February 19, 2017
Last Sunday was our first ever Family Worship Sunday. We had lots of elementary age children and youth with us – in fact, it was actually a pretty high attendance Sunday. I was encouraged – hope you were. I preached a sermon with lots of pictures – I trust that helped – and the sermon was a record-breaking 28 minutes. Not to worry, I’ll fix that this week.
For those of us with children, we’ve all faced the challenges of child-rearing. Like, having them in big church, for example, or getting them to clean their rooms. Usually, our definition of clean and theirs are quite different. Dirty clothes on the floor, dirty dishes under the bed, empty chip bags and coke cans don’t count as clean. So, how do we introduce our children to vacuum cleaners and Pledge, and get them to clean their rooms, right, the first time? I have some good news for you – I Googled clean your room and received over 95 million hits. Apparently this is a worldwide issue. There were articles, pictures and even videos on how to clean your room. Seriously. Anyone from the Berenstain Bears to a young lady with a cool Aussie accent telling you how to clean. I found an article with the following steps to clean your room in ten minutes:
- Prioritize – the article suggested you step back and take a look at your room as if for the first time, and ask this question, “What is most immediately shocking?”
- Get rid of the major offenders – dirty clothes, shoes, no floor space, sour milk under the bed.
- Hide anything super personal – like, dental headgear, wart-removing cream, etc.
- Open all the windows.
- Make the bed.
- Get rid of anything perishable that has already perished.
- Put a clean gym sock on each of your hands. Wet one to wash, use the other to dry.
So there you go – I thought that would help just in case any children ventured in this morning. I suppose if we told our kids to clean their rooms, and went to inspect, and found they had turned over tables and chairs, pulled the mattress off the bed, we wouldn’t call that clean. If they had made a whip to take care of Spot or Fluffy, we’d be appalled. I’m sure by now you know where I’m going with this. We arrive in our study of the gospel of Mark at the so-called “cleansing of the Temple.” Like the triumphal entry, I’m not sure it is rightly named.
It was some six months ago Jesus and His disciples began their trek toward Jerusalem. He’d told them three times what awaited Him there – being handed over to the religious leadership, mistreatment, and death. But He went with a purpose – it was, in fact, the purpose for which He’d come – to give His life a ransom for many.
Upon arriving, Jesus performed three successive symbolic actions over three days – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. All three had messianic overtones of authority. Jesus was, as it were, throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the religious leaders to a confrontation. But there’s also subtext – and it has to do with this temple. We’ll come back to that in just a minute.
On that first day, Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus’ action was certainly a fulfillment of this messianic prophecy – but it was also a picture of the kingdom He came to bring. Humble, gentle (Matthew 11). The crowds traveling with Jesus began rejoicing greatly, shouting in triumph, Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the Son of David. So Jesus rode in, went to the temple – stop right there. This is the first time the temple is mentioned in Mark’s gospel – but it will be mentioned eleven more times in the next few chapters. You see, Jesus is dealing with the temple – and its worship. Look at this intentional pattern that develops:
11:11 – at the triumphal entry, Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple.
11:15 – the next day, they came to Jerusalem, and He entered the temple.
11:27 – the next day, they came again to Jerusalem, and He was walking in the temple.
13:1 – the end of the same day, as He was going out of the temple. The point is, His ministry this last week was largely done at the temple, as He confronts it. In fact, 13:2 says, Not one stone of this temple will be left upon another which will not be torn down. And it is His actions in the temple – to include making a mess in the temple, and predicting its destruction that will bring His death.
Well, back in chapter 11, He goes to the temple, looks around and leaves. What was He doing? Was this a reconnaissance mission, as some suggest? Perhaps – but as He looks, He no doubt sees what’s going on – in His Father’s house. You know, the place where people come to meet God. He takes a look around, leaves, goes to Bethany to spend the night, a couple miles away.
The next morning, as He and His disciples make their way back to Jerusalem, we have the cursing of the fig tree. That was last week – a great text for Family Worship Sunday. You remember, Jesus was hungry, so He goes to a fig tree in leaf advertising breakfast, and finds it barren. You see, it was promising what it could not deliver, so Jesus cursed it – indeed, He killed it. I suggested that was an acted out parable – promising life, nourishment, but actually dead – no life – death. Mark records it in one of his famous sandwiches – two stories intertwined, because their related. We’re supposed to notice – the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple go together. Maybe, it’s a cursing of the temple and its false promise of life, as well. Read the text with me, Mark 11:12-21.
