 Mark records the second major phase in Jesus’ ministry, often referred to as Passion Week.1 The intensity of the narrative increases while the pace slows. Almost 40 percent of Mark’s Gospel focuses on one week of Jesus’ life. For good reason do Christians place special emphasis on Passion Week.
Jesus Makes a Royal Entry (11:1–10)
The town of Bethany, on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives, would be the staging area for Jesus’ triumphal entry, which, notably, took place on the tenth of Nisan, lamb selection day (cf. John 1:29).2
Preparation for the Entry (11:1–6)
It is critical to see Jesus’ triumphal entry as patent fulfillment of prophecy (cf. Matt. 21:5). Zechariah 9:9–10, which foreshadows the event, describes the Messiah in terms of joyfulness, peace, lowliness, justice, dominion, and salvation. These verses also include such unmistakable markers as the crowd’s shouting and the use of the colt, both of which Jesus clearly fulfills. John tells us that at the time the disciples failed to connect Zechariah’s prophecy with the fulfillment which took place before their eyes. But after “Jesus was glorified, they remembered that this had been written of him and been done of him” (John 12:16). Sometimes we reflect on Bible events in a spirit of wistful romanticism: “If only we had been there, how strong our faith would be.” The disciples were there, and they didn’t get the connection. But we, having the luxury of complete revelation and the abundant outpouring of the Spirit, “have the prophetic word confirmed” (2 Pet. 1:19).
In terms of immediate preparation, the disciples were sent to retrieve the colt upon which Jesus would ride. Jesus gave detailed instructions, which, as expected, come to pass exactly as He had said. As the owner of the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), Jesus—with perfect propriety—commandeered a young donkey (v. 2) which He had prepared for just this occasion. Still, so as not to give offense the disciples were to insure the colt’s return (v. 3). He who had divine right to all things still paid due respect to the law.
The Entry (11:7–10)
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was a public demonstration of His humility. A large city to begin with, Jerusalem would have been overrun with an influx of Passover visitors. In addition, Jesus had begun to attract a large following, especially after raising Lazarus from the dead (John 12:12, 18). Given the high-profile context, the manner of Jesus’ entry is stunning. He rode in, not on a glistening, battleready stallion but on a borrowed donkey. Sitting upon a crude clothessaddle Jesus unassumingly plodded His way through the city street, lined as it was with coats and palm branches. Up to this point, Jesus had constantly warned the crowds not to make His heavenly royalty known (John 6:15). He knew that such a commotion would be a precursor to His death. But now, in the shadow of the cross, the words of Zechariah 9:9 take shape before every watching eye: “Behold, your king . . . lowly and riding on a donkey.”
The crowd rightly read the scene as a call to worship. Above the din of the mob the words from Psalm 118:25–26 could be heard loud and clear.
Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.
This psalm was written to commemorate the Passover and the Israelite exodus from Egypt. It was, therefore, perfectly suited to honor the Deliverer who was greater than Moses. When we learn to see Christ as our delivering King the response will be heartfelt, unashamed, Spiritenergized worship. Jesus said that if His disciples had kept silent the stones would have cried out (Luke 19:39–40).
Sadly, the teachers of the law and the religious leaders—those who should have welcomed Jesus with the greatest enthusiasm—became stone-silent at this call to worship. Conversely, Matthew tells us that the next day, children who had gathered in the temple were repeating the crowd’s song: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:15). Jesus humbly but triumphantly entered Jerusalem to the praise of His disciples, including children.
Because He came during Passover, an event that memorialized the Jews’ deliverance from Egypt, many onlookers wrongly anticipated that Jesus would deliver them from their own oppressors, the Romans. What they missed is that the first Passover served also as a symbol of deliverance from sin. Appropriately, Christ’s triumphal entry symbolizes His present spiritual rule over His people and His power to deliver His own from the enemy’s tyranny. But we should not expect Christ to cure all our political or social problems here and now; such an expectation imports into the present age God’s plans for the age to come (cf. Col. 1:20). But as He rules our hearts He frees us from an insatiable desire for carnal pleasure, and the shame and hopelessness that always follow. Because of His power and love we can know that He’ll answer us every time we cry out, “Save now!”
Christ’s triumphal entry anticipates His future comprehensive rule. This event is a window into the age when Christ will be received by eager hearts in heaven. This is what we look forward to when we pray for God’s kingdom to come.
