And yet, if we dig deeper in the Old Testament we find that the whole context of Jeremiah 7 is apt to the situation in Jerusalem. It is a stunning indictment of the contemporary Jewish religion, which boasts arrogantly in the favour of God, and is full on the inside of nothing but hollowed-out hypocrisy. The citation from Jeremiah agrees with Malachi 3:
3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
The coming of Jesus to the temple is no less than the coming of God to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, and yet his coming is a coming in judgment. The chief-priests and scribes of v18 certainly understand this. “They sought how to kill him”, why? “For they feared him”, why? “For the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.”
When we have understood the devastating indictment that Jesus brings upon the temple, and that he has come in no way to reform it, but to replace it in the temple of his own body (John 2), and subsequently the church, only then does the fig-tree become clear. So Mark returns our attention to the fig tree, as the disciples pass along the next day and see it “withered from the root”. That its destruction is so utter is testament not only to the power of Jesus, but to the point of the figure. For the fig tree is none other than Israel, the Old Covenant people, whose religion has proved to be a tree with leaves but not figs, appearance but no substance, dead works without living faith. Jesus, in cursing the fig tree, has declared judgment upon the old Judaism, but not so that it may be replaced by a Gentile Christianity. As Jews and Gentiles alike read this passage, we must take ourselves to John 15, where Jesus tells us that he is “the true vine”, i.e. He is the true Israel that is faithful where Israel failed, and life and true spiritual vitality is only found by remaining in him and thus bearing fruit, and to Romans 11, where Paul warns the Gentiles not to boast in their new status as grafted in to God’s people. Paul writes in Rom 11:20, “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear”, so that we perceive that there is not a hint of race nor religion about this issue, but that it is about Jesus, the root, the vine, the source, Life itself. How then do we remain in him, in the words of John’s Gospel? Rom 11:20 gives the answer: by faith. Luther, no doubt, in his Reformer’s zeal would emphasise: by faith alone. And so it is by faith, by faith alone, only by faith, entirely by faith, by faith from first to last that we stand in Christ, are united in him, are cleansed by the word he has spoken, and so remain in him and bear fruit that lasts for ever.