Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is a memorable but often misunderstood and misapplied scene. As Alistair Begg explains, Jesus discovered exploitation occurring in the temple, which was meant to be a house of prayer. Righteously angry, He then intervened to restore His Father’s house to its true purpose. He had the authority to do so because He is the true High Priest, coming to cleanse not only the temple precincts but ultimately our sinful hearts.
We’re going to read in the Bible this evening in two places: in the New Testament, in Mark chapter 11, which is page 717 in the church Bibles; but prior to that, from Jeremiah chapter 7, which is page 540 in the church Bibles. So first of all, page 5-4-0, if you need the page, and then 7-1-7. Jeremiah 7 and then Mark chapter 11.
Jeremiah 7:1. We’ll just read the first eleven verses:
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
“‘“Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave [to] your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
“‘“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.”’”
And then to Mark and to chapter 11. And I decided that what we’re going to do is—having said this morning that the familiar passages are the hardest, one of the hardest we’re about comes up next, and that is the cursing of the fig tree. And I didn’t have the heart for it this evening, and I hope I have the heart for it by next Sunday morning. But we’re going to leave the cursing of the fig tree and go directly to the cleansing of the temple. So we’ll keep verses 12, 13, and 14 to deal with once we come around again, and to deal with the explanation of that in verse 20 and following.
Anyway, for now, Mark 11:15:
“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area 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.
“When evening came, they went out of the city.”
Well, Father, we pray for your help as we turn to the Bible and then as we gather around your Table, that you will be our teacher, and that as we learn, so we might love you and love one another. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
A couple of years ago when I was back in the United Kingdom, I was listening to the radio as I was driving in the car. It was one of these call-in programs, and a lady called in, and she was dreadfully irate, and the focus of her concern was Birmingham International Airport. Not just the airport itself, but what was going on at the airport. And she went on to explain to the person who was the host of this program that she had been traveling through the international airport, and she had all of her bits and pieces ready to go through the security system, only to discover that when they looked through her materials, she did not have them in the way in which they would like to have them when it came to clear plastic bags. She told the host that she did actually have a clear plastic bag, but it was not the plastic bag they wanted. And they insisted on having the one they wanted—which would be bad enough, except for the fact that were charging one pound for each bag that they insisted on having people use. So she was absolutely infuriated by the fact that these people were involved in “financial skulduggery,” as she put it, and that something ought to be done with Birmingham National Airport.
Well, any kind of injustice like that, I think—and I think that is something of an injustice—brings out anger, and understandably so. And you don’t have to go to Birmingham International Airport to come across this. And it was just this kind of thing that Jesus encountered as he went into the temple precincts, having arrived in Jerusalem, as we saw this morning, gentle and riding on a donkey—having made a decisive and dramatic entry into the city, making sure that everyone saw him, and doing it in such a way that the interest would be stirred, and the thoughtful people would recognize that this was a veiled assertion of his messianic kingship.
What he then goes on to do in the temple is to reveal the fact that not only is he the King, who is riding in on this donkey, but he is, if you like, the High Priest, who has every legitimate right to preside over the affairs of the temple. And some of them who knew their Bibles well may well have thought to themselves, “This is perhaps the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi in chapter 3—at the beginning of chapter 3—where Malachi says, “Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” And so we find that Jesus, having arrived in this display of messiahship, now enters the temple with a further display of his authority.
Clearly, it was to be deduced by those who were able to do so. I say that it is a veiled assertion of his messiahship. If it had been open and straightforward and recognizable to the entire populace, then presumably the Roman authorities would have stepped in and done something about it. Because they were not going to allow anyone to arise that would challenge the authority of their Roman jurisdiction. But in actual fact, he exercises his prerogative in this way, and, in entering the temple, conducts himself in a fashion that often is regarded by people who know only a little bit about the Bible as one of the reasons, they say, as to why they don’t like the idea of Jesus of Nazareth. And if you run up against somebody who is opposed to the personhood of Christ, you may find, if they have any knowledge of the Bible at all, that they will produce what is another little difficult section of the Bible, as it is recorded for us here not only in Mark but also in the other Gospels. It is a memorable scene, it is a misunderstood scene, and it is a misapplied scene. And I want to try and help us to come to terms with it by the use of three words. The first word is exploitation, the second word is restoration, and the third word is authorization. All right?
