Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)

In the so-called temple-cleansing, we have, apparently,  prophetic demonstration or, one could say, provocation, in which it was not a matter of driving out all those who sold and the money changers – for such an action would not be possible without a large continent of troops and a corresponding general riot, and would inevitably have led to intervention on the part of the temple guard and the Romans.  We are dealing, rather, with a demonstrative condemnation of their trade, a condemnation which was directed at the same time against the ruling temple aristocracy, which derived profit from it…. Such an episode did not call forth further intervention on the part of the occupation forces, but it did make the hierarchy the deadly foes of Jesus.  Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist?, 17-18.

In Mark, this event is framed by the curse of the Fig Tree and provides the clues we need to fully interpret that parabolic action.  In fact, this action is also symbolic.  Jesus arrives at the Temple as the messiah, inspects the Temple and finds it corrupt.  Therefore begins that judgment by causing a disruption in the area used for selling sacrificial animals.

Note that the temple area is huge, 450 meters by 300.  Craig Evans (WBC) thinks that it is unlikely that Jesus completely disrupted all commerce in the area, most people were not even away Jesus was making a demonstration in one area of the Temple.  The action is symbolic.  By overturning tables and causing the chaos that he does, he challenges the religious authorities to be obedient to scripture by making the temple a house of prayer and not a den of thieves.

Is this an attack on a corrupt priesthood?  Were the priests corrupt?  The Qumran Community thought so, referring to the high priest as the Wicked Priest (1QpHab 1:13, 8:9. 9:9, 11:4).  The high priest has gotten wealthy off the temple and defiled the sanctuary of God (1QpHab 12:8-9).  Testament of Moses 7:6-10 is another condemnation of the first century priesthood.  TestMoses was probably written about AD 30, the Habakkuk scroll dates more than 100 years prior to that.  Josephus accuses the priests of bribery (Antiq. 20.9.4) and violence (Antiq. 20.8.8)

Jesus is functioning here as a classic prophet from the Hebrew Bible.  Criticism of the temple has a grand tradition in the prophets, especially in Jeremiah (7:14, 34; 12:7; 22:5; 22:5; 26:9).  There seems to be a real parallel between Jeremiah 7:11 and Mark 11:17.  As with Jeremiah, this confrontation with the temple authority can lead only to physical danger and arrest, but at this point the authorities cannot take Jesus for fear of the crowd.

Jesus’ criticism of the temple does not end here, the conflict with the Pharisees is entirely concerned with problems of the temple:

  • The Parable of the Tenants has the priestly aristocracy losing their place of privilege
  • The challenge to Jesus on paying taxes is radical – give to god what is God’s, not necessarily via the temple tax!
  • Even the Widow’s mite is a condemnation of the giving of the wealthy.

Jesus is challenging the worshipers in the Temple to become True Israel, but is he proposing separation from the Temple?  Perhaps, he will make it clear that the time of the Temple is nearly over in Mark 14 / Matt 24-25.

23 thoughts on “Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)

  1. Not only does Jesus foreshadow the ending of the temple’s significance, but he affirms it in His speaking to the Woman at the Well (“…spirit and in truth”). It seems that the temple’s use is abolished upon Jesus’ death, as the veil is torn.

    It’s interesting to me to think about the scale of the temple in comparison to Jesus’ actions. We so often imagine this as a grand event, stirring everyone in the temple. This could be the case, but it was more through word of mouth. Example, “Did you hear what that Jesus guy did?”,etc. But this symbolic actions was not directed towards the common person, but rather, as P. Long said, the authorities.

    Jesus’ ministry was without a doubt counter-cultural, and this is no exception. But rather than yell at the offenders, He exercises His right as Prophet, priest and King to defend His temple. That’s amazing. Not only was the way the temple was being used offensive and incorrect, it was blasphemy to its King. Jesus, as that King proved his authority over the so-called “authorities of the law”, just as He Himself would be proven to be superior to the law.

    • Like Joe I find the temple’s sheer size interesting in relation to Jesus’ actions. I am sure this event was the talk of town especially since people of this day trusted/respected the authorities of their day (Pharisee, Sadducees, etc.). Jesus was ever in the process of shaking up people’s beliefs about how things should be done and what is right and wrong. This instance is no different. Jesus made a fool of the authorities how allowed the temple to be used in this way by overturning tables. This overturning foreshadows the overturning of the temples importance (as Joe said the veil being torn). “Jesus was purifying the building and restoring its original purpose as a house of prayer” (Blomberg 368). In this act Jesus was fulfilling the law (Matthew 5:17) and so that a new covenant could be brought about. No longer would God’s salvation be accessible only to the Jews His Chosen People.

      • I like your quote that you used from Blomberg, Anna. Jesus is restoring the temple to a house of prayer. My question is could we associate this demostration, (that Jesus is purifying the Temple by getting rid of business or selling of temple sacrafices) as relateable to today? Most churches today have some form of bookstore, or cafe, would God be upset about this also, and should the church not function in this way? Because, I find it interesting that Jesus is getting rid of the legalistic side of things, (in a sense) and putting the focus on what is necessary. We often purchase books about the bible, and get focused on reading these thoughts from other people, and we can neglect the very bible itself. So could this demonstration be symbolic to today standards, to reorient yourselves back to the scripture, and prayer?

