The Cleansing of the Temple (John 2:12-22)
Old timers will remember the story of the “car of my dreams.” Well, actually it was a pickup truck. To be precise, it was a 1940 Ford pickup, with a late model higher performance V-8 engine, custom exhaust system (nice and loud), a jacked-up back end, and a custom paint job (maroon with white scallops and pin striping). It all started when my father concluded that our 1936 Ford pickup was no longer serviceable. This was a good decision since it frequently broke down, it was not licensed (we drove it only on our property), and there was no driver-side door. We owned a small fishing resort, so we needed a pickup to haul firewood and garbage, among other things. The old 1936 pickup was mine, at least in my mind, and it was no longer able to fulfill its duties. We were ready for an upgrade.
So it was that my Dad and I hitchhiked over one hundred miles to Portland, Oregon, where we believed a good used truck could be found. We started on one end of a street lined with used car dealers. By the end of the day, we were nearing the last car dealer on the street, and the deadline we had set for ourselves to begin making our way home, hitchhiking again. We decided to try one last dealer before making our way home. “You don’t have any older used pickups, do you?” my father asked. “Just one hot rod,” the salesman responded. Did he say “hot rod”? I couldn’t believe it! I was not yet 16, but I had been driving (on our place) for several years. “Hot rod?” I was all ears.
The car dealer took my Dad and me around to the back of the lot, where this marvelous little pickup was parked. It was perfect. My Dad told the man we had $400 in cash, and that was all we could pay. The man took it. On the way home, my Dad could not help leaving a little rubber on the pavement (he was used to driving a 6-cylinder Plymouth). We were so proud when we drove into our driveway, but my Mother was skeptical, and with good reason. There was nothing wrong with the truck. That was the problem. It was almost perfect, too perfect. We refused to “defile” this vintage vehicle by transporting firewood and garbage. It just wouldn’t be right. Needless to say, the truck did not last long at the resort. There were legends about it after it changed hands. We traded it for a 1951 Dodge pickup, with fluid drive, and if you don’t know what that means, I can sum it up in just a few words: “pathetic and powerless.” I had no problem putting garbage in that truck; it could hardly be defiled.
I suppose all of us have owned something we consider very special, something we would not wish to be “defiled” by misuse. Whatever this precious object may be, it could not be as precious to us as the “temple” was to our Lord. Our lesson is about our Lord’s “cleansing” of the temple as described in John, chapter 2. John considered this incident one of the more significant actions of our Lord at the outset of His public ministry. Our task is to learn why this is true, and what the temple cleansing has to do with men and women living centuries later. I assure you this incident is important, and that it has much to say to us today. I urge you to seriously consider this text and its message to us today, and especially its message to you.
A Little Background
The “temple” of our text is the temple in Jerusalem. It was not the first temple, built by Solomon (see 1 Kings 6-7), nor the second temple, rebuilt by the Jews returning from their Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:15).105 It was the third temple, known as “Herod’s Temple.” This temple was built by Herod, not so much to facilitate Israel’s worship, but as an attempt to reconcile the Jews to their Idumaean king. Construction of this temple began in 19 B.C. and continued for 46 years. The temple was largely complete in the time of our Lord, but was fully completed a mere 6 years before it was destroyed in 70 A.D. Perhaps it did not have the glory of the first temple built by Solomon, but it must have exceeded the beauty and splendor of the second temple (compare Ezra 3:12; Mark 13:1).
In His early infancy, Jesus had been taken to the temple in Jerusalem for His purification, and there both Simeon and Anna worshipped Him as the promised Messiah (Luke 2:21-38). When our Lord was 12 years of age, He accompanied His parents to Jerusalem, where He absolutely amazed them and others:
41 Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 But when the feast was ended, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” 49 But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart (Luke 2:41-51).
Our Lord’s parents certainly found Jesus a model child, a young man whom they could trust. They felt no need to check on Him, and as they were traveling in a caravan, they didn’t even miss Him on their return from Jerusalem. Eventually, they realized He was not with them and made their way back to Jerusalem, where they found Him in the temple. There He was, sitting in the midst of the Old Testament scholars, not only asking intelligent questions, but giving answers to their questions (Wouldn’t you love to know what some of these questions and answers were?). The scholars were amazed, and most certainly so were our Lord’s parents.
