Jesus challenges the religious authorities (Mk 11:15-33)

What makes you angry? What sort of things make your blood boil and cause steam to come out of your ears? A crashed computer, a tax bill or a traffic jam perhaps? Sadly our anger is often sinful or petty, isn’t it? Our anger is often unjustified rage caused by wounded pride, thwarted ambition, impatience or even indigestion!

But there is such a thing as righteous anger, isn’t there? There is such a thing as justified anger against evil and injustice. It is surely right to get angry with the perpetrators of injustice, with those who do evil or exploit others. It is surely right, isn’t it, to censure and rebuke ourselves, when we do things we know to be wrong. And it must be right, as Christians, to get angry when we see God’s people being persecuted, or God’s name dishonoured.

Open any Sunday newspaper today and anyone with a ‘moral compass’ ought to get angry at some of the things we will read about there. Jesus certainly expresses righteous anger in our passage today. An anger that challenged the authority of the religious rulers of his day. An anger that almost literally turned the Jerusalem Temple upside down!

But before we look at what prompted Christ’s fury, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, as we look at the powerful events in our passage today, help us to understand their significance and appreciate their relevance to our lives today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

  1. Jesus challenges the authorities (v.15-19)

Have you ever been somewhere that was so beautiful, so special, so enchanting that you felt Heaven was touching Earth? Somewhere where you felt especially close to God? Perhaps you have felt close to God in a beautiful area of countryside, or in a historic place of worship, or under a starlit sky.

If you had asked a first century Jew the same question, they would have undoubtedly said that they came closest to God whenever they went to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple complex was believed to be the most holy ground in the world, the most sacred space on earth. It was God’s ‘footstool’, the place where the Creator came into closest contact with his creatures. Every Jew knew the Temple was the building where God’s glory dwelt on earth.

Its no surprise then that the Temple was a place of prayer, a place where God’s people could come to speak to him, sing sing his praise, offer sacrifices and hear the Scriptures taught. The Temple was so significant that it was every Jew’s religious duty to visit it on a regular basis – especially at the major feasts such as the Passover festival. It was meant to be the place to receive God’s forgiveness and draw near to him.

But as Jesus entered the Temple precincts for the Passover festival in AD28, he saw that reality was falling far short of this ideal. Today’s passage tells us that in the Temple courts Jesus found men buying and selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others at tables exchanging money.

At first glance, you may think that there is nothing wrong with either of those things:

• After all, pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem needed animals to sacrifice, and it made sense for them to buy them in the city, rather than bring them with them all the way from home. Surely the animal sellers were doing nothing wrong?

• And pilgrims to the Temple rightly wanted to make a financial contribution to its treasury. They wanted to support its ministry and show their gratitude to God. And these were the days before cheques, standing orders and online transfers, and pilgrims had to give in cash. So before they could give to the Temple, many visitors to Jerusalem needed to change their foreign coins into Jewish ones. In one sense the money-changers performed a useful service.

But the trouble was that both the money changers and animal sellers were doing their business in the Temple itself. They had been allowed to ‘set up shop’ within the Temple’s outer court. This outer court was the place where people from all nations – Gentiles as well as Jews – were allowed to come and pray. It was meant to be a place of peace and prayer, not crowded market place full of animals, noise, haggling, dodgy dealing and general chaos. A place where prayer would have been impossible.

Imagine if I announced that next Sunday’s service would be taking place in the middle of Tarvin roundabout. We would all have to risk life and limb to get there, and even if we did make it to the middle, the noise of traffic would be deafening. It really wouldn’t be a conducive place for praise and prayer!

A similar commotion was what Jesus found in the Jerusalem Temple that day, and it rightly provoked his wrath and aroused his anger. Money changers and cattle had no right to be in the Temple court, so Jesus drove them out.

Verses 15 and 16 tell us that Jesus “entered the temple courts 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 in verse 17 he explains his actions, by saying: “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.’

Jesus was furious that his Father’s house, the Temple itself, had become a market place instead of a place of prayer. A place where the priority was commercial gain and profit maximisation, rather than investing in a relationship with the living God.

Before we point the figure at those money changers and animal salesmen, we need to beware of similar sins in our own lives.
• Are we too busy accumulating possessions or pursing pleasure, to give enough quality time to God?
• Are we sacrificing our spiritual life for the sake of Sunday shopping or sport?
• Are we more concerned about our relationship with our boss or our bank than with our Creator God?

As Christians we do need to make sure we spend time with our Heavenly Father – both alone during the week and together here on Sundays. Prayer is a wonderful privilege, and a lifeline for God’s people – so we should keep it a priority in our own busy lives.

  1. Jesus’ authority challenged (v.27-33)

In our internet age, one way to catch up with the news is to take a look at YouTube. You probably know that YouTube is a video streaming website, where people upload videos of eye-catching, significant or just silly events.

Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple is an event that would certainly have been posted on YouTube if it happened today. With coins scattering, cattle running wild and doves in the air, I’m sure it would have made great TV!

Verse 18 today tells us that the crowds were amazed by Jesus’ words in the Temple courts, but the religious authorities, the chief priests and scribes, were horrified. We read in verse 28 that the following day they confronted Jesus and demanded to know who had given him authority to do what he had done!

In reply, Jesus refuses to answer their question. Like a good politician, he responds to one question by asking one of his own: “John’s baptism, was it from heaven or from human origin?” In verse 31 Mark tells us that this was a question the religious rulers could not answer. They knew that if they said, “From heaven,” Jesus would ask “Then why didn’t you believe him?” But if they said John’s baptism was of human origin’ they would upset the people, who believed John the Baptist was a God-given prophet. So they gave Jesus no answer, and received none from him in return.

The tragedy of these religious rulers is that they could not recognise the rightful authority of Jesus. They were so comfortable with their own authority, and so anxious to preserve their own status, that they could not see that they had met their match. If they were humble enough, they would have seen Jesus’ divine authority in the miracles he performed and the wisdom he spoke. Instead they decided to plot his demise and seek his death.

But in the face of Jesus’s authority such plans were worthless. As events transpired, their plans to kill Christ were revealed to be part of God’s greater plan to save the world. And their desire for him to die provided the opportunity for his glorious resurrection.

So, as I end, the question for us is do we recognise Jesus’ authority – because millions of our contemporaries sadly do not? Are we resolved to worship him rather than ignore him? Are we committed to his service rather than seeking to suppress his demands on our daily life? And are we determined to make his name known rather than keep quiet?

I hope so – but to do so we will certainly need God’s help. So let’s pray…

Phil Weston