(Graphic from ChristArt.com)
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men 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 area, 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! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous 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.”
The Jews 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.
John 2:12-22 (NIV)
Even when He was here on earth, Jesus was misunderstood by people a lot of the time. To the religious leaders, Jesus’ clearing of the temple was a show of force; a claim to authority. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The heart of God is in clear view throughout this episode. To understand that, you have to understand a little bit about the temple complex. When most people think of the temple, we tend to picture the building itself – kind of like we would picture a church building. But the temple complex was actually a nested series of areas, each one from the inside out considered more holy than the next. In the innermost layer was the 30x30x30 foot room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place. In Solomon’s Temple this was where the Ark of the Covenant sat. But sometime in the midst of the Babylonian Captivity, the Ark disappeared; to this day no one knows where it went. So in Jesus’ day, the Holy of Holies was empty. But it was still considered the place where God Himself lived in a very tangible way. And every year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would go alone into the Most Holy Place with the blood of a bull to make atonement for the sins of all the people.
Outside the curtain leading to the Most Holy Place was the Sanctuary, or Holy Place. This was a glorious room, covered with gold, with a series of gold lamp stands along one wall, and a series of tables with unleavened bread on them along the opposite wall. At the far end of the room, right outside the curtain to the Holy of Holies was a golden incense altar. Twice each day a priest would be chosen by lot to go into the Sanctuary and burn a pinch of incense on the altar. It was a significant moment in every priest’s life. It was here that Zechariah, while burning the incense, was met by an angel who told him that he was going to have a son named John (the baptizer).
Outside the Sanctuary was a large courtyard containing the huge altar of burnt offerings and numerous washbasin for the priests to clean up in. The only ones who could come into this area of the complex were the priests and Levites who were helping to make the offerings. Outside this court was the Court of Israel. To this court any ceremonially clean male could come and present his sacrifice to the priests and Levites to be offered up to the Lord. Just outside of that court was the Court of the Women. In Jewish culture back then the women were not permitted to approach the Lord directly, so they ended up standing further back.
Outside of that court was a huge courtyard called the Court of the Gentiles. Even though it was outside of the Jewish courtyards, and so wasn’t considered holy ground, it was part of the Temple Complex. The purpose for the Court of the Gentiles was so any gentile who wanted to seek the true God of the universe could do so. From the Court of the Gentiles they could see the temple building, they could hear the singing (and join in, if they wanted), and they could smell the smoke of the sacrifices being lifted up to God. It was a place designed for outreach and evangelism; a place where people could come and find God.
But in Jesus’ day the atmosphere around the Court of the Gentiles wasn’t really conducive to evangelism. Since it was a large open space, and since it wasn’t on “holy ground,” the vendors, who sold certified sacrificial animals, and the money changers, who would change Roman money for Jewish money suitable for making offerings, set up their booths there. It was a busy, noisy place, smelling like a barnyard, with vendors shouting out their wares, and loud discussions about exchange rates and the quality of sacrificial animals. Not exactly conducive to worship!
When Jesus saw this atmosphere, and understood that it would actively prevent any outsider from being able to come and learn of the true God and worship Him, He just lost it. He quickly braided a whip from cords and used it to drive the sheep and cattle (NOT the people!) out of the courtyard. He overturned the tables of the money changers and chastised the dove sellers. And His words to all of them were, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
Now a lot of people have figured that what Jesus was upset about was that there was buying and selling going on in the Temple area, and they have passed rules that no one is to sell anything in the church – no Christmas Craft Sales, no rummage sales, no fundraising. But the main thing that got Jesus’ goat was not specifically the marketing activity, but the fact that it was specifically interfering with the evangelism efforts. The people were ignoring God’s command that they were to be a light for the gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), and were instead caught up in their own stuff! Jesus, using very politically incorrect and attention-grabbing means, was actually calling the people back to the main purpose for all of God’s people – outreach! Outreach was why He had come, to bring near those who were far away; it was God’s calling for all of God’s people, and He wasn’t going to let their “standard procedures” get in the way!