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Lesson 11: Jesus Cleans House (John 2:12-17)

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May 5, 2013

Probably most of us do not enjoy cleaning our houses or apartments, but if you don’t do it regularly, pretty soon you’re living in a pigsty. When I was a pastor in California, I once visited the home of a couple from the church there. When I walked in the door I saw boxes and piles of stuff stacked everywhere. The place was a disaster! I almost said, “Oh, are you moving?” Thankfully, before I said anything I realized, “This is the way they live!” I’ve been in other homes where there was so much clutter that there was literally no place to sit down. I was in another house where the shower was unusable because it was piled high with stuff!

Imagine how those people would have reacted if I had walked in and started throwing their stuff into the trash can! They would have shrieked, “What do you think you’re doing?” After all, it wasn’t my house or my stuff. Even though it needed to be cleaned up, I had no right to do it because it wasn’t mine.

In our text, Jesus goes into the temple in Jerusalem and starts cleaning house. He didn’t begin by opening Scripture and teaching everyone the proper use of the temple. He wasn’t polite, either. He didn’t ask, “Would you mind moving your animals outside the temple? Could you please carry your coin boxes and tables outside the gates?” Rather, He saw what was going on, made a scourge of cords, and drove the animals and their owners out of there. He dumped out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those selling doves, He commanded (2:16), “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”

As could be expected, the Jews asked Him, in effect, “What right do you have to do these things?” In the vernacular, “Who do you think you are? Do you think you own this place?” John wants us to understand, “Yes, Jesus owns this place! The temple belongs to Him.” Thus,

As the Lord of the temple, Jesus has authority to cleanse it and restore it to its proper use.

In our last study, the disciples got an initial glimpse of Jesus’ glory when He turned the water into wine and they believed in Him (2:11). They had already believed in Him, but when they saw more of who He really is, they believed in Him again, in a deeper way. After Jesus’ resurrection when the disciples remembered this incident, the result was the same: “they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (2:22). And John writes these things so that we might get a deeper understanding of who Jesus is so that we might believe in Him as the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing, we might have life in His name (20:30-31).

Before we look at the main event in our text, note that verse 12 is a transitional verse from the last incident: “After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days.” Capernaum was on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, about two miles west of where the Jordan River flowed into the sea. It was the home of Peter and Andrew. After John the Baptist was imprisoned, Jesus moved there from Nazareth (Matt. 4:13).

This is the last time that Jesus’ mother is mentioned in this gospel until she is at the cross (19:26). We will encounter Jesus’ brothers again in 7:3-10, where John informs us that they did not at that point believe in Jesus. Some (usually Roman Catholics) believe that these could not be Mary’s children because they assert that she was perpetually a virgin. They say that these were either Jesus’ cousins or else Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. But there is no biblical reason to deny that these were the children born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus was born. Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph kept Mary a virgin until she gave birth to Jesus, implying that after that time they had normal marital relations.

Regarding the cleansing of the temple, most liberal scholars and even a few conservative ones argue that there was only one cleansing of the temple, not two. The Synoptic Gospels all report that Jesus cleansed the temple after His triumphal entry during the last week of His ministry (Matt. 21:12-13). John alone reports this cleansing at the outset of Jesus’ ministry. William Barclay (The Gospel of John [Westminster], 1:107) makes the ridiculous statement, “John is more interested in the truth than in the facts” (as if we can have truth based on factual error!). Some say that John puts the event out of chronological order at the beginning for theological reasons. But the chronological sequence of 2:11-13 is pretty tight (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/ Apollos], p. 177). Other than a liberal bias, it is most natural to conclude that there were two cleansings.

All Jewish males were required to go up (Jerusalem was at a higher elevation than the surrounding territory) to the temple three times a year for the great feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. On this occasion, Jesus went up for Passover.

Within the temple compound was a spacious courtyard called “The Court of the Gentiles.” Gentile proselytes could worship in that area but were threatened with death if they went beyond the four and a half foot dividing wall (Paul refers to this in Eph. 2:14). It was in this area that the merchants and money changers had set up their operation. As Jesus approached this area, which was to be a place of worship and prayer (Isa. 56:7; Matt. 21:13), He would have heard the commotion of the marketplace, with merchants crying out to hawk their wares and the smell of animals.

The pilgrims who walked great distances to Jerusalem to worship needed sacrificial animals—sheep, oxen, and doves. They could bring their own animals from home, although it would not be easy to do. But, the animals had to be without blemish and had to pass an official inspection, which cost money. So to avoid the hassle of bringing their own animals and the risk of having the animals rejected, a person could simply buy one of the already certified animals from a vendor at the temple. These vendors paid the high priest for the privilege of selling at the temple. So it was a nice business for the high priest and the vendors. And, it provided a convenient service for the worshipers.

Also, foreign money was not acceptable in the temple. To buy their animals or to pay the half-shekel temple tax, worshipers had to get their money changed into the proper coinage, again for a fee. If you’ve ever traveled overseas, you know how this works. In every foreign airport and city, money changers will trade your American currency for the local currency for a nice fee.

