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The Gospel of John #8


The Poison of Commercialized Religion

John 2:13-25


[The place of the Temple cleansing/judgment in John’s gospel needs to be addressed. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the record of Jesus cleansing the Temple at the conclusion of their gospel accounts, during the final week of Jesus’ life, only days before his crucifixion. But John describes it as occurring at the very beginning of our Lord’s public ministry, some three years earlier than what we find in the synoptic gospels. One of two explanations is given for this. Some believe that John has moved the story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for literary and theological purposes. It isn’t uncommon for the gospel writers to rearrange the chronology of certain events in order to make a theological point. Perhaps that is what John has done. But it is unclear what that theological point would be. Most believe, on the other hand, that Jesus entered and cleansed the Temple twice, once at the beginning of his public ministry, which is the event that John describes here in chapter two of his gospel, and a second time, some three years later, at the close of his ministry, just prior to his crucifixion. Therefore, Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the second of the two Temple cleansings. Although we can’t be absolutely certain, I think the weight of evidence points to two cleansings, not one.]


The latter half of John 2 tells an incredibly dramatic, often intense, and even violent story about who Jesus is. I know of no better way of communicating the point of this narrative than by drawing you into it, as if you yourself were alive in the first century, physically present in Jerusalem, witnessing these events first hand, or as we say today, up close and personal. 


So try to envision yourself as best you can in the first century, somewhere between 28 and 30 a.d. You are a young Jewish boy or girl, living with your family in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. The time has come for you to make your first visit to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. During the course of your journey your father once again tells you the story that Jewish fathers have been telling Jewish sons and daughters for centuries. It is the story of what happened in Egypt on the 14th day of the month Nisan, nearly 1,500 years ago.


The people of Israel were at that time in slavery in Egypt, but God was about to intervene to set them free. On the night that would come to be known as Passover, “the angel of death” swept through the land, killing the first born in Egypt. But death “passed over” those homes where the sacrificial blood of the lamb had been applied to the doorposts. And now here you are, centuries later, traveling with your parents to Jerusalem to celebrate that glorious deliverance. 


“But daddy, where will we get a lamb or a goat to sacrifice in Jerusalem?” “Don’t worry,” your father replies, “there will be many for sale in Jerusalem when we arrive.” You are relieved by this news, because it would have been virtually impossible to transport an animal for sacrifice all that distance from Egypt to Jerusalem.


As you draw near to the city, your heart is pounding fiercely with anticipation and excitement. Your mind is filled with thoughts of the holy city and, most of all, the Temple of God, the most sacred of all sites. Perhaps you think yet again of the stories your family has discussed over dinner: Abraham and his journey from Ur of the Chaldees into the promised land; Isaac, and how God delivered him from the knife and supplied a sacrifice in his place; Jacob, and how he wrestled with the angel, and so many more. The rich spiritual tradition in which you were raised and educated have sewn into your soul glorious dreams of what awaits you in Jerusalem.


What you as yet do not know, indeed could not know, is that there is a person in Jerusalem who will forever put an end to the annual tradition of securing a lamb for Passover. That wonderful annual event would never again carry the same meaning it once had. Something about this person and what he will accomplish would forever transform the significance of this Jewish festival.


But there is even more. This person will declare that even the Temple, the very center of Israel’s religious life and activity, will never again carry the meaning it once had. Never again will it be necessary to travel to a physical structure to encounter God or to offer a sacrificial lamb or to secure the forgiveness of your sins.


Just about the time you and your family arrive at the Temple precincts, your heightened expectations of hearing the wonderful sounds of fervent prayer and heartfelt praise of God are shattered. Sadly, you are met with other sounds of an altogether different spirit.


“Daddy, look at all the merchants! Why are all these salesmen here? Wow, look at all the money! Daddy, I don’t understand. This isn’t what you said it would be like.”


“I don’t understand either,” your father responds, sadly and somewhat confused. 


“Daddy, look, people over there are buying a lamb for the sacrifice. Get one for us, just like you said.” 