Nevertheless, Jesus caused them considerable inconvenience by not telling them He was staying behind. His absence caused them to leave the caravan of worshippers and return to Jerusalem, a day’s journey away. There was certainly a hint of frustration in their rebuke when they scolded Him for staying behind, but Jesus was not taken aback. He was surprised they had to look for Him. Did they not know where He would be? Did they think it was wrong for Him to be there? He was in His Father’s house,106 doing “His Father’s business” (verse 49). It was not He who was wrong, but they, for not seeing this situation for what it was. Even at the age of 12, our Lord had a good grasp of who He was and what He was sent to do. The “temple” Jesus visited in Luke 2 was the kind of place it should have been, a place to worship God and to study His Word. The “temple” Jesus finds nearly 20 years later seems to have greatly changed, and thus the need for its cleansing.
A Brief Interlude in Capernaum
One may wonder about John’s reasons for including this verse. John is not a man to waste time or space. His words are carefully selected (John 20:30-31; 21:25). Why then does he include them? One reason is that we know Capernaum will become our Lord’s headquarters for His ministry (See Matthew 4:13; 9:1). His family appears to have relocated110 there. It is where the centurion (and others—see John 6:24) come to find Jesus, to plead with Him to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Capernaum is deemed worthy of greater condemnation, because the people of this city have seen more of our Lord and His miracles (Matthew 11:23; see Luke 4:23). Another reason is that this seems to have been our Lord’s final stay with His family. His “family” is about to change (see Mark 3:31-35).
Finally, John wants us to see these events as closely following one upon the other. He is maintaining a rather precise account of the timing of the crucial events at the outset of our Lord’s ministry.111 John therefore describes the first few days of our Lord’s public ministry in chapter 1 and the first 11 verses of chapter 2. Then, he tells us that after the wedding, Jesus, His disciples, and His family make their way down to Capernaum. The disciples appear to be taken in by our Lord’s family for the few days they stay in Capernaum. From what we know of our Lord’s brothers at this point in time, they do not believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah (John 7:5). They may even resent the intrusion of Jesus and His disciples. Jesus and the men who accompany Him do not stay long in Capernaum. After a few (“not … many”) days, they make their way up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.
The Cleansing112 of the Temple
13 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, 113 so Jesus went up114 to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple courts people selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. 15 So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Passion for your house will devour me.”
The Jewish Passover celebration commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, when the death angel passed over every home where the first Passover was observed and the blood of the paschal lamb was placed on the two door posts and the lintel (see Exodus 12 and 13). The celebration of the Passover also commenced the Feast of Unleavened bread, so that the entire Passover celebration took a week.115 Attendance for adult Israelite males was compulsory:116
Every male Jew, from the age of twelve and up, was expected to attend the Passover at Jerusalem, a feast celebrated to commemorate the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. On the tenth of the month Abib or Nisan (which generally corresponds to our March, though its closing days sometimes extend into our April) a male lamb, of the first year, without blemish, was taken, and on the fourteenth day, between three and six o’clock in the afternoon, it was killed.117
It is very difficult to imagine the scene that our Lord’s eyes fall upon as He enters Jerusalem and approaches the temple. We know from the scene at Pentecost, described in Acts 2, that a great many people thronged to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, as they also did to the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Pentecost (or, the Feast of Weeks). It is very difficult to estimate the influx of people to Jerusalem, not only from other parts of Israel, but from all over the world (see Acts 2:5-12). These Jews and proselytes would have to pay the half-shekel temple tax in the coinage of the temple, and thus foreign monies were unacceptable and had to be exchanged for the proper coins. These worshippers also had to offer up their sacrifices, and for many of these travelers, the only solution was to buy a sacrificial animal there in Jerusalem.
In days gone by, they would have been able to purchase these animals and exchange their money in a place outside the temple courts: “At one time the animal merchants set up their stalls across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, but at this point they were in the temple courts, doubtless in the Court of the Gentiles (the outermost court).”118 For some reason, the animals have now been brought into the temple courts. It is certainly more “convenient.” People can purchase their sacrificial animals right at the temple, and they can also exchange their money. It is very difficult to believe that this is the real reason this is done, however.
