Was the Fig Tree Really a Temple? (Matthew 21)

Jesus’ ministry has been described in terms of a comparison of two temples. One temple, a physical building in Jerusalem, was supposed to be a visible example of God’s purity and forgiveness. But at the time of Jesus’ ministry, that temple was not a clear picture of these attributes. In fact… it was exactly the opposite. People were visiting the temple and often leaving with a distorted picture of God and how He works.

In contrast to the Jerusalem temple, Jesus was a clearer example of God’s purity… and His forgiveness. Jesus’ ministry began a transition away from the temple in Jerusalem… to a new temple. The temple of Jesus and those connected to Him through faith. It is a temple of believers.

It was this new temple that Jesus came to inaugurate… and that old temple, the one in Jerusalem, that he put on notice that its time was done. 

This factors greatly into Matthew 21:12-22. In those verses Jesus makes his way to the temple in Jerusalem and drives out those who were buying and selling. The forgiveness of God had become a profit making business, but forgiveness from God is available to everyone. It’s not a money making transaction. 

No matter who you are… no matter how much money you have… God’s forgiveness is available to you. That picture wasn’t being truly represented in the temple in Jerusalem. Sometimes I think we forget that simple truth.

The cleaning of the Jerusalem temple is followed by this strange and cryptic “cursing of a fig tree”. There’s a fig tree… it has leaves on it… but no fruit. Jesus says, “no longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” and at once the fig tree withers and dies. Without a broader context… this certainly seems like a strange event to include in the narrative of Jesus’ week leading up to the cross. 

Would it help to mention that the fig tree is a symbol of the Jerusalem temple? Let me explain, that temple had become something that was beautiful to look at (like a fig tree full of leaves)… but it wasn’t producing any spiritual fruit. It wasn’t leading people to the God it was supposed to reflect. It was barren. 

The gospel of Mark helps illustrate this symbolism by splitting the cursing of the fig tree and the withering of the fig tree around the cleansing of the temple. It’s a literary device sometimes referred to as a “Markian Sandwich”.

Mark 11:12-14 – He curses the fig tree (the first piece of bread)

Mark 11:15-18 – Cleansing the temple (the meat of the sandwich)

Mark 11:19-21 – The fig tree is withered. (the second piece of bread)

While Jesus was cleansing and proclaiming the end of the Jerusalem temple… His ministry was preparing the next temple… a collective temple of people of faith. 

One of the disciples, Peter, (1 Peter 2:5) describes this in a beautiful metaphor. He calls believers “living stones” who are being built together into “a spiritual house for a holy priesthood”.

Paul also expands on this picture in 1 Corinthians 3:16-23. He begins by saying,

Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

Then goes on to explain,

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

All of the bold “you” and “your” statements are plural describing a group of people. They are not singular. Paul is describing a group that collectively make up Jesus’ new temple.

Americans do a good job of thinking individualistically and it is often incorrectly taught from this passage that each of us becomes an individual “temple of God”… but that’s not what Paul is saying here. The temple that Jesus is building is a collective group of people in relationship. It’s not something that an individual can create.

We would do well to remember that there is a “collective” aspect to the temple ministry that we are tempted to ignore. We cannot do temple worship on our own. There is a part of the cleansing ministry of Jesus only done in the collective. Believers must find ways to connect with each other.

The tale of two temples is just one of the items I cover in The Matthew Study video lessons for chapter 21. This chapter is presented in two separate Sunday morning sermon videos.  You can watch both videos below… or preview the other videos and download chapter lessons from The Matthew Study by visiting: THE MATTHEW STUDY VIDEOS page.

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