Background. The “temple” of our text is the temple in Jerusalem. It was not the first temple, built by Solomon (see 1 Kings 6-7), nor the second temple, rebuilt by the Jews returning from their Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:15).105 It was the third temple, known as “Herod’s Temple.” This temple was built by Herod, not so much to facilitate Israel’s worship, but as an attempt to reconcile the Jews to their Idumaean king. Construction of this temple began in 19 B.C. and continued for 46 years. The temple was largely complete in the time of our Lord, but was fully completed a mere 6 years before it was destroyed in 70 A.D. Perhaps it did not have the glory of the first temple built by Solomon, but it must have exceeded the beauty and splendor of the second temple (compare Ezra 3:12; Mark 13:1).
In His early infancy, Jesus had been taken to the temple in Jerusalem for His purification, and there both Simeon and Anna worshipped Him as the promised Messiah (Luke 2:21-38). When our Lord was 12 years of age, He accompanied His parents to Jerusalem, where He absolutely amazed them and others:
Our Lord’s parents certainly found Jesus a model child, a young man whom they could trust. They felt no need to check on Him, and as they were traveling in a caravan, they didn’t even miss Him on their return from Jerusalem. Eventually, they realized He was not with them and made their way back to Jerusalem, where they found Him in the temple. There He was, sitting in the midst of the Old Testament scholars, not only asking intelligent questions, but giving answers to their questions (Wouldn’t you love to know what some of these questions and answers were?). The scholars were amazed, and most certainly so were our Lord’s parents.
Nevertheless, Jesus caused them considerable inconvenience by not telling them He was staying behind. His absence caused them to leave the caravan of worshippers and return to Jerusalem, a day’s journey away. There was certainly a hint of frustration in their rebuke when they scolded Him for staying behind, but Jesus was not taken aback. He was surprised they had to look for Him. Did they not know where He would be? Did they think it was wrong for Him to be there? He was in His Father’s house,106 doing “His Father’s business” (verse 49). It was not He who was wrong, but they, for not seeing this situation for what it was. Even at the age of 12, our Lord had a good grasp of who He was and what He was sent to do. The “temple” Jesus visited in Luke 2 was the kind of place it should have been, a place to worship God and to study His Word. The “temple” Jesus finds nearly 20 years later seems to have greatly changed, and thus the need for its cleansing.
A Brief Interlude in Capernaum
12 After this he went down to Capernaum107 with his mother108 and brothers109 and his disciples, and they stayed there a few days.
One may wonder about John’s reasons for including this verse. John is not a man to waste time or space. His words are carefully selected (John 20:30-31; 21:25). Why then does he include them? One reason is that we know Capernaum will become our Lord’s headquarters for His ministry (See Matthew 4:13; 9:1). His family appears to have relocated110 there. It is where the centurion (and others—see John 6:24) come to find Jesus, to plead with Him to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Capernaum is deemed worthy of greater condemnation, because the people of this city have seen more of our Lord and His miracles (Matthew 11:23; see Luke 4:23). Another reason is that this seems to have been our Lord’s final stay with His family. His “family” is about to change (see Mark 3:31-35).
Finally, John wants us to see these events as closely following one upon the other. He is maintaining a rather precise account of the timing of the crucial events at the outset of our Lord’s ministry.111 John therefore describes the first few days of our Lord’s public ministry in chapter 1 and the first 11 verses of chapter 2. Then, he tells us that after the wedding, Jesus, His disciples, and His family make their way down to Capernaum. The disciples appear to be taken in by our Lord’s family for the few days they stay in Capernaum. From what we know of our Lord’s brothers at this point in time, they do not believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah (John 7:5). They may even resent the intrusion of Jesus and His disciples. Jesus and the men who accompany Him do not stay long in Capernaum. After a few (“not … many”) days, they make their way up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.
The Cleansing of the Temple
The Jewish Passover celebration commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, when the death angel passed over every home where the first Passover was observed and the blood of the paschal lamb was placed on the two door posts and the lintel (see Exodus 12 and 13). The celebration of the Passover also commenced the Feast of Unleavened bread, so that the entire Passover celebration took a week.115 Attendance for adult Israelite males was compulsory:
Every male Jew, from the age of twelve and up, was expected to attend the Passover at Jerusalem, a feast celebrated to commemorate the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. On the tenth of the month Abib or Nisan (which generally corresponds to our March, though its closing days sometimes extend into our April) a male lamb, of the first year, without blemish, was taken, and on the fourteenth day, between three and six o’clock in the afternoon, it was killed.