It is true, in the abstract, that each worshipper was allowed to bring to the temple an animal of his own selection. But let him try it! In all likelihood it would not be approved by the judges, the privileged venders who filled the money-chests of Annas! Hence, to save trouble and disappointment, animals for sacrifice were bought right here in the outer court, which was called the court of the Gentiles because they were permitted to enter it. Of course, the dealers in cattle and sheep would be tempted to charge exorbitant prices for such animals. They would exploit the worshippers. And those who sold pigeons would do likewise, charging, perhaps, $4 for a pair of doves worth a nickel (A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, New York, 1897, vol. I, p. 370). And then there were the money-changers, sitting cross-legged behind their little coin-covered tables. They gave the worshipper lawful, Jewish coin in exchange for foreign currency. It must be borne in mind that only Jewish coins were allowed to be offered in the temple, and every worshipper—women, slaves, and minors excepted—had to pay the annual temple tribute of half a shekel (cf. Ex. 30:13). The money-changers would charge a certain fee for every exchange-transaction. Here, too, there were abundant opportunities for deception and abuse. And in view of these conditions the Holy Temple, intended as a house of prayer for all people, had become a den of robbers (cf. Isa. 56:7; Jer. 7:11; Mark 11:17).119
The view represented here is one commonly accepted by students of the New Testament Gospels. Those who attempted to bring their own sacrificial animals may very well have had them “rejected” by the temple priests, and thereby were forced to purchase “approved” animals at much higher prices. The same gouging no doubt took place at the money-exchangers’ tables. I doubt very much that our Lord later called the temple a “robbers’ den” (Mark 11:17) without having such corruption in mind. In our text, however, John does not focus on the way in which these merchandisers go about their business, but rather on where they are conducting their business—in the temple courts.
Mark’s Gospel seems to take up this theme as well, pointing out that “where” these businessmen are doing business interferes with an essential purpose of the temple. The temple was to be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). The outer courts of the temple are the only places where Gentiles could worship. They are not allowed to pass beyond a certain point (see Acts 21:27-30). If the outer courts are filled with oxen and lambs and doves, there is no place for the Gentiles to pray and to worship God. Can you imagine trying to pray in the midst of a virtual stockyard, with all the noises of the animals and the bickering businessmen? Can you conceive of trying to squeeze in between cattle who are tied up in the courts? Think of what it would be like to have to watch where you walked, lest you step in something undesirable?120 It appears that Gentile worship is functionally prohibited, and I doubt this troubled many of the Jews, who are not all that excited about including the Gentiles in their worship in the first place.
What Jesus sees going on in the temple courts troubles Him a great deal! The place of prayer has become a place of profit-taking. It sounds more like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange than the outer courts of the temple of God. It smells more like a barnyard than the place where one would seek God’s presence.121 Jesus enters the outer court of the temple, fashioning a whip from materials at hand (probably from the cords used to tie up the animals). He then drives them all out of the temple area. By the word “all,” I understand Him to have driven out not only the animals, but also those who are selling them as well. The coins of the moneychangers are poured out and scattered on the ground and their tables overturned. To those selling the doves, Jesus says, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!”122
After His death and resurrection, our Lord’s disciples remembered that it was written,123 “Passion for your house will devour me” (verse 17). The disciples came to view this cleansing of the temple in the light of Psalm 69:124
8 I have become a stranger to my brothers, And an alien to my mother’s children; 9 Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on Me (Psalm 69:8-9, NKJV).
Several things catch my attention in these two verses. The first is that this Messianic Psalm speaks of the alienation of the Messiah from his “mother’s children.” Could this be part of the reason for John’s mention of the brief family gathering in Capernaum (John 2:12)? Our Lord’s mother is not mentioned again until the cross, and the reference to our Lord’s “brothers” in John 7:3-5 reveals their skepticism about Jesus and His ministry. Has Jesus already begun to feel alienated from His own brothers?
In addition, you will notice that in Psalm 69:9 David writes in the past tense: “Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up.” There are some differences in the Greek texts of John, so that the KJV and the NKJV employ the past tense: “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” As a rule, the other versions render it in the future tense, following what appear to be the best Greek texts.125 I like the way the New English Bible renders it best:
“Zeal for thy house shall destroy me.”
Psalm 69 is a psalm of David. It is a prayer for his deliverance, due to his piety. The psalm speaks of David’s imminent danger due to the enemies of God who hate him for his fervent devotion to God, and thus who seek his death. Later portions of this psalm depict events that occur at the crucifixion of our Lord (see Ps. 69:21). It seems clear in this psalm that there is a prophecy of our Lord’s sacrificial death, due to His zeal for pure worship.
