The image of Jesus as a gentle teacher surrounded by children is only partially correct. There is another side to Jesus – a warrior. He was the very definition of counter-culture, often speaking up for the voiceless or defending the Word of God from becoming warped by the religious elite. In Mark 11:15-17, He proclaimed judgement on the biggest religious system of the time: the temple.

What would Jesus have against the temple of God in Jerusalem? We will be using the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary to investigate.

So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”

— Mark 11:15-17 NKJV

REFLECT

THE TEMPLE HAD BECOME A SACRED COW, particularly for those whose livelihood and dominance depended on the sacrificial system. Jesus recognizes that this institution is barren despite the veneer of piety and holiness. In challenging it, he takes on a massive mountain of tradition and entrenched power. Boldly condemning religious or political corruption has its costs. Holders of power usually do not placidly tolerate denunciation but will strike out to crush their nemeses. Many Christians, therefore, remain shamefully silent before wickedness, particularly when it manifests within their own group. Jesus’ prophetic defiance cost him his life. The result is an atoning sacrifice that replaces once and for all the system of animal sacrifices.


Jesus … began driving out those who were buying and selling there (11:15).

Those buying and selling are trafficking in animals for the sacrifices. The priestly aristocracy’s wealth and influence are directly attributable to their control of the fiscal affairs of the temple. Since Jesus throws out both buyers and sellers, something more than dishonest profiteering provokes him.

Archaeological discoveries suggest that the temple market was inside the Royal Stoa and not spread out all over the so-called court of the Gentiles. The Royal Stoa was at the intersection of the paved streets of Jerusalem. The main street that ran the length of the Tyropoeon Valley headed north along the western wall of the temple was directly accessible via the steps leading down from Robinson’s Arch to the markets on the streets below. The main part of the Stoa was a long rectangular Hall of Columns built in the design of a basilica, with 162 columns in four rows stretching the length of the hall. Josephus describes it as “a structure more worthy to be spoken of than any other under the sun”. The Royal Stoa contained a smaller market that “served primarily for commerce in the cultic provisions for the Temple.”

We should not suppose that the changing of money and the selling of sacrificial objects compromised the holiness of the temple. Some kind of market was necessary for the daily operation of the temple. The biblical requirement of offering unblemished sacrifices to God necessitated having a supply of sacrificial animals on hand, a means of inspecting the animals for disqualifying blemishes, and a monetary exchange for pilgrims. This activity does not take place within the sacred space of the sanctuary.

He overturned the tables of the money changers (11:15).

Tables lined the outer courts three weeks before Passover to receive the annual half-shekel tax required of every Jewish male (Ex. 30:11–16). This tax funded the daily sacrifices for the atonement of sin. For a modest commission, money changers exchanged inadmissible local currencies for the sanctioned Tyrian shekel used to pay the tax. Jewish authorities were forbidden to mint silver coins; they adopted the Tyrian shekel because of its high quality and because it did not flaunt Rome’s dominion over Israel. These coins, however, had an image of the god Melkart (Herakles) on the obverse and an eagle with the inscription, “Tyre the holy and inviolable,” on the reverse.

tyrian shekels

The benches of those selling doves (11:15).

Doves were the staple sacrifice of the poor who could not afford animals for sin offerings (Lev. 5:7). They had other uses including for the purification of poor women after child birth (12:6, 8; Luke 2:22–24), for men and women who had a bodily discharge (Lev. 15:14, 29), and for poor ex-lepers (14:21–22). An incident recorded in the Mishnah describes a time when the cost of doves was exorbitant (two golden dinars for a pair of doves). Fearing that the poor would not bring their offerings at these prices, Rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, gave a ruling that only one offering would suffice for the five that were required. The bottom fell out of the price in one day to half a silver dinar (1 percent of the original cost).


REFLECT

JESUS’ ACTIONS ARE INTENTIONALLY SYMBOLIC. Like prophets of old, he makes a dramatic gesture acting out God’s rejection of the temple cult and its coming destruction. He assaults the foundation of the temple’s operation: the contributions and sacrifices. If money cannot exchange into the holy currency, then monetary support for the temple sacrifices and the priesthood must end. If sacrificial animals cannot sell, then sacrifice must end. And if no vessel can go through the temple, then all cultic activity must cease. He makes his point. The chief priests will take up his challenge and ask him by what authority he does these things (11:28).

Jesus also attacks the temple operations that tended to encourage the merchandising of religion. Any church or ministry that tries to take advantage of the presence of God to make a profit, to hawk religious benefits like the peddlers in the bazaar, or to build a financial empire stands under his judgment.


He … would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts (11:16).

This translation is misleading. It is perhaps based on Josephus’s report that no one was allowed to carry vessels into the sanctuary and a passage from the Mishnah that forbids using the temple as a shortcut. The text, however, says that Jesus prevents them from carrying a “vessel through the temple”. “Vessel” is used in the LXX for the sacred temple vessels for the bread of the Presence, lamp oil, and incense censers (see Isa. 52:11: “the vessels of the LORD”).

The people involved are probably stunned by the power of Jesus’ moral indignation. It is a modest clash since it does not spark the intervention of the Roman soldiers, who monitor the crowd from their post above the temple court in the Antonia Fortress. Jesus’ actions in the temple market, therefore, do not seem to be some attempt to reform the temple practice. Overturning and driving out evoke images of judgment rather than reform. Those involved will soon set right their tables and pick up the scattered money. There is little comparison to what Jesus did and the purification of the temple by Josiah (2 Kings 23) or Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc. 4:36–59).

He is not clearing commercial space for prayer. There is no evidence that the outer court was thought of positively as the place where Gentiles could worship. On the contrary, it was thought of as an area beyond which Gentiles could not go. The balustrade surrounding the sanctuary had warning signs cautioning any Gentile against proceeding any further, threatening death to violators (see Acts 21:27–30). There was plenty of room for Gentiles to pray in the outer court, and clearing a place for them to pray does not remove the barrier that kept them from the sacred place.

The Antonia Fortress - a model of the roman fortress showing the temple precincts in the foreground.

Conclusion

Jesus went into the temple with the goal of disrupting the day’s goings-on through a symbolic demonstration. He knew that destruction was coming and asserted His authority to highlight the ways they grieved the heart of God.

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