The Triumphal Entry, 1-11

11:1 Now as they approached Jerusalem, near Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 11:2 and said to them, “Go to the village ahead of you. As soon as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here soon.’ ”
Mk 11:1–10 = Mt 21:1–9; Lk 19:29–38

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is recorded in all four Gospels – Mt 21:1-9; Mk 11:1-10; Lk 19:29-38; Jn 12:12-15.

‘Jesus does not tour the temple as a tourist, dazzled by its glittering gold, glistening white marble, and gigantic stones. Nor does he visit it out of pious reverence; he offers no prayers or sacrifice.’ (Garland)

As they approached Jerusalem – cf. Mt 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19.

Near Bethphage and Bethany – The modern road from Jericho to Jerusalem passes through Bethany first, and then Bethphage.  The fact that the author of this Gospel is taken by some as evidence of ignorance of the geography of Palestine (and, consequently, cannot have been John Mark).  Nineham, for example, says: ‘The geographical details make an impression of awkwardness, especially as Bethphage and Bethany are given in reverse order to that in which travellers from Jericho would reach them…and we must therefore assume that St Mark did not know the relative positions of the two villages on the Jericho road.’  Similarly, E. Schweizer writes: ‘It is clear that Mark, writing at a later date, is not acquainted with these places.’  It is further claimed that Matthew 21:1 ‘corrects’ the ‘error’ by removing the reference to Bethphage altogether (although a true ‘correction’ would have been to reverse the order of the names).

Edwards explains: ‘Mark’s sequence of Jerusalem—Bethphage—Bethany is not so problematic as is sometimes supposed, however, for the ancient Roman road that Jesus followed did not follow the course of the modern road, but lay north of it. From Jericho the Roman road ran southwest along what is today Wadi Umm esh Shid, and then directly up to the summit of the Mount of Olives, which was near if not at Bethphage (“house of unripe figs”). En route the traveler passed between Bahurim immediately to the north (2 Sam 3:16; 16:5; 17:18; Josephus, Ant. 7.225) and Bethany further to the south. A steep road ran down from Bethphage to Bethany, a kilometer south on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives. The object of 11:1 is to bring Jesus and the disciples to the top of the Mount Olives, from which the disciples are dispatched to fetch a donkey for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem. Mark mentions Bethany in v. 1 not because it is on the route from Jericho to Jerusalem but in order to identify the place where Jesus will spend nights while he is in Jerusalem (11:11). The meaning of v. 1 is thus: “And on their way to Jerusalem they came to Bethphage (near Bethany) on the Mount of Olives.”’

Jesus and his disciples do not come alone, for at Passover time many others would have arrived at Jerusalem at the same time. The entry of Jesus, along with this vocal crowd, and others who had witnessed or heard about the raising of Lazarus, was therefore ‘a deliberately staged “demonstration”‘ (France) The symbolic nature of the ‘triumphal entry’ is underscored by the dramatic episodes of the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. It all sets the scene for the confrontation between the Messiah and the Jewish leaders.

Jesus has revealed himself as prophet. He is about to reveal himself as priest. It is fitting that his kingly office should also be revealed now, hitherto having been veiled. Up till, he not only did not formally assume the title of king, but actually resisted attempts to have it thrust upon him, Jn 6:15. ‘For this refusal to be crowned by the multitude there was only too good reason. Their ideas of royalty were entirely different from his. Had he allowed himself to be borne on the tide of popular favour to royal honours, his kingdom would have been thereby marked as of this world, it would have been stamped as something very different from the kingdom of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost he had come to establish. Had he been a mere enthusiast, he would undoubtedly have yielded to such a tidal wave of public excitement; but his unerring wisdom taught him that he must reach his throne by another path than that of popular favour. Rather must it be through popular rejection through the dark portals of despite and death; and for that, his hour had not then come.’ (Expositor’s Bible)

But now his royal hour has come. ‘Already fully revealed as Prophet, he is about to be made perfect through suffering as our great High Priest. It is time, therefore, that he reveal himself as King, so that no one may have it afterwards to say that he never really claimed the throne of his father David.’ (Expositor’s Bible)

Jesus’ kingship is not announced in any expected way. To herald it with the sound of the trumpet would be to create entirely the wrong idea – the idea that his was an earthly, temporal, military kingdom, a kingdom to overthrow that of the Romans.

We should not suppose that the leading theme of this passage is joyful triumph. The king indeed comes to his capital, but it is in judgement.

