Cleansing the Temple
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 2:12–2:25
“CLEANSING THE TEMPLE”
12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 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.
23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
This mood of this passage stands in contrast with the one we looked at last Sunday. The scene in the preceding verses described a wedding feast, a festive time filled with joy and celebration as friends and family came together to witness the union of a bride and a groom. As the week-long reception wore on, you recall that the host had run out of wine. As if “on cue” Jesus’ mother informed her Son of the deficit, and He used the occasion to manifest His sovereign power by turning water into wine. John, the writer of this book, informs us that it was “the first of (Jesus’) signs” in which His “glory” was manifested. His disciples witnessed the miracle and they “believed in him” (cf. John 2:11).
And although the passage before us describes another time of “feasting,” the circumstances of this particular day were quite different. In order to fulfill the plan of God and accomplish His purposes in and through us, there are times when Jesus will fill supply something we are lacking, and there are other times when He will remove something that needs to be expelled. Very often, as we see in both of these stories, He will do the unexpected. Either way, His supreme authority will be displayed.
Because all of the Synoptic writers record a cleansing of the Temple much later in their narratives (cf. Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-18, and Luke 19:45-48), some have argued that by placing it early in his account that John is recording the event out of sequence. But as we have already seen, John has been rather meticulous in placing “time markers”—almost like “bread crumbs—to keep us on track. It is more likely that this was the first of two Temple cleansings by Jesus...one at the very start of His ministry and one at the very end.
Opponents believe that it is illogical to assume that two such similar events would have occurred in just a few years’ time. When we understand, however, the indignation of Jesus over the manner in which the Temple was being desecrated—and that not much had changed during the course of His ministry—two cleansings would appear to be reasonable. Regardless of whether you decide for one or two cleansings, it does not affect the fact that Jesus reacted as He did in response to His holy instincts. He wanted the people of His day—as well as those of ours—to know that the Temple of God is to be kept clean, pure, and holy.
We begin with the most obvious part of this passage, where we find....
Jesus restoring the Temple (2:12-17).
Verse 12 serves as a bridge that takes us from the wedding in Cana of Galilee to the Jewish Passover in Jerusalem. The phrase, “After this,” keeps us following the trail that John has been marking out for us. Upon leaving Cana, Jesus—along with His mother, His siblings, and His disciples—journey eastward some sixteen miles to Capernaum, a fishing village located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Later on, Capernaum would serve as a “base of operations” for Jesus and His disciples, but at this time the family is said to have remained for just “a few days.”
Because of the events that were about to transpire—namely the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry in Jerusalem—this very likely would have been the last time they would have spent real “family time” together. Like that older son or daughter about to leave home and go off to college or move to the “big city,” it may well have been a very special “few days.” Oh, they would see one another again (cf. Matthew 12:46-50), but Jesus’ relationship with His earthly family was about to change forever.
“The Passover of the Jews was at hand,” we read in verse 13, “and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” We know from verse 22 that His disciples were with Him, and it is quite likely that several—if not all—of His family members made the lengthy, uphill journey as well. Every male Jew, from the age of twelve, was expected to attend the annual Passover in Jerusalem, remembering how the Lord delivered His people from their Egyptian bondage under Moses. While there they were required to pay a “temple tax” (cf. Matthew 17:24-27) as well as to offer an animal in sacrifice. It has been conservatively estimated that at the time of Jesus well over a million pilgrims—some traveling great distances—flocked to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the feast.
This particular Passover was one of three (and possibly four) mentioned by John in his Gospel (cf. John 6:4, 11:5...and 5:1?), a fact that tells us that Jesus’ ministry extended over at least a three-year period.
When He arrived at the Temple mount, Jesus was incensed at what He saw. Stalls of animals, namely “oxen and sheep and pigeons,” would have been set up in the outer court of the Gentiles. Such an arrangement may have served a “convenience” to worshipers who were able to buy them in close proximity to the place where they would be sacrificed. But such an arrangement callously took up space and make it awkward for Gentile converts to gather in their designated place for worship and prayer to the God of Israel, in Whom they had come to trust.
Rather than a place of worship the scene looked more like a stockyard, filled with the stench and filth and the bleating and lowing of the animals destined for sacrifice. But to Jesus, there was an even deeper stench. The vendors and money-changers were exploiting the people, overpricing the animals and charging exorbitant rates of exchange for foreign currency. In other words, for them it had become a money-making venture. This is why Jesus would say at the second cleansing three years later, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).