Jesus Judges Fruitlessness (11:11–26)
Jesus’ triumphal entry captured everyone’s attention. While in the spotlight Jesus would perform two great tasks. He would finish His work as prophet by teaching the people, and as priest by dying for their sins. He would begin His teaching in the morning. But He first engaged in a little reconnaissance. In verses 11–24 Mark masterfully intertwines two narratives in which Jesus inspected and judged a fig tree and the temple.
Jesus Inspects the Temple (11:11)
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was not the result of sudden and rash impulse. The night before the cleansing He had entered the temple and “looked around at all things.” What He saw fully warranted His later actions. What if Jesus slipped into the worship service in your church and “looked around at all things”? What would He think about the things we do to distract ourselves during sermons that we feel are too long, about Bibles remaining closed during much of the service, about the lethargic mumbling we sometimes try to pass off as singing? The apostle John tells us that Jesus is “in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 1:13). He does witness what takes places in His churches (v. 20).
As the hour was already late, Jesus went to Bethany to rest, no doubt thinking about what the temple had become. Truly, the glory had departed (Ezek. 10:18).
The Barren Fig Tree (11:12–14)
The next morning, while on His way from Bethany to Jerusalem Jesus grew hungry. Up ahead He spotted a fig tree, which upon closer inspection bore no figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again” (v. 14). Jesus has been criticized for judging a fig tree for fruitlessness during the fruitless season (v. 13). But Jesus inspected the tree looking for evidence of the onset of fructification. He found nothing but leaves. This tree was not going to bear fruit. Earlier, Jesus had told a parable about a fig tree which had been barren for three years (Luke 13:6–9). Understandably, the owner was unwilling to waste time and resources on such a useless tree. Jesus was creating an analogy between these trees and the people of Israel, who had been given all the benefits necessary to bear fruit. Fruitless but otherwise healthylooking trees symbolize the faith of hypocrites. Theirs are “the abundant leaves of a boastful yet empty profession.”3 Notably, Jesus’ judgment against the fig tree is His only miracle of judgment4 and His last miracle recorded by Mark. Indeed, the ax is already laid at the root of fruitless Israel (cf. Matt. 3:10). Leaving the fig tree, Jesus and His disciples proceeded to the temple.
The Cleansing of the Temple (11:15–19)
If we understand Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, His actions in the temple will be quite clear. The temple bustled with religious activity but produced little true piety. Without Christ, “Judaism is a dead and fruitless religion; a monument of divine judgment.”5
The temple had been built for the purpose of worship. Its sheer size was awe-inspiring. It covered close to a million square feet and was longer than three football fields. It was as beautiful as it was large, exquisitely detailed. But what was meant for worship had become commercialized. Auctioneers sold sacrificial animals at exorbitant prices. Currency exchangers provided proper Jewish coin for the tithe while handsomely helping themselves in the process.
Intolerant of these distractions, Jesus cleansed the temple, blocking off “all traffic across the temple courts. Everything came to a standstill.”6 Jesus is foreshadowing the reality that this temple would be made obsolete in Himself (John 2:19; Heb. 9:11). The animals which Jesus drove out would soon no longer be necessary. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world was fast approaching the heavenly altar (John 1:29).
After clearing the temple, Jesus rebuffed Israel’s lack of evangelistic zeal. If God calls His temple a house of prayer for the nations (v. 17), then His people should care about the nations (cf. Ps. 67). Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 56:7 reveals Israel’s selfabsorbed neglect of the nations. The Gentiles’ court had been annexed by greedy money changers. The temple had become a sort of good luck charm which the people exploited in a fruitless attempt to alleviate their soiled consciences (Jer. 7:11).
The Shriveled Fig Tree and Prayer (11:20–26)
On their way back to Jerusalem the following day the disciples were amazed to see the cursed fig tree already withered. Jesus used this object lesson to teach on the power of believing prayer. One impediment to powerful prayer is a conscience soiled by grudges (vv. 25–26; cf. 1 Pet. 3:7). Until we lovingly, humbly, and patiently deal with conflict our prayers will be hindered. Through forgiveness we resolve not to hold another’s sin against that person, either in thoughts, word, or actions.
Jesus Confirms His Authority (11:27–12:12)
After Jesus had cleared the temple, the scribes and chief priests met to hatch a plan to destroy Him (11:18). It should not surprise us to read, therefore, that as soon as Jesus entered the temple the Jewish leaders confront Him on the issue of authority.