‘Our Lord is never at a loss for means to accomplish his designs in his own way, which it; always the best. He sends to a neighbouring village for a young ass, mounts it, and rides into the city. That is all he does. Not a word said about royalty, no herald, no trumpeter, no proclamation, no royal pomp, nothing whatever to rouse the Roman jealousy or ire 5] nothing but the very ordinary circumstance of a man riding into the city on an ass colt, a mode of conveyance not in itself calculated to attract any special notice. What was there, then, in such an act to secure the end? Nothing in itself; but a great deal when taken in connection with a remarkable prophecy in the Book of Zechariah well known to every Jew, and much in the thoughts of all who were looking for the promised Messiah. It is true, indeed, that an ordinary man might have done the same thing and the people have taken no notice of him. But Jesus had become the object of very great interest and attention to large numbers of the people on account of the miracles he had been working notably that great miracle which still stirred the minds of the whole community, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The chief priests and scribes, indeed, and the men of influence in Jerusalem, regarded him with all the greater rancour on account of his miracles of mercy, and they had been specially embittered against him since the raising of Lazarus; but it was different with the body of the people, especially those who had come or were coming from Galilee and other distant parts of the land to be present at the great Paschal feast. We are told by St. John that a large number of these had gone out the day before to Bethany, both to see Lazarus, who was naturally an object of curiosity, and also to see Jesus himself; these accordingly were precisely in the state of mind in which they would most readily catch up the idea so naturally suggested by the significant act of our Saviours riding into the city of David on a colt the foal of an ass. The result, accordingly, was as had been intended, and is thus described by our Evangelist: The most part of the multitude spread their garments in the way; and others cut branches from the trees and spread them in the way. And the multitudes that went before him, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest (R.V.).’ (Expositor’s Bible)

“You will find…” – Is Jesus displaying supernatural foreknowledge here, or is this another explanation for the unusual way in which this story is told?  Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) notes that the event to which which this incident leads – the triumphal entry into Jerusalem – contributed to the temple authorities concluding that Jesus was a dangerous trouble-maker worthy of execution: ‘The owner of the colt, who had evidently arranged beforehand to let Jesus ride it, could be seen as complicit in a politically subversive act. It may well be that Jesus, in Mark’s story, recognizes the danger and makes the arrangements in such a way that the owner need not be directly implicated by loaning the colt.’

“A colt…which no one has ever ridden” – This is significant ‘in the light of the ancient provision that an animal devoted to a sacred purpose must be one that had not been put to ordinary use. (cf. Num 19:2; Deut 21:3; 1 Sam 6:7) (Lane)

Schnabel: ‘The comment that no one has ever ridden the pōlos reflects Zechariah 9:9 and echoes the value of unused animals for religious purposes (sacrifices: Num. 19:2; Deut. 21:3; pulling the ark of the covenant: 1 Sam. 6:7). A rabbinic tradition says that the horse of the king cannot be used by anyone except the king (m. Sanh. 2:5).’

‘The Lord needs it’ – Jesus may be invoking here the royal prerogative (claimed also by the Rabbis) of ‘requisitioning’, a right reinforced by his application of the title ‘the Lord’ to himself.

11:4 So they went and found a colt tied at a door, outside in the street, and untied it. 11:5 Some people standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 11:6 They replied as Jesus had told them, and the bystanders let them go.
11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 11:8 Many spread their cloaks on the road and others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 11:9 Both those who went ahead and those who followed kept shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

Mk 11:7–10 = Jn 12:12–15

Jesus is given the ‘red carpet’ treatment. For this practice in recognition of a king, see 2 Kings 9:13.

‘Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem has been compared to the coronation of Solomon, who entered the city on David’s mule, accompanied by music and great rejoicing (1 Kgs 1:32–48); the anointing of Jehu as king on the orders of Elisha, with people spreading their garments under his feet (2 Kgs 9:1–13); the entrance of the Davidic redeemer in Zechariah 9:9–10, explicitly quoted in the parallels Matthew 21:5; John 12:15; the entrance of Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem, accompanied by music, praise and the waving of palm branches (1 Macc. 13:50–51).’ (Schnabel)

They brought the colt to Jesus…and he sat on it – ‘Up to this point, the Gospels never report Jesus riding on an animal. The special attention given to Jesus procuring a donkey and riding on the donkey into Jerusalem is significant since this was a deliberate departure not only from his usual practice of travelling by foot but also from the tradition that Passover pilgrims who were physically able to walk should enter Jerusalem on foot (cf. m. Hag. 1:1, which exempts ‘one who cannot go up [to Jerusalem] on his feet’ from the requirement to travel to Jerusalem for the main festivals). Jesus deliberately enacts the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9–10 which speaks of a king who comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.’ (Schnabel)

Others spread branches – Jn 12:13 identifies these as palm branches.

“Hosanna!” means, literally, ‘O save.’ In the present context it probably means something like, ‘God save,’ or, ‘praise be.’ It is the Greek form of the phrase translated ‘save us’ in Ps 118:25, a phrase which came to be used as an expression of praise in Jewish worship. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” comes from the next verse of the same psalm. Psa 118 is the last of the Hallel Psalms (113-118), sung at the great festivals of Israel, with these two verses as the climax. ‘As an expression of religious enthusiasm these exclamations would come naturally to a crowd of Passover pilgrims.’ (France, on Matthew)

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” – ‘They are right that Jesus comes as a king, but they expect a typical monarch, who will establish a temporal empire. Their mistaken presumption that he is entering Jerusalem to purge the nation of foreign domination and to resuscitate the ancient glories of Israel leads to the premature festivity. These false hopes are dashed as he surrenders tamely to those who come to arrest him (see Luke 24:21), but a new and greater hope will be resurrected.’ (Garland)