What is going on here? Matthew kind of smoothes this out a bit – he has the triumphal entry followed by the cleansing of the temple followed by the cursing of the fig tree. Luke has the triumphal entry followed by the cleaning of the temple, but leaves out the fig tree. John puts the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, then gives the triumphal entry at the end – again, no fig tree death.
Mark alone records it this way – with his sandwich. Why? Because, the cursing of the fig tree and its death, surround the cursing of the temple pictures its coming death, too. The temple will play a prominent part from here on out. Every day, Jesus travels to Jerusalem and goes to the temple. Every day, He’s challenged in the temple by religious leaders. Again, by the time we get to chapter 13, as He’s leaving the temple, He tells His disciples – there’s coming a time when not one stone will be left standing on another. The fig tree is a picture of what will happen to the temple. Why? Because the temple had all the signs of life – advertised spiritual life – but it could not deliver. So Jesus cursed it. In chapter 15, when Jesus is hanging on the cross – the last mention of the temple, the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom.
Do you see – the problem with the temple and what the religious leadership had done with it – was it was supposed to be a place where people met God. But they had turned it into a commercial enterprise – a den of robbers. Judgment came, and a new way offered. The old covenant, which always pointed to the new – could not bring life. In the new covenant, offered through His blood – the way to God was opened. And through His work, Jesus is building a new temple – with living stones. The significance of this passage cannot be overstated.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, and they hailed Him their humble King. Their long-awaited conqueror who would throw off Roman oppression. As a conqueror, everyone knew the route He would, or should take. He should have gone straight to Roman military headquarters. He should have made His way to the Antonia Fortress.
Built by Herod the Great in 35 B.C., the Fortress was named after his friend, Marc Anthony. It stood 115 feet high and was partly surrounded by a deep ravine. It functioned as the headquarters and barracks for the Roman occupation army. Typically, there were 600 Roman soldiers garrisoned there. Strategically located to the northwest of the Temple Mount – it was supposed to guard the Temple. More likely, it was there to keep an eye on the religious leaders and zealots within the country which had been such a thorn in Rome’s side.
So, if you were going to take Jerusalem in a successful coup, you would have to take the Antonia Fortress. But that’s not where Jesus went. He went instead to the Temple. He went straight to their most holy of all holy sites. And He made a mess. He turned over tables, and drove worshippers out. It’s no wonder they turned on Him, even crucified Him by the end of the week. Not much of a conqueror-king-hero-Messiah. Unless, He was staging a different kind of coup. Maybe it wasn’t a military coup. Maybe, He was a different kind of King. Maybe, He was setting up a different kind of kingdom. A kingdom, by the way, which has thrived for almost 2000 year after the fall of Jerusalem, and 1500 years after the Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a different kind of kingdom, with a different kind of king.
Let me give you the outline of the text as we make our way through:
- Those Jesus Drove Out of the Temple (15-16)
- Why Jesus Drove Them from the Temple (17)
- Those Opposing Jesus in the Temple (18)
Let’s set the stage by looking at those Jesus drove out, and try to answer the question, why? What was He doing? Again, some of you know this is perhaps the second time Jesus cleansed the Temple – the first was at the beginning of His ministry in John 2. But the question is – what was Jesus doing, or said another way, why was Jesus mad? We use this story to teach things like – it’s okay to get mad, Jesus did – but why did He get mad?
I want to remind you it was Passover – there were millions of people in Jerusalem – all the hotels were full, people slept in the streets or in the countryside – which is why Jesus made His way back to Bethany each evening. There were millions of people, and the center of attention, the place everyone eventually went, was the Temple. It would make the Disneyland lines look short. There were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people milling around this particular day. It was Monday morning – the day after the Triumphal Entry as Jesus made His way to the Temple.
The Temple was more than a building, it was really more of a complex. It was called Herod’s Temple, because Herod the Great started its reconstruction in 20 BC, and was still being built in Jesus’ day. It was magnificent.