The condition of the Temple served as a vivid illustration of the spiritual condition of the nation. Their religion had become a dull routine, presided over by worldly-minded men whose main desire was to exercise control and exploit the masses. In the last prophetic word of the Old Testament, Malachi (3:1-2) had written, “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.” Jesus’ arrival at the Temple signaled a “preview” of that coming Day.
God’s Temple needed cleansing and restoring, and now here at this very moment stood God’s appointed agent ready to do just that. One can feel the rising tension when John tells us in verses 15 and 16 that Jesus made “a whip of cords...(and) drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen.” Not only that, but “he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” And even more, “He told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
Keep in mind that this was a public act witnessed by many people. Hundreds, if not thousands would have heard the commotion in the crowded outer court. The boisterous loud voices shouting one over the other would have suddenly been muted by the sound of tables being overturned and coins rolling across the stone floor. The annoyed tones of animals being hurried out of the Temple and the panicked footsteps of their merchants chasing after them would have created a chaotic and tragically-comedic scene. Most observers would have only stood by, open-mouthed, and wondering what on earth was taking place.
Why Jesus did not release the pigeons as He did the animals, preferring instead to simply order their merchants to “Take (them) away,” can only be speculated. What is significant is the second part of His command: “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Notice that Jesus did not say, “our Father’s house,” but rather “my Father’s house.” It is a claim to exclusive “Sonship” with God, and it is not the first time that He had made it. At the age of twelve, after a frantic search for Him, Mary and Joseph found Him in the Temple sitting at the feet of the learned teachers of that day exchanging theological perspectives. When his parents chastised Him for having worried them so, the boy Jesus responded, “Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” (Matthew 2:41-51).
Interestingly, especially if are a student of words, is that the term that is translated “house of trade” gives us our word, “emporium” (“εμποριον”). As you probably know, an “emporium” is a large marketplace where a variety goods are sold or traded. Every Wednesday in the neighborhood where I live, in the early morning hours of the day, farmers and vendors arrive at a large parking area and unload their trucks of produce and other goods to sell to the public. At the appointed time, people begin milling about, going from table to table and bartering to get the best goods at the best possible price. Such a scene may be quite acceptable for a neighborhood “farmer’s market,” but it is totally inappropriate for a place reserved for the exclusive worship of God.
How long it took to clear the Temple that day, we are not told. And neither are we informed how long before the money-changers returned to once again peddle their goods after Jesus had made His exit. Keep in mind that this event marked not only the inauguration of Jesus public ministry but would also prove to be the first of many confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders. Literally, as well as figuratively, Jesus had upset the religious “apple cart.”
We are told is that His actions had a profound affect upon His disciples. John, who was there that day, tells us that they “remembered” the Scripture that said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” That phrase is lifted from Psalm 69:9 and has clear Messianic implications. Jesus was “jealous” for the things of God, and righteously so. Anything that robs God of the worship and complete devotion to which He is entitled incurs His wrath. The phrase “consume (‘καταφαγω’) me” means literally “devours me,” “eats me up.” Anything that falls short of “pure worship” is an offense to the holy God. As modern-day disciples, we too must not forget that God is still holy.
In telling us that “His disciples remembered that it was written,” John is saying that these men whom Jesus had chosen to be with Him were beginning to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. It will become a recurring theme over the next three years as their understanding of that reality grows.
This paragraph removes any doubt or speculation regarding Jesus’ so-called “messianic consciousness.” At what point along His earthly pilgrimage, our Lord began realizing the full implications of His commission from the Father is a matter of discussion left for the theologians to debate. What we can say for certain is that certainly by this time He has become fully aware of the path He would walk and where it would lead.
Isaac Newton’s well-known “third law” of motion says that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Therefore, we should not be surprised that Jesus’ actions in verses 13 through 17 produce the reaction that we read of in verses 18 through 22. In the preceding paragraph, we saw Him restoring the Temple to its rightful place of worship. But here we find...
Jesus replacing the Temple (2:18-22).
This would be an even bolder move on His part.
