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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 7

Jesus’ first cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple

| Martin Charlesworth
John 2:13-25

The Passover feast is explained. The role of the Temple with its corrupt trading is challenged. Jesus is introducing the New Covenant in which sacrifices and the Temple are no longer necessary.

The Passover feast is explained. The role of the Temple with its corrupt trading is challenged. Jesus is introducing the New Covenant in which sacrifices and the Temple are no longer necessary.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 7. This is 'Jesus' first cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple' and the passage we're going to study in a moment is in John 2: 13 - 25.

Introduction and Recap

We've been following the narrative of the Gospels, largely through the writing of John at this point in the story. As we go through the Gospels, we lean on different narratives from different writers at different times as they carry the story forward and, at this particular point, John is carrying the story forward for us. I want to go back a little bit and to remind you that the whole process of Jesus' launch into ministry started when John the Baptist went down to the River Jordan and started baptising and preaching, confronting people with the fact that the Messiah was coming, at a place called Bethany on the River Jordan. People came down from Jerusalem and Judea and the surrounding area - large crowds came and were excited and animated by what John was saying. They were intrigued.

Then Jesus came down and was baptised (and we studied that in a previous episode), the remarkable event when the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove, and his Father's voice spoke from heaven saying that this was his Son with whom He was well pleased. Then Jesus went into the Judean Desert and was tempted by the devil for about six weeks (40 days). He went back up to Jerusalem, back down to Bethany, the baptismal site where John was staying, for a period of time. John had followers there, people coming and going all the time and Jesus was there for a few days. Five of John's disciples, or followers, transferred their allegiance to Jesus (Andrew, Simon Peter, John, Philip and Nathanael). This is all told in John's Gospel as we've seen in previous episodes.

They returned to Galilee. Jesus had been away from Galilee for some weeks, possibly months, in order for all these events to happen. He'd left Galilee as the son of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth, an ordinary man living a godly life, and he came back after these very dramatic events at the River Jordan and nearby. We saw that when he came back, the first thing that happened was a social event. He went to a wedding with his mother and his family at a nearby village, called Cana, which was quite near his home-town of Nazareth. There he performed his first public miracle: the turning of water into wine in order to help the family who were hosting the event after they ran out of wine. This is the story that we saw in the last episode, when we were looking at the story of Cana. One thing to notice here is that Jesus' public preaching and healing, which we're so familiar with, had not yet started. Here are some events happening in that intervening period between baptism - when he's obviously been launched into the public domain in one sense - and his actual preaching which took place for a long period of time, especially in his home district of Galilee. That hasn't happened yet, so Jesus is not yet hugely well-known and so the next event is very interesting.

The event, which we're looking at today, doesn't take place in Galilee in the north of the country; Jesus has gone south, again; he's gone back to Jerusalem. John describes the fact that he goes during the Feast of Passover and then something very dramatic, and extremely unexpected, happens in the Jerusalem Temple. This is the first cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple - the reason I say the first cleansing is because it's referred to again - a second cleansing - much later in Jesus' life. This happens at the very beginning of his public life. Let's read the story together, it's John 2: 13:

‘When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs (that) he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.’

John 2:13-25, NIV

Festival of Passover

We know that Jesus had visited Jerusalem as a youngster because Luke records that, at the age of 12, he came up to this same festival - the Passover festival - and came to this same Temple and sat in the Temple and debated with the Teachers of the Law and the priests about religious matters and the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). We also know that Joseph and Mary made it a custom to have a family group attending this particular festival. We know there were three festivals of the Jews (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) three times a year, three major religious festival, and that Jewish men were obliged, where possible, to attend these festivals and to move from their country districts into the city to participate in the ceremonies - and their families were encouraged to come if they were able. This is all part of the Judaism of Jesus' day. Jesus now, as an adult Jew, worshipping in the synagogue with all the others in Nazareth, came to the festival. He might have come on his own, he might have come with others; he certainly came with his disciples - we only know of five disciples, the ones I mentioned earlier who are also mentioned in this text. For Jesus to be here was a perfectly normal thing and he was coming to worship. We've discussed the Passover Festival in other episodes: that time when the Jews remembered the time when God miraculously delivered the whole Israelite community from slavery in Egypt and they came through the Red Sea into the desert and then, some years later, into the promised land. That was the theme of the festival and Jesus comes up to participate in that festival.

The Temple

It's the Temple which is the focus of this particular event. The Jewish Temple was a very grand and wonderful building. The first Temple had been built by a King called Solomon and it was such a grand and wonderful building that it was really one of the wonders of the ancient world, in terms of buildings. People came from many different countries to see this huge, beautifully decorated Temple building right in the middle of the Jewish capital city, Jerusalem. That Temple was destroyed during the time of exile to the Babylonian Empire and then was rebuilt, subsequently. What's happened more recently is that the King, who's now died - Herod the Great who ruled for several decades - rebuilt and developed the Temple and that's actually referred to here in the text. For more than 40 years there had been rebuilding and development works going on in the Temple in order to improve it, to expand it and to make it more ornate and more attractive. The focus is the Temple building in this episode but, very specifically, the focus is on a particular activity taking place in the Temple.

