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Cleansing the temple:
A sign of death and new life

There is a deep meaning to the cleansing of the temple. Essentially it has to do with the replacement of the old way of worshipping God with a new way of relating to God. The old way of offering sacrifices in the temple was to be replaced by celebration of new life in a new fellowship. The old temple was to be replaced by a new temple which was Christ himself. God was now to be present among people in a new way, which was open to all. I will come back at the end to this essential meaning of the sign that Jesus gave when he drove the animals out of the temple and overturned the tables of the traders.

The way John tells the story seems at first a simple straight forward case of "zeal for the Lord's house". It appears that some people were abusing the temple which was intended for worship and making it a market place. So he drove them out:

None of the gospel writers actually say that he was angry. In fact they say nothing of how he felt on this occasion, though at other times his feelings are sometimes described. We are simply told what he did and a little of what he said: There is strength of purpose and energy here, and perhaps he was feeling angry, but if so it was not uncontrolled anger. We do have here a different view of Jesus which contrasts with the 'gentle Jesus, meek and mind' of some old Sunday School pictures. The startling actions certainly suggested strong feelings, so that the disciples remembered a line from the Psalms:

Righteous anger against false worship and injustice

People have sometimes taken this to be justification for righteous anger, which we all feel at times when we perceive some great injustice, especially when we ourselves or some people we love, or a group we feel part of, is treated unfairly. There are some very unfair things being done today. One could be justified in feeling angry about someone you know losing their job through no fault of their own. I wonder indeed that people accept an unjust system of industrial relations as quietly as they do. Does not the continuing poverty and poor health of aboriginal people justify anger; and how about the violence and abuse with which women and children are sometimes exploited? Is righteous anger not called for?

I wonder what you think of the words of a new hymn, Inspired by love and anger? When some of us had a talk about it most people thought anger could part of a Christian response in the face of injustice. What do you think of these words:-

1. Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God's own bias we ask him once again:
"How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self interest turn prayer and pity blind?"

2. From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
"Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?"

3. From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provokes the bitter cry,
"Don't query our position! Don't criticise our wealth!
Don't mention those exploited by politics and stealth!"

4. To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth's indifference, its agony and rage:
"When will the wronged be righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?"

5. God asks, "Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophecy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?"

6. Amused in someone's kitchen, asleep in someone's boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed and wrote,
A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.

At first sight what Jesus was reacting to in the temple was abuse of a place of worship, rather than to the rights of a minority or the treatment of the poor. Sacrilege, defining a scared place was not, however, far removed from a question of justice. The part of the temple from which Jesus drove the animals and the traders was almost certainly the court of the Gentiles -- an outer part of the temple where people who were not Jews could come to pray, though they could not go in further, on pain of death. How would you feel if your prayers were being interrupted by busy traffic and no one seemed to care about your relationship to God? You might even have taken your thoughts a step further and questioned your exclusion from the inner more holy parts of the temple. Even if you were a poor Jewish family you might have thought it unfair that you had to change the ordinary money that you brought with you into special temple currency in order to buy an animal for sacrifice. Some were making money out of the devotion of others. Probably, if you were poor you might only purchase one or two doves, like the parents of Jesus. It was obviously a controlled market. It all seemed rather unfair and exclusive. If you were really radical, and some of the friends of Jesus were radical, having quite revolutionary attitudes, you might even have wondered whether the whole sacrificial system of worship was unjust, for after all you could read in the psalms and the prophets that God does not desire such things.

Access to God for all his children
We know from many other things that Jesus did that he wanted people of all nations to be accepted as children of God, that he had special concern for the poor and that he disapproved of the superior exclusive attitudes of the religious leaders of the time. So it makes sense that he would have had a sense of justice combined with religious zeal for the place of worship. Worship and social justice were in fact intimately related then as they are today, and as they were for the prophets and psalmists whom Jesus often quoted.

When the other gospel writers tell the same story they tell us that Jesus quoted a verse from the prophet Isaiah:

This refers to Isaiah 56:7, to which is added a piece from Jeremiah 7:11: If you look at the context of the quote from Isaiah you will see that admission of people who were not Jews was expected: their sacrifices were to be accepted on the alter. Many people would have known this, and some might even have recalled the prayer which King Solomon said at the dedication of the first temple a thousand years before. He prayed that God might bless the people of Israel with his presence and accept their offerings in the temple; and then he brought to God his concern that people of other nations might know and worship him there: It was a continual struggle for those who believed that they were the chosen people in a special relationship with God. God intended to bless other nations through them, but it was often forgotten. But from time to time the prophets called them back to this purpose of God for them and looked forward to its fulfilment. The people of the time of Jesus might have forgotten but they could be reminded and they were forcibly reminded by the dramatic action that Jesus took. The prophecy of Zechariah even concludes with the words; Zechariah looked forward to a time after a time of judgement when families of all nations would go up to Jerusalem to worship [14:16-17]; and when the sacred and privileged would no longer be divided from the ordinary things of life in the worship of the people, so that even the cooking pots in the ordinary houses of the people would be as sacred as the vessels before the alter when they were used to praise God. So one thing we can say about the actions of Jesus is that in his attack on the traders and the privileges they represented, is that he was at one with the ancient prophets in understanding the original purpose of the temple and covenant that God had made with his people. God had promised Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his descendants. It was great injustice to exclude those who wished to come. That has all sorts of social implications. People who are thought less worthy, less acceptable to God, are likely to be deprived also of earthly things, like land and livelihood, and perhaps of their children and basic human rights. Such attitudes are at the root of racial prejudice and the defence of unjustified privilege in our day as much as at any time in the past. Jesus would still drive away the money changers who reduce the dignity of any class of human beings and deny their place in the scheme of things.