On the surface, it is rather amazing that the unschooled disciples were able to connect the dots from Psalm 69:9 to Jesus’ act of purging the Temple while the religious elite—here referred to as “the Jews”—was not. We read in verse 18, “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?” “Sign” (“σημειον”)...there’s that word again. It shouldn’t surprise us that John would point out their use of this particular word. It is the term that he repeatedly employed in reference to the miraculous deeds of Jesus which authenticated His Divine authority.
Here the Jews are directly asking for a “sign.” “What right do you claim to have in causing such a public disturbance at such a religiously-significant time? Demonstrate to us right now where you have the authority to do this.”
“Alright,” Jesus answers. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” It is a statement that will in time be twisted and used against Him and help lead to His conviction and execution (cf. Mark 14:58-61). At this point, however, Jesus’ meaning went over their heads.
What nearly every English translation fails to convey is that Jesus actually used a different word for “temple” in His response to the Jews than the one found earlier in this passage. Here in verse 19, the word is “ναοs” and it refers to the innermost sanctuary of the Temple—“the holy of holies,” if you will—that place where God Himself manifested His personal presence in Old Testament times. The earlier term, (“‘ιερον”) is a more general one that refers to the larger Temple precincts.
By using “ναοs,” Jesus is shifting the focus from the general to the specific. He knows that men love to speak of spiritual things in general and non-specific ways, and here He is making a point to define and delineate terms.” Of course, his audience that day didn’t immediately understand...and, without question, some of them never did. That’s why they responded with incredulousness, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” They were correct in their historical calculations, because the present Temple construction had begun under Herod the Great in 19 or 20 BC. Their problem was with their eschatology...and that is because Jesus was speaking of another “temple.”
As John explains in verse 21, “But he was speaking (not of the Temple building but) about the temple of his body.” That is the “temple” which Jesus offered for them to “destroy.” His use of that verb is as an imperative...in other words, “Go ahead and do it. Destroy this temple.” What’s more, the word “destroy” (“λυω”) means “to break up into component parts.” For centuries the Jewish religious leaders had been taking apart and disassembling true worship piece by piece. In its place they had substituted a system of regulations and traditions that not had led people to God, but away from Him. Jesus is here challenging them to a duel having eternal ramifications.
In effect, Jesus was saying, “I am the true Temple of God—the ‘ναοs’—the dwelling place of God. I am both the priest and the final sacrifice for sin. I am ‘the holy of holies.’ I am the eternal ‘Word made flesh,’ and I have come to tabernacle/to dwell among you. I am replacing this temporary Temple building with my own permanent, eternal presence.” But his hearers didn’t get it.
We are told that not even the disciples “remembered that he had said this” until Jesus arose from the grave. That would be three years later, a time which awaited the answers to many of their questions. But when they did “remember”—when they had their “aha moment”—we are told that “they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
Once again, we see that it is those who entrust themselves to Jesus who are the ones able to see and understand. There is no way to perceive the wondrous ways of God apart from yielding to His sovereign Lordship. If you personally are unable to comprehend the message of the Bible, it could be that you have never really met its Author. The Scriptures were inspired by God for the edification of His people, not for those who are not. Unless you are willing to repent of your sin and by faith receive Him as your Savior and Lord, the Bible will forever remain a closed Book to you.
Thus far, we have seen Jesus restoring and then replacing the Temple with Himself. As this passage concludes, we now find...
Jesus revealing the hearts of men (2:23-25).
Verses 23 through 25 serve to both summarize the preceding two sections and transition us into chapter 3. In addition, it highlights some significant things we need to know about Jesus and ourselves: “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
If you are paying attention, then you will notice a subtle difference between the manner in which the disciples are said to have “believed” at the end of verse 22 and the way the “many (are said to have) believed” in verse 23. We are told that the disciples believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken, but those in verse 23 are said to have “believed...when they saw the signs.” Can you see the distinction? Here it is: not all “belief” is the same...and not all “belief” is able to save.
Before we let Jesus support that truth, let me point out that so-called “success” in ministry is not always gauged by the world’s standards of measurement. It has rightly been said of some well-known preachers today that their ministry is “a mile wide and an inch deep”...meaning that even though they are able to attract large followings, those who come are fed the “milk” rather than the “meat” from the Word every Sunday (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:2). “Growth” may be broad, but it is certainly not deep. And yet those churches are filled every Sunday. Why is that?
