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Jesus cleanses the Temple (Jn 2:13-25)

What makes you angry? Sadly our anger is often sinful or petty, isn’t it? Often our anger is unjustified rage caused by wounded pride, thwarted ambition, impatience or irritation. 

But there is such a thing as righteous anger, isn’t there? There is such a thing as justified anger against evil and injustice.  Open any Sunday newspaper today and anyone with a ‘moral compass’ ought to get angry at some of the things we will read about there. Jesus certainly expresses righteous anger in our passage today: 

  • An anger that shows he wasn’t always ‘meek and mild’ 
  • An anger he expressed with strong words and a whip. 
  • An anger that sent animals running in all directions, scattered coins across the floor and left tables overturned.

But before we look at what prompted Christ’s fury, let’s pray…

The Jerusalem Temple: A market-place instead of a prayer-place! (v.13-17)

For every first century Jew the Jerusalem Temple was the most holy ground in the world, the most sacred space on earth. It was God’s ‘footstool’, the place where the Creator came into closest contact with his creatures. Every Jew knew the Temple was the building where God’s glory dwelt on earth. It was a ‘hallowed turf’ even  more precious than Wembley stadium is to a football fan, than the Royal Albert Hall is a to a classical music lover, or St Andrews fairway is to a keen golfer today.

The Temple was so significant that it was every Jew’s religious duty to visit it on a regular basis – especially at the major feasts such as the Passover festival. It was meant to be the place to receive God’s forgiveness and draw near to him.

But as Jesus entered the Temple precincts for the Passover festival in AD28, he saw that reality was falling far short of this ideal. Verse 14 today tells us that “in the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.” 

At first glance, you may think that there is nothing wrong with either of those things: 

  • After all, pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem needed animals to sacrifice, and it made sense for them to buy them in the city, rather than bring them with them all the way from home. Surely the animal sellers were doing nothing wrong?
  • And pilgrims to the Temple rightly wanted to make a financial contribution to its treasury. But before they could give to the Temple, many visitors to Jerusalem needed to change their foreign coins into Jewish ones. In one sense the money-changers performed a useful service.

But the trouble was that both the money changers and animal sellers were doing their business in the Temple itself. They had been allowed to ‘set up shop’ withinthe Temple’s outer court. This outer court was the place where people from all nations – Gentiles as well as Jews – were allowed to come and pray. It was meant to be a place of prayerful devotion, not a crowded marketplace full of noise, negotiation and profiteering – a place where prayer would have been impossible.

Confronted by this commotion, Jesus’s righteous anger was aroused. Verses 15 and 16 tell us that he “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. [And] to those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’”

Jesus was furious that his Father’s house, the Temple itself, had become a marketplace where the priority was profit maximisation, rather than a relationship with the living God. 

Before we point the figure at those money changers and animal salesmen, we need to beware of similar errors in our own lives. 

  • Are our days too full to give enough quality time to God? 
  • Are we sacrificing our spiritual life for the sake of our social life or our worldly success?

As Christians we need to make sure we spend sufficient time with our Heavenly Father – alone with him during the week as well as together here on Sundays. Prayer is a wonderful privilege, an emotional lifeline for God’s people – so we should keep it a priority in our busy lives.

2. The New Temple: Jesus’ body! (v.18-22)

Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple is an event that would certainly have made the news if it happened today. With coins scattering, cattle running wild and doves in the air, I’m sure it would have made great TV!

Verse 17 tells us that Jesus’ passion that day was so intense that it reminded his disciples of the words of Psalm 69 verse 9, which we heard just now. Words originally written by king David, but which now applied to Jesus – “zeal for your house will consume me”.

However, whilst the disciples were awestruck by Jesus’ zeal, the Temple leaders were very annoyed. We read in verse 18 that they confronted Jesus and demanded of him “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” What could Jesus say or do to justify his behaviour?

John tells us in verse 19 that Jesus didn’t reply with a sign from above or an amazing miracle – but with an enigmatic sentence. “Destroy this Temple” he said, “and I will raise it again in three days” (v.19).

The Jewish authorities made the mistake of taking him too literally. They thought that Jesus was referring to the stone Temple in which they stood. A Temple that had taken forty-six years to build and could never be rebuilt over a long weekend. A Temple that really was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and has never been rebuilt since – only its western wall remains.

The religious rulers were mistaken because the ‘Temple’ Jesus was referring to was his own body. A body that would indeed be ‘destroyed’ when he died on the Cross, before being ‘rebuilt’ when he rose again on the first Easter day. 

Verse 22 tells us that even Jesus’ own disciples only understood what Jesus meant after his resurrection. It was only “after he was raised from the dead” that they realised that “the temple he had spoken of was his body”.

By claiming that his body was a new temple, Jesus was making an astonishing claim about himself. He was claiming that he had come to supersede the Temple in Jerusalem. He was claiming that he himself now performed the functions of the Temple. In other words:

  • He was claiming to be the place where God’s presence could now be found, the place where God’s being now dwelt.
  • He was claiming to be the place where God could now be worshipped, the one to whom we should direct our prayers.
  • And he was claiming that his body would be the place where a final, perfect, sufficient sacrifice for sin would be offered. The place from where God’s forgiveness would flow. 

It was Christ’s claim to be the new Temple that helped the first apostles to appreciate that Jesus was fully and truly divine. So to call Jesus’ body a ‘temple’ is one way of saying what the apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:9. Namely: “In Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form.”

Conclusion: Come to Christ to come to God

As I finish this morning I hope today’s passage has reminded us of the importance of prayer. The importance of prioritising time with our heavenly Father in our busy lives. 

But above all, I hope it has taught us that the place where heaven has most truly touched earth was not in a stone temple or any other religious building – but in the person of the Jesus Christ: 

  • So when we look to Jesus we see what God is really like. 
  • Whenever we listen to his words we truly hear from the Lord. 
  • Whenever we ask God for forgiveness we benefit from Christ’s perfect sacrifice.
  • And when we pray to Jesus, we are in an authentic conversation with our Creator. 
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