There is scholarly evidence that these merchants and money changers had operated around the Mount of Olives, outside of the temple precincts, under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin for some time. But just prior to Jesus’ ministry, Caiaphas, the high priest, had brought some of them into the Court of the Gentiles to compete with those outside. Jesus’ indignation was not necessarily against selling these animals or changing money per se (although gouging people with exorbitant rates for personal profit was wrong), but rather at the audacity of bringing these merchants into the only place where the Gentiles could worship (William Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark [Eerdmans], pp. 403-404). Their business should have been carried on outside the temple.

Why didn’t the temple officials arrest or physically restrain Jesus from carrying out this extreme action? There were probably several factors. First, there was a general public outrage against this corrupt and evil system. The people knew that they were being charged exorbitant rates. The high priest and the vendors knew that there was only so much that the public would bear. If they had used force against Jesus, they might have faced a public rebellion. Second, the consciences of the vendors themselves may have been a little uneasy. Their setting up shop in the temple precincts defiled the temple because it brought animal excrement into that sacred space. Also, Jesus’ action could have been viewed as a fulfillment of Malachi 3:1-4, which prophesied that Messiah would come to His temple and purify the people like a refiner’s fire.

Leon Morris points out (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 194) that it was not so much Jesus’ physical force that drove these merchants out of the temple, but rather His moral power. So rather than physically arrest or restrain Jesus, the authorities challenge His authority or right to do what He did (2:18). We will have to wait until next time to examine Jesus’ reply and the disciples’ response (2:19-22). For now, let’s look at five lessons from Jesus’ housecleaning of the temple:

1. As the Lord of the temple, Jesus has authority over it.

Several things in the text establish Jesus’ lordship and thus His authority over the temple. First, He calls it “My Father’s house,” not “our Father’s house.” Morris notes (ibid., p. 195, note 66), “Jesus never joins men with Himself in such a way as to indicate that their sonship is similar to His (cf. 20:17).” He adds, “Jesus’ words are a claim to deity.” If Jesus is the unique Son of God, the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2), then He is the rightful Lord of the temple.

Also, the citation of Psalm 69:9 shows that this “action is not merely that of a Jewish reformer: it is a sign of the advent of the Messiah” (Hoskyns, cited by Morris, p. 196). John is showing us that Jesus is the Christ (20:31). Morris adds, “It is one of John’s great themes that in Jesus God is working His purposes out.”

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 91) raises the question, “Why didn’t Christ begin with teaching before He took this drastic action?” He answers that Jesus wished in some way to take possession of the temple and to give a proof of His divine authority. Also, this dramatic action would awaken everyone to pay attention when He later began to teach.

This reminds me of a story that P. G. Wodehouse told (America, I Like You, cited in Reader’s Digest [July, 1984], p. 113). A member of the British Parliament was standing in the lobby of the House when a tall, distinguished-looking old gentleman asked for a moment of his time. He said, “I have heard of you as one who takes up unpopular causes and I should be extremely grateful if you would listen to my story.”

It was a sad story. By hard work and thrift, he had amassed a large fortune and now his relatives had robbed him of it and, not content with that, had placed him in a mental home. This was his day out. “I’ve put the facts in this document,” he concluded. “Study it and communicate with me at your leisure. Thank you, sir, thank you. Good day.”

Much moved by the old man’s exquisite courtesy, the Member of Parliament took the paper, shook hands, promised that he would do everything in his power, and turned to go back into the session of Parliament. As he did so, he received a kick in the seat of the pants which nearly sent his spine shooting through his hat.

“Don’t forget!” said the old gentleman.

So after Jesus “kicked the vendors in the seat of their pants,” they wouldn’t forget Him or His teaching!

It’s easy to sit here and enjoy the story of Jesus cleaning house on the temple, but it gets a bit uncomfortable when we remember two things. First, the church is now the temple where God dwells. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” The context indicates that Paul is speaking of the church. Also, in Ephesians 2:21, he states that the church is growing into a holy temple in the Lord.

Second, every believer individually is a temple of the Lord. Paul writes (1 Cor. 6:19-20), “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”

This means that Jesus has authority over this church and over every individual in it. He is the rightful Lord of the church. He owns each member because He purchased each one with His blood. Thus He has the right to cleanse the church and to cleanse every person in it. Everything else that I’m going to say applies both to the whole church and to each of you individually.

2. As the Lord of the temple, Jesus examines and judges it in light of its purpose.

Jesus knew that the temple was not to be a place for business (2:16). It was a place for worship, for prayer, and for offering sacrifices. It was the place to meet with God and seek His face (see 1 Kings 8:22-53; Isa. 56:7). It was the place to gather for the three annual feasts (Deut. 16:16). The Passover, which Jesus here went up to celebrate, was a time to remember God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. But it had degenerated into a business opportunity for the high priest and all of the merchants and money changers. No doubt they rationalized their activities: It was a useful service for the worshipers. But they were prostituting God’s purpose for the temple.

