John 2:13–25: Jesus Cleanses the Temple, Jesus Knows What is in Man
In this passage Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover, and goes to the temple. What he finds there, however, are people selling sacrificial animals (oxen, sheep, and pigeons), and money changers, instead of—or, optimistically, in addition to—worship. So he forms a whip and uses it to drive them out. And they must have been driven out in a hurry because the money changers leave behind their coins, which he pours out while overturning all of their tables. (I like to think of the poor worshippers being able to have those coins—or at the very least them going into the temple’s offerings—but the passage doesn’t say what happens to the money.)
Interestingly, while verse 15 indicates that he drives “them” out—seeming to indicate the money changers as well as the ones selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons—verse 16 says that he then tells the ones specifically selling pigeons to take the pigeons away. I’m not sure if he’s making a distinction between the ones selling large animals and the ones selling smaller animals or if it’s just the way things are worded (see below).
Either way, he gives his reasoning in verse 16: “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Hearing this, Jesus’ disciples make note of the fact that he’s quoting Psalm 69, specifically verse 9a: “For zeal for your house has consumed me, …”
As would be expected, the Jews (presumably the religious leaders in particular) are not happy with what Jesus is doing, and ask him what “sign” he shows as an indication that he has the right to do 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. (verses 19–22)
He must have been doing some signs in Jerusalem, however, because the last few verses of the chapter indicate that a number of people start believing in his name because of those signs. For his part, however, Jesus didn’t pay much attention to that; he didn’t need anyone to explain the hearts of men to him, because he already knew.
A seemingly simple passage talking about Jesus “cleansing” the temple leads me to go deep into the concept of anger at sin, and then to go off on a tangent related to movies…
The first thing to note is that there were two occasions where Jesus “cleansed” the temple, one near the beginning of his ministry (this occasion), and one in the last week of his life (e.g. Luke 19:45–48).
The reason is the same in both cases, however: people are turning the temple into a place to make a living, instead of a place to worship God. I think there are two issues at play here:
- There aren’t going to be people there selling animals and changing money unless they’re going to be able to make a profit, and the temple is not the place to be doing that. It’s true that people coming from afar are likely going to need to buy animals—it’s not realistic that they’ll be able to bring oxen and sheep for long distances—but it’s incredibly… I don’t know, unrighteous, to be making a profit off of people who are coming to the temple to worship.
- Even given the legitimate purpose for which people could be selling animals, and even changing money—again, many of the worshippers are coming a long way to get to the temple, and wouldn’t be able to bring livestock and wouldn’t have local currency—even if people doing the selling and changing aren’t making a profit (which is hard to imagine), the temple is still not the place to do it.
Jesus’ Righteous Anger
In this passage Jesus expresses righteous anger toward the people who are turning the temple from a place of worship to a place of profit. And the word “righteous” is important; Jesus is clearly angry here, but not to the point of sin! Which means that anger is not necessarily sinful—even though it clearly can be sinful, and I’d even argue that it usually is.
We like to think of God as being a “God of Love,” but He has indicated all through the Old Testament that He is angry at sin; in fact, He frequently uses the word wrath to describe His feelings, which is a strong word. (When is the last time you used the word “wrath” in normal conversation? Have you ever used that word, outside of discussions of the Bible?)
And Jesus is God! We should never think that God the Father is wrathful and angry while Jesus the Son is forgiving and loving. They’re both God, they’re both angry and wrathful toward sin, they’re both forgiving and loving.
Hate the Sin but Love the Sinners
Does that mean that we, as Jesus’ followers, should also be angry with sin? Well… yes! It does! We should be like him, in this way as in all other ways. And I just mentioned that anger isn’t necessarily sinful; if God gets angry, then it must be possible to feel anger without it being a sin, right?
Except… we also have to be careful, because Jesus was sinless and we are not. Jesus hated the sin but never hated the sinner, while we often blur the two together. Jesus can say to me, “That thing you did hurt and angered me, but my love for you is bottomless,” but it’s very difficult for humans to feel that way toward other humans. If someone sins against me, it’s unlikely that I’ll “hate the sin” they committed against me without my feelings for them being impacted as well.
Personally, while I see Jesus’ anger at the temple as being righteous anger, this passage doesn’t feel to me (personally) as an instance where I should be emulating Jesus. I’m speaking only for myself, but knowing my own heart, if I were to give vent to my anger—even if it [initially] came from a good place—it would go to sinful places very easily.
Sin is Serious
Regardless of that, the main point here is that Jesus’ anger at the blasphemy occurring in the temple is a continuation of God’s anger and wrath at sin that has never changed. God has always hated sin, God will always hate sin, and we shouldn’t lose sight of how serious sin is. This is the reason Jesus came to this world: to take care of that sin.