Jesus acts out of zeal for His Father’s house, laying claim to the temple and cleansing it in His Father’s name. In so doing, He fulfills a prophecy that our Lord’s zeal for His Father’s house will bring about His death. It is the second cleansing126 of the temple (Matthew 21:10-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-46) that actually sets into motion the events which lead to our Lord’s crucifixion.127
Answering the Challenge
18 So then the Jewish leaders [literally, “the Jews”]128 said to him, “What miraculous sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.”129 20 Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” 21 But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the saying that Jesus had spoken.
“The Jews”—in particular the Jewish religious leaders directly challenged by our Lord’s actions in cleansing the temple—confront Jesus with a challenge. They demand a sign to demonstrate His authority to act as He has. The irony is that Jesus’ actions are the sign:130
1 “Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” Says the LORD of hosts. 2 “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire And like launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, And purge them as gold and silver, That they may offer to the LORD An offering in righteousness” (Malachi 3:1-3, NKJV).
I find the words of the Jews most interesting. They do not argue with Jesus about the evil of making the temple courts an emporium. I suspect the Pharisees agree with Him on this point. The issue is not what has been done, but who has done it. They raise the issues of Jesus’ identity and authority, which is not altogether hard to understand. Suppose you ran a stop sign and were pulled over by a police officer. If you were smart, you would politely listen to the officer, admit you were wrong, take the ticket, and pay it. If, however, you ran a stop sign and were pulled over by an irate citizen, you would be much less inclined to listen politely. Even if you were wrong, you would likely protest, “Who do you think you are, pulling me over to lecture me about my driving?”
In one sense, the Jews do view our Lord’s actions as a sign. For someone to cleanse the temple and correct wrongdoing found there implies having the authority to do so. If Jesus is acting in God’s behalf (they cannot yet grasp that He is acting as God), then let Him establish His credentials by an exercise of divine power. If He is acting with God’s authority, let Him perform a sign to prove it. We have an irreverent expression, which captures the spirit of the Jews’ challenge (who are not very reverent either): “Put up, or shut up!” They have thrown down the gauntlet. It is Jesus’ turn to respond.
Jesus does not give them a sign. He does not even refer to any of the signs He seems to have already performed in Jerusalem (see 2:23; 3:2). He is not about to jump through their hoops. He does not even try to convince them who He is. Instead, He speaks to them of the “ultimate sign,” His death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (verse 19). Typically, the Jews can think only in the most literal terms (see Nicodemus in chapter 3). They assume Jesus is referring to Herod’s temple, a temple which has been under construction for “forty-six years.” Does Jesus think He can build a temple in three days that has already been under construction for forty-six years and is not yet complete?
John tells his readers what we already know. Jesus is not speaking of that earthly temple; He knows that it, too, will soon be destroyed (Mark 13:1-2). But He is speaking of Himself as the temple of God, and of His coming crucifixion. He is not trying to persuade these Jews to believe in Him, but rather to prophesy that they will not believe, and that they will put Him to death on Calvary. His triumph will be evident in three days, when He will be “raised up” from the dead.131
The Jews do not understand at all. They probably walk away, shaking their heads, convinced that Jesus is out of His mind. The disciples don’t understand either. Not until after our Lord’s death and resurrection does this prophecy come to mind, and they see how He fulfilled it exactly as He said. Then they believe both the Scripture and what Jesus has spoken. One might say they believe that what Jesus said and what was written in the Scriptures are one and the same, and both were fulfilled.132 They came to believe in Jesus, and His words as the fulfillment of Scripture.
We are not actually told here what “Scripture” John has in mind, which the disciples remember and believe. After our Lord’s resurrection, the apostles used the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, and that His death and resurrection were foretold (see Acts 2:14-36; 13:16-41). Jesus Himself gives His disciples a lesson from the Old Testament on these matters before He ascends to the Father (Luke 24:44-49).
The cleansing of the temple does not permanently eliminate the abuses described in our text. We know that conditions in the temple were the same at the time of the second cleansing (described in the Synoptic Gospels) as they were in the first cleansing (as described by John). I suspect that immediately after our Lord departed from Jerusalem all the temple businessmen set up shop again and went right on with their evil deeds. I believe our Lord’s purpose in this first cleansing is to “make a statement,” about Himself, the temple, and the Jewish religious system—not to permanently solve the problem He attacks.
