It's been some time since I've posted, but there is a reason for that - I was away on vacation for two weeks. We're thankful to the Revs. Janssen and Lodder, from Abbotsford and Cloverdale, for filling in while I was away. The mission congregation really appreciated these two pastors coming to Prince George to lead the worship services and teach Bible studies while they were here. It's a wonderful blessing to experience that "bond of the churches" in this way, and it allowed me to rest easy for two weeks, knowing that the congregation was in good hands!
This past Sunday I returned to the pulpit, and preached on Jesus' cleansing of the temple. I did record the sermon, and it is visible on my iPhone, but for whatever reason it doesn't show up on iTunes, so I'm unable to upload it to www.archive.org
for the moment.
So instead of the audio, here's the written text for this past Sunday's sermon.
Scripture readings were from Jeremiah 7:1-11, and Isaiah 56:1-12, the passages that the Lord Jesus cited in His teaching in the temple on that day.
This is the nineteenth sermon in our current series on the gospel according to Mark. So without further ado, here 'tis!
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ,
Mark 11 brings us from the greatest of heights to the lowest of lows - from Jesus' triumphal entry into the city of God, to the chief priests and scribes plotting to destroy Him. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is the picture of excitement and joy. The people welcome Jesus as the Davidic king triumphantly entering the city of His father David; they lay out their garments on the dusty Jerusalem streets to prepare the way for the king; they spread palm branches on the roads as a kind of ancient version of the red carpet treatment that's reserved for royalty today.
But within mere days, the crown of David that the people were wanting to put on Jesus' head would be replaced by a crown of thorns. The royal welcome would be forgotten, and a parody of the kingship would be played out, with Jesus dressed in royal purple, being beaten and spit upon and mocked with a false homage. The crowd that had welcomed Him with shouts of "Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord," and "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David," would be replaced by a crowd demanding His crucifixion.
As we've seen, Jesus' disciples now recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. As they entered Jerusalem, with Jesus seated on a young horse, the crowds of pilgrims who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival had obviously begun to recognize the same thing, even if they didn't fully understand all the meaning that Jesus would bring to that concept of "Messiah". They had great expectations; excitement filled the air in Jerusalem. They shouted "Hosanna," "save us," and cried out the words of Psalm 118:25,26 - "Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD!"
Two centuries before Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in 164 B.C. there had been another procession much like this one. A man named Judas Maccabeus had won a great victory against the Seleucid Empire. On December 14th of that year, he had entered Jerusalem, he purified the temple, which had been desecrated by the occupiers, and restored the true worship of the LORD in His House. Since that time, this purification of the temple had been celebrated with the festival of Hanukkah, which is still an important Jewish celebration today.
Perhaps the tens of thousands of Jews who had filled Jerusalem to celebrate Passover were expecting a similar thing to happen now. Perhaps they saw in Jesus another Judas Maccabeus - someone who would lead God's people to drive out the foreigners and restore Israel to her rightful place. In the days of the Maccabees the enemies had been the Seleucids, in the days of Jesus those Greek enemies had been replaced by the Romans - but maybe, the people thought, the LORD was finally doing the same thing He had done through Judas Maccabeus. But obviously, as it turns out, they didn't get what they expected.
After Jesus entered Jerusalem, He did go to the temple. He went through the temple, looking at everything, but it was already too late in the day for Him to take any action, whatever form that action might take. You can imagine that at least a part of the crowd that had welcomed Him with such joy would have followed Him to the temple, with a sense of expectation. But they would have to wait until the following day; and what actually happened, the action that Jesus actually took in the event, was not at all what they had expected.
Jesus returns to Bethany for the night, near the Mount of Olives, outside of the city; there was probably no room for Jesus and His disciples to stay within the city limits because of all the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for Passover, and they had friends in Bethany, so the next day would bring another entry into Jerusalem - this one much more low-key, and an astonishing series of events in the temple.
The next day they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple once again. And what He did was shocking. He began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple. He overturned the tables of the money-changers. He upset the seats of those who sold pigeons. He refused to allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And then, after the uproar had ceased, He began to teach. All of the hustle and bustle of activity that had been going on in the temple had been brought to a standstill, and only one activity was taking place - the teaching of the Lord. We're only given a fragment of what Jesus taught, but the original wording of the text makes it clear that this was only a small part of an extended session of instruction. But the words that Mark recorded for us must have been central to His message: "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."
