Confrontations in the Temple

SYNOPSIS – Before his final departure from the Temple, several confrontations occurred between Jesus and the religious authorities – Mark 11:27-12:40

Havana storm - Photo by Dorothea OLDANI on Unsplash
Before his final departure from the Temple, Jesus fielded several challenges from the leaders of the main Jewish religious and political sects – Confrontations that helped to set the stage for his trial and eventual execution at the hands of the Roman authorities. In the gospel accounts, these confrontations occurred in the Temple.

The gospel of Mark began with a citation from the book of Isaiah - “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” – From the start, the Messiah of Israel was on “the way” from Galilee to Jerusalem to meet his inevitable death at the hands of the Temple authorities - (Mark 1:2-3, Isaiah 40:3-4).

His ministry began only after the arrest of John the Baptist by Herod - Only then did Jesus begin to proclaim the gospel. John’s arrest set the stage, and likewise, the ministry of Jesus was characterized by conflict. From start to finish, priests, scribes, Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees all resisted him and, in the end, conspired to cause his death - (Mark 1:14, 2:6, 2:15-23, 3:1-6, Mark 3:22).

The opposition peaked with his arrival in Jerusalem. Almost immediately, the confrontation began with his triumphal entrance into the city. The enthusiastic reception by the crowds annoyed the Temple authorities. Later, the “chief priests and scribes” took great offense when he overturned the tables of “moneychangers” and thereby disrupted the Temple rituals, however briefly - (Matthew 21:1-17).

As he was returning to the city the next day, Jesus hungered and approached a fig tree to get some of its fruit. Finding only leaves, he cursed and withered the tree. This was an enacted parable, a representation of the fruitless Temple and the destruction about to befall it - (Mark 11:12-26).

When he returned to the Temple, the “chief priests and scribes” confronted him about the previous day’s activities. By what authority did he presume to act within their domain? Jesus responded by exposing their duplicity. They had refused the preaching of John the Baptist, unlike many less scrupulous Jews; therefore, the “tax-collectors and whores are entering the kingdom of God before you.” This caused great offense to the representatives of the Temple - (Matthew 21:15-32, Mark 11:27-33).

Next, he gave a parable about a landowner who leased his vineyard to others. Just like the “son” in his story, the Temple authorities were conspiring to kill the Son of God - “Let us kill him and take his inheritance!” However, they were about to learn that the “stone which the builders rejected was made the head of the corner… I declare to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation bringing forth its fruits.” The “chief priests and Pharisees” perceived they were the targets of his parable. Enraged, they intended to arrest him but feared the crowd - (Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12).

The Pharisees next took another shot at Israel’s Messiah, along with their political rivals, the “Herodians.” This mismatched alliance proceeded to “take counsel how they might ensnare him in his words,” words remarkably parallel to those of the Septuagint rendering of the second Psalm:
  • (Psalm 2:2) - “The rulers took counsel against the Lord and against his Christ.”
Jesus outfoxed this group by using the very coin with which they intended to trap him into committing an act of defiance against Caesar or sacrilege against Judaism – “The things of Caesar, render unto Caesar, and the things of God, unto God.” Dumbfounded, they could only walk away - (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17).

Next, the Sadducees challenged him about the bodily resurrection, a belief they denied. They looked to the five books of Moses for scriptural authority and rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees. Jesus used a passage from the Torah itself to demonstrate that the Sadducees understood neither the scriptures nor the power of God – Yahweh is the God of the living, “not the dead” - (Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-39).

As the Sadducees slinked off, the Pharisees made one final attempt. They sent one of their lawyers to ask Jesus what is the greatest commandment in the Torah? He responded, swiftly and clearly - “To love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

To this response, the Pharisees could only assent. Then Jesus posed a question to them - If the Messiah is the “son of David,” how could David call him “Lord”? No one could answer; from then on, “No one dared ask him any more questions” - (Matthew 22:34-46, Mark 12:28-37).

The gospel of Matthew includes a lengthy and striking denunciation of the “scribes and Pharisees,” including a pronouncement by Jesus with literary links to his subsequent discourse on the Mount of Olives, and allusions to the prophecy from the book of Daniel about the “abomination that desolates - (e.g., “This generation.” “Desolate.” - Daniel 11:30-36, Matthew 23:1-39, 24:15. Also - Mark 12:38-40, Luke 20:45-47).
  • (Matthew 23:36-38) – “Verily, I say unto you—All these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem! Jerusalem! that slayeth the prophets and stoneth them that have been sent unto her,—how often would I have gathered thy children, like as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,—and ye would not! Lo! your house is left to you desolate.
Outwardly, the Pharisees appeared righteous but “within were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” - Their religious attitudes and practices rendered them ritually unclean. They adorned the tombs of the prophets, claiming that if they had been around in the “days of our fathers” they would not have slain them. But their very claim affirmed their descent from the men who did murder the prophets of Yahweh.

Jesus Before the High Priest
Therefore, Jesus declared to the religious leaders of Israel - “Fill up the measure of your fathers,” a clause that alludes to Daniel 9:24 - “Seventy weeks have been divided concerning your people and concerning your holy city, to consummate transgression and to sum up sin.” In the plot to murder the Messiah, the sins of the nation reached their zenith – Destruction became inevitable.

The “desolation” of Israel was promised in the Torah if the nation broke its covenant. Accordingly, Yahweh would “desolate” its highways and bring its sanctuaries and land into “desolation,” all because “they despised my judgments and abhorred my statutes” - (Leviticus 26:22, 26::31-32, 26:34-35).

Desolation” translates the same Greek term used by Jesus in his subsequent ‘Olivet Discourse’ for the “abomination of desolation”– (erémōsis - Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20).

Jesus completed his judicial pronouncement with an ominous warning but also a promise:
  • For I am declaring to you, you will certainly not see me from this time until you say, ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39).
Up that moment, Jesus had been revealing himself to Israel in his teachings and miracles. However, once he left the Temple for the last time, that “generation” of Israel would not see him again unless they recognized their Messiah. The warning is addressed to his contemporaries, that is, “to you,” which in the Greek clause is plural and emphatic. Though this warning may have included future generations, the words were addressed originally to “that generation,” that is, the “generation” that was contemporary with him.

The stage is now set. The priestly leaders of Israel have all the “legal” ammunition they need to prosecute Jesus, and all the religious justifications for rejecting the Messiah sent by the God of Israel. After his final remarks after observing a destitute widow give all she had into the Temple treasury, he departed the Temple for the last time, leaving it “desolate” – (Mark 12:41-44).


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