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2. Jesus cleanses the Jerusalem Temple again

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 11: Episode 2
Matthew 21:12-17 Mark 11:12-19 Luke 19:45-48

For the second time, Jesus disrupts the marketeering in the Temple. He challenges the Jewish authorities and is moving forward the process of confrontation which will lead to His death. 

For the second time, Jesus disrupts the marketeering in the Temple. He challenges the Jewish authorities and is moving forward the process of confrontation which will lead to His death. 

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 11 and Episode 2. We're in the city of Jerusalem and in this episode, 'Jesus cleanses or clears the Temple for a second time'. He did it once at the beginning of his ministry, and now at the end he is doing something very similar. We're going to be following the story largely from Mark chapter 11: 12 - 19  but we're going to refer to the other accounts as well, because they offer us some important details.

Introduction and Recap

Many of you will have been following the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem right at the end of his ministry, in earlier episodes, but let's remind ourselves of some of the key events that happened in the story just before the event that we're going to look at today. It's been an incredibly dramatic time. For a number of months Jesus has been travelling south from his home area district, Galilee, in the north of the country, heading to Jerusalem, the capital city, for one final visit. He's given lots of indications along the way that this is going to be a showdown; this is going to bring his ministry to a conclusion, to a climax, and tragic and glorious events are going to happen all at once in Jerusalem. He's warned his disciples, on a number of occasions, that when he gets to Jerusalem there'll be conflict with the religious authorities. He'll be tried, executed, and then miraculously be raised again from the dead. The sense of tension and conflict is evident in the stories that we've been looking at in recent episodes, as the crowds keep gathering around Jesus as he approaches Jerusalem, and as the opposition from the religious leaders intensifies as they get more and more anxious about what will happen when Jesus actually arrives in the city, if people are so supportive of him that the crowds are in his favour. It's a tense situation.

As we've seen in earlier episodes, in the background of this very dramatic series of events is some prophetic material from the Old Testament, which was in the minds of the Jewish people concerning the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah. All these titles applied to this unique, divine, human figure who the Jews expected. They expected that the Messiah, when he comes, coming in the name of God, the God of Israel, would bring about a major spiritual, moral, political, and economic revolution in the country. Particularly their expectation was that he would get rid of foreign rulers - in this case the Romans - and corrupt religious leaders - in this case the priesthood, and the Jewish religious ruling council called the Sanhedrin. We've discussed these on a number of occasions before and given some description about their roles. This messianic expectation is there in the background.

Jesus has recently performed some remarkable miracles, the most significant of which took place in a village just a few kilometres outside Jerusalem, called Bethany. At Bethany, he had raised a man called Lazarus from the dead. After he'd been in the tomb four days, he brought him out of the tomb and caused him to be raised from the dead. This had caused a sensation in Jerusalem. Most recently, Jesus had been travelling through the nearby city of Jericho where vast crowds gathered. He performed a great miracle healing of two blind men. He took a tax collector, Zacchaeus, and brought him to faith. Then, as he was in the city of Jericho, as we described last time in the last episode, as described in Luke 19: 11,

‘because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once’.

Luke 19:11, NIV

This statement indicates that, in the imagination of many of the crowds, they thought that when Jesus comes to Jerusalem this time, he's going to bring off a final political overthrow and spiritual transformation of the nation, in accordance with some of the prophecies they read in the Old Testament, in books like Isaiah. So, there's a fevered atmosphere as Jesus approaches Jerusalem.

In the last episode, we notice that Jesus, coming from Jericho, had come to Bethany, that village just a few kilometres outside Jerusalem - within walking distance - and he was obviously going to stay in Bethany. This was the village where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived, the family that he was very closely associated with, and his friends. He was going to stay there with his disciples, and he was going to use that as a base for going into Jerusalem at a particularly significant time. The time of these events was one of the major, Jewish religious festivals, the Festival of Passover. As we've mentioned on a number of occasions in earlier episodes, there were three main festivals, religious festivals, that took place regularly every year. In March or April came Passover, then in May or June came Pentecost, then in September or October came Tabernacles. Three major, religious festivals based in the Law of Moses, which the Jews had followed for hundreds of years. During these festivals, the city of Jerusalem was particularly crowded, because pilgrims would come from all over the country, including Galilee in the north, and also, they'd come from other countries - Jews who'd been dispersed around the Roman world, and in Persia and other areas. They would travel a long distance to be in Jerusalem for a couple of weeks, to celebrate the main religious events. We're going to talk a little more about the details of the Passover as this series, and the following series continue, because it's a major theme of Jesus' symbolic actions, and is closely connected to his death on the cross.

