by Mike Ratliff
After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days. The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 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. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (John 2:12-16 ESV)
Some today have made a caricature of our Lord Jesus Christ. This man-made image is far from the truth we see in Sacred Scripture. There have been some who have even portrayed the Bible as revealing two separate “Gods,” the mean, angry God of the Old Testament, and the kind, gentle Jesus of the New Testament. The former is an image contrived by those who resent God’s commands for holiness and righteousness while the latter is vastly incomplete and derived by those who are either ignorant of what the New Testament teaches about our Lord or they are deliberately ignoring what it says.
In the passage above, we see the phrase, “After this…” This is referring to what happened after the wedding feast in Cana where our Lord turned water into wine. After the wedding, He went to Capernaum with his family and disciples for a few days. Then He went to Jerusalem for Passover. What did He find in the Temple? He found there those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. What was our Lord’s response? 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. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.
Our Lord’s anger is a terrifying thing. Those selling in the Temple must have sensed that they were in deep trouble as they saw the awe-inspiring sight of our Lord with a whip moving and acting with hot, righteous anger. What moved Jesus to this white-hot anger in the Temple Courts? The city of Jerusalem was full of Jews from all over the known world. Some have estimated that there were over two and a quarter million Jews sometimes assembled in Jerusalem to keep the Passover. There was a Temple Tax that every Jew over 19 years of age must pay. This Tax was necessary that all should pay it so that the Temple sacrifices and the Temple ritual might be carried out day by day. It consisted of one half-shekel. This was equivalent to two days’ wages for the average workingman at that time. Even though all sorts of currency was valid throughout the country and Jerusalem, only the Galilean shekel or a Temple shekel could be used to pay this tax. Why? The other currencies were foreign and so were unclean.
As the Pilgrims arrived from all over the known world for Passover, they carried money from wherever they lived, not valid shekels for paying the Temple tax. So in the Temple courts there sat the money-changers. While there would be nothing wrong with exchanging foreign money for shekels valid for paying the tax, that is not what was going on. No, they charged a fee to make the exchange. This fee could be exorbitant. In some cases it could be equivalent to one day’s wage. In other words, these men were becoming wealthy through cheating people who had no choice if they wanted to pay the Temple tax.
It was not illegal for these money-changers to charge a fee to make the exchange, however, it was unethical in that they charged an exorbitant fee to do so. This is what enraged our Lord. Pilgrims came to pay the Temple tax, to pay God, to worship Him through this and the moneychangers were fleecing them. It was a rampant and shameless social injustice-and what was worse, it was being done as part of Temple worship.
Besides the money-changers there were also the sellers of oxen and sheep and doves. This was another in-Temple business where these sellers took advantage of these Pilgrims. If a Pilgrim desired to make a sacrifice at the Temple the animal for it had to unblemished. The Temple authorities had appointed inspectors to examine these animals. They charged a fee. If the animal was from outside the Temple, it was to all intents and purposes certain that it would be rejected after examination. The issue is that the animals purchased in the city were reasonably priced, but those sold at the Temple were priced at extortion rates. They were practically blackmailing their victims from the Temple booths if they wished to sacrifice at all-once a glaring social injustice aggravated by the fact that it was perpetrated in the name of pure religion.
This is what moved our Lord Jesus Christ to flaming anger. He made a whip of cords. Jerome stated that “the very sight of Jesus made the whip unnecessary. He had a certain fiery and starry light which shone from His eyes, and the majesty of the Godhead gleamed in His face.” My brethren, never forget that just because Jesus loved God and God’s children, it was impossible for Him to stand passively by while the worshippers of Jerusalem were treated in this way.
What did our Lord say as He drove out the money-changers and sellers of livestock?
He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13 ESV)
And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17 ESV)
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:45-46 ESV)
And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (John 2:16 ESV)
Our Lord acted as He did because God’s house was being desecrated. In the Temple, there was worship without reverence. Reverence is an instinctive thing. Worship without reverence can be a terrible thing. It may be worship that is formalized and pushed through anyhow; the most dignified prayers on earth can be read like a grocery list. In other words, this is worship that does not realize the holiness of God. It is by rote or by habit and comes from an irreverent heart.
He cleansed the Temple in order to show that the whole animal sacrificial system was completely irrelevant (Isaiah 1:11-17; Jeremiah 7:22; Hosea 5:6; Hosea 8:13; Psalm 51:15). These Old Testament prophets had been telling the Jews of the sheer irrelevancy of the burnt offerings and the animal sacrifices which smoked continuously upon the altar in the Temple. Jesus did what He did to show that no sacrifice of any animal could ever put a man right with God. Think of religious things people do in our time that are little different in motivation. No religious acts can substitute for true devotion. No amount of religious works can take the place of active, living faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which comes through God working in the heart to reimage the believer unto the Son.
The money-changers and animal vendors had taken over the Temple Court of the Gentiles to do their “work” (Mark 11:17). This eliminated that area as the peaceful area where Gentiles could come and pray. This also motivated our Lord to respond in fiery anger. The desecration of the Temple created an atmosphere in which no man could worship.
Now my brethren, let’s bring this forward to the Church in the 21st Century. Is there reverent worship going on in our churches? Is there an atmosphere of reverence and prayer with worship that is not by rote? What about coldness and arrogance within the church body? Are we excluding professing Christians from fellowship for any reason other than church discipline? I am not referring to those who profess to be Christian, but who prove their disingenuousness through their holding to doctrines of demons or their lack of reverence in worship, preaching, teaching and ministry. No, I am referring to fellow Christians who are excluded for reasons of the flesh. Let us remember the wrath of Jesus against those who made it difficult and even impossible for those seeking to worship God to even find a peaceful place to pray. We must always be ready to share our faith with everyone, excluding no one. We confront evil with good. We tell the truth in the face of apostasy. We correct those who butcher the Word of God to make a false teaching. However, let us always be ready to forgive and fellowship with those who repent.
Soli Deo Gloria!