Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

22. The First Cleansing of the Temple (John 2: 13-22)*

After the marriage at Cana in Galilee, Jesus evidently went back home to Nazareth, together with the group of disciples who had now attached themselves to him. Very shortly they all moved to Capernaum, and in this they were joined by Mary and the rest of the family. This was not the permanent change of home which is described in Matthew 4: 13. Chronologically that falls later in the ministry. This, mentioned by John, was only temporary-for “not many days”-and took place very shortly before the Passover. The purpose of this brief visit is not intimated. It is a puzzle to know why John mentions it at all. Clearly, from the way it is described, Jesus was the moving spirit behind it. Perhaps it was exploratory in character, to ascertain whether the family could advantageously migrate there. Probably Jesus already foresaw that, since a prophet has no honour in his own country (4: 44), life in Nazareth was likely to become uncomfortable for the rest of the family. This seems the most likely reason for a somewhat enigmatic arrangement.

Four Passovers

From Capernaum Jesus and his disciples went up to Jerusalem for the Passover. This was the first of four Passovers in the Lord’s ministry. Besides the Feast when he was crucified (19: 14), there was the Passover when the loaves and fishes were multiplied (6: 4). Probably also the unnamed feast of John 5: 1 was a Passover, but this uncertainty is not important because the encounter with the Pharisees concerning the disciples’ plucking of the ears of corn (Matt. 12: 1ff) requires another spring-time in the ministry separate from the others already mentioned. Thus the duration of the ministry was rather more than three years, possibly the three-and-a-half year period which is familiar enough in other parts of the Bible.

Abuses in the Temple

In the temple in Jerusalem Jesus encountered once again conditions which had long stirred his spirit deeply. Now that he was launched on his public ministry he felt moved to drastic action. The dynasty of high priests headed by Annas had found that they could make themselves wealthy at the expense of the Jewish worshippers who came from all parts of the Roman world, and from even further a field than that. Naturally, all who came wished to offer sacrifice. So it would be a great convenience to them to be able to purchase on the spot the animal they intended to offer. Only those beasts could be slain for sacrifice which were approved by the officiating priest as “without blemish and without spot”. And it only required that the priest should insist on the temple fitness-certificate being presented with each animal and there was in existence a money-making monopoly which the layman could not cavil at; he must put up with it, no matter what it might cost him.

But there was another turn of the screw. It was unthinkable that these holy offerings should be purchased with unclean Gentile money from all parts of the empire. So it was required that first the offerer convert his cash into Jewish money, possibly, into a special temple coinage “after the shekel of the sanctuary” (Ex. 30: 13). Here was another splendid opportunity for a further rake-off. Thus at every turn the devout Jew was made to pay through the nose for his piety, and the Sadducean priesthood waxed fat on the proceeds.

Drama in the Temple Court

The blatant shameless profiteering in these “Bazaars of the sons of Annas” in the courts of the Lord aroused the indignation of Jesus. Equipping himself with a whip, formed by knotting a few cords together, he loosed the tethered animals and drove them forthwith out of the temple area. Then, returning, he dealt yet more drastically with the tables of the money changers, violently overturning them. Nor did anyone interfere when he seized the cash boxes and poured out their contents. Coins rolled in all directions across the pavement.

There were also large quantities of birds. These, the poor people’s offerings, were of course in baskets and cages. Their owners were peremptorily bidden take them away. Even in his anger Jesus had thought for the poor creatures. It has been suggested (see RSV) that “he drove them all out of the temple” refers primarily to the men concerned, for the word “all” is masculine (cp. Mt.21: 12 Gk), but the grammar of the rest of the sentence makes this somewhat doubtful (see RV). “Whose fan is in his hand”, John had said (Lk.3: 17). Here was a startling token of that authority to exercise judgment.

The men cowered from before this awe-inspiring display of zealous indignation in one who even in his most relaxed moments was commanding and impressive. At Passover there were always extra detachments of the temple police on duty. Yet even these officials made no attempt to interfere with what must have been a fairly prolonged operation. Any three of them could have overpowered Jesus within a minute had they chosen to do so, but they were as overawed as the rest, and discreetly held off.

Passover Purification

As Jesus carried through this astonishing coup, witnessed no doubt by a great crowd of Passover worshippers, he vindicated his action with one brief eloquent phrase: “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise”. The next time, “den of thieves” was his searing caustic phrase (Mk.11: 17).

The Law of Moses commanded all Israelites that at Passover “there shall be no leaven found in your houses” (Ex.12: 19). It is an instruction which in every generation has been generalized to mean the removal of all forms of dirt and corruption. So, always, just before Passover, Jews everywhere spring- cleaned their houses. The custom continues to this day. Before the Passover celebration begins, after a formal search of the house (Zeph. 1: 12), one small heap of dust, deliberately left, is swept up and thrown out, and then the feast proceeds.

At this time, then, what the Jews were doing in their own homes Jesus proceeded to do in his Father’s house, the temple, hence the word “found” in verse 14. How many times at earlier Passovers had he witnessed these abuses, and wanted to go into action! Now his drastic interference was an open declaration, made before rulers and people alike, that he was the Son of God asserting his authority in his Father’s house.