The crowd was astonished at His teaching. They were amazed. They were shocked, and they were impressed. But the shepherds of the people, the chief priests and experts in the law, were afraid of Him, for that very reason. This man was developing a huge following, and they knew that they had to take drastic action. This kind of thing could not continue. But these were not brave men. They feared the crowd, they feared Jesus' popularity, and they knew that they would have to take action against this man in a more subtle way. So while the crowds hung on Jesus' every word, their leaders began to put together a plan to get rid of this troublemaker once and for all.
And that teaching, like everything Jesus had taught throughout His ministry, had its basis in the Old Testament. This time Jesus is quoting from Jeremiah 7:11, where Jeremiah had the same message for the people of his day: "Has this house," the LORD asked through Jeremiah, "which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD."
The LORD had declared that He had witnessed what was going on the house that bore His Name, His holy temple, in Jeremiah's day. And the night before, the Lord Jesus himself had borne witness to what was happening in God's house. And so the message He proclaims is the same. Jeremiah had told the people not to trust in those deceptive words - "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD."
The temple was not an end in itself, but that's what the people had made of it - they were the people who had the temple, they were the people with whom the God of creation dwelt, and they trusted that everything would be alright with them because of this, regardless of how they lived. They weren't executing justice with one another, within the covenant community. They were oppressing the sojourners - people on the outside, the Gentiles. They weren't caring for the widows, for the fatherless. They were shedding innocent blood in the temple while going after other gods.
They thought that the temple would save them, along with everything that went with it. So they went about their worship, their sacrifices, their offerings, while stealing, murdering, committing adultery, swearing falsely, making offerings to Baal, and going after other gods. They trusted in their status as the people of the covenant, and meanwhile they completely disregarded what stood at the heart of their relationship with the God whose temple they so revered - His demand for holiness; His demand for unswerving devotion to Him; His demand for a religion and religious practices that came from the heart. Their religion had become a self-centred religion - the people were thinking, "What's in it for me," looking out for their own interests, trying to get what they wanted. They had forgotten that one of the reasons why the Church, the people of God, exists, is for the sake of the world.
Isaiah had taken on the same issues in his ministry, and the Lord Jesus also refers to Isaiah's prophecies, with a quote from Isaiah 56:7; Isaiah had reminded the people of the universal significance of the temple. He had spoken of the importance of the temple for all nations; the temple wasn't meant to be a source of national pride for Israel; it wasn't meant to be the focus of their nationalistic hopes and dreams. It wasn't supposed to be another barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles. Isaiah spoke of the glorious future, when all the nations would stream to the temple of the LORD, when people from every tribe and every nations would come to the LORD's holy mountain to worship Him.
The temple stood for inclusion, not for exclusion - for the universality of God's people, not for the special importance of a select few. God's people had been called to be a light to the nations; the city God had chosen as His dwelling place was a city on a hill, on Mount Zion. And the people of God were called to be that city on a hill, to be a beacon of hope in a world filled with darkness. They had been called to be light, and salt - but their salt had lost its flavour, and their light had gone out. "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," the LORD said.
But that's not what Jesus had seen the night before when He had gone to check things out on the mountain of the LORD, in His dwelling place. Things hadn't changed since Jeremiah's day, and they hadn't changed since the time of Isaiah's ministry. The leaders of God's people were still silent dogs that couldn't bark; they dreamt, they lay down, they loved to slumber; they were dogs with mighty appetites - they loved to eat, and they never had enough. But the shepherds of the people, the ones who were supposed to be leading the way, had no understanding; this becomes clear in this passage, when we get this picture of the men who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel, skulking around, afraid of their sheep, making plans to destroy the Messiah because the popularity of His ministry was threatening them.
So that's what Jesus was teaching, after He had cleared out the temple. But what was that activity we call "the cleansing of the temple," really all about? What was Jesus doing when He overturned the money-changers' tables, when He threw down the chairs of the men who sold pigeons for sacrifice, when He stopped people from carrying things through the temple?
It's often seen as Jesus' action against the commercialization of religion. It seems like the temple and the temple service had been turned into a money-making racket, with people looking at the temple more as a source of income than as a house of prayer and worship. With the focus on money-changers and salesmen, our first impression may be that this is the case. And we can apply that to our own day as well, when we see religious hucksters getting rich by selling a message to the masses that will get them the most money.
But there's more to it than that in this account. Commercialization of religion was not the focus of the Lord Jesus when He stopped the activity in the temple on that day. Think about the situation. During the main feasts in the Jewish calendar, many thousands of pilgrims would come to Jerusalem and to the temple to worship, to offer their sacrifices, to serve the Lord by offering their sacrifices to Him. By Jesus' day, there were Jews living throughout the Roman Empire, and they would come to Jerusalem from places as far away as Persia, Egypt, and Rome itself.
