2. Why does Jesus cleanse the temple?
In turning to our next question we will be considering Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In this task we will be considering the following verses of our text:
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
As we stated in the opening section to this text, it is our contention that the temple cleansing reported here by John is a separate account from the other synoptic Gospels (i.e. Mark 11:15-25). Although, despite slight variations in the details between the accounts, it is possible that the events recorded could be the same. We understand that it was not the primary intent of the Gospel writers to be scrupulous in their chronology, however the primary intent was to portray to their audience that Jesus was (and is) the Christ. Nonetheless, in this instance we believe that our contention is accurate for the following reasons:
· The synoptic Gospels all place the account of the temple cleansing after Palm Sunday, which was at the conclusion of our Lord’s earthly life. Here John places this cleansing at the beginning of His ministry.
· The apostle John in subsequent sections reports of two additional Passovers (John 6:4 and John 12:1). The final Passover reported in this Gospel is consistent with the timing of the other authors account. The apostle John was not compelled to include this second cleansing rather sought to focus on other items (i.e. the upper room discourse).
· It is entirely possible that our Lord performed the temple cleansing twice during His ministry. Once at the beginning and once toward the end.
Although, it is not imperative that a harmonization between these different accounts be achieved to maintain the authenticity of the Scriptures, in this particular situation it appears that a harmony exists as stated above.
All the men of Israel were required, according to the Law of Moses, to appear before the Lord three-times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The Passover was the first of these three pilgrimages that were prescribed for the Israelites to remember and celebrate the divine deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:1-12). Thus, in accordance with His covenantal obligations to observe and fulfill (Matthew 5:17-18) the requirements of the Law of God, the faithful obedience of our Lord is manifested in His participation of this pilgrim festival. This point is made by Calvin in his commentary on this verse as follows:
…for since the Son of God became subject to the Law on our account, he intended, by observing with exactness all the precepts of the Law, to present in his own person a pattern of entire subjection and obedience. 112
This faithful obedience of the Law and all its demands by our Lord would be the basis for the imputed righteousness that His people would acquire (2 Corinthians 5:21) to cause the “angel of death” to “pass-over” them (Exodus 12:12-13). As we recall during the Passover the Israelites were commanded to use the blood from the paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) to paint their doorpost (Exodus 12:7). When the angel of death passed over Egypt the Israelites were differentiated from the Egyptians by the presence of this blood. Adorned with the blood of the lamb, the Israelites were spared from the judgment imposed on the nation. This event of Passover foreshadowed the time when the true Israelites would escape the wrathful judgment predetermined on the earth in being adorned with righteousness of Christ (Revelation 7:13-14).
During this Passover festival our Lord visits the temple and is exposed to a scene that initiates righteous indignation. While in the temple it was evident that God’s sanctuary on earth had become a market place with the selling of animals for sacrifice. Certainly, the buying and selling of animals for sacrifice within the temple was extremely “practical” for the numerous Diaspora Jews and foreign converts to Judaism that would have been making the pilgrimage from far away lands. It is likely that many worshippers during this time did not own any flocks, which would prevent them from bringing their own sacrifice. Moreover, for those who made a long journey it would have been more difficult if the animals for sacrifice had to be brought along the way. Although, the selling of animals for sacrifice was convenient and necessary for worshippers to worship at the time, it would have been more reverential for these transactions to take place somewhere outside of the house of the Lord.
Due to the influx of pilgrims from foreign lands and Palestine’s own dynamics relative to the minting of coins, currency exchange would have been required for the selling of the animal sacrifices. Interestingly, the production of coins during the inter-testamental period in Palestine was a sensitive subject among the pious Jews. This sensitivity revolved around the current regimes willingness to place or not place inscriptions of human images on the coins used within the area.113 Thus, as a consequence of trade underway within the temple the exchange of currency would have also been a convenience and “practical” service to be available in the same location. Again, due to the circumstances of the time the exchange of currency to purchase animals for sacrifice would have been necessary, however it would have been less irreverent to engage in this transaction somewhere outside the house of the Lord.
