Jesus Cleanses the Temple:
A Wakeup Call for the Anything Goes Church
By Greg Wright
Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on June 1, 2008
A. Funny then.
When my wife Nan and I lived in North Carolina, we attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It was started by the Presbyterian Church of America, otherwise called the PCA, and for Nan and me, it was our first introduction to Reformed theology. It was also our first experience with some of the surprising and unexpected things that can happen when a church plant rents a facility from a secular organization.
Today that church owns a very nice building, a refurbished school. But at that time, the church was worshipping in the Little Theater at the Hanes Community Center. It was a wonderful facility where, among other things, community actors would perform plays. Nan and I attended many of the plays, and it was especially fun to watch plays where we knew some of the actors personally. To promote the plays, the building often had banners hanging down from the ceiling.
Now part of the church arrangement with the center, in addition to the financial details, required the center to take those banners down for Sunday worship. We did not want banners advertising plays to distract people during our worship services. The center cooperated most of the time, but sometimes they forgot. One occasion is especially notable.
The worship service was about to start. The worship leader and the pastor, both of them graduates of the very conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, were ready to begin the service. The seats were filled with visitors from Wake Forest University and Salem College, as well as the regular attendees. The musicians were ready to play. And there it was, hanging from the ceiling, a banner advertising an upcoming play, but not just any play. No, it was boldly displaying the title – Anything Goes.
Anything goes! In a Reformed church! The worship leader looked up and then out towards the people in front of him as he tried to explain that even though this banner was prominently displayed, it was not displayed by the church, and it was not to be taken as a doctrinal statement. The whole congregation laughed, and even today, I laugh with them as I remember how young we were and how funny it seemed at the time. It was funny precisely because we knew it was not true. Redeemer was a place that took worship seriously. And the irony of such opposite ideas, serious worship versus anything goes worship, seemed very funny at the time.
B. Not so funny now.
Worship problems today.
What was funny then is not so funny now, for in many churches, Anything Goes is no longer the opposite of what they believe but, instead, has become their operational paradigm.
Consider the state of many liberal churches. Homosexuality is approved; the resurrection is denied; and the Bible is emptied of authority.
Consider the state of many evangelical churches. The godward focus is all but lost. Instead the emphasis is upon marketing, bigness, and superstars.
Worship problems in the Old Testament
We even find worship problems throughout the Old Testament. For example, Cain was very proud of the offering of produce that he brought before God. But it was not the kind of offering that God required, see Genesis 4:5.
Nadab and Abihu thought it would be just fine to offer unsanctified fire before the Lord. They failed to understand how serious God is about reverence in worship. Thus we read in Leviticus 10:1-3:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, "It is what the LORD spoke, saying, 'By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.' So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.
King David thought it would be just fine to transport the Ark of God in a cart, even though people were forbidden from transporting the ark in that fashion. But God was not pleased. Thus, we read in 2 Sam 6:6-11:
When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. David became angry because of the LORD'S outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. So David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?" And David was unwilling to move the ark of the LORD into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. Thus the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
Uzziah was a good king who honored God. But as he grew strong, his heart grew proud, and he thought he could ignore God’s rules for worship. So in 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 we read:
But when he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the LORD his God, for he entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. Then Azariah the priest entered after him and with him eighty priests of the LORD, valiant men. They opposed Uzziah the king and said to him, "It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron who are consecrated to burn incense. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful and will have no honor from the LORD God." But Uzziah, with a censer in his hand for burning incense, was enraged; and while he was enraged with the priests, the leprosy broke out on his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, beside the altar of incense. Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous on his forehead; and they hurried him out of there, and he himself also hastened to get out because the LORD had smitten him. King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death; and he lived in a separate house, being a leper, for he was cut off from the house of the LORD. And Jotham his son was over the king's house judging the people of the land.
God is serious about how we worship Him.