They couldn't transport animals for sacrifice that far - the animals had to be without blemish, and a trip that took many days of walking, a trip that was fraught with danger, would make it nearly impossible to get a proper sacrificial animal from home to the temple. So it was actually essential to the whole temple service that there be animals available for worshippers who couldn't bring their own animals with them. The selling of animals on the site of the temple wasn't a problem in itself - it was a good and necessary thing that allowed Jews from far away to do what the Lord required of them.
And all these people coming from different countries would come with money in their own currencies. That money would have to be changed in order for purchases to be made - that's just a fact of life, and it's something we still have to do when we travel to foreign countries. In order for people who lived outside Israel to offer sacrifices, they would first need someone to provide the animal for sacrifice; but they would also need to pay for that sacrifice, and in order to do that, they would have to have the local currency. So the money-changers weren't a problem either, and having money-changers on the temple grounds in order to facilitate the process wasn't a sin in itself either. The buyers and sellers, the money-changers, they all had an important job to do. They allowed the worship of God to continue, as He had commanded in His law.
As for carrying things through the temple - people would have had to carry things all the time, and there was no sin in that either. The central thing they would have to carry would be the animal they were going to sacrifice. There was no law against carrying things in the temple, and you would have to carry your pigeons in order to bring them for sacrifice. So when Jesus stopped people from carrying things through the temple, He wasn't acting against some kind of commercial enterprise, or some kind of unlawful labour in the centre of the Jewish religion.
The key to understanding Jesus' cleansing of the temple is in His teaching. It's like everything else in Jesus' ministry, and it shows us why the preaching of the gospel is so important. Because Jesus interprets His own actions by explaining them in words, so that we don't have to guess as to what He was actually doing.
He says that the people had turned the temple into a den of robbers. Does that mean that the money-changers and the animal salesmen were ripping people off? No, it doesn't, and the word that Jesus uses, the word translated as "robbers," doesn't mean that at all, in the way we think of "robbers" today. The word "robbers" is the same word used to describe the men who were crucified along with Jesus, the same word used to describe Barabbas, who was set free in place of Jesus. These so-called "robbers" weren't thieves - they weren't men who broke into people's houses to steal things, or people who robbed banks, or held up travellers on the highways.
These "robbers" were brigands; they were revolutionaries. Thieves weren't crucified; people who stole things from others would never receive that form of punishment in the Roman Empire. We need to realize what these men were - they were men who were plotting violence and rebellion in order to rid Israel of the oppressors, of the occupying forces of Rome.
So when Jesus says that the temple had become a den of robbers, that's the accusation He's making - not that the temple had become home to a crew of people who were ripping off the common folk who just wanted to make sacrifices, but that the temple had become the focal point of an exclusivistic nationalism. History shows that these kinds of movements were going on all the time in Palestine, and they centred in Jerusalem, and ultimately they would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD.
So the centre of Israel's religion, the temple, the place that God had chosen as the central focus of His worship, had become a symbol of everything that was wrong with Israel, instead of the symbol of God's dwelling among men. Instead of welcoming the nations into the house of God, which was supposed to be the house where all nations could come and meet with the Creator God of the universe, the Jews were using the temple as yet another symbol of their own importance, at the expense of all the nations around them.
They weren't doing what they had been called to do; the LORD had told Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed; the LORD had told the people through Moses that they had been called to be a kingdom of priests. But Israel had forgotten this calling. And now the Lord Jesus was calling them on the carpet for that failure, a failure to bear fruit in service of the Great King, in service to God himself.
We can see that being made clear in the way Mark recorded this story. Once again, he uses a kind of "sandwich" technique - a story in the middle, with two bookends at the beginning and end, that kind of enfold that main story, and shine a light on the significance of the main story. In the case of this temple cleansing, the bookends are the strange story of the cursing of the fig tree. Before Jesus cleanses the temple, we read about Him coming to a fig tree that wasn't bearing any fruit. He was hungry, and He was looking for figs to eat, but there weren't any on the tree, because it wasn't the season for figs. And so Jesus pronounces a curse on this fruitless fig tree - He says to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again."
But then comes the story of the temple cleansing. The fig tree seems to have been forgotten for the moment. But on the evening after the events in the temple, they left the city again, and the next morning that mysterious fig tree comes back into the picture. Jesus and His disciples see the fig tree, and Peter sees that the tree has withered. Jesus' curse has had its effect; the tree wasn't bearing fruit when the Lord wanted fruit, and now that fig tree would never bear fruit again.