‘The entry is not triumphal.  Jesus does not enter Jerusalem on a white charger. He does not brandish a series of war trophies, and a train of captives does not trail behind him. In fact, within the week, Roman guards will lead him out of the city as a defeated captive. Consequently, Jesus does not share the disciples’ earthly fantasies of glory. He appears in the city, as he had forewarned three times, to suffer and die, not to set up a rival kingdom to Caesar. He comes as a king who will be crowned with thorns, enthroned on a cross, and hailed as the chief of fools. His entrance points to a different kind of triumph than the one envisioned by the crowd, one that will be more powerful than any Davidic monarchy and more far-reaching than the narrow borders of Israel or even the Roman empire.’ (Garland)

Garland comments that, although many sermons have been preached on the supposed ‘fickleness’ of the crowds, it is the disciples themselves who proved the most fickle.  Even now, just a few days before their Master’s execution, they no doubt believed that he would set up an earthly kingdom in which they could take their places of high honour.  And we may supposed that it was they who whipped up the excitement of the crowds.

The kingship of Jesus is characterised by

1. Lowliness. ‘He had just taught them that the Son of man had come, not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many; and his manner of entering into his capital must be in harmony with the lowly, self renouncing work he has come to do. Thus he shows in the most impressive way that his kingdom is not of this world. There is no suggestion of rivalry with Caesar; yet to those who look beneath the surface he is manifestly more of a king than any Caesar. He has knowledge of everything without a spy; (Mt 21:2) He has power over men without a soldier; (Mt 21:3) He has simply to say The Lord hath need, and immediately his royal will is loyally fulfilled. Evidently he has the mind of a King and the will of a King: has he not also the heart of a King, of a true Shepherd of the people? See how he bears the burden of their future on his heart, a burden which weighs so heavily upon him that he cannot restrain his tears. (Lk 19:41-44) There is no kingly state; but was not his a kingly soul, who in such humble guise rode into Jerusalem that day?’ (Expositor’s Bible)

2. Peace. Whereas the horse and chariot were symbols of war, the ass was an emblem of peace. Immediately after the words quoted by the Evangelist there follows this remarkable promise: I2 will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off; and he shall speak peace unto the heathen; and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth. See Lk 19:38.

The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem seems to have much in common with the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC, following the desecration of Antiochus. According to 2 Maccabees, the people sang “Hosanna,” waved palm branches. They looked forward to the time of redemption, when the pagan yoke would be broken for ever, and the Son of David would come and set the whole world free from sin.

Does our faith have staying power?

‘We must…be saved from a mercurial faith that abandons Jesus at the first sign of trouble. Jesus does not welcome cheers from throngs who will not pray with him in dark Gethsemane or go with him to an even darker Golgotha. He can little use those Christians who show up once a year when the cheering starts around Easter. He needs those who will endure to the end, even when faced with unspeakable suffering.’ (Garland)

Our commitment to King Jesus

‘Are we ready to put our property at his disposal, to obey his orders even when they puzzle us? Are we ready to go out of our way to honour him, finding in our own lives the equivalents of cloaks to spread on the road before him, and branches to wave to make his coming into a real festival? Or have we so domesticated and trivialized our Christian commitment, our devotion to Jesus himself, that we look on him simply as someone to help us through the various things we want to do anyway, someone to provide us with comforting religious experiences? In our world where most countries don’t have kings and queens, and where those monarchies that remain are mostly constitutional offices with the real power lying elsewhere, have we forgotten what, in biblical terms, a true king might be like?’ (Wright)

11:11 Then Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. And after looking around at everything, he went out to Bethany with the twelve since it was already late.

The crowd that accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem quickly dispersed, and he seems to have entered the temple with only the Twelve.

Jesus’ inspection of the Temple forms the basis of his action the following day.

He went out to Bethany with the Twelve – and the colt had to be returned to its owner.

Jesus’ stay in Bethany.  The details about Jesus’ stay in Bethany cohere well, and have the character of undesigned coincidence.  ‘Mark’s account of Jesus coming to Bethany (11:1-4) fits with John’s claim that Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover (12:1).  Mark records that Jesus left for Bethany in the evening (11:11), while John notes that at Bethany Jesus was made a δειπνον, an evening meal – even though John does not mention Jesus sleeping in Bethany.  The evidence suggests that Jesus’ main threat was from the priests, not from the multitude (since he was popular with them). This explains Judas’ promise to betray him in the absence of the multitude (Lk 22:6), and might also explain the chief priests deciding not to kill him on the feast day. All this links with a general pattern: Jesus takes bold actions and gets away with them in the day, while Jesus returns to Bethany in the night time. And the first time Jesus stays in Jerusalem overnight, he was seized.’ (Source)

Cursing of the Fig Tree, 12-14

11:12 Now the next day, as they went out from Bethany, he was hungry. 11:13 After noticing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, he went to see if he could find any fruit on it. When he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 11:14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

The next day – In Mark, the cursing of the fig tree is recorded before the cleansing of the temple.  In Mt 21:18, however, the reverse order is implied.  Jonathan McLatchie, while affirming a high view of the Bible’s historical reliability, considers this to be a genuine problem only for strict inerrantists:

‘While the ancients sometimes narrated events a-chronologically (i.e. without chronological precision), there is no reason to believe that the ancients considered it an acceptable practice to narrate historical events dyschronologically (that is, including temporal markers that misrepresent or mislead concerning the chronology of events).’ (Source)

Matthew’s account of the withered fig tree is somewhat telescoped, Mt 21:18-22.

