Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

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Mind the warning signs

You’ve no doubt heard the expression “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” meaning that if there are signs of a particular problem, that problem most likely exists.

If your tooth is sensitive and it hurts to smile, you probably have a dental issue to address. If your car is making funny sounds and most of the lights on the dashboard are illuminated, you probably have a mechanical problem to take care of. If you come home from work and the only greeting you get is a take-out menu waiting on the table, you probably have a relational complication to deal with.

Why can we make these educated guesses? Because where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

And when smoke is noticed, it’s not wise to ignore it in hopes it’ll go away. When that’s our chosen strategy, often the fire only intensifies—the cavity grows, the engine deteriorates, and the relationships become more dysfunctional. 

Instead, those who are wise watch for smoke and, when they see it, respond quickly and definitively before the problem worsens. 

God’s people: Called to be watchful

And that’s what God’s people are called to do as well. As a church, we’ve been given a mission from God and we want to do that as faithfully and productively as we can. But the Bible warns us of many problems that can arise—doctrinal drift and false teachers, arrogance and division, abuse and infighting.

These fires, so to speak, can burn any community of believers to the ground if unnoticed or ignored.

In Mark 11 we see that this is what had happened to God’s people by the time Jesus walked on earth. Having ignored the smoke, fire had rendered them useless. And we want to learn from them today and find ways we can remain faithful.

The passage begins with a description of the smoke. We don’t yet know what the root problem is, but as Jesus enters Jerusalem, we can tell that something’s wrong because of the underwhelming response to the King’s homecoming. 

In Roman culture, a returning champion or entering king would be welcomed home with a celebration and parade climaxing in sacrifices at the temple of their god or gods.

This is what Mark is describing in the opening ten verses of this chapter. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, marches into Jerusalem, the capital of Judaism. He demonstrates his authority by requisitioning an unused animal to carry him. “The Lord needs it,” is apparently enough of an explanation to satisfy the curious (vv. 3, 6).

Who’s celebrating?

Verse 8 says that “many people” lined the streets, spreading cloaks and branches on the road before him. They’re rolling out the red carpet because here comes royalty, here comes their champion!

But where did these crowds come from?

Let’s back up into chapter 10 to find out. In verse 46 we read of Jesus travelling with a large crowd that he has accumulated during his travels through Galilee en route to Jerusalem. In 10:46, the crowd is leaving Jericho when Jesus is called to by the blind man, Bartimaeus.

When [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me” (vv. 47–48)! 

This was a messianic title the blind man was using to get the Lord’s attention. God had promised their revered king, David (see 2 Sam. 7), that he would raise up an eternal king from David’s lineage. This King would finally bring together all that was broken in God’s people, all that had separated them from one another and from their God.

This blind man was claiming loudly that Jesus is that promise fulfilled: “Son of David!”

Jesus summons Bartimaeus who “throws his cloak aside” (v. 50), comes, is healed, and then, verse 52, joins the crowd and follows.

Now we see this is the crowd that’s with Jesus as he victoriously enters Jerusalem. This is the crowd lining the streets, throwing their cloaks like the blind man and parroting the same messianic title the blind man used as well—”Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (11:10)!

This is a celebration! It is the long-awaited Davidic king finally entering his city.

But it isn’t Jerusalem celebrating. It’s a Galilean crowd. In fact, it seems Jerusalem couldn’t care less.

This becomes even more pronounced when Jesus arrives at the temple, what should have been the peak of the celebration.

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

Crickets.

This is a not so triumphal entry. The King arrives with the power to liberate and reign, and his people don’t care or even notice.

I told you, there’s smoke!

Something’s wrong with this picture! It smells like smoke, and where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire somewhere. When God’s chosen people respond with indifference to his presence, his prophet, his Messiah … something’s up!

And once in a while it’s a good thing for us to ask ourselves, do I smell the smoke of indifference in my life? Is worship underwhelming or inconvenient? When I hear stories of God’s provision, does it excite me, or do I find it increasingly shrug-inducing? 

Our responses, as God’s people, to his work, revelation, promises, and presence can serve as litmus tests to the current state of our relationship with him. Apathy could be a symptom of a greater danger that we may not want to ignore lest it grow worse.

Now, what about fire?

We find how to do that as the text moves on. We saw the smoke, and now we see the fire. The underwhelming response to the King’s homecoming was symptomatic of a dysfunctional community of the God’s people.

We see this in two connected stories: The fig tree and the cleansing of the temple.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing 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. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it (vv. 12–14). 

At first glance, it seems an overreaction to get upset about a tree not doing what it couldn’t do. This is where it’s important to see the connection between the two stories. Because this has really nothing to do with the fig tree, as we’ll see.

 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there (v. 15a).