The Temple was divided into different courtyards and different areas and certain people were allowed in different areas. The inner sanctuary, the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies, was forbidden for anyone to go except the Jewish High Priest - but he could only do that once a year. Adjacent to that, was a place where the priests operated - the Holy Place and then the main courtyard where the men of Israel could come. On the edge of the Temple, were very large open spaces where any person could come and this included the non-Jewish people - the Gentiles. There's a very large area you can mill around and pray and socialise and talk on the periphery of this huge Temple and these outer courts were the location of the particular thing that Jesus found very offensive.

What he discovered there was traders, people who were associated with the religious hierarchy, and they were selling animals and birds for sacrifice - that was one thing they were doing. The other thing that some were doing was exchanging money. We need to understand why this had arisen. If pilgrims were coming from different parts of the country, or even from other countries, and they wanted to make sacrifices (for example, the sacrifice of a lamb at Passover - this festival) they either brought the animal with them, which was a very demanding thing to do, or they bought one in Jerusalem. So the buying of animals became a big business opportunity, and people entered into that. This activity was then housed within the Temple compound. The authorities allowed traders to come in and to sell animals for sacrifice.

There was another dimension to it because within the Temple compound the authorities said that they wouldn't use any of the coinage or the currency of the Romans, which was the currency used for money and monetary exchange. They had their own Temple coinage. So the money-changers would be used to changing the money that a person might bring into the Temple - usually Roman coinage or perhaps another coinage - into the Temple currency and then the Temple currency would be used to buy the animals which would then be sacrificed in the Temple. That was the process. This market was controlled by the High Priest and his family and so it was called, by the Jews of the day, the Bazaar - or the Market - of the Sons of Annas, who was the patriarch (or father figure) of the high priestly family - the Bazaar of the Sons of Annas. This is what Jesus encountered when he came to the Temple and his actions, which we've just read, were sudden, extremely surprising and extremely dramatic. In a mood of righteous indignation and anger, he took some rope - or some cord - and pieced it together to create a whip which he could use to attack the institutions. He started trying to scatter the animals from their pens and turn over the tables of the money-changers and disrupt this market in the Temple completely - which he did very successfully. It was challenging the corruption that had got into the religious system because the high priestly family and their associates made a lot of money out of this market. They controlled it; they set all the fees; they controlled all the traders and money came to the High Priest and his associates. These were people who were supposed to represent the people of Israel to God in worship. They were supposed to set an example but their religion had become corrupted by money. When Christianity is corrupted by money, there's always trouble and when Judaism was corrupted by money here, there was trouble. Jesus spoke with incredible words of indignation: “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a market!” He wanted the Temple to be a place of worship and prayer and sacrifice, rather than a place of money-making and business and marketeering. When the Jews started challenging him about his authority, Jesus goes on to make this very enigmatic, very surprising, statement: “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They knew that you can't build a Temple in anything less than several decades; it's such a huge building, so that statement seemed absurd to them but Jesus was pointing out that this physical Temple was going to be replaced by another Temple, and it wasn't going to be a building any more. Through his body dying and being raised again from the dead in a three day period, a different Temple altogether was going to come into being. Something fundamentally was going to change and this is very clearly explained by Paul, for example, and I'm just going to read a couple of verses for you from Ephesians 2: 21 - 22, it says:

(In Christ) ‘In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’

Ephesians 2:21-22, NIV

In this passage, Paul is taking the thought forward from Jesus' day and, basically, explaining that the believers - Christian believers - become a living, human temple and God lives within us in the same way that in the Covenant of Moses, operational in the time of Jesus, God lived in the Temple. Originally, when the Temple was built, God's presence in the Temple was felt very strongly and appeared in the form of light and glory. That was the expectation of the Jews, but Jesus was beginning to prophetically indicate there is going to be something different happening in the future - where that physical Temple is no longer going to be the place of God meeting man - it's going to be through Christ, in the Church. You and I, if we're Christians, we become the living temple - our bodies, the place where the Holy Spirit lives and the Holy Spirit lives in an even more obvious way when we gather together in community and function in Christian community. It's a very prophetic story. It's looking forward into the future and it's confronting the status quo.


Here are my reflections, as we bring this talk to a conclusion. First of all, this event is an indication of the forthcoming conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities. I've already mentioned, and I'll mention it many times again in the future, that that conflict accelerates and develops all the way through the life of Jesus until it comes to a climax in the last week of his life.