  2. I never really considered how big the temple was in this section of Jesus’ ministry. I always just pictured a small little area with a few tables that Jesus over turned and then the crowd going wild kind of thing. I am not exactly sure if this is pointing directly at the priesthood saying that they are the corrupt ones. It seems to me that the nation is just lost and that they are the ones who are doing these things that are evil. I think that in this situation and many others when Jesus is challenge the priesthood, he is just trying to call them out on the fact that they are so wrapped up in the law that they do not consider what God is trying to do through Jesus.

  3. I believe that Jesus was trying to show how there will be separation from the temple and how it will no longer be needed. Like Joe said, Jesus was foreshadowing the end of the significance of the Temple. The Temple is going to fall in 40 years anyway but the use in the temple will be gone way before that. Blomberg says, “… the sacrificial system will be outmoded and superseded as soon as Christ dies and is raised again” (369). Jesus is pointing out that the only way now is through His forgiveness of our sins. The temple has no real significance anymore. Blomberg also points out how that explains why Jesus says, “Your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38). Jesus is now the only way to the father. The Veil has been torn and the Holy Spirit is now living inside each one us.

  4. These accusations and criticisms of the priests gaining wealth off of the temple sacrificial system reminds me of the critiques to the Catholic church in regards to indulgences. The church was getting rich off of the people being convinced they needed to buy indulgences.
    Maybe Jesus is preparing them by pointing out the flaws of the temple, for Christ becoming the new temple raised from the dead in three days and the new means by which people would come to God and look for forgiveness for sins? No longer would this corrupt system of sacrifice in the temple be necessary because he would be the perfect means where the temple had been imperfect?

    • “reminds me of the critiques to the Catholic church in regards to indulgences.” This is interesting, Britalia, since one of the criticisms of contemporary Christian readings of Jesus is that we see the struggle in terms of Luther against the church. We think the priest / pharisees are liek the RCC, and Jesus (or later Paul) is a proto-Luther.

      But is it possible that Jesus is seeking to reform from within? The priesthood may not be totally corrupt — there is at least a hope that Temple can be saved.

  5. For some reason I always pictured the event of Jesus clearing the temple in Mark 11 as occurring in a small temple. In going to the Israel Exhibit in Orlando, Florida I finally got a small glimpse of the size of the temple in Jerusalem. This is an important aspect to consider in the magnitude of what Jesus was saying and doing in clearing the temple.
    It is important to realize that there were a lot of people in the temple, but there probably was a whole bunch of people following Jesus around at this point as well which probably would have made an interesting audience.
    Why does it seem like history is repeating itself as Britalia pointed out the time in the middle- ages where the Catholic priests were getting themselves rich off indulgences given by the faithful, which seems to be happening at the temple in Jerusalem at that time. The other thing that seems to be repeating itself is the legalism of the Pharisees happening again to some degree in some churches today.

  6. I do have to admit, I do not think of the temple as something that was really big. I did imagine the temple and the turning of the tables to be complete and not in such a big area. However, the temple not only was big, but it had its own temple guards that would have stopped such a commotion if it was done through the whole areas. But that does have me asking, how much did Jesus turn the tables over and drive people out? Was it just a few people and did they get chased out all the way or were they just stunned that he was yelling at them?

    Whatever the answer to that question, the message was clearly sent. Jesus was challenging the Jews to become right with God and be the Holy people that they were meant to be. I do not think that Jesus is saying that he is calling for a separation from the temple because he had not died yet. He was saying that there was going to be a time soon that they would not need to meet and worship and sacrifice in an outdated system. The time of worshiping “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23) is right around the corner.

  7. When I think of the events surrounding the Temple and Jesus’ pronouncement against it, I see a twofold thing happening here. The Temple was the physical place were God was to come and meet His people and for His people to come and worship and experience Him. When Jesus declares that the Temple is left to you desolate (Matt. 23:28), it appears as though Jesus is declaring that God, the spirit of God or whatever was manifesting God’s presence in the Temple has left. If this is true, then where did He/It go? Jesus then goes on to compare His death and resurrection with that of the Temple declaring that He will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, foreshadowing his own death and resurrection. Does this mean that the new Temple is Jesus? If this is the case, at Jesus’ ascension, did the Temple leave us? I don’t believe this is the case because Christ promises the Holy Spirit to his followers and at Pentecost, they receive the Spirit. Paul even calls our bodies a living Temple of God.

    What does this mean? I believe that Jesus is not necessarily saying that the Temple is obsolete or that there will be a separation from the Temple. Simply that the Temple is no longer a physical building and has moved to that of the collective body of believers as the Holy Spirit indwells each and every one of us and is magnified as we meet together in unity as the body of Christ!