Here we are in the season of Passover, and in the last episode Jesus went from Bethany walking towards Jerusalem, and he walked across the Mount of Olives, which is a small hill, slightly higher than the city of Jerusalem, from which you get an excellent view of the city. You can look down, and you can see the city nestling within the walls, and you can see, right in the centre of the city, the huge Temple building, which was by far the largest building in the city in those days. Modern tourists can go to the Mount of Olives and get a view and take a photograph of the modern, old city of Jerusalem, and that's a popular thing to do. Something similar was taking place these 2000 years ago. Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and then he went down into the valley between the Mount of Olives and the city, and then up the other side and through the gates of the city into Jerusalem. In the last episode, that's what Jesus did. It's called ‘The Triumphal Entry’. The traditional Church calendar places this on a day which we call Palm Sunday, and as we looked at the last episode we saw that he gathered huge crowds; people who travelled from Galilee, local people from Jerusalem, people from Bethany, people who travelled up from Jericho, other people travelling, other interested people who happened to be around. Jesus was now well-known in the nation of Israel and huge crowds gathered and there was a sense of expectation that his coming into Jerusalem was somehow or other going to be hugely significant; it's going to be a kind of messianic event that was going to bring about the change in the nation of Israel, fundamentally through political, religious, and economic means, basically taking over the country. We saw in Matthew's account last time the details of this. I'm going to give you the summary from Mark's point of view, because we're going to be focusing on Mark's Gospel today. I'm going to read, as an introduction, Mark 11: 9 - 11, which just precedes the main passage we're going to look at, where Mark describes the acclamations, and the cries from the crowds, and the chanting that went on, as Jesus came into Jerusalem. They laid their cloaks along the road, they had palm branches which they were waving, or laying on the road, and in verse 9 he says;

‘Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna!” (which means either ‘God save us’ or ‘praise God’) "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"’ (That's a quotation from Psalm 118 which was described by the Jews at the time as a messianic call that), ‘he who comes in the name of the Lord’ would be the Messiah. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" "Hosanna in the highest heaven!"’

Mark 11:9-10, NIV

They anticipated that Jesus would bring back the kingdom of King David, which was promised to be an eternal kingdom in the Old Testament. We looked at that in more detail in the last episode, referring to the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7: 16, where God made a covenant with David and said his dynasty would last forever. So, they're waiting for the successor of King David to come and redeem the nation. Jesus was biologically connected to King David and they were beginning to call him the Son of David.

‘Jesus entered Jerusalem, went into the Temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.’

Mark 11:11, NIV

These are the events of Palm Sunday, and they were very dramatic.

Now we're turning to the events of the next day, bearing in mind that we're now in the week, which we call the Passion Week, starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday, starting with the Triumphal Entry and ending in the resurrection, with a crucifixion on Friday of that week. We're going to read Mark's account. There's less detail in Luke, and Matthew compresses the narrative slightly. Mark gives the fullest narrative, and as is common, we take the fullest account and use that as the basis for teaching, and explaining, and telling the story. Let's read Mark 11:12 - 14.

The Cursed fig Tree

‘The next day’(that's Monday)‘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.’

Mark 11:12-14, NIV

This is a very intriguing story. Something happens on the way between Bethany and Jerusalem, just a few kilometres of walking distance, and Jesus is hungry. He sees a fig tree - fig trees were common in Israel - and he's looking for some fruit, some early figs. Fig trees didn't come into full fruition until about June in Israel, in the early summer. But if they had well-developed leaves at this time of the year, March or April, sometimes they would have some early figs. Jesus was probably looking for these early figs, little ones, the beginnings of the figs to come. He saw a tree that was well established with its leaves, perhaps more so than others, perhaps an early producer of leaves, in that particular season and he looked and he didn't see any fruit. So, he makes this strange statement, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” He curses the tree. In Matthew 21: 19 in the similar account, notes: ‘Immediately the tree withered’. Jesus moves on to Jerusalem.