During passover season in particular, many pilgrims to Jerusalem needed to exchange money and buy sacrificial animals. The priests oversaw a marketplace of sorts on the temple grounds and, Jewish literature from that time tells us they made a killing. This abuse angers Jesus.

He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (vv. 15b–17).

Jesus, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah, reveals why he’s angry: They’ve turned the house of God into something it was never meant to be. They’re using the temple for activities that are antithetical to its actual purpose. 

God’s house was to be a place where God’s people came together to pray! To adore him, to confess to him, to offer him praise and thanksgiving, and to petition him. 

That was no longer its focus. It had become a place not of spiritual vitality but of financial profitability; a place dedicated not to things above but to things of this world.

You see, the fig tree had leaves, a visible promise of life, but a disappointing lack of fruit. In the same way, the temple had an impressive facade—it was an architectural marvel and the courts were full of people, but an impressiveness that only masked its uselessness.

From a distance, both the fig tree and the temple looked good, but, upon closer inspection, were barren. Both appeared productive, but neither delivered.

And we see the consequences in verse 20:

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.

With the roots damaged the tree was doomed. Likewise, the religious leaders, the roots of God’s people, because they were rotten, would eventually and inevitably infect the whole generation, rendering them fruitless and useless. 

Uselessness for God should be the greatest fear of any group of believers. And we’re reminded in Mark 11 that appearances can be deceiving. We could outwardly show all sorts of promise and still have withering roots.

This was the case in Ephesus as well:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Rev. 2:2–5).

This was a church with many leaves, but not a lot of fruit and in danger of losing its influence all together.

What was the cause of the fire?

In Mark 11, the smoke of indifference to the presence of Jesus was a consequence of the fire of dysfunction raging in the temple.

And what was a major cause of that fire? Verse 17 tell us that, at least part of the problem, was prayerlessness.

God’s people had lost their commitment to praying together and, because of that, they were like a leafy tree with no fruit. They were all show and no go, all sizzle and no steak. They were like Popeye with no spinach—powerless shells of what they could be.

And God’s people knew better. When the temple that Jesus was standing in was first completed, dedicated, and opened for business, God spoke to the king in charge:

When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace … the Lord appeared to him at night and said: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there (2 Chron. 7:11–15).

The people had access to God’s power if they would humbly pray together. But, when we come to Mark 11, we find they had done the opposite and now there were consequences. 

Learning from them

As the 21st-century people of God, want to learn from the 1st-century people of God. We want to avoid apathy, dysfunction, and uselessness by being a people that are committed to corporate prayer; staying connected to our power source, a source that, according to Jesus (v. 23), has no limit with mountains being commanded to jump into the sea. And if our mission is primarily that of spiritual transformation, it would make sense that we need spiritual power.

Unfortunately, in churches today it seems that corporate prayer is the first thing to go when congregations feel the pinch of time.

Not wise. Not biblical.

A. C. Dixon once wrote, “When we rely upon organization, we get what organization can do; when we rely upon education, we get what education can do; when we rely upon eloquence, we get what eloquence can do, and so on. Nor am I disposed to undervalue any of these things in their proper place, but when we rely upon prayer, we get what God can do.”

Coming together as God’s people, united in prayer, is not only something we have to do and must do but something we get to do! It’s a beautiful thing and it keeps us from being a people of God that are all leaf and no fruit, all promise and no productivity.

Divine homework

Now, of course, the whole is made up of parts. And as this passage closes, Jesus gives each one of us homework; two things to do before we come to pray together, two things we do as individuals that have direct influence on the body.

Assignment #1: Ask for faith.

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered (v. 22).

In fact, the power of God being accessed by the people of God is contingent on the faith with which the requests are being asked.

“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

You may think to yourself, I’ll never have that much faith! I would suggest you’re right! Neither can I! We can’t make ourselves believe harder.

But what we can do, is ask he who supplies all we need for the faith we require. Just like the man in Mark 9: “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” Ask God for faith.

This isn’t evidence of anything other than we are human beings who, just like we need God’s help for justification, we need God’s help for sanctification (see Luke 17:5). So, ask for faith.

Assignment #2: Extend forgiveness.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins (v. 25).

It’s been said that failing to forgive turns the ceiling to brass through which our prayers cannot penetrate. Why would this be? I think it’s because to not forgive others is to admit we don’t understand the extent of our own forgiveness from God.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph. 4:32).

One author has rightly suggested: “Lack of conflict is not a mark of the church of Jesus Christ; forgiveness is.” And so we extend forgiveness before we pray.

That’s the homework assignment for each of us, given by the Lord himself. 

Before we go to him in prayer, accessing all the power available to us, we individuals must ask for faith and extend forgiveness. And then, when we come together as a people of God, we dedicate ourselves to corporate prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to continue to use us for his glory, staving off apathy, fruitlessness, and uselessness.