The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached February 21st, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and the Temple (Mark 11:12-25)
Does God care about what you do with your free time? Does God care about what you do in your bedroom? Does God care about what you spend your money on? These are questions that “new atheists” like the late Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins love to throw around to try to make religion sound ridiculous. It seems transparently comical to them that, were a god to exist, he would be at all concerned with what we did in our small, insignificant lives. Far from being a modern idea, this notion has very ancient roots. In the ancient world, very few people believed that the gods and goddesses cared about what they did in their life. So long as sacrifices were being made, Baal didn’t care about who you slept with or how you spent your time. There certainly was no concept of the gods desiring a “relationship” of any sorts with their supplicants. Zeus did not care whether or not you loved him. Fear him? Yes. Make offerings to him? Of course. But, love him in your heart? Ridiculous. The gods of the pagan world were there to be feared and worshipped primarily for utilitarian reasons. Crops needed to grow, your wife needed to have children, and your village needed to be protected from marauding bandits. So, you would make your obligatory offerings and prayers, but that was all. You did your little religious act, then went along your way and lived your life.
The Hebrew religion, however, set itself apart as being very odd indeed. Not only was it bizarre that this God demanded exclusive worship (you could serve no other gods), but this God desired the hearts of His worshippers! This God, Yahweh, wanted to be uppermost in His people’s affections; He desired a relationship. And therefore, He cared deeply about what they did with their lives, their bodies, and their minds. He expected that they would honor Him through everything they did by adhering to His numerous moral laws as a demonstration of their devotion to Him. But, tragically, as the history of Israel played it they quickly became infected by the world’s understanding of religion. They began to assume they could treat Yahweh like Baal or Asherah: offer token acts of worship, while they kept living life however they want. Jeremiah, one of Israel’s prophets, sounds the alarm to the nation of Israel, warning them that the God of Abraham cannot be treated this way, that token acts of worship in His temple do not ensure that one is pleasing God. Yahweh commands Jeremiah:
“Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’… “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 7:2-4, 8-11.
In other words, God is not pleased by external religious acts while our hearts are far from Him. God is not a lonely grandparent who is just happy to have any visitors stop by occasionally. He is the covenant Lord, the jealous God who will not share His glory, who will not let people take His name on their lips while their hearts plan acts that malign and repudiate His character. The nation of Israel has transformed the temple into a den of robbers, a criminal’s hideout where they recline in ease after they commit their shameful acts. Israel’s religiosity gives them an appearance of spiritual life, but they are dead; they are like, Jeremiah explains, a vine that bears no grapes, or like a fig tree with no figs, whose leaves begin to wither away (Jer 8:13). And for this, God will pour out His wrath on the land, and even on the trees (Jer 7:20).
Fast forward six hundred years, and we arrive at our story today.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “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.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” – Mark 11:12-25
At the center of our text we see the famous story of Jesus cleansing the temple. This passage is famous because it appears to be so out of character for Jesus, who describes Himself as “gentle and lowly” (Matt 11:29) and it has been infamously used to justify all sorts of belligerent behavior—from the troll on the internet who thinks their spiritual gift is being as obnoxious as possible who feels justified in their rude behavior because of Jesus flipping over tables, to Adolf Hitler, who used Jesus’ example of the cleansing of the temple as a justification for his expulsion of Jews from Germany. How are we to understand this event rightly?
Jesus’ purging of the temple takes place in the outer-court of the temple, what was then known as the “court of the Gentiles.” It was the place where non-Jewish people could come to get as close to worshipping Yahweh as they could. Separating the court of Gentiles from the rest of the temple was a wall with signs posted everywhere that warned Gentiles of the certain death they would suffer were they to enter further (cf. Acts 21:27-30). The priests of the temple had set-up a market of sorts in this court to help convert people’s money for the required temple tax and to sell ready-to-go, pure sacrifices so travelers would not have to worry about carting their own sacrifices with them all the way to Jerusalem. This is where Jesus begins flipping tables over, driving out those who sold and those who bought, and denouncing the crowds: “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,” Mark 11:17.
The chief priests and scribes, likely at the temple themselves, hear of this and are not pleased. They fear Jesus and are eager to find out how the can destroy him—in fact, they have been settled on needing to kill Jesus since Mark 3. Jesus’ immense popularity with the crowds up to this point has prevented them. But this event has now put a new urgency in their mission to discredit Jesus with the crowds, as we will see in the following confrontations they have with Jesus.
