Into the Temple

And He went into Jerusalem and into the temple complex. After looking around at everything, since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve. (Mark 11:11 HCSB)

Palm Sunday
Mark 11:1-11

It’s easy to ignore Mark 11:11. After Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly, he went into the temple, briefly looked around, and then left. That’s it. With this apparently insignificant action, Mark begins 3 chapters of material focused on the temple complex and its associated religious establishment.

In fact, the triumphal entry itself points to Jesus entering the temple. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds shouts phrases from Psalm 118:25-26. Psalm 118 is among the Hallel psalms used in the Passover liturgy. The psalm itself is a song for use in the procession of pilgrims into the temple (Psalm 118:19-20, 27). Beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the temple continues to be a major theme for the remainder of Mark’s gospel.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has a uniformly negative view of the temple. It is a fruitless fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) and a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer (Mark 11:15-17). The religious leaders associated with it are wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-11) who will reject the stone that becomes the head of the corner (quoting from Psalm 118:22).

Over the next days, the temple is a scene of conflict between Jesus and various elements of religious leadership. The high priests, scribes and elders question his authority (Mark 11:27-33). Pharisees challenge him on paying taxes to Caesar (12:13-17), and it is Caesar’s government that ultimately puts Jesus to death. Sadducees question him on the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27), and it is the resurrection that ultimately vindicates Jesus. In other words, these are not randomly chosen questions, but they speak to the heart of what is about to happen.

Although one scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34), the scribal community in general does not understand the nature of the messiah (Mark 12:35-37). Jesus warns of scribes who seek prestige and honor but “devour widows’ houses” (Mark 12:38-40).

As Jesus sits near the temple treasury, he observes the high cost that the temple imposes on one of these poor widows as she puts her only two lepta into the collection box. The temple has taken all that she has to live on. (Mark 12:41-44) (Although we normally take this passage as a moral example of sacrificial generosity, in context it’s hard not to see it also as a comment on the temple function itself).

While these contributions – both large and small – have made the temple stones and buildings a wonderful sight to behold, Jesus announces that temple is doomed. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down!” (Mark 13:1-2) Jesus leaves the doomed temple and sits across from it on the Mount of Olives. From there, he delivers his discourse on the consummation of the kingdom in the coming of the Son of Man.

When Jesus is arrested, his accusers testify, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” (Mark 14:58) While their testimony is literally false, it is figuratively true. As was the case with demonic voices earlier in the gospel, Jesus’ adversaries ironically speak the truth. In Mark’s theology, the person of Jesus supersedes the function of the temple. Judaism’s answer to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 is prayer, the reading and study of Torah, and acts of loving-kindness. In Judaism, these actions take the place of sacrifice. Mark’s answer to the destruction of the temple is Jesus. Mark’s final reference to the temple makes this clear. When Jesus dies, the curtain of the temple is torn in two (Mark 15:38). The temple has become irrelevant. Humanity’s relationship to God is now based upon a new covenant, established solely by the death of Jesus (Mark 14:24).