Holy Week: Jesus Cleansing the Temple

The scene I’ll focus a lens on today is found in all four Gospels. The account is relatively light on words but so heavy with meaning that to overlook it could well leave an insufficient impression of what Jesus was like. Without it, He’d be significantly easier to typecast. We’d think we knew how holiness always acts and how love always reacts.

Check Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 2 and you’ll invariably find the scene captioned with the three-word phrase, “Cleansing the Temple.” The caption is provocative if not ironic since Jesus’s method of cleaning the Temple was to make a mess of it. Don’t think for a moment Jesus can’t make a mess of things.

Sometimes the only way to sufficiently clean house is to turn it upside down.

Today we’ll look at Matthew’s Gospel, the 21st chapter and verses 10-13, but I’ll fill out the account with additional bits and pieces supplied by the other Gospels, particularly Mark’s. The scene follows on the heels of a donkey. The Temple cleansing is a quickly-appearing stand-alone in John but you’ll find it in Matthew, Mark and Luke following the triumphal entry of Christ when He entered Jerusalem in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:

Tell Daughter Zion,

“See, your King is coming to you,

Gentle and mounted on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

His way was paved in garments and branches. The crowds welcomed Jesus with royal acclamations. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The insinuation of kingship was so insulting to some of the religious leaders, they demanded Jesus rebuke his disciples. “I tell you, if they were to keep silent,” Jesus plainly stated, “the stones would cry out.”

Our present scene is particularly compelling with the echoes of the triumphant crowds still ringing in our ears.

Read the words of Matthew 21:10-13:

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in an uproar, saying, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

A lot of wheeling and dealing goes on in the name of Scripture. A lot of scheming and scamming. They’re hard to miss in this scene. According to Mark’s Gospel, this event happened on Monday, the day following the triumphal entry and three days prior to Christ’s arrest.  

Mark 11:11-12 tells us that, after he rode into Jerusalem on the back of the colt, “He went into Jerusalem and into the temple. After looking around at everything, since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem. He’d turn around and come back the next day.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what Jesus thought about all night. He’d replayed what he’d seen that day over and over, is what I’m thinking. And holy zeal would fill his lungs. The Holy Spirit put the words in the psalmist’s mouth in advance: “Zeal for your house has consumed me and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” And it burned like fire on his tongue. There might have been something else he was doing. John’s account in his Gospel, the second chapter and 15th verse, says, “After making a whip out of cords, he drove everyone out of the temple.” He might have been braiding a little leather. There again, he could easily have just grabbed a strap from a tethered animal on his way in.

That Monday when He headed back to the Holy City, He would’ve entered the Temple Mount through the Huldah Gate at the south end of an enormous complex. Think of it in terms of the Temple Precinct and the Temple Proper. The Temple precinct included all the buildings and courtyards complete with an enormous stall for animals that could be purchased for sacrifices as well as crowded housing for their keepers. This was the Monday before Passover when the city would have been bursting at the seams with travelers from all over Israel and beyond to keep Israel’s most important feast.

People gathered in allocated areas according to qualifications strictly guarded by Temple police. Worshippers were as defined by where they could not go as where they could. There was the Court of the Gentiles open to anyone and the only place open to those who believed in Israel’s God but weren’t of Israel’s blood. Inscriptions were etched in stone that no Gentile, man or woman, could go beyond it without threat of death. There was the Court of the Women for those of Jewish blood and no woman could inch a single step further. Then there was the Court of Israel which was Jewish men only and no man could step beyond it into the sanctuary of the Temple proper except the priests and no priest could step beyond the Holy Place into the Holy of Holies except the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Every step toward the Presence of God bore a warning of prohibition.

“Stop right there. Are you qualified?”

There was no such thing as all-access. Don’t lose sight of that this Holy Week or the tearing of the veil will be lost on you.

As Jesus entered the Temple precinct, he would have ascended up a flight of steps and entered a long hall with four rows of forty large columns. This is where the market was set up for exchanging the money of all the Jewish pilgrims from other regions into temple currency. With shekels they’d pay a required temple tax then purchase animals or birds for sacrifices. It was a necessary transaction for out-of-towners but foolishly misplaced in an area set apart for worship.  

Now for Mark’s Gospel, chapter 11:15-17:

 They came to Jerusalem, and he went into the temple and began to throw out those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple. He was teaching them: “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!”

There are times in Scripture when Jesus slips in and out of scenes publicly unnoticed. This isn’t one of those times. He marched straight to the check out desks with a whip in his hand where people were buying and selling. He flipped the over the tables and turned over the chairs. Coins would have jingled and rolled all over the floor. Dove cages would have toppled. Feathers would have flown.

Jesus can rattle cages when he wants to.

