Mark 11:1-25 – The Messenger of the Covenant

Jesus' Entry into Jerusalem

It is Passover time. Crowds of people are gathering from all over Judea and Galilee and are travelling up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. There is a mood of celebration as they recall the way God saved their ancestors from Egypt. Oppressed by a powerful empire, God had remembered his covenant with Abraham and had come down in judgment upon Egypt rescuing his people, setting them free to worship him. So there was a mood of expectation as the crowds looked for God to do it again; for him to visit them and deliver them from the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They wanted God to send to them a deliverer, one greater than Moses, one greater than David – to send the Messiah.

Jesus and his disciples are travelling up to Jerusalem from Jericho, no doubt surrounded by a great crowd of pilgrims travelling up with them. The road is very steep, climbing from Jericho which is 800 feet below sea level to Jerusalem 3,000 feet above sea level in only a dozen or so miles. Eventually they get to the Mount of Olives, and now at last they can see Jerusalem – the city of God; the city of the great King. With Jesus among them the crowds are full of expectation. What will Jesus do?

You know the story. Jesus sent some of his disciples to fetch a young donkey and it is on this donkey that Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem. Jesus is consciously acting out Old Testament prophecy: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zechariah 9:9). The prophecy goes on to state how this king will banish the war chariots and bring in a reign of peace. The crowds seem to recognise that Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the promised king for they lay coats and palm branches in his path and cry out "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!"

But what kind of a king is Jesus? A king like the nations, as Israel had requested long ago – a king like Caesar; one who would make peace through making war? A king like David whose hands were so stained with blood that God would not allow him to build the temple? A king like Solomon who made crafty political alliances, stockpiling wives and weapons of war? What kind of a king is Jesus?

The answer is indicated already by his entry into Jerusalem, humble and upon a donkey. The answer is indicated even in the psalm with which the crowds acknowledge his kingship, for they quote Psalm 118:25 and 26 but the verses immediately preceding them declare, "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone: the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made [or, "on which the Lord has acted"]; let us rejoice and be glad in it." (vv. 22-24). What is this stone that the builders are rejecting and of what is this stone to become the capstone?

What will Jesus do next?

The Cleansing of the Temple

Jesus returns to rest for the night in Bethany. The following morning he re-enters Jerusalem and, going to the temple, drives out those who whose trading activity was supplying those who came to offer sacrifices. In driving them out Jesus quotes words from the end of Isaiah 56:7, "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." This is part of a prophecy which looks forward to the day when people from all nations and all backgrounds will rejoice before God in his temple. What is the meaning of Jesus actions and his words?

As with Jesus entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, so also in this 'cleansing' of the Temple, Jesus is acting out Old Testament prophecy. In the face of an outward show of religion Malachi declares, "You have wearied the Lord with your words... 'See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,' says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years." (Malachi 2:17a, 3:1-4). The people of Malachi's day were longing for the time when God would return in glory to his temple and live again among his people – for God's glory had left the temple at the time of the exile. But Malachi warns that the coming of the Lord they long for will be no comfortable event.

The temple faces God's judgment: In acting out the words of this prophecy Jesus is declaring that he is the Lord who has come to his temple. He is the messenger of the covenant they have professed to long for. But who can stand when he appears? Jesus comes to the temple not just to correct a few abuses, he comes in judgment. And yet it is a judgment designed to create a people who will worship God in righteousness.

This judgment is symbolised in the strange incident of the cursing of the fig tree. The way in which the cleansing of the temple is sandwiched between the two halves of the story about the fig tree makes it clear that they belong together – the one casts light upon the other.

Doesn't it seem rather unfair to you that Jesus should curse this poor fig tree for having no figs when it was not even the season for figs? It is impossible to understand this act of Jesus unless we see this also as an acted parable. The fruitless fig tree is a picture of Israel, a people who honour God with their lips but not with fruitful lives. Jesus words and action in cursing the fig tree is a declaration of what is shortly to happen to Jerusalem and its temple. It is to suffer the judgment of God and will never again restored. This also is the meaning of Jesus' strange words in verses 22-23. When Jesus encourages his disciples to prayer than will remove a mountain he is not simply telling them that prayer removes obstacles. It is this mountain, the temple mount in Jerusalem, that he is speaking of. He encourages the disciples to join with him in praying for its 'removal', i.e. for judgment to fall upon it. But they are to pray not in a vengeful spirit but with a sense of sadness and a desire that Israel might find forgiveness.