It can be easy, on this side of the cross, to underestimate how serious sin is. Given that it’s already taken care of, and I won’t ever face the consequences for my sins, it’s easy for me to not properly feel their weight.
While I may not feel Jesus’ actions in this passage are something to emulate—again, speaking only for myself—they definitely demonstrate to me that sin is serious. So serious that the only way to clear my slate was for the Son of God to sacrifice his life for mine.
As mentioned above, it’s hard to tell from the text if Jesus is treating those selling pigeons differently from those selling oxen and sheep, but he might very well be doing so. The “typical” sacrifices to God would have been oxen and sheep, not pigeons; pigeons were permitted only for the people who were too poor to be able to afford oxen and sheep. While I don’t know the culture and customs well enough to know exactly what’s going on, it seems to me that while those selling pigeons to poor worshippers are doing a similar service to those selling oxen and sheep, there would likely be nuances that were different, due to the fact that they’re specifically providing this service to poor worshippers.
In a sense, Jesus doesn’t really answer the Jews when they ask him by what right he’s doing these things (my paraphrase), which makes complete sense in retrospect: Jesus performed a lot of miracles in his day, but the real proof that he was (and is) God’s Son is what he did at the very end of his ministry: His death on the cross (destroying his “temple”), and his rising three days later (his “rebuilding” it), is the real proof that he was right, and had the right, to speak about what proper worship in the temple was supposed to look like.
Jesus’ Real Ministry
All four of the Gospels have some flavour of the authors showing that Jesus’ ministry and mission was not for earthly power and showing instances where he could have started developing such power, if he’d wanted to, but declining. Verses 23–25 are another example of that: Jesus could have started building up a larger following at this point, but that’s not what He came for. It’s possible that his disciples would have liked him to do so—it’s more satisfying to follow a popular, successful leader than an unsuccessful, barely known one—but again, that’s not what His purpose was in coming to this world.
This is especially worth noting for 21st Century Christians in the West. We’ve grown up with stories and myths that show our “heroes” in very particular ways. The heroes in our stories—especially, but not limited to, our movies—are strong, and always find an opportunity to demonstrate that strength. Sometimes those heroes are portrayed as meek and/or humble and/or living quiet lives for the first half of the movie, but then something happens that forces them to be strong and smite their enemies, and they prove to us (the audience) that they really are heroes, because they’re strong.
Some examples that come to mind off the top of my head:
|The Equalizer||A former marine and intelligence officer who’s now retired and living a quiet life does everything he can to hide the fact that he’s got “certain skills” (as we now like to say), until a friend of his is attacked and he feels he needs to avenge her. Then he becomes the stereotypical, Western-style, invincible hero who takes out all of his enemies with righteous violence.|
|Shane||A former gunslinger gives up his gun-slinging ways to become a farmhand—until he’s forced to pick up his gun again to defend a community with righteous violence.|
|A History of Violence||Similar plot, but with a former hitman instead of a former gunslinger.|
|The Rundown||Maybe a sillier example, but some kind of enforcer for the mob (or a mob-like figure?) refuses to use guns because “bad things happen,” until the end of the movie when he picks up a gun, “bad things happen,” and the audience cheers him on for his righteous violence.|
There are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of additional examples, but the point is that if you’re like me and grew up in the West in the 20th and/or 21st Century, this is what a hero looks like to you. By the end of the movie, he (it’s almost always a he) resorts to righteous violence, defeats and/or gets revenge on his enemies, and by the time the movie ends has proven his hero-ness.
This is quite obviously not the kind of hero Jesus was. The religious leaders ask him to show them some indication that he’s got the right to clear the temple, and his answer to them is that a few years hence1 he’s going to die, and then raise himself after three days. If we count the religious leaders as his “enemies” he’s not even going to win, because they’re going to be there mocking him while he’s on the cross, and after his death (and even after his resurrection) they’re still going to be in charge.
But if we count sin and death as his enemies (as he himself did), then he did win. And because of his victory I’m now a child of God the Father, Christ’s sibling, as are millions and millions of others with me. I’m actually called to be a hero just like he was. But when I say “just like he was,” that’s what I mean; I’m not the Equalizer or Shane kind of hero, who smites his enemies with righteous violence, I’m the kind of hero who loves his enemies, who turns his other cheek and keeps turning it—as opposed to turning the cheek just long enough to get the audience on my side, until the screenwriters feel I’ve earned some violence and vengeance.
… if I’ve got my timeline right, and this is near the beginning of his ministry ↩︎