Your father soon returns, empty-handed and downcast. “I can’t believe what I just saw,” he says. “They’re charging three times what a lamb is worth. I can’t afford what they’re asking. This is outrageous!”


“Daddy, look. That man over there looks really sad. He looks like his heart is breaking. Daddy, he’s crying. Wait a minute. He’s not crying anymore, and now he looks really, really mad. He’s got a whip in his hand. Look out! Move back! Watch out for that table. It’s a stampede!”


“Shhh. Son, be quiet. I think he’s going to say something. Listen!”


“Take these things away,” he shouts. “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16).


Let’s shift gears for a moment and try to understand what this Jewish father and his children had just witnessed.


During Passover the population of Jerusalem swelled to 10x its normal size; thousands in and around the Temple complex gathered to pray, to offer their sacrifices, to perform ceremonial cleansings, rituals of purification, paying their tithes, and no doubt watching and wondering what would come next.


Jesus would have been deeply troubled by what he saw. What a sorry spectacle. It sickened him. Instead of a quiet courtyard where people could pray and praise, there was a noisy trading center, a veritable religious flea market! Instead of the dignity and reverence of a prayer meeting, there was the sound of cattle and the bleating of sheep. Instead of songs of praise and adoration, there is noisy, even angry commerce.


All pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for Passover were required to bring a sacrifice. If you were too poor to afford one, the Law of Moses provided an alternative. 


“But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and for the other a burnt offering” (Lev. 5:7).


“But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for the sin he has committed a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering” (Lev. 5:11; cf. Lev. 12:8).


Each animal had to undergo a rigorous inspection for defects and deformities. Even the slightest physical flaw would force you to purchase one of the animals from the merchants at an inflated price.


On the Mount of Olives there were 4 markets for selling animals. In a.d. 66, Josephus tells us that more than 250,000 lambs were required for Passover! A quarter of a million! The going price was outrageous. This was price gouging at its worst. Two pigeons that normally sell for 25 cents might now sell for as much as $4.00.


Many people from places such as Persia, Syria, Greece, and Egypt would have brought foreign currency with them. The “money-changers” referred to in v. 14 were there to exchange it into Jewish coins for use in the Temple . . . for an outrageous fee, of course! Every male Israelite between 20 and 50 years of age had to pay a Temple tax, but only in Tyrian coinage because of its high silver content. So another exchange was required, and another fee had to be paid.


There was extortion, bribery, theft, dishonesty, and greed everywhere . . . all in a place designed for prayer and praise.


An Explosion of Holy Indignation


Finally, Jesus had seen and heard enough. So here, in prime time, so to speak, with maximum exposure, he goes into action.


It must have been an incredibly violent outburst. Rage, anger, and indignation drove him. This deeply spiritual, tender-hearted, incredibly kind and patient man got physical. According to v. 15 he “drove out” the merchants. The word is the same used often of exorcising or expelling demons. Jesus suddenly becomes a bouncer! He grabbed them by the scruff of the neck, kicked them in the seat of their pants, overturns their tables, and knocked them from their perches. 


When the time for his crucifixion has come, he will permit them to lay hands on him and carry him off. But not now! They are frozen, powerless, in awe, stunned and fearful! Jesus made an absolute shambles of their religious bazaar. The disarray and confusion must have been something to see: animals running everywhere, doves flying to freedom. But no one could so much as lift a finger to protest his actions.


The Meaning of It All


Let me make just a few observations about the meaning of this event.


First, this story is a vivid portrayal of human sinfulness and selfishness and hard-heartedness. Remember, only three years later, at the close of our Lord’s earthly ministry, he will return yet again to the Temple to discover that the people have evidently long forgotten what happened at the beginning of his ministry. They are back at it all over again. They have proven themselves deaf to his counsel and hardened in their hearts. All that has grown in their hearts is an even greater depth of greed.


Second, although traditionally this has been called the “cleansing” of the Temple, it is perhaps better to see it as a judgment. This is a small expression of the wrath of God against a people who had turned from worship of the one true God to selling religion for a profit. There can be no doubt but that what Jesus did in 30 a.d. was an act of prophetic symbolism. This was a preview of coming attractions. That is to say, what we see here was a foreshadowing of what would happen 40 years later in 70 a.d. when the Roman army under Titus would lay siege to Jerusalem and utterly destroy both city and Temple.


