Jesus Cleanses the Temple
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 6, 2014
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scriptures: Isaiah 56:6,7; Jeremiah 7:9-11; Mark 11:15-19
The occasion of Jesus’ entry into the Temple was the Monday of Holy Week. His reaction to what he observed has been the subject of much discussion and varying interpretations. To better understand the actions of Jesus in cleansing the Temple, we need to review the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
In the immediate background of the Isaiah text, the prophet Isaiah has addressed God’s restoration of Jerusalem following the destruction and exile by the Babylonians. The promise of that restoration gives us a peek into the intention and goodness of God’s will for the chosen people. But according to Isaiah 56, God’s intention and good will are for all people, not just the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
Thus, Isaiah’s message challenges the upsurging nationalism and racialism of the restored community. For prior generations, the children of Israel had misunderstood their role as a chosen people. They had become narrow and exclusive in their attitudes and practices. However, God’s long-term will was not exclusive. That is evident in God’s invitation and welcome to “foreigners,” “all peoples” and “outcasts” into a covenantal relationship and into God’s house. The Temple altar is open to everyone.
Jeremiah lived and preached during the period of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and Jerusalem. The leaders and people of his day were not deliberate about obeying God’s will. Jeremiah identified and condemned their sins and warned them about the judgment of God to come. But Jeremiah’s audience refused to heed any warning of destruction. As scholars inform us, “They felt their city – David’s city – was uniquely protected by God and therefore invulnerable to any human army.”
On behalf of God, however, Jeremiah challenges these people concerning their behavior and misplaced sense of security. They are reminded that they have broken the commandments of God and their covenant with God. Consequently, they have presumptuously clung to the Temple. They have lived by the supposition that God can be appeased by any sort of temple worship or ritual sacrifice. Foolishly, they have assumed that they will be safe there no matter what. In Jeremiah 7:11, God says, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
But as these people place their trust in God’s holy place, God directs their attention to Shiloh, which had been a holy place for earlier generations. Yet Shiloh had been destroyed – the result of God’s judgment on the wickedness of the northern kingdom of Israel. So God makes clear to Jeremiah’s generation that what seems inconceivable to them has already happened and guarantees that the temple of their concern will also be abandoned and destroyed (Jeremiah 7:14).
Possibilities for Jesus’ reaction in the temple
Following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he visited the Temple “and looked around.” In all probability, he saw the dealings of the moneychangers and sellers. Consequently, it could be that he returned to the temple the next day with a deliberate plan that caused his actions. Since Jesus was also teaching on the occasion, it suggests that his actions were meant to be more instructive than destructive. Clearly, his teaching was scriptural and focused on God’s will for God’s house.
A number of suggestions have been offered as to why Jesus took the actions he did in the temple. First, the claim has been made that Jesus was engaging in an act of insurgency, hoping to spark and armed revolt. Scholars inform us that the clash in the temple, however, was only a modest engagement with the temple servants and was mostly symbolic.
Another interpretation attributes Jesus’ fierceness to his righteousness over flagrant abuses. This interpretation assumes that Jesus is seeking to reform the temple. Question: why would Jesus attempt to reform or purify something that he predicts will soon be destroyed (Mark 13:2)?
Some claim that Jesus opposes the buyers and sellers because they hinder Gentile worship in the outer court. Noisy commerce keeps the temple from being a house of prayer for all nations.
A further interpretation has Jesus protesting because the temple has become a crooked business, defrauding and overcharging worshipers. At a movie theater a 75 cent candy bar might cost three dollars. Something like that was happening to worshipers as they arrived at the temple from distant places to exchange their currencies or buy animals for sacrificial offerings.
In addition, Jesus observed that high priestly families were profiting from their control of the temple’s fiscal affairs, and they were also guilty of corruption.
Now, let’s get to the heart of a strong possibility as to why Jesus cleansed the temple. By quoting Isaiah 56:7, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” Jesus means that God did not intend for the temple to become a monument for Israel. Isaiah 56:1-8 points out that God’s promise of blessing is for everybody who might think they are excluded from God’s salvation – foreigners, eunuchs, outcasts, all. Most hearers thought that Isaiah 56 spoke of some far-off future, but Jesus expected it to be fulfilled immediately.
Jesus reference to “a den of robbers” alludes to Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jeremiah 7:11). By quoting Jeremiah, Jesus reminds the people that something holy can be perverted. Jesus claims that the same abuses of the temple cult in those days still characterize it now.
Scholars say that by combining theses texts from Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus not only attacks the use of a place of prayer for commercial purposes, but also rebukes the national and religious exclusiveness which denies Israel’s call to be “a light to the nations [Gentiles]” (Isaiah 49:6).
Scholars inform us that these two quotations strongly suggest that God will punish these sins by destroying the Temple. Scriptures make clear that the Chief Priest and scribes understood the thrust of Jesus’ words. Thus, Jesus does not attack the Temple per se, but their way of running it, their leadership and teaching. Out of fear, these same leaders are determined to destroy Jesus.
Clear message to us and our churches
Just as Jesus’ cleansed the Temple, he also wants us to cleanse our lives and churches of all that falls short of God’s will. As for our lives, Paul declares in Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:19,20). God expects us to glorify Him by treating our bodies as sacred and refusing to dishonor Him by our foolish indulgences, lusts, and careless living. Christ died to give us redeemed souls and pure bodies.
As for our churches, God has a vision and a purpose for them. That vision and purpose includes but is not limited to the following: