It has been a while since we have had one of Mark’s sandwiches but we encounter another one here. Mark likes to use this little literary equivalence of a sandwich. The bread is this two part story of the fig tree that surrounds the story of the cleansing of the temple which we will consider next week. This miracle story of the fig tree has bothered a lot of people over the centuries. It has invited untold interpretative abuse. Some people use it to suggest Jesus was mean-spirited and rash, killing a living thing out of frustration just because it didn’t provided what He wanted. Preachers and professors alike have wasted a lot of breath feeling sorry for that poor fig tree; they have waxed eloquently trying to defend that poor defenseless tree. It wasn’t fig season yet Jesus zaps it for not having any figs. The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell took particular issue with Jesus’ “vindictive fury” for blaming a tree for not bearing fruit when it wasn’t the season for figs. This so tarnished the character of Jesus for him that in his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, he wrote “I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history” (p. 17-19). People are quick to do that with God. People are often blaming God for being unfair or demanding that God give a reason for what He does or why He lets certain things happen. We are so incredibly arrogant and self-righteous putting God on the stand and making Him answer our questions. Where’s the humility, where’s the submission? But others both wiser and humbler have seen in this event a parable of what was about to happen in Israel. This fig tree becomes one of the most useful trees that ever grew, more useful in dying than in living. This morning a withered fig tree will be our teacher.
It has been a rough week in our world this past week. It’s painfully obvious that we live in a broken, fallen, sinful world filled with evil and evil people with evil intentions. First, the senseless killings at the Boston Marathon, then the continued explosions and deaths in the following manhunt. More news of terrorism, suicide-bombings in other countries, and sabre rattling in North Korea. There is a thread, a link between them all. It’s the sin and evil in the hearts of every human being, inside my heart and yours. And with every breaking news story our hearts grow a bit more numb, a bit more calloused, a bit more removed and distant. Tragedy repeated blurs things and desensitizes. Compassion turns to anger which turns to hate which turns to apathy. After a while we don’t have the emotions to care anymore. How many times can we keep giving to disaster relief or humanitarian aid? What are we to do in a broken world full of sin and evil? How then shall we live? When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? In the sweet providence of God our text for this morning is a beautiful microcosm of how we should all live and respond in a world of suffering and sin. Remember where Jesus was going, to Jerusalem where His life would be violently taken in a terrible act of injustice and barbarism. Yet God is sovereign and in control and has a purpose and plan that cannot be thwarted and must work for His glory and our good. Let’s take a closer look at the story.
Introduction to Authority. What is authority? Authority is the right or power to command, tell, direct, guide, decide or control. Where does authority come from? Authority comes from a higher authority. Someone in authority or with authority gives it to someone beneath or below them. There are degrees of authority. There is the authority of governments, military and police. During the Boston Marathon bombing there were multiply levels of authority all working together, local police, state police, FBI and ATF. There is authority by way of experience or education, some people are known experts or authorities on something. There are principals and teachers, elders and pastors, and parents. A mother can give authority to a ten year old to watch after a five year old in the backyard. There can only be one absolute, ultimate and final authority and whoever that is, is God. There is no higher authority than God. He made the universe and everything in it and He has absolute authority over it all. He was complete power to decide, direct, command and control. The Holy Scripture has absolute, ultimate and final authority because it’s from God, it’s the very Word of God. It’s our only rule of faith and practice [life] and it alone regulates, founds and establishes our faith. “We believe without a doubt all things contained in them [the canonical books]” (Belgic Confession, Article 5).
As we return to Mark’s Gospel let me point something out that we overlooked before. Three times before getting to Jerusalem Jesus foretold to His disciples His torture, death and resurrection. After the first time, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him for such talk. After the second time the disciples were heard by Jesus to be arguing about who was the greatest. Now after the third foretelling of what would happen to Him in Jerusalem, Jesus got a request to sit next to Him in glory. Clearly before the crucifixion and resurrection the disciples didn’t get what Jesus was talking about. The disciples clearly had a mental block about the Messiah being a suffering servant. It just didn’t make any sense to them. All they seem to comprehend was some sense of a coming kingdom with glory and they were grasping and jockeying for some part of that glory. If this confusion and ignorance was possible with two of Jesus’ closest disciples, James and John, how much more is it possible with us? This story is a picture of all Christians. Aren’t we all a mixture of faith and ignorance? We have clarity about some things and complete cluelessness about other thinks. Are we not like them, committed to following Jesus, submitting to His ways but then carried away with some greed or pride or self-righteousness?
I have in my library two two-volume sets of books. One two-volume set contains many of the apocryphal and apocalyptic and pseudepigraphal writings from the OT times. The word pseudepigrapha means “false writings.” This refers to writings that circulated under false titles. The second two-volume set contains many of the apocryphal writing from the NT times. The word apocrypha comes from the Greek word “apokruphos” and means “hidden” or “secret.” And I also have a couple of Bibles that contain the Apocrypha in the OT such as the Roman Catholic Bible. Strictly speaking the term Apocrypha refers to the 14 or 15 books from the intertestamental period between 300 BC and 100 AD that were included in some versions of the Bible. They are all of unknown origin and authorship and suspect authority. But the term can be used more broadly to include numerous writings from before Christ to well into the second century AD. During the early centuries of the Christian church various Gnostic, Jewish and secret sects produced dozens of gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalyptic writings. None of the Apocryphal books were ever part of the Hebrew OT. But later they were included in the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint. A couple of centuries later when Jerome translated the Septuagint into Latin he included the Apocrypha, though he made it clear that he distinguished between the canonical Scriptures and these other books. But from that time on the Apocrypha stayed in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bibles. At the Council of Trent in Rome on April 8, 1546 the Roman Catholic Church in reaction against the Protestant Reformation declared: “If any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” We do not condemn the Apocryphal books nor do we say no one should read them. They are not evil or bad. We may read them and receive the same benefit from them we receive from any other ancient piece of literature. Reading them gives insight into the life and times of Jews between the time of Malachi and Jesus. They contain great examples of heroism, faith, devotion and persistence. But they require discernment as they contain errors, inconsistencies and spurious details. There are also some crazy, impossible things and magic. What the Belgic Confession Article 6 is contending is that the Apocryphal books are not authoritative, they are not the Word of God, they don’t have divine inspiration. Let me give ten reasons supporting this position.