[K:NWTS 4/2 (Sep 1989) 22-32]

Jesus' Spring House Cleaning

John 2:13-22

R. Scott Clark

Even with the latest in household appliances spring cleaning is unpleasant. Things come to such a state in the garage, basement and in the children's rooms that we find it necessary to really clean house. From time to time in the history of God's people, things have come to a state which forced the Lord to clean house and begin again. In the flood God was doing nothing else "in the world that then was" but making a fresh start and removing the refuse left by sin and rebellion. Five hundred and eighty six years before he came in the flesh, God again swept his house, Jerusalem, free of his people. His providential broom swept them all into the Babylonian wastebasket.

It's Immediate Cause

It is about a month before Passover. Jesus is making the week long walk south from Capernaum to Jerusalem for the Passover. Because of the distances traveled, many Jews did not bring their own sacrifices. So a pious Jew had to buy meat. Not only did God's people have to buy a sacrificial animal, but all Jews had to pay the half shekel temple tribute. Both the half shekel and the sacrifice had to be temple certified (Ex. 30:11-16, 22). The worshipper also needed the coin of the temple to purchase the unblemished sin-bearing animal from the temple for the Passover and then to pay for an inspection of the animal.

There was much work for the money changers to do in the temple because of the conflux of so many different cultures and economies in Jerusalem. Roman, Persian, Syrian, Greek, Egyptian and Palestinian coins were used as currency. Even though the rate to be paid to the money changers for their services was fixed, the priestly aristocracy still made a great profit.

The dove sellers were one class of profiteers. The doves were offered by those too poor to offer a lamb (Lev. 12:6-89). Some people, being both poor and ignorant, were duped by fast-talking temple salesmen who overcharged them. In Lk. 2:24, we read that Mary and Joseph were too poor to bring a lamb to offer as a consecration of Jesus to the Lord. No doubt, Jesus himself was familiar with exploitation in the temple.

That sin invaded the holiest of places is not new. As it was in the beginning it is now. Our first parents made unwholesome bargains in the Garden-Temple of the Lord! In the garden, the Lord came with terrible wrath calling for his children, "Where are you?" And as it was in the beginning God is coming. Through Jeremiah he says:

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...Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the Temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim (Jer. 7:9-11,14,15, NIV).

By the time he reached Jerusalem, Our Lord had walked about seventy-five miles. On his walk he had probably encountered currency exchange houses annually set up in the villages along the routes to Jerusalem. When he reached the temple, he found the exchange houses moved into the temple. Because they had the blessing of the temple authorities, those entrepreneurs–who likely said to themselves, "If we don't provide this service someone will"–thought themselves sheltered from trouble by the imposing temple structure. What safer place could one choose in which to do business than a house which the Lord himself had designed?

The Baptizer had declared, "Make straight the way of the Lord". The Baptizer promised, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, he will baptize you with Spirit and fire. And his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor, and he will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Mt. 3:11,12).

As the Righteous One of the Lord

Jesus was absolutely enraged with holy anger. Taking whip in hand he drove everyone–worshippers, money changers and animals–out of the temple. He overturned the tables of commerce, utterly shocking the sensibilities of the temple authorities.

Israel could not have been prepared for this sort of coming of the Lord. In their minds they are conducting God's business. What could be holier than appeasing Yahweh's wrath with approved sacrifices purchased with the divinely sanctioned shekel offered in the divinely appointed place at the appointed time? Who dares to interrupt God's business?

We must admit this is an astonishing sight, the Servant-Messiah who is bound to suffer on the cross for the sins of the many, taking whip in hand and literally emptying the temple. The temple is a large place. During Passover there were several hundred people in the temple at any one moment. In fact, rather than overstating the case, John is somewhat subdued and understated in his account of the clearing. How did Jesus clear the temple? By the force of his moral power. Jesus was utterly correct and righteous and everyone there, in his heart of hearts, knew Jesus was righteous. One writer notes that "Christ had a powerful confederate in the consciences of the offenders."

We might not like to picture the Savior out cleaning house in this way. But Jesus is being obedient to his Father's will in so doing. This is why Jesus says, "Take these things away, stop making my Father's house a house of merchandise." Jesus had the authority to forcefully clear the temple because he was doing only what his Father had told him to do. In contrast to the dove sellers Jesus was seeking to glorify not himself, but his Father (cf. Jn. 5:19-30; 8:42-58).

Malachi 3:1 provides helpful background for Jesus' actions. The covenant Lord says, "Behold I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear 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."

The sudden coming of the covenant messenger and the Lord of Hosts are two parts of one event. The Baptizer has "made straight the way of the Lord" and now the Lord has come to his temple. Verses two and three describe the Lord as a "refiner's fire" and "fuller's soap" as he sits as a "smelter and purifier of silver."