Third, needless to say, this story tells us a lot about God’s attitude toward commercialized religion. By this I mean using spiritual things and activities to make a personal profit unrelated to ministry or the needs of God’s people. 


Most of us have witnessed outrageous efforts by religious hucksters and charlatans on TV selling “miracle spring water” for a donation of $1,000. Others will send you an anointed prayer cloth for a “gift” of $500. “You can have your miracle today, perhaps even a healing, if you will but sow your seed of faith in the form of a $2,000 gift to this ministry!” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “Send in today your generous gift to this ministry and we’ll send you a personal prophetic word that we promise will change your life.”


I cringe when I think of how many sincere but gullible individuals have subsidized the lavish lifestyles of certain so-called “ministers” of the gospel by sending them what little money they had on the assurance that God would return to them 100 fold and bring them out of poverty and into perpetual financial prosperity. I’ve often wondered: If giving to one of these so-called “ministries” comes with a guarantee of such magnificent proportions, why don’t the ministers themselves simply donate all their money to their own ministry and thereby secure the promised return?


Simply put, when Jesus looked at what was happening in the Temple, he didn’t see heartfelt passion for God. He saw greed. He didn’t see love of God. He saw love of money. Beneath the façade of religious activity, he saw a hankering after stuff, money, and the praise of men. 


Fourth, we see in this story our Lord’s perspective on the purity of worship. “Take these things away,” he shouts in v. 16. “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Jesus is deeply offended and angry when he sees insincere praise or self-centered worship or self-serving sacrifices. I’m reminded yet again of what he said in Matthew 15:7-9,


“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matt. 15:7-9).


All of this stirs his disciples to recall Psalm 69:9, where the psalmist is reproached and opposed precisely because of his zeal for true worship in the Temple:


“For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Ps. 69:9).


Are you zealous for the purity of worship? Are you consumed with a passion to praise God in ways that will truly honor him? Or do you treat our times of corporate worship and celebration with indifference and neglect?


When Jesus engages in his repeat performance in the Temple at the close of his ministry, Matthew tells us that he quotes from Jeremiah 7:8-11,


“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD’” (Jer. 7:8-11).


Evidently, they believed that the physical structure of the Temple could insulate them against God’s judgment. They were free to sin however they wanted and then run to the Temple as if all is well, as if by merely being there and going through the prescribed rituals God would be obligated to overlook the sins that they have not abandoned and to which they plan on returning. Dare I say that some professing Christians today treat their Sunday attendance in the same way? They sin with impunity during the week, giving their hearts to false idols and immorality only to make sure they attend a church service on Sunday, all the while they have every intention of a repeat performance the very next day.


Fifth, witnessing our Lord’s reaction to what was happening in the Temple is a reminder to us all that it is okay to be consumed and eaten up with zeal for the things of God and his glory. When Moses came down from the mountain with the two tablets containing the commandments of God, he burned with anger at the sight of God’s people worshiping a golden calf:


“And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 32:19).


You may remember that when Paul arrived in Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Would that our zeal for God and his honor and glory be of such intensity that we would burn with anger and our spirits would be provoked when we see God’s people disregard him and treat him with indifference.


Sixth, it’s important for us to remember that Jesus not only cleanses the Temple, he not only judges the Temple, he replaces the Temple! Or better still, he fulfills in himself everything the Temple was designed to accomplish. He is the consummation of everything to which the Temple pointed, everything which the Temple symbolized. 


Jesus is stating in no uncertain terms: “I am the new Temple. When I am raised from the dead in three days people will come to God through me. They won’t need to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to Mecca or to any shrine or auditorium or church building. They will only need to come to me.”


The response of the Jewish religious leaders is remarkably sad. We read in v. 18, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” In other words, they appear to say they are willing to acknowledge Jesus acted legally if only he would perform some miracle to prove that God had endorsed his behavior. You may wonder, “Why didn’t Jesus do what they asked of him? After all, he had already performed one miracle when he turned water into wine.”


