(13-15) The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.
Jesus seems to put us in a bit of a pickle this morning. Whips and scourges, flying money, scattered stalls and stampeding livestock. The whole things raises so many questions … Why would Jesus inflict such unprovoked pain and suffering on peaceable businessmen who were simply providing a legitimate service – a service sanctioned by the religious authorities. It is a daunting challenge to so many of our cherished notions about our Lord as peaceful and always inclusive. And perhaps the greatest distress here is not just that Jesus is being judgmental, but actually driving people out of God’s house!
But despite what some soft-hearts might think, none of this is out of character for our Lord. Nor is it mean-spirited, nor is it without purpose. He is applying the law (in all its severity) to prepare the ground for the coming gospel (in all its wonders)! He is fulfilling the scriptures just as He is supposed to.
(Malachi 3:1-4) “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
The mayhem and confusion you see before you today is a long needed purification. Needed, if the rightful sacrifices of the Lord’s house are to be reclaimed. And so we read: (16) And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Jesus addresses those who were selling doves, but it is meant for all. He addresses the least offensive, making the command clear for everyone. God’s Holy House had become a marketplace of religious paraphernalia, an emporium of ewe lambs … a tourist trap for the faithful pilgrims foolish enough to try and come to worship.
Beyond the obvious abuses that can so easily creep into such a situation where people have no choice but to pay for the services offered (where else are they going to go?) consider some of the less obvious problems with the temple market place. Exorbitant charges not only cheated people trying to do their godly duty but also made Temple worship hateful to those people. Who wants to go offer sacrifices at the temple if you know you are going to be fleeced? But consider also the deeper issue. Such ready-made sacrifices merely bought and paid for once you got to the Temple caused a separation – a disconnect – in the hearts of the people. The true cost of sacrifice – giving something personal, something of your very own, something valuable to you – is lost for the sake of convenience and profit. Your sheep may not be good enough, but your money is – once you have it changed.
Zeal for the Lord’s house, and all that was done there had disappeared – replaced with a zeal for business and profit and timely turn-over of goods and services. The bodies of the Gentiles were being crowded out and the hearts of the Jews were being left out. The Temple was the one place where God had chosen to meet His Covenant people, and gather the nations to Him. But now it just wasn’t happening – because that would be bad for business.
The zeal for the Lord’s House was gone. Someone had to change it. And change it Jesus did! (17) His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” It was zeal for the glory and honour of the Father that led Jesus to pick up the scourge. It was zeal for the lost among the Gentiles and Jews alike that led Jesus to lay about Him and sweep the Temple clean. It was zeal for the meeting of God and man through the sacrifice of blood for the forgiveness of sins that led Him to fulfill the prophecies of old. Prophecies like Ps. 69:9 which read in full: (Psalm 69:9) For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
It is the zeal that Jesus shows for His Father’s House and His people that wins Him the reproach of the Jewish establishment: (18-22) So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
The cleansing of the temple by a lone man with a whip of cords is sign enough wouldn’t you think? One man against so many … and with money on the line! Yet none stand up to him, none fight back, not one does anything but run for cover in the face of this Divine judgment. Not one beast or banker is left when He’s done. But what good is an outward cleansing if their hearts do not likewise get cleaned? This mighty deed is itself a sign of a greater cleansing to come. The only sign Jesus will ever answer such demands with.
They will destroy, so far as their power reaches, the Christ, crucify Him, give His words the lie, suppress, sweep away Christianity – and they shall not succeed: He shall triumph. As on that first Easter-day, so now and ever in history, He raises up the Temple, which they break down. This is the ‘sign,’ the evidence, the only ‘sign,’ which the Christ gives to His enemies; a sign which, they have misunderstood, viewing ‘the Temple’ merely as a building, of which they fully know the architecture, manner, and time of construction, but of whose spiritual character and upbuilding they have no knowledge nor thought. And thus, as to that generation, so to all which have followed, this is still the ‘sign,’ if they understand it – the only sign, the Great Miracle, which, as they only calculate from the visible and to them ascertained, these ‘despiser behold, and wonder, and perish,’ for He worketh ‘a work in their days, a work which they shall in no wise believe.’1
For the Temple of the Lord, and all its rich history of worship and sacrifice merely point the way for what is about to happen in their midst. The clutter of the old must be cleared away for the dawning of the new. The Lamb of God has come into the temple. And He has come to make true sacrifice, a deeply personal and supremely costly sacrifice. It is zeal for the restoration of our glory and honour that will lead Jesus Himself will suffer the terrible sting of the Roman scourge. For by His wounds we will be healed. It was zeal for the lost among the Gentiles and Jews alike that Jesus will be laid upon a cross Him and later swept aside into a borrowed tomb.
It is zeal for the glory and honour of the Father that He has come to pay for the disconnect in our hearts and minds. He has come that Man and God might now meet on terms they have never before enjoyed – in a blood that speaks a better word, in a once and for all sacrifice to cover the altar of the Lord forever more.
And it is that same zeal that leads Him to this house every time we gather around the Word and Sacraments. A zeal to sweep away that which keeps people at a distance, that which steals our focus, that which saps our zeal for the one and only sign, the great miracle of our Lord’s refining fire of the cross and death and resurrection.
Similarly it is a zeal for the Lord’s house, and the gifts we have been granted here by Christ, that has led you back here time and time again. Led you back to be cleansed, refined, purified. It is zeal for the cleansing in the forgiveness of sins that sweeps you back out into your homes and neighbourhoods and schools and businesses with the good news that cannot be heard any other way. Life’s not about the money or the numbers or statistics. It’s not about making things easier, convenient or less personal. True Life – lasting life – is found in the zeal of Christ. His zeal for the Lord’s house, and the business of saving souls like yours and mine in a very personal way.
1Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (USA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1993) 259-260.