Cleanse the Temple

Reading: John 2.13-25
We have always found the time of packing up for a move a great time to get rid of rubbish - and can't it accumulate? O yes, there are some of you who are absolutely ruthless all the time. But for most of us there are so many things that we keep because "we might just need it some day". Then we look at it five or ten years later and say, "I had better throw this out - I don't know why I have kept it!"

There were reasons, of course, that seemed good enough at the time of saving and stowing. Farmers, they say, will never throw away a piece of wire. Now, you ex-farmers, is that true? Perhaps there are also habits learned by ourselves or our parents during the Depression, when families had to "make do" with so many things. But, whatever the reason, the time can come when the surplus in storage is just too much to manage.

Of course there can be some later regrets - and some near misses! We have had an aquarium. My father had kept a few goldfish and, when they moved to the Garden Settlement at Chermside, it had come to us and been useful for our small colony of fish. We kept two tanks for a while, until the day disaster struck and an unusually high level of chlorine in a fresh lot of water killed them all in about half an hour. We gave up keeping fish. The small tank was given away before we came here, but the large tank with all the accompanying apparatus was sitting on a top shelf downstairs collecting dust. A few times we have looked at it there and thought, "We ought to give that to Life Line. Then a few weeks ago quite unannounced, Naomi came home with a couple of guppies. So, guess what? The aquarium tank has been scrubbed, cleaned and fitted out and now is home to the guppies. Now how many are there? One of the original two died. Two more were bought. So that makes… ten, eleven, twelve… O they're hard to count! That's right! One of the females has had babies! We still want to learn to be more ruthless, but - what if we had thrown out all our aquarium gear?

The Cleansing of the Temple

The Gospels record two occasions when Jesus had a cleanup in the Temple. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us about the time after Palm Sunday. Opposition to Jesus was growing and this fired his opponents to plot his death.

The occasion recorded in John was at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. He was still relatively unknown. His strong action would have caused a furore in Jerusalem but that is all. Because there was some public feeling against the practices he opposed, the authorities would have not have felt they could go to extremes with him. The situation at the end of his ministry was rather different.

I have called it a cleanup. But the Jewish authorities didn't believe there was really any rubbish to remove. I mean, people would come to offer their sacrifices in the Temple and there had to be a provision for them to secure the correct sacrificial animals. If they brought their own, they would have to be inspected to be sure there were no defects - every sacrifice offered must be a perfect animal or bird. So it made sense to them to have purchasing facilities right on hand. Of course, this gave them a monopoly which made it open to corruption.

Then there was the question of offerings. Roman money was being used throughout Israel - it had to be, for they were the occupying force. But the Roman coins had the image of Caesar stamped on them and he claimed to be divine. They had to use it day by day, but it was a grudging reminder that they were a subject people. But coins with the image of Caesar must never be used as an offering to God! What an offense! They must change their money into Temple shekels so that they can make a clean and correct offering. Again, another profit-making business with a smell of corruption about it.

Where did all of this take place? In the outer courtyard, known as the court of the Gentiles. In the accounts of the later cleansing, it is recorded that Jesus referred to Isaiah 56.7. Here is that passage in context. The Lord's people are told to do what is right and to observe the Sabbath and they will know his blessing. Then foreigners who have joined the Lord's people are told not to say, "The Lord will not let me worship with his people". People who have been made eunuchs must not think they can never be part of God's people. Then "the Lord says to those foreigners who become part of his people, who love him and serve him, who observe the Sabbath and faithfully keep his covenant: 'I will bring you to Zion, my sacred hill, give you joy in my house of prayer, and accept the sacrifices you offer on my altar. My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations.' The Sovereign Lord, who has brought his people Israel home from exile, has promised that he will bring still other people to join them" (vv.6-8). It was the outer courtyard where these foreigners were allowed to come for worship, for prayer. It sounded and smelt like a saleyard!

So there were three reasons for Jesus's cleanup. (1) The buying and selling shouldn't have been happening in the Temple in the first place. (2) The corruption in the Temple was a bigger offense to God than the Roman coins. (3) This particular court was destroyed as a place of prayer for the Gentiles.

"So he made a whip from cords and drove all the animals out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle; he overturned the tables of the money-changers and scattered their coins; and he ordered the men who sold the pigeons, 'Take them out of here! Stop making my Father's house a market-place!' " (vv.15-17).

