Rev. Mark A. Barber
Last week, we saw the debut of Jesus ministry in a tiny Galilean village where he saved an unknown groom and his family from shame by turning the water into wine. In today’s passage, we see Jesus performing another sign in the very heart of the Jewish religion, at the Temple itself.
Verse 12 says that after the miracle at the wedding Jesus, Mary, and the disciples returned home to Capernaum. This means that at some time, the family had moved from Nazareth. The Gospel of Mark also seems to imply that Jesus had a home there. We don’t know how long that Jesus remained there after this, but it was not long.
Jerusalem at Passover time swelled several times its usual size as more than 100,000 pilgrims came there from all over the world. The Jews were commanded to appear there every year to pay the Temple tax and eat the Passover. These pilgrims would need food and lodging while they stayed, and many houses had guest rooms and upper rooms for rent. Others sold souvenirs. The half-shekel Temple tax had to be paid with approved coinage, so the pilgrims would have to exchange their local money for the Tyrian shekel. Finally, each family had to provide a lamb for the Passover meal that was without spot or blemish. So for convenience pre-approved lambs were available for sale as well as doves for other Jewish offerings at the Temple.
In other words, Passover was good for the economy of Jerusalem. There was a lot of money to be made. Without Passover and the other prescribed Jewish festivals, the city would have been impoverished. So anything which seemed to be a threat to people’s livelihood. This would present a problem between the purity and purpose of the Jewish faith in the God of Israel and the money to be made from religion. Some, like Jesus, held to the purity of worship and prayer as being the only purpose for the Temple. Others would say of the Temple and its purpose: “It’s the Economy, stupid.” These two views of the Temple were about to clash.
The Temple of Jesus’ day was separated into several compartments, each except the outer court with a privileged degree of access. The most restricted area was known as the Holy of Holies which was separated off from the Holy Place by a thick curtain which cut off all light. In the original Temple, the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant which served as a symbol to the throne of God in heaven. In pagan temples, the idol of their god sat upon this throne. But no visible representation of the God of Israel was allowed, so the throne would appear empty to human eyes. But God caused His presence to be there in a real but spiritual sense. As God is holy, His throne needed to be protected from the profane. Only the high priest was allowed there once a year on the Day of Atonement with the blood of a sacrificial goat to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat.
The Ark was taken when the first Temple had been looted and burned in the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem six hundred years earlier. When the Temple was rebuilt, the Ark was never replaced. The room was empty at the time of Jesus. This was most unusual in the world of Jesus’ day as the pagan Temples served as banks where people deposited their gold and valuables for safekeeping. The priests of these temples made quite a bit of money lending out money at interest and using the deposit of these valuables as collateral. In other words, the pagan temples serves as banks.
The High Priest would enter in the Holy of Holies from the next room in the Temple called the “Holy Place” where the altar of incense, the showbread table and the golden candlestick were. The priests and Levites could go there in the discharge of their duties, but no one else. This was surrounded by the Court of the Men. Only Jewish men could go there. Surrounding this was the Court of the Women, where Jewish women could go. This is where the offering boxes were placed.
Outside of the Temple was the Court of the Gentiles. Anyone who feared the God of Israel could go there to pray and worship. But Gentiles were expressly forbidden under pain of death to enter into the Temple proper. This is the place where the lambs and pigeons for sacrifice were sold and where the foreign money could be exchanged for the shekel to pay the Temple tax for a small profit for the moneychanger. Could you imagine trying to pray to God with the distractions of the bleating and cooing of animals, the clinking of coins, the haggling over prices, and the smell and filth left by the animals? Praying there would be like trying to pray in Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Yet this is where the Gentiles had to go to worship God.
I believe that the incident recorded by John is the first of two cleansings of the Temple, one at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the other at the end which is recorded at the end. John would have been aware of both, but only mentions this one. This is not unlike John who seems to be the Paul Harvey of Gospel writers. His Gospel is “the rest of the story”. The Holy Spirit directed John to supplement the other Gospels which is why there is so much in John that is not recorded on the other gospels, and much in the other Gospels which are not recorded in John. Yet when we put them sided by side, we see that John answers questions that the other Gospels leave unanswered. The two cleansings supplement each other in that Jesus from beginning to the end of His ministry was concerned with the purity of worship of His Father.
