The Cleansing of the Temple
Why did Jesus overturn the tables and cleanse the temple? This is an event that brings attention because it seems to be something a bit out of the ordinary for Jesus. It involves Jesus physically acting out in a way we normally would not expect to see. Why would He do that? Was this inconsistent with His otherwise peaceful methods of dealing with people? Does this become a pattern for the way we should deal with difficult situations?
This event we call the “cleansing of the temple” is recorded in John 2:13-22, Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-18, and Luke 19:45-48 (There is discussion over whether or there was more than one cleansing because of where John places it in his Gospel , but that’s for another time). Up front we need to see that the temple cleansing is not parallel to modern, political endeavors that include forms of violence, revolution, insurrection, or coup attempts meant to overturn physical governments. If not, then what was Jesus doing?
1. Jesus acted because the temple was His Father’s house. His zeal for the house of God consumed Him (John 2:17). Jesus did not do this at Herod’s palace, at the residence of Pilate, or at the Roman forum. He wasn’t breaking and entering political buildings or encouraging insurrection. He did this at the temple, His Father’s house—His house conceived from His dwelling in heaven, and He was claiming it as His own. Now the Lord’s house is His people (Eph 2:20-22). Jesus’ zeal for His house is still manifested, for example, in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation when He rebuked them and told them to repent. He still claims His own.
2. What Jesus did was a symbolic, parabolic act that stood for purity and pointed to the judgment of those who had been God’s people in God’s city at God’s house where His Name resided. He wasn’t losing His temper or inciting others to join in. If He were doing that, we would expect Roman soldiers to step in and stop it. This was not mob action associated with riots and insurrection. Jesus was acting in a calculated way that prophetically signified the judgment of God and the need for purity. It was pointing to the restoration of His house. This was an act of prophecy after the manner of the prophets who sometimes used object lessons.
3. Jesus acted in honor to the Father, not to advance a political leader or take a political stance (other than for His own kingdom). Christians cannot claim physical violence as a legitimate way to stand up for the One who taught that His servants would not be fighting flesh and blood battles for His kingdom (John 18:36). For the Christian, the ultimate political action is to bow to the King of kings who rules the unending Kingdom that is not of this world. Our studies in Revelation continually reminds us of this.
4. Jesus’ action demonstrated that the temple was to be replaced. John opens his Gospel by affirming that the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14). Jesus was the temple of God among men. John records the cleansing in chapter 2 to show this. Notice that after his action, He was asked about it, and, speaking of His own body, He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The temple is where God dwells, and this would no be tied to a physical building (cf. Acts 17:24). He was ushering in the New Temple.
5. An important contrast can be made between Jesus’ temple cleansing and the cleansing that took place nearly two hundred years earlier under Judah the Hammer (i.e., the Maccabean Revolt). Judah led a three-year revolt using guerrilla warfare and finally cleansed the temple of the pagan symbols brought in by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes (who desecrated the temple by rededicating it to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on the altar). This was a political and violent revolt to take back Jerusalem from pagan rulers. Two hundred years later, with the expectation of a Messiah who might do the same type of thing, Jesus shows that His followers would not be fighting such a battle. His cleansing was due to the abuse of those who were supposed to be God’s people, and He was reclaiming what belonged to Him and His Father, but it would not progress to a violent rebellion and attempt to overthrow the pagan Romans. His kingdom was not about that.
The temple cleansing was about Jesus and His authority. His house was being abused, and He illustrated His authority through His actions that pointed to purity, judgment, replacement, and restoration. He was the temple. His church is the temple. Since it is about the temple, it is really about the dwelling and presence of God. Let us appreciate Jesus who came as God’s true temple and made us a part of that house.