The temple is being abused, and Jesus rightly responds to such abuse. Even the hard-hearted Jewish religious leaders realize that more is going on here than this. They understand that Jesus is making a claim. He is claiming to have the authority to correct evils performed in the temple. He calls the temple “His Father’s house.” No one who actually witnessed this event fully grasped its meaning or significance. The disciples will understand, but only after our Lord’s death and resurrection, only after the coming of the Holy Spirit (see John 16:12-14). Jesus not only came with God’s authority (as a prophet might do); He came as God. In fact, He is God tabernacling among men, as John tells us (John 1:14). Later, He speaks of Himself as the temple, and so He is:
21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls—each one of the gates is made from just one pearl! The main street of the city is pure gold like transparent glass. 22 Now I saw no temple in the city, because the Lord God All-Powerful is its temple, and the Lamb. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God lights it up, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their grandeur into it. 25 Its gates will never be closed during the day (for there will be no night there). 26 They will bring the grandeur and the wealth of the nations into it, 27 but nothing ritually unclean will ever enter into it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or practices falsehood, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:21-27, emphasis mine).
At the cleansing of the temple, our Lord symbolically comes to possess what, as God, is His. As the Son of God, the temple is His Father’s house, and thus He has the right to correct temple abuses. He has the right to drive men and animals out of the temple courts. As I read this account of this first temple cleansing, I am reminded of a comment by Leon Morris on John 1:11, which directly relates to our text. Let’s first look again at this text:
9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, but the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him (John 1:9-11, emphasis mine).
Here is what Morris has to say about the expression, “His own”:
With vivid touches John highlights the tragedy of the rejection. We might translate the opening words, ‘he came home.’ It is the exact expression used of the beloved disciple when, in response to Jesus’ word from the cross, he took Mary ‘unto his own home’ (19:27; cf. 16:32). In one sense, when the Word came to this world He did not come as an alien. He came home. Moreover, He came to Israel. Had He come to some other nation it would have been bad enough, but Israel was peculiarly God’s own people. The Word did not go where He could not have expected to be known. He came home, where the people ought to have known Him.133
Various translations try to capture the significance of the subtle change of terms John deliberately employs in verse 11. Unfortunately, some translations render these two terms by the same expression, “His own.” The New English Bible renders this sentence, “He entered his own realm, and his own would not receive him.” The NET Bible translates, “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him.” Morris would render it, “He came home, and His own would not receive Him.” Do you see it? When Jesus comes into the temple, He is coming “home.” This is His Father’s house. He is about His Father’s business. And in the process of doing so, He declares Himself to be God. In response, He is rejected—“His own did not receive Him.”
God has the right to possess what is His. Here, Jesus claims the right to possess the temple because it is His. This incident may seem very distant and detached from us today. We live in a place very distant from Jerusalem, where no temple (like Herod’s temple, which was destroyed) exists. How can this event possibly relate to us? It does, my friend; it really does.
The first coming of our Lord was, in part, to claim what was His. The Second Coming of our Lord, an event still future, is a time when He will come and fully possess what is His. Jesus speaks a good deal about stewardship, as we can see in the Gospels. The reason should be obvious: We do not own anything; ultimately, He owns it all. This puts everything we think of as our “possessions” in an entirely different light. Some seem to think they own everything they have, and if they feel generous enough, they may give a percentage of it to God. In truth, God claims it all, and we are merely stewards of His possessions. If we use these to indulge ourselves, we are failing our stewardship. If we fail to make good use of them, we fail as stewards. Let us cease thinking of anything as our own. Let us hold much less tightly to the things that we call possessions. And let us use them well as His stewards.
Jesus came to possess what was His—His temple. Jesus had the right to define how men could use His temple, and the right to correct those who abused it. The church is now being built up as His temple:
19 So then you are no longer foreigners and non-citizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22; see also 1 Peter 2:4-10).
As a result, those who in any way do damage to the church, God’s temple, are guilty of a most serious offense:
16 Do you not know that you134 are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:16).
If the church collectively is the temple of our Lord, it is also true that we are individually “temples” of the Holy Spirit. Because this is true, our sins in the body are taken most seriously.
19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
God owns us; He owns our body as His temple. We do not own ourselves.135 In the context of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul tells us that sexual immorality, though taken very lightly by our society (see 6:13), is a most serious sin, especially for the Christian. If our body is the temple of God, then to defile it is to defile God’s temple. If Jesus took the defilement of Herod’s temple so seriously, how do you think He feels about the way you and I use our bodies? To abuse or defile them is an affront to God, to whom our bodies belong, and in which He dwells by His Spirit.
