Biblical Studies

The Old Testament in Mark’s Cleansing of the Temple

I was given the chance to read Richard Hays’ new book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (review here). I found it a very compelling look at how the Gospels teach us how read the OT, and how the OT shows us how to read those very same Gospels. Christ is pre-figured in the OT, and he lives out Israel’s history as the Second Adam, the perfect man. Hays gives us two examples from the Gospel of Mark (the first seen in this post, the second in the next):

  • Jesus Cleanses the Temple and Curses the Fig Tree (Mark 11:15-19)
  • The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12)

Christ’s Prophetic Action in the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.


In the first 10 verses the long-awaited Son of David makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people cry, “Hosanna!” yet when he enters the temple, none of the religious leaders greet this King. In v11, Jesus looks around, leaves, and goes to Bethany.

In vv 1214 Jesus curses a fig tree because it had produced no fruit. We will see in vv 20-21 that the tree has withered away. This sandwich tells a great deal about the purpose of Jesus’ cleansing in vv 15-19.

A House of Prayer

In Mk 11.17, Mark fuses OT texts from Isaiah and Jeremiah.

And he was teaching them and saying to them,
“Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”

The first quotation comes from Isaiah 56:7, which belongs to Isaiah’s vision of a restored Jerusalem to whom God’s deliverance has been revealed (56:1). One special feature of this redemption is that both Jews and Gentiles will come to Mount Zion to worship God.

Isaiah 56.7-8

these [foreigners] I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,

“I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”

In scatting this portion of Scripture, Jesus indicts the temple authorities for allowing the Temple to be turned into a market, turning the court of the Gentiles (which shouldn’t have been there in the first place) to be too cluttered and busy to be a house of prayer. Jesus is clearing the Temple for all people, even Gentiles, to be able to worship God.

As a contrast, instead of composing God’s house into one of prayer, they have made His house “a den of robbers.” This brings thoughts of Jer 7:1-8:3. In this passage, “God instructs Jeremiah to ‘stand in the gate of the Lord’s house’ and deliver a scathing denunciation and prophecy of destruction” (p 8).

A Den of Robbers

Jeremiah 7:3-4, 9-11a

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’…

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?

Jeremiah’s oracle ends with a declaration that the Lord has every intention to destroy the very temple (7:13-15) they put their arrogant confidence in. No doubt, when Jesus storms into the Temple, overturning tables and chairs in the process, his words would invoke the understanding of Jeremiah’s wider context, his criticism and his prophecy of a future temple destroyed (later prophesied in Mk 13:1-2).

Jesus’ actions both inside and outside of the Temple were demonstrations of it’s future end. His cursing the fig tree frames his cleansing of the Temple. It is a live-action parable of the coming judgment on the Temple. What was supposed to bring forth fruit can only provide empty, withered branches. This scene echoes Jeremiah 8:13

When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”

“Just as Jeremiah had spoken of Israel as unfruitful, withered fig tree, Jesus performs a symbolic tree-withering act that prefigures the fate of Israel – or, at least, of the Temple. Just as Jeremiah condemned the prophets and priests who spoke false deceptive words of peace and comfort while practicing injustice and idolatry, so Jesus takes up the mantle of Jeremiah to condemn the Temple establishment once again” (p 9-10).

Significance in Mark

In this we see the full significance of Jesus’ action in the Temple. He’s not simply denouncing their greedy business practices, that rather than being a witness to the Gentiles they’re stealing their money. But the leaders in charge of God’s chosen people, those who were to be holy as God was holy, had wholly and completely pushed God out of the life, mind, and actions and are living just like the world they are to be separate from.

Rather than worshiping God, and rather than being a light to others to worship God, they are as unjust as the faulty leaders who they read about daily in their own Scriptures.

The Lord would gather them, but what would he receive in return? Empty, dead, rotten, branches, which as a result will be burned. Just as before, the leaders still have not been doing their job. In fact, we will see just what they were doing in the next post on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

Significance for Us

Reading the Gospels (and all of the Bible) is reading the tip of an iceberg. There is much meaning packed into what they say. This post may be a bit long, but it shows a bit of just how much goes into two phrases that come from the mouth of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t use his words lightly, but what he says has an intended, important meaning. It is important to read Jesus words and see what they mean in the immediate context, but also in the way they allude to the OT. The statements are not taken out of context, but have a meaning to them. Reading and understanding this deepens our understanding of the Bible as a whole, and ought to give us a greater love for our Lord, that He desires holiness because he has graciously saved us from sin and death that we might no longer live for ourselves but for Him…who died and was raised (2 Cor 5.15).


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