Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 8, 2015

John 2:13-25

The second chapter of John’s gospel has two stories.  In the first, Jesus is the life of the party as he turns water into wine.  In the second story, from where my sermon will come, Jesus breaks up a party.[1]  It’s Jesus’ first confrontation as recorded by John with the religious leaders of the day.  The season of Lent is about us preparing ourselves to accept (or rededicate) our lives to Jesus.  Let’s hear what John says and think about what we might learn… Read John 2:13-25.



I love this story (at least on one level).  Jesus, like Rambo or some superhero, his righteousness burning, cleanses the temple.  This story is most appealing when I’m angry; I justify myself as I’m reminded that Jesus, too, got angry.   But, on another level, I wonder if that’s not an excuse for my own bad behavior.

John tells us that this occurred during the Passover.  I should point out a few things about this story which appears in all four of the gospels.[2]  As you probably know, many of the stories in the gospels appear only in two or three.  But all have the account of Jesus cleansing the temple.[3]  But there are slight differences in John’s retelling from the others.  He places the story early in his biography of Jesus, and makes it his first big encounter with the religious leaders of the day, where the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place the story toward the end of Jesus’ life.  In those gospels, the story becomes one of the reasons why the Jewish officials are so adamant that Jesus must be put to death.[4]

I’m not going to try to come to some kind of harmonization of the four Gospels based on the events found here, but I think we should look at John’s Gospel, and see why he placed this story where he did, and why he includes his particular details, which are somewhat different than the other gospels.  First of all, John tells us that this is at Passover.  In John’s gospel the Passover is recounted three times, whereas in the other gospels they only mention the Passover feast during the time of the Last Supper.  This is how we come up with the notion of Jesus having three years of ministry.[5]

Jesus and his disciples had headed south to Jerusalem.  The text says they “went up to Jerusalem,” but that refers to Jerusalem being up in the hills.  They are on a religious pilgrimage and desire to celebrate the Passover in the Holy City.  When they arrive at the temple, there at the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, Jesus finds a shopping mall. John includes a little more detail here than the other gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke do not mention sheep and cattle being sold at the temple, only the dove sellers along with the money changers.

The reason for this selling is that many of those who have come to the temple are like Jesus and the disciples.  They have traveled great distances, coming from Galilee, and in some cases coming from other areas of the Mediterranean in order to be at Jerusalem during the time of the Passover.  While there, they would like to be able to offer a sacrifice in the temple.  But, if you travel a long distance, it’s kind of hard to bring along your own sacrifice, especially since the sacrifice needs to be unblemished.  So, they bring money, hoping to purchase a suitable sacrifice locally.  Seeing this as an opportunity, merchants stepped in to fill the need.  (And, no doubt, gouge the tourist.)

The other group of people, the money changers, are there because you are required to pay a temple tax when you enter to pray.  The tax covers the temple operation and salaries, but the tax itself must be paid with a special coin.  You couldn’t pay it with the regular currency the Romans used because those coins had the image or the seal of Caesar imprinted on them.  This leads to the story in Luke’s Gospel where the religious leaders are attempting to trap Jesus by offering him a coin and asking him about it.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, Jesus replied.[6]   This whole topic comes upon the offense the Jews took of coins with Caesars head on them.

The money changers also perform an important role in the eyes of the Jews, making sure that the money used to pay the temple tax is appropriate, and isn’t money considered idolatrous for having Caesar’s face on it.

But this buying and selling within the temple grounds disturb Jesus.  He throws a fit, telling them to take all their stuff out of there, and to stop making his father’s house a marketplace.  By the way, Jesus doesn’t say that the buying of animals or the change of money is wrong—it’s just that it’s being done in the wrong location.  They’ve taken over the Court of the Gentiles as if gentiles don’t matter.  It’s all about location and the temple is to be for worship.[7]

John tells us Jesus made a whip of cords, and with it he drives the animals and moneychangers out.  To my knowledge this is the first ever recorded “running of the bulls.”  Some scholars suggests the reason Jesus makes a whip out of cords is that any other kind of weapon, like sticks, would have been prohibited in the temple area.[8]  These cords laying around were probably used to lead the animals into the temple and once sacrificed, the cords weren’t needed anymore.  So Jesus fashions them into a whip, not a dangerous whip, but one that gets his point across as he chases everyone out.

