This is our fourth week in our series, “Moments with Jesus.” We’re inhabiting very specific stories which give us unique glimpses into the person of Christ. His mercy, his compassion, his divinity, and so on…
Well, today we are going to look at a moment quite different from the other three we’ve looked at so far. Today’s moment is one of the most provocative acts in all of Jesus’ ministry: his clearing of the temple.
In fact, this moment is so provocative it shows up in all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and in Mark, it’s clear that this is the moment the Jewish religious leaders make up their minds: they’re going to kill this man.
So grab a Bible. We’re going to look at how Matthew describes this moment with Jesus.
A little bit of context… At this point, Jesus has spent years traveling around Galilee, in the northern part of Israel, teaching and performing miracles. But now he and his disciples have made their way down to Jerusalem, the capital, for the religious festival of Passover.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was pretty eventful. A huge crowd greeted him with cheers and palm branches and treated him like the Messiah - the long-awaited king who was going to save Israel and kick out the foreign invaders and bring about God’s rule over the earth.
That’s what they thought. So it’s interesting to learn about what he did right after that “triumphal entry.” Let’s read.
Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
The blind and the lame came to him in the Temple, and he healed them. The leading priests and the teachers of religious law saw these wonderful miracles and heard even the children in the Temple shouting, “Praise God for the Son of David.”
But the leaders were indignant.
They asked Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?”
“Yes,” Jesus replied. “Haven’t you ever read the Scriptures? For they say, ‘You have taught children and infants to give you praise.’”
Alright. So what in the world is this all about? Does Jesus have some problem with money changers? Did he believe it was bad for people to sell animals for sacrifice?
Well, let’s talk about it. There are two threads worth pursuing in this story that will help us find an answer.
The first thread is what I’ll call the “Messianic thread.” What Jesus does in clearing the temple is exactly what people expected the Messiah to do - the long-awaited king of Israel.
Part of the “job” of the Messiah - people understood - was to clear out corruption and immorality and foreign influence from Israel.
For the prior two centuries before Jesus, there were plenty of would-be messiahs leading revolts trying to do just that.
For example, in the 160s BC, the Seleucid empire ruled in Jerusalem and a bunch of Jewish guerrilla fighters managed to kick them out. And their leader, Judas Maccabeus, cleansed the temple of foreign corruption.
(Fun fact: Hanukkah is actually the celebration of that event.)
Anyway, in Jesus’ day, things were starting to look pretty bleak again. The Roman Empire was in control, and you could see it even just by looking at the temple itself.
One Roman-backed leader, Herod the Great (as he liked to call himself), had started a massive decades-long building project to expand beautify the temple itself.
So this building which was meant to be the meeting place between God and his people was becoming a monument to Herod.
Along with this, the Jewish aristocracy of Israel were super corrupt, and many of the priests - the religious elite - were cozying up to Rome and living large.
This may have been why they started allowing money changers and animal sellers to set up shop within the temple. It wasn’t always like this. Maybe the priests got a bit more money that way or they could squeeze the vendors for a cut of the profits.
I don’t know. But the presence of money changers and animal sellers in the temple was a sign that the leaders of Israel had lost their way. The temple had gone from a sacred space to a marketplace.
So… foreign power, corruption, shady dealings all on display in a holy place. If you were a patriotic, God-fearing Israelite, you were longing for somebody to cleanse it all. A messiah.
And that’s what Jesus does. After entering the city like a king, he goes and does a very messianic thing. He clears out the corruption in God’s temple.
A PROPHET’S VOICE
So that’s one thread at work here. The “Messianic thread.” That’s the world behind the text.
But there’s another thread worth following, and it comes from the world of the text - understanding this passage in light of the rest of the Bible. I’ll call this the “prophetic thread.”
When you look at the whole story of Scripture, you see a story of God trying to bring humanity back to Eden: back to his presence and his intentions. It’s a story of God un-breaking the world so we can live with him in abundance and peace and life.
And the temple plays a really big part in that story. The temple, and tabernacle before it, was like a mini-Eden.
• It was a place where heaven and earth met.
• Where the people could encounter the presence of God.
• Where they could offer sacrifices to make things right that they had broken.
• It was a place of justice, where poverty and oppression and violence had no place.
In short, the temple was a way for God to bring Israel back to Eden - back to God’s blessing, so that they, in turn, could do the same for all the nations on the earth. The temple was meant to be the epicenter of blessing for the world.
But, when you read the story of Scripture, you realize that that isn’t how it happened.
No, because again and again the leaders of Israel, and the priests whose job it was to maintain this mini-Eden - they corrupted it all. They poisoned this well of blessing.
They used this temple system as a way to enrich themselves and to spread injustice. And ultimately they used their power to put up barriers between the people and God.
Which is why the Old Testament prophets are constantly speaking against this corruption.
“Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the LORD, have spoken!”
There are tons of other examples. The prophet Malachi spoke of a time when God himself would come to the temple to cleanse it of all this rot.
“Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple… But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes… At that time I will put you on trial… I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.
By cleansing the temple the way he did, Jesus was stepping into this prophetic tradition and saying, “Enough! Enough of the corruption. Enough of the exploitation. It’s time for God’s blessing to return.”
This is also why, v.14, after the chaos and table flipping, “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” Because that’s what this place was meant to be. The source of blessing and life for the world. And Jesus was getting back to that ideal.
That’s the “prophetic thread” in this story. With one little twist…
A NEW TEMPLE
And this is kind of a third thread that weaves through this story. You see, Jesus was not just trying to restore the temple. He was working to fulfill its purpose. To fulfill the whole storyline, in fact.