Within the complex, there were specific areas where certain people were allowed to go – others were not. Here’s an artist conception of the Temple with those designated areas. Like concentric circles moving inward, it went like this. Furthest out was the large court of the Gentiles, where pretty much everyone could go – men, women, children, Gentiles. It was 500 yards long, 325 yards wide – it covered 35 acres. It was huge, surrounded by a covered porch with giant Corinthian pillars. From there, you would go through a gate – the gate called Beautiful, and enter into the court of women, where Jewish women and Jewish men were permitted. I’m not sure about kids, but I do know, no Gentiles were allowed there – in fact, there was a sign by the gate that said if any Gentiles entered this area, they would immediately be put to death.
Through another gate, the Gate Nacanor, which was made of Corinthian bronze and took 20 men to open and shut each day, came the court of Israel, where circumcised Jewish men gathered – no women, no children. Inside that court, through an entryway, was the court of the priests. The men would bring their sacrifices to the priests, but they could come no closer. At the center was the Holy Place, within which was the Holy of Holies, separated by the veil, where only the High Priest went, and then, only once a year on the Day of Atonement.
Now, this physical setup made God a bit inaccessible – the closer you got to the center, the closer you got to God, and the fewer could come. But it wasn’t just the physical setup that made God remote – it was the system which really made Him unavailable, inaccessible. You see, it was in the court of the Gentiles, furthest out, that the moneychangers and those selling sacrifices set up shop. There is some evidence they used to set up across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives. But at some point, recently, they had moved to the temple – to the court of the Gentiles. It was like a mall – not a lot of worship happening – at least not there. Don’t forget that.
Now, I want you to understand, there was a sense in which what they did was a needed service. Pilgrims were coming from all over the Roman Empire. The moneychangers, for example, would exchange the pilgrim’s currency for Tyrian currency – the currency accepted at the Temple – it was the right denomination and had no images engraved. Specifically, they would exchange money into half-shekel units – why? Because, Jewish men were required to pay the half-shekel temple tax once a year. It was due by Passover, and most of the time, they’d wait till they got to the Passover to pay. Nothing really wrong with that. The moneychangers exchanged money for exact change in temple currency.
As for the sacrifices – remember, the sacrificial system was in place then. If you were coming to the temple to worship, certain sacrifices were prescribed. You needed animals and oil and wine and things like that. Not only that – this was Passover. So, you needed a lamb to sacrifice. Where to get one? You could bring one with you on the long trip to Jerusalem, or you could just wait till you got there – many did.
So, the moneychangers and those selling sacrifices set up shop in the temple – specifically, in this outer court – the court of the Gentiles. By this time, this market had become known as the Bazaar of Annas – Annas was the high priest at that time. This whole system had become a corrupt scam by which the priests got rich exploiting the people. Let me tell you how it worked.
First, the priests, actually charged franchise fees for the right to set up shop in the temple. And the merchants, in turn, fleeced the people. If you came to exchange money, the moneychangers charged you a hefty 25% fee. That totaled half a day’s wages for the common man.
Not only that, if you brought your own sacrifice – your own Passover lamb – it had to be approved by the priests. After all, the lamb was supposed to be without spot or blemish. Guess what? The sacrifices people brought were often unacceptable – no problem – it just so happens we have priest-approved sacrifices available right here – for a price. They were charged as much as ten times the going rate. It was Passover – you didn’t have a choice. Suddenly, God is getting more distant, more removed – you can’t get to God – you don’t have what it takes – and if you want to, you’re gonna pay. The priests fleeced the flock – they were stealing from the people. That’s why Jesus said, this place is meant to be a house of prayer, and you’ve made it into a robbers’ den.
Look closely at verse 15. He overturned the moneychangers, and the ones selling doves or pigeons. What’s that about? Well, Leviticus tells us doves or pigeons were for poor people. Just vented His fury on those who fleecing poor people. God has always had a special place in His heart for the poor.