By what authority…

The Jewish authorities, as we have said, approached him with caution. Who is this Jesus? We haven't heard of him before. What is he up to? They didn't want to over-react. It might be some spur-of-the-moment action. It might just blow over. Who is he really?

So they come up to him, "What miracle (sign) can you perform to show us that you have the right to do this?" One writer comments, "Interestingly they do not dispute the rightness of his action. They were not so much defending the temple traffic as questioning Jesus' implied status. Their demand arose from the facts that the Jews were a very practical race and that they expected God to perform mighty miracles when the messianic age dawned. Thus their test for a messianic claimant was, Can he do the signs of the Messiah? Paul could think of the Jews as seekers after signs just as typically as the Greeks were pursuers of wisdom (1 Cor.1.22). In the temple cleansing the Jews discerned a messianic claim... and they demanded accordingly that He authenticate Himself by a sign" (LMorris).

"Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again."

They didn't understand. "Their temple was a magnificent structure. Herod had commenced its rebuilding partly to satisfy his lust for building, and partly in an attempt to stand well with his Jewish subjects, among whom he was very unpopular. Work was still going on at his death, and for that matter, for long after. The temple was not completed until A.D. 64. The Jews accordingly mean here that work has been proceeding for forty-six years. The fact that it was still not complete would heighten their amazement at a statement which they understood to mean that Jesus claimed the power to erect its like in a mere three days" (LMorris).

Clearly the sign would not be literally fulfilled in terms of Herod's Temple. What did it mean? How can he make that claim?

John makes the comment, "But the temple Jesus was speaking about was his body. So when he was raised from death, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and what Jesus had said" (vv.21-22).

Matthew records two occasions (in 12.38-42 and in 16.1-4) when the enemies of Jesus asked him to perform a miracle (shmei'on = "sign"). But both times the only miracle he promised was "the sign of Jonah". And what was that? "In the same way that Jonah spent three days and nights in the big fish, so will the Son of Man spend three days and nights in the depths of the earth." It is the same sign!

Later when Jesus was taken before the Jewish Council, the only bit of evidence anyone could bring against him was that "This man said, 'I am able to tear down God's Temple and three days later build it up again' " (Mt.26.61). And as he hung there on the cross, people hurled insults at him, "You were going to tear down the Temple and build it up again in three days! Save yourself if you are God's Son! Come on down from the cross!" (Mt.27.40). After his death a delegation of Jewish leaders went to Pilate requesting a guard over the tomb, "Sir, we remember that while that liar was still alive he said, 'I will be raised to life three days later' " (Mt.27.63).

They twisted his words. He didn't say, "I will tear down this Temple…", but "Tear down this Temple…" They are the ones who would destroy the Temple, have him put to death on a cross! Three days later he would rise from death!

And for us...

Just supposing Jesus were to walk into this church this morning! What would he be expecting to find? How would he react to what he would find here? (He is here, you know, just as he promised!)

He would be looking for a church that is pure in doctrine and practice. His anger would rise at the destructive criticism of the Bible which has left his people undernourished and has undermined their faith. His anger would rise at the level of marriage breakdown and family violence and at the suggestion that homosexuality is a gift of God.

He would be looking for a church where all people are welcome. He brought forgiveness to the sinner and welcomed the outcast. Are all people welcome to receive the grace of God here and to share in fellowship and worship - even the homosexual?

He would be looking for a church alive with the presence of God. He always knew what was in people. He would listen to our worship, not to detect its awed respectfulness or its noisy informality, but to see whether the hearts of the worshippers were truly attuned to the presence of God, whether they were truly worshipping God or just enjoying themselves according to their own preferences.

He would be looking for a church with a love that must reach out to others. That is the love the Father had for the world when he sent his Son. That is the love for individual people and for the whole human race that the Son expressed in his life, death and resurrection. That is the love that the Holy Spirit seeks to plant within every believer. He will look to see the depth of our love for one another. But he will wonder what sort of love it is if it ends just there and is no longer burning with a passion for all who do not yet belong to the family of faith.

Jesus wanted the Temple cleansed - for the sake of his Father's honour - and then he was talking about destroying the Temple! They thought the Temple was permanent and Jesus temporary. They got it wrong! The temple of his body was destroyed for the sins of the world, but he rose again and is alive for ever more!

Come, Lord Jesus! Cleanse the temple! Not by your rope - for we would willingly expose ourselves to you! But by the stripes we inflicted on you! Make us clean! Amen!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 6 February 1994
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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