After my sermon on Jesus preaching at Nazareth some of us talked further on the question of how you should treat your enemies, if you're not supposed to kill them. During this discussion we got onto the story of Jesus clearing the temple and I thought it would be worth a closer look.
The story appears in three of the gospels. In Mark 11:15-19 and Matthew 21:12-17 it comes in the final week of Jesus' life, right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In John 2:12-25 it plays a somewhat similar role to the story of Jesus in Nazareth in Luke, a public introduction to the purpose of his ministry. I have read some commentators who think this means Jesus did it twice, but this seems to be an absurd concession to the idea of inerrancy. John has placed the story in a different place but it serves the same purpose - to introduce Jesus' terminal conflict with the Jewish authorities.
Here is the story as it appears in Mark.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:
‘My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations’?
But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
Mark records that the previous day, "Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late he went out to Bethany with the Twelve." Hence, this was not a sudden act of passion brought on by seeing the desecration of the temple. It was considered and well planned. So first I'd like to look at what Jesus did, and then what he meant by it.
The temple, as rebuilt under Herod the Great, consisted of the main temple building, in which worship and sacrifice took place and to which only ceremonially clean Jews were admitted, surrounded by a walled courtyard which measured something like 300m by 450m and had as many as seven entrances. This area, known as the "court of the Gentiles", was a public area almost certainly the scene of this story. It was overlooked by the Roman garrison, and included a market area where visitors could exchange their foreign currency and buy sacrificial animals. It was also a place where rabbis would come to teach their students, or to lecture in public, and beggars would sit at the gates to receive coins from the passers by.
It is impossible that Jesus, acting single-handedly, could have cleared this whole area and prevented access to it. This means that you could see his action in two ways. One is that when the gospels say that Jesus did this act, they mean that he led it, and was assisted by his disciples and perhaps other followers. This would see Jesus as the leader of a protest movement and his act as a kind of demonstration, a political protest against the practices of the priests and leaders of Israel. The other option is that he acted alone, and that his symbolic "cleansing" only served to disrupt the market and attract attention for the teaching which followed.
Whichever of these it was, it did involve a certain amount of force - the tables were overturned and the animals and perhaps people were driven out. However, it was not violent in the sense of a military act. John emphasises this point by adding the detail that Jesus "made a whip out of cords" - that is to say a whip of rope designed to sting but not harm, such as you might use to herd your sheep or goad your donkey, not a cat-o-nine-tails used for flogging criminals.
In any case, during or after the protest Jesus taught the crowd who had been attracted by it. In this teaching, summarised by Mark in a few words and compressed even further by Matthew and John, he provides a rationale for his actions grounded in two pivotal Old Testament prophecies.
The first comes from Isaiah 56:7. The quote in context is shown below.
3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
4 For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
Jesus and the gospel writers often show their attachment to these later chapters of Isaiah, with their vision of the suffering servant and the welcoming of the Gentiles as equals into God's family. Jesus' allusion to this passage while standing in the Court of the Gentiles would have amplified its message. Here is the place into which all the nations should come to worship God. Here is the symbolic centre of God's kingdom. But if the Gentiles should come into it, what would they find?
Jesus' response to this is to quote from a passage which is, if anything, the exact opposite of the Isaiah passage - Jeremiah 7:11. In saying "but you have made it a 'den of robbers'", Jesus is quite likely drawing attention to the dishonest trade of the market he has just disrupted. However, this is not just any market - it is a market which changes profane money into sacred currency, and sells animals for sacrifice. It is a market which sits at the heart of the temple worship. If the market is disrupted, the worship is disrupted as well. The scope and meaning of this disruption is shown by the full context of the Jeremiah passage.
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message:
“‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
12 “‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors.
Jesus is effectively standing in the same place as Jeremiah and repeating his message. Instead of being a blessing to the nations as Isaiah wanted them to be, they have become cursed because of their corruption. This corruption is represented by the market, but it is much more than that - the whole system of sacrifice and worship is worthless because the actions of the temple leaders, the leaders of the nation, do not match their words. The result is that the temple will be destroyed, and their home will become desolate.
As I've discussed elsewhere, this is what happened within a few decades. Yet Jesus was also holding out hope to them. The vision of Isaiah still stood. The nations could still be blessed and could still worship at God's feet. But this post is already too long, so I'll talk more about that in my next post.