NOTE: This is one of my longer blog postings, and I apologize for that, but the issue it explores is so important that I couldn’t effectively break it into multiple postings as I normally would do.
Take a moment and think about what it is that makes you angry. By this, I do not mean things that you find merely irritating or annoying. I am referring to that burning-in-your-gut and welling-up-to-your-red-face angry: anger that spurs you to action, even violent action.
The Temple Cleansing
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER’; but you are making it a ROBBERS’ DEN.”
– Matthew 21:12-13, NASB
The event described above is commonly referred to as the cleansing of the temple. Textual evidence indicates that Jesus did this twice, once early in his ministry and once again toward the beginning of the last week of his life. The early cleansing is recorded in John’s gospel, and it reads a little differently.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME.”
– John 2:13-17, NASB
The text does not tell us that Jesus was angry, but it is difficult to read these accounts and not see anger. To overturn tables and then premeditatedly fabricate a whip for use in driving men out of the temple courtyard is an expression of deep, passionate, albeit controlled, anger. So deep was the emotion Jesus felt that it is described as a zeal that “consumed” him.1
Few issues well up inside me with that level of intensity. I feel that inner burn when I see a man abusing his wife. I feel that intense level of anger when I see or hear of adults abusing children, particularly when the abuse is sexual in nature. Overt disrespect shown toward the elderly agitates and disgusts me.
Something within Jesus reached a full boil when he entered the temple and saw what was happening there. The money changers, the animals, the merchants, the commotion – all of it combined and fueled the fire within Jesus to the point of decisive action.
How We Got Here
The profession of the money changer is an ancient one, and it involves many of the same functions that international banks perform today, exchanging one currency for another, and charging a fee for this service. By the time of Jesus, the money changers were able to work with standardized currency, exchanging coin for coin, while in earlier times pieces of silver were valued by their weight in payment for services or commodities.
The money changer was viewed as a necessity for temple transactions to be completed successfully.
Historian Philip Schaff points out:
The market in the Court of the Gentiles was introduced, we know not when, from avaricious motives, in violation of the spirit of the law and to the serious injury of public worship, though it was no doubt justified or excused, as a convenience to foreign Jews for the purchase of sacrificial beasts, incense, oil, and the sacred shekel or double drachma in which the temple-tax had to be paid.2
Though we do not know when this intrusion became a commonly accepted practice, some have pointed to the High Priest, Caiaphas, as the one who authorized conversion of the Court of the Gentiles into a marketplace,2 an assertion that aligns with Warren Wiersbe’s statement that the priests collected a share of the profits gained by the marketplace vendors.4 What was an issue of convenience, presented an opportunity, either an opportunity for ministry and service, or an opportunity for profit, depending on one’s motivation and point of view.
The Jews held three major feasts in Jerusalem each year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. These were the holiest of events for the Jews, and every able-bodied male Jew over the age of 20 was expected to present himself before God in Jerusalem, and he was not to come empty-handed.5 The celebration included payment of the temple tax and the sacrifice of animals.
When worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they carried with them coinage from their home country. This coinage typically bore the image of Roman emperors or some pagan god, and as such was considered idolatrous by the Jews. Despite that objection, the Tyrian half-shekel, bearing the image of Melquarth-Herakles on the obverse and the graven image of an eagle on the reverse, was the only acceptable currency for payment of the annual temple tax,6 a tax instituted by God during the time of Moses.7 The Tyrian half-shekel was determined to be about 94% pure silver, and the desire for profit seemingly outweighed any objection to the imagery on the coin.
According to the Mishna,8 on the 15th of the month of Adar,9 money changers set up booths in every province to collect the half-shekel tax.10 Ten days prior to Passover the money-changers moved from their provinces to the temple courts to assist Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem from foreign countries.11 With the mandatory half-shekel tax in place, and worshipers coming to Jerusalem from a multiplicity of nation-states, the money changer was assured a lucrative cash flow.
