Story 161: Passion Week: The Scourging at the Temple

Matthew 21:12-13 ; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48

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Jesus had entered the Jerusalem for the Passover Feast with an invasion of praise and worship. The people danced alongside Him as He rode a colt into the City of David, fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah for all to see. The long-awaited King had come. Healings poured out as Jesus came to the Temple.  The lame began to walk and the blind were made to see. The Messiah had come to undo the horrific power of the Curse against humanity, and these miracles were just a small glimpse, the first taste, of that amazing work.

Imagine the buzz in Jerusalem that night as they retold the stories of all that had happened that day. Imagine how the people waved the palms at His coming. Picture Christ making His way to God’s Temple and the magnificent miracles and wonders dancing all around Him in the wake of His healing power…imagine the odd disconnect of the angry officials in that glorious moment, the singing children, and the sense that something was about to change forever.

The next morning, Jesus and His disciples returned to the city. On the way, the Lord grew hungry. In the distance along the road there was a fig tree. Its leaves were sprouting, but as Jesus drew near it, there was no fruit. So He said, “‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’” His disciples heard Him, but they didn’t understand. What could He mean?

Well, in the Old Testament, the fig was often a symbol of the nation of Israel. For example, Jeremiah wrote:

“‘I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.’”

Jeremiah 8:13

Jesus was not angry at the tree. Passover was not the time of year that figs grew. He was teaching a deep spiritual truth. The Jewish people were like a tree that bears no fruit. They organized their lives around the ritual worship of Passover and festivals and the Sabbath, but their hearts were far from God Himself. There is no true worship or true fruit without wholehearted devotion to God. And because they withheld themselves from God, it was going to be just as Jeremiah said. Their harvest was going to be taken away from them.

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, it was a symbol of the curse that was about to come upon the nation of Israel. The Lord Jesus had searched for true worship in Israel. He had called out to them to repent and offer themselves back to their Lord. He had given them signs and miracles and truth, pouring His days out in longing pursuit after the hearts of God’s children. But His great love went unrequited. He was rejected. They did not repent.  The nation that had been given the breathtaking privilege of glorifying the Messiah…the Son of the Living God…the Creator of the universe…when He came to live among them, had failed.  And so in forsaking their call, they would shrivel to nothing.

But in spite of the cataclysmic failure of Israel, the plans of God were not defeated. Christ was about to go on to do the work that He had come to earth for, and that fruit would last far longer than the walls of earthly Jerusalem.

On the morning of the second day of the week of His Passion, the Lord and His disciples trekked up into the city and made their way to the Temple. In the outer courts where the Gentiles were allowed to come, the buyers and sellers were busy. They were selling animals for the people to offer at the Temple, but they clogged the walkways and crowded the space that God had set aside for Gentiles to come and worship the living God.

The Gentiles were not allowed into the inner courts of the Temple. That was a privilege God had ordained for His specially chosen people many centuries before.  But the Lord had set aside this courtyard so that non-Jews would have a place to seek the Living God. Now that sacred space was filled with the noise and chaos of those who were bent on greed. It was no place for true worship.

Just a few years before, as Jesus started His ministry, He had come to these same courts filled with holy rage. He took a rope and made a whip, thrashing it around to drive the moneychangers out with their sheep and cattle. He turned over their tables and scattered their coins on the floor. They had overtaken His Father’s house with their corruption and filth, forcing prices up and seeking their own gain from the sacrifices that were meant to purify the people of God. The Son of God would not have it.

Imagine the shock of the people as they saw His righteous courage boldly fly in the face of accepted practice. Year after year they had come to the Temple.  The Jews who were pure in their hearts towards God must have been revolted by this contamination of the place that was meant to be God’s holy throne on earth.  Yet their priests accepted it. In fact, they seemed to embrace it. For the common Jew, the honor of the religious leader’s positions of authority was enough to help them accept the diminished use of God’s palace. Who were they to argue against the chosen leaders of the Lord? But Jesus had no scruples with confronting the lie.

Imagine the anger of the religious leaders when Jesus held out the bright, redeeming truth. For you see, they received their own cut from the sales at the Temple. If they honored the rebuke of the fiery young preacher, it would diminish their own wealth, and their loyalty to that god allowed for no compromise. The Temple of the Most High God was one thing, but their own comfort and status was another.

As Jesus returned to the Temple for this final Passover, He found everything in the same condition as it was the time before. The area given for the Gentiles to worship was filled with business. The Temple that was meant to be a house of prayer for all the nations was clogged, blocking their way to God.

Once again, the Son of God would have none of it. Try to imagine the scene as Mark describes it in His Gospel: 

“…Jesus entered the Temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”

Mark 11:15-16

Imagine the commotion. He had disrupted the whole Temple system.  Many of the people who came from out of town went to those sellers to buy animals for sacrifice. Foreigners came there to exchange their money. When they arrived, they found all that was gone. They had to go looking for the businesses that were now scattered outside the temple grounds.   If someone tried to sneak something past Jesus, He would send them away. The Lord was purifying His Father’s house, and nobody could get by him. He completely dominated the scene.

As Jesus preached to the crowds in the courtyard of the Gentiles He explained Himself:

“‘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.”

Mark 11:17

The King had entered His city and gone straight to the heart of the Kingdom. As long as He was there, He would maintain the purity of His Father’s house. But the lack of true devotion by the leaders and the people made His triumphal reign a temporary gift. The King would not remain with the people, for they were not truly His.

When the chief priests and scribes learned about Jesus’ activities in the court of the Gentiles, they did not turn to God’s sacred Scriptures. They did not fall on their knees in prayer. They did not consider the words of their Messiah. There was no repentance in their hearts. The activities of the Messiah only intensified their hatred and rebellion. That is often the way things work with people who are committed to their bondage of sin.

Imagine the sun shining down on a piece of butter. What happens? The butter becomes soft and easy to use. But when sun shines down on clay, it doesn’t get soft. It gets harder and harder until it feels like concrete. It begins to crack and split. Jesus was like the sun, shining truth on the people of His day. Some reacted to Him like butter. Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and all of His true followers were softening in surrender to the plans of the Most High God. But the religious leaders were like clay, and the more Christ’s light shined, the harder they became.

And so they began to feverishly plot and scheme about how to destroy Him. As the people listened to Christ with astonished amazement, the leading men debated how they could kill Him without running into problems with the crowd. The people were hanging on to His every word, creating a barrier between the predators and their prey.

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