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. (Mark 11:15 ESV)
During Advent season we sing songs like, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” As we draw closer to Christmas, we are filled with joyful expectation. To be sure, some of that joy might be a little selfish: opening gifts, eating goodies, seeing family; but for the believer, our joy is found in the fact that Christ has come and he will come again! Believers really want Jesus to come! Right?
Well, Jesus coming into this world and into our lives entails more than merely taking us out of our misery and into heavenly bliss. We ought not say “O Come, Emmanuel” merely because we want him to comfort us or give us things or heal us or affirm us. Jesus does these things for sure, but when Jesus comes, he also changes us! He changes us from the inside out. And that change is not always painless.
Jesus has come to destroy the old and bring in the new. We’ve seen this throughout our studies in Mark. He casts out demons, taking the world back under his authority. He challenges the religious leaders of the day and shows them the new order that God is creating. He topples the kingdoms of this world to establish his kingdom which will reign forever and ever. And for individuals, he smashes our idols and gives us new hearts. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
What is true for individual Christians is also true for the systems in this world, even religious systems, even religious systems instituted by God himself.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the New had come. But the old was still there. The Jewish system – the sacrifices, the temple, the Pharisees and scribes – dominated the religious life of the people. What God had intended as shadows of things to come had been desecrated and commercialized by the leaders, and Jesus would have none of it. After driving out the money changers in a display of righteous indignation, he said, “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.” (Mark 11:17) Jesus would ultimately endure the pain of the cross, a punishment he suffered partly due to his speaking against the temple.
The temple stood for Jewish identity, for the nostalgia of the kingdom of the past and a hope for a future kingdom; it was also a center of commerce and social life. Jesus came to disrupt all of that. The new Temple was in their midst, but they missed it; in fact, they killed him. But this was all according to the foreknowledge of God. That original system with all its sacrifices could never save, but the New Temple, the dwelling place of God – Christ himself – would give himself as the only and all-sufficient sacrifice to save his people from their sins.
In this passage, the temple is foreshadowed by a fig tree that produced leaves but bore no fruit. The old Jewish religious system, like the tree, had an outward appearance of life, but inside was dead and useless. Both the figtree and the temple stood condemned in this account, but these point us to examine our own lives. Do we have an appearance of life and reverence and godliness while in reality we are barren? Have we turned the house of prayer into something else? Are our priorities in line with those of Christ?
Put another way, when Jesus comes into our world, into our lives, into our church, would he be pleased? Or does he first need to drive away some idols?