According to theologian, Alfred Edersheim:
This Temple-tribute had to be paid in exact half-shekels of the Sanctuary, or ordinary Galilean shekels. When it is remembered that, besides strictly Palestinian silver and especially copper coin, Persian, Tyrian, Syrian, Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman money circulated in the country, it will be understood what work these ‘money-changers’ must have had.12
So lucrative was the business of the money changer, that investors would lend investment funds to the money changers who were making exchanges and loans with interest rates ranging from 20 to 300 percent per annum.13 With such profitable business in place, corruption was sure to follow, and it did.
The Animal Vendor
But the money changer was not alone in presenting offense in the temple. The local merchants had a healthy market for animals as well.
Consider the difficulty of taking an animal sacrifice in tow for a long and arduous journey to Jerusalem. Then further consider that the sacrifice to be offered would be examined by a temple official to verify that it was spotless, pure, and acceptable as a sacrifice. If for any reason, your offering was deemed unsatisfactory, then you wasted a great deal of effort dragging it all the way to Jerusalem. You must now secure an acceptable sacrifice, and you will likely drag your original animal all the way back home. How much more convenient it is to have an entourage of entrepreneurs in Jerusalem, sitting at the ready with certified, approved, sacrifice-ready animals, awaiting your arrival.
The Source of Jesus’ Anger
We know that Jesus did not object to paying taxes, whether the temple tax or taxes paid to Caesar.14 Neither does Jesus appear to object to the actual business venture in which those in the temple court were engaged. Jesus is not opposed to making a profit, though he cautions us against trusting the security of one’s soul to material gain. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”15
It is valid to object to the exploitation of the worshipers who had come to Jerusalem to sacrifice and pay their taxes, and many see such exploitation as the abuse that drove Jesus to engage in the temple cleansing. I believe that is only a part of what irritated Jesus.
The issue at hand was not business or profit making as such but the mockery of the entire sacrificial system of the temple and the exploitation of devout men and women by greedy individuals who were capitalizing on religious sentiment.16
But the exploitation of people was everywhere, not just in the temple courtyards. It is a legitimate objection, and it does come off as a desecration of a holy place, but I believe the issue for Jesus goes even more deeply than that. The greater issue for Jesus seems to be less what the entrepreneurs were doing, and more where they were doing it.
All biblical accounts of the temple cleansing state that the offending activity was taking place “in the temple.”
When speaking of the temple, one could be referring to the physical building that contained the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant dwelt. Or, “the temple” could be referring to the series of courtyards that surrounded the physical structure, and I believe that is the case here.
The courtyards surrounding the temple covered nineteen acres,17 and were divided into four successive courts. The outermost court was the Court of the Gentiles, and it is universally accepted that this court is where the aberrant commotion was occurring.
Everyone was welcome in the Court of the Gentiles. The next courtyard in the succession was the Court of Women. Gentiles were not welcome in this court, and violation of that restriction was punishable by death.18 The next innermost courtyard was the Court of Israel, or as some call it, the Court of Men. Only Jewish males were allowed into this courtyard. Finally, there was the Court of Priests, and as the name suggests, only the priests could enter this courtyard. It is in this courtyard that one reached the actual temple structure.
Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” and it seems that any level of focused prayer would be difficult in the middle of this Farmers’ Market atmosphere. That reality is sufficient for us to nod in agreement with what Jesus did. But if we look at the greater context of the passage Jesus quoted, we see something that is not readily apparent from the brief quotation above.
As you read this quote from Isaiah in context, note the references to the non-Jew, how God will create a special place for them within his house of worship, and how their sacrifices will be acceptable on his altar. Mark’s account confirms this, adding the end of the Isaiah quote, “for all nations.” Here is the quote in context:
For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will not be cut off.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to serve him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to worship him,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
– Isaiah 56:4-7, NIV – 1983
As we visualize the layout of the temple courtyards and the restrictions placed on entry to each successive court, it becomes clear that the Court of Gentiles was the only space available to non-Jews for worshiping God. I believe the fact that the only worship space available to the Gentiles had been turned into a chaotic marketplace is what was so infuriating to Jesus. The Gentiles were to have a memorial and a name within the temple walls. They were called to God’s holy mountain, to a house of prayer for “all nations,” but when they got there, all they found was Wall Street-inspired chaos.