In response to the “practical ingenuity” that transformed the house of the Lord into a supermarket, our Lord is unable to tolerate the crass profaning of the covenantally sacred sanctuary. As the apostle John reflects on the situation he recalls the Psalmist’s word, “Zeal for your house will consume me” Psalm 69:9 and it is with this fervor our Lord responds to the unfortunate state the covenant sanctuary had become. Calvin comments on this verse as follows:
It is that he may bring back to its original purity the worship of God, which had been corrupted by the wickedness of men, and in this way may restore and maintain the holiness of the Temple. Now that temple, we know, was erected, that it might be a shadow of those things the lively image of which is to be found in Christ. 114
As we consider the state of worship in Jerusalem during this time and judging by our Lord’s response to it we realize that there were problems. True religion “had been corrupted by the wickedness of men” and had become a mechanical, rote, or even manipulative practice. It was not just a problem of following the letter rather than the spirit of the law, hence the transformation of the sanctuary into a market. Although, this is more than likely a symptom indicative of a departure from God’s intention for sacrifices (Psalm 51:16-19), it seems to be more than that. It seems to be symptomatic of a theology of glory with a man-centered rather than God-centered focus on the intent of religion.
Although, we must concede that it is impossible for us to truly discern the intentions of these men’s hearts, gauging from our Lord’s response in our text we propose this assessment. These “pious” Jews were making their pilgrimage, in accordance with the law, to Jerusalem during Passover. While in Jerusalem they resolved to participate in other prescribed offerings in addition to the Passover (hence the bulls and pigeons…the Passover required a lamb). Again we are unable to determine their true motives, but the fact that they were purchasing these animals within the temple indicates that their consciouses were probably not bothered by this practice. Rather than speak up for the sanctity of the covenant Lord’s house, focusing on their own efforts to “climb the ladder”, they encouraged the marketers to claim more territory within the temple sanctuary. Their religion was entirely within their control and as long as the boxes were being checked on the external requirements they believed that another rung on the ladder to their ascension had been completed. It is evident that the words of the Psalmist were not in mind of the worshippers during this time:
16For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Ironically post-exilic Israel no longer struggled with outward idolatry, however they still proceeded to invent new ways to corrupt the true religion. Nonetheless, one day the covenant Lord Himself would appear to cause this profane practice to cease. On that day within the temple, the one who was the fulfillment of everything the temple represented would not be silent in the midst of this defilement. Since, there was not even the hint of a seared conscious, let alone outrage, amongst the crowd He took matters into His own hands. Seeking to rectify the situation, He single-handedly cleansed the temple precincts from the sacrilegious activity to restore the reverence of His Father’s house. That day there was a shake up in the lives of those who subscribed to a theology of glory. And at least for a time after this event the sanctity of the covenant Lord’s shadowy earthly sanctuary was restored. The lamentable part is that if our contention is accurate and there were two temple cleansing after our Lord disrupted their operation the first time, they went right back to there ways.
It is difficult to draw an appropriate analogy between the corruptions in worship in our text and those that occur today. Since the old covenant required the use of animals for sacrifices, we really are not susceptible to the same mistake covered in our text. However, this should be a warning to cringe when advocates for “practical” religion consistently make revisions to the worship liturgy of the church. In this passage Calvin commends his readers to ensure that nothing beyond what has been commanded should be admitted:
We ought always, therefore, to keep before our eyes the majesty of God, which dwells in the Church, that it may not be defiled by any pollutions; and the only way in which its holiness can remain unimpaired is, that nothing shall be admitted into it that is at variance with the word of God. 115
For certain the advocates for selling animals within the sanctuary would have argued that it is not explicitly forbidden within Scripture. If this were the basis then we would have to concede that they were correct. Nonetheless, as we consider our Lord’s response to their practical measures we are assured that this was not permitted. Thus, in keeping with the Regulative Principal on Worship (RPW) we should not go beyond what is explicitly prescribed by the Word of God. We will have opportunity to discuss this concept further when we arrive at chapter four of our study.
Another significant implication of this passage we also are exposed to is the fact that not all anger is a sin. The Christian life is often caricatured by some as being unable to express anger in anyway. However, the reaction of our Lord in this passage does not substantiate this view. True, our Lord was not tainted by the affects of the fall and was thus able to express righteous anger apart from the affects of sin. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that anger in and of itself is not sinful and cannot just be a forbidden emotion in the Christian life.
Our Lord took it upon Himself to cleanse the temple due to the corruption that had infected the holy covenant community. The very instruments prescribed in the Mosaic Law to point to the Gospel were presumably becoming a means to earn one’s righteousness. Rather than seeking to offer sacrifices in a manner that God would not despise but delight in, Israel had transformed them into an empty ritual to give them the power for their own salvation. It is easy for us to possess a sense of superiority in our day, criticizing their actions and presuming that we would be different. Yet, apart from Christ our worship is just as impure and corrupt. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to be reminded that our own worship is only received through the mediation of Christ and His Gospel, which makes us acceptable to God. Moreover, we must be careful not to deviate from what is explicitly allowed in worship in accordance with the Word.