We're going to come back to this fig tree in the next episode, because Jesus uses the event that has just happened, as a means of teaching about faith, prayer, the Kingdom of God and obstacles to the Kingdom of God. Our focus today is not the journey to Jerusalem, but what happens when he gets into the city, and gets into the Temple compound again. However, there is an interesting question we can answer now: what did the fig tree symbolise, if anything? The interesting thing is that the fig tree was the symbol, occasionally and in some contexts, for the nation of Israel. There are some verses in the Old Testament which suggest this possibility. Jeremiah 24: 1, Hosea 9: 10, Nahum 3: 12, have been suggested and others could be named. Israel as the fig tree that is going to be cursed. This is a possible interpretation of the significance of this particular event. But even more important than that possibility, is an earlier parable that Jesus told, that we discussed in an earlier episode. I'm just going to read it again. It comes from Luke 13: 6 - 9.

‘Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down."’

Luke 13:6-9, NIV

This particular parable is told in the context of Jesus warning the people of Israel that time is short, in terms of their opportunity to respond to his claim to be Messiah. They need to make a decision. It's interesting this parable follows that teaching, and it describes a three-year period, approximately the period of the ministry of Jesus, and the fact that one more opportunity, one more year would be given. This could be a representation of the full extent of Jesus' ministry. The fig tree is in a last chance situation. It needs to be productive quickly or it's going to be cut down. We have a fig tree here in Mark 11, and it's interesting that this is a time when Jesus is predicting, most decisively, the forthcoming judgement on the nation of Israel if they fail to believe in him as the Messiah. The fig tree could also represent, not just Israel, but the religious establishment in Israel. It's the religious establishment that Jesus is targeting very particularly at this time, in terms of his prophetic actions, and his teaching. That establishment being the High Priest, and the priests who ran the Temple, and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that has jurisdiction over the conduct of the Jewish faith. They made decisions about how the faith should be organised in the nation of Israel. We're going to come back to this fig tree because something very significant happens in the next episode, when the disciples and Jesus walk past the fig tree a second time and there it is, withered away.

The Cleansing of the Temple

But let's press on now with the story, because the main point of the story comes in the next events, Mark 11: 15 - 19

‘On reaching Jerusalem Jesus entered the Temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. 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've made it a ‘den of robbers.’ The chief priests and the Teachers of the Law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.’

Mark 11:15-19, NIV

This is a very dramatic event. For those of you who followed through the story of the Gospels, and have been with us on the journey, you'll know that Jesus did something very similar at the beginning of his ministry. At the very beginning, when he went up to Jerusalem for the first time, as recorded in John 2, he also cleared the Temple trading area and he's doing the same thing again.

The Temple

In order to set the scene and understand the context, we need to remember some things about the Jewish Temple, things that I've mentioned in passing in different episodes, as we've encountered the Jewish Temple in some earlier parts of Jesus' ministry. But now the Temple becomes very central. You'll remember that the Temple is the largest building, it was a huge building in the centre of the city of Jerusalem. It was the spiritual heart of the Jewish faith, the place where Jews believe that God met mankind in person, and where sacrifices were given, animal sacrifices were given according to the Law of Moses, to atone for sin and to bring ceremonial forgiveness to the Jewish worshippers. People came here on those three major festivals that I've mentioned. They came here at many other times as well. The priests organised all the activity in the Temple. There was a very central area called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, where only the High Priest could go, once a year behind a curtain. Then there was the Holy Place where the priests operated and conducted all the sacrifices, and some of the other rituals of the Temple. There was a place where men could watch what was going on in the Holy Place, a place where women, Jewish women, could gather and pray, and then a large area around that which we call the Temple courts, where anybody could go. Gentiles, non-Jews were allowed in this area. They weren't allowed in the central worshipping areas. They were reserved entirely for Jewish people, but the Temple courts were a big open area where people milled around, had conversation, prayed, reflected, read Old Testament Scriptures, talked together, listened to rabbis teaching, and socialised. This was the area that Jesus went to when he went to the Temple, in verse 15 ‘he entered the temple courts’.