A fig tree with leaves – According to Mk 13:28, the leafing of the fig tree was a first harbinger of summer.

Jesus went to see if he could find any fruit on it – Cole says that the particle translated ‘if’ suggests that Jesus regards this as an unlikely possibility.  Schnabel agrees.  He was therefore not surprised to find no fruit on the tree.

 

Why did Jesus curse the fig tree?

Mt 21:18 Now early in the morning, as he returned to the city, he was hungry. 21:19 After noticing a fig tree by the road he went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. He said to it, “Never again will there be fruit from you!” And the fig tree withered at once. 21:20 When the disciples saw it they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” 21:21 Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 21:22 And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”

Irrational and petulant?

According to William Barclay (DSB),

‘There can be no doubt that this, without exception, is the most difficult story in the gospel narrative,’ adding that the story neither rings true, nor is reasonable (since this was not the season for figs, v13).

And T.W. Manson complains that this is

‘a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper (for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season); as it stands it is simply incredible.’ (Quoted by Edwards)

Much of the concern about the apparent irrationality and petulance of Jesus words and action concern words found in Mark’s account:

It was not the season for figs – Harper’s Bible Commentary (on Matthew) notes that Matthew omits this ‘difficult observation’, which ‘makes the cursing unreasonable’.

The same commentary (on Mark) suggests that this comment

‘reflects apocalyptic determinism. Paraphrased it means, “it was determined that this would not be the proper time for the Jewish leaders to bear fruit,” i.e., receive Jesus. The barren tree and the mercantile Temple symbolize to Mark’s community that the older religious institutions and observances are not binding (cf. 7:1–23), and they are now to see their community as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a “house of prayer for all nations” (11:17; Isa. 56:7).’

Cole comments that Jesus was presumably looking for the small early figs, that were considered a delicacy (Hos 9:10; see also Song 2:13).

Schnabel, while not regarding these early figs as necessarily a ‘delicacy’, agrees.  They develop on the old branches in March, and ripen as the new leaves sprout in late March.  (It was now near Passover, i.e. early April.  The main crop of figs would grow on the new branches and would be harvested in August-October).

Distinguishing, as other scholars do, between the mature and the early figs (Heb. paggim) Edwards suggests that the present expression means: ‘It was, of course, not the season for figs, but it was for paggim.’

A lesson, then, about faith

Correctly understood, then,

‘the cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-25) was no petulant outburst, nor even primarily a lesson about faith, but a symbolic demonstration of God’s impending judgement on Israel (comparable to the cleansing of the Temple around which Mark sandwiches this miracle-story-see Mk 11:15-19). (DJG)

France (NBC) agrees:

‘This apparently pointless act of power is generally understood from its context (and from the way Mark interweaves it with the story of the temple incident) to have a symbolic purpose. The fig-tree which produces leaves and therefore promises fruit but offers nothing to eat is a picture of the empty worship of the temple (cf. Mi. 7:1; Je. 8:13). The withering of the tree is then a visible pointer to the fate of the temple which Jesus predicts in 23:38; 24:2.’

Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that, in Mark, the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple ‘are “intercalated” and interpret each other.’  There may be a link with Lk 13:6-9, where the unfruitful tree symbolises an unfaithful people (Isa 5:1–7; Jer 8:13; Mic 7:1).  The cursing of the tree, together with the expulsion of the traders from the Temple, are parabolic actions, such as we find in Jer 27:2; Ezek 4:1–5:17.

Blomberg comments:

‘The fig tree was a well-known symbol for Israel in the Old Testament (cf., e.g. Jer 24:1-10; Mic 7:16; Hos 9:10), and Jesus had already told a parable about a fig tree in danger of being cut down, clearly symbolising the peril in which the Jewish nation placed herself by rejecting her Messiah (Lk 13:6-9).  Jesus, like many of the Old Testament prophets before him, was dramatising his message with an object lesson or “enacted parable”.  Just as he withered a tree that bore no fruit, so also God would take away the privileges of Israel is she did not repent and turn to her appointed Saviour.’ (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p131).