This understanding of the cleansing of the temple lays to rest the difficulty which some have found in the repetition of this drastic action in the last week of the ministry (Mt.21: 12-17; Mk.11: 15-19; Lk.19: 45-48). It is a bad mistake to assume that all four gospels describe the same incident, and that either John or the synoptists got it chronologically out of place. If Jesus’ action was a Passover spring-cleaning of his Father’s house corresponding to that which went on in every home in the country, then it would not have been at all surprising if he had done this thing at every one of the four Passovers of his ministry. The repetition ceases to be a problem.

The Lord’s assertion of authority was declared in a Biblical way which has been misunderstood by the commentators-Jesus had a scourge in his hand. King James’ men, also missing the point, have tried to take the idea of violence out of the picture by making “cords” into “small cords”. But this scourge was meant to be purely symbolic:

The Hebrew word for “scourge” is, strangely, identical with that in Zechariah 4: 10 which describes: “the eyes of the Lord which run to and fro through the whole Land” (there is a logical link between the two meanings). In that context there are seven men (Jesus and his six disciples), men of sign including “my servant the Branch”, and they are in the house of the Lord. Thus, the scourge was a Biblical symbol of Christ’s authority to inspect and correct abuses in his Father’s house.

In his temptation, not long before, Jesus had been incited to prove to the nation that he was Son of God by a spectacular feat in the temple which would immediately make him accepted by all, both high and low. Instead he began his public ministry in the temple court, and in a truly sensational fashion, but with a vigorous gesture of censure which was bound to set the ruling clique against him. “For the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters” (Hos.9: 15). Had not Zechariah also written: “In that day there shall be no more a trafficker in the house of the Lord of hosts” (14: 21; the Hebrew for “trafficker” suggests: “a man of Annas”).

This corruption connected with the temple had long been a national scandal. Simeon, the grandson of Hillel (possibly the Simeon of Luke 2) had forced the priests to reduce the price of a pair of doves (the poor person’s offering) from one gold denarius to half a silver denarius (which in 1983=£10).

During the Lord’s ministry those abuses came back. The “house of merchandise” (v.16) became a “den of thieves” (Mk.11: 17).

“Show us a Sign”

Naturally the rulers were outraged by such a dramatic assertion of authority. Their own supremacy in the temple was challenged, and their revenues were seriously interfered with. Yet this Jesus of Nazareth clearly had the sympathies of the people with him, so they dared not summarily arrest and punish him. Instead they sought first to strengthen their own case against him: “What sign showest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?” Had they not the wit to see that the cleansing of the temple court was itself a sign to show to all except the wilfully blind who this was who was now in their midst? But of course they were not blind. The sign asked for was not needed. Already they knew what this demarche j betokened.

However Jesus acceded to the demand, and , produced his credentials, albeit indirectly: “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The men who heard this saying were not fools. They realised at once that this was no flamboyant empty challenge to destroy their’ new-built temple so that they might marvel at its re-erection single-handed. Yet it suited their purpose now (as also three years later when they had Jesus on trial) to misconstrue the meaning: “Forty and six years was this temple in building.” This was exaggeration for the sake of effect. The Lord used a word referring to the inner sanctuary, and that had taken only eighteen months to build (Jos.Ant.15.11.6).

“Wilt thou rear it up in three days?”, they countered, hoping thus to ridicule this new upstart before the people. Herod the Great had intended this architectural wonder of the ancient world as his present to the Jewish people. By it he meant to soothe the asperity of their spirit as they chafed against the savagery of his rule. But Herod was long since dead and gone, and still much building remained to be done. The edifice was actually not completed until A.D.64, in the reign of the Herod Agrippa whom Paul would fain have made into a believer in Christ. These forty-six years from the twentieth year of Herod (so Josephus) identify the date of this beginning of the public ministry of Jesus as being A.D.27- an excellent cross check against the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar mentioned by Luke (3: 1)

The Law had bidden the rulers investigate the claims and credentials of any new teacher: “If there arise among you a prophet.... and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet.... that prophet shall be put to death” (Dt.13: 1,2,5). Also: “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken” (18: 22).

Since there had been no genuine prophet for centuries, the priests were right to ask for a sign, and-like so many of the Old Testament prophets-the Lord gave as sign a prophecy with short-term fulfilment. Then what an irony it was that they had to put Jesus to death before the sign could be authenticated, and by that very rejection of him they made vindication of his resurrection sign possible.

Repeatedly they came at him demanding a sign (Mt.12: 38; 16: 1; 21: 23), and each time he either repeated the same sign-resurrection on the third day-or else he sent them back to the witness of John the Baptist, another authenticated prophet whom they had rejected.

His Meaning

The disciples slow as always to get inside the meaning of their leader’s words, only saw the true force of them offer his crucifixion and resurrection. But the chief priests recognized the “three days” allusion made by Jesus and grasped its significance (hence Mt. 27: 63). When Israel were in the wilderness, “the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the Cloud (the Shekinah Glory) of the Lord was upon them by day, when they set forward from the camp” (Num. 10: 33,34).