Now if we simply looked at this story of the fig tree apart from the context, we would be left scratching our heads about what it could possibly mean. It seems vindictive of the Lord Jesus to curse the fig tree for not bearing fruit, when it wasn't even the season for figs. Surely He could have looked elsewhere for food without seeming to lash out in anger at an inanimate object, a tree, of all things, and pronouncing a curse on it.
But we need to read that story together with the story of the cleansing of the temple, with the prophetic context in mind. Because we can only understand the story of the fig tree if we understand the story of the temple cleansing, and the story of the fig tree helps us to gain a clearer understanding of what Jesus had done and said in the temple on the previous day.
That fig tree represents Israel. Israel hadn't been doing the job she had been called to do. She hadn't been bearing fruit in service of the LORD, who had planted them in the promised land. And because God's tree wasn't bearing the fruit it should have been bearing, it would be cursed. Never again would she bear fruit. There would be no more chances. God's people had refused to be a light, and now the light was being removed from them.
The temple would be destroyed. Jerusalem would be destroyed. The people who rejected the Messiah would face judgement. The temple, which only had meaning in the light of the Messiah, was becoming a thing of the past. The sacrifices, which Jesus ceremonially stopped on the day He cleansed the temple, would be stopped once and for all when the temple fell, because the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice to which all of those hundreds of thousands of animal sacrifices pointed, had been offered.
The people of God would be reconstituted; the Lord Jesus fulfilled the calling that Israel had been called to fulfil, the calling that Israel had failed to fulfil - He would bring blessing to the nations; He would build a new temple, the Church, which would become the house of prayer for all nations. No more sacrifice would be necessary, no physical temple would be needed, because His Church, His new people, from every tribe and nation, would be His temple.
So the message we need to get from this passage is not a warning against commercialization of religion. No, the message of Jesus' cleansing of the temple is a declaration of who Jesus was, and what He was doing, and what He would do, as He moved toward His sacrificial death, His resurrection, and His ascension. He would provide the ultimate sacrifice. No more buyers, no more sellers, no more money-changers, would be necessary. No more animals would have to die. Because He was the Lamb of God, who had made all of those sacrifices meaningful in the first place.
He would destroy the temple, and He would rebuild it, in a way that would bring blessing to the world. He would judge Israel for her unfaithfulness and for her rejection of Him as the Anointed Saviour, and a large part of that judgement would be the destruction of the temple that Israel had put her trust in, and the city that Israel believed made her so special. His curse of the fig tree symbolized the judgement that would come, and His cleansing of the temple, shutting down the sacrificial system and everything that went on in the temple for a single day, served as a foretaste for Israel of the judgement that would come upon the very same generation.
And as God's people today, as people who seek to follow the path that was opened up and laid out by the Lord Jesus, we also receive this account of the temple cleansing as a warning for us. One of the reasons that we exist as the church of God is for the sake of the world around us, a world that lives in the darkness and futility of ignorance and sin. We, the people of God, gathered from every nation, are the city set on a hill, a light to the nations, the salt of the earth. If we think that our religion is only about us, if we think that we exist as Church solely for our own sake, we are falling into the same horrible trap that the Jews had fallen into. If we trust in our position as God's covenant people, if we take pride in our status and look down on people on the outside, and seek to exclude them, if we don't take our calling to be a salt and a light seriously, we should never think that the judgement that fell on Israel would never fall on us.
The Apostle Paul speaks of an olive tree in Romans 11, using the same kind of imagery that Jesus used when He cursed that fig tree. We have been grafted in to the olive tree, the olive tree of the people of God. Branches were broken off so that we might be grafted in. "That is true," Paul says, but "They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you" (Romans 11:19-21).
We must remember our calling; we are called to reflect Jesus to the world around us. He offered the ultimate sacrifice, and we're called to emulate Him, in sacrificing ourselves, our desires, our wants, for His sake, and for the sake of others. He gave His all for us, and He calls us to give His all for Him, to Him, and to the world. We have this warning to keep us on track, to remind us of our high, beautiful calling. We've been given the greatest gift in the world - the gift of salvation. What greater calling is there than to share that gift with others?
Through Jesus, all the nations of the world will be blessed; He has chosen us to be His instruments in bringing that blessing to the nations. And He equips us to do that; we don't have to fear, because He is with us. We can go forward in confidence, because He paved the way. So let our joy overflow, so that we can do what Israel failed to do, and what the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do - to be God's temple, welcoming all to join us, in a house that God built as a house of prayer, for all nations.