Jesus was infuriated by what He saw going on in the Temple. The worship of His Father had degenerated into a market-place. The general tone of what was going on was “It’s the Economy, stupid.” To this Jesus drives them out, saying: “Take these things away! How dare you make My Father’s house an emporium!” But in a way, it was all about the economy if we only understood what the word “economy” means from God’s point of view. The term comes from two Greek words. The first is the word “oikos”, pronounced “ee-kos”. This is the Greek word meaning “house” or “household”. The second Greek word is “nomos” which means “law” or “rules”. Put together, the word “economy” derives from the idea of “rules of the house”.
When Jesus cleanses the Temple the second time, He cries out: “My Father’s House is meant to be a House of Prayer for all nations (Gentiles)! But you have made it a den of thieves!” You could paraphrase this “The rules of my Father’s house…” or even “The economy of my Father’s house …”. Yes, it is about the economy, the economy of God, not the economy of men. It is God who rules, not humankind. God holds and will hold humanity accountable for their lack of faithfulness to God’s economy. The two cleansings of the Temple serve as warnings to the final judgment before God’s throne in Heaven. To be driven out of the Temple on earth is bad, but there is still room for repentance. But to be driven out of God’s presence in Heaven at the last judgment is eternal. In this, we should take heed.
The Jewish leaders challenged Jesus authority to do this and demanded a sign. Jesus answered that the sign would be that they would destroy the Temple, but Jesus would raise Himself up on the third day. Jesus was of course referring to His rejection by the Jewish nation, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Gospels inform us that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, and that the Old Testament Scriptures foretold it. So the Jewish leaders who claimed to know the Scripture should have understood what Jesus was saying. But they were totally ignorant of the plan and purpose of God. They were thoroughly grounded in the economy of this world and could not and would not rise to the plan of God. In other words, they were stupid concerning the economy of God. They could not see that Jesus was the true Temple of God. And they could not see that through the Holy Spirit that God’s people would become a new and living Temple to God. The Temple of stones built by human hands was not the Temple God had ultimately in mind. God had something far greater in mind.
The other Gospels tells us that the second cleansing of the Temple was instrumental in bringing about Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Just as Jesus predicted, they destroyed God’s Temple, but God raised Him up on the third day. The Gospels also record Jesus prophesying that the nation’s rejection of Jesus would lead to the destructions of Jerusalem, the Jewish nation, and that the Temple would be destroyed so that not one stone would be left upon another. The Temple that a non-Jew Herod started renovations on in 20 BC, had been in constant construction for 46 years at the time of Jesus and would not be completed until AD 63, seven years before its destruction. The Jews destroyed two temples. Only One was rebuilt.
As the writer of the book of Hebrews notes, the Jewish Temple system was about to pass away. It had become a farce. The high priest was not qualified by God’s word to be a high priest. Instead, he purchased the office from the Roman government. The priests were more interested in going to the sports events than performing their duties. The only reason too many of the priests and Levites did their duties at all is because of the love of money rather than the love of God. God has a way of bringing unfaithfulness into judgment. Forty years later, the Temple would be cleansed for good at the hand of the Romans. The economy of the Jewish nation was kaput.
We must remember that the Bible is no respecter of persons. If God brought the Jewish nation into judgment for unfaithfulness and promoting the rules of humans over the rule of God, then God will bring both church and nation into judgment if they do the same thing. We must be careful not to put our economy over the economy of God. One of the major sins of that was happening that day in Jerusalem is that the rules of men and the transacting of business in God’s Temple was hindering those who would want to come and join God’s people from other nations. We must be careful as a church to welcome those who would come. If they see us conducting business, what will they think of the God we serve? On the other hand, if they see us worshiping the Father in Spirit and in Truth and our arms are open to them to come pray, worship, and learn of our wonderful God and our Savior Jesus Christ, then how will they respond.
We must live our lives as Christians expecting the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to finish setting up His everlasting kingdom. In that day, according to the Book of Revelation, the economies of this world will come to an end. The armies will stop as will the navies. Trade will stop. Music and culture will stop. Nations will cease. The only economy that will be left is God’s.