But, those weren’t the only problems. This is important – I want you to notice – Jesus drove out both the ones selling and the ones buying. We miss that – we think He was just mad at the merchants. But, He didn’t just get rid of the sellers – He threw out the buyers – the pilgrims. Why? What’s the deal? The whole system had deteriorated into a corrupt, merchandizing system. The temple was the place you were supposed to come to meet God – it was supposed to be a house of prayer. But they, all of them, had reduced it to a system of external performance and compliance. Pay the right price, perform the legal obligations, and you’re just fine – God-approved. It was a corrupt, bankrupt system of buying your way into God’s favor. And it made Jesus sick. He threw the whole thing out.
The fact is, their whole system had become a rote, mechanical performance that was devoid of worship, devoid of truth, devoid of righteousness and justice and mercy. And Jesus threw them out – all of them. This is not acceptable to Me. This is meant to be a place to meet God, and you have erected an entire system whereby people are kept from Him. Get out of My Father’s House. He came to stage not a military coup – but a spiritual coup. To set up, not an earthly kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom.
It does make me wonder – has the church of Jesus Christ, in any way, become a system by which people meet God? Come here, do it our way, jump through these hoops, and you’ll be fine. No real worship, no real prayer, no real relationship?
So, Jesus marched into the Temple and symbolically overturned a different kind of oppressor – one with far greater implications than the guys next door at the Antonia Fortress. He made clear the biggest problem in Palestine was not secular oppression, but spiritual oppression – a system designed to make people feel good about themselves, a system which in fact kept people from God. It was a robbers’ den – where souls were stolen.
That brings us to our second point – I’ve already shared most of it. He made a mess because they’d made a mess of God’s way of approaching Him. Look at verse 17. He quotes two OT passages, one in Isaiah, one in Jeremiah. We’re familiar with them, but I want you to see what only Mark records. When Jesus quotes Isaiah 56, He actually quoted the whole thing. We’re familiar with, My house shall be called a house of prayer, but actually, the whole verse reads, My House shall be called a house of prayer for all the people/nations. Matthew and Luke leave that out – as does John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Only Mark records it.
And we remember Mark was writing to a Roman church – a Gentile church. That’s what we are, by the way. Jesus was upset because they had set up shop in the place where Gentiles were supposed to meet God. All along, you see, the Jews were to be a light to the nations. Nations were supposed to stream to Jerusalem to meet the true and the living God. But the Jews had set up barriers – a mall, in the only place Gentiles were allowed to worship. In fact, a apocryphal book, Psalms of Solomon, says that the Messiah would come and drive out the Gentiles. He actually came and was upset the Jews were barring the way of the Gentiles. He cleansed the temple not of Gentiles, but for Gentiles. Again, I cannot overstate the importance of this text. Jesus swept the way clear for us to come – to know Him, to worship Him. The veil of the temple was torn for us, too.
Which leads, lastly, to those opposing Him in the Temple. When the chief priests and scribes –two thirds of the Sanhedrin, two parts of religious leadership – when they heard what Jesus was saying, it was their turn to get mad. As is Mark 3, after Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, they began seeking how they could destroy Him. But notice also, as in Mark 1, all the people, the whole crowd, were astonished at His teaching. It was teaching with authority.
Which brings us to our conclusion. You know what I’m sure of? When Jesus walked out of the temple that day, the moneychangers came back, straightened the tables, put their coins in nice, neat rows. Those selling sacrifices were back – everything was straightened out – the temple was clean and shiny again – they did their own cleansing of the temple. It was business as usual. And by the end of the week, they had crucified this would-be Messiah. Because they didn’t understand the kingdom He came to bring. What are we to do with this message – with this truth? I’m not interested in shiny temples, are you? You see, the temples He came to cleanse and make right, are us – the temple of the Holy Spirit – and I want Him to clean out whatever He wants to clean, don’t you? What is it that is cluttering your relationship with God, that needs to go?
The fact is, Jesus did come to Jerusalem to conquer. But He came to conquer the unjust and hypocritical ways of religious systems which had made captive the hearts of people. He’s not interested in our performance – He’s not interested in your jumping through hoops. He’s interested in blind and lame people coming to Him, realizing their own brokenness, with a complete dependence on Him. He’s not interested in this place being all clean and shiny – with everything in its place and the chairs in nice neat rows and plants and flowers beautifully arranged. He’s interested in us coming to Him, with the messiness of our lives, saying, Jesus, I need you to fix me – clean me up, no one else can. That’s the kind of kingdom Jesus came to bring.