IV. The Good News About Jesus’ Death (11:1–15:47)

Mark’s Gospel has sometimes been described as a passion narrative with a lengthy introduction. Such a description is, of course, an exaggeration. Mark had other purposes for his Gospel, but the passion was of overriding importance. Approximately 38 percent of the Gospel is devoted to the week of the passion (chaps. 11–16) and 20 percent to the day of Jesus’ death (chaps. 14–15). Everything in chaps. 11–16 takes place in or very near Jerusalem. In Mark’s thinking, Galilee was the place of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of God, but Jerusalem was the place of opposition to and condemnation of Jesus. Much of the account relates to controversies with the authorities (11:27–12:40). They conspired to kill Jesus (11:18; 14:1–2); he condemned the temple as a “den of robbers” (11:17) and predicted its destruction (13:2).

Unlike the previous part of the Gospel, the passion narrative is characterized by specific time references. At its beginning the events are set forth as having taken place on three distinct days: 11:1–11, 12–19, 20ff. No indication is given in 11:27–13:37 of where the third day ended. The next indication of time is in 14:1, which states that when the Passover was “two days away” the authorities conspired further against Jesus. The following day preparation was made for the Passover meal (14:12), and it was eaten that evening (14:17). The crucifixion took place the next morning (15:1, 25) and the death and burial that afternoon (15:33, 42). The day of the crucifixion was the day of preparation for the Sabbath (15:42), i.e., Friday. The resurrection took place on the day after the Sabbath (16:1), i.e., Sunday.

Apparently Mark placed the entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, the cursing of the fig tree and the clearing of the temple on Monday, the observation of the withered fig tree on Tuesday, the final conspiracy against Jesus and the anointing in Bethany on Wednesday (but see the comments on 14:1), the preparation for the Passover on Thursday, the Passover meal and arrest on Thursday evening, the trials and crucifixion and burial on Friday, and the resurrection on Sunday. The time of the disputes in the temple and the eschatological discourse is uncertain, perhaps Tuesday, perhaps Wednesday.

Though Mark seems to indicate that all of these events took place in one week, some uncertainty regarding the exact chronology exists. The statement “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me” in 14:49 may imply that Jesus had been in Jerusalem more than a week. The waving of branches and shouting “Hosanna” (11:8–10) are more appropriate in connection with the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall and Dedication in the winter than Passover in the spring (but see the comments on 11:9–10). Matthew 23:37 (cf. Luke 13:34) suggests either an extended period in Jerusalem or several previous visits. The fact that Jesus had friends in the city (14:3 and possibly 11:2–3; 14:13–15; 15:43) may imply that he had not come to the city for the first time. John’s Gospel describes several visits to Jerusalem. (See also the comments on 11:13, 15.) The serious student of the Gospels must allow the possibility of topical as opposed to chronological arrangement. Therefore the duration of the events in chaps. 11–13 cannot be determined with much confidence. They may have taken place in one week; they may have taken place over several months.

Although it is not apparent in the outline employed in this commentary, Mark’s passion narrative could be divided into two parts: events preceding Jesus’ death (chaps. 11–13) and Jesus’ last hours with his disciples, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion (chaps. 14–15). For the most part chaps. 11–13 contain individual accounts that probably circulated independently in oral form prior to the writing of Mark’s Gospel, but chaps. 14–15 tell a continuous story in chronological order. Most of what is in chaps. 14–15 must have circulated as a unit from the beginning. This consideration does not rule out the probability that Mark and others before him adapted some items, added some, and deleted others according to the needs of those to whom they told the story.

Chapters 14–15 are the climax of the Gospel. Everything else leads up to them. They answer two crucial questions: Why did Jesus have to die? How did he die? Mark answered the first question by indicating that Jesus’ death was an absolute necessity, part of the divine plan, the will of God. He no doubt did this to answer the objections of opponents that the shameful death of Jesus showed he was an imposter. Members of his own community may have wondered why God did not rescue Jesus. Mark answered the second question by showing that Jesus died with dignity and integrity. His account is characterized by reserve.

1. The Entry into Jerusalem (11:1–11)

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

10“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

“Hosanna in the highest!”

