What Jesus Really Said: Weeping, “Cleansing,” and Cursing

Young blond man reading the Bible with bright green background

Luke 19:41-46

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” i

Mark 11:13-14

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. ii

We’ve been spending the summer studying Jesus’ parables, all of which fall under three broad categories: The Kingdom of God generally, the grace of God, and/or the judgment of God. Last week we began looking at the parables of judgment Jesus tells as he enters Jerusalem during the Passion Week.

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We learned that Jesus’ judgment parables are not so much focused on the final judgment at the end of the ages as they are focused on judgment as the act of rejecting Messiah and his death and resurrection. His coming cross work is the ultimate act of judgment – judgment upon those who reject it, and judgment on behalf of those trust into Messiah Jesus.

But now I want to throw out a notion somewhat at odds with our general understanding of parables. All the parables we have examined are fictional stories of comparison teaching something about the Kingdom of God. But today we actually come to a chain of acted parables, where Jesus himself creates a comparison between the Old and New Covenants, the old and new order by the things he says and does. These are comparisons between the OT types (pictures of Christ) and Christ himself as the antitype (reality).

This chain of acted parables, performed on and directly after Palm Sunday show Jesus shredding three OT pictures (or types): Jerusalem as the City of God; the Temple as the House of God; and a fig tree as the symbol of Israel and its religious system.

JUDGING JERUSALEM

Palms and Praises

All the ways Christ communicated himself to people in the age of the Old Covenant (tabernacle/temple, sacrificial system, Israel as a unique kingdom, etc.) come to an end with Jesus’ death and resurrection. He begins to prophetically demonstrate this “new world order” with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

Jerusalem was the Holy City, the location of the temple, the city where God lived, the nexus between human and divine, inviolable territory. That makes the question of the relationship between Jesus and Jerusalem inevitable.iii Jesus answers this question as he makes his Holy Week entry to the city.

His triumphal entry, particularly as Luke describes it, fits a pattern in ancient Jewish literature of a person who enters a city not to claim kingship, but as a ceremony proclaiming an already-achieved victory as king. Jesus enters as the King who has already conquered (Lk. 1:32-35).iv

This is why Jesus enters on a donkey (Zech. 9:9) rather than a war horse. He comes as a victorious king in peace and as a judge in absolution to carry out the sovereignly-ordained, left-handed, upside-down act of revealing the judgment of those who reject him and being judged in place of those who trust into him by dying as a common criminal on a Roman cross.

Jerusalem is SO 15 Minutes Ago

The Triumphal entry is itself an acted parable of grace and judgment. It sets up Jesus’ proclamation of judgment against Jerusalem, the city that refuses his grace. “41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’v

Even though Jesus has known all along that he is riding straight into the teeth of rejection, the fact of it strikes a powerful emotional chord. vi The enormity of this rejection, the irony of the City of Peace rejecting the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7), overwhelms Jesus with both pity and anger.

The pity is in verses 41-42a. But look at the last sentence of verse 42, “But now they are hidden from your eyes.vii There’s the judgment. Not only do the leaders reject Messiah Jesus, their judgment from God is their continued rejection because the Christ is hidden from their eyes. God “visiting” his holy city was an act of grace; Jerusalem’s rejection of the “visit” was their judgment, the consequence of which was their physical destruction.

Judgment is the rejection of Messiah and all his benefits. Jesus judges Jerusalem because she has judged herself. He pronounces the end of Jerusalem’s influence as a religious and cultural center. With Jerusalem’s end comes the final, visible end of the Old Covenant system.viii

Messiah graciously came into his holy city. His city freely, willingly rejected him; as a result, Christ and all his benefits were hidden from Jerusalem. Jesus is teaching that grace is always sovereign over judgment. There is no judgment without grace.

JUDGING THE TEMPLE

Having pronounced judgment on the Holy City, Jesus moves on to the next of his acted parables. Still, on Palm Sunday, he enters the temple and drives out all the merchants of sacrificial animals (according to Luke; Mark has him judge the temple on Monday). He upends the money changers’ tables and the pigeon sellers’ chairs, drives out the animals, and proclaims that what God intended to be a house of prayer has now become a cave where thieves hideout – the thieves being ALL the officials in the temple system (not just those selling sacrificial animals).

