Jesus cleanses the temple

Uniform lesson for April 6, 2014

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Mark 11:15-19

At times the prophets of Israel called attention to their message by means of public symbolic actions. Jeremiah, symbolically enacting the destruction that he prophesied was coming to Israel, shattered a pottery jug at an entrance gate to the city of Jerusalem in the presence of priests and elders (Jeremiah 19). In this lesson, Jesus, acting prophetically, carries out a symbolic action by cleansing the temple in Jerusalem.

All four Gospel writers record this symbolic action of Jesus, but each has a distinctive perspective. Luke mentions it immediately after describing Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as he prophesies the city’s destruction much like Jeremiah had done. Luke’s emphasis is on Jesus’ final days of teaching to a receptive crowd over against the increasingly hostile reaction of some Jewish leaders. Matthew places the cleansing of the temple on the same day as Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the humble Messiah. He too underlines the growing hostility of Jewish leaders. The Gospel of John, which sometimes follows a different chronological order for Jesus’ ministry than the Synoptic Gospels, places the cleansing of the temple very early in Jesus’ earthly ministry. It comes after the wedding at Cana and during Jesus’ first Passover visit to Jerusalem. John describes the cleansing of the temple as an anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection.

Mark 11:15-16 — Jesus enters the temple

The Gospel of Mark, which Matthew and Luke used as one of their sources, places the cleansing of the temple a day after Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Mark’s brief account is bracketed by the story of the cursing of the barren fig tree (11:12-14) and a lesson about faith that Jesus taught in response to the disciples’ amazement that the cursed fig tree had withered and died (11:20-25). Just as it was not yet the season for figs (11:13), Mark seems to be saying that it was not yet time to make Jesus a king.

All four Gospels affirm that Jesus denounced the presence of exploitative commercial enterprises within the temple precinct. It was where that commercial activity was happening rather than simply that it was occurring that provoked Jesus’ strong reaction. Like the writer of the Temple Scroll from Qumran, Jesus considered the temple a sacred space for worship, not for conducting business. That is why he would not allow people to carry anything connected with their business through the temple (11:16).

Mark 11:17-19 — Jesus quotes Scripture to explain his action

By quoting Jeremiah 7:11 and by identifying the money changers and sellers of animals as “robbers,” Mark implies that the business being conducted in the temple was corrupt. Perhaps the merchants were charging prices that were too high, or possibly the money changers set dishonest exchange rates for foreign pilgrims who needed to buy animals to offer as sacrifices as part of their worship at the temple.

Mark also includes a reference to Isaiah 56:7b: “ … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Isaiah’s vision of a universal house of worship had not been realized in Jesus’ day. Although Gentiles were admitted to the outer court area, a Greek inscription (discovered by archaeologists more than a century ago) forbade gentiles access to the inner court area of the temple surrounding the sanctuary on pain of death. It read, “No foreigner is to go beyond the protective enclosure surrounding the sanctuary. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”

Jesus evoked the murderous wrath of Jewish authorities when he reminded them that the prophet Isaiah had said “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” This Isaiah passage specifically challenges narrow understandings of access to the temple by including even foreigners (i.e., gentiles) and eunuchs who honor God. However, Isaiah’s message had been forgotten by the time Jesus entered the temple.

Jesus’ condemnation of business dealings in the temple and his quotation of Isaiah and Jeremiah infuriated the Jewish authorities. Fearful that the prophet from Galilee and his followers constituted a threat to their lucrative temple business, the Jewish leaders sought to get rid of Jesus.


For discussion

  • Would Jesus approve of the buying and selling that frequently takes place in and around our churches on Sunday? Why or why not?
  • How would you respond to a person who said “The church is always after your money”?

James Brashler 

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.