It was principally one of the sign-acts that Jesus performed during His last week in Jerusalem. The purpose of it, as one poster has already said, was a symbolic judgment, in the form of a sing act, against Israel for failing to produce fruit. This is a typical prophetic way of communicating a message, and the OT prophets did very similar things. Jeremiah smashed pots, Hosea married a prostitute, and Ezekiel cooked his food over cow dung. Jesus is acting in a very similar manner during His last week. In fact, we are probably meant to identify at least two sign acts during the last week that pronounced judgment on Israel, and the Temple as well: the fig tree and the temple incident.
Mark was clever enough to clue us in as to what was going on though a unique method most often called a “sandwhich” and less often called an “inclusio”. Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, has bracketed what happens in the Temple within the fig tree parable. Mark does this technique several times in his gospel where he will bracket off a story with two other stories that should be interpreted in a like manner. Actually, all of the gospel writers will do this (as will other ancient writers). The sequence in Mark looks like this:
Ride into Jerusalem
Curse the fig tree
Crash the Temple
Explain the fig tree
Authority is questioned
Jesus’ explanation of the fig tree makes it clear that this is a symbolic act of judgment:
“Mark 11:21…Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” 11.22And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast 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. 11.24Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 11.25And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Keep in mind this is all taking place on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem. When Jesus says “THIS mountain”, there are only two mountains within sight - the temple mount and the mount of Olives. Given that the Temple in Judaism at that time was the place where all sacrifices occured, and so where forgiveness and atonement were accomplished, it’s clear that Jesus must be talking about the Temple mount here as the mount being “cast into the sea” because Jesus has to explain to them how forgiveness would work without the mountain in place. The explanation of the fig tree parable is the saying about casting the mountain into the sea. Further in Mark, the Temple incident is clearly to be interpreted in light of the fig tree parable and the ‘mountain tossing’ saying.
I don’t think Jesus’ Temple actions were a Temple cleansing. For one, actual Temple cleansings took days on end to complete (see the Maccabee cleansing and the cleansing of King Hezekiah) and various other ceremonious aspects were completed as well. For another, Jesus was talking about building some sort of New Temple. So Jesus wasn’t trying to cleanse the Temple; no, He seemed to be planning on tearing that one down and building another. The actions of crashing the tables is part of this short sequence of sign-acts and judgment oracles against the Temple in particular.
The Chief Priests and elders seem to understand clearly what is happening because in the next breath we find them confronting Jesus and asking, “by what authority do you do these things and who gave you that authority”? Jesus is acting like he thinks he’s some sort of prophet with these judgment actions. He’s acting like He thinks He’s some sort of king with talk about temple destruction and building a newer one. This is probably what leads to the Jerusalem establishment finally deciding to arrest Jesus. Jesus is acting like a prophet and a messiah. He’s doing all of this during a very volatile time - the Passover Feast. The crowds are on His side at this point as well. With Passover itself only a few days away, the leaders are afraid Jesus is about to get the crowd whipped into a frenzy of messianic excitement and start a revolt. So, they decide to quietly bring Him in during the night and dispose of Him. All of this has made Jesus appear to be a dangerous figure.
In light of all of this, Caiaphas’ question seems pretty natural: “Are you the Messsiah”?