So first of all, exploitation. And exploitation is what Jesus discovers when he makes his way to the temple. In verse 11, he had gone there the previous evening. He’d looked around. Presumably, he’d had an indication of what was going on, but Mark tells us, since it was already late, he’d gone back to bed, out in Bethany and with his twelve friends.
But now the next day he comes, and on reaching Jerusalem, verse 15 tells us that he entered the temple area. And what he discovers is that the temple has essentially been turned into a market. The temple has become what it was never designed to be. The temple was designed to be “a house of prayer for [the] nations”; that’s what Isaiah 56:7 says. But Jesus says, “That which has been established as a house of prayer for the nations, you apparently have decided to turn into a den of robbers.” And you can see that Jesus himself is making use of the Old Testament Scriptures in his terminology. That’s why we read from Jeremiah and chapter 7.
The place in which this market has been established is presumably the Court of the Gentiles—now the Jews are not going to mess up their own place, but if they have an opportunity to, they might as well mess up the place for the gentiles. Recognizing again the notion of nationalistic fervor and a complete misunderstanding of the concept of the good news of the gospel reaching out beyond the confines of Judaism. And so where there should be dignity, there is dishonesty. Where there should be honor, there is hypocrisy.
And so we discover that fleecing people in the name of religion is not a new phenomenon. We’ve managed to keep it going successfully now for over two thousand years. I just caught a glimpse of it the other day on television. Somebody was explaining the sowing of the seeds again, and a fellow there with a very bad haircut was explaining that if everybody sent him $1000, the things that would come back to them are just absolutely beyond their understanding. And I thought to myself, “Yes, they are actually beyond their understanding, and at least in that you’re being honest.”
So what we discover is that there’s a problem here—the kind of plastic bag problem that is going on, the same kind of thing as was taking place in the airport in Birmingham. Because when you research this… And Edersheim is a great help in this regard, those of you who know his wonderful book on Jesus the Messiah, big fat book—Edersheim, a converted Jew, writes very helpfully. And he helps us to understand that at this time inspectors were appointed to examine the creatures that were being brought to the temple for the offering of sacrifice. There was an inspection fee, and then once the inspection fee had been paid and the inspection had been carried out, fairly routinely the inspector said, “I’m sorry, this dove doesn’t qualify,” or “I’m sorry, this pigeon doesn’t qualify. This pigeon, this dove, has not been purchased at the right place.” “You have the plastic bag, but it’s the wrong plastic bag.” “You have the dove; it’s the wrong dove. However, I have good news for you! We have some lovely little doves over here, especially prepared, and I know that the dove that you bought cost you a quarter. Three hundred yards up the street, we have a lovely dove for you here that’ll cost you a dollar. Okay?” And so the people were trapped; it was a form of protectionism. And that’s what they were doing.
The money changers were at the same game, presumably, because the only acceptable currency in the temple was Tyrian—that is T-y-r-i-a-n, Tyrian—coinage. Because the Tyrian shekel was the closest to the old Hebrew shekel that was available. And so, if you came into the temple with Greek and Roman currency, it didn’t work. So they got you first on the exchange rate. Then once they’ve got you on the exchange rate, then they up the ante on the purchase price of that which you were using for your sacrifice. Nice group! Pretty good deal. No wonder they had it all set up.
Jesus doesn’t like this. The prophet had warned against it—that’s why we read in Jeremiah 7. Very clear, isn’t it? He said, “This is my house. This is the way you conduct yourself in my house. If you conduct yourself in this way in my house, I will then bless and encourage you. If you choose not to, remember, I’m watching you!”
So the exploitation is then responded to by Jesus by restoration. Restoration. And Mark is the most cryptic of the Gospel writers in describing this scene. John is perhaps the most expansive. And I encourage you at your leisure to read them and to fill in the various aspects that are conveyed there.
Jesus is responding to what he has found. And he immediately—upon reaching this situation—he “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 [he] would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” Isn’t that an interesting little observation? This is one of the places where, when you read the Bible, you say, “There’s no way that this was an invention.” If somebody was inventing something, they don’t put in little details like that: “And [he wouldn’t] allow them … carry merchandise through the temple courts.”
Again, I found out that in the ancient world, within the context of Judaism, there were distinct rules concerning this. Let me quote you from one of those rules: “A man may not enter into the Temple Mount with his staff, or his sandals, or his wallet, or with the dust upon his feet; nor may he make of it a short cut, still less may he spit there.” So Jesus is actually enforcing the dignity that attaches to his Father’s house. “Hey! You’re not just gonna walk through here! This isn’t a cut-through.” This isn’t the front entrance to the mall, you know, where you slip through Restoration Hardware, or whatever it is, to get through to the back. “You’re not going to do that here,” says Jesus.
