Episode 49 - The Cleansing of the Temple - Opening Up the Gospels

In Episode 48 we looked at what the Temple in Jerusalem was like during the time of Jesus – specifically it’s grandeur, its size, and its construction. I hope it helped you get a clearer picture in your mind about what those in the first century would have thought of when they heard someone reference the Temple. Right at the end of the last episode I said that when we think of Jesus cleansing the Temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers, we need to picture the Temple as something massive, something with the area of 35 football fields where perhaps 100,000 people could be crammed in at one time. It means that there might have been many people in the Temple that weren’t even aware of the commotion that Jesus caused. With this in mind, let’s read the account of the cleansing of the temple from John 2: “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And 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.” (John 2:13–15 ESV) So this is happening at Passover, and as I said last time that puts us in April of 27AD. Jesus already had a small band of disciples who had been with him in Bethany beyond the Jordan, at the wedding in Cana, in Capernaum with his family, and now here in Jerusalem. I also said last time that the event of the cleansing of the Temple was of enormous significance. Though the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana was a sign for the wedding guests, it wasn’t “public” in the sense that the cleansing of the Temple was. As a matter of fact, most people didn’t even know Jesus did the miracle at the wedding. I say all that to make the point that the wedding of Cana was not a public beginning to His ministry. It’s critical that we see that Jesus begins his public ministry in a formal way with the cleansing of the Temple, the very heart of the Jewish nation, and He makes His first appeal as the Messiah to the leadership of Israel in a very direct and even offensive way. This is such a stark contrast to the way many may have viewed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. If we don’t catch this detail and the specific chronology that we’ve looked at and that John is presenting – that Jesus began His ministry in Jerusalem, and we just imagine that it began with Jesus just wandering around Galilee healing people and casting out demons, we will miss John’s emphasis on the main point of Jesus’ ministry altogether. If He just was haphazardly roaming about doing miracles before going to die on the cross, that leaves us with the impression that his main mission was just to heal and love and that’s how he was revealing who He was. I want to make it clear – that is not the primary reason why Jesus came the first time. He went to Galilee and did those things after He began at the Temple, the very center of the Jewish people and the nation, confronting the leadership from day one. That’s how He began. Miracles and healing are significant in how they reveal Jesus’ compassion, but He was giving signs and demonstrations of power to validate and authenticate the bigger mission for which He came. So when we have the message of John the Baptist clear and we see that Jesus’ ministry started in Jerusalem at the very center of Judaism, we can contextualize the miracles and all the things He was saying in the synagogues. The miracles pointed to the authenticity of His mission – the miracles were not the mission itself. This is so significant to understand. Jesus started His ministry knowing exactly who He was. John the Baptist knew who He was – He was the one who would divide the wheat from the chaff, He would baptize with the spirit and with fire. The Lord was coming to reckon with His people Israel. And so Jesus comes in the wake of all of that and walks right into the temple in Jerusalem and says “this is all broken, I’m condemning what’s happening here.” In doing that, Jesus exerted His authority over the temple, over the leadership of the temple, and therefore by implication, the entire nation of Israel. We’ll look at this, but that’s why the Jews react the way they do – they say “what sign do you show us for doing these things?”. In other words, they’re saying “who do you think you are?” In their minds, it’s just a random Galilean coming in and throwing over tables. But Jesus knew exactly who He was. He was directly confrontational and didn’t hesitate to exert his unique authority over the entire nation of Israel. The existing leadership had not stopped the greed and all of the other sinful practices that were happening in the Temple. So this was a huge indictment to the existing leadership regarding their failure to lead the nation in righteousness. Does this make sense? It was so confrontational, and this is how He begins His public ministry, dividing and cutting through the nation right from the beginning. Now, when we see that Jesus’ ministry starts in this way, it leads us to a corporate and narrative understanding of the Gospels, contrasted with an individualistic and random view of them. We’ve got to see that there’s a real story going on here, and it primarily involves the nation of Israel. John says that upon entering the Temple, Jesus “found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple”. Who were these sellers and money changers? Well, remember, it’s Passover. So these guys were in the temple selling animals for sacrifice, and money changers were around to convert all the various forms of currency into the Jewish shekel which was needed to pay the temple tax. And because it’s Passover, thousands of pilgrims from all over the known would return to Jerusalem to celebrate. And all of them would be required to pay the Temple tax. Though there certainly was need for money changers and those selling animals especially for pilgrims coming in from far away places, these guys were full of greed and selfish gain. Though the temple treasuries would have been filled beyond measure by the pilgrims, the profits these sellers and money changers made were enormous too. There was just massive extortion going on, and the Jewish authorities – specifically the chief priests and the high priest – were the ultimate recipients of the wealth that was being consolidated. The system was just so broken and driven by greed, and that’s what Jesus was addressing. These guys were just funneling all of the money to themselves and using the significance of the Temple to get wealthy. And of course they loved it, they were at the top of the food chain and had all the power. So with this in mind, now think about what Jesus was doing and what he continued to do throughout His ministry. He comes and starts to address the hypocrisy, greed, and corruption and what do the leaders want to do? They want to kill him! Later on in John 11, all the elders are with Caiaphas, the high priest, and what do they say? “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” I think that they really did understand that Jesus was the rightful heir of power and leadership, and if He had the people turn on the Jewish authorities in an uprising or insurrection movement like what had happened with Judas Maccabee, Rome would come in and take charge, removing them from their position of power and wealth. Their hearts were just so hard, and Jesus confronts them straight on, on day 1, in the very first overtly public event of His ministry. And instead of bearing the fruits of repentance and saying “you’re right, this is corrupt, you were right to come in and dump the money and scatter everything”, they didn’t do that. I’m sure that by the end of the day, the whole system was back up and running again. John 2 continues: And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:16–17 ESV) Here John makes it clear that Jesus’ response was not just random outburst of rage or anger but rather a holy zeal that filled His heart. Remember, the Temple was God’s establishment, God alone had authority over it. When Jesus condemned what was happening, he’s not only confronting the leadership and indicting them about their failure to hold fast to righteousness, but he’s implicitly making a claim to His divinity. That’s what his exertion of the authority over the temple is saying. The verse that makes this point a bit clearer is in Matthew 12:6 when Jesus says “one greater than the temple is here”. Only God is greater than the temple, because there’s nothing about the temple that God has to honor or submit to. God is the one who has authority over it. And so for Jesus to assert His authority over it is most certainly an implication of His divinity, something He will go on to very clearly assert throughout His ministry. Let’s keep going in John 2: “So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:18–22 ESV) Just like they do throughout Jesus’ ministry, the Jews request a sign from Jesus to prove His claims. Jesus is so confident here, and uses the very thing they put their confidence in – the Temple – to undermine them and confuse them. Unlike Jesus’ body which would be raised up in glory to live forever, the stones of the temple would fall and lay in ruin for thousands of years to come. I know there’s a lot that may be new to you here. It’s so important that we see these things so that we can rightly understand the rest of the ministry of Jesus. I hope you see even more now that Jesus’ mission was first and foremost a mission that had to do with the national identity of Israel, not mostly a mission of personal needs and personal salvation. If this makes sense to you, it’s going to change the way you read the Gospels.