The second reflection is that the Temple was about access to God and the process of access to God has changed fundamentally from that time to now, through Jesus dying on the cross, rising again and bringing for us what the Bible calls a New Covenant. The Temple system - with sacrifices, priesthood, the festivals and its laws - became obsolete when Jesus died and rose again because a New Covenant, a new form of relationship between God and man, was initiated. It's called the New Covenant in the New Testament - what the writer of Hebrews calls ‘a new and living way’. We'll read that text in a moment to describe this phenomenon for you. This is very dramatically represented at the time that Jesus died according to Matthew's Gospel, as we'll see when we study that passage later on.

At the time that Jesus died, the big curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, from the rest of the Temple - the curtain that hid the presence of God from the people; the curtain behind which you couldn't go unless you were the High Priest once a year on a particular day (The Day of Atonement); that curtain which represented the separation of the presence of God from the people and the need to make sacrifices in order to overturn his wrath against us because of our sin; that huge, great curtain, that stood in front, that the priests could see every time they came into the Holy Place - that curtain was torn in two, miraculously, from top to bottom. What was closed in the time of Jesus, and in the time we're talking about now, became open. It's like the access to God was no longer going to be through this priestly system and through a Jewish Covenant where very few non-Jews had any access to that relationship. This changes fundamentally. Jesus is beginning the process of helping people to re-examine the significance of the Temple - which up until then was the centre point of all Jewish religion. Hebrews 10: 19 - 22, tells us where we stand now, so if you're a Christian believer and you're reading this, this is your relationship with God. This is the new situation that came about that replaced the Temple system. In Hebrews 10: 19, it says:

‘Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (that's the equivalent of the inner sanctuary of the Temple)by the blood of Jesus(that's the method we enter), by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.’

Hebrews 10:19-22, NIV

The wonderful thing is that in the New Covenant that Jesus brought about, the complexities and the structure of this Temple system, are no longer necessary. The access to God, which was restricted and complex, is now very simple and open. We can have access to the direct presence of God through, as the writer describes here, ‘the blood of Jesus’. In other words, the sacrifice that Jesus made for us: the atonement, the situation where he substituted for us. He paid the price for our sins, he was the ultimate sacrifice. No more animal sacrifices needed, therefore no marketplace needed, no animals needed in the Temple, no money changing needed, no physical Temple needed - the Holy Spirit leads us into this ‘new and living way’.

Another thing to reflect on is the fact that Jesus showed tremendous courage here. It's very easy to underestimate the courage of Jesus but he was an unknown man at this point; his public ministry hadn't really started. There had been the big incident down at the Jordan river, but that's just a single incident. There had been one miracle in Galilee, which they wouldn't have heard about here, and that was it. Suddenly he confronts the whole system. He could have been arrested on the spot but he got away with it. God, his Father, was leading him through and he confronted the system; he pointed out what was going to happen in the future.

I want to conclude this episode with a little reflection on the question of anger. Jesus' actions were linked to anger. He was very angry. His actions were dramatic and forceful. Anger is a very difficult emotion for us to deal with and sometimes a huge problem for Christians and those seeking to follow Christ. How are we to interpret this kind of incident? First of all, we know from our study so far (and we'll continue to see this as we go through the life of Jesus) that he did not sin - he hadn't any selfish motives in his actions. He also experienced and expressed a full range of human emotions: from tears of sorrow, to laughter and joy, to expressions of appreciation and satisfaction, to gestures of kindness, to anger. We have the full spectrum of human emotions - Jesus was utterly human. His emotions were not touched by, or influenced by, selfishness and sin and therefore we can describe this as righteous anger. He was angry on behalf of the truth and on behalf of his Father, God the Father, whose house the Temple is described to be. This is what we can genuinely call righteous anger but we can also say that we, you and I, rarely experience righteous anger. Most of our anger comes from a sense of frustration of our own selfish needs and desires - people standing in our way, people coming against us - and we get angry. What's the advice that the New Testament gives us concerning anger? Well the simplest advice is very specific. Paul in Ephesians 4: 26 - 27, indicates how Christians should respond to anger: ‘“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.’ Paul is saying that anger, as an emotion, will take place and we should expect that - that's human - but he's encouraging us to control that anger and to deal with it very quickly, and to deal with any selfishness that's associated with it. We need to learn the difference between righteous anger and selfish anger.

We're going to end this episode here and we'll move on and see, in the next episode, other things that happen while Jesus is making this early visit to Jerusalem.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How do you deal with anger?
  • Discipleship
    1. Do you understand the idea that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? Does it affect the way you live?
    2. Read Hebrews 10:19. Come directly to God and pray for each other.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Research the Jewish festival of Passover
    2. Use tagging to see how the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities develops.
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