I could provide more stories, but these four stories are sufficient to show that God is very serious about how He is worshipped. God responded with great severity when people worshipped Him improperly. It is against this background that we now consider our text, a passage that discusses Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Please turn in your Bibles to the second chapter of John. We will be looking at John 2:12-22. The last time I was before you, I talked about Jesus’ first miracle, in which He turned water into wine. In addition to demonstrating His deity, the miracle also demonstrated his concern for the needs of people. It magnified an aspect of Jesus that most people are very comfortable with – his gentle, loving, caring side. This kind of Jesus, alone, does not unsettle most people. But today we are going to consider another side of Jesus, the side that rebukes, threatens, and drives away. So let’s read the text – John 2:12-22:
After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days. The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." His disciples remembered that it was written, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME." The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
We will now proceed to discuss this temple cleansing under three headings:
1. The disgusting scene.
2. The zealous response.
3. The startling proclamation.
II. The Disgusting Scene
First we consider the disgusting scene. John 2:14 says, “He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”
When Jesus saw what was going on in the Court of the Gentiles, He saw more than the obvious market activity. He saw three things:
1. Lack of reverence.
2. Lack of holiness.
3. Lack of concern for Gentiles.
A. Lack of reverence.
First Jesus saw a lack of reverence. That which was holy, the temple and its courts, was being used for common purposes: the exchange of money and the purchasing of animals. Irreverent use of the temple demonstrated a lack of reverence towards God. People easily forget who God is. God is transcendent. God is so far above us and beyond us that, in and of ourselves, we have less hope of understanding God than a hamster has of understanding us. But God has not abandoned His creation. He has made Himself known unto us. In this way, the God who is transcendent is also immanent. Through that which God has revealed, now we are able to know certain things about Him.
Much of what we are able to know about God was symbolized in the temple, itself. In the temple, access to the Holy of Holies was very restricted. Only the High Priest could go there, and this he could do only on the Day of Atonement. This limited access demonstrated that the only access we have to God is that which He provides. Our own creative devices will not work.
The sacrificial altar demonstrated our relationship to God. It showed the necessity of laying hold of God’s provisions for dealing with our sin. When we come before God, we must come before Him humbly acknowledging our need for His forgiveness and mercy.
The prayerful and worshipful atmosphere demonstrated the opportunity God had provided for man to respond to God with confession, repentance, faith, and worship. It was a quiet place where people could search their hearts and pray.
The temple was the primary place for man to be reconciled to God. It was the place where the beauty of God reaching down towards man was on grand display. Now man was polluting the dignity of the temple by turning it into a market place. That is why having the market place in the temple was irreverent.
B. Lack of holiness.
The second thing Jesus saw was a lack of holiness. People were being cheated left and right. The synoptic gospels confirm that people were being cheated, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke also have a story of Jesus cleansing the temple, but in those accounts Jesus calls the scene a “robber’s den,” or, as we read in the King James version, “a den of thieves.”
Were they the same event? No, Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to the temple cleansing that took place at the end of Jesus’ ministry. John refers to the temple cleansing that took place at the beginning of that ministry. At the beginning, Jesus complains that people have made the temple a place of business. At the end, Jesus complains that they have made it a den of thieves. Although Jesus does not call it a den of thieves until the second temple cleansing, it must have been a den of thieves already.
Why was it a den of thieves? After all, didn’t people need to exchange their secular currency for temple currency? Didn’t people need to buy animals for sacrifices?
Yes they did. The use of sacrificial animals and the exchange of secular currency for temple currency were required by law. The business itself was legitimate. But the location of the business was wrong, since the business was being carried out in the temple, and the way the business was conducted was wrong, since people were being charged excessive fees for purchases and transactions that they were legally obligated to make.
In the book Manners and Customs in Bible Lands I read that according to the Talmud, the charge for the currency exchange was twelve percent. Now, suppose that the United States government, in order to preserve the buying power of tax revenues, ruled that U. S. taxes had to be paid in Euros. Of course that would be an aggravation, but we could deal with it. However, now suppose that in order to pay in Euros, we also had to pay a money changer twelve percent of our tax amount as an exchange fee. So, for example, instead of paying 300 U. S. dollars for taxes, we would now have to buy $300.00 worth of euros and, on top of that, pay the money changer $36.00 for doing the conversion. We would pay even more if the money changer overvalued Euros or undervalued U.S. currency.