Of course, this upsets the religious leaders.  They immediately ask Jesus, “Why are you doing this?  What sign can you show for doing this?”  In other words, who gives Jesus this authority?  Who says he can come onto the temple grounds and crash their party?  Jesus’ reply is interesting. “Destroy the temple,” he says, “and in three days I will raise it up.”  They respond that the temple has been under construction for 46 years, and in fact, it’s going to be several more decades before the temple is completed (it will only be completed a few years before the Romans destroy it for the final time.)  So they look at Jesus with amazement and disbelief.

Yet, we’re told there were many who believe in Jesus because of what he does and the signs he provides. The primary sign here, I assume, is the force he uses driving out the money changers and those selling sacrifices.  People feel that he has authority.  But then, we’re told Jesus does not entrust himself to them, because he knows all people, and needs no one to testify about anyone, because he himself knows what is in everyone.  So here, early on, John is reminding us of the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, John portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And, of course, there is the 23rd Psalm, where God is seen in this pastoral vision as the Good Shepherd, who leads the sheep to grassy meadows, or takes them to places where the water is still, so they might have a drink.  But the Good Shepherd, who is also one who will lay down his life for the sheep, will vigorously defend the herd from any kind of attack or wild animal.  I think the second vision of a shepherd defending the sheep helps us understand what Jesus is doing here as he cleanses the temple.

Jesus is concerned with our worship, and that our worship be focused on God, and not be done as a way to enrich ourselves.  In an essay reflecting on Jesus’ righteous indignation, John Bell of the Iona Community suggests that ‘to do nothing, to remind calm in the face of this iniquity, would be to condone the discriminatory practices.”[9]

We need to understand the nature of worship John is driving at in his gospel.  If you go to the fourth chapter, where Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, you may recall that Jesus tells her there will come a time when worship will not be centered at the temple, or at another mountain in Samaria where the Samaritans worshipped.[10]  Worship is to occur everywhere.  As followers of Jesus, our whole lives are to be acts of worship.  We give thanks to God, for he has given us everything we have.  In this way, this passage is about stewardship, how we use what God has given us.  Are we good stewards with that which God has given to us?  Do we use our resources, our talents, our gifts in ways pleasing to God and thereby glorify God?  Or do we, like the folks in the story, try to hedge God’s gifts and create a bounty for ourselves?

When we are selfish and only use our talents and resources for our own benefit, and corrupt worship for financial gain, we are in danger of facing the wrath that Jesus shows here at the temple.  We break the commandments, for we create ourselves and what we do into our own little god.  We worship ourselves above God the Father in Heaven.

Believing in Jesus Christ is more than just making a statement of faith.  It’s more than just going through confirmation class, and standing up and saying Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  It also involves following Him and living our lives in a manner which is pleasing to Him, and which will glorify God.  The pastoral vision of Jesus as a Good Shepherd contains both functions of the position.  It’s not just leading the lost lamb back to the flock, but caring for the flock and protecting the honor of the herd’s owner.  If Jesus was just the gentle shepherd, why would He have been crucified?  Or to put it bluntly as Christian author Philip Yancy does in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, what government would execute Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?[11]

I hope you get my point here.  A shepherd can’t always be a nice guy.  A shepherd has to protect the sheep and may become violent in order to do this.  Like a shepherd having to deal with wild animals and thieves, Jesus leads us through a world that is troubling and violent.  As a shepherd, he’s willing to go to bat for his sheep, even to the point of laying down his life in order to protect the lambs.

As a member of Jesus’ flock, we should take comfort in our Lord’s anger.  Yes, sometimes it might be disconcerting to us, but in the long-run, only such a God can keep us safe from the wolves looking to devour us, while protecting the holiness of God.  As a member of his flock, this should be comforting to us, but it is also a warning.

Don’t use this passage to justify your anger.  Instead, use it as a reminder that because our Lord’s love for us is great, his anger will burn against anything that threatens our eternal safety. Amen.



[1] Drawing from the internet.  To the best of my ability, the original sourc ise:  Jesus Clears the Temple – from “The Book of Books in Pictures”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Verlag von Georg Wigand, Liepzig: 1908

[2] Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48.

[3] Other stories in all four gospels include the baptism, the feeding of the multitude, the entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the disciple’s feet, the supper, the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.

[4] In John’s gospel, the catalysis that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus.  See John 11:45-52.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 143.

[6] Luke 20:25.

[7] Bruner, 143-144.

[8] Raymond Brown says that whips were not allowed (he actually suggested Jesus might have instead used the rushes used for animal bedding instead of cords).  See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 115.

[9] John Bell, 10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009), 116.

[10] John 4:21.

[11] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 15.

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