Commenting specifically on Mark’s version@

‘Jesus’ entry into the city in Mark’s account…does not fulfill any Jewish nationalistic hopes “to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles” (Pss. Sol. 17:21-46). Jesus, rather, brings judgement upon unfruitful Israel (Mk 11:12-14,20-21; cf. Ho 9:10-17) which has turned God’s “house of prayer for all nations” into a “den of brigands” (Mk 11:15-19; cf. Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11). As Mark concludes his story, Jesus maintains his claim to kingship, (Mk 14:61-62; 15:2) but over the universal realm of the “Son of God” (Mk 15:39; cf. Mk 12:6,35-37).’ (DJG)

In summary then, Jesus’ behaviour seems irrational.  But the incident is an acted parable.  To Jesus, the fig tree, fair, but barren, spoke of Jerusalem, full of religious observance but devoid of true fruitfulness.

According to the IVP NT Background Commentary,

‘At this time of year, edible figs were still about six weeks away, but the bland fruit had recently appeared on the tree in late March; they would become ripe by late May. These were the early figs that preceded the main crop of late figs, which were ripe for harvest from mid-August into October. If only leaves appeared, without the early figs, that tree would bear no figs that year-early or late. Because everyone would know that it was “not yet the season for real figs,” Jesus is making a point about trees that only pretend to have good fruit (cf. Jer 24).’

Zuck explains:

‘In March fig trees in Israel normally produce small buds followed by large green leaves in April. The small buds were edible “fruit.” The time when Jesus “cursed” the fig tree was the Passover, that is, April. Since the tree had no buds it would bear no fruit that year. But “the season for figs” was late May and June, when the normal crops of figs ripened. Jesus’ denouncing of the tree symbolized Israel’s absence of spiritual vitality (like the absence of the buds) in spite of her outward religiosity (like the green leaves).’ (Basic Bible Interpretation)

This incident, is, no doubt, to be linked with Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem, and with the cleansing of the temple. The tree was in leaf, but fruitless; the temple was a splendid sight, yet devoid of true godliness; Jerusalem was full of joyful, expectant pilgrims, yet about to reject her King. All three incident belong together, and interpret one another.

See also this article by Greg Lanier.

 

Cleansing the Temple, 15-19

11:15 Then they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple courts. He turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 11:16 and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 11:17 Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!”

The Lord comes to his temple – but to overturn it, for the temple will play no significant role in redemption from now on. The act of driving out those who were buying and selling in the temple parallels the action of Judas Maccabaeus, for Jesus strides into the temple to cleanse it of impurity – only this time the defilement is Jewish, not Gentile.

‘These two events, the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple, sealed Jesus’ fate of death. The first event would have caused great concern on the part of Pontius Pilate. Here was someone hailed as a new king, a possible revolutionary leader-at least in the procurator’s eyes. The second event pitted Jesus against the power base of the chief priests, who had long sought to remove Jesus from his ministry. (Jn 5:18) The chief priests comprised one of the most influential and wealthiest groups within the aristocracy. Clearly the two-Pilate and the high priestly family-conspired together to have Jesus killed.’ (College Press)

From Mk 11:11-15, it is probable that this cleansing of the temple did not take place on the day that he entered Jerusalem in triumph, but on the day following.

No less than four judgements follow the ‘triumphal entry’:

  1. Judgement on the temple, and those who had turned it into a ‘den of robbers’, 21:1-13
  2. Judgement on the priests, who were indignant at the children’s praise, 21:14-17
  3. Judgement on the fig-tree, because it bore no fruit, 21:18-22
  4. Judgement on the leaders, who lacked integrity, 21:23-27

(See Green, 218-225)

‘But if Christians could see that Jesus’ prophetic action was profoundly fulfilled in the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70, there was little cause for self-congratulation. For it would not be possible for Matthew’s leaders to hear this story without realising its implications: God will judge bad churches. His severest judgements will be reserved fro those churches whose worship is hollow, where corruption and dissention are rife, and which repel rather than attact ‘Gentile’ outsiders.’ (Green)

The tables of the money changers – The money in current use was Roman coin. However, Jewish law required that every man pay a tribute to the service of the sactuary of half a sheckel. A place was therefore provided where the Roman coinage could be exchanged for Jewish, and, of course, the money-changers would charge a fee for this.

Those selling doves – Doves were required to be offered in sacrifice, Lev 14:22; Lk 2:24. Yet it was difficult to bring them from the distant parts of Judea. It was found much easier to purchase them in Jerusalem. Hence it became a business to keep them to sell to those who were required to offer them.

‘It was not the mere presence of the money changers and the buying and selling of sacrificial animals that provoked Jesus’ outrage. As noted by France, “The market performed a useful and indeed necessary role in providing the animals needed for sacrifice by those who traveled from a distance cf. Jn 2:14; m. Seqalim 1:3; 2:4, the Syrian currency (cf. Ex 30:11-14) which was required for temple dues (see on 17:24), and the market’s location in the Court of the Gentiles was sanctioned by priestly authorities.” In this author’s view, there is also nothing in the text to suggest that Jesus was provoked by dishonest business practices or profiteering. After all, both the “buyers and sellers” were driven out of the courtyard. Jesus’ actions were not primarily an attempt to reform temple proceedings, since he knew that the future destruction of the temple was not far off. Instead, it can be viewed as a symbolic act foreshadowing its destruction. With the removal of those buying and selling, and the scattering of the money changers, Jesus had in effect symbolized the end of the temple as a place of sacrifice.