Judgment, Not “Cleansing”

I’m not aware of any English translation of the Bible that doesn’t include the traditional heading to this acted parable as a “cleansing” of the temple. Let me be as clear as I can be: Jesus is NOT cleansing the temple; he is judging it. He has just entered the Holy City as it’s victorious (but left-handed) King. He has judged the entire city as a center of religious life for Israel. He has now overturned all the tables that allow worshippers to buy the sacrificial animals they need for worship, he has driven out all the animals along with the sellers, halting the work of the Levites and priests. No sacrifices can be made.

If Jerusalem is no longer the center of the world, then the status distinctions it embodied and spread are gone. Because of that, Jesus edits his citation of Isa. 56:7 in v 46, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” he quotes. But he leaves out Isaiah’s final phrase: “for all peoples.

New Temple

Why does he leave that phrase out? Because there is a new house of God, a new meeting place between man and God, a new temple and that new place is Messiah Jesus himself. No longer will people need to come to the earthly Jerusalem to worship God. Instead, they will come in trust to the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 1:8). The Good News goes out into the world; the world does not travel to Jerusalem to receive it.ix

Sadly, few too many Christians understand Jesus’ judgment of Jerusalem and its temple. Many still seek spiritual value by making pilgrimages to the “Holy Land,” thinking being there brings one closer to God. Still, others insist on a theology that teaches the judged and destroyed Jewish temple must be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted.

Death and Resurrection

Jesus tossing money on the ground and driving out the sacrificial animals and animal dealers is not anti-capitalistic “Progressive” politics at work. This is Messiah announcing an end to the work of the temple as a place of sacrificial atonement. In fact, he’s already prophesied the temple’s (along with the entire city’s) physical destruction. John directly links Jesus’ judging of the temple with his death and resurrection:

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” [stopping the sacrifices] 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body (Jn. 2:18-20).x

John finds this act of judgment upon the temple so profound, he puts it right up front in his gospel account as a way to define Messiah’s mission. Remember, the gospel writers are not interested in giving us a purely chronological account of Jesus’ life and ministry. They arranged their material thematically. (And yes, Virginia, that is why context always matters when we examine Jesus’ parables!)

Last, Least, Little and Lost

After this parabolic acting out of judgment, Matthew tells us:

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” xi

The blind and the lame are the very people the Pharisees wanted to keep out of the temple. In fact, they believed Messiah would not come to Israel until the entire temple district was cleansed of these people whom they believed were clearly under the judgment of God because of their infirmities. Jewish Karma.

But here are the unfit and unwanted streaming into the temple to the horror of the temple authorities! And, to top it off, Messiah Jesus, the Son of David, is healing them. He is making the last, the least, the little (infants and nursing babies), and the lost pure and fit for worship.

And the sign Jesus gives as the basis for his authority to cleanse the un-temple-worthy losers is his own death and resurrection. When the temple authorities order him to tell these losers to stop praising him as Messiah, he quotes King David’s messianic prophecy back to them as evidence of the judgment upon them he as just pronounced. Messiah is hidden from their eyes (Lk. 19:42).

JUDGING ISRAEL

Unready Tree

Finally, Jesus follows up this parade of judgments by cursing a fig tree (Matt. 21:18-19; Mk. 11:12-14) the morning after Palm Sunday. He’s spending his nights in Bethany and walking back to Jerusalem in the mornings during this final week before the cross. On this morning he sees a fig tree by the side of the road.

Jesus finds no fruit on the tree and says to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!xii Matthew adds “forever” (“into the age”). Matthew said the tree withered immediately. Mark notes that by the next morning, the tree is dead from the roots up, and that Peter points this out to Jesus. Jesus replies, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”xiii

This seems like a strange scene unless we understand that Jesus occupies three offices: prophet, priest, and king. In cursing the fig tree, Jesus is acting out his prophetic office in the same way that the OT prophets often delivered their prophecies: by acting out their message.

By using this fig tree, Jesus is making a statement of prophetic judgment upon Israel and its religious system. Often in the Old Testament, the people of God are compared to a fig tree (Isaiah 34, Jeremiah 29, Hosea 2, Hosea 9, Joel 1, and Micah 7).

Jesus’ memories of the Palm Sunday crowds and the empty celebrations that misunderstood his Kingship still made him grieve. He looked at the fig tree’s beautiful foliage, but he knew that leaves wouldn’t help his hunger. Jesus is living in the midst of a people under the judgment of God, a people covering their moral nakedness with the fig leaves of a do-good-to-earn-good religious system.

