How Does the Message of Jesus Lead to His Crucifixion?

How Does the Message of Jesus Lead to His Crucifixion? June 14, 2011

Part 19 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?

In my last post, I wrapped up an extended answer to the question: How is the kingdom of God coming? I showed that Jesus, contrary to the expectations of his disciples and, indeed, all other first-century Jews, believed that the kingdom of God would come as the Messiah drank the cup of God’s wrath, offering himself as a ransom for many (Mark 10:35-45). Jesus envisioned his role as Messiah – though he preferred the enigmatic title, Son of Man – as leading to his death in Jerusalem. During his last meal with his disciples, Jesus symbolized his death by recasting the imagery of the Passover meal to focus on himself and his sacrifice. Even as God once led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, so Jesus would lead God’s people out of bondage to sin and its consequences by taking the due penalty for sin upon himself.

But, you might wonder, why would this sense of his calling get Jesus crucified? Surely what Jesus thought about his future was odd and unexpected, and quite disconcerting to some Jewish leaders, but was it a reason to have him put to death? In our effort to understand how the message of Jesus led to his crucifixion, we seem to be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. And, indeed, we are.

Model of the temple in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. From the Israel Museum.

The missing piece is the other watershed event, in addition to The Last Supper, that happened in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life: the so-called cleansing of the Temple. It comes after Jesus’ grand entrance into the city, an entrance fit for a king – literally. No doubt many of those who welcomed Jesus with their hosannas expected him to go to the Temple, the center of Jewish life and faith, and announce the beginning of the end of Roman rule over Judea. But when Jesus entered the Temple, not only did he not do what was expected, but, once more, he did something utterly unexpected and, I might add, unappreciated. As Mark tells the story,

[Jesus] 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 (11:15-16)

What rationale did Jesus offer for such shocking behavior? Marks adds,

He was teaching and saying, “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. (11:17)

The phrase, “den of robbers,” comes from the prophecy of Jeremiah (7:11), where God condemned the Israelites for being unfaithful to him and believing that they could hide in the spiritual protection of the temple, just like thieves in their hideout. Jeremiah’s prophecy spelled doom for the temple, which God was about to destroy as a part of his judgment upon Israel (7:12-15). By using this passage, Jesus not only inferred that the temple authorities were dishonest thieves, but also that God was about to judge the temple and destroy it. Not exactly a way to win friends and influence people among the Jerusalem priesthood.

Jesus was not the only Jew in his day to criticize the Temple. Many of the common folk despised its heavy taxation and financial corruptness, while the Essenes from Qumran wrote it off completely as spiritually bankrupt. But Jesus’ action in the temple, combined with his citation of Jeremiah, was a frontal assault on the central institution of Judaism in his day. Moreover, he explicitly undermined the authority of the entrenched temple hierarchy. It’s no wonder that “the chief priests and the scribes,” when they heard what Jesus had done, “kept looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18). A prophetic rabble-rouser in Galilee could be ignored; one who defamed the temple itself needed to be dispatched quickly. The problem for the authorities, however, was the widespread popularity of Jesus. Now if they could only get the Romans to crucify Jesus . . . . (For a more in-depth study of why Jesus’ actions in the Temple led to his death, see “The ‘Crime’ of Jesus” in my series Why Did Jesus Have to Die?)

If you’ve been following my series on the message of Jesus, you can see that his action in the temple wasn’t merely a ploy to get himself killed. Rather, it was the logical conclusion to his proclamation of the kingdom of God – a kingdom in which forgiveness comes from Jesus directly, without the mediation of temple, priest, or sacrifice. In the coming kingdom of God, in the new covenant inaugurated through Jesus’ own sacrifice, there is no need for a temple in Jerusalem, or anyplace else for that matter. Instead, in the coming kingdom of God:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
and he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll tie up a few loose ends and suggest how the message of Jesus might be lived out among his people today.

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  • I think you are right that one of the reasons the Pharisees began to plot Jesus’ death was because of the cleansing of the Temple, but I think there were several other significant events that also were contributing factors.  For example, in John 11 after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, it says, “So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.” (John 11:53).  The fact that Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” probably had something to do with it too.  And then there was the Triumphant Entry.  The fact is that Jesus systematically “attacked” them every chance He got to undercut the entrenched religious authorities who, despite their religious fervor, were not exhibiting the Kingdom of God and its mandate to bring mercy, justice, love and peace to mankind.  It is no wonder that they killed Him.

  • Anonymous

    Good thoughts. Thanks, Tim.

  • Bill Goff

    I believe that Jesus’ action in the Temple is correctly described as a cleansing, not a defaming.  I do not think it is correct to assert that Jesus made “a frontal assault on the central institution of Judaism in his day.”   He attacked the misuse, not the use of the Temple.  Unlike the folks of the separatist community at Qumran, Jesus did not teach his followers to abandon the Temple as a meaningful and important worship center.   Jesus continued to use the Temple as a place for his teaching (Mark 11:27 and 12:35).
    I believe that the followers of Jesus were in the Temple on the day of Pentecost when Holy Spirit came upon them.  The “house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2) was not somebody’s home which could hardly accommodate 120 people much less 3,000, but the House of God which was and is commonly referred to in Hebrew as “The House”.  After Pentecost the apostles and believers continued to use the Temple.  Much later (Acts 21) the Apostle (a Pharisee, not a former Pharisee) came to the Temple for a purification ritual.  All this suggests to me that the first followers of Jesus did not reject the Temple as a valid worship center. The Temple was only abandoned by Messianic and non-Messianic Jews after the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E.
    For me the implication of this evidence is that Jesus Christ is not anti-building or anti-institution.  Rather he is against the misuse of buildings and institutions. – Bill Goff

  • Anonymous

    Well, Bill, I have to disagree with you in part. Jesus replaced the Temple. He made it unnecessary. He was the once-for-all sacrifice. After Jesus, God’s temple on earth was the church (1 Cor 3). There is no Temple in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:22). After Jesus, the Temple is not necessary.