Everything he’s doing in the scene is purposeful. A couple of things are in play that aren’t immediately obvious. I’d like to make mention of two of them. First, did you hear the Evangelists make a point of noting that those selling doves were among the ones whose tables and chairs Jesus overturned? Doves could be used for a couple of different purposes but they were primarily the offerings purchased by the poor. Those with any kind of money would make their selections from farm animals to offer as sacrifices. It could a status thing, you know, whether your offering had fur or cheap feathers.

Sellers could set the price at what they wanted, knowing full well the devout would pay whatever was necessary for an offering rather than appear before the Lord empty handed. If the sellers were cheating, only the privileged had the clout to accuse them. The voices of the poor, then as now, were mostly ignored. Perhaps nothing testifies to the depravity of the human heart like the consistent propensity throughout history to exploit, cheat and oppress the poor. What is far more astonishing is with what regularity it happens in religious environments. There’s nothing quite like price-gouging in the name of God.

That brings us to the second element in the scene that begs for a little background. Did you catch the phrase “den of thieves”? Let me place it back in context. “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!” Nothing was accidental in his wording. He’s talking straight out of the Old Testament.

Look at Jeremiah 7:1-10:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord and there call out this word: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord.

“‘This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: Correct your ways and your actions, and I will allow you to live in this place. Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever. But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help.

“‘Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”?

The people in Jeremiah’s day adhered to what scholar M. Eugene Boring calls “a false Zion theology that regarded the Temple as a guarantee of divine protection, and charged them with regarding the Temple as a robber’s hideout to which they could retreat in safety after their acts of injustice.” (NIB, Volume 8, p.406)

This becomes even more provocative six centuries later when Jesus uses the phrase “den of thieves” or “den of robbers” in the Gospels. According to scholar Michael Wilkins “The term ‘robber’ (lestes) is not the word for a common thief but for one who is an insurrectionist, such as Barabbas and the two revolutionaries between whom Jesus will be crucified. This may be a subtle use of the term to indicate that the temple authorities are making it a nationalistic stronghold, or more subtly, a place where they are insurrectionists against God’s intended plan for the temple.”[1]

It is of no small significance that Jesus said according to Mark’s Gospel, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” All this big enterprise, all this wheeling and dealing was conveniently happening right in the court of the Gentiles. What did they really matter anyway? The blood of Abraham didn’t run through their veins. They were expendable.  Second class. Lucky to even be there. How much value would God put on the worship of Gentiles anyway? But, you see, they’d forgotten the explicit calling God placed on Abraham. “In you shall all nations be blessed.” This was the very gospel preached beforehand.

Does God see? Yes. Does He care when His name is exploited and His words are twisted to manipulate people and rob them of power? Yes. Does He care when the worship of him has been thoroughly coopted and commercialized? Yes. Will He act? Oh, yes. He warns. He gives the remedy: in a word, repentance. He waits. Then, when He’s had enough, He acts.

So, here’s a question to throw on that overturned table: is it fair to say that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, acted in anger in this scene? Somehow I can’t picture him braiding up a whip and flipping over furniture because he was mildly annoyed. What sets divine anger—and even ultimately divine wrath—apart from human anger is that it cannot be extracted from his love. God cannot set it aside His love because it is not only what he does. It is who He is. It is his very essence. We’re simply too quick to forget that love has a spine.  

He who strode into that temple with a whip that day and turned the place upside down for making a commercial expo out of sacrificial worship would offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice just four days later. The coins now scattered and rolling all over the courtyard floor were woefully insufficient funds for their remission of sins. The payment for their substitutionary offering was pumping that moment in the veins and arteries of the one overturning those tables. Peter would write, “For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life…not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb.” And, as for that Temple, it could never have been clean enough. The only Temple clean enough was the one wearing flesh and blood and still standing after the courtyard was cleared.

Let’s lastly read from Matthew’s Gospel that brings the scene to an end, Matthew 21:12-17:

Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonders that he did and the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to him, “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

Jesus replied, “Yes, have you never read:

You have prepared praise
from the mouths of infants and nursing babies?” 

Then he left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

The scene is in the same place. Right there in that big mess. Tables and chairs turned upside down. Cages toppled. Bird droppings splattered. Feathers still floating. The scent of animal dung wafting through the air. Right there in the mess, Jesus healed the lame and blind. The very ones the Law of Moses prohibited from drawing near for worship. Make no mistake, Jesus is deeply committed to clearing out the obstacles to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

I’m of the notion that the church in America is in a bit of a mess and I believe it’s quite possibly for some of the very reasons his house was in a mess in the days of Jeremiah and in the days of the Word made flesh. I think He’s come to clean house and I think sometimes the way He cleans house is to turn it upside down. But, if we’re willing to not run away, we may hear an inaudible voice say, “Come all who know your infirmities, your weaknesses and blemishes. Come all who know you are broken and blind. Come and be healed.”

[1] Wilkins, M. J. (2004). Matthew (p. 691). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.


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