The deeper meaning
You might say that is reason enough for the zeal with which Jesus cleansed the temple. But there is more to it than that. It is not even the central message of the event in the way that John tells it. Jesus knew that more needed to be done than to provide an example of firm action to deal with privileges which were unfair. We might be called at times to stand with him against exploitation, and I believe there is plenty of need for that today, but if such political and social action is all we try to do, then we will be broken by the effort. We will lose if we attempt to overcome the powers of evil by our own will and courage. We need Christ to be in there with us, and that is where the deeper significance of what he did in the temple comes out.

As with many things in John's Gospel there are layers upon layers of meaning in the signs that Jesus gave of who he was and what he was doing. The cleansing of the temple is one of the signs which John puts at the beginning of his account of the good news. He picked several amazing things that Jesus did at various times in his ministry and put them at the beginning by way of introduction, as you might see in a movie which puts some major event in the opening scene and then goes back to tell the story which makes sense of it. In fact the cleansing of the temple, we are told by Matthew, Mark and Luke occurred in the last week of his life just after Jesus had entered Jerusalem in a strange sort of triumphal procession which we remember on Palm Sunday, after which he would teach in the temple where he was protected by the crowds in the day time and then he would hide away with friends at Bethany outside the city at night. John picked out this event and it put up front for good reason: as it was a sign of what the gospel was all about.

You can get some idea of what John was doing when you look at the other signs grouped at the beginning his gospel: they all have to do with new things taking the place of the old.

So just before the cleansing of the temple, we have the wedding at Cana when Jesus turned water in to wine, the point of which was that the wine of the new age, to celebrate the coming of the Kingdom of God, had now replaced the water used for ritual washing which had been stored on those same water jars: the old Jewish rite of purification to make oneself acceptable to God was no longer relevant because he was now among them, the Messiah had come. A similar new beginning, literally being born again, is the point of the discussion with Nicodemus which follows the cleansing of the temple. Then comes the conversation with the woman at the well, signifying a new set of relationships which included women, fresh water of life making a new beginning and true worship of God 'in spirit and in truth' that would replace the old worship in the temple. What then was new in the cleansing of the temple?

Was there to be a new temple to replace the old one? You can see from the other signs that something like that was happening. What new temple was there? It is there though it was not obvious. As John said:

According John when he was asked for a sign he spoke of his death and resurrection, but in a way that was not obvious: Neither the disciples nor others watching understood at the time. They only realised afterwards: The resurrection is at the heart of the meaning of this passage. He was asked for a sign to justify what he had done: It was a question of his authority. Mark put it in a slightly different way a day or so later: They seem to have asked for a sign, perhaps a miracle, as a kind of proof that he came from God, which he usually rejected out of hand. According to Matthew and Luke he said the only sign they would have would be the sign of Jonah, which Matthew interpreted as the resurrection [Matthew 12:38-40]. Whether that is in any way related to this event we do not know, but certainly in the minds of disciples, the resurrection was the great sign of who he was and the warrant for all that he did with authority.

It was only after the resurrection that they understood; he was talking of his own body as the new temple. It was easy to misunderstand. Indeed the saying about destroying the temple was brought up in a confused way by false witnesses at his trial [Matthew 26:59-61]. The disciples knew the meaning of the saying after the resurrection and later the understanding of his body as the temple of the Holy Spirit developed:  

The old temple stood for the presence of God, and his relationship to his people. The new fellowship of his people in which his life is embodied after the resurrection now takes the place of the old temple. A new temple of the body of Christ takes the place of the old temple as the place where God has his dwelling among human beings. A new relationship, a new covenant, now exists between God and his people. But that did not come easily. It is necessary to remember as we prepare to celebrate Easter, that the new body of the resurrection came through the sacrificial death of the one who gave the sign of its coming. It was a new covenant in his blood, through the destruction of his living body.

When the disciples recalled that verse from the Psalm: Zeal for your house will consume me, they were pointing to one of those passages in which the faithful servant of God is one who suffers.

It reminds us and it must have reminded the disciples later of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53-55 -- the one who was despised and rejected and bore the sin of many. His zeal for the Lord's house consumed him in the sense that it destroyed him.

When he drove out the animals and stopped the exchange of money in the temple, Jesus was actually making it impossible for the ritual of sacrifice to continue. It was a sign that the old way of being reconciled to God and worshipping him was coming to an end, even if it meant that he himself would die. He was himself to offer the one sacrifice that was sufficient, once-for-all, for the reconciliation of all people with God. This one sacrifice of the new covenant, now replaced the many sacrifices offered repeatedly under the old covenant. [See Hebrews 9:11 to 10:18 for a more complete account of the Christian understanding of the sacrifice of Christ.]

We are now promised new life in Christ. Those who are joined with him in life of the resurrection see also the fruits of his labour. Solomon might have understood only dimly what he prayed for when he sought a place for all nations in the worship of the Lord whose presence he invoked in the temple that he built, but the basic principles of justice and inclusion would eventually be established when that kind of worship had been banished. It has now been established in the hearts of those who share in the fellowship of believers, who believe in the suffering servant who died for them, and whom God raised up. We look forward to the end when true worship and justice for all will be brought together in the kingdom of God, as in the vision of the new Jerusalem, in which there is no temple:

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