    • I think that you are right, that in the church their is a priesthood of believers. But is this what Jesus was getting at? The point of turning the tables must be grounded in his ministry, not the (later) church, unless you want to say that this story is a later creation of the church.

    • Good point, Jason. Jesus is replacing the function of the temple with his own death and resurrection. And I agree that it appears as though he has in mind a post-cross “priesthood of the believer” sort of thing, would anyone living at that time have understood that is what he meant? Even his own followers continued to worship in the Temple for at least 30 years after the resurrection! (James sends Paul into the Temple to sponsor a vow, Acts 21). I think you are right from a theological perspective, but is that the point of Jesus’ teaching?

  8. I believe that the priests may not be immediately trying to be corrupt but they are doing it in a round about way. If they are getting wealthy off the temple then they are not doing their jobs as priests. Another example of priests being corrupt in the Bible is when the priests would so sacrifices and take the good meat and not the meat full of fat that was burned and eat that. Instead of letting the best go to the Lord

  9. I agree with Joey. I had no idea how big the temple was. God had to have been real mad if he overturned everything in that huge temple. I believe that the priests were being corrupt because Jesus said that the building was corrupt. “Jesus was puryifying the building and restoring its original purpose as a house of prayer. Jesus’ action in the temple had traditionally been called a “cleansing”. (Blomberg, 368).

  10. I think that the denouncement of the temples prominence alludes to the detachment of worldly things. The Temple, in context; is a massively effective example of this. For the Temple to be considered insignificant at best in the kingdom of God is huge, especially in the minds of the people in the Second Temple period. This also brings the focus back to Christ, why he is here, and who he is. Christ, being the son of God and God himself is the “new temple” you could say. It is through him and only him even that is significant in the Kingdom of God. Also we must remember the fact that Human Religious leadership is subject to Gods authority; including the pharisees. Thus, in a somewhat parabolic manner; Christ has put the Pharisaic order in its place with divine authority. In summary, Christ’s uproar and denouncement of the Temple is a Parabolic way to show that he is the final authority and that he is indeed the Son of God and God himself. Things of this world; whether they be material or governmental in this case are all subject to God’s authority and Christ has shown this very well here in mark.

  11. I guess I never really thought about the size of the temple in this scene of Jesus overturning the tables and driving people out. I just always assumed that this act was something that everyone in the temple would’ve witnessed, but it makes sense that this isn’t the case with the support of no riot breaking out. I don’t believe that this act of Jesus turning the tables and driving people out is His way of proposing separation from the temple. Looking directly at the text, I believe it is all about the actions of those involved in the corruption within the temple. I don’t believe it is just the authorities that Jesus is challenging here. In Mark, it says, “Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there”, (Mark 11:15). This isn’t just referring to the authorities, but to those who were buying in the temple also. However, when Jesus talks about the temple being a den of robbers, he is talking about the money changers. It doesn’t seem as if Jesus is proposing separation from the temple, but rather just complete disgust for what the temple has become. It’s like those moments in life where you are doing something wrong and you have a friend call you out on it. You realize your fault and feel guilty for it, and notice you need to make a change.

    I love the picture found in Mark of what Jesus does. Mark 11:16 says, “and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” I picture Jesus here as a middle linebacker, defending his quarterback (temple). Cheesy metaphor? I like it.

    • Yes, cheesy. Or you were reading the blog while watching football .

  12. The size of the temple never really crossed my mind. I just imagine an inner area of the temple with chickens and money flying up in the air. The business going on in the temple is definitely not something pleasing to God. Like Mat said this is an example of the authority of Jesus. I don’t think that Jesus is trying to get ride of the Temple. He is just giving the people a better way to look at the temple (cleansing). Jesus came to restore what was broken and make it new. This demonstration of anger by Jesus is directed towards the corruption and distortion of the temple. Jesus was not pleased by what was going on in the Temple (both). This act was an attempt to change perspectives on what the Temple really is.

  13. One thing I can’t help but think when reading this post is, if the Pharisees and religious leaders, being well respected in this community, were involved with all this, what kind of shock was this to witnesses of Jesus attack. Was the shock simply because of opposition to these trusted interpreters of the law? Or the implication that soliciting was not to be part of temple activities?

    Yes, the temple was defiled with solicitation, but could Jesus ever desire separation from the temple’s original purpose – a house of prayer? Seems unlikely. I feel that this is pointing more to a condition of the heart than rejection of an institution. The religious authorities were guilty of more than just straying from the scriptures. They manipulated its purpose toward massive gain! The focus was not directed toward God anymore, and when hearts take this posture, Jesus judges it unfit for kingdom living and no longer necessary.

    • This is a good point, except that the Pharisees were not in charge of the Temple. Sadducees and aristocratic priests were in charge of the Temple, and were also the wealthy elite who were more or less running Jerusalem. Jesus’ action might have been very attractive to the “People of the Land” who were there to worship. The political side of the event should not be underestimated, since he is attacking the leadership of the Temple directly.

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