Our Lord’s words and actions also relate to our use of church buildings (or our places of worship). Let me be very clear: church buildings are not “God’s house” in the sense that the temple was. God is with His people when they gather, though it is not the “building” He indwells, but the church, His body. Nevertheless, our text has something to say about our gathering for worship.
Is it possible that we can turn the church (building) into an emporium, a house of merchandise? Whenever we begin to sell things in the church, that danger exists. At first, we may do this because we are trying to facilitate the worship of those who come. I think the temple businessmen would have said the same thing about their motivation. Whether it is songbooks, tapes and video’s being sold by a guest speaker or musician, or candy bars being sold to pay for a youth retreat, we need to be very careful that it does not turn the church into a shopping mall. There are lots of things being sold in churches today, so the danger is there.136
Let me press beyond the church walls for a moment, and give a word of warning about the commercialization of Christianity. Much of the ministry which was once viewed as the ministry of the church and by the church is now being handed over to “professionals” in Christian ministry. Some of this may be biblically defensible and even good, but some may not. I fear we have turned some Christian ministries into industries, “Christian industries,” where some Christians begin to view the needs of others as an opportunity to make a profit, rather than an occasion to sacrificially minister to others. I am most distressed when such “Christian ministries” are willing to minister only to those who have the means to pay, and who purposely reject or pass over those who are poor, and perhaps in the greatest need. Let us be on guard about commercializing the ministry.
We also need to be very careful about adopting “merchandising principles” as a means of assuring that we have a “successful” ministry.137 I hear a lot about this today, as though secular business principles are the key to effective ministry. For example, a church may be engaged in a building program, trying to raise money for expansion. All too often, charts, thermometers, or advertisements dominate the auditorium (I refrain from using the word “sanctuary”) and distract from the worship that should take place there. Principles employed in the business world, which are truly biblical, may be applicable to the church. But many of the guiding principles of secular business are opposed to biblical principles. Much of the merchandizing promoted by Madison Avenue tactics is based upon an appeal to the flesh. When such is the case, Christian ministry can well do without such merchandizing principles and methods.
Finally, let me say a word about Jesus and judgment. Many like to think of Jesus as a “God of love,” who never criticizes, never judges, never condemns, whose calling is to affirm everyone and to make them happy. I must remind you that the way our Lord chose to publicly reveal Himself to the world was not by the turning of water into wine, or by raising the dead or healing the sick; Jesus revealed Himself to Israel as her Messiah by His cleansing of the temple. I would remind you that while John the Baptist foretold the coming of one who was the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” he likewise urged men and women to repent, because the Messiah was coming to judge the world. The Jesus of the Bible, the “real Jesus,” is the One who is merciful and gracious to those who trust and obey and the One who will judge those who resist and reject Him.
The changing of the water into wine and the cleansing of the temple give us a broad overview of the person and work of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the gentle and gracious Savior, who saved the newlywed couple from embarrassment by making water into wine. He is also the holy and righteous Judge, who will punish His enemies and correct the evils of men. As Paul writes,
Notice, therefore, the kindness and harshness of God: harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:22).
Have you considered the harshness of God, which you justly deserve as a sinner? Have you received the kindness of God in the gift of Jesus Christ, who died for your sins on the cross of Calvary? I urge you to “believe” in Him, for this is John’s purpose in writing this Gospel.
Were There Two Temple Cleansings or Just One?
If one accepts the accounts of the Gospels at face value, there are obviously two temple cleansings. The first occurred at the outset of our Lord’s earthly ministry and is described by John. The second takes place at the end of our Lord’s public ministry, and it is the incident which appears to precipitate His death by crucifixion. Amazingly, many scholars seem to have great difficulty with two cleansings. D. A. Carson comments, “Only a very few judge it likely that there were two temple cleansings, one near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the other at the end (e.g. Hendriksen, p. 120; Morris, pp. 188-191)” (Carson, p.177).
In my opinion, the reasons for holding a “one cleansing” view are exceptionally weak.