But money changing was not the only way people were overcharged. The merchants also overcharged for the sacrificial animals. Yes, you could bring your own animal. But if you did, you would have to pay someone who was authorized to inspect your animal, and you would run the risk of having your animal rejected.
The corruption was centered in the high priestly families. The money changers and animal sellers worked for these families. These families were so corrupt that they would send thugs to beat the lesser priests and steal their tithe money. Edersheim reports that even the Talmud cries out against the high priests of the first century saying, “Go hence, ye sons of Eli, ye defile the Temple of Jehovah!”
C. Lack of concern for Gentiles.
The third thing that Jesus saw was a lack of concern for the Gentiles. The special place that had been reserved for the prayers of Gentiles had been corrupted.
Have you ever tried praying while you were ordering a hot dog at the Wilson County Fair? Have you ever tried praying while the television was blaring? Have you ever tried praying while sitting in the stands at a football game? There are some situations where it is truly hard to pray. And I can imagine that it was very hard to pray in the Court of the Gentiles while people were exchanging money and selling animals.
Oh, they might have been able to pray some short prayers – Lord, please don’t let me step in the wrong place; please don’t let me fall down. This beautiful, variegated marble floor that was now covered with animal feces would certainly give rise to some very practical prayers. But this market atmosphere was not conducive to worship. It did not reflect the dignity of God.
This was not a big problem for the Jews. They could go inside the temple courts. The women could enter into the Court of Women. The men could enter a little further into the Court of Israel. But the Gentiles had to stay outside. In fact, the Jewish guards were fully authorized to kill any Gentile who tried to go beyond the Court of the Gentiles. When the Court of the Gentiles was turned into a marketplace, the only temple access that the Gentiles had to the true God was taken away.
This enraged Jesus. Jesus’ feelings about this are clarified during the second temple cleansing in Mark 11:17 where He says, “And He began to teach and say to them, "Is it not written, 'MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS'? But you have made it a ROBBERS' DEN.”
Here, Jesus reflects the sentiments of Isaiah 56:6-7 where we read,
Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.
In John 12:20-21 Gentiles sought Jesus. “And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Carson writes that the “Greeks admired much that they saw in Judaism without becoming official converts, and sometimes attended the great Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, where they were admitted to the Court of the Gentiles.”
By turning the Court of the Gentiles into a marketplace, these Gentiles were being discouraged, and Jesus was not pleased.
II. The Zealous Response
In John 2:15-17 we find Jesus’ zealous response:
And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." His disciples remembered that it was written, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME."
Jesus was zealous for God’s house, and He was zealous for two reasons:
1. Zealous for the sake of the people
2. Zealous for the sake of His Father.
A. Zealous for the sake of the people.
First, Jesus was zealous for the sake of the people. In their disregard for the temple, people were actually harming themselves. They were undoing the redemptive affect that the temple was supposed to have in their lives. Jesus had little patience with the anything-goes temple of His day. He took decisive action to correct the abuses. An excerpt from the Renaissance New Testament colorfully describes His response to the market scene:
Into this tawdry insult being hurled into the face of God walked Jesus. He stood surveying the scene. Suddenly He was seized with holy rage. His eyes flashed; His jaw set with a determination that presaged violence; His strong brown hands, calloused by years of contact with hammer, saw, and chisel clenched into iron fists. The gentle Jesus was about to become a holy man of war. His eyes darted about the floor in search of a suitable weapon and fell upon the fragmented bits of rope that littered the place. Quickly, with practiced fingers as He had learned in a carpenter shop He plaited the cords into a whip and with a fury to be avoided at all costs, He waded into the ranks of the enemy.
Some would take offense at this side of Jesus. They would ask:
Gentle Jesus meek and mild, weren’t you like a raging child,
Striving there with whip in hand, using it on beast and man?
Does this stern and angry face, belong on one who’s full of grace?
By nature, people are a lot more comfortable with the Jesus who turns water into wine than they are with the Jesus who confronts us about our sin. But can we deny that we need to be confronted, and can we deny that sometimes we need to be confronted in the sternest way possible?
Gentle Jesus meek and low, came so we our sin would know.
Stern rebuke is what we need, full repentance from our deeds.
Those who from their sin won’t budge soon will face our Lord as judge.