11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Mark’s account can hardly be called “the triumphal entry,” as could Matt 21:1–9; Luke 19:28–40; John 12:12–19. The first and most obvious reason is that Mark had no crowds to come out to meet Jesus. The acclamation seems to have been by those who had accompanied Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem. For another, nothing of great significance happened. When Jesus entered the city, those who had accompanied and acclaimed him seem to have dispersed; and he merely entered the temple and looked around. For still another, the messianic character of the account, although present, is quite muted in comparison with the other Gospels. The “messianic secret” still appears to have been influencing the account.

Although Mark did not quote Zech 9:9 as does Matt 21:5, he likely had it in mind, and it influenced his account. Even without that passage the messianic nature of the entry is still seen in the references to the Mount of Olives in v. 1 (Zech 14:4), the colt that previously had not been ridden in vv. 2–7 (Zech 9:9; cf. Num 19:2; Deut 21:3; 1 Sam 6:7), and the kingdom of David in v. 10 (2 Sam 7). Whether Jesus intended to present himself as the Messiah remains a question. He probably did but in such a way as to indicate that he was a serving and suffering Messiah rather than a conquering one. The first point was made by riding rather than walking into the city, as pilgrims ordinarily did. The second was made by riding upon a donkey rather than a horse. What Jesus did should probably be looked upon as a symbolic action after the fashion of the Old Testament prophets.

11:1 The “Mount of Olives” is across the Kidron Valley and directly to the east of Jerusalem. Its summit and western slopes afford a marvelous view of the city (cf. 13:3). “Bethany” was on its southeast slope out of sight of and about two miles from Jerusalem. The exact location of “Bethphage” is uncertain, but it probably was nearer to Jerusalem than Bethany. The order of mention therefore is strange and has been used as another indication that the author was not a native of Palestine. The matter troubled ancient copyists, some of whom omitted “Bethphage.” Some modern scholars have conjectured that “Bethany” did not appear in Mark’s original (it does not in Matt 21:1) and that it was taken from vv. 11–12 and added to an early copy. More likely Jerusalem is mentioned first as the goal of the journey, and the order of Bethphage and Bethany is determined by their relationship to Jerusalem.

11:2 Whether the village was Bethany or Bethphage (or even some other) is uncertain, but most think it was Bethphage because it was nearer to Jerusalem. The word “colt” could refer to the young of many different animals, but in view of Matt 21:2 most agree that it was a young donkey. Matthew, incidentally, mentioned both a donkey and her colt. The passages just cited indicate that an animal that previously had not been used was thought to be appropriate for sacred use. Skeptics have questioned how the two unnamed disciples could have known the donkey had not been ridden previously.

11:3–6 Many questions have been raised about the meaning and reference of the word the NIV translates “Lord” in v. 3. Should it be translated “Lord,” or “master” (i.e., the owner), or even “God”? The last is most unlikely. If the second, was Jesus its owner; or was its owner with Jesus at the time? If Jesus were not the owner, and if the owner were not with Jesus, had Jesus made prior arrangements for its use? Nowhere else in Mark did Jesus refer to himself as “Lord” (though cf. 2:28; 5:19; 12:36; 13:35), but that does not mean he could not have done so in the present instance. Although there is still a trace of the “messianic secret” in the account, since 8:29 that secret has been in the process of being revealed (note especially 10:46–52). Whatever Aramaic word Jesus actually used, Mark probably used the Greek word kyrios to indicate further the true identity of Jesus. If so, it should be translated “Lord” and understood to refer to Jesus. Mark likely saw in the event an example of the supernatural knowledge and power of Jesus—the latter in influencing the bystanders to permit the disciples to take the colt (v. 6).

11:7–8 A comparison with what was done for Jehu according to 2 Kgs 9:13 suggests that spreading garments under a person was a recognition of royal dignity. The word Mark used does not indicate the kind of branches. Only John 12:13 mentions palm branches.

