John2v12to22: JESUS CLEARS THE TEMPLE

(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

John's account of Jesus clearing the temple of money-changers and animal traders poses several difficulties. The first problem concerns where it appears in John's account of the life of Jesus. He has it occurring near the beginning of the ministry of his Master whereas all the other gospel writers place it near the end of Christ's time on earth.

There are two possible resolutions of the difficulty:
(1) Jesus cleansed the temple twice - once at the commencement and once at the conclusion of his ministry.

(2) John's account of Christ's life may not be strictly chronological. Perhaps he wrote about the turbulent events in the temple in contrast to Jesus' good humoured, easy going treatment of his mother at the wedding in Cana. At the wedding feast he was the sympathetic guest; amongst the cattle pens and money-changer's tables he was the stern reformer.

Although John's description of the clearing of the temple is different from the other gospel authors, which supports the first possibility, I prefer the second, championed, amongst others, by Professor William Barclay, for the following reasons:

(a) I think Jesus would have found it difficult to cause a fracas on the second occasion. The currency dealers would have been ready for him.

(b) Jesus comment: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again in three days" is more likely as the time of his crucifixion approached. The way Jesus thought about his work on earth does seem to change after the execution of John the Baptist. He begins to speak more about his rejection by the Jews, his death and resurrection. See Luke9v18to22 .

(c) At the trial of Jesus his statement about the temple is used against him which suggests it remained fairly fresh in the memory of his enemies. See Mk14v57 and Mt26v61.

(B) Jesus was angry.

Some people are never angry. Nothing disturbs their equanimity. They are never visibly indignant. This is often thought a great virtue but instead it is a great weakness. There are times we should be angry. Jesus would have been less than perfect if he had not been highly indignant at the desecration of the temple. It is important to see why Jesus was angry because he makes God known. He was appalled by:

    (1) The commercialisation of religion.
    Jesus protested: "How dare you turn my Father's house into a market." The court of Gentiles was full of cattle and sheep pens, cages of doves and the tables of the money changers. It should have been a place of prayer and meditation instead it was dominated by business. The priests doubtless justified the arrangement by pointing out that it was for the convenience of the numerous pilgrims who thronged Jerusalem. The stalls raised money for the temple. They were a necessity for keeping the temple in good running order.

    It is safe to say that whenever the church is more interested in raising money than saving souls it incurs God's greatest displeasure. The medieval abbeys originally performed a very useful function. They kept the faith alive, provided for the poor and cared for the sick but eventually they grew very rich and were run as a business. The Church of England expends a tremendous amount of effort to fund the upkeep of its crumbling historic buildings. I accessed the website of a large protestant New York church recently. The accent of the website was heavily loaded toward giving. It was possible to download free of charge a series of articles on stewardship but otherwise it cost $5 to read a sermon. There are medium size fellowships in England that are run like a business with a senior management team of elders headed by the pastor or chief executive. The management team makes all the decisions and expects the rank and file to fall into line. (I had enough of that when schools decided to ape big business.) The New Testament model of the church is a family or the body - not an insurance company.

    (2) The exploitation of the faithful.
    "My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers." Lk19v46. These words of Jesus recorded in Luke's gospel indicate that dishonest trading was rife in the temple. Trading was dishonest in two ways:

    (a) The temple tax levied on all visitors to the temple was a half shekel payable in Jewish currency. The half shekel was the equivalent of two days wages for a manual worker. So today it would be worth about 100. Many people in the time of Jesus used Roman, Greek or Egyptian money. So they had to change it. To change a Roman coin worth half a shekel cost a minimum of 15 - an exorbitant 15% commission.

    (b) When a bullock or sheep was brought to the temple for sacrifice it had to be without blemish. The quality control inspectors of the temple charged 15 for their services and invariably found something wrong. The unfortunate worshipper was then given the opportunity of buying a beast that had already been passed by the inspectors for 10 times the asking price outside the temple. A pair of doves that sold for 50 in most Judean market places cost 500 if bought in the temple. This was an appalling racket from which the priests took a percentage of the profit.

    Whenever religious activists or publicists dupe the vulnerable for gain God is angry. The practice of selling indulgences in the late middle ages was an abomination. Hundreds of thousands of ignorant and fearful folk were conned out of parting with their money in the hope of escaping the torment of hell. Some TV evangelists haven't been much better in their barefaced efforts to get the gullible to part with cash.