As Wright observes, “Without the Temple-tax the regular daily sacrifice could not be supplied. Without the right money, individual worshipers could not purchase their animal sacrifices. Without animals, sacrifice could not be offered. Without sacrifice the Temple had lost its whole raison d’etre.”‘ (College Press)

“A house of prayer for all nations” – This must have been a striking encouragement for Mark’s non-Jewish readers.

One of N.T. Wright’s rather idiosyncratic interpretations surfaces here.  Stein says: ‘Wright interprets this as meaning that the Temple had become a den of revolutionary zealots and brigands. His main support for this is that the term “robbers” (lestes) often refers to brigands or bandits. Yet the reason this term is used is because Jesus is quoting Jer 7:11 where the term is found and the context involves Jesus’ overturning the tables of the moneychangers and those selling sacrificial animals! These people were far from revolutionaries. They were part of the establishment who sought to maintain the status quo.’

When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?

According to John 2:12-22, Jesus cleansed the Temple near the beginning of his public ministry.  The Synoptists, however, record a cleansing during the last week of his earthly ministry (Mt 21:10–17; Mk 11:15–19; Lk 19:45–46).

John records a temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  So, was the one cleansing (and, if so, was it at the beginning or the close of his ministry)?  Or were there two cleansings?

Here are the main alternatives:-

(a) A few think that John’s chronology is correct.  The Synoptic writers could not include the account earlier, because they do not record Jesus’ earlier visits to Jerusalem, and only mention the Passover during which he was crucified.

Wright (in his popular work on John’s Gospel) is sympathetic to this view:

‘In favour of putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal throughout his short career. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain certain things very well: why, for instance, people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out (e.g. Mark 3:22; 7:1), and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, they already felt they had a case against him (John 11:47–53).’

Sceptical scholars suppose that the authorities, having been alerted by the cleansing recorded by John, would have been on their guard against any further such disruption.  They therefore insist that only one cleansing could have taken place.

(b) Many think that the Synoptic chronology is correct.  John may have brought forward his account for theological, symbolic or literary reasons.  John, it is said, is concerned with the deeper meaning of the events he records, and feels free to rearrange them.  According to this view, ‘the ministry is launched by an affirmation of Jesus’ renewal of the worship of Israel and his claim to be the new locus, as the Risen One, of all commerce between God and humanity’ (Milne who, however, appears to support view (c) below).  However, the clear indications of time suggest that John has not altered the chronology to suit his own purposes.

Harper’s Bible Commentary: ‘In all probability John has moved an event from the passion week to the beginning of the narrative. Such a move would fit his tendency to set out at the beginning matters or events that in the other Gospels take place later (e.g., the confession of Jesus as Messiah). Jesus comes to the Temple of Jerusalem, the very heart of the Israelite nation and religion, at the outset of his ministry and there confronts its authorities. Their forthcoming hostility is adumbrated, and his own death and resurrection are revealed by the testimony of Scripture and Jesus’ own pronouncement.’

Barrett thinks that John’s account draws on that of Mark, but that the fourth evangelist moves the incident for theological reasons.

According to Beasley-Murray,

‘there is reasonably widespread agreement now that: (i) the event happened only once, not twice (at the beginning and end of the ministry of Jesus); (ii) it took place in the last week of the life of Jesus; (iii) the Fourth Evangelist had no intention of correcting the timing of the event, but set his account at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus to highlight its significance for understanding the course of the ministry.’

This account, transposed to the beginning of John’s Gospel,

‘provides a vital clue for grasping the nature and the course of our Lord’s work, his words and actions, his death and resurrection, and the outcome of it all in a new worship of God, born out of a new relation to God in and through the crucified-risen Christ.’

For Klink,

‘an overt attack on the temple arrangements for sacrifice is far more readily understandable historically as part of the culmination of Jesus’ public mission and as the event that sealed the decision to have him arrested.’

Klink continues:

‘In their reconstruction of the history of composition of the Fourth Gospel a number of scholars plausibly suggest that at an earlier stage the temple incident was associated with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in chapter 12 but was removed to make room for the Lazarus story, which in this narrative provides the chief motive for Jesus’ arrest. In any case, as it now stands in the final version of the Gospel, the account still retains clear links with the passion narrative. Verse 17 has an implicit reference to Jesus’ death and its citation of Ps. 69 is from a psalm extensively quarried by the early church for scriptural witness to the passion. Jesus’ saying in v. 19 is a version of a saying which has an important role in Mark and Matthew in their accounts of the Sanhedrin trial and the crucifixion. It appears, then, that, as with a number of other features of the Fourth Gospel, theological rather than historical concerns have shaped the narrative’s presentation and in this case determined the place of the temple incident in the plot. Placing the temple incident at the beginning helps to structure the whole narrative of Jesus’ public mission in terms of a major confrontation between his claims and the views of official Judaism.’