The answer is simple: Jesus does not perform tricks on demand like some trained dog. He will not be domesticated. He does not perform stunts to gain the allegiance of people he knows despise him. These people had no intention of following Jesus or believing in him or giving up their illicit commerce in the Temple. That is why Jesus refuses to jump through a hoop at their request. The bottom line is that Jesus knew their request for a sign was a dodge, a ploy. They never had any intention of following him, sign or no sign. 


Of course, when the children of God who believe in Jesus ask him prayerfully for a miracle, it is good and righteous. We don’t ask him to heal or help us because we refuse to believe in him until he does. We ask because we know he is good and compassionate and loves to bless his people. We want him to be glorified and honored for his miraculous deeds.


The construction of the Temple began under Herod in 20/19 b.c. It had been under continuous construction and repair for nearly 46 years and wouldn’t be brought to completion until 63 a.d. The Jewish leaders were unable to discern the spiritual intent of what Jesus says. They can think only of the literal building itself, but Jesus was speaking of himself when he said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19).


Let’s be certain we understand the magnitude of what Jesus is claiming. He is declaring in no uncertain terms that the place of God’s dwelling is the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the true Temple of God. He is the center and focus of all worship! We saw this earlier in John 1:14 where John declared that the Word, God the Son, became flesh and “dwelt” among us, that is to say, he tabernacled among us. And as both Paul and Peter will later tell us in their letters, we, the Church, because we are the body of Christ, we are the Temple of God in whom the Holy Spirit now dwells. We, in fact, are the only Temple in which God will ever choose to dwell again!


Although I’m being pretty hard on the religious leaders, the implication is that Jesus’ own disciples didn’t fully grasp what he meant either. It was only after the resurrection on the third day that they remembered what Jesus said, as they put two and two together.


Seventh, and finally, let us look closely at what this story tells us about Jesus. According to John the Baptist, he is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He is the gentle, meek, sacrificial lamb who is led to slaughter. But he is also an angry lamb, rising up in holy indignation at the desecration caused by the religious hypocrites. One of the more stunning portrayals of Jesus is found in Revelation 6:16 where people are described as hiding from the “wrath of the Lamb”! 


But perhaps the most revelatory truth about Jesus is what we read in Matthew 21 where he describes the second cleansing and judging of the Temple. You’ve heard me mention this on several other occasions, but I simply can’t let this story pass without drawing your attention to it once again.


“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers.’ And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Matt. 21:12-14).


Think about what is happening. Try to get a grip on what the people would have witnessed. Here we see the anger and righteous indignation of Jesus vented at full throttle. His rage at the self-serving hypocrisy of those who should have been helping the people finds expression in an unprecedented physical outburst by our Lord.


This is the last place one would expect to see tenderness and love. This is hardly the time, or so it would seem, to display kindness towards those in need. This is hardly the context or atmosphere in which one would expect to see compassion or mercy. Indeed, it is difficult for us to understand how anyone can consistently be both enraged and compassionate at the same time. 


We are prone to give expression to one of these passions to the exclusion of the other. We can’t sustain in our hearts both at the same time. They cancel each other out. Were we to experience both simultaneously, we would probably feel like hypocrites! But not Jesus!


Hold your breath and observe what happens next: "And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them" (v. 14). You could probably still hear the echoes of our Lord’s angry voice bouncing off the walls of the Temple! The men selling animals for sacrifice were running for their lives. It was obvious to them that Jesus was not someone to be trifled with at this time. Whatever else they may have thought of Jesus, this was no time to stand toe to toe with him. 


Is this the same Jesus? Has he suffered a mental or emotional breakdown? We hear often of people who suffer from a stroke or some great emotional trauma and turn from their normal ways as kind and patient to someone who is mean and demanding. 


So how do we account for this stunning turn in temperament? Jesus has just wreaked havoc in the Temple like the proverbial bull in a china shop! He overturns tables and the coins are probably still rolling down the hallways. Yet, without missing a beat, without so much as a deep breath to regain his composure, he turns his attention to the blind and the lame and in tenderness and compassion and love and gentleness he heals them all!


