13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 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. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Part of what makes up any society is a shared sense of what is acceptable. This includes things like speed limits, financial and ethical systems, health care policies, and religious freedoms. In some societies, that common sense is very narrow and in others it is very broad. Sometimes the social norms are imposed through laws and policing and sometimes simply through social pressures. Regardless of their scope or enforcement mechanism, however, for a society to function, there must be agreed upon limits to what the people who make it up can and can’t do.
Since Jesus walked the earth, every society that has included His followers has had to come to grips with how to handle Christians. Early on, Christians were despised and fed to lions for sport. At other times and places, Christianity was the dominant religion and wielded its influence in every conceivable way.
Because God is creator, king, judge, all-loving, good, wise, and powerful, and because Christianity is good, beautiful, and true, when Jesus is faithfully followed, societies flourish. However, both because Jesus hasn’t always been faithfully followed by His followers and because non-Christians have always had their own reasons to reject Christian doctrine and practice, even when there has been a Christian presence, that hasn’t always been the case.
Embedded within all of this is a question that was front and center in our passage, even as it is front and center often in our lives today. How Christian is someone able to be before he finds himself outside of his society’s shared sense of what is acceptable? Or, conversely, how much of God’s system must a society reject before genuine Christians are compelled to act in defiance?
This passage certainly doesn’t answer every question (or even many questions) we might have on this subject, but it definitely gives us a vivid picture of one line crossed and one Christian response to it. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had turned one of the most holy and joyful feasts God had given His people into several days of godless exploitation. Upon seeing this, incensed, enraged, and consumed with zeal, Jesus temporarily put an end to it, as He moved closer and closer to fulfilling His mission of putting an end to it forever.
The big idea of this passage is that Jesus came to put an end to the world’s mockery of God and atone for the sins of those who participated in it. And the big takeaways for us are that (1) living in a thoroughly Christian way means that we will find the limits of what a non-Christian society will tolerate and that (2) at some point societies become so corrupt and hostile to God that Christians will have to resist. Let’s pray that God would help us learn from the consuming zeal of Jesus and to follow Him wherever He leads and whatever it costs.
THE PASSOVER – GOD’S DESIGN
This scene opens by indicating that the Passover celebration was just a few days away. There are a two key aspects of the Passover that we absolutely need if we are going to make proper sense of this passage: (1) what it was meant to be and (2) what it had become.
You probably remember Joseph—Abraham’s great grandson—from our time in Genesis. He was his father’s favorite of his twelve sons. By God’s design and his jealous brothers’ evil choices, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He ended up in Egypt and while there he went from a forgotten prisoner to the second most powerful man in all Egypt. In that later capacity, God used him to rescue the world from a severe famine and cause the Israelites to move there and flourish. Tragically, however, after Joseph and after the Pharaoh who’d promoted him, the new ruler in Egypt saw the prosperity of the Jews as a threat rather than as a blessing from God. As a result, he enslaved them. And their enslavement would end up lasting 400 years.
During that time, however, God never forgot His promises or failed to hear their prayers. In His perfect timing, God determined to deliver Israel from captivity. To do so, God raised up another of Abraham’s offspring, Moses, to have special favor with the leader of Egypt. Again, in God’s providence and due to the wicked intentions of the Egyptians, Moses was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh.
Eventually, he became God’s spokesman before Pharaoh, his adopted grandfather. The message from God, through Moses, to Pharaoh, was simple, “God has commanded you to let the Israelites, His people, go or you will experience the wrath of God.” Pharaoh refused and was, therefore, subjected to a series of nine catastrophic plagues that wiped out large portions of Egypt’s people, crops, and animals. Still, with a hard heart, Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go; that is, until God sent the tenth and final plague—the killing of every firstborn male.
And here’s where we start to land the plane. In order that the Israelites would be spared from this plague, and in order to ensure that everyone knew it was God who spared them, God gave instructions to Israel through Moses. We read those instructions in Exodus 12:1-13.
The LORD said to Moses … “3 Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household… 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. … 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
7 “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it… 11 In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
The first Passover meal took place in captivity in Egypt, and through it, God preserved (passed over) and freed millions of Jews from centuries of slavery. Throughout the rest of the OT, God would describe Himself as the God who “brought up Israel out of Egypt, and … delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians” (1 Samuel 10:18).
More than just a one-time event, therefore, God commanded the Israelites to celebrate the Passover in perpetuity. In the very next verse in Exodus 12, we read, “14 This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” Every year, the Israelites were to celebrate God’s miraculous deliverance.