In Jesus words and actions, both in connection with the fig tree and the temple, he is declaring the judgment of God upon Israel and that this judgment comes in some strange way through Jesus himself. He is the Lord who has come to his temple, not to adjust some minor abuses but to sweep it away.

But how can this be? The temple was built at God's command and formed a central element of the covenant – it was the place where God dwelt with his people. How can Jesus come as messenger of the covenant – the one who comes to affirm the covenant – and yet come in judgment upon the temple?

God will raise up a new temple: Do you remember the accusation that was brought against Jesus at his trial – that he had said he would "Destroy this man-made temple and build another not made by hands in three days" (Mk 14:57-58)? This accusation, brought with malice and misunderstanding was yet based upon words that Jesus is recorded to have said when he cleansed the temple according to John 2:19, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." Jesus' coming to his temple signifies its imminent destruction, but it will be replaced with a more perfect temple, with the risen Christ himself. This is the meaning of Jesus' words and actions.

Jesus is the one in whom the temple finds its fulfilment. He is the one in whom the Living God comes to dwell among his people and to display his glory: he is Immanuel, God with us. He is the place where a perfect sacrifice is offered for sin once and for all: he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is not simply that Jesus here acts out the destruction of the temple; he is the temple of God upon whom the destruction of God falls and is exhausted. He is therefore the place where God meets us in mercy. He is the place of where open access is to be found into the presence of God – in him and through him the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom. He himself is our great high priest, the one who acts as our mediator in the presence of God. He is the focus of our worship. He is the temple of God.

But there is more. Jesus, in acting out the prophecy of Malachi is declaring that God is now creating a new people for himself. Listen to Malachi 3:3b and 17-18, "Then the Lord will have people who will bring offerings in righteousness... 'They will be mine,' says the Lord Almighty, 'in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not." Jesus has come to create a people who will worship God not on the mountain in Jerusalem (or in Samaria) but who will worship God in spirit and in truth. This also is part of the new temple which Jesus is building. We are that temple. Listen to 1 Peter 2 "As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: 'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.' Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,' [remember these words?] and, 'A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.' They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (vv. 4-10). Through Christ, you have become the temple of God and a people whom God has commissioned with a priestly ministry to bring God to the world and the world to God.

Where is the God of Justice?

In Malachi's day, as in ours, many looked at the evils of their society and asked why God did not do something about it: "Where is the God of justice?" they asked (Malachi 2:17). This is God's response. The God of justice has come to us in Jesus Christ.

Here is where we see our God, in the person of Jesus riding humbly into Jerusalem. Yet at the same time we see him coming in judgement, judgement upon Jerusalem and its temple. That judgement, however, falls firstly upon him – he is the temple that is first destroyed that it might be raised in three days. This is how the King of the Jews establishes his kingdom of peace – he reigns from the tree. This is how he creates for himself a new people who will worship him in spirit and in truth – who will offer him not merely the worship of their lips but of lives made new, lives marked by righteousness, justice and peace.

And it is here, as we meet around the Lord's Table, that the Lord again and again meets with us. We have come together to celebrate a greater Passover and this celebration is more than mere remembrance. The Lord whom we seek comes to us here: he comes to his temple; he comes as the messenger of the covenant. It is a serious matter to meet around this table for the Lord comes to us here in judgement. Yet he comes not to destroy but to cleanse and to forgive through the blood of the covenant – through his own blood shed for us. He comes not to consume but to refine. He comes to meet us with the affirmation, "They will be mine." He comes to show us that judgment is passed and to call us into life.

And so it is here that we meet him with our worship, our glad cries of "Hosanna!" It is here that, in love and adoration and in deep joy we lay our lives before him as he calls us afresh to be his people.

Peter Misselbrook – 5/4/2009