“They came to Jerusalem, and he went into the temple and began to throw out those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I was listening to a counselor one time talk about how important it is to be engaged as a husband and father. He said that his wife and kids were having a heated argument one day. They were yelling and slamming things around. He walked into the kitchen where it was all happening and slammed a cabinet door good and hard. Everyone jumped and looked at him in shock. He said quietly, “I just wanted to feel like I was part of the fun.” He sent them the message that he was there with them even in their hard times. He made a scene, but for a purpose. When Jesus walked into the temple the morning after His grand arrival into the city, He made a scene for a purpose as well. Let’s talk about it.
I should perhaps start with a short note on harmonizing. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all present this scene as unfolding right here in the story on Jesus’ first full day in Jerusalem during His final week on earth. They all copied off of each other when they wrote, so that’s really no surprise. John, though, writing about 30 years later, presented it as happening right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Why the difference? This is a question that has been endlessly debated by scholars over the years. There are two main camps. The first is that there was just one event and John presented it in a different spot in the timeline for theological reasons. The second is that Jesus actually did this twice, once at each end of His ministry. While there is obviously a great deal more we could say here, on the whole, I am persuaded this second option is the better one.
When Jesus made this scene in the temple and how many times He did it, though, doesn’t answer the question of why. This is an especially important question if He really did do it twice. If His first cleansing some three years earlier didn’t change anything, and He knew He was about to die, why bother doing it again? What kind of a statement was He trying to make here?
Well, the first thing we need to keep in mind is that everything Jesus did this week was intentional. Every single bit of it. From the way He rode into town to the cursing of that fig tree to the conversations He had with the religious leaders, all of it was an intentional part of God’s plan. Jesus made clear on more than one occasion that everything He did was at the direction of the Father.
That’s important to make as a baseline assumption because it would be easy to see this as Jesus simply losing His temper and throwing another little fit. After all, it was on His way into the city this morning that He cursed the fig tree for not having any fruit on it. Now, He gets into town, sees the temple being misused and abused and throws another little fit. You could run with this line of thinking and argue that the crucifixion, while perhaps the plan of the Father all along, was to some degree a response to Jesus’ losing it and provoking the religious leaders into taking a step they may not have otherwise taken. And indeed, at the end of this narrating this scene, Mark notes that the religious leaders began looking for an opportunity to kill Him after this event.
I do not, however, think that’s the best understanding of the scene. Jesus was never out of control of His emotions or actions. So then, what was He doing here? He was making a statement. He was making a statement about the nature of worship and the way the people should be thinking about God. It was a statement about the nature of the kingdom of God and true religion. The people may have marveled at the spectacle, but the religious leaders understood His point. He was criticizing the very system they had overseen being put in place and was lining their pockets nicely (not to mention likely helping fund their effort to keep Rome out of the temple and off their backs).
The way worship worked in the temple at that time was that your sacrifice had to be approved by the temple authorities. After all, they didn’t want any unacceptable sacrifices being made that made God angry. God’s getting angry might result in His letting the Romans dominate their lives even more. But, employing sacrifice-checkers for the thousands of people who brought offerings each day to the temple was way too cumbersome a process. It would have slowed things down enormously. How could they solve this? By providing their own pre-approved sacrifices and offerings. You could simply purchase the lamb or goat or bull or bird you wanted to sacrifice right there in the temple.
Ah, but there were many different kinds of currency people used around the empire. That would make things unnecessarily complicated as well. Well, the solution to that was easy. They began minting temple currency you could use to purchase the temple-approved sacrifices and offerings. This brought a nice uniformity to the whole system. Of course, this raised the question of how people could come by this temple currency if they didn’t live near Jerusalem. That was easy as well. There were exchange booths set up in the temple where you could change whatever currency you brought with you or trade in your unapproved animal and obtain the right currency to get the approved version. And, since this whole operation needed to be funded somehow – after all, the workers of this system had their own families to feed – the temple would charge a small fee for the exchanges…at each point in the process. In other words, the temple court, the place God intended to be for reverence and worship and prayer, had essentially become a marketplace. The whole system created the mindset among worshipers that they weren’t doing anything particularly special, they were just doing their religious duty. Once that was done and God was happy, they could get back to their regular lives.
This whole system encouraged a way of thinking about God that was as far from true about Him as it could have possibly been. As Jesus was preparing to reveal to the whole world the real nature of the God who created and sustained them, He wanted to make a clear statement to have ringing in the peoples’ minds and hearts as He went to the cross of the way God thought about worship. None of this buying and selling had anything to do with worship. In fact, it was a direct distraction from it. God wanted a relationship with His people rooted in love, not a financial transaction. Now, was Jesus passionate in this moment? You bet He was. These people were thinking about His dad all wrong. They were going through some motions, but had no kind of a real relationship with Him. That kind of false thinking and false worship always got Him fired up. But just because He was passionate didn’t mean He wasn’t still being intentional.
That’s all well and good, but what does this mean for us? God still feels the same way about worship today. That hasn’t changed a bit. Worship has always been about fostering and growing a relationship with God, not performing some kind of a religious transaction to check a box and make Him happy so we can get back to our normal lives. That’s pagan thinking and has no place in a relationship with God. He doesn’t want our obedience, He wants our heart. Now, He values obedience – in fact, He deserves and demands it – but only as a function of our relationship with Him. We obey Him because we love Him and freely recognize His sovereignty, goodness, wisdom, and holiness. We obey Him because we understand that is how the world was designed to work. There’s no box-checking going on here, just a relationship.
As you think about your worship, why is it that you do what you do? Checking a box or going through some predetermined motions may help you feel good about yourself, but it won’t do anything for your relationship with God. His target is your heart. If you haven’t given Him that at the end of the day, you haven’t achieved anything meaningful in your efforts. Worship is about recognizing, celebrating, and participating in the character of God. Nothing more; nothing less. The ways we can do that are endlessly varied and they can take place over the course of our whole lives, not merely when we walk into a building with a certain symbol on it. Your worship should be a comprehensive expression of your relationship with God. Anything less and it isn’t doing either of you any good.