What’s more, according to Deuteronomy 16, once the temple was built, the Jews came to understand that Jerusalem, the home of the temple, was the place chosen by God to celebrate the Passover. For that reason, every year, many Jews would descend upon Jerusalem from all over to celebrate the Passover as God commanded. By Jesus’ time, that had been going on for centuries.
THE PASSOVER – THE MODERN REALITY (13-17)
That’s what Passover was meant to be. And yet, by the time of our passage, it had turned into something different altogether. The Passover still took place at God’s appointed time, in God’s appointed place, and under God’s appointed banner. Sadly, however, in many ways and for many Jews it had long-ago departed from God’s appointed heart—a heart of submission, gratitude, trust, humility, and love. Keeping merely a form of God’s charge, with the approval of the Jewish leaders, the Passover celebration had deteriorated into a time of debauchery and exploitation. That’s why Jesus did what He did in vs.13-17.
Before we read the passage again, I want to quickly point out three specific aspects of the modern reality (in Jesus’ day) of the Passover to help us best understand the scene and Jesus’ actions in it.
Again, the Passover was a celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian control and oppression. The first thing to see is that, ironically, during the time this passage was written, the Jews had once again fallen under the oppressing thumb of a pagan kingdom—Rome. But rather than receive this in humility and repentance, and in order that God would again free them and restore true blessing, the Jews and Jewish leaders sought blessing through alternative means—the exploitation of one another.
The second and third keys pertain to two particular forms of exploitation and counterfeit blessing. Because many Jews would have had to travel great distances to get to Jerusalem, it was very inconvenient to bring their own animals with them to offer as sacrifices. Therefore, local residents (with the blessing of the Jewish leaders, who’d get a cut of the action) would set up shops to sell acceptable sacrifices. The problem is that they’d sell the animals at prices that were way too high and within the temple courts that were supposed to be reserved for godliness. It seems that the practice of selling animals to traveling Jews began as a genuine act of service, but had devolved into a money-making racket. Think ballpark food or State Park firewood on steroids.
And third, in a similar way, because only Jewish currency was acceptable to pay the temple taxes (Exodus 30:13-14), money changers were on hand to allow travelers with different currencies to exchange them. Again, this was something that was originally good, but had gradually become corrupted by corrupt people. It was good in that Jewish currency was regulated in the percentage of silver it was made from. This ensured that people couldn’t be taken advantage of by less valuable money. And local money changers could provide a genuine service to those who did not have access to Jewish currency where they lived. But, like their animal-selling counterparts, the money men of Jesus’ day charged exorbitant rates for the exchange. Think airport currency exchange booths on steroids.
All of these things help explain why Jesus was in Jerusalem, what it was meant to be like, what it was like, and why Jesus responded as He did. With all of that, let’s consider again what Jesus did when He came upon the scene.
14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 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. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
As I mentioned in the introduction, living in a thoroughly Christian way in a non-thoroughly Christian society inevitably means that Christians will find the limits of their society’s tolerance and will, at times, need to respond in defiant ways. We have an example of both in these three verses.
Jesus, far more concerned with His Father’s honor and glory than He was about being seen as appropriate by those who had forsaken the very God they claimed to be celebrating, was consumed with zeal. He could not tolerate the exploitation, the mockery, the debauchery, of God’s people in God’s house. As a result, He violently, but temporarily, put an end to all of it. He drove out the animal salesmen and money changers and made it clear why He was doing so in the process.
As we’ll find was often the case in John’s Gospel, it was only later that the disciples really understood what they witnessed here. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that His followers remembered Psalm 69:9, a Psalm of David, and were able to properly interpret these events, “17 His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
One key question before all of us, especially in this day and age, is: What implications does this have for us? Should we be doing more of this? If so, when and where and to what extent? To be clear, while this passage certainly raises these questions, it does not really answer them. What it does do, however, is show us that this kind of thing is necessary at times and what it can look like to honor God in it.
As we prayerfully consider this for our context, please keep a few things in mind?
- In this case, it was Jesus, not His disciples that did this. There’s no indication that Jesus even wanted His followers to join Him.
- Jesus would have been to many Passovers previously in which He didn’t do this.
- This would happen again (Matthew 21:12-17), which means this kind of thing might be right, but it is not the ultimate answer to the problem.
- The disciples didn’t even understand what was happening at first.
Nevertheless, this passage helps us to see in no uncertain terms that there is a line that Christians ought not cross and cannot silently tolerate. It takes tremendous wisdom to know where that line is and what to do when we find it. Likewise, even when we do find it and the godly response to it, it takes tremendous courage to act, knowing that our actions may be labeled foolish, dangerous, illegal, and even unchristian by many. Grace, we must be in constant prayer for God’s help to do God’s will when God’s ways are forsaken.