    God is displeased whenever our brothers and sisters in Christ are sold short. It is bad to make promises that are not kept - like the thousands who pledge money during a disaster appeal and never pay up. Others give the impression that they care during times of trouble, they show concern and offer help - help that never materialises. Dishonesty takes many forms and God hates them all.

    (3) Making things difficult for the Gentiles.
    The infernal din of the animals thronging the Court of Gentiles made it virtually impossible for the Gentiles to pray and quietly meditate in their space. Mark wrote: And he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.'" Mk11v17.

    The Jews did not care about the Gentiles and they made this clear by filling their court with livestock. It is wrong and displeases God to make it difficult for any particularly group to worship whether it be old or young, male or female, black or white, poor or rich.

    The lowing and bleating of the animals must have distracted the Gentiles from their prayers. It is a pity whenever anything distracts the faithful from worship - immodest dress, noisy children, startling innovations or a performance from the preacher.

(C) Jesus made a whip.

(a) Jesus didn't feel sorry about the state of affairs in the temple and say nothing for fear of giving offence. Loads of Christians are like this! I was talking to two old friends near the end of December. The wife told me how much she disliked church business meetings. The husband said, "You should hear her - once the meeting is over. She goes on and on. I tell her, 'You should have said all of this in the chapel - not out here in the car with me.'" The wife replied, "I didn't want to upset anyone." She ended up upsetting her husband!

Jesus had the courage of his convictions and was prepared to seriously annoy lots of folk. He wasn't intimidated because those in high authority found the desecration of the Court of Gentiles acceptable. Many Christians do not make a stand over what is wrong in their denominations for fear of falling out with those in high places.

(b) Jesus wasn't indignant but did nothing. When do we take action in anger? It is usually on behalf of our selves. An elderly lady of my acquaintance wrote in disgust to Marks and Spencer because the company has ignored their loyal core market in pursuit of young people. She couldn't find any knickers that suited her! I protested to the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank because my local branch treated my like a visitor from outer space. I had to fill in a form for new clients in spite of being a regular customer for over 30 years. The staff were only following the correct bank procedures!!

We are much less inclined to make a fuss on behalf of others - but we should. Huge advances were made in rectifying social injustices in this country in the 19th and early 20th centuries because campaigners were angry about the working conditions of the poor and the exploitation of women and children.

(c) Jesus took decisive action - he didn't tickle the rogues out of the temple. He overturned the money-changer's tables, drove sheep and cattle out into the Jerusalem streets and stopped anyone carrying merchandise from entering the sacred courts. It was a dramatic, spectacular and violent protest. A disturbance like it today could end you in court.

Jesus' cleansing of the temple shows what anger can do. As a schoolteacher I always took decisive action when I was angry. After I retired I did some cricket coaching for my club. For several weeks the sessions were spoiled by two or three teenage boys behaving stupidly. I put up with it for a long time but then one week I got angry and banned the boys from attending any more. I should have done this right from the start! I was only finally driven into doing what was best for everybody who really wanted to improve their cricket by anger. There are times remedial action needs to be taken in our churches - it is rarely the naturally placid, passive man or woman who undertakes the task.

Jesus required courage to take on all those with a vested interest in the commercial opportunities presented by the temple. Mark records: The chief priests and teachers of the law heard this (his accusation that they had made God's house a den of robbers) and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. Mk11v8. Frequently we do nothing when action is required because we are cowards.

(d) Jesus' action was proportionate to the offence. He did not ask for an axe or wade into the dishonest traders with a club. All Jesus had was a whip of cords that would do little more than sting.

He made the whip himself. This indicates he did not act impulsively. Jesus gave himself time to think what he was going to do. He did not lose his self-control. I am afraid that in the early days of my teaching career if a boy upset me I bent him over, pulled off my shoe and smacked him. I re-acted instantaneously. This was not good policy.

Jesus drove the cattle and sheep out of the temple where they could be retrieved. The scattered coins could be picked up. It is significant that Jesus did not release the doves but told their owners to remove them - "Get them out of here." v16.

It is very difficult to act proportionately when offended by unrighteous behaviour within the church. It is possible to get worked up over trivialities and remain unmoved by serious injustices. There are folk who attend Grace Baptist churches who get into a terrible state over the upkeep of the graveyard but appear quite happy to pay their minister a pittance. I have known Christians who protest vehemently if anyone is seen sitting on Granddad Joshua's gravestone but remain unmoved that the manse in which the pastor and his young family live is reeking with damp.

