It used to be that the only useful information that could be gleaned from this passage was that Baptist churches should never have any fundraising activities going on in their houses of worship. No suppers, no sales, no nothing. It seemed fairly clear from this passage that Jesus was pretty much vehemently opposed to any buying and selling going on in sacred spaces. For years, that’s all that we got out of this passage, and it’s parallels in the Synoptic Gospels. Unfortunately, by limiting this passage in this way, we ended up missing a lot of important stuff.
One of the most interesting things to note about this passage and the event that it describes, is the issue of where John has chosen to place it in his gospel. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the cleansing of the temple, as this passage is often called, takes place at the very end of Jesus’ ministry, during Holy Week, not long after his triumphant march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this dramatic event is viewed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem as the absolute last straw when it comes to their dwindling patience with Jesus. As Jesus’ ministry nears its end, the established religious leaders are plenty fed up with Jesus already. In their minds, he’s already disrupted enough traditions and broken enough rules, and caused enough trouble to deserve death as it is, but this violent outburst in the temple is about all that they can take. It steels their resolve even further, and it bolsters their commitment do do away with Jesus permanently. All they need to do is to decide when, and fortunately Judas plays into their hands like clay on a potter’s wheel.
But in John’s gospel, this cleansing of the temple doesn’t take place at the end of Jesus’ ministry, it takes place at the very beginning of it. Now there’s a fine thing to sort out…how can this be? Why do Matthew, Mark and Luke report this event at the end of Jesus’ ministry, while John says that it took place at the very beginning?
There are a couple of explanations from the experts on this stuff, and in my mind, they are both very plausible. The first is that Jesus made a mess of the temple store two times. Once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the very end. We’ve got pretty good evidence that Jesus was in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover three times during his ministry, once at the beginning, once during the middle, and once at the very end of his ministry.
It was incumbent up on all Jewish men to at least attempt to get Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, and it kind of looks like Jesus made it three years in a row during his ministry. That would, of course, have been setting a very good example for all of the other men around him, to see him in Jerusalem, obediently celebrating the Passover. And so it is very possible that Jesus, while in Jerusalem, could have created a mess of things at least twice.
Another possibility is that John, when he wrote his gospel, was more concerned with the significance of the events in Jesus’ life, and less concerned with the chronology of those events. This is something that John does frequently in his Gospel. In John’s mind, the disruption in the temple was tremendously significant. John gives more space to it than any of the other gospel writers. And it may be that John wanted us, his readers, to realize that the conflict between Jesus and the established religious leaders of his day was real; that it was acute, and that it began almost as soon as Jesus began his ministry. From the beginning, Jesus and the religious leaders were at odds, and John wants us to know that in a rather dramatic way, right at the outset.
We might as well admit that we don’t like what Jesus did that day. We don’t like the obvious violence, and the anger that he displays. We don’t like it that Jesus is tearing around inside of the temple store, waving a whip around, driving out all of the cattle and the sheep, and tipping over the tables of the money changers. It must have been quite a spectacle. We might as well admit that we are embarrassed by what he did. It’s certainly not the way that we would have brought about change. We would have maybe written a letter to the editor, or maybe at most we would have engaged in a peaceful protest, like a sit-in or something like that.
But Jesus comes tearing thru this place violently, and no doubt loudly, and very messily. It was obviously quite a disruption.
But isn’t that really who Jesus is? Doesn’t Jesus come into our lives in exactly the same way? Doesn’t Jesus create a major disruption in our hearts, doesn’t Jesus challenge us, and shake us up, and force us to re-examine our lives and our ways and our beliefs? I think so!
I think it is also very important for us to note that this is conflict that Jesus initiated. He didn’t come into the temple, get into an argument, lose his temper and then react violently, nobody set him off, so to speak, instead he came in and immediately, and swiftly re-defined the nature and the purpose of the temple. And of course, there was resistance. There is always resistance when Jesus shows up. The religious leaders react to this awful mess, by saying, who in the world do you think you are, coming in here carrying on like this, messing things up so badly. You had better have an explanation! You’d better show us some kind of sign! We can’t tolerate this foolishness! Look at the mess you’ve made! You’d better come up with something quick that justifies your actions! I’m not quite sure what kind of sign they were looking for, because they’ve already witnessed a very obvious, very profound, very direct and very intentional sign. Were they looking for a magic trick, were they looking for Jesus to sprout wings or something? I don’t know.
And so Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” OK. Well that’s something that they are certainly not going to do. This is the second, and most beautiful temple that has graced the streets of Jerusalem. The first was Solomon’s Temple. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Construction on the second temple was begun in 516 BC, and Herod initiated a massive renovation of it in 20 BC. The construction was funded by an uneasy arrangement between Rome and Jerusalem. And in Herod’s mind, it was nothing less than a tribute to himself. And it sounds like, from this passage, that even after 46 years, the place is still under construction. I can understand that. I’ve been working on my house for more than 30 years now, and it is still not completed. And so nobody is going to be taking a wrecking ball to the temple just a see if Jesus can somehow pull off some fancy magic trick in order to put it back in its place in three days. It seems to be rather strange thing for Jesus to be saying anyway.
Eventually, after his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples realized that he had been talking about himself. The sign that Jesus was offering was, destroy me. I’m the real temple. I’m the real focus of worship and ministry, so destroy me, and in three days, I’ll be back. But nobody at the time was able to think that deeply, and so they didn’t get it.
And so for today, we must go back to the first, slightly less significant sign…and that sign is the awful mess that still surrounds everybody in the temple store. The scattered coins, and the departed sacrificial animals stand as strong evidence of this sign.
In about 40 years, another loud and violent disruption will take place, only this one will be enacted on a far grander scale. In 70 AD, the Romans will attack Jerusalem, and they will make a level place where the temple once stood.
But in a very real sense, Jesus has already done that. He has just defined a new focus for worship and a new environment for faith. Sheep and cattle and money changers are no longer necessary for the forgiveness of sin. By driving them out of the temple, by removing them from the sacred space, Jesus has made it perfectly clear that they no longer need to be present. They are neither effective nor adequate. The old ways have come to an end. The kingdom of God is present in the person of Jesus. He is the ultimate and perfect and final sacrifice. All things are made new in him.
Jesus still challenges our old ways and our old assumptions. Too often we have more faith in them than we do in Jesus. We cling to the known and the familiar. We resist change. But when we do that, God’s kingdom is marching ahead, with or without us. God’s kingdom is always moving forward. And when we drag our feet, we can expect that Jesus will challenge us. We can expect that Jesus will create a stir. And if that doesn’t do it, Jesus just might move into the realm of the loud, the violent and the disruptive, just to get our attention.
In fact, I’m pretty well convinced that he’s already done that. The coronavirus pandemic has shaken us up in ways that we would never have imagined. It has changed our lives and it has changed our worship, and even though things are looking up, we are all still wondering what all of this will eventually come to. We can be afraid, or we can trust. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so afraid of him that their only recourse was to kill him. They couldn’t accept the changes and the challenges that he brought; they couldn’t even begin to imagine that anything that he was doing could possibly be good, and so they killed him.
Can we begin to imagine that the new things that Jesus is doing in our lives and in our church can possibly be good? Can we receive the emerging kingdom of God with new enthusiasm? Or will we cling to what once was, but now no longer is. If we cling to what once was, we will kill Jesus all over again, and we will also die in the transaction. Let us embrace life, and the newness that Jesus offers.