Remember, the temple was a way for humanity to return to Eden - to blessing. To life. To forgiveness of sins. It was the meeting point between heaven and earth. It was a place for God to dwell among us, just like in the garden of Eden.
But guess what? Jesus is God dwelling among us. He is the meeting point between heaven and earth. He is source of life and blessing and forgiveness of sins.
Jesus is the temple now because he is God himself in our midst.
So, yes. He can barge in and flip tables and tear down this whole corrupt system because it’s no longer necessary. Jesus himself has opened back up the gates of Eden. Through him and his kingdom, this world can get back to the way it was meant to be.
In John’s version of this story, after Jesus clears the temple, the religious leaders are outraged and ask him for some kind of sign to prove that he has the authority to do this. Here’s what he says:
“All right,” Jesus replied. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” “What!” they exclaimed. “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you can rebuild it in three days?” But when Jesus said “this temple,” he meant his own body.
And that’s exactly what happened. After these same religious leaders executed him, Jesus rose to life after three days. The story was fulfilled.
The true temple had returned. And the corruption of greed and injustice and violence and pride would never be found in it again.
God himself had entered our world, just like the prophet Malachi predicted. He was sweeping in like a blazing fire and he was finally making things right.
So that’s where all these different threads are leading. Yes, Jesus was the Messiah who had arrived to cleanse Israel of corrupting influences.
Yes, Jesus was a prophet decrying the abuse of Israel’s leaders and tearing down rotten systems.
And Yes, Jesus was the fulfillment of the whole story of the Bible - God himself who had arrived to bring humanity back into his presence - back to justice - back to life. Jesus was the new temple.
All of that is why we see him flipping tables.
Because Jesus makes things right.
You probably didn’t realize these six verses had so much weigh, but they do…
So what are we supposed to do with all of this? This series is all about getting to know the character of Jesus better. How can we grow in our understanding of our savior by looking at this story?
Well, if you remember back in May we did a series about the book of Micah. And we said that the prophet Micah “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.”
I think this moment with Jesus does the same thing.
When Jesus storms into the temple with blazing passion and rips apart corrupt systems, it can be a bit uncomfortable for us to see.
It’s uncomfortable because we see our “meek and mild” savior raging against the machine of power and wealth and abuse. He’s not going to stand for God’s justice and righteousness and presence being corrupted by the very sin which broke our world in the first place.
He will not stand for walls being built between people and God.
Here’s why this can be uncomfortable. Because in America today, I’m not sure we’ve such done a great job keeping the Church - Christ’s body - free from the corrupting influence of success and money and political power. I think we’ve built a lot of walls.
In Jesus’ day, the priests in bed with Rome, right? Well, how often in the American church have we allowed the allure of national influence and power to compromise our values?
There were all these money changers and vendors in the temple courts trying to enrich themselves.
Well, how often have we fed into what I call the “Christian industrial complex?” The giant industry of Christian books and movies and music and stuff that really, at the end of the day, just serves to enrich the elite?
In Jesus’ day King Herod was expanding the temple, right? Do you know what we’ve called it ever since? Herod’s temple. Think about that! What did the priests of Israel lose by letting Herod turn God’s temple into a vanity project?
How often have we idolized leaders in the church and allowed them - helped them - to glorify themselves instead of God?
No wonder the credibility gap is so wide. If Jesus were to barge into the American Church today, I think he might start flipping some tables!
I think this story forces us to do some introspection. For the Church as a whole, but also for us as individuals.
Does my life and faith resemble the justice and peace and mercy and generosity and love that God calls us to?
Is my lifestyle an abundant invitation for others to join me in an Eden kind of life? Or does the way I live out my faith put up walls between others and God?
That’s why this story can be uncomfortable for us. Because when we see the passion of our savior, it forces us to ask the question: “Are there any tables in my life that need to be flipped?”
This story of Jesus should afflict the comfortable. But let’s change our tone because it should also comfort the afflicted.
Look. When we talk about the corrupting influence of injustice and success and power, I realize that some of you are on the receiving end of it.
You’re not the money changer marking things up for a profit. You’re the person being gouged for your money!
Maybe the injustice you’ve experienced at the hands of others makes it hard for you to trust in God’s goodness.
Maybe you’ve been taken advantage of by people and you’re losing the will to keep going.
Maybe you’ve been cast out by others around you. By Christians! Maybe you’re isolated and marginalized.
Or maybe someone with authority in the Church has hurt you. You’ve got spiritual abuse or trauma.
If for any reason you feel distant from the love of God - if you feel like there’s a wall between you and him - I want you to know this story can bring you hope.
Jesus was not just clearing the temple to make a point. He was clearing the temple to make room. Room for those the world had ignored.
Remember, right after the table flipping, “The blind and the lame came to [Jesus] in the temple, and he healed them.” The aftermath of that chaos was life.
If you are oppressed and afflicted in any way, I want you to understand this zealous prophet, this blazing fire, the son of God, was flipping tables for you.
Jesus Christ longs to bring you back into God’s presence. Back to justice. Back to life.
And he will not stop until he has brought you home.
So there you have it. Six verses. One little moment with Jesus that gives us an awful lot to think about.
Jesus makes things right. And whether that truth is a shock to the system for us or a comforting balm, I hope this week we’ll remember, that:
Yes, our world is broken. But our savior, Jesus, is in the business of making it whole.