Many modern scholars have found great difficulty in supposing that Jesus twice ‘cleansed’ the temple. Thus V. H. Stanton wrote, ‘When in different ancient documents we find two accounts in many respects so similar referring to different times, it is on the whole most probable that we have to do with different traditions about the same event.’ And Bernard comments, ‘Apart from the fact that the duplication of similar incidents is improbable, we find it difficult to suppose that this particular incident, or anything like it, could have happened at so early a stage in the ministry of Jesus as is suggested by the traditional order of chapters in the Fourth Gospel.’138
We are also told that a two-cleansing position should be rejected because it does not seem reasonable to assume that if Jesus succeeded in cleansing the temple the first time, He would have been allowed to do so a second time. Although Carson is inclined toward the two-cleansing view, even he is reluctant to be dogmatic on this point:
In short, it is not possible to resolve with certainty whether only one cleansing of the temple took place, or two; but the arguments for one are weak and subjective, while the most natural reading of the texts favours two.139
Hendriksen (p. 120) takes a firm stand for two cleansings, as does Morris (pp. 188-190) and Tasker. I like Tasker’s assessment of the matter:
John is not correcting a supposed chronological blunder on the part of the earlier evangelists, nor deliberately altering their history in the interests of theological exposition, but, we may reasonably suppose, relating an additional ‘cleansing’ which the Synoptic writers had no occasion to relate, for it did not form part of the Petrine, Galilaean tradition which they were embodying.140
I am troubled that the one-cleansing theory receives any support from conservative scholarship. The text is straightforward. Those who accept it as the inspired Word of God should accept its statements without feeling obliged to change them. It is not at all difficult to believe there are two cleansings, one at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, and the other at the end. Why do some want to challenge the text, based solely upon their own presuppositions?
Must we suppose (like Stanton, as quoted in footnote 34) that just because two somewhat similar events are described, they must be the same event, even though the authors tell us otherwise? If Jesus fed 5,000 in one place and 4,000 in another, can we not believe there were two similar, but separate, miracles? Dare we “correct” the inspired text because we think this miracle comes “too early” in our Lord’s ministry? Who are we to say what God can do, or when? Do we really believe Jesus could not get away with cleansing the temple twice? No one could arrest Him, or put Him to death until it was “His time”? Soldiers who came to arrest Him fell before Him when He spoke. And yet do we dare to think He could not go into the temple and cleanse it daily if He willed? The objections to taking the text literally are not only weak, they are presumptuous.
105 There had been a kind of “cleansing” of this temple by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:4-9). Eliashib the priest was related to Tobiah, to whom he gave permission to use one of the large rooms in the temple courts. This room had been used for storing grain offerings, utensils, frankincense, and other items needed for sacrifice and worship. Nehemiah threw out Tobiah’s goods, had the room cleansed, and restored it to its original use.
107 “Capernaum … lay on the northwest shore of Galilee, about sixteen miles east-northeast of Cana: so travellers literally ‘went down’ to Capernaum. The modern site is Tell-Hum.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 176.
110 Morris believes that the family of our Lord may have moved to Capernaum, and thus writes, “It may support this in that in Mark 3:31ff. our Lord’s mother and brothers appear at Capernaum, and that in Mark 6:3, while Jesus brothers are named, only his sisters are spoken of as remaining at Nazareth. This would be natural if the sisters had married, and later the rest of the family had moved to Capernaum.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p.187, fn. 42.
111 “After this, the first thought which occurs to us is that what is about to be recorded took place shortly after the wedding at Cana. This would seem to follow from the very expression that is used, for elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel it indicates an event which followed soon after (11:11; 19:28). This inference receives further corroboration from the very next verse where we read, ‘And the Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.’ Now, all of this is very logical: Jesus in February or early March changes the water into wine; from Cana’s wedding he proceeds to Capernaum where he stays a few days; there follows the Passover festival, which was held in early Spring (about April). We cannot agree, therefore with those who are of the opinion that the temple-cleansing here recorded took place at the close of Christ’s ministry and is to be identified with the one about which we read in Matt. 21.” William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), p. 120.
112 In the first part of chapter 2, Jesus turned cleansing water into wine. In the second half of the chapter, Jesus cleansed the temple and the religious leaders “whined.” It seems that John is contrasting Jewish ceremonial cleansing with Jesus’ cleansing of ceremonial Judaism.
113 “John keeps meticulous track of Jewish feasts. In addition to other feasts, he mentions three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 11:55), possibly a fourth (5:1). This one probably takes place in AD 28.” Carson, p. 176.
114 “… true in this case even in a literal sense (actually ascending from 680 feet below sea-level near the Sea of Galilee to 2,500 feet above sea-level, the altitude of the Holy City), but ever true in the religious sense.” Hendriksen, p. 122.