Gentle Jesus meek and tough, your response to sin was rough.
Once the whip was in your hand. Then on your own back it ran.
Nails have pierced your hands and feet. By this you brought sin’s defeat.
Gentle Jesus meek and brave, longed our sinful souls to save.
May I never judge Your deeds. You have met my deepest needs.
Even when your words are stern, may I still your love discern.
Jesus’ action in the temple was stern. It was rough. It was as in-your-face as any action He ever took. Let us not fail to see that it was also a loving action. Rebuking people for the sake of their souls is a loving action. It was a loving action when He did it, and it is a loving action when we do it. It is in love that we seek to rescue people from Hell. It is only in indifference that we allow them to plunge, unrestrained, uncontested, into the flames of Hell.
B. Zealous for the sake of His Father.
Jesus truly loved people, but He loved His Father even more. His zeal was steadfast, even though His own blood brothers did not believe in Him, at least not at first. His rejection by His siblings was prophesied in Psalm 69:8-9 where we read, “I have become estranged from my brothers and an alien to my mother's sons. For zeal for Your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.”
Sometimes people are led astray from God through pressure from friends and family. Friends and family don’t mind a little religion, but they object when it becomes too much a part of your life. They protest when your everyday decisions are affected by your faith. Jesus also faced these kinds of challenges. But He responded to them by steadfastly putting His Father first. This is one way in which Jesus was zealous.
The word zeal means strong desire. In other contexts it can also be translated as covetousness. In this case, it is a strong desire that is also righteous, so it is translated as zeal.
Also, consider the word consumed. The Psalmist said, “Zeal for Your house has consumed me.” The word consumed means eaten up. We know people who are consumed by lesser things. Some are consumed by their occupations. Some are consumed by sports. Some are consumed by their hobbies. Jesus was consumed by an unrelenting zeal for His Father. He wanted to see His Father’s desires carried out.
Now, the Father had certain intentions for the temple. There were certain activities that belonged there including praying, preaching, teaching, reading scripture, sacrificing, and praising.
Market activities were not explicitly forbidden; they simply were not included either by command or pattern.
The Regulative Principle of Worship, as commonly practiced in Reformed congregations like ours, works in the same way. Nothing should be brought into worship except where there is found in scripture a specific command, a biblical example, or support of a necessary deduction. This principle applies primarily to activities. It does not apply in a direct sense to media and genre. For example, the Regulative Principle allows preaching, but it does not dictate whether preaching is done with a sound system, with notes, with recordings, with an overhead projector, or with a power point presentation. The Regulative Principle also allows for singing, but it does not dictate whether the singing should be done with instruments or without instruments and it does not determine whether the singing should be done with old hymns, new hymns, choruses, rounds, or Gregorian chants. It also allows for musical instruments, but it does not mandate which musical instruments to use. All of these activities are to be carried out in a spirit of reverence towards God and holiness in the way we approach God.
Meanwhile, decisions about media, genre, and instruments fall to the elders and other designated church leadership. They make decisions regarding what is most conducive to worship and what distracts from it. Media, genre, and instruments that might be appropriate at one church might be noxious and distracting at another church. When genre, media, and instruments become noxious and distracting, they violate the spirit of the Regulative Principle of Worship, even if they do not introduce activities that are forbidden by that principle.
In the case of the temple market, it violated the regulative principle in four ways:
1. First, it violated the spirit of the Regulative Principle by undermining reverence for God.
2. Second, it violated the spirit of the Regulative Principle by undermining holiness towards God through activities that involved cheating and overcharging people.
3. Third, it distracted from the primary temple activities to the point of removing all worship opportunities for Gentiles.
4. Fourth, it introduced an activity that was neither mandated by scripture, implied by Biblical example, nor supported by a necessary deduction from scripture.
Against these violations Jesus responded swiftly and firmly.