The Fig Tree
The scene opens the day following Palm Sunday. Jesus, after surveying the temple late Sunday evening returned back to Bethany, near Bethpage outside of Jerusalem (Mark 11:1, 11; interestingly “Bethphage” means “house of unripe figs”). Jesus has again set out towards Jerusalem, a short two-mile journey from Bethany. Jesus has grown hungry and sees a fig tree in the distance, but Mark tells us that it was “not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13). However, we do know that during this season fig trees begin to develop edible buds that would turn into figs (known as paggim in Hebrew, cf. Hos 9:10) that are often present when the fig tree is in leaf in early Spring and were commonly eaten by natives. However, “The tree in v. 13, however, turns out to be deceptive, for it is green in foliage but when Jesus inspects it he finds no paggim; it is a tree with the signs of fruit, but with no fruit,” (Edwards, PNTC, Mark). Jesus then pronounces a curse on the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” Mark 11:14.
The following day, Tuesday, Jesus and the disciples are passing by the fig tree from the day prior, only now it is “withered away to its roots” and Peter exclaims, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered,” Mark 11:20-21. Jesus then proceeds to encourage the disciples in their faith and provides a brief teaching on the power and nature of prayer in the Christian life (Mark 11:22-25).
What’s the deal with the fig tree? Well Mark has sandwiched the cursing of the fig tree around the cleansing of the temple intentionally. The form of the events invites us to interpret each in light of each other. In the Old Testament, often prophets would perform visual acts as a prophetic symbol of what God was about to do, especially in regards to judgment (see Isa 20:1-6; Jer 13:1-11; 19:1-13; Ezek 4:1-17). Jesus is performing a similar prophetic act, displaying God’s judgment on the temple and the nation of Israel. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is commonly referred to or compared with a fig tree (Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10, 16–17; Mic. 7:1). The temple is like the fig tree: it has an appearance of life, but when one gets close enough you find out that there is no fruit. And this lack of fruit incurs God’s judgment, a curse that will wither the tree down to its very roots. In other words, Jesus’ actions in the temple are not so much a cleansing as they are a cursing of the temple.
This is profoundly shocking. The temple was the foundation of Jewish religion. It was where heaven and earth met, where God’s presence was located, so the only place where worship and communion with God took place. Even more, it was where priests would offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of the peoples’ sins. And animal would be brought forward and the high priest would lay his hands on the animal, confessing the sins of the nation and symbolically placing them on the animal and then offering that animal up as one to die in the place of the nation. So, you see, without the temple Jewish worship and life just could not work. When Babylon destroyed the temple hundreds of years ago it was like the world ended for the Jews. And in a few chapters Jesus is going to predict that this temple will be destroyed and will describe it like the end of the world (Mark 13). So how could Jesus, God in the flesh, the same God who established this temple system, come along and say that this system is going to be abolished?
In John 2 Jesus is explains the dilemma simply: He is the new temple (John 2:19-22). Jesus isn’t just coming to say that the current administration in the temple is in need of reform, He is coming to say that the entire temple system is being replaced. Now, with Jesus we have a new place where Heaven and earth meet, where God’s presence is found, and where communion and worship with God can be had (John 4:21-24). We have a new high priest, Jesus Himself, who is our intercessor and mediates God’s presence to us, who offers up a new sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins (Heb 4:14-16). But, amazingly, this new temple and new priest is also Himself the sacrifice. Jesus Himself, like the animal sacrifice, has the sins of His people put onto Him and then through His death atones for His people’s sins. The book of Hebrews explains, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself,” Hebrews 9:24-26.
Even more staggering, now because our faith unites us with Christ, we are now made into temples of God, we are now priests (1 Pet 2:5). God’s presence dwells with us. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body,” 1 Cor 6:19-20.
House of Prayer for the Nations
The first Scripture that Jesus cites while purging the temple is Isaiah 56:7, “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” “House” here refers to the temple and the “nations” represent all non-Jewish people. Isaiah 56 is a prophetic vision of the future of Israel where Gentiles (“foreigners”) and eunuchs—normally excluded from the temple—are going to be adopted into the family of God and welcomed to the temple (56:1-8). Isaiah then turns and criticizes Israel’s faithless leaders (56:9-12). Jesus, in clearing out the court of the Gentiles and citing Isaiah 56:7 is sending a clear message: God has intended to include non-Jews in His family and these faithless leaders are preventing that! The irony of what is happening at this moment is palpable: last week we discussed how Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem on a donkey was clear sign of the approach of the Messiah (Zech 9:9). Most contemporaries of Jesus’ day assumed that when the Messiah would come He would set up His throne in the temple and the expel all of the Gentiles from Israel. But Jesus arrives in the temple and He is clearing out room for the Gentiles! Though God has chosen the family of Abraham, He has always intended that it through Abraham’s family all nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Jesus has come to bring about the promise of Abraham (see Gal 3:14).
God’s heart is not for one people group, but the nations. This is why Jesus informs His disciples to make disciples of “all nations” in Matthew 28:18-20. And this is why the Jesus movement does not stay put. When we read the book of Acts we see a people who feel a burden, a sense of urgency to spread this message to every people group on the planet. Listen to the apostle Paul’s sense of burden in his letter to the Romans, “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand,” Rom 15:20-21.
This should affect our church. The book of Revelation tells that in heaven, ““Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Rev 5:9-10. And how are these people from every tribe, language, tongue, and nation going to hear the gospel? We will go. Romans tells us, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” Rom 10:14-15.
So, friends, what are we going to do about this? In light of Romans 10, it seems evident that we have three options: we can go, we can send, or we can disobey. So we must go or we must devote ourselves to sending. Those are our only options. So, what are you doing, church? Are you willing to make your life harder in order to make the gospel easier to be heard by others? Are you willing to go? Are you making sacrifices now in order to support our missionaries? In order to continue to support new missionaries? Are we going to take advantage of evangelistic opportunities here to reach people groups that do not have a prominent Christian presence among them?
Den of Robbers
The second passage that Jesus cites is from Jeremiah 7:11, which we cited at the beginning of the sermon, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.” Jesus is comparing the spiritual deadness and superficial religion of Jeremiah’s day to their current day. I have always read this passage and assumed that Jesus is referring to the temple as a “den of robbers” because of the how the priests are extorting the masses at the money changing tables. And that’s possible; the priests of the day did make a profit off of this venture (Josephus refers to the high priest Ananias as “the great procurer of money” repeatedly in his Antiquities). But two things are worth noting: Jesus doesn’t just chase the money changers themselves out, the text actually tells us that he chases everyone out, “those who sold and those who bought,” (Mark 11:15); second, a “den of robbers” is not the place where thieves come to steal, it is where they retire after they have performed their crimes. It’s the hideout that keeps them safe. In Jeremiah’s day, people were going out and practicing all sorts of wickedness, and then coming to the temple to offer their sacrifices to God, acting like that would protect them. Jesus is saying: this is what you all are doing.
Now, what’s surprising is that when you compare what people were doing in Jeremiah’s day and what was happening in Jesus’ day, things could not look more different. Read Jeremiah once more, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” Jer 7:9-11. In Jeremiah’s day people were literally bowing down to other gods, they were sacrificing their children to them (Jer 7:30-34)! They were flagrantly indulging in sexual immorality, violence, and oppression—their level of immorality was intense. But is that what people in Jesus’ day were doing?
Idolatry can look like indulging in sensuality, or it can look like becoming extremely religious. You can run away from God by either embracing a Las Vegas lifestyle or by hiding within a church. It can look like following the pattern of the prodigal son, or the elder brother (Luke 15). So, we must be cautious in assuming that just because we are escaping the debauchery and flesh pots of the sensual life we are then necessarily pleasing God. The elder brother cared very little about the Father; he simply wanted to get paid what he was owed. The prodigal cared very little about the Father; he just wanted his money to go blow on pleasure. We can be made aware whether we are indulging in idolatry—of either extreme—by examining what it is we are looking for in God. Do we love God for God, or do we love Him for what He can get us?
Jesus is our priest, our temple, our sacrifice. He is the way we can be made right with God, He is the way we can have our sins forgiven, He is the path to true worship.
The renowned British minister Dick Lucas once preached a sermon in which he recounted an imaginary conversation between an early Christian and her neighbor in Rome.
“Ah,” the neighbor says. “I hear you are religious! Great! Religion is a good thing. Where is your temple or holy place?”
“We don’t have a temple,” replies the Christian. “Jesus is our temple.”
“No temple? But where do your priests work and do their rituals?”
“We don’t have priests to mediate the presence of God,” replies the Christian. “Jesus is our priest.”
“No priests? But where do you offer your sacrifices to acquire the favor of your God?”
“We don’t need a sacrifice,” replies the Christian. “Jesus is our sacrifice.”
“What kind of religion is this?” Sputters the pagan neighbor.
And the answer is, it’s no kind of religion at all.