Soon God’s judgment was going to fall on their sin. The fig tree was full of large and beautiful leaves. It promised life. And in this season, it should have at least possessed the not-quite-ripened smaller figs that grew from the sprouts of the previous year. These early figs begin to appear simultaneously with the leaves. Sometimes, in fact, they even precede the leaves.xiv

These tiny fruits, though not fully ripe would be edible. So this tree, with all of its large, lush green leaves promised sustenance and provision but provided nothing – just like the religion of 1st-century Judaism. The Jews of 1st century Palestine were not looking for Messiah to save them from the wrath of a holy God, but for a political king to restore the house of David.

They believed that working their semi-Pelagian system (God helps those who help themselves) would maintain the corporate salvation all good, circumcised, system-working, Jews possessed by birth. We don’t need Jesus to save us from our sins; we already have a system for that. We were circumcised into our father Abraham. We follow the laws of our father Moses. What we need is a king like our father David.

The Gospel Jesus has been announcing is utterly opposed to the 1st-century Jewish religious system because the Gospel teaches that our righteousness is in Christ alone. When I am in Christ, I cannot do anything that makes God love me more. I am right with God by means my God-given trust in the righteous, law-keeping life and atoning death of the resurrected Christ ALONE.

To emphasize Jesus’ judgment of Israel’s religious system, Mark sandwiches the fig tree’s cursing and withering as the bread, with the meat of his story being the judging of the temple itself. Jesus curses the tree, heads to the temple and disrupts the sacrifices, goes back out of the city, and then the next morning on the way back to Jerusalem Peter notices the totally dead fig tree that withered the day before (according to Matthew).

The tree was a perfect example of Israel and Second Temple Period Judaism: a system that gave the appearance of life and blessing, covenantal status, and corporate salvation; but, as far as Jesus was concerned, it delivered nothing. The temple was a beautiful fig tree full of green, promising leaves and no fruit.

A New and True Mountain

But doesn’t Jesus’ response in Mark 11:22-23 to Peter’s seeing the withered fig tree seem odd? “Have trust into God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but trusts that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.xv

What does a dead tree have to do with terraforming and prayer? Jesus is saying that true godly life is a life of grace exhibited in trust and in prayer and in the forgiveness of sin, completely independent of any altar, or pile of rocks, or mountain. The New Covenant Jesus brings does not center on a country, a city, a temple on a mountain, or a system of works and penance + grace.

Jesus’ specific teaching about the moving of a mountain has been turned into the extra-biblical proverb “Faith can move mountains.” Jesus does not speak about moving mountains (plural). Jesus speaks about trust moving this mountain – the temple mount, the one toward which they are facing as they walk in from Bethany to Jerusalem.

This mountain is utterly useless. It is a dead fig tree. It will come to ruin and not one stone will be left standing upon another. Jesus spoke of the coming uselessness of mountains to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:19-21) who questioned him about which mountain is the dwelling place of God. He said:

the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. xvi

Israel was certain that God resided upon the temple mount despite that fact that God’s shekinah glory NEVER came down to rest upon the second temple as it had upon the tabernacle and, later, upon Solomon’s temple. But when God came, incarnated into human flesh, HE WAS THE TEMPLE. And he was the Shekinah glory incarnate. John says “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).xvii

Jesus was the ultimate meeting place between God and man, prefigured in the tabernacle and the temple, and in all of the mountains and altars of Israel’s history. God “has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:2-3). xviii

There is no access to the one, true living God except through faith in the Promised Seed, the God-Man, Messiah Jesus. EVERY other religious system is a destroyed city, an uprooted mountain, and a dead fig tree.

Hear the Word of the Lord:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through trust into Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by trust. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who is trusting into Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of trust. 28 For we hold that one is justified by trust apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by trust and the uncircumcised through trust. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this trust? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. xix

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 19:41–46.

ii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 11:12–14.

iii Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 683.

iv Id., 683–684.

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 19:41–42.

vi Capon, 425.

vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 19:42.

viii Green, 681–682.

ix Green, 682.

x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jn 2:18–21.

xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 21:14–16.

xii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 21:19.

xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 11:22–23.

xiv Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 10: New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (442). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 11:22–23. Modified by author.

xvi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jn 4:21–25.

xvii Author’s trans.

xviii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Heb 1:2–3.

xix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:19–31, with modified translations by author.