Israel's God is not interested in metallurgy, but he is interested in worship which is pure and undefiled. As he bodily throws over the tables of commerce, Jesus, the eschatological Elijah, is cleaning his Father's house. He is cleaning that which is typical of himself. The old covenant Scriptures made clear that the temple must be kept holy because God is holy and the temple is God's dwelling place. The temple must be kept holy because Jesus is holy and he is present there.

God promised father Abraham "...all the land which you see, I will give it to you and your descendants forever." The epoches of the conquest and the theocracy have primarily to do with fulfilling that promise, sanctifying God's dwelling place and keeping it holy. Israel was unable to keep either itself or the land holy, so she was ejected from the land. Old covenant believers looked forward to a day when both the people and God's resting place would be holy.

Zechariah 14:21 promised a cleansing of the temple on the great day of the Lord with these words, "So when that time comes there no trader shall again be seen in the house of the Lord of Hosts" (NEB). The word translated "trader" is very close to the word for "Canaanite". Canaanites were traders and hence the close association between the two ideas. Perhaps the most prominent sin of the theocratic era is addressed here: conformity to the nations. Those profaning the house of the Lord of Hosts have in fact become Canaanites.

The End of the Temple

Contrary to our expectations this is the appropriate activity of the one on his way to the cross. This action is not merely that of "a Jewish reformer, it is the sign of the Advent of the Messiah." For John (and for Jesus), Jesus' coming into the temple, the prophetic clearing and the discourse on the resurrection, all speak of the doing away with the temple and the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus' action is God's last call for repentance. This action forces the Jewish authorities to take a stand for or against Jesus. This action pits the authority of Jesus over against the power of Judaism. When Jesus says that the temple will be raised up he is not thinking of an edifice as John makes clear, but of the eschatological coming of God.

The ultimate demonstration of Jesus' identification with God's purposes is his "lambhood". John correctly proclaimed to those gathered for baptism at the Jordan, "Behold the lamb of God" (Jn. 1:29)! God's people no longer needed to haggle over the exchange rate for lambs because God's eschatological lamb is in their midst.

The Spirit brought to John's remembrance Ps. 69:9 ("Zeal for thy house will consume me"), the words of the righteous sufferer. The Psalmist writes as the righteous one who is hated by the enemies of God. The Psalmist's enemies are the enemies of the Lord because the interests of the Lord have become the interests and concerns of the Psalmist (cf. vv. 6-12). It is God himself who must come and rescue the righteous one from the scoffers and this is why John "cites" this verse in association with the temple.

Not only does John reveal Jesus as the eschatological Word-Lamb, but also as priest. To declare that one is consumed with zeal for God's house is also a priestly declaration. Priesthood requires a wholly consuming zeal. To properly serve in God's house, the priest must consecrate his entire life to service (Num. 3; Lev. 8). The purity of the place of worship is a priestly responsibility. So neglected is God's house that the usefulness of the old priesthood is exhausted. A human priesthood is inadequate and it is God himself who must perform the final priestly ritual. God promised as much by his actions when he passed between the pieces (Jer. 34:18-20; Gen. 15:17,18).

According to the writer to the Hebrews, Moses (unlike the temple authorities) was faithful in all God's house. But Jesus has even more authority in God's house because he is God's Son. Not only is he the Son, but he is worthy of greater honor because he is the house builder. The builder alone has authority to destroy the temple as he has the power to rebuild it (Heb. 3:1-6).

Jesus is indeed consumed with the vision of his Father's glory, the glory he himself had left in the incarnation (Phil. 2:5-11). But for Jesus, the righteous one, being consumed with jealousy for his Father's house has fatal consequences. The Son's holy love for his Father's honor requires the destruction of the Son. Zeal would consume Jesus, consume him as he thirsted on the cross. Zeal for God means death.

As the Temple of the Lord

The Jews ask literally, "What sign do you show us because you do these things?" The Jews recognized Jesus' action as clearly "prophetic" and challenging to their authority and they want an explanation of the action. The problem of the Jews (illegitimate) high priestly aristocracy is that their hearts and minds were so cold and dead from so many years of mechanical ritual that they could not comprehend Jesus' motives. They are functional liberals! Jesus speaks to them in ways that are utterly mysterious to them because they do not love God's house.

It is ironic that those who were to care for God's resting place, the place symbolic of God's covenantal communion with his people, should be so insensitive to Jesus' actions and words. What the priestly aristocracy does not realize is that by opposing Jesus, the temple guardians are opposing the temple itself! As in the garden and in the theocracy, God's people have again desecrated God's temple. Not only have they polluted piety for profit, but they fail to recognize the very purpose for which the temple stands–it is a house for God. We know this because they failed to recognize God when he came to the temple!

Because they lacked the Spirit, the Jews completely misunderstood Jesus to be speaking about the temple in which they were standing. Jesus is saying that his body is the temple. He is the "true" or the "real" temple (Jn. 6:32,33). Jesus' temple supersedes the Herodian temple. Jesus' and John's words explain his act of cleansing the temple. Jesus is prophetically foreshadowing the final destruction of the temple.