115 “So very close was the connection between the Passover-meal proper and the immediately following Feast of Unleavened Bread that the term Passover is frequently used to cover both. Thus, in Luke 22:1—a very significant passage—we read: ‘Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.’ Also in Acts 12:4 (see the preceding verse) the term Passover clearly covers the entire seven-day festival. The Old Testament, too, calls the Passover a feast of seven days (Ezek. 45:21).” Hendriksen, pp. 121-122.
120 “Now at this occasion Jesus, entering Jerusalem’s temple, notices that the court of the Gentiles had been changed into what must have resembled a stockyard. There was the stench and the filth, the bleating and the lowing of animals, destined for sacrifice.” Hendriksen, p. 122.
121 Grocery stores very often have a bakery, and the smell of freshly baked goods beckons one to the bakery to buy something. As one came to the temple, one would smell the aroma of the sacrificial offerings, and the fragrance of the incense (Luke 1:9-11). It would surely be a pleasant aroma, but not when the temple courts were turned into a stock market.
123 I do not believe John intends for us to conclude that the disciples understood this immediately, but that they eventually came to understand it, in the light of His death, burial, and resurrection, and by means of the illumination of the Holy Spirit (see John 16:12-14).
124 “Now, in expressing this thought use is made of Ps. 69, which is one of six Psalms most often referred to in the New Testament (the others being Pss. 2, 22, 89, 110, and 118). Other echoes of various passages of this Psalm (which is Ps. 68 in LXX) are heard in Matt. 27:34, 48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 15:25; 19:28; Rom. 11:9, 10; 15:3; Heb. 11:26; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 16:1; 17:8; 20:12, 15; and 21:27. While some of these are quotations, others are allusions, references more or less indirect. Jesus himself (15:25) cites Ps. 69:4, ‘They hated me without cause,’ and refers it to his own experience. In fulfillment of Ps. 69:21 he uttered the word from the cross, ‘I thirst’ (19:28).” Hendriksen, p. 123. See also Ezekiel 10:15-19; 11:22-23; Zechariah 14:21; Malachi 3:1, 3.
125 “It was the failure to understand that the disciples regarded the Psalmist’s words as prophetic of Christ’s death and the assumption that they referred to the energy and fearlessness of Jesus on this occasion, that gave rise to the later and poorly attested reading followed by AV hath eaten me up in verse 17.” R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980 [tenth printing]), p. 63.
127 “With other New Testament writers, however, John detects in the experiences of David a prophetic paradigm that anticipates what must take place in the life of ‘great David’s greater Son.’ That explains why the words in 2:17, quoted from the LXX, change the tense to the future: Zeal for your house will consume me.… For John, the manner by which Jesus will be ‘consumed’ is doubtless his death.” Carson, p. 180.
128 “This expression [‘the Jews’] is rare in the Synoptic Gospels. Each of them refers a few times to ‘the King of the Jews’ and scarcely uses the term otherwise. But in John it is used some seventy times. Sometimes the Evangelist employs it in a neutral sense (e.g. 2:6, ‘the Jews’ manner of purifying’). He can even use it in a good sense (e.g. ‘salvation is from the Jews,’ 4:22. But more often he uses it to denote the Jewish nation as hostile to Jesus. It does not necessarily denote the whole nation. In fact characteristically it means the Jews of Judea, especially those in and around Jerusalem.” Morris, p. 130-131. Morris then cites G.J. Cuming in a footnote: “Especially does it apply to ‘the chief priests and Pharisees, whom he depicts as our Lord’s bitterest opponents.’” (p. 131, fn. 2).
129 “The Synoptists report that at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin false witnesses charged him with making the statement, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man’ (Mk. 14:58 par.; cf. Mk. 15:29). The only record of such a statement is in this account provided by John: the Fourth Gospel here provides a detail that corroborates the Synoptic evidence.” Carson, p. 181.
131 In our text, it is our Lord who raises Himself from the dead: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (verse 19; see also John 10:18). Elsewhere, the resurrection of our Lord is viewed as the work of the Father (Acts 2:24, etc.) and of the Spirit (Romans 8:11). The resurrection, like creation, is the work of the Trinity.
132 “We ought to observe the connection of the words, that they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken; for the Evangelist means that, by comparing the Scripture with the word of Christ, they were aided in making progress in faith.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 7: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n.d.), p. 630.
137 I do not wish to be understood as making a blanket condemnation here, but I do believe that many secular systems are embraced by Christians without any consideration of whether they truly have a biblical basis.
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