Michaels (UBCS) notes that the reference to the Passover in Jn 2:13 is similar to that in Jn 11:55.  He regards this is evidence that the cleansing actually took place at the beginning of Passion week, and that John has deliberately separated the Triumphal Entry from the Temple Cleansing, so that each now stands at the head of the two main sections of the Fourth Gospel (Jn 2:13-11:54; and Jn 11:55-21:25).

Blomberg (Historical Reliability of the New Testament) comments on the view that John has relocated this episode for thematic purposes.  He agrees that this is possible, in view of the fact that John’s earlier chronological markers (John 1: 29, 35, 43; 2: 1), and so on, are here absent.

On the question of John’s willingness to adjust chronology for theological reasons, scholars tend to claim, as key supporting evidence, that he brings move forward the crucifixion by one day.  But this claim is itself contestable.

(c) But some  take the view that there were two temple cleansings.  Morris, Osborne, Tasker, Mounce, Kostenberger, Hendriksen, Carson, Bock, Blomberg adopt, or at least incline, to this view.  In this case, the second (recorded by the Synoptists, took place two or three years after the first.  The first cleansing did not form a part of the tradition that they were drawing on.

This was the dominant view in pre-critical times.  In modern times, however, many scholars dismiss this as a possibility.  According to Chapple, ‘C. H. Dodd went so far as to call it a ‘puerile expedient,’ although he used slightly less caustic terms in his subsequent study of John: ‘The suggestion that the temple was twice cleansed is the last resort of a desperate determination to harmonize Mark and John at all costs.”

Even some conservative scholars have roundly dismissed this possibility.  Borchert (NAC), for example, writes that ‘the familiar argument of two cleansings is a historiographic monstrosity that has no basis in the texts of the Gospels.’  France (on the Gospel of Mark): ‘the suggestion, still sometimes met as an attempt to “harmonise” Mark and John, that it happened twice is about as probable as that the Normandy landings took place both at the beginning and the end of the Second World War.’

However, this possibility should be taken seriously, for a number of reasons:-

(i) Both accounts are given their own chronological markers.

(ii) Apart from the references to John the Baptist, there is no Synoptic material at all in the first five chapters of John’s Gospel.  This consideration adds to the likelihood that these are two distinct events.

(iii) Although both accounts begin similarly, there are a number of differences between the Synoptic and Johannine accounts.  Morris points out that apart from the central act, they bar little resemblance, and only have five words in common.  Blomberg: ‘Only John speaks of cattle, sheep, a whip of cords, and coins. The key sayings attributed to Jesus are entirely different- a protest against commercialism (v. 16) and a cryptic prediction of his death and resurrection (v. 19). A different Old Testament passage is cited (v. 17- Ps. 69:9) and different questions on the part of the Jewish leaders appear (vv. 18, 20). The synoptic accounts, in contrast, focus on the combination of quotations from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 (a house of prayer vs. a den of robbers).’

(iv) Milne argues that both accounts are contextually credible: ‘At the beginning, Jesus sees the worship of the nation through eyes newly kindled by the call of God and his nascent sense of mission. As the newly authorized Messiah King, he moves energetically to confront Israel’s apostasy and recall it to a new submission to God (Mal. 3:1f.). At the end of the ministry Jesus comes, in the shadow of his looming self-sacrifice, to declare the final bankruptcy of a religion which has turned its back on its high and holy destiny in the interests of self-aggrandizement and empty legalism.’  John’s account helps to explain the early hostility towards Jesus’ ministry (Jn 5:18).

(v) A further indication that the two accounts are complementary is the fact that Mt 26:61/Mk 14:58 refers to a saying of Jesus which is not recorded anywhere previously in the Synoptic Gospels, but is found in Jn 2:19.

(vi) The objection (of Keener and others) that it would be ‘unlikely’ that Jesus would cleanse the temple in such a dramatic way, and then be allowed to do it again (having re-visited the temple several times in between) must be regarded as rather conjectural.  Morris: ‘At the time indicated in John Jesus was quite unknown. His strong action would have aroused a furor in Jerusalem, but that is all. The authorities may have well been disinclined to go to extremes against him, especially if there was some public feeling against the practices he opposed [and, we might add, some public support for him, Jn 2:23]. It was quite otherwise at the time indicated by Mark.’

(vii) We should not be surprised that both occurred at the time of Passover, since Jesus would be most likely to visit Jerusalem then (Carson).

(viii) ‘An early temple cleansing helps explain historically why Jesus faced hostility early in his ministry (5:18). In addition, Jesus’ common practice of withdrawing (3:22; 6:15; 7:9-10; 8:59; 10:40) makes it historically plausible that he could have continued his ministry for two or three years after an initial temple cleansing.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

(ix) ‘Randolph Richards has analyzed the events in terms of ancient cultures of honor and shame. It is conceivable that the first incident in John 2 occurred in a comparatively small corner of the temple so that the authorities did not immediately intervene but waited to see if a sign like the one they understood Jesus to have predicted would occur. When it did not, they would assume he was sufficiently shamed, in public, not to be any further danger. But if two or three years later he performed something similar, it showed him to be without shame, unaffected by social constraint, and therefore potentially dangerous.[ 517] If Jesus spoke something like 2: 19 that long before his trial and execution, it is also easier to understand how his words could have been garbled and misconstrued as in Mark 14: 58 and parallel.’ (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament)

11:18 The chief priests and the experts in the law heard it and they considered how they could assassinate him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed by his teaching. 11:19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

The Withered Fig Tree, 20-26

11:20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 11:21 Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered.”