So who is this Jesus? Is he still the humble servant, riding on a donkey, offering himself to Israel as their Messianic King and savior from sin? Is he still the holy judge who is enraged with the unrighteous ways of the religious leaders? Is he at the same time the Good Shepherd of the sheep, tender and meek? At one moment his eyes flashed like fire! No one dared make eye contact with him. A split second later his eyes are filled with tears of love and compassion.


How would you have handled the situation? If I were Jesus, I think I would have said to the sick and disabled, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to come back later. I’m a little out of sorts right now. I need some time to catch my breath and bring my temper under control. I’m in no mood to deal with your needs right now. Please speak to my secretary and set up an appointment for next week!” NO!


Was there a transformation in Christ’s character? Did he experience regret and thus repent for getting so angry and suddenly say to himself, “Oh, my, that was out of character. I’ve got to do something nice after having been so mean”? NO! 


Our Lord is at one and the same time holy and merciful; at one and the same time both just and kind; at one and the same time both powerful and tender; at one and the same time both enraged and brokenhearted; at one and the same time both filled with wrath and love; at one and the same time both authoritative and humble; at one and the same time both great and good; at one and the same time both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb that was slain. And he does it without the slightest tinge of inconsistency or hypocrisy or psychological imbalance. 


Contrary to what we might otherwise have thought, the anger doesn’t quench the Spirit by whom he healed the sick! In other words, the Holy Spirit through whom Jesus performed all his healing miracles is not grieved by the sudden and violent outburst that led to the routing of the religious leaders.


Jesus cares compassionately for those who are no more than a meddling inconvenience to others. These broken, crippled, handicapped folk must have been hanging around the temple for years, perhaps begging as did the man born lame in Acts 3. Nobody paid them any attention. They were, at best, an eyesore, an embarrassment to the religious establishment. 


Think about these poor, sickly folk for a moment. Why weren’t they frightened? The Jewish leaders certainly were. Why weren’t they offended? Why didn’t they run away? They had just witnessed a remarkable outburst of anger and righteous rage. Why didn’t they say: “I don’t want to be anywhere near that man. He’s as likely to hit me as to heal me. He seems to me to be devoid of love and tenderness.”


The answer is that they saw or, in the case of the blind, sensed in their hearts, that this man who hated sin loved sinners. They sensed that this man who brought judgment on the unrepentant and the prideful also showered love and mercy on the broken, the contrite, the lowly, and the needy.


This is the beauty of Jesus. This is the reason he is so worthy of our praise. Jesus is not schizophrenic. He is the perfect embodiment of precisely what we should be by the grace of God: both angry over unrighteousness and loving toward the broken; both intolerant of unrepentant religiosity and patient and longsuffering toward those who sincerely seek him for help and mercy.




This story closes with a shocking expose of the deceitfulness of some forms of belief. We read in vv. 23-25 that when many saw his miraculous signs, they “believed”. You may think this means they trusted Jesus for who he was and what he would do and were, therefore, converted and saved. But we know this isn’t true. One of the things that appears regularly in John’s gospel is false belief, spurious belief, belief that is based on infatuation with miracles, belief that is grounded not in the beauty and sufficiency of Christ but in the euphoria that comes when you see the supernatural. 


Jesus knew their so-called “belief” was fake. Even though they “believed” in him, “he did not entrust himself to them” (v. 24). He knew the wickedness of human nature. He knew how deceitful and deceptive the human heart can be. 


What is the nature of your belief today? Does it come from your desire for community with other people? Does it come from your parents? Is it based on expectations of glory and prosperity? Or is it rooted in the beauty and splendor and grace of Jesus and your recognition that apart from him you have no hope? I hope and pray it is the latter.


And what became of the young boy or girl visiting Jerusalem for the first time? When they packed up their bags to return home to Egypt, what were they thinking? Had they seen in Jesus the fulfillment of the Temple? Did they recognize in him the final and all-sufficient sacrifice for sin that would make a return trip to Jerusalem unnecessary? . . .