Trading in the Temple

In the Temple courts, as we saw, when we looked at John 2 in the first cleansing of the Temple, there was a trading area, and this was controlled by the priests. There were a number of commodities available, two things in particular. Firstly, Jewish people had to pay what was called the Temple tax in the Treasury in the Temple, when they came up to the Temple. They couldn't use Roman coins, the official coinage of Israel at the time, they had to use Temple coinage, specially created coinage by the Jews. They had to exchange their Roman coins for the Temple coinage in order to pay their Temple tax. In the exchange of money there was a possibility of making a lot of money yourself by the interest rates that you charged, as is always the case when we exchange from one currency to another. There was the exchange of coinage, but there was also the purchase of live animals and birds in preparation for sacrifice. Sometimes people would bring their own animals; they would be inspected by the priestly teams and the Levites working with them. Sometimes they were considered to be imperfect animals and then another one had to be bought, or some people just came to buy the animal and they didn't bring anything with them. There was a huge market for selling animals, and again the prices could be inflated because this was a monopoly. The priestly class, known as the sons of Annas, the father figure of the high priestly family, controlled this, and they made money out of it.

Jesus goes to the Temple and he challenges this. He began driving out those who were buying and selling.

‘He overturned the tables of the money changers’ ‘and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts.’

Mark 11:15-16, NIV

For some time, Jesus took control of the market area. It's very remarkable. Here he is, on his own, challenging the whole system, but no one was able to stop him because the crowds were with him, the crowds were supporting him and he quoted the Old Testament, saying that they had violated the purpose of the Old Testament for the Temple.

"Is it not written: ‘My house (the Temple) will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you've made it a ‘den of robbers.’”

Mark 11:17, NIV

The traders are robbers. They're stealing off people, because they're exploiting them through the monopoly. ‘You're not focusing on prayer; you're focusing on trade.’ Jesus was being very challenging.

The Crowds in the Temple

The supportive crowds made it very hard for the authorities to intervene.

‘The chief priests and the Teachers of the Law heard this .They began looking for a way to get rid of him, to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.’

Mark 11:18, NIV

He's got control of the situation. Then Matthew's account adds a few more details, Matthew 21: 14 - 16:

‘The blind and the lame came to him at the Temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the Teachers of the Law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the Temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise”? And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.’

Matthew 21:14-16, NIV

So, healing took place, children were running around in the Temple excited and thrilled, calling out “Hosanna to the Son of David.’

Reflections

What's the significance of all this for our story? It's very dramatic, it's very interesting, but what's the significance? Here's some reflections. First thing I want to say is that Jesus is in charge of the events in this Passion Week, the last week of his life. He came and made a Triumphal Entry. He planned it; he organised it; he allowed it to happen; and he took control of the situation on Palm Sunday. On this Monday, he's doing the same thing. He's being very provocative, very direct. He's being very prophetic and he's creating a direct conflict with the religious authorities, a direct conflict with the religious authorities. He's in charge of events. He is bringing to fulfilment the necessary conflict between him and them which will bring about his death and resurrection.

His concern here is that Judaism is failing in its task of opening up the door to the Gentiles to believe. The Temple is a place of corruption. It's not a place where access to God is easy, or simple. There's a lot of money to be paid, there is concern for power and prestige on behalf of the Sanhedrin and the priests and the Levites, their assistants. Judaism is failing, it's corrupt, and even the Temple is corrupt, according to Jesus. He's challenging that corruption head-on. During the next few days we'll see ongoing confrontation, because now the religious leaders begin to reflect and think, ‘How could we stop this man?’ and they use a new tactic, which is to ask him difficult questions in public. We'll see how this opens out in the next few episodes.

But, for today, we've noticed this amazing cleansing of the Temple. Jesus is provoking this conflict. Jesus is challenging the Temple institution. He's indicating that there's going to be a new way of access to God; a simple, clear, way that's going to be open to all people, that he is going to bring about very shortly. Which will, as we'll see, ultimately lead to the replacement of this Temple - no longer will it be needed. But that's jumping ahead a little. We'll get to that story in due course. Thanks for listening.

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