“The fig tree you cursed” – ‘Peter used the word ‘cursed’ of the fig-tree; it is important to realize that in the Bible ‘blessing’ and ‘cursing’ do not have the same meaning as today. They are God’s solemn judgments, his pronouncements of the results of either pleasing or displeasing him; he does not act without reason. The Bible knows nothing of magical curses; and we do not need to fear them, for they cannot harm the Christian.’ (NBC)

11:22 Jesus said to them, “Have faith in God. 11:23 I tell you the truth, if someone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 11:24 For this reason I tell you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea’ – ‘The symbol of a mountain may have been suggested by the horizon to the south of Jerusalem that is dominated by a peak in the shape of a volcano, which comes into view as one reaches the crest of the Mount of Olives from the village of Bethany. This peak is actually the fortress of Herodion, one of many citadels built by Herod the Great for refuge in case of war or rebellion. Herod had literally removed an adjacent hill, the base of which is still visible today, in order to surround the citadel of Herodion with a rounded earthwork “in the form of a breast,” to quote Josephus. Herod’s architectural ambitions had changed the face of Judea, yet whoever believes in God, says Jesus, can move greater mountains than Herodion—indeed, cast them into the sea!’ (Edwards)

Hurtado notes that the Dead Sea can be seen in the East from the top of the Mount of Olives, and suggests that Jesus may have had it in mind when he uttered this saying.

“Whatever you pray and ask for believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” – ‘Believe that you have received it is, according to Edwards, a Hebraism which uses the past tense to speak of a future event in order to express the certainty of it.

This remarkable saying, together with the vivid illustration which precedes it, appears to give validity to a rather strong form of ‘name it and claim it’ theology.

Schnabel: ‘Since prayer is addressed to God, it goes without saying that whatever you ask will be granted by God if and when it is in agreement with the will of God. Jesus’ statement is not a blank cheque with believers invited to ‘write’ anything they wish on the empty line, as Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Mk 14:36) shows.’

‘We should not try in any way whatever to minimize the force of this saying and to subtract from its meaning. Both in the physical and in the spiritual sphere the apostles had already been doing things that would have been considered just as “impossible” as causing a mountain to be lifted up and thrown into the sea. Had not Peter “by faith” walked on the water? See Matt. 14:29. Did not The Twelve exclaim, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in thy name”? (Luke 10:17). A few days later was not Jesus going to promise, “I most solemnly assure you, he who believes in me, the works that I do will he do also, and greater (works) than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12)? See also Acts 2:41; 3:6–9, 16; 5:12–16; 9:36–43; 19:11, 12. In fact does not the entire book of Acts prove that what Jesus said here in Mark 11:22, 23 was true?’ (Hendriksen)

However, (adds Hendriksen) would should not divorce this saying from the rest of the Bible’s teaching about prevailing prayer:

‘If the promise of Christ, “Whatever you ask for … it shall be yours” seems almost unbelievable, it should be borne in mind that such praying and asking must, of course, be in harmony with the characteristics of true prayer which Jesus reveals elsewhere; in fact, it must be in line with all of scriptural teaching. Accordingly it must be the expression of:

humble, childlike trust; note “believing that you received it,” and cf. Mark 10:15; also Matt. 7:11; 18:3, 4; James 1:6.
a sincere heart and mind (Mark 12:40; cf. Matt. 6:5).
a will to persevere (Mark 13:13b; cf. Matt. 7:7; Luke 18:1–8).
a love for all concerned (Mark 12:31, 33; cf. Matt. 5:43–48; Luke 6:32–36).
submission to God’s sovereign will (Mark 14:36b; Matt. 6:10b; 26:39).

This also implies that such praying is “in Christ’s name,” that is, it is in harmony with all that Jesus has revealed concerning himself and it rests on his merits (Mark 9:37, 41; cf. John 15:16; 16:23, 24; Eph. 4:32; 5:20; Col. 3:17).’

11:25 Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your sins.”

“If..so that…” – Here is another hint that the promises of the previous verse are not entirely unconditional.

‘Our forgiving of others will not procure forgiveness for ourselves, but our not forgiving of others proves that we ourselves are not forgiven.’ (John Owen)

Mark 11:26 “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.” (NASB)

The Authority of Jesus, 27-33

Mk 11:27–33 = Mt 21:23–27; Lk 20:1–8
11:27 They came again to Jerusalem. While Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the experts in the law, and the elders came up to him 11:28 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Or who gave you this authority to do these things?”
11:29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question. Answer me and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: 11:30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven or from people? Answer me.” 11:31 They discussed with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 11:32 But if we say, ‘From people—’ ” (they feared the crowd, for they all considered John to be truly a prophet). 11:33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”