Sadly when some of us get angry we lose self-control and go over the top. I know what I am writing about. It was a weakness that spoiled my teaching career and even the care of my father.

(D) Jesus told a riddle (a mashal or veiled saying). "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in 3 days." v19.

(1) What prompted the riddle?
The Jewish leaders considered the cleansing of the temple an act of someone with Messianic pretensions. They knew the Scripture: "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD ALMIGHTY.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. See Mal3v1and2.

So the Jews demanded of Jesus: "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" v18. They failed to see that the clearing of the Court of Gentiles was in itself a portent and remained unimpressed by the miracles that Jesus did unlike many people who saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. v23. The religious establishment wanted something special to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah - the onus was on Jesus. Jesus never responds to this sort of challenge. It is thrown out today by those who refuse to commit themselves to him. I know several folk who say, "I would believe if only he gave me a spiritual experience. If Jesus did for me what he did for Saul of Tarsus I could be a Christian." The Christian life starts when we surrender unconditionally to Jesus.

Jesus did refer the sceptics to a future sign - his resurrection and all that would follow from it. We know that even this failed to convince them that Jesus was the Christ. The words of Abraham in Jesus' parable of 'The Rich Man and Lazarus' were prophetic - "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Lk16v31. If a person is determined not to believe no amount of evidence will convince him or her. The saving work of Christ only attracts the needy.

(2) Why did Jesus speak in riddles?
The great advantage of a mashal or veiled saying is that the truth it reveals changes with the spiritual perception of the hearer or reader.

The riddle suggested to his opponents that Jesus did not value the temple as much as they did nor as much as he should. Jesus statement was used against him at his trial. It was seen as a disparaging remark. This shows very limited understanding of the mashal but nonetheless there is a little truth in the verdict of Jesus' critics. Mark reports: As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!"

"Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." Mk13v1and2.

John with the other disciples never grasped what Jesus meant when he referred to his death and resurrection. After Jesus told his closest followers about his rejection, humiliation, death and resurrection Luke writes: The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about. Luke18v34. After Jesus had risen John remembered the riddle of Jesus. Riddles are memorable - that is another one of their advantages. John realised that Jesus was speaking about his body; that was the temple destroyed and then three days later raised from the dead. He and the other disciples believed the Scripture: Neither wilt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption. Ps16v10. AV.

John's interpretation is born out by Jesus' references to the sign of Jonah. Matthew records the following: Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you."

He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and tree nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Mt12v38to40.

Is John's interpretation completely satisfying? Professor William Barclay thinks not. He refers to the testimony of Christ's enemies at his trial recorded by Mark: Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another not made by man.'" The testimony is only false because those who gave it implied that Jesus would physically destroy the temple. The words may have been similar to those used by Jesus.

Jesus is saying that after dying and making a sacrifice for sin and being raised from the dead the old order would be destroyed. The rituals, worship and sacrifices of the temple would be unnecessary and obsolete. In three days Jesus would usher in by his own shed blood a new order. The old covenant was replaced by a new and better covenant. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Heb10v19to22.

The disciples who were fiercely nationalistic found it hard to break from Judaism. The church in Jerusalem continued to meet in the temple courts for many years after the Day of Pentecost. It was probably hard for John and the others to think in terms of the end of Judaism. However in the end Peter wrote: As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him - you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ Jesus. 1Pet2v4and5. The church is the new temple not made by man.

The words John recalls Jesus using support Prof William Barclay's interpretation: "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." v19. Jesus did not raise himself up! God the Father resurrected Jesus from the dead. What Jesus raised up was a new temple - a spiritual house made of living stones. We should also remember what happened after the great fish spewed up Jonah - he went to the Gentiles who repented at his preaching. As the men of Nineveh repented and were saved so not long after Jesus' resurrection the gospel was preached to the Gentiles and a new era dawned.

The three momentous days from Jesus' death to his resurrection were a sign that everything was going to change. They are the three most important days in the earth's history. The new covenant was established so that: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him," John3v36.

(E) Conclusion.

Jesus was a subtle teacher. His use of mashals teaches us that our understanding of Scripture should deepen and change over the years. Some passages take on an added significance and others assume a different meaning. In the words of Peter we need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 2Pet3v18.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net

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