After His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday Jesus headed to the Temple, making a whip out of cords and driving out of the Temple area not just those selling doves and changing money, but sheep and oxen as well. People who’ve studied Temple practices in the first-century find this story curious since this type of commerce was acceptable and necessary.
Foreign currency needed to be exchanged for shekels to pay the Temple tax, and only doves were affordable to the poor. Also, people came to Jerusalem for Passover from far away places and bringing large animals to sacrifice would have been difficult or impossible. Jerusalem was a city of about 40,000, but during Passover would swell to about 250,000.
A common explanation for Jesus’ reaction is that it was the location of these activities that gave such offense; they had set up shop in particular area of the Temple’s outer structure, the ‘Court of the Gentiles.’
Non-Jews could not enter the Temple but large parts of the courtyard were reserved for Gentiles who came to pay their respects to the Hebrew God. It was common in the ancient world for non-Jews to believe in a multiplicity of gods, and believed that they were confined to a locality or region. A trader from Babylon traveling through Egypt would typically take the time to offer worship to a local Egyptian deity, and the other way around.
The theory is that since the chief priests regarded gentiles as unclean, the Court of the Gentiles could be used for the selling of animals, etc. The clue that this was what angered Jesus was in his response, a quotation from Isaiah:
Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’? But you have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17; Isaiah 56:7).
The word for “peoples” in the Greek text comes from ethnos, “race”, “nation”. In Hebrew the word is goyim, “gentiles”. Jesus was defending the right of gentiles to offer prayer to God in a place free of animals, dung, and greedy money changers.
Ethnos appears again in another dialog a short time later. Jesus recalls the parable of the vineyard; the absentee owner sends his servants to collect from the tenants the harvest of the vineyard, but are abused and killed. He sends more servants a second time who are similarly disabused. Finally, he sends his son thinking that they will show respect for him. but he is killed as well.
Jesus asks the chief priests what the owner of vineyard would do to the tenants:
They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times” (Matt. 21:41).
Jesus then points His finger at them:
Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [ethnos] that will produce its fruit (vs. 43).
What is fascinating is that here ethnos is in the singular and so can not be a reference to the gentiles, but would have been understood as a reference to a specific race like Egyptians or Greeks. The chief priests would have been in a rage as well as many in the crowd. The disciples might have been confused also.
Jesus was speaking prophetically. Peter would come to fully understand this dialog and explain the use of ethnos in the singular in his first epistle:
But you are “a chosen race [genos], a royal priesthood, a holy nation [ethnos], a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
Genos represents an even closer bond, as in “family”. Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God would be given to a spiritual family not defined by race, but by baptism.