14 In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
When we read the account of Jesus clearing the temple, we instinctively cheer him on. But Jesus’ actions are actually rather strange. Because when we look carefully, we can see that this market was originally set up to help people worship God, not get in the way of it.
The merchants were selling “cattle, sheep and doves” (v14). They are sacrificial animals. God specifically permitted people to purchase sacrificial animals on site:
24 But if that place [the central place of worship, where the LORD puts his name] is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. 26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.
This makes sense. To transport an animal would have involved walking the animal a long distance. By the time they got to the temple, the animal would be tired and weak, and perhaps sick. What kind of a sacrifice is that? “Here you go, God. Have this weak, sick, animal.” It would be much better to sell the animal when it’s healthy, get a good price for it, and then buy another good, healthy animal from the merchants.
So the merchants are helping people to worship God – just like God commanded in the bible. What’s Jesus’ problem?
And the money changers were helping people worship God, too. A good Jew paid temple tax – that is, money given to the temple to pay the priests and maintain the temple.
Roman money of the time had images of Caesar, the Roman emperor, with proclamations that he was divine. For Jews, this was multiple blaspheme. No way could a human being claim to be God – least of all a pork-stuffed, multiple-God-worshipping, blood-sport-watching Roman Gentile…! And then putting that claim on a coin is idolatry – it’s creating an image of a false god. So there’s no way a good Jew could use that kind of coin to worship God. They had to exchange that blasphemous, idolatrous coin for pure, acceptable temple coin, and use that pure coin to pay the temple tax.
So what’s Jesus’ problem? The money changers are helping people to worship God. Aren't they?
Maybe Jesus got mad because the sales were exploitative. The merchants and the temple priests could have been working together, to rip off the worshippers, and make profit for the priests and merchants. It’s an old problem – Paul warns us to beware of “men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5).
But I don’t think that’s the particular focus that John’s giving us.
Matthew, Mark & Luke also tell us how Jesus cleared the temple, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before the crucifixion. They record Jesus as saying “stop turning God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers”.
John’s different. He shows us Jesus clearing the temple at the beginning of his ministry, and records Jesus says “stop turning my Father’s house into a market”.
That’s slightly different: house of prayer – den of robbers vs Father’s house – market.
John shows us Jesus the reformer. The markets might have been there to help at first. But over time, they became corrupted, and started serving people rather than God. Jesus, consumed with zeal for his Father’s house, was determined to clean the place up, and restore the proper worship of God.
This is perfectly normal. All human worship patterns decline, and become corrupt.
Just like normal life. Our home doesn’t stay magically clean; we have to wash the dishes, sweep the floor, vacuum the carpet, dust the furniture, mow the lawn…
That’s what we have to do to our normal patterns of daily, weekly, monthly and annual worship. We have to keep cleaning them up, getting rid of the rubbish, and constantly getting back to pure worship of God.
And it’s not just formal church practices. Worship is bigger than Sundays. Paul says “present your bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1). We need to examine our ordinary lives. What are we spending our money on? What are we spending our time on? Would Jesus approve of that TV show? Would he approve of that internet site?
A healthy church can never be comfortable and predictable. A healthy Christian can never be contented. Both are always reforming – constantly evaluating themselves according to the rule of the Bible, and seeking to fix what doesn’t measure up.
Christ was consumed by his zeal for pure worship. He expects nothing less from us.