The going forward of the ark ahead of the host of Israel required also the taking down of the sanctuary and its re-erection on the third day. By using the word “unloose” (wrongly translated here “destroy”) Jesus made his allusion clearer. But this seeking out of a new resting place for Israel required that they “depart from the mount of the Lord” where the Law was given! And when the ark set forward it was to the proclamation: “Rise up, O Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered” (10: 35). The word signifies resurrection (it is the same as in “Talitha, kumi”; Mk. 5: 41). The enemies of the Lord saw the meaning of these things, and that their own scattering was inevitable. “Let them that hate thee flee before thee.” Already the headlong flight of their minions from the temple court could be seen as symbolic of the ultimate triumph of this Jesus over all that the temple stood for.

Three years later the accusation in the trial of Jesus was: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands” (Mk.14: 58). It is highly unlikely that these additions to the record in John were invented, for they did nothing to help the case for the prosecution, and if their accuracy could be challenged the case might collapse altogether.

Jesus said, with double meaning: “(You) destroy this temple made with hands” (cp. Acts 7: 48) - and they did, by the spreading corruption which they injected into the nation, so that judgment came in A.D. 70. The different temple “made without hands”-that is, of divine origin (Dan. 2: 34; Heb. 9: 11) - is the risen glorious Lord.

The full meaning of all these things only dawned on the disciples much later, when their Lord was risen from the dead. Then “they believed the scripture”, that is, they discerned at last its inner meaning and rejoiced in it as a prophecy of Christ.

Psalm of Messiah

The full force of another Scripture also dawned on them belatedly as they looked back over these events so pregnant with meaning: “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Ps. 69: 9). The allusion is to the fire of the altar consuming the burnt-offering. That which taught the Israelite to see a symbol of his own complete re-consecration to the service of God found its fullest possible meaning in one who now showed to the entire nation his dedication to the God whom temple and altar were designed to honour.

The next words in the psalm are marvellously apposite to these strong measures taken by Jesus: “The reproaches of them that reproache thee are fallen upon me” - that is, those things which are offensive in the sight of the Father are also offensive to the Son. And the despising of God became a despising of Jesus.

Also, John evidently meant the immediate context to suggest another impressive idea. Because Jesus was eaten up with “the zeal of thine house”, therefore “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children”, (v.8); in other words, the Lord’s own family were grievously offended by this peremptory cleansing of the temple. Their unsympathetic attitude was to come out plainly later on (Mk. 3: 21,31-35; Jn. 7: 1-8).

It is unlikely that at the time the disciples linked this dramatic action of Jesus with Psalm 69, for the entire context of the passage quoted is one of rejection and suffering-an aspect of Messiah’s work which, even up to the last week, was hardly appreciated by them. Only the resurrection of Jesus resolved these strange paradoxes. Then “they believed the scripture (Ps. 69: 9? Num. 10: 33? Mal. 3: 1-3?) and the word which Jesus had said.

“Shall suddenly come to his temple”

At this time also part of the prophecy of Malachi came to life afresh: “Behold, I send my messenger (John the Baptist), and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek (observe the irony there!), shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in (more irony!); behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth.... and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver... that they may offer unto the Lord on offering in righteousness” (Mal.3: 1-3) That word “purge” is identical with John’s word for the pouring out of the changers’ money.

But if animals for sacrifice were driven out of the temple, what righteous offering could Israel bring? The answer is in Psalm 69. From this day on, Jesus was as good as crucified. The chief priests would see to that. Already this was their settled intention.

Notes: John 2: 12-22

Verses 3, 12, 13 mark the open change by Jesus from preoccupation with home and family to his own ministry; “went down” s.w. as Gen. 11:15; 18:21 LXX.

Not many days. In Acts 1: 5 this means ten days.
Money. John uses here a term of contempt.
Eaten me up. The word is used also for “destroy” (Rev. 11: 5); cp. v. 19.
Forty and six years. Could it be that they were following the Lord’s allusion to the Tabernacle? - 40 years in the wilderness followed by 6 years’ conquering the Land (Josh. 14: 7,10)? Or is it that John, years later, sees a further meaning in these words and therefore gladly preserves the detail?
The temple of his body. The same figure is repeated in “Tabernacled among us” (1: 14) and “In him dwelleth the fulness (of the Glory) of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2: 9; Ex. 40: 35). And Is. 38: 12 also? (Hezekiah a type?). 1 Cor. 3: 16; 6: 19; 2 Cor. 6: 16 invite further interpretation of this incident with reference to animal appetites and a money-grubbing disposition in a life dedicated (sic!) to God.
His disciples remembered. For slow comprehension by the disciples, see: 2: 17, 22; 4: 31-34; 6: 19; 8: 27; 11: 11-13; 12: 16; 13: 7; 14: 4-9,26; 16: 12,17; Mt. 16: 7-11; Mk. 8: 17; Lu. 22: 38; 24: 8,45. And by others: Jn. 3: 4; 4: 10-15; 6: 34,52; 7: 33-36; 8: 22,56-58; 12: 34.

That he had said. The verb is continuous. Jesus repeated this teaching more than once.

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