Remember Jesus Christ

By Charles R Erdman

Chapter 4 - Cleansing the Temple


IT was on the day following His triumphal entry that Jesus expelled the traffickers from the Temple. That morning, on His way to the city, another incident had occurred which was closely related to the other two, namely, the cursing of a fig tree. All three actions were symbolic, all were acted parables, all were warnings of impending judgment.

As the Lord had approached the city, in apparent triumph, He had realized the fickleness of the crowds; He had foretold with tears His rejection and the destruction of Jerusalem.

So, too, with the fig tree; its withering away was a picture of the doom of the nation. Our Lord noticed the tree standing by the wayside and boasting a proud display of leaves. With such a profusion of foliage one might expect some fruit, but as Jesus approached the tree He found it was barren. Evidently the tree had stood in a position of particular advantage; the soil was good, the tree was sheltered from the winds, it had found abundant sunlight and moisture, and so might have had a supply of fruit corresponding to its rich leaves, even though the time for ripe figs had not come; but our Lord found “nothing but leaves/' Standing beside the tree, and accompanied by His disciples, Jesus declared that henceforth no fruit should be found upon that tree. It would wither away, be cut down, be burned.

That tree was Israel. The nation had been placed in a position of peculiar advantage among the peoples of the earth. Its history, its law, its prophets, its elaborate ritual — all gave the promise of rich fruitage. When the Lord appeared, however, He found only an empty show of righteousness. The Temple services were crowded; the scribes and Pharisees were expounding the Law; the people were scrupulous in performing a burdensome round of ceremonies; there were proud claims of being the “people of God”; but when the Lord looked for holiness, for righteousness, for lives of purity and faith, He found nothing but empty profession, nothing but outward forms of religion. On the favored Fig Tree there was “nothing but leaves.”

For declaring that the time of opportunity had passed, that henceforth the tree would never bear fruit, our Lord has been criticized by His enemies as though He had lost His temper and been guilty of the wanton destruction of property. Such an objection might have been just had our Lord not had in view a great message which warranted for its enforcement the use of such a barren wayside tree. The disciples at first may not have appreciated the full meaning of the miracle, but through all the ages following they have realized that here was a divine prophecy of what would be the fate of a nation which professed to be the people of God but rejected the Son of God.

Here, too, has been an abiding warning to the followers of Christ, that there ever is a peril of empty professions and of religious forms and ceremonies unaccompanied by the fruits of righteousness:

Nothing but leaves, the Spirit grieves

O'er years of wasted life,

O'er sins indulged while conscience slept,

O'er vows and promises unkept,

And reaps from years of strife

Nothing but leaves, nothing but leaves.

All this was true as to Israel and the miracle of the fig tree, but let it be noted that on the following day Christ gave an added and an encouraging interpretation of this incident. When Peter called the attention of the Master to the tree which had “dried up from the roots,” Jesus replied: “Verily I say unto you. If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”

As the disciples reach the city they witness another historic event which was also an acted parable of warning. In cleansing the Temple our Lord was correcting an abuse which had its origin in a public service. To attend the three annual festivals, Jewish pilgrims came from great distances and even from foreign lands. These worshippers needed animals for sacrifices, and sacred coins to pay the Temple taxes. It was for these travellers a great convenience when merchants established their booths and sold the needed articles near to the Temple gates. Yet as time went on, these traffickers ventured within and plied their trade in the sacred courts.

It is not to be imagined that the tradesmen entered the central shrine and invaded the “Holy Place” or the “Holy of Holies.” The Temple must be regarded as a group of buildings. The inner sanctuary was approached by a series of open courts and covered porticos. Even these were regarded as so sacred that a Gentile could enter them only on pain of death. It was these outer spaces, which also were regarded as reserved for the worship of God, probably the very Court of the Gentiles, which our Lord found desecrated by the presence of animals and pigeons and by the tables of money changers. His serious rebuke condemned not only the traffic itself, but the very character of the transactions. The priests could pronounce upon the acceptable character of all sacrifices, and they were also interested in the profits from the sales. The practice gave every opportunity for fraud and extortion. All this is implied in the words of the Master: Vis it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

A place where oxen and sheep were being stalled or sold was surely not a “house of prayer”; it certainly had been diverted from its divine purpose. It was being used not for the worship of God, but for the defrauding of men. Nor was it a house “for all nations”; only in one court could Gentiles pray, and this very court was the one utilized for the unseemly intrusion of animals and the disturbances caused by their exhibition and sale. Nor was the interference with worship the only charge. The exhorbitant prices, the fraud and extortion were notorious; and the full meaning of our Savior's words would be understood by all who heard them: “Ye have made it a den of thieves.”

In expelling these unholy traffickers our Lord has been accused of anger and violence. His action certainly was characterized by decision and indignation: “He cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.”

Surely this was not an act of gentleness or weakness; but it was not the use of force. Our Savior stood alone. His power was that of conscious right when facing conscious wrong. No violence or force was needed. As the poet declares,

My strength is as the strength of ten,

Because my heart is pure.

Or as another writer is quoted as saying: “If in my heart I know that I am right, though ten thousand should come against me I should go on. If in my heart I know I am wrong, though a beggar came to me dressed in filthy rags, I shall not prevail.”

Undoubtedly the traffickers withdrew. They were terrified by this uncompromising, irresistible representative of divine justice. Once before there had been a similar incident. According to the Gospel of John, it was with such a cleansing of the Temple that our Lord began His public ministry. If this is true, the return of the merchants is an illustration of a trait of human conduct. For one to turn from an evil course in fear, and not from conviction, is to produce a mere temporary reform. The wrong practice will again be resumed. What the nation needed was the cleansing of its heart, and a spiritual rebirth. This is the real meaning of the conduct of our Lord. Cleansing the Temple was a symbolic act. Not merely a building, or a sacred court, needed to be purified, but the life of a nation. The Temple was the most sacred place in the Holy City of a Holy Land. If this could be desecrated without rebuke, what did this indicate as to the state of the people? What a picture this gave of wickedness, of impiety, of apostasy! No wonder that our Savior showed His indignation; no wonder that He gave an object lesson of coming judgment. One may well recall the words of the prophet: “The Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple . . . and who will abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire.”

As the traders retire in disgrace, their places are filled by a very different group: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them"; for He who could rebuke and punish could also pardon and restore.

Sweet music is heard as the tumult and commotion subside. It is the voices of children chanting the praises they had heard sung on the previous day: “Hosanna to the son of David." The chief priests and scribes were indignant, and turned in protest to Jesus: “Hearest thou what these say?” “And Jesus said unto them, Yea; have ye never read.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings

thou hast perfected praise”? (Psalm 8:2).

Our Savior was quoting a Psalm which predicted His world-wide rule. His name was yet to be “excellent in all the earth.” The voices of the children were but an anticipation of that future chorus of universal praise. The memory turns to the words of the prophet, who saw in inspired vision a nation purified and a Temple restored to its place of supreme glory and reverent worship:

And it shall come to pass in the last days

that the mountain of the Lord's house

shall be established in the top of the mountains,

and shall be exalted above the hills;

and all nations shall flow unto it . . .

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruninghooks:

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:2,4).