Jesus and the Temple…

… a guest post from Joshua Gibbs at thecedarroom.org

Joshua is a Traditio teacher at the Greatest Christian School in Pensacola.  He teaches my daughter Alice and encourages thoughts that pull at her brain.  Enjoy the first of:

This will be the first of a series of posts on Mark 11. The Traditio class at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, FL has devoted the first quarter of the year to studying St. Mark’s gospel, and this series of posts flows out of discussions I’ve enjoyed during our time thus far in study of the book. Many of the observations included in these posts have been identified by my students. Often, I feel as though I’m only moderating a heady theological discussion they’re leading. Even after reading half a dozen commentaries on Mark this year, I find their observations startling and beautiful.  

While St. Mark’s doesn’t recount Peter walking on water, suffering doubt, slipping into the Sea of Galilee and being pulled out by Christ, it does recount the leader of the apostles slipping into the sea of the nations.

In Mark 11, come the notoriously misnamed “cleansing” of the temple, Peter witnesses Jesus cast the Jews/temple/heaven/mountain into the sea. A Jew himself, it takes Peter a day to find his bearings, but he does so brilliantly when he finds the withered fig tree and discerns the sign. It is here that Peter understands the import of the temple. He knows that he is sinking into the sea.

Peter cries out, “Rabbi look!” directing Jesus’ attention to the withered tree. It’s important to remember Peter has seen Jesus walk on water, calm storms, raise the dead. He has seen Christ transfigured and knows He is the Son of God, the Messiah. He has seen Jesus display His power in far more spectacular ways than this. His alarm, then, is not over the fact that Jesus has cursed a fig tree. Rather, he recognizes the meaning behind the cursing. Heaven has been cast into the sea. The same heaven where he formerly stood.

Jesus responds to Peter’s exclamation here in a manner similar to His response when Peter began to sink into Galilee. “Have faith in God!” Jesus responds, as though Peter’s exclamation about the fig tree was an identical sign of weak faith. Jesus then explains to Peter that the man who believes will say to the mountain, “Be cast into the sea,” and it will be done. At this point, the third day of Holy Week, Jesus returns back into Jerusalem and encounters the Pharisees who ask Him by what authority He “does these things” (a reference to shutting down temple operations on the previous day). Jesus’ response is one of His craftiest in all of St. Mark’s. He says that He will only tell them by what authority He “does these things” if they will tell Him whose authority John Baptist worked. Realizing that either answer doomed them, the Pharisees responded they didn’t know.

Of all the means Jesus could have used to refute the question of the Pharisees, why bring up John? One of my students suggested that Jesus uses John’s baptism as a refutation to the Pharisee’s question because the Pharisees were <i>already</i> disputing a baptism- the baptism of the temple, which Jesus had just cast into the sea.

Jesus teaching on casting a mountain into the sea is easily misread as some kind of platitude about how neat faith is, but such exegesis is naive and sells the complexity of Jesus’ teaching very short. While pitching the temple of the Jews into the sea of Gentiles, Jesus instructs on the true purpose of the temple. The temple was meant to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” That the temple has failed to mature so as to become a house of prayer for all nations, Jesus is irate. When Jesus casts the temple into the sea, we might say that He forces the temple to become a house of prayer for all nations.

The judgment of Jesus at the temple on the second day of Holy Week is something far more than an angry tirade against the corruptions of the temple system. If not, Jesus isn’t doing anything that your average impoverished Jew wouldn’t have longed to do for decades. Instead, Jesus is maturing the temple and the people of the temple, who have long refused the otherness of the nations. In closing the temple down forever, Jesus opens the temple forever, and to everyone. Christ is the destroyed-rebuilt Temple, the Fig Tree forever in season, from which all the nations can eat.

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