11:9–10 The quotation is from Ps 118:25–26. Psalm 118 is one of the “Hallel” (praise) psalms (104–106; 111–118; 135; 146–150). The second group, of which Ps 118 is the conclusion, was called the “Egyptian Hallel” because it praised God for the deliverance from Egypt. The psalms comprising it were sung at the Feast of Passover as well as at Pentecost, Tabernacles, and Dedication. This consideration increases the possibility that the entry took place soon before the Passover. “Hosanna” literally means save us, we pray and was originally a plea for help; but it later also became a shout of praise, as it is here. The statement “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was originally directed to pilgrims as they approached the temple, but Mark no doubt wanted his readers/hearers to apply it to Jesus and to see him as the coming Messiah. Some evidence exists that the expression “he who comes” is a messianic title (cf. Gen 49:10). In v. 10 Jesus is not explicitly designated as the coming Davidic king. The kingdom and not the king is acclaimed. The implication that Jesus will establish the kingdom is, however, quite apparent.

11:11 Note that Jesus entered not just the city but the temple as well. This was probably in preparation for its clearing the following day. If Jesus and his companions had walked in one day the twenty-one miles from Jericho—most of it uphill—one can understand why it was late, why the crowd dispersed, and why Jesus took no further action.

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2. The Cursing of the Fig Tree (11:12–14, 20–25)

12The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. …

20In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

22“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23“I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Again Mark employed the device of bracketing/intercalation. (See the comments on 3:20–21, 31–35.) The cursing of the fig tree and the expulsion of the merchants from the temple (11:15–19) are prophetic actions that symbolize the same thing, the coming judgment on unfaithful Israel by the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Israel, like the fig tree, appeared to be thriving; but the appearances were deceiving because Israel and the fig tree were bearing no fruit. The magnificence of the temple masked the corruption and false security associated with it. Just as the fig tree was cursed and withered, so Israel was about to be condemned and decline in importance. Just as the merchants were expelled from the temple, so the religious establishment that authorized the merchants was about to be expelled from its favored place.

Both the cursing and the expulsion are acted or dramatized parables in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Compare Isaiah’s walking around naked and barefoot to symbolize the “stripping” of Egypt (20:1–6), Jeremiah’s retrieving a rotten waistband to symbolize the humiliation of Judah (13:1–11), Jeremiah’s breaking of an earthen jar to symbolize the “breaking” of Judah (19:1–3, 10–11), and Jeremiah’s wearing a yoke around his neck to symbolize enslavement to the king of Babylon (27:1–15; 28:10–17; see also 2 Chr 18:10 and Ezek 4–5).

The fig tree symbolizes faithless Israel. It is so used in the Old Testament: Jer 8:13; 29:17; Hos 9:10, 16–17; Joel 1:6–7; Mic 7:1. The fig tree is an object of judgment in Isa 34:4 and Hos 2:12.

Few accounts in the Gospels are more diffcult than the cursing of the fig tree. This is probably the reason Luke omitted it altogether and Matthew reshaped it (21:18–22) without some of the diffculties of Mark. The incident seems out of character with all else that is known about Jesus. The only other miracle of destruction is that of the pigs (5:11–13). Nowhere else did Jesus curse anything (though the “woes” of Matt 23:13–32; Luke 6:24–26 are real equivalents, especially given the power of Jesus’ words).

Some have seen in the act a fit of anger. Furthermore, it seems utterly irrational to expect figs when they are out of season. Various attempts have been made to explain the event. One is that it actually took place at another time when figs were in season and that Mark did not realize this and created much of the diffculty by inserting the erroneous statement at the end of v. 13. Such a view is not possible for those who affrm the veracity of Holy Scripture. The possibility that Jesus came to Jerusalem as early as the previous fall has already been examined, but this explanation solves only a small part of the diffculty and creates others as well.

Several other explanations have been offered. One is that during the course of transmission what was originally a parable (cf. Luke 13:6–9) was somehow transformed into a miracle story. In addition to calling in question the historicity of the story, this explanation cannot account for such details as Peter remembering (v. 21). Another is that the early church later tried to explain the unusual death of a fig tree near Bethany by supposing that Jesus had cursed it, but this also leaves the story without historical basis and fails to explain how the early church could have invented a story with so many diffculties involved in it. Still another is that the comment in v. 13b originated as a scribal gloss, but there is no manuscript evidence for its omission.

By far the best explanation is that the act was deliberately staged by Jesus as a symbolic act. Nothing in the account suggests that Jesus lost his temper or good judgment. He did something most out of the ordinary to get attention and enforce his point. He may well have been hungry, but that was quite incidental. Just as some of the details of a spoken parable are inconsequential, so are some of those of this acted parable.