IV. The Startling Proclamation.
As startling as Jesus’ response was, His proclamation was even more startling:
1. First, He referred to the temple as My Father’s house suggesting that He, Himself, was divine.
2. Second, he claimed that He could rebuild the temple in three days.
A. My Father’s house.
First, consider His claim to deity. In John 2:16 Jesus says, “Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." Notice that Jesus did not say “Our Father’s house.” No, He said “My Father’s house.” In the New American Standard Bible, the expression My Father is used fifty times in the Gospel of John and occurs in John in twenty-four different sections. John 2:16 is the first occurrence. Eventually, people understood what Jesus meant when He spoke of the Father in this way. I’m not sure that everyone understood in John 2:16, but by the time we get to John 5, people know what He means.
In John 5, Jesus healed a man who man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years – what a wonderful thing to do! Oh, but He healed the man on the Sabbath day, and the Jewish leaders did not like it. So we read in John 5:15-18:
The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working." For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.
Back to John 2:14, when Jesus referred to the temple with the words “My Father’s house,” it was a claim to deity. Eventually, the people understood what He meant, but for now, they were more concerned about the disturbance of their commercial activity.
B. Rebuilding the temple in three days.
Speaking of the temple disturbance, the Jewish leaders did not like that either, as we find in John 2:18-22:
The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
As the passage explains, when Jesus said “Destroy this temple,” He was referring to His own body. The Jewish leaders did not understand what He meant, nor did His disciples, at least not at that time. We do understand now. You know what, there are many things that God says and does that are like this incident – things that we are not meant to understand at first – things that we will understand later. Just as much was clarified in the light of the resurrection of Christ, much will be clarified after we have been resurrected with Christ. Meanwhile, it is our duty and privilege to trust God in the dark. There is much suffering in the world that seems to have no purpose. Philosophers and theologians refer to this so-called purposeless suffering as gratuitous suffering. Yet, Reformed Christians affirm that God ordains everything that comes to pass. How could God ordain suffering that has no purpose? Well, how could Jesus rebuild the temple in three days? Today, we know how, and I am convinced that another day is coming, a day in which our understanding will be expanded, a day in which we will clearly see that there is no such thing as purposeless suffering. We will clearly see that everything, everything that God caused or permitted had a purpose, and we will clearly see that everything God did was good. Meanwhile, since we now have an understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross, and since we have already had many seemingly unexplainable things explained, let us be encouraged to continue to trust God regarding those things which we do not yet understand.
A. The response of believers.
Unconditional trust is one application of this text. What other implications does the temple cleansing have for me as a believer? For me, personally, I now realize that even though I am not distracted by animal noises and marketplace noises when I come to worship at Grace Baptist, nevertheless, I bring with me my own distractions. I have learned the art of singing hymns without thinking about the words. I have learned the art of bowing for prayer without praying. I have learned the art of hearing a sermon without listening. How easily the worship service becomes something we do rather than something we experience, rather than something that engages our intellect, excites our emotions, animates our drives, and brings focus to the way we live our lives. Let us all resolve to come to the worship service ready and prepared to focus on God with every part of our being. Those are some of the implications for me as a believer.
B. The response of nonbelievers.
But what implications does the temple cleansing have for nonbelievers? The first century Jewish leaders showed their indifference to the spiritual needs of nonbelievers by turning the Court of the Gentiles into a marketplace. Maybe today you feel like one of those Gentiles. You are here, today, because you know you have spiritual needs. There is an ache in your heart that you instinctively know that only God can heal. If this sounds like you, be assured that we welcome you. We encourage you to make yourself feel at home and to hang out with us. None of us are here because of our own stellar qualities. We are here because of the infinite quality of Christ. Coming to know Jesus as Lord and Savior was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. It was great then, and it is great now, as the enduring affects of conversion continue to shape our lives, giving us endurance for the present and hope for the future. We want you to know Jesus too. Yet, know that when we talk about Jesus, it is not something we do judgmentally or pridefully. No, it is more like one street person showing another street person where to find food and more -- food that satisfies our deepest needs, hope that carries us through life’s greatest trials; power to say no to sin; forgiveness that covers everything past, present, and future; and life that continues on beyond the grave.
VI. Closing Remarks.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, I have only two requests. First, I pray that Grace Baptist will be a place where people approach worship seriously and purposefully. Second, I pray that Grace Baptist will be a place where the lost will continue to come and will continue to find encouragement in their journey to the cross. Amen.