It is very difficult to imagine the scene that our Lord’s eyes fall upon as He enters Jerusalem and approaches the temple. We know from the scene at Pentecost, described in Acts 2, that a great many people thronged to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, as they also did to the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Pentecost (or, the Feast of Weeks). It is very difficult to estimate the influx of people to Jerusalem, not only from other parts of Israel, but from all over the world (see Acts 2:5-12). These Jews and proselytes would have to pay the half-shekel temple tax in the coinage of the temple, and thus foreign monies were unacceptable and had to be exchanged for the proper coins. These worshippers also had to offer up their sacrifices, and for many of these travelers, the only solution was to buy a sacrificial animal there in Jerusalem.
In days gone by, they would have been able to purchase these animals and exchange their money in a place outside the temple courts: “At one time the animal merchants set up their stalls across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, but at this point they were in the temple courts, doubtless in the Court of the Gentiles (the outermost court).”For some reason, the animals have now been brought into the temple courts. It is certainly more “convenient.” People can purchase their sacrificial animals right at the temple, and they can also exchange their money. It is very difficult to believe that this is the real reason this is done, however.
It is true, in the abstract, that each worshipper was allowed to bring to the temple an animal of his own selection. But let him try it! In all likelihood it would not be approved by the judges, the privileged venders who filled the money-chests of Annas! Hence, to save trouble and disappointment, animals for sacrifice were bought right here in the outer court, which was called the court of the Gentiles because they were permitted to enter it. Of course, the dealers in cattle and sheep would be tempted to charge exorbitant prices for such animals. They would exploit the worshippers. And those who sold pigeons would do likewise, charging, perhaps, $4 for a pair of doves worth a nickel (A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, New York, 1897, vol. I, p. 370). And then there were the money-changers, sitting cross-legged behind their little coin-covered tables. They gave the worshipper lawful, Jewish coin in exchange for foreign currency. It must be borne in mind that only Jewish coins were allowed to be offered in the temple, and every worshipper—women, slaves, and minors excepted—had to pay the annual temple tribute of half a shekel (cf. Ex. 30:13). The money-changers would charge a certain fee for every exchange-transaction. Here, too, there were abundant opportunities for deception and abuse. And in view of these conditions the Holy Temple, intended as a house of prayer for all people, had become a den of robbers (cf. Isa. 56:7; Jer. 7:11; Mark 11:17).
The view represented here is one commonly accepted by students of the New Testament Gospels. Those who attempted to bring their own sacrificial animals may very well have had them “rejected” by the temple priests, and thereby were forced to purchase “approved” animals at much higher prices. The same gouging no doubt took place at the money-exchangers’ tables. I doubt very much that our Lord later called the temple a “robbers’ den” (Mark 11:17) without having such corruption in mind. In our text, however, John does not focus on the way in which these merchandisers go about their business, but rather on where they are conducting their business—in the temple courts.
Mark’s Gospel seems to take up this theme as well, pointing out that “where” these businessmen are doing business interferes with an essential purpose of the temple. The temple was to be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). The outer courts of the temple are the only places where Gentiles could worship. They are not allowed to pass beyond a certain point (see Acts 21:27-30). If the outer courts are filled with oxen and lambs and doves, there is no place for the Gentiles to pray and to worship God. Can you imagine trying to pray in the midst of a virtual stockyard, with all the noises of the animals and the bickering businessmen? Can you conceive of trying to squeeze in between cattle who are tied up in the courts? Think of what it would be like to have to watch where you walked, lest you step in something undesirable?120 It appears that Gentile worship is functionally prohibited, and I doubt this troubled many of the Jews, who are not all that excited about including the Gentiles in their worship in the first place.
What Jesus sees going on in the temple courts troubles Him a great deal! The place of prayer has become a place of profit-taking. It sounds more like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange than the outer courts of the temple of God. It smells more like a barnyard than the place where one would seek God’s presence. Jesus enters the outer court of the temple, fashioning a whip from materials at hand (probably from the cords used to tie up the animals). He then drives them all out of the temple area. By the word “all,” I understand Him to have driven out not only the animals, but also those who are selling them as well. The coins of the moneychangers are poured out and scattered on the ground and their tables overturned. To those selling the doves, Jesus says, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!”
