Mark 11:15-19: 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. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 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.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
Every year we watch news reports of wildfires in different parts of the country. In the midst of a record-setting drought in 2011 there were nearly 28,000 fires in the state of Texas which burned nearly four million acres of land, nearly three thousand homes, and more than 2,700 other buildings. In 2012 National Geographic stated: “On average, more than 100,000 wildfires, also called wildland fires or forest fires, clear 4 million to 5 million acres of land in the U.S. every year. In recent years, wildfires have burned up to 9 million acres of land. A wildfire moves at speeds of up to 14 miles an hour, consuming everything—trees, brush, homes, even humans—in its path.”
Fire destroys and consumes. In the Scriptures fire often accompanies the presence of God, and it is used as an image of God’s holy jealousy, wrath, and judgment (Dt. 4:24, Lev. 10:1-2, 1 Cor. 3:12-13). Fire destroys and consumes, but fire also tests and purifies. For example, precious metals such as gold and silver are refined by fire. In the last stage of the gold production process gold is liquefied by fire – at 1102 degrees Celsius – in order to remove any impurities. The Scriptures also employ fire as an image for how God tests and purifies his people.
Psalm 66:10-12: For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.
I believe that it is this image of fire as a divine means for testing, for purifying, and for cleansing the people of God that can help us capture the purpose and nature of Jesus’ actions in the temple after his triumphal entry. Indeed, in John’s account of the cleansing of the temple it is said, (John 2:17) “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
We normally imagine Jesus as the Good Shepherd who is kind, gentle, and loving. We normally do not imagine Jesus as a Zealot with a whip who is turning over tables and physically intimidating to people. It is just such a portrait that all four gospels paint of Jesus, however, in relating the narrative of his actions in the temple at the beginning of the week leading up to his crucifixion.
In Mark 11:15-19 (and in the parallel texts in the other Gospels) we see Jesus as a man on fire – consumed with zeal for the sacred, the temple of God, and not just the temple as a structure but the temple as a symbol of the holiness of God and the mission of God. Jesus was filled with righteous anger that the temple had been so profaned – that corruption and greed and self-righteousness had obscured and displaced humility and contrition and prayer and worship. Jesus was filled with righteous anger that those in charge of the temple functions had let commerce and ritual become more important than people made in God’s image. So, in order to identify himself fully with the mission of God to create a holy people for himself from every nation and language, and in order to escalate his confrontation with the corrupt religious leaders, Jesus cleared the temple. He cleansed the sacred.
How do Jesus’ actions to cleanse the temple during the week leading up to his crucifixion matter to us today as his followers? Well, the answer is in the fact that the same Jesus who cleansed the temple then is the Risen Lord of his church now, and he is still consumed with zeal for the holiness and mission of the sacred temple of God. Now, however, the temple of God is not a building in Jerusalem but rather the church, the body of Christ. Brothers and sisters, we are the temple of God for God dwells in us by his Spirit, and Jesus is zealous for our purity and our mission and he will act to cleanse us – by fire if necessary – when we allow ourselves to become polluted with sin. Commentator Mary Healy asks the question which we must consider “Are we consumed with the zeal for God’s house that motivated Jesus?”
Are we consumed with zeal for the unity of God’s church? Will we protect and foster church unity by putting others ahead of ourselves, by refusing to engage in petty arguments over differences of opinion and personality, and by practicing forgiveness instead of holding grudges? Will we pray for God to help us keep our focus on Jesus, so that we will not become distracted and divided by lesser things?
Are we consumed with zeal for the purity of God’s church? Will we protect and foster holiness by confessing and repenting of our sins, by holding one another accountable in love, and by remembering that purity is not about following rules but rather about having hearts that are completely devoted to God?
Are we consumed with zeal for the mission of God’s church? Will we pursue God’s mission by reaching out to our neighbors – regardless of their race, language, religion, gender, or sketchy background – with the love of Christ? Will we protect God’s mission by refusing to allow greed, prejudice, fear, or racism to exclude some people from the family of God?
Are we consumed with zeal for the honor of God’s name? Will we worship God in spirit and in truth by living lives which honor him as well as singing songs to praise him? Will we pray with the Psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps. 115:1).
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started, “O Lord, may the fire of the Holy Spirit burn in me, even as it burned in Jesus. Lord, cleanse me that I might be a pure and holy temple for you. Cleanse your church, that we would be a united, pure, mission-focused, worshipping people who truly honor you in all our ways. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”