What is happening here? Well, it is the anger of Christ, isn’t it? It is the holy anger of Christ. It is the holy wrath of Jesus burning, if you like, with a purity that is absolutely frightening.
Now, there is no basis for—no reason to—stand back and try and mitigate what we’re told here. There’s no reason for us to stumble over it. Jesus comes upon this scene. He knows exactly why the temple is there. He knows that it is the meeting place of God. He knows that it is to be the joy of the whole earth. He knows the Old Testament Scriptures and what God has mandated. And this is completely opposed to all of that. And so he radically intervenes. And he intervenes in order to restore.
How can we put this in common parlance to help us get some kind of understanding of it? Perhaps if we think in terms of the radical intervention of a cancer surgeon who longs to see her patient restored to health. She goes at the circumstances radically, vociferously. And the objective in taking such dramatic intervention is for the well-being, for the restoration, of her patient. Or, if you like, the way a father burns with righteous anger when he sees the destruction that drugs are causing his child. You wouldn’t expect the father to say, “Whatever.” No, there would be a holy indignation. There would be a righteous wrath. There would be a genuine desire to do everything necessary to drive that out and to see restoration taking place. So Jesus looks on this scene, and it is intolerable to him. It is intolerable to him that the name of God, the glory of God, is being besmirched and is being tarnished in this way.
There is no “pale Galilean” in this, is there? I forget, who is it—Thomas Arnold or one of the poets—who refers to Jesus as that “pale Galilean”? As if somehow or another he might dismiss him as a sort of milquetoast character. No, not at all! This is the same Jesus who has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, the same Jesus who now takes these awe-inspiring measures. We dare not equate meekness with weakness.
John actually tells us that “he made a whip out of cords, and [he] drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle.” It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because people usually say, “Oh, and I don’t like that thing about Jesus. He made a big whip, and he was whipping people in the temple.” Oh really? Where did you read that? “Well, I read it in the Bible.” Well, you didn’t read the Bible properly. If you look carefully, what it says is, “He made a whip out of cords, and [he] drove all from the temple area.” All of whom? All of what? All of the cattle—“both sheep and cattle.”
We don’t imagine Jesus, do we, for a moment, with hands that have been calloused at the workbench in his growing years—somebody who is a man amongst men, who is able to take on the rage of the Pharisees, who commands the winds and the waves and brings them into submission—do we really think that it does him a service to imagine him going into the temple, going, “Oh, come on, sheep. Come on now. Come on, let’s… Oh, what am I going to do with these bulls? Oh, this is dreadful! I don’t know. I should never have come in here. This is…”?
No, for what a silly idea! No! Have you been on a farm? Do you know what it takes to move these creatures? Do you know what sheep are like? Of course you do! They smell, for one thing, as bad as anybody. And these large creatures do not respond the way you think your dog responds to you, those of you who are “dog whisperers,” that I hear talking to your dogs: “Oh, come on now, Reginald. Let’s be going along. This is no way to be conducting yourself in Aurora. Come along now. Let’s be…” Give me a break! I can show you how to get the dog in your car. You may not like it!
So Jesus steps in. “This is not right,” he says. Let’s have you outta here. Let’s first of all have these creatures out of here, and you fellows, you might as well get this stuff cleaned up right now. Let me help you. Let me get you started. It’s all going to have to go, so let me just start it on its way.” Isn’t that what he’s doing? Why? Because of his ego? No. Because the zeal for the house of God consumes him. “There, you shouldn’t be in here!”
It would be like a man finding another man in his marital bed with his wife: “What?!” (“Well, let’s have a little conversation about this, shall we? Why don’t we have a coffee and just think?”) “GET OUT! GET OUT!” That’s what’s happening. That’s the zeal. It’s the zeal of a husband for the marital, moral protection of his wife. It’s the zeal of a father for the protection of his daughters. This is no time for a conversation. This is not a time for deliberation. This is a time for restoration: “Will you kindly take your stuff and leave?” This is Christ! Zeal for the house of God consumes him.
