Mark chapters 11-13 tell the story of Jesus’ rejection of and opposition to the religious establishment, especially as seen in the temple.
Herod’s temple was a massive architectural display. It was fifteen stories high. It consisted of several sections. The Court of the Gentiles alone was 500 yards long and 325 yards wide. The portico was supported by columns that were thirty feet high. The temple was the center of all Jewish religious activity.
Mark 11 opens with Jesus being celebrated as king on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But soon after, Jesus sees a fig tree that has born no fruit, and curses the tree. This is an ominous sign of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its grandiose temple. Soon after, Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple area. Merchants sold sheep and doves for sacrifice. There was a huge amount of trade and commerce that took place inside the temple, prompting Jesus to say that the house of prayer had been turned into a den of robbers.
Chapter 11 closes with the temple dignitaries challenging the authority of Jesus.
Mark 12 continues the conflict between Jesus and the keepers of the temple. The chapter begins with Jesus’ parable of the tenants, a clear warning that the Jewish people will reject Him as Messiah. Jesus squares off with the Sadducees over the issue of marriage at the resurrection. The chapter ends with two more episodes that take place in the context of the temple: Jesus clarifies his identity while teaching in the temple courts (12:35-37) and teaches the disciples a lesson while observing the poor widow contribute her last two pennies into the temple treasury (12:41-44).
In chapter 13, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and provides signs of the end times. He is specific about some of the cataclysmic events that will transpire when the temple is brought down.
All of these temple stories underscore the tension between Jesus and the operators of the temple. The leaders of the Jewish community will turn against Him and ultimately be responsible for his death. Even though Jesus has kept his identity a secret in the first half of Mark, he now openly declares who He is and claims his divine authority. This is the final straw with the keepers of the status quo—they will no longer tolerate this Messiah who challenges their traditions and proclaims Himself to be the Son of God.
These chapters remind us of the danger of ‘religion.’ The Christian faith is not a religion—it is a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is the risk of settling into the blind practice of religion without a personal walk with Christ. Mark is reminding us that God is not looking for hollow ceremony or hypocritical traditionalism—He is calling us to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30).