Jesus and the Temple
By Dr. Paul Knudtson
“Then they came to Jerusalem. And [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,’ “My house shall be called a house of prayer for the nations?”’” – Mark 11:16-17
“As he came out of the temple . . . Jesus [said], ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” – Mark 13:1-2
Witnesses against Jesus: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” – Mark 14:58
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” – 1 Corinthians 3:16
The gospel writers (such as Mark) give prominent attention to the Jerusalem temple in their narration of the final events in Jesus’s life. Somehow or other, the meaning of what is happening to Jesus during his final days is related to what also happens to the temple. Jesus cleanses the temple (Mark 11:15-19), spends time teaching at the temple (12:35, 41; 13:3; 14:49), and predicts its ultimate destruction (13:2). The leading temple priests (chief priests and the high priest) in Jerusalem become Jesus’s principal opponents during his time in the city, and after Jesus has cleansed the temple, they begin plotting how to put him to death (11:18, 27; 14:1, 10, 43, 53, 54, 55, 60, 63; 15:1, 3, 10, 11, 31). At his trial before the Jewish council, the chief priest declares his verdict that Jesus has uttered “blasphemy” (14:64). The entire council agrees with him and “condemn him as deserving death” (14:64).
The most significant reference to the temple in the passion narrative happens at the precise moment of Jesus’s death. “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38). The gospel writer does not explain the significance of this event, but it is clear that we are to understand the meaning of Christ’s death in relation to this dramatic occurrence in the temple. The most likely interpretation is that the ripping of the veil of the temple indicates that Jesus’s death has accomplished the final and ultimate atonement for the sins of humanity and has thereby opened the way for humans to approach God freely. The veil is understood to refer to the veil before the “holy of holies” in the temple where the blood of sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the lid of the arc of the covenant to make atonement for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16). Jesus’s death is understood as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people that renders temple sacrifices as unnecessary. As Hebrews says, “he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Christ, by the new and living way . . . let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19, 20, 22).
In his teaching at the temple, Jesus has already implicitly downplayed the importance of temple sacrifices with his stress on the primary importance in Israel’s scriptures regarding the commandments to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34 that quote Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18). But the action of God in ripping the veil of the temple (“from top to bottom”) indicates the end of the need for the atoning sacrifices of the temple. Then a few decades later, Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:2) is fulfilled when in 70 A.D. the Romans destroy the temple in their war against the Jews.
The temple was understood not only as the place for sacrifices to be performed, though, but was also the place where God especially dwelled (see, for example, Psalm 84). The New Testament indicates that for believers in Christ there is still such a temple where God dwells by his Spirit, but that this temple is not one built of stone, but is a spiritual temple consisting of all those who are united to Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian believers of this when he writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16; see also Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5). Jesus Christ is the place where God’s presence is known, and Christ’s ongoing presence in the church after his resurrection makes the church God’s new temple. Although during his lifetime Jesus never says that he will destroy the Jerusalem temple, there is an element of truth in what certain false witnesses say: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’”(Mark 14:58). The church, made up of believers in Christ, is this new temple not made with hands.
Meditation: The Psalmist writes, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!” (Ps 84:1). Have there been any holy places in your experience where you have become especially aware of God’s presence? Jesus changed how we think of God’s presence so that we no longer think of it principally in terms of buildings, but now in terms of people (the church). Spend some time considering what it means that we are now God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in us.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord God, that you wish to dwell not only in heaven, but especially among people, among us. Help us to make space in our lives so that we may experience your presence in new and life-changing ways. “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10). Amen.
Open, Open, Open the gates of the Temple,
By Fanny Crosby
Open the gates of the Temple,strew palms on the Conqueror’s way
Open your hearts, O ye people,that Jesus may enter today
Hark! from the sick and the dying, forgetting their couches of pain,
Voices, glad voices, with rapture are swelling a glad refrain,
Open the gates of the Temple, one grand hallelujah be heard.
Open your hearts to the Saviour, make room for the crucified Lord.
Tears and the anguish of midnight are lost in the splendor of day.
They who in sorrow once doubted are swelling a glad refrain,
I know, I know, I know, I know that my Redeemer liveth.
Canst thou, my heart, lift up thy voice, thy voice and sing:
I know, I know, yes I know that my Redeemer liveth;
And because He lives, and because He lives,
And because He lives, I too, I too, I too shall live.