If you would like a holiday book to read, read How the Scots Invented the Modern World. It’s a historical book; it’s not a funny book. It’s not like how the Irish invented everything—which they didn’t. It is written by a professor from Johns Hopkins University. It’s been in paperback for a long time. It only comes to mind as I say this because the book opens in a staggering way with the story of a university student being hanged in Scotland in the seventeenth century for open blasphemy: for walking in the streets of Edinburgh and decrying Almighty God and using his name in vain. He was hanged. Why? Zeal for the name of God consumed the culture. Zeal for the house of God consumed the Son of God.
So the exploitation results in restoration. And I’ll finish up with this, but interestingly, the Pharisees don’t actually challenge his actions. If they had any real sense of dignity, if they had any authority of their own worth talking about, then they would have taken care of this; they would have cleaned up the sanctuary a long time ago. But no, actually, they don’t challenge his actions; they challenge his authority. And it is his authority that they’re concerned about, and that’s why they look for a way to kill him. Actually, in the Johannine version, they say, “Who is this fellow and by what authority does he do this? Do you have a sign that you can give us that suggests to us that there is some authorization that is legitimate in you coming in here and doing all this stuff?” And it is in that context that Jesus says, “I’ll give you a sign! Destroy this temple, and in three days, I’ll raise it again.” They don’t know what to do with that at all.
No, the recurring pattern all the way through the Gospel is, “By whose authority does he do this?” Whether it’s the disciples saying, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind[s] and the [waves] obey him?” Or, remember, in the healing of the paralytic, when he says, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Pick up your bed and walk’?” He says—having said, “Son, your sins are forgiven”—“In order that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I now say, pick up your bed and walk.”
What Jesus has done in his arrival—dramatic, decisive as it is, dangerous—is to reveal himself by his words as the Prophet who was to come, speaking from God to deal with our ignorance. He has revealed himself as the King who comes riding in, to Jerusalem, to subdue all of our rebellion. And he has revealed himself as the Priest who comes not only to cleanse the temple precincts but to cleanse our hearts and to deal with our alienation.
“What sign can you give us?” What better sign than the sign that is laid out on our Communion table? “This is my body that was broken for you. This is my blood that was shed for you. The reason that I have come into town is in order that I might die. The reason that I have come to restore this temple to the purposes of my Father is because, in this temple not so long from now, this massive curtain, which closes the Holy of Holies off from all but the most orthodox of the religious leaders—this great curtain will be torn in two. And frankly, I don’t want all this junk in here when it happens.”
What did he discover? Exploitation. What did he do? Restoration. And consider what he provided: his authorization.
Well, let’s just pause and pray:
O God our Father, once again we are confronted by the Jesus who is radical—a revolutionary Christ, not one that has been invented by the early church. But these Gospel writers have written these things down—that which is apparently good, bad, and ugly; the things that are immediately accessible to us, the things that are difficult for us to deal with. And when we think about this just a little, when we put it in the terms of zeal and protection and the issues of your glory, we understand why it was that Henry Martyn, when, in Persia, he saw that painting that someone had done of Jesus bowing before Muhammad, and he said, “I could not bear to look on it. It would be hell to me to see Jesus always thus dishonored.” So help us, then, to have a view of Christ that is a biblical view, to be alert to the dangers of compromising the clarity and purpose of what it means to be your people and in your place.
And save us, Lord, from thinking that we can just say, “This is the temple, this is the temple, this is the temple,” as if somehow or another it is a sanctuary. But it isn’t a sanctuary for us as we live in disobedience.
So then help us, Lord, to look afresh at you, in all of your brokenness, in all of your willingness to take our place. Help us to understand that you were stricken, that you were smitten, that you were afflicted, that you bore our punishment, in order that we might be the beneficiaries of your amazing grace and goodness. So fill our hearts afresh, as we come around this table of remembrance, we pray. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Malachi 3:1 (NIV 1984).
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898), 1:367–74.
 Mishnah, Berakhot 9:5. Paraphrased.
 Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Hymn to Proserpine” (1866).
 John 2:15 (NIV 1984).
 See John 2:17.
 Arthur Herman, “Prologue,” in How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It (New York: Three Rivers, 2001), 2–9.
 See John 2:18–19.
 Mark 4:41 (KJV).
 Mark 2:9 (paraphrased).
 Mark 2:5 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 2:10–11 (paraphrased).
 Luke 22:19–20 (paraphrased).
 Henry Martyn, Memoir of the Rev. Henry Martyn (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1851), 362. Paraphrased.
 See Isaiah 53:4–5.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.