In those churches there is little to no real expository biblical preaching or biblical theology. There is only a shallow understanding of the Gospel, conversion, and evangelism. There are few requirements for church membership or practice of church discipline. There isn’t a clear understanding of what church leaders—namely, pastors and elders—are required before God to do. So why do people come...and more importantly, what do they receive? Perhaps they like to be entertained or to be told things that will help them “feel good” about themselves. The Bible has warned us that such times would come (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3).
Those in verse 23 were saying, “We love your ‘signs,’ Jesus. Show us another miracle! Just don’t give us too much Bible or theology. And, for heaven’s sake, make no demands of us. Let us ‘live and let live.’ Do this and you will be the ‘Jesus’ we believe in.”
Sound familiar? If it does, then don’t stop at verse 23. The passage proceeds to give us Jesus’ evaluation of that kind of “belief.” Of such people as I have just described, we are told, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
What was it that Jesus knew that was “in man”? Well, He surely knew what Jeremiah the prophet had written: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Are you aware that Jesus Christ, who is the eternal “Word” told Jeremiah to write those words? From the very beginning, He knew what was “in man.” Therefore He “did not entrust himself to them.” Interestingly, the word that is translated “entrust” (“πιστευω”) is the very same word that is rendered “believed” a verse earlier. Jesus had no “belief” in their “belief”...no “faith” in their “faith.” In other words, theirs was an inadequate faith that was based on “style” rather than “substance.”
In Matthew 7:21, near the end of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” And in Luke 6:46, He probed even deeper by asking, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”
I wonder how many people will be walking out of church buildings today possessing a “faith” that will never get them to heaven. That is because it isn’t one’s “faith” that gets them there...it is rather the object of one’s “faith.” We must understand that!
So, what is it that you are trusting to open the gates of heaven and usher you into the presence of God? Is your “faith” in the “signs” or is your faith in the One to whom those “signs” point? As we saw last week, “signs” carry significance. They are where they are in order to evoke a correct response. The “signs” of Jesus are for the purpose of authenticating Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Our faith must be in Him.
Lest you think this passage relates to someone other than yourself, John reminds us that Jesus “knows all people.” He knows “what (is) in man.” That is because, as God, Jesus knows all things. And He knows you...far better than you know yourself. Your “deceitful heart” may be able to fool others, and even yourself, but it cannot fool the Lord Jesus. What we are by nature is well-described by Paul in Romans 3(:9-11), when he writes,
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
But in offering the solution to our helpless plight, Paul writes later in this same letter, it is those “who (call) upon the name of the Lord (who) will be saved” (Romans 10:13). And also, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raise him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Have you committed your life to Jesus in this way? If not, expect the tables of your life to one day be overturned.
“When...he was raised from the dead, his disciples...believed the Scriptures and the word that Jesus had spoken.” It is, therefore, now imperative for us to “believe” in Him as well.
Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple was an act of holiness on His part. We must never forget that we serve a thrice-holy God (cf. Isaiah 6:3). In our contemporary and relaxed forms of worship, we sometimes forget what that means. No taint of sin in our heart is permitted in His presence. You and I cannot approach God on our terms. It is only through the blood-bought forgiveness of sins secured for those who believe in Him that one is granted access. We must come on the basis of Christ’s merits and not our own. May God help us to see that and apply His finished work today.
Jesus is now the true fulfillment of the “Temple”-motif in Scripture. In former times, worshipers would go to the Temple to worship, but now the true “Temple” comes indwell His people. Believers are reminded in 1 Corinthians 6(:19-20) that “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God...You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
As this same John would write later, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9).
Both individually and corporately, Jesus is still about the business of keeping His Temple clean and pure. Holiness has always been and remains the prevailing characteristic of God. And as His people, we have been called to holiness as well. So, what is it in your life and in the life of this church that the Lord may be seeking to drive out so that His holiness may be more clearly displayed? “Zeal for (God’s) house” continues to “consume” Him. We are that “house."
Let us bow our heads and sit silently before this holy God for a moment. Picture the Lord Jesus Christ entering into your life in order to cleanse your Temple right now. What tables would He overturn, and what aspects of your life would He drive out that His holiness be most clearly displayed? Are you willing to let Him have His way, or would you struggle to hold onto those things that you love more than Him?