In the second chapter of John, following the joyful miracle at the wedding in Cana, the scene is set for a dramatic confrontation at the core of Judaism (John 2:12 – 16).
It is the Passover feast in Jerusalem. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes frequent visits to the Temple and to Jerusalem. Jesus loved Jerusalem. He speaks a lament over the city in Matthew 23:37:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Passover had to be attended by every male Jew living within 15 miles of Jerusalem. The Roman census of 4 AD noted that 250 000 lambs were slaughtered during Passover. A lamb as sacrifice was usually shared by at least ten people. A rough calculation puts the number of Jews in the city at 2,5 million. No wonder the Jewish leaders needed somebody to betray Jesus’ whereabouts to bring Him to trial at the time of the crucifixion.
The other Gospels put the cleansing of the Temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry. This incident made the leaders very angry and prompted them to set His arrest and death sentence in motion.
John did not write chronologically.
According to the prophecy of the Messiah, He would come to the Temple. (Malachi 3:1-4)
John knew the prophecy and was telling of the sudden coming of the Messiah in His temple. He wanted to establish Jesus as a door opener for everything anybody coming to the Temple has ever yearned for. John is not interested in the date, more in the action. John records Jesus’ action as that of the promised Messiah.
It was the aim and ambition of every Jew, scattered over the earth, to celebrate one Passover in Jerusalem. It was the most important feast by far. Everybody over 19 years old had to pay Temple tax, which was the equivalent of two days’ wages.
All kinds of currency were valid in Palestine; Roman and Greek silver coins, also coins from Persia, Tyre and Sidon (old Phoenicia, modern day Lebanon) and Egypt. Temple tax had to be paid in Galilean shekels or Temple shekels. All other currencies were declared foreign and unclean. The other currencies could be used to pay everyday debts, but to God “clean” money had to be used.
The pilgrims arrived with all sorts of coins. The moneychangers were necessary for the purpose of changing currency and would have been fine if the dealings were straightforward. However, the dealings were less than honourable. They asked commission for the exchange and the commission added up to at least one day’s wage.
The wealth accrued from Temple Tax was fantastic. The profits were flowing in. When Crassus (a Roman commander) captured Jerusalem in 54 BC he raided the Temple treasury and took the equivalent of 2,5 million British pounds without nearly exhausting the funds.
The exchange rate was laid down in the Talmud. It was not wrong to take money for themselves, but the rates went up and poor people were fleeced to the bone in the name of God.
Besides the money changers there were the vendors of oxen, sheep and doves. A visit to the Temple required sacrifice of gratitude, worship and also repentance. Of course it was more convenient that the sacrificial animals were on the doorstep. Law prescribed that the animal must be perfect and unblemished and for that purpose inspected by the priest. The Temple authorities appointed inspectors. For the inspection a fee had to be paid. If the sacrificial animal was bought outside, rejection was almost guaranteed. If bought inside, it could be as much as 15 times more expensive but guaranteed flawless. Again it was glaring social injustice in the name of God.
All this moved Jesus to flaming anger. It was not impulsive and hysterical. It was calculated and calm. He took cords and made a whip. Some historians described his face as quite a sight and that His eyes and the majesty of God shining in His face must have been terrifying. God was not idly standing by. The anger of the Godhead was unleashed.
Jesus’ anger was fully unselfish. This was not about Him at all. It was all about the lost and the seeking that He came for. He acted on behalf of a world yearning for God, and not finding the true character of His Father in the so-called religion supposed to bring people to Him. Jesus called Himself humble and meek, but He knew exactly when to unleash His anger against the corrupting of people’s souls.
His drastic step had deep reasons.
God’s house was desecrated. God wanted worship with reverence. Worship without reverence is a terrible thing. Worship that is formalized and unthinking, does not acknowledge the holiness of God. One can never forget God’s purpose in worship. Here in the forecourts were the arguments about worn coins, prices of animals and the ramble of the market place. Are you serious about your worship? It is better to stay away than to USE the house of God for your own gain.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 when he warns against the unworthy use of the Lord’s Table in the verses about communion echoes in this instance also. It is better to stay your participation, than eat the bread and drink the wine without reverence and true repentance in your heart.
Jesus showed that animal sacrifice is completely irrelevant. For centuries the prophets were saying: God does not delight in the blood of animals or in the grain offerings. He is not to be found in animal sacrifices. [Isaiah 1:11-17, Jeremiah 7:22, Hosea 5:6, 8:13, Psalms 51:16.]
Do you delight in your service to the church? Do you find your joy in lavishing on the building and equipment? Real sacrifice is the offerings of the loyal heart in true devotion. Any substitute for true worship is what made Jesus angry.
The Temple should have been a house of prayer.
Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11:17)
In the Temple of Solomon there was 24/7 worship.
The Temple in the time of Jesus consisted of various courts. First it was the Court of the Gentiles, then the Women, then the Israelites and then the Priests. All the buying and selling went on in the Court of the Gentiles. Beyond this Court, a Gentile could not go; the scene of the moneychangers was his impression of God. No man could pray there. It was no place of worship. These Temple activities barred men from real prayer and the presence of God.
The confusion of many gods to communities like the Romans and Greeks was a reason to convert to the Jewish religion with conveniently one God. These proselytes as they were called, were only allowed in the very first forecourt of the Temple.
What hinders worship today? Is a sinner welcome in our churches? Could our snobbishness, exclusiveness, coldness, lack of welcome, arrogance and indifference towards strangers mark the atmosphere our Court of the Gentiles? What do they see in the forecourts of our churches AND in the forecourts of Christianity? Only judgment? Or do they see the love and grace of God, when they come with their burden and approach with a true heart.
Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? (Jeremiah 7:11)
What then about the church today? All the words just as applicable today:
Worship is like focusing a telescope. We can focus the vision by using the knobs on the side, to shorten or lengthen the distance between the eyepiece and lens of the telescope. Changing this distance allows you to focus on the object in question. Adjust the knobs until you see the image come into a sharp focus.
Where do we find our focus knobs in worship? Approaching God with a humble spirit, a broken heart and a true intention will “shorten the distance”. When we confess our sins we enter worthy into the presence of our Most High Father. We do not have to be perfect. We do not have to live right. We approach by the Blood of the Cross of Jesus to clothe us in righteousness to enter in.
Praise God for the Cross. Let us then welcome “our Gentiles” into a house of prayer and not a den of thieves.