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Cleaning His Father’s House . . . Again!

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 21:12–13, 18–22; Mark 11:12–26; Luke 19:45–48; 21:37–38

Prayer was central to Jesus’ life and ministry, so it is certainly a need in our lives. In the last week before His crucifixion, Jesus devoted a unique miracle to teaching, not only a sobering truth about Israel, but also a critical truth about prayer.


As we continue our Wisdom Journey through the Passover week, leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross, these final acts of Jesus are anything but random or haphazard—they are deeply intentional and important.

When Jesus entered the city on what we today call Palm Sunday, He went to the temple and looked around. Then He left with His disciples to spend the night back in Bethany, more than likely at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

Well, now it is Monday, and they are traveling back to the temple. Two events are going to take place: first, the cursing of the fig tree, and second, the cleansing of the temple.

If you compare the Gospels, Matthew’s account records the cleansing of the temple before the cursing of the fig tree; Mark’s account reverses the order. Matthew puts the cursing of the fig tree and Jesus’ explanation at the same time, but in Mark’s account, there is a full day in between.

It is helpful to know that Matthew is condensing the narrative. And by now, you have probably realized that the Gospels do not always record everything in consecutive or chronological order. Matthew does not specify a time frame for these events, but Mark does. So, we will follow Mark’s expanded account as we continue in our Wisdom Journey to study the Gospels chronologically.

It is early Monday morning as Jesus and the Twelve are walking back to the city of Jerusalem. We are told here in Mark 11:12 that Jesus is hungry. Seeing a fig tree in leaf, He approaches it but finds no fruit—only leaves. Verse 13 notes, “It was not the season for figs.”

Jesus then says to the fig tree in verse 14, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The text also notes, “His disciples heard it.”

Now it is not the season for figs, as the text says, so this particular tree stands out for having leaves early. It appears to hold out the promise of figs, but there are none.

We will come back to this fig tree a little later, but let me tell you, it is connected to what happens next in the temple. The temple should be a place of spiritual fruit—a nourishing place for people to be satisfied spiritually. But while it looks fruitful, it is actually barren.

Then we read this in verse 15:

[Jesus] 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.

He is literally cleaning His Father’s house again. Jesus, of course, did this same thing three years earlier, as recorded back in John 2.

Every adult male was required to attend Passover in Jerusalem, but none of them could enter the temple until they had paid a temple tax that amounted to two-days’ salary. This was no small sacrifice. It should have been free entrance, but you can imagine with thousands upon thousands of Jewish pilgrims arriving to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, what this income meant for the corrupt priesthood. This one entrance fee alone would have brought in millions of dollars for the priests.

In addition to the entrance fees, the outer court of the temple had been turned into a marketplace, where sacrificial animals were sold to the worshipers. If pilgrims arrived with their own animals for sacrifices, the priests would routinely find something wrong with them—some blemish or defect that disqualified them for the Passover sacrifice. The worshipers would have no choice but to purchase temple-sanctioned animals, and the prices were exorbitant. All of this was nothing less than extortion in the name of religion.

The priests and temple authorities had not stopped these practices. Even though Jesus had cleaned them out three years earlier, they are back at it again. So, Jesus drives out all these merchants and money-changers and says in verse 17, “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.”

The chief priests and scribes are furious with Jesus, and verse 18 tells us they were “seeking a way to destroy him.”

With that, let’s jump ahead to the next morning, when Jesus and the disciples are walking by that same fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before. Peter says, “Look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21).

Now don’t misunderstand this miracle. Jesus did not curse this tree because it was evil. And He did not destroy it because He was upset that it did not satisfy His hunger. After all, He could just as easily have miraculously caused the tree to produce fruit right there on the spot.

Jesus is using the fig tree as an object lesson. His cursing of this tree ties back to a parable He told in Luke 13 about a barren fig tree. It failed to produce fruit for—how long?—three years. That parable pointed to the nation of Israel, which had not produced the fruit of repentance.

Jesus’ first cleansing of the temple was a call to national reformation and repentance. How long has it been since He cleansed the temple the first time? Three years! Now Jesus is back again, and there is still no fruit. So, the cursing of the fig tree points to the coming judgment upon the unrepentant nation.

Oh, it has the leaves of religious beauty and tradition, but there is no genuine spiritual fruit. There is a great difference between religion and true repentance and faith.

This miracle also has important lessons for us personally, as it did for the disciples. This is a warning against hypocrisy. We can look good but still not bear genuine spiritual fruit.

There is another lesson here for us as well. The temple Jesus has just “cleansed” was supposed to be a house of prayer, but there was no real faith there. Now Jesus encourages His disciples to be men of faith—and men of faith are men of prayer. And prayer, according to the will of God, is capable of doing mighty things for God’s glory.

Here is what Jesus says:

“Have faith in God. . . . 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. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (verses 22-24)

In other words, true faith in the power of God can accomplish great things for God. I love the principle William Carey, the great missionary, lived by as he would often say, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

Now this text is not a blank check to get whatever you want out of life. There are other conditions to praying given in the New Testament. For one, we are to pray in His name. That means whenever we offer a prayer that Jesus can sign His name to—that is, it is according to His will—that prayer is going to be accomplished.

Perhaps Jesus here is implicitly condemning all the prayers taking place in the temple. The priests were praying all sorts of prayers, and the people were responding in prayer. But think of it—they were all praying to God but at the same time rejecting the Son of God.

Oh, there are a lot of people today who are praying, talking about their prayers, and reading prayers in church, but their prayers really have nothing to do with honoring and obeying Jesus. Let me tell you, if you do not really care about King Jesus, your prayers are not getting past the living room ceiling—or the ceiling of some church or cathedral either, for that matter.

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