(This is an excerpt from a recent sermon covering Mark 11:1-12:12, you can click here to find the audio)
In my previous post, I offered a few thoughts on the Royal Procession of Jesus towards Jerusalem. Though the next day begins with the cursing of the fig tree, I chose to save that for the end of the message.
As Linda Richman might say, the cleansing of the temple was neither a cleansing, nor a temple… discuss… There are passages where the bold headings are helpful… Mark 11 is not one of them. I’d like to challenge the notion that Jesus was cleansing the temple as we examine these details. He entered the court of the Gentiles, an area approximately 500yds x 325yds. That amounts to roughly 35-acres. The central courts that held the temple measured more than a football field alone. Why do I bring this up? Because Jesus, one man, granted the God-man, but one man, raised a scene. Was it sufficient to bring 35-acres of activity to a halt? Was it enough, in a moment, to cleanse a broken system? The assumption would be that, following a cleansing, the temple would be… clean.
He drove out the sellers. But did you notice he also drove out the buyers?! We think of Jesus sending away the corrupt traders and money changers, but why the buyers? Why the worshipers?
Animals bought and sold as commodities were a part of temple life. Pilgrims weren’t often able to bring the necessary sacrifices. Temple giving required a particular unit of currency, the temple shekel, which required money changers. And this was the week of Passover, the most grand and busy festival of the year. Because God’s worship was very specific, these merchants found use in the temple system. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been in the court. Perhaps they were corrupt. But it was a desire to adhere to the law that gave rise to their trade.
The last verse of the prophet Zechariah says that one day, there would be no more traders. And on that day… Something would shift. The shift would draw the worshipers nearer to the LORD who saves them.
Notice Jesus wouldn’t let anyone carry anything through, as if Jesus, rather than seeking to purify the totality of what was happening, was actually trying to disrupt totally, on a small scale, everything and everyone, as if planting a seed or setting to motion a ripple effect approaching something larger… all so he could teach from Isaiah 56… a chapter about the salvation of the Gentiles. A house for the nations. Everyone who holds fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Isaiah goes on to call Israel’s leaders idolatrous blind watchmen, and to preach the humility that pleases God.
Jesus was ready to bring Jews and Gentiles together, to tear down the dividing wall of hostility, as Paul called it in Ephesians 2:14. Because of sin, ethnic distinction was necessary for a season of God’s plan. It was ethnic distinction that set apart the family line that would welcome Jesus. God chose, save, protected, and preserved a particular nation as part of the plan to choose, save, protect, and preserve people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Now in Christ, all of the resentment could be restored and healed. Sinners united at the foot of the cross.
There were, at the time, signs posted in the temple distinguishing the various courts. The courts were a progression towards the presence of God. The outermost court was for the Gentiles. Next came the court of the women, then the court of the Israelites, and the court of the priests. Inside the temple, of course, was the distinction of the holy place – visited only by priest – and the most holy place – visited only by the high priest, and only once each year. Each distinction communicated a message of the realities of God’s redemption, but the messages had descended into hostile division. History reports that signs posted in the Gentile court threatened death for any who was found ascending beyond his or her position. Divisions designed to create longing instead created enmity.
The time had come, not only to preach a message of unity, but to provide – through the cross – a means of unity.
Jesus then mentions robbers, and we think again of those pesky merchants. But think about this… what is the robber’s den for? They don’t rob the den. They leave the den for crime. They come home to hide. The den is a reference to Jeremiah 7, where God warns the worshipers, Do not trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD. It is foolish to trust the building. Don’t hide in the building.
Jeremiah blasts Israel’s oppression of foreigners, orphans, widows. They live in sin, and are then all-too-confident to return to stand before the LORD expecting deliverance. They treated the temple like a den. A hideout to bury a life of treachery Jeremiah warns the people of coming judgment in the hands of the LORD. Now Jesus takes these verses and applies them to the temple mount, the den.
Instead of reaching out, they were cowering inside. God’s good system was defiled by sin. Sure, it was impressive to look at… but there was no fruit inside. The temple mount was a pretty picture, but a hollow practice.
It wasn’t just the sellers who needed redemption.
I can’t see Jesus going to any great effort to reform or clean temple worship when, in three days, he would open the door to God’s presence for all mankind. Tabernacle and temple worship were a season of preparation in which the nation of Israel was to stand as a beacon of light, shining the truth of the one true God. Her worship should have foreshadowed true worship, sacrifice, prayer, relationship, and obedience that would come with the Messiah. And now, in the fullness of time, at the climax of human history, the temple had exhausted its ability to produce Godly fruit.
In the middle of this exhaustion stands Jesus… the Savior. The time had come to forge a better way to the Father. Not to erase the temple, but to fulfill its purpose.
The scribes and chief priests heard about the ruckus, understanding enough about the Lord’s actions that they sought to destroy him. The incident itself, the “cleansing” was small-ish. The area of catastrophe was likely clean and in operation again by morning if not sooner. But the message of judgment was big. This was no cleansing. It was a declaration that change was coming. The people didn’t realize the depth of change, that the loving redemption of worship was only days away.
Jesus went to Bethany for the night.