THE PROBLEM OF MAN AND THE SOLUTION OF GOD (18-22)
What we find in vs.13-17 is an exceptionally dramatic example of sinners sinning and Jesus cleansing. But the rest of our passage helps us to see that what is presented there as an event, was really a picture of the larger problem that plagued humanity and the true solution God promised to provide.
The Problem of Man
In other words, we’re not meant to consider the Jewish leaders, animal salesmen, or money changers and think, “Thank God I’m not like them. Thank God I don’t need Jesus to act like that around me.” Instead, we’re meant to think, “That’s my problem too! I too look for blessings in counterfeit places. I too hypocritically use my mouth to praise God in worship and then talk trash to people that afternoon. I too hypocritically look upon the beauty of God in His Word with the same eyes I use to look with lust on His creation. I too hypocritically use the same legs to run to God when I am needy and then to sin when I am selfish. And most importantly, I too need Jesus to discipline and cleanse me of my sin.” Therefore, before we ever even consider acting like Jesus did, we need to first act as those Jesus drove out should have!
Rather than any of that, though, “18 the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
Their hearts were so hardened, that the obvious rightness of Jesus’ words and actions wasn’t obvious to them. They demanded Jesus perform some kind of sign to prove that He had the authority to say and do such things.
It’s hard not to think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
To any who had eyes to see and ears to hear, Jesus’ words and actions in the temple would have been convicting and self-attestingly true/right—the power and wisdom of God. But Jesus was not dealing with those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. He was dealing with those who were stumbling and foolish.
The Solution of God
The key to the whole passage, then, is in the simple fact that all of this was exactly why Jesus had come. Jesus was consumed with zealous grief and even anger over the dishonor His Father’s people were causing His Father. And yet, that’s why He came. If there had been no sin, He would not have needed to become one of us. It was precisely because we all act like the Jews in this passage that Jesus stood before the Jews in this passage. He made that crystal clear in 19-21.
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
In a manner that even His closest followers wouldn’t (once again) fully understand until much later (v.22), Jesus explained that He was about to perform a sign and affect a cleansing that was beyond anything they could imagine. With the massive, impressive, and significant temple right next to them, along with the trailing bleating of sacrificial lambs and animals He’d driven out, Jesus declared that these same men would kill Him, the true temple, the true dwelling place of God, the true Lamb of God. And He declared that He would rise from the dead three days later. And He declared that He would do so to atone for the kinds of sins and sinners that stood before Him. What His actions in the temple did temporarily and partially, He would eventually do permanently and perfectly on the cross.
Again, just as we saw in v.17, John mentions that as the disciples recalled these events years later and that God used their recollection to strengthen their belief and faith.
22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
We are hard-headed people, Grace. We are too often slow to listen and understand, and even slower to believe and act. We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. We are sinful by nature and then choice. We proudly confront Jesus for His reminders and rebuke. And yet, rather than give us what we deserve for all of that, He offers grace and mercy upon grace and mercy. We deserve to be driven out and broken, but instead Jesus welcomes us in and heals us, because He was driven out and broken on our behalf. Oh what amazing grace!
CONCLUSION – THOROUGHLY CHRISTIAN
You simply cannot read the Bible and conclude that those who are thoroughly Christian will live comfortable, socially acceptable lives in most cases. Those who tore down Jesus’ temple, would do everything in their power to tear down that of His followers as well. The choice in front of all who take on the name Christian, therefore, is to be only as Christian as our society tolerates, or to live thoroughly Christian lives and therein invite society’s intolerance to fall on us in increasing waves of hostility.
I’m not talking about seeking out persecution or being unnecessarily annoying and crying foul. I am also not saying that being thoroughly Christian means dying on every single hill of social rebellion. Our aim, Paul wrote, is to live quiet and godly lives, not to stir up controversy (1 Timothy 2:1-2). But I am trying to state as clearly as possible something Jesus’ actions in this passage helps us to see: Acting in a thoroughly Christian manner in a fallen world means two things. First, it means that we will find the limits of what a non-Christian society will tolerate and when we do, there will be consequences for us. And second, it means that at some point societies become so corrupt and hostile to God that Christians will have to resist (, sometimes in ways that are significant. It takes a clear understanding of the Bible, humility, courage, a great deal of wisdom, a the Holy Spirit of God to know where these lines are and what to do when they’re crossed.
But more than all of that, Jesus’ actions in this passage help us to see that our greatest problem is our own sin, not the sins of others, and our greatest hope is not in anything we will ever do, but in what Jesus did for us in His suffering, death, and resurrection.