The calloused disregard that allowed the Jews to profane the worship courtyard of the Gentiles was astonishing, to be sure, but just as amazing is the fact that they would never have allowed this activity to be conducted in any other temple court. They knew that worship is a holy activity, and they would not allow the sort of disruption to their worship that they were imposing on the worship of the Gentiles.
I see no other explanation for that than the hardness of their hearts that said, We are allowing you to come into this courtyard to worship, but your worship is not nearly as important as our worship. They even referred to the Court of the Gentiles as the tabernœ, the Temple-Market,19 effectively thumbing their nose at the idea that God’s house should be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Converting the Court of the Gentiles into a marketplace made it easy to view that courtyard as an area as common as any other. When we consider that the temple footprint covered nineteen acres, we can conclude rather easily that walking around that structure while carrying a load would be a fatiguing undertaking. It would be much easier to take a shortcut through the temple courtyard.
Doing so is not a matter of great concern since, after all, it is just a marketplace. Aside from the blatant exploitation of the worshipers through the coinage exchange and sales of sacrificial animals in the Gentiles’ worship area, the Court of Gentiles had become the main arterial for foot traffic from one part of Jerusalem to another. It is this abuse that Jesus addressed when, as Mark tells us, Jesus “would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple.”20
The second reference from Jesus is found in Jeremiah chapter seven. As you read through this, try to grasp what is happening in the heart of God as he speaks these words to his people through Jeremiah.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand at the gate of the LORD’S house and there proclaim this message:
‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!’ declares the LORD.”
– Isaiah 56:4-7, NIV – 1983
The presence of the Gentiles in the courtyard of the Jewish temple provided an opportunity for the Jews to speak to open-minded Gentiles about the God of Heaven. The fact that a non-believer ventures into a Christian worship center emphatically states, I am interested in what is happening here. I want to know more. Wiersbe emphasizes this lost opportunity, saying, “The court of the Gentiles should have been a place for praying, but it was instead a place for preying and paying.”21
The Christ-following man and woman will be keenly aware of the need to protect the atmosphere of reverence and worship for all people, and possibly to view that from the reverse angle, asking, What can I do to enhance the atmosphere or environment of worship for this person?
1. Psalm 69:9
2. Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John (pp. 115–116). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
3. Grassmick, J. D. (1985). Mark. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 157). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
4. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 150). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
5. Genesis 20:16, 37:28; Judges 17:2-3
6. Hendin, D. (April 1, 2001). Guide to Biblical Coins, 4th ed. (pp. 420–429) Saint Louis, MO: Amphorae Publishing Group
7. Exodus 30:11-16
8. The Mishnah refers, most often, to the collection of oral rabbinic traditions into a written form, done by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi toward the beginning of the third century CE.
9. Adar is the 6th month of the civil year on the Hebrew calendar.
10. Sheqalim 1:3
11. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1484). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
12. Edersheim, A. (1896). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol.1 (pp. 367–368). New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.
13. Gray, E. L. (2003). Money Changers. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1149). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
14. Matthew 8:4, 17:24–26; Mark 1:44, 12:14-17; Luke 5:14, 20:21-25
15. Matthew 16:26a
16. Dockery, D. S., Butler, T. C., Church, C. L., Scott, L. L., Ellis Smith, M. A., White, J. E., & Holman Bible Publishers (Nashville, T. . (1992). Holman Bible Handbook (p. 611). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
17. Bible Study Tools (n.d.). Jesus Cleanses the Temple. Retrieved 08/08/2016 from http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/the-fourfold-gospel/by-sections/jesus-cleanses-the-temple.html
18. Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (p. 376). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
20. Mark 11:16, NASB
21. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 150). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.