The temple was the basis of first century Jewish worship and life. Mark has not mentioned the temple up to this point in his narrative. However, in Mark 11, the Gospel writer mentions the temple in Jerusalem four times. Mark’s narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple contains numerous allusions to the Old Testament.
On Jesus’ first day of the last week of His life, Jesus entered the temple. However, Mark uses a literary technique called a “sandwich” to convey his message. The important matter in a sandwich is the meat rather than the bread. Mark’s narrative of Jesus entering the temple is bracketed by an emphasis on a fig tree (vv. 12–14, 20–21). The fig tree was cursed and withered.
Jesus entered the temple complex and in essence shut down the temple. He threw out those buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers who exchanged coins with images on them for coins without images, which would be more suitable for purchasing temple sacrifices. Verse 16 seems to indicate that Jesus shut down activity within the temple because people could not carry any objects through the temple area.
Prayer, not commerce, was the purpose of the temple. Jesus rebuked the temple leaders for turning the place of worship into a den of thieves instead a house of prayer for all nations (or ethnic groups, according to the Greek New Testament). A den is where robbers go to hide after committing their crimes. The practice of selling animals for sacrifice in the temple was a new innovation instituted in the last year of Jesus’ life.
The priestly leaders and lay leaders (scribes) sought a way to kill Jesus. Later in the Gospel of Mark, Judas provides a way for the leaders to arrest Jesus in order for Him to be killed. Notice the two responses that result from Jesus’ action and teachings in the temple. The religious leaders — both ordained priests and scribes — joined together to seek a way to kill Jesus. The motivation for the desire to kill Jesus was fear of Jesus’ popularity. Jesus’ teachings astounded the multitudes. Every evening, Jesus and the disciples went outside the city — perhaps for safety reasons. They likely stayed in Bethany. In Bethany, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11–12). During the last week of Jesus’ life, a woman in Bethany anoints Jesus’ head in preparation for His burial. Bethany will also be the place of Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24:50–53.
Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is an enacted parable. The fig tree was a symbol of Israel in the Old Testament (Jer. 24:5, Hos. 9:10). In verses 13–14, Jesus had cursed a fig tree that produced no fruit. According to verses 20–21, the next morning the fig tree had withered from the roots up. In response to the disciples’ amazement at the quickness of the withering of the fig tree, Jesus teaches about effectual prayer.
Through prayer, followers of Jesus can move mountains. The language of removing mountains does not refer to literal mountains. Jesus affirms two keys to answered prayer: faith and reconciliation with others.
By Mark Rathel
Professor at the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Florida