Sermon from John 2:13-25
Upon reading this story of Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2, my first thought was, “What did Jesus have against those pigeons?” Sure, pigeons make a mess, but did he have to get so upset? There is clearly more going on here. It is worth noting that although the other three Gospel writers placed this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry (In fact, that is what the Pharisees used as a pretext for Jesus’ arrest leading to his execution.), John places it right at the beginning of his Gospel account. So one theory is that John tells the events of Jesus’ life out of order to make points about theology rather than to tell a story from beginning to end. However, I also think it’s entirely possible that Jesus did this twice.
We know that Jesus was raised as a Jewish boy who often went to Jerusalem for the Passover, and so his last Passover was not the first time he had seen this commerce going on inside the temple. I suspect that every single time Jesus saw it, it bothered him. And it is not beyond imagining to think that the Jews of Jerusalem would go right back to doing things the old way even after having Jesus cleanse the temple once earlier in his ministry. So then we can imagine him coming back at the end of his ministry and being frustrated at finding them in their same old ways.
So what bothered him so much about this? First, let’s understand the practice. God-fearing people would make pilgrimages from all over to make sacrifices at the time of Passover. They might travel from far-flung places by ship or on foot, and it would be a challenge to bring your sacrificial animal with you on that pilgrimage. It made a lot of sense to wait to buy your sacrifice until you got there, and Jerusalem had a whole economy around raising flocks of animals to be temple sacrifices. In addition, since people were coming from many different places, they were bringing foreign currency with them, and they had to exchange their currency to the Jewish shekel in order to pay their temple tax while they were there. Therefore, having an animal market and money changers near the temple was very practical and convenient.
The problem came when these practical conveniences crept into the temple itself. The temple was meant to be a place of worship and prayer, and bringing these things inside the temple brought distraction. Imagine it being the same as when someone is talking behind you or knocks over their cup of coffee in church. It’s difficult to focus on worship when other things are going on around you, and the noise and smell of an animal market would certainly distract a person’s mind and heart from worship!
In addition, the Scripture indicates that there was also corruption going on. The animal vendors and money changers could make a ton of money by inflating their prices, which was selfish and irreverent to focus on personal gain rather than worship. And there could have been even more about this circumstance that was offensive to Jesus, but we do know that he was upset that they were not engaging in worship rightly. They were not giving God his due reverence.
So he overturned the tables of the vendors and drove the animals out with a whip, demanding that they remove their commerce from his Father’s house. It’s interesting that as Jesus’ disciples were watching him do this, a psalm of David came to their mind:
For zeal for your house has consumed me,Psalm 69:9-13
and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting,
it became my reproach.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a byword to them.
I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
and the drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
King David was kind of a mess with lots of sin and failures on his record, but one thing he had in his favor – he deeply loved the Lord. This psalm of David reflects that passion for the Lord’s reputation over his own. Repeatedly we saw in David’s story his willingness to risk the judgment and scorn of others, including his own wife (See 2 Samuel 6:1-23), to wholeheartedly worship the Lord. Unlike most of us, he was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and let all that he had in his heart – both good and bad – be seen by all. The rest of us tend to keep our internal struggles and failures hidden, trying to wear masks and pretend we don’t struggle. As my wife says, we judge ourselves by comparing our insides to others’ outsides. That never ends well.
This wholehearted abandon to the worship of the Lord is what made the disciples think of this psalm when Jesus was cleansing the temple. He wasn’t afraid of what any other person would think of him – he only cared about the glory of the Lord. Unlike David and unlike us, though, Jesus had nothing to hide on the inside. His motives were completely pure. He had nothing but absolute faithfulness to God.
This is one indicator of the heart of a faithful worshiper – they don’t care what others think of them. People who judge the worshipers of God are people who don’t understand God, and true worshipers just won’t let that bother them. A person coming to offer wholehearted worship to the Lord won’t care what anyone else thinks but only what God thinks. A wholehearted worshiper won’t want to please anyone else besides God.
The animal sellers and money changers were not true worshipers of God. They missed the heart of God. God is so jealous for the hearts of his people. He wants us to be wholly devoted only to him, much like a marriage vow. He faithfully keeps his covenant with his people, and he desires that same faithfulness from us. He will not share worship; he will not share our hearts.
Jesus was reacting to this unfaithfulness with passion and emotion, the same jealousy that God feels for the hearts of his people, and the temple leaders were put off by this. They challenged him, saying, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (v. 18). They didn’t think he had the right or the authority to act on behalf of God. However, Jesus’ answer was that he would destroy the temple and raise it again in three days. His listeners at the time completely misunderstood his meaning, but later they would realize that he was speaking of the temple of his body, which he did raise again three days after it was destroyed.
Jesus came to give us a new temple, where the abiding living presence of God dwells within his people, not in a building of stone. The indwelling Spirit of God empowers our hearts to be wholly devoted to him.