Jesus’ Authority Questioned (11:27–33)
Recalling Jesus’ actions from the previous day, representatives from the Sanhedrin (made up of the chief priests, scribes, and elders; v. 28) get right to the point: “Who gave you the authority to do these things?” The question of authority is legitimate. God promises strict judgment on those who pretend to speak on His behalf (Jer. 14:14–16). But His opponents revealed their bias against Jesus in two ways. First, His authority had been attested by many miracles. They might not have approved of Jesus, but God clearly did. Second, their question seemingly has no good answer. Without divine credentials, Jesus had no right to teach. But if He claimed that His authority came directly from God, in their minds He would be guilty of blasphemy.
Knowing the Sanhedrin’s insincerity, in response Jesus asked His own question: “The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men?” (v. 31). Jesus is not being evasive. If the Jewish leaders had honestly answered Jesus’ question, their own would have been answered too. Everyone acknowledged that John’s baptism was from heaven—and John testified of Christ. In fact, it was while John was baptizing Jesus that God spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ question was easy. When the leaders of Israel claimed not to be able to answer, they were lying. They believed that John had just as much divine authority as they attributed to Christ—none. But they knew that such an answer wouldn’t pass public muster (v. 32). Because the Jewish leaders refused to deny publicly Jesus’ authority, Jesus went right on teaching. He treated their reluctance to follow through on their challenge as if it were tacit recognition of His authority.
Jesus’ Authority Affirmed (12:1–12)
Jesus then told a story of an owner who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants in exchange for a portion of the harvest. Refusing to part with their produce, the tenants harmed and even killed the owner’s rent collectors, including his own son. As a result the owner vowed to destroy the tenants and give the land to others. This parable, which was clearly aimed at the Jewish leaders, served two purposes. First, it affirmed that Jesus was indeed sent by God the Father and does bear the authority about which the Jewish leaders asked. Second, it reinforced Jesus’ point that Israel was not a fruit-bearing church.
The vineyard was an allegory for the Old Testament church (cf. Isa. 5:1–5). God had given the Jews every opportunity to grow and bear fruit. Despite His tender care the Jewish establishment remained barren, exhausting God’s patience. God would not endure their fruitlessness forever. Instead He would judge the Jewish leaders and give His church to the charge of other vinedressers (literally, “tenant farmers” or “sharecroppers”).7 To flesh out that metaphor, in the New Testament age believers, and especially ministers and elders, are sharecroppers of the church of God. We not only benefit from church membership but are also charged by God to make His church fruitful and multiply it. We are stewards, not consumers. Christian ministers are fruit collectors who teach the people of God how to bear fruit to the Lord and urge them in this duty (Rom. 10:15).
Jesus concluded His teaching by explaining how we can build the kind of life that will be accepted by our Owner. Christ is both the Cornerstone and the Rejected Stone who would soon be killed and cast out of the vineyard.8 The stone rejected by the builders of the Old Testament church would be the very support stone of the New Testament church. In what way is your life built on the rock of Christ? Are you building merely on Judeo-Christian values, reminiscent of the values of Jesus’ enemies? Or are you building on the only Cornerstone, Jesus Christ? 1. Identifying the days on which certain events of Passion Week took place is challenging. For example, some scholars place the triumphal entry on Monday while others place it on Sunday. 2. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 553. 3. Herbert Lockyer, All the Miracles of the Bible: The Supernatural in Scripture, Its Scope and Significance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 236. 4. Lockyer, All the Miracles of the Bible, 235. 5. Lockyer, All the Miracles of the Bible, 237. 6. Jakob Van Bruggen, Christ on Earth: The Gospel Narratives as History (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 209. 7. The significant continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament church is shown in that God does not cultivate a new vineyard but gives it over to different tenants. This fact has implications regarding the practice of both the initiatory and continuing signs and seals of the covenant (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), as well as for worship, ethics, and a host of other disciplines. 8. Ironically, Jesus’ quotation (from Ps. 118:22–23) comes from the same context as the song which the Palm Sunday crowd sang.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Recall how the children present at Christ’s triumphal entry picked up the disciples’ song of worship (Luke 19:39). How should this event inform us about the opportunities we have to influence our covenant children? 2. In what ways might churches and families today fail to treat children as disciples of Jesus? 3. How does 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 relate to Jesus’ inspection of the temple in Mark 11:11? 4. Take a moment to consider whether you have “anything against anyone.” If so, “forgive him” (Mark 11:25). 5. Why would the Jewish leaders be offended that in the temple, Jesus had preached the gospel (cf. Luke 20:1)? 6. Can you think of an example where it would be wise to answer a question with a question, as Jesus does in Mark 11:30? 7. What can we learn about “agnosticism” from Mark 11:31–33? 8. How does the Jews’ response to Jesus’ parable of the wicked vinedressers (Mark 12:12) teach us about conviction without repentance?