God’s purpose for His church is that we would glorify Him by growing in fervent love for Him and for one another (the two great commandments) and by proclaiming the gospel to the lost (the Great Commission). We need to keep on task by evaluating all that we do in light of these purposes. Individually, each of us should seek to glorify God by everything we do (1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31). If we live for anything else, the Lord of the temple will examine us and purge out that which has diverted us from His purpose for us.

3. As the Lord of the temple, Jesus hates certain things that go on in it.

Jesus is zealous for God’s house and that zeal means that sometimes He is not “nice.” He didn’t politely go around to each stall and suggest to the proprietors that perhaps they should move outside the temple precincts. Rather, He made a whip and drove them out with force. He angrily upended their money tables and scattered their coins.

Does that fit with your picture of Jesus? Yes, He was gentle toward sinners (Matt. 11:29; 12:20). He gives “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He so loves us that He gave Himself for us on the cross (John 3:16). But He also baptizes with fire. “His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor” (Luke 3:17). “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). As we’ve seen (1 Cor. 3:17), “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.”

Jesus hates sin because sin destroys people He loves and sin among God’s people drags God’s holy name through the mud. This means that first, we should hate our own sin and be quick to repent of it so that He doesn’t have to clean house for us (Rev. 3:19). Judge, confess, and forsake your sin on the thought level and it won’t go any farther. If you’ve already sinned in word or deed, turn from it, ask God to forgive you, and ask forgiveness of those you’ve sinned against.

Also, if you know of a brother or sister who is in sin, zeal for God’s house should override your fear of man and your aversion to confront anyone. After prayer, in humility, go to your brother and seek to restore him to the Lord (Gal. 6:1). It is the Christlike thing to do. Jesus never avoided confrontation if it was necessary to do the will of God. Don’t dodge your responsibility. It’s a necessary part of biblical love to hate sin.

4. As Lord of the temple, Jesus cleanses it.

A sober question to ask is, “What would Jesus do if He visited our church?” Would He be pleased with our worship? Would He smile as He looked at our relationships? Would He approve of our heart for the lost? Would He commend our giving and the way that we use the church’s funds? Would He say that our prayer life reflects our total dependence on Him?

Ask the same question on an individual level: Lord, is my life pleasing to You? Is my love for You genuine? Do I reflect the fruit of the Spirit? Is my thought life pure in Your sight? Where would You clean house in my life if I gave You full rein?

Note that Jesus didn’t work out a compromise with the stall owners and money changers: “If you guys will tithe your profits, I’ll let you keep doing business in the temple.” He cleaned out the entire operation. He doesn’t let us keep a little bit of sin if we’ll just give up a few other sins. Jesus cleans it all out. And, yes, it’s painful and costly. I’m sure that the whip stung when it hit. The money changers probably lost a few coins. Their future business suffered. It may cost you in many ways to do business with Jesus. But the long term benefits are worth it.

5. As the Lord’s temple, we must submit to His cleansing, even if it costs us dearly.

Hebrews 12:6 reminds us, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” He adds (12:11), “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” And so we should not regard His discipline lightly or faint when we are reproved by Him, but rather be subject to the Father of spirits and live (12:5, 9).

Also, once Jesus has cleaned our house for us, we need to keep it clean so that He doesn’t have to do it again. Not long after this first cleansing, they set up shop again, so that Jesus had to do this a second time three years later. Then His zeal for God’s house did consume Him—it led to His death.


It’s good every so often to examine yourself to make sure that you’re in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5):

  • Have you lost that first love for Christ (Rev. 2:4)? Do you spend time with Him often in His Word (Psalm 119) and in prayer (1 Thess. 5:17)? Are you actively seeking to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18; Phil 3:8-10)? Do you seek to please Him with your thoughts, words, and deeds?
  • How are your relationships with others, especially with those you live with (Matt. 22:39)? Are you fervent in your love for others (1 Pet. 4:8)? Do you deny yourself and seek to build others in love (Mark 8:34; 1 Cor. 8:1)? Do you love gathering with His church (Heb. 10:25)?
  • Do you spend your time in light of His kingdom purposes (Matt. 6:33)? Are you a conscientious steward of the resources that He has entrusted to you (Luke 16:10-13)? Do you view yourself as the Lord’s servant, seeking opportunities to be used by Him (Luke 17:10)? Are there any hidden or open sins that you need to confess and forsake (1 John 1:9)?

Paul says that if we clean house ourselves, the Lord won’t need to do it for us. Before we partake of the Lord’s Supper, he instructed us (1 Cor. 11:28), “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” He adds (1 Cor. 11:31-32), “But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” So if you need to clean house, don’t procrastinate! The Lord doesn’t want you to live in a spiritual pigsty!

Application Questions

  1. Does Jesus wielding a whip fit your image of Him? Why is it crucial to know Jesus as the Bible reveals Him, not necessarily as we might want Him to be?
  2. Work through the questions in the conclusion of the message. Prioritize two or three that you most need to work on. Jot down some practical ways to begin.
  3. Study some of the verses pertaining to helping a brother or sister who is in sin (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Thess. 5:14; Rom. 15:14; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). What are some principles that you can apply? Is there someone you need to help restore?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Discipleship, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

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