The account of the cursing of the fig tree consists of vv. 12–14 and 20–21 only. Verses 22–25 contain some miscellaneous sayings of Jesus on faith and prayer, which are found in other contexts in Matthew and Luke and which likely were spoken on various occasions. In the inner portion of this “literary sandwich,” the temple was judged for not being “a house of prayer for all nations” (11:17). Mark probably included the sayings in vv. 22–25 to encourage the disciples to pray for God to keep them faithful to their mission. The sayings also indicate that the disciples were not to let the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple upset their faith and that they were to believe that God would continue to work out his purpose through his new people. Instead of finding any satisfaction in the judgment upon Israel, they were to learn from Israel’s experiences and take heed lest a similar thing happen to them.

11:12 Inasmuch as the first meal of the day was not eaten until midmorning, Jesus was understandably hungry. The disciples were also, and Jesus used the situation for a dramatic display.

11:13 Leaves are found on Palestinian fig trees except for the three winter months, and ripe figs are present from June until November. Therefore the event must have taken place during March, April, or May. Of course the Passover usually came in April. According to some, small green figs, which in an emergency could be eaten but ordinarily were not, appear in March even before the leaves; but it is doubtful that anything should be made of this. Mark’s parenthetical statement “it was not the season for figs” alerts the reader/ hearer to look for symbolic meaning (such parenthetical statements are another element of Markan style; cf. 1:16; 5:42; 7:3–4; 13:14). The statement may be an allusion to Mic 7:1 and/or Jer 8:13. If so, it could mean that at the time Jesus spoke Israel was not producing the fruit God expected. Israel, like the fig tree, was barren when Jesus came to it. This understanding would ease some of the diffculty.

11:14 Jesus’ statement in the first part of the verse indicates that Israel would not again be the primary instrument of accomplishing God’s purpose. The statement that the disciples heard him means that they grasped the truth. Although Mark did not record it, they must have been horrified. Mark felt a need to present the encouraging statements of vv. 22–25 because later disciples were also perplexed about the fate of Israel.

11:20–21 The language recalls Hos 9:16 LXX. The reference to Peter in v. 21 may indicate he was the source or at least a source of the account.

11:22 At this point Mark shifted the emphasis from the negative to the positive and from Israel and the temple to Jesus. Some good textual witnesses read “If you have faith,” which makes the verb an indicative rather than an imperative (the two have the same form in Greek) and therefore makes v. 22 the “if” clause of the sentence that continues into v. 23. Mark did not elsewhere precede “I tell you the truth” with an “if” clause, and the variant appears to be an assimilation to Luke 17:6. Mark evidently was saying, “Despite the cursing of the fig tree (i.e., Israel), continue to trust in God” because faith and prayer and not the temple are now the way to God.

11:23 The faith Mark seems to have had in mind is not that which is needed to work spectacular miracles but to accomplish the Christian mission. A mountain is sometimes a symbol of diffculty. The fall of Jerusalem was a diffculty for the church as well as the synagogue. The early church encountered many other diffculties in carrying out its commission (e.g., persecution). Verse 23 involves a hyperbole quite as much as 10:25. Jesus was speaking generally, but there may be some allusion to the Mount of Olives (11:1) and the Dead Sea. On a clear day the latter can be seen from the summit of the former. Alternately, the allusion may be to the temple mount, in which case faith in God makes the temple system obsolete (cf. John 4:19–24).

11:24 The statement is not to be universalized and applied without exception, but neither is it to be localized and confined to the original disciples or ignored as having no practical value. Faith is an indispensable element in answer to prayer.

11:25 Standing probably was the most common Jewish posture for prayer, but both standing and kneeling are well attested in the Old and New Testaments. Mark seems to have understood that forgiveness of others is another prerequisite for answer to prayer. Some think the verse indicates that Mark and his readers knew the Lord’s Prayer, but no confident decision seems possible. What is certain is that effective prayer must be offered in faith with a spirit of forgiveness.

[11:26]Verse 26 (see the NIV note) is found in the large number of medieval manuscripts, in some earlier ones of good and fair quality, in the KJV, and in NKJV. If original, it could have been accidentally omitted as a result of a copyist skipping from the words “your sins” at the end of v. 25 to the same words at the end of v. 26, but more likely it was added under the influence of Matt 6:15.

—New American Commentary