After His death and resurrection, our Lord’s disciples remembered that it was written, “Passion for your house will devour me” (verse 17). The disciples came to view this cleansing of the temple in the light of Psalm 69:
8 I have become a stranger to my brothers, And an alien to my mother’s children; 9 Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on Me (Psalm 69:8-9, NKJV).
Several things catch my attention in these two verses. The first is that this Messianic Psalm speaks of the alienation of the Messiah from his “mother’s children.” Could this be part of the reason for John’s mention of the brief family gathering in Capernaum (John 2:12)? Our Lord’s mother is not mentioned again until the cross, and the reference to our Lord’s “brothers” in John 7:3-5 reveals their skepticism about Jesus and His ministry. Has Jesus already begun to feel alienated from His own brothers?
In addition, you will notice that in Psalm 69:9 David writes in the past tense: “Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up.” There are some differences in the Greek texts of John, so that the KJV and the NKJV employ the past tense: “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” As a rule, the other versions render it in the future tense, following what appear to be the best Greek texts.125 I like the way the New English Bible renders it best:
“Zeal for thy house shall destroy me.”
Psalm 69 is a psalm of David. It is a prayer for his deliverance, due to his piety. The psalm speaks of David’s imminent danger due to the enemies of God who hate him for his fervent devotion to God, and thus who seek his death. Later portions of this psalm depict events that occur at the crucifixion of our Lord (see Ps. 69:21). It seems clear in this psalm that there is a prophecy of our Lord’s sacrificial death, due to His zeal for pure worship.
Jesus acts out of zeal for His Father’s house, laying claim to the temple and cleansing it in His Father’s name. In so doing, He fulfills a prophecy that our Lord’s zeal for His Father’s house will bring about His death. It is the second cleansing126 of the temple (Matthew 21:10-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-46) that actually sets into motion the events which lead to our Lord’s crucifixion.
Righteous anger against false worship and injustice
People have sometimes taken this to be justification for righteous anger, which we all feel at times when we perceive some great injustice, especially when we ourselves or some people we love, or a group we feel part of, is treated unfairly. There are some very unfair things being done today. One could be justified in feeling angry about someone you know losing their job through no fault of their own. I wonder indeed that people accept an unjust system of industrial relations as quietly as they do. Does not the continuing poverty and poor health of aboriginal people justify anger; and how about the violence and abuse with which women and children are sometimes exploited? Is righteous anger not called for?
I wonder what you think of the words of a new hymn, Inspired by love and anger? When some of us had a talk about it most people thought anger could part of a Christian response in the face of injustice. What do you think of these words:-
Jesus proceeded to drive out those who were selling things. There are things that are proper to particular occasions or situations. A student with an earphone of music stuck to his ear is never proper in a classroom. Summer shorts and undershirt may be cool, but they are not proper in an office or a church. A disrespectful son is not proper in a home as a useless lazy bum is not proper in a society. An ungrateful person is not proper before God. Evil thoughts and plans are not proper for a decent person.
Jesus has an eye for what is proper and has the courage to cleanse the temple.
Dress properly today and feel good about how you look, after donating good old clothes away.
At first sight what Jesus was reacting to in the temple was abuse of a place of worship, rather than to the rights of a minority or the treatment of the poor. Sacrilege, defining a scared place was not, however, far removed from a question of justice. The part of the temple from which Jesus drove the animals and the traders was almost certainly the court of the Gentiles — an outer part of the temple where people who were not Jews could come to pray, though they could not go in further, on pain of death. How would you feel if your prayers were being interrupted by busy traffic and no one seemed to care about your relationship to God? You might even have taken your thoughts a step further and questioned your exclusion from the inner more holy parts of the temple. Even if you were a poor Jewish family you might have thought it unfair that you had to change the ordinary money that you brought with you into special temple currency in order to buy an animal for sacrifice. Some were making money out of the devotion of others. Probably, if you were poor you might only purchase one or two doves, like the parents of Jesus. It was obviously a controlled market. It all seemed rather unfair and exclusive. If you were really radical, and some of the friends of Jesus were radical, having quite revolutionary attitudes, you might even have wondered whether the whole sacrificial system of worship was unjust, for after all you could read in the psalms and the prophets that God does not desire such things.