Rested on the Sabbath

And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. And on the sabbath they rested according to the commandment (Luke 23:56).

It was the day in the middle of the most important events in human history. We can only imagine how it must have been.

Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and now lay in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:1-55). He was in Paradise as He had promised (Luke 23:43), and perhaps this is the time when He preached to spirits in prison, but there is no basis for being definitive here (1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6).

Those who had sought to put Jesus to death must have been content. They could now enjoy the high Sabbath of the Passover week in relative peace. Another “Messiah” had been executed, no longer to be a threat. They would not miss Jesus’ antagonism. Their vision of Judaism remained as it had been, and in their estimation, all was well.

Since it was still the Passover the Roman authorities would still be on high alert. Mass sedition and riot was avoided over the matter of Jesus of Nazareth, but there could be any number of reasons for a new uprising or threat to Roman power. It is possible that Pilate had some twinges of guilt– perhaps he meditated a little bit about his strange interaction with that interesting Man. But there’s no reason to believe that Pilate was overly disturbed about his conduct. As for Herod, well, there was one fewer antagonist stirring up the people in Galilee. Whereas he took the blame for killing John, Jesus’ death was at least off of his head.

The people who cried for Jesus’ death would rest as pious Jews, looking forward to continuing the Passover festivities. Despite the hype there would be no revolution during this Passover. Another “Messiah” had come and gone, and life continued as it always had.

Yet there were many others who did not consent to Jesus’ death. They would still be smarting from the injustice that just took place. One day He was teaching in the Temple– the next, crucified as an insurrectionist, having been arrested and tried in most dishonest ways. Here was a great hope– a wonderful proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God– and yet again, the forces of darkness seemed to prevail.

And then there were the women who followed Jesus to the very end (cf. Luke 23:49, 55-56). So many hopes seemingly dashed– so much promise now gone. They had seen where He was entombed, and they awaited the morning to finish the preparations of His body that had been hastily begun before the previous sunset.

Finally we have His disciples. A cloud of suspicion was over them– what would they do? Yet they were not a threat. Instead, they were left to wonder what had happened. They had seen Jesus do so many amazing things. He said the words and did the things that the Messiah would say and do. They would remember that He said that He would die– but it still did not make any sense, for He also talked about the coming of His Kingdom. How could a dead Messiah rule over a Kingdom? There was this talk of Him rising from the dead, but the disciples knew that the dead remain dead, and that the resurrection would come on the final day for everyone (cf. Daniel 12:2-3, John 11:24). Now what would they do? How could this make any sense whatsoever?

We know what will take place the next morning, and that from then on, nothing would be the same. Yet, as we consider that high Sabbath day so long ago, perceiving the last day that things had been as they always had been, we understand all the more just how profound the resurrection of Jesus Christ really is.

It has become popular in many circles to believe that the disciples made up the resurrection of Jesus. Such seems almost laughable when we understand the attitudes and conduct of those disciples during Jesus’ final week. It is not as if all the disciples and women are counting down the hours and minutes of the Sabbath awaiting the resurrection. We greatly err if we think that they were so much more “ignorant” or “superstitious” than we are to just expect Jesus to rise again. They knew as well as we that the dead stay dead and that the end of not a few Messianic movements came when the “Messiah” was killed. Even though Jesus had predicted His resurrection (cf. John 2:19-22, Luke 9:22), the disciples were manifestly in no position to understand what He meant or to be prepared for it. It is little wonder that they all disbelieved at first when it happened (cf. Mark 16:11-13)!

We do well, at times, to place ourselves back on that high Sabbath of rest– the moment of pause during the most momentous events in human history. It increases our wonder and awe all the more of the resurrection that will come the next day. Let us praise God that we can have the victory through Jesus’ death and resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry