Right at the heart of Jerusalem stood the Temple, an enormous structure elevated on a mountain. It had taken 46 years to build, and its foundations covered nearly 1.5 million square feet. The temple was covered in gold, and the top was made of gleaming white marble, so when the sun fell upon it, people could marvel at its beauty for miles around.
Aesthetics aside, this was the place where it was believed that God dwelt; where forgiveness could be sought and received; and where God and Man could meet. It was the centre of the religious and cultural systems, so no wonder people got upset when Jesus dared to challenge it:
‘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 have 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. (Mark 11:15-18)
This passage shows a passionate and forceful side to Jesus, which people sometimes find quite unexpected. He turns over tables and makes bold declarations about Israel’s most prized symbol – the Temple.
His words are not new. The prophets spoke about a time when people from all nations would come and worship at the temple (Isaiah 2:2-5; 56:6-8) but they also warned of the dangers of the Temple being corrupted, and misused (Jeremiah 7:3-15; Ezekiel 8). Jesus quotes two such verses in his verdict: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ (Isaiah 56:7) ‘but you have turned it into a den of robbers’ (Jeremiah 7:11).
If we’re to understand why Jesus was so upset, we need to know something about the mechanics of what went on in the Temple. This was the place people came to offer sacrifices and receive forgiveness. But in order to purchase animals suitable for sacrifice, a worshipper had first to pay the annual temple tax. In order to do this, they needed to exchange their own coins into the currency used in the Temple. So here was a whole courtyard full of money-changers, tax collectors and animal sellers, ready to assist people in the process of coming to worship.
So what was Jesus’ problem? Well, it’s possible that the money-changers were taking an unfair cut, or that the traders were hiking up the prices. But I think the reason for Jesus’ anger is deeper than that.
The Greek word translated ‘robbers’ literally means ‘one who robs with violence’ but was often used to refer, not to petty criminals, but to zealots; people who had a strong sense of national identity, and who would fight to defend it. The word was used to describe Barabbas and the men crucified alongside Jesus (Luke 23:18-19; Mark 15:27).
The temple was an enormous space but there was only one court in which non-Jewish people could come; the Court of the Gentiles. It was here that Jesus encountered the traders, having set out their stalls in the one place designated for foreigners. It’s not like they needed the space – there were already four markets on the Mount of Olives where they sold sacrificial items. So it seems that the decision to put their stalls in this court was nothing short of a blatant denial of the Gentile right to worship in the Temple.
So Jesus’ annoyance was not simply that these zealot-salesmen were selling stuff, and possibly ripping people off. Nor was it the case that they were trading doves by day and plotting to overthrow the government by night. Jesus’ issue was that their nationalistic ideology had become so strong that they were in effect guarding God like zealots, and were actively making it impossible for the nations to come and worship Him. And thus they had entirely undermined the purposes of God.
Jesus turns over the tables; not simply as an act of frustration but as a prophetic statement that the Temple had become obsolete. If people couldn’t pay their taxes, they couldn’t purchase animals. Without animals they couldn’t offer sacrifice. Without sacrifice, they couldn’t receive forgiveness. And thus the Temple had lost its whole raison d’être! Jesus was angry because the Temple had ceased to do the very thing it was designed to do – be a place where people of all nations could come and meet with God!
But Jesus was no pessimist. He wasn’t saying that God had given up on the nations, or that forgiveness was no longer available, rather that the Temple was no longer the place to find it. God was doing something new. In John’s account Jesus declares ‘destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days’ which really confused the hearers. But after the resurrection, they realised that he hadn’t meant this Temple – the physical building. Jesus had meant his own body (John 2:19-22).
Jesus was saying that this Temple was to be done away with (a prophecy that was literally fulfilled in AD 70 when it was destroyed by the Romans). Jesus is the new Temple; the place where God and Man meet; the place where forgiveness can be found. No longer do we have to travel to meet God in a particular location – He came to meet with us. No longer do we pay taxes and offer sacrifices for forgiveness – He paid the cost and He was our sacrifice. No longer is meeting with God restricted to a single nation – all people are welcome into relationship Him.
Questions for Reflection
- Jesus declared that he was the new Temple. What implications does this have for the way we think about worship, forgiveness and prayer?
- Jesus was passionate that nothing stood in the way of all people coming to worship God. Are there things that we do which make it difficult or impossible for particular groups of people to come to faith in God? What might we need to ‘turn over’ in order to remove that barrier?
Why not use the following to help you to pray today:
Thank you God that your plans and purposes are not restricted to a single nation, at a single point in history, but that it is your desire for all people to come to know you. Thank you Jesus that you are the new Temple, the place where God and Man can meet. And thank you that through your sacrifice, we who were not part of the people of God can receive forgiveness and be drawn into relationship with the Father. Help us to identify the ways in which we make it difficult for others to encounter you, and show us how we can best extend your love to those around us. Amen.
If you find yourself with some extra time today why not read Ephesians 2:11-22 and reflect on the difference Jesus’ death and resurrection has made in allowing those of us who are Gentiles to become a part of the people of God.
Image: Detail, Temple Wall, by Alan, used under CC