Our God is a temple-dwelling God. In the exodus, God reveals himself to his people as an Immanuel-God, one who dwells in the midst of his people in the tent of meeting which serves as a proto-temple. His people understand this presence of God to be the primary benefit of the covenant, "I will be your God and you will be my people". So great is Israel's dependence upon God's presence that Moses refused to advance across the Jordan unless God swore to be present with them (Ex. 33:13,14).

Upon its completion the temple was filled by the glory of the Lord (1 K. 8:11). Integral to the old covenant revelation of Yahweh is his presence in the temple. God's dwelling with his people is a sign of his covenant Lordship, his kingship over them. As he dwells with them, he rules them. His kingship and his dwelling place are closely associated throughout the theocratic period. One of David's gravest responsibilities is to restore God's king and God's presence to the throne in Israel. Solomon's temple dedicatory prayer illustrates the relationship between kingship and temple. The powers and authority which Solomon ascribes the covenant Lord are those of the King.

Still the Jerusalem temple is an unsatisfactory habitation for our God. Like everything else connected with the old covenant, the temple is an incomplete expression of God's grace. To redeem us, God must tabernacle in our flesh (Jn. 1:14). In this way the destiny of the temple is bound to the destiny of the Christ.

The destruction of God's dwelling place is a prominent theme in the Old Testament. Even before God's people entered the land which God was giving them their Lord warned Moses about the impending apostasy and consequent judgment. Over a period of several hundred years, the Lord warned his people of the impending "cleansing" and destruction which would begin with Jerusalem. Just after Solomon dedicated the temple the Lord promised:

But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them and will reject this Temple I have consecrated for my name...and though this Temple is imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, "Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and this Temple" (1 K. 9:6-8 NIV)?

In the exilic period the removal of the Glory-Spirit functioned as a form of destruction. From the exodus onward, it is the presence of the Spirit-Cloud which separates God's people from the nations. If the Jerusalem temple lacks the Spirit it has no more standing before God than any other temple. In their rebellion, God's people become so defiled that they can only be cleansed by being symbolically destroyed in the exile. Yet this cleansing, like other aspects of the old covenant are lacking in permanence and finality. For John, it is in Jesus' entrance into the temple that we are witnessing the real cleansing of the temple. Thus he consciously ties together the notions of cleansing and death because God's dwelling place cannot be made holy without first being destroyed.

To accomplish redemption, the temple must be cleansed, destroyed and rebuilt. Jesus must be crucified and he must be raised. For John the resurrection of Christ is the sign which shows that Jesus has the right to come in and perform the Messianic cleansing of the temple.

Jesus says, "I will raise it up". The New Testament overwhelmingly attributes Jesus' resurrection to God the Father. Here however, the Lord uses the first person singular. Why does he speak this way? Christ is restating what we learned from the prologue: "in the beginning was the Word...." How powerful is the Word? So powerful he can raise himself from the dead.

Inasmuch as those astonished temple worshippers, the disciples among them, appreciated Jesus' shadowy destruction and purification of the temple, they participated in the coming apocalypse on the cross when the God-Man temple having "learned obedience through the things which he suffered" (Heb. 5:8) presented himself for the final high priestly sacrifice, destruction, wrath-bearing. As the living temple, he presented himself also as a living sacrifice and in so doing he passed through the holy place and now not only serves in the eternal Holy of Holies but also is seated with the Father in the temple (Heb. 9:11,24; 10:12).

Earlier I said that our God is a temple-dwelling God. The crucifixion of Jesus has not changed that. Though not visibly present at the temple in Jerusalem, the Spirit is certainly present in the eschatological temple, Jesus. In Christ the Spirit returns to his rightful temple dwelling place. This is another reason for Jesus' forceful hallowing of God's house. Yet the Spirit will not depart forever at the destruction of the temple. John tells us that the Glory-Spirit will return after the crucifixion in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.

The destruction and reconstruction of the temple at Calvary was followed by the return of the Glory-Spirit itself to its temple abode. But the new covenant temple exists only by virtue of union with Jesus, the temple, through the eschatological Spirit. For the apostle Paul because the Glory-Spirit indwells believers they become individually temples of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16,17).

This is also true corporately. The presence of God in his Spirit is an important consequence of holiness. In Is. 4:4, God's people are related to the Spirit in the same way as the temple is related to the Spirit. The promised blessings associated with the coming of the Branch of the Lord are the washing away of filth by a Spirit, as a canopy over the God's people.

God's requirements for the holiness of his dwelling place have not been watered down in the new covenant. In fact they are greater. Coexisting with the other "living stones" (1 Pet. 2:5) joined together to become a "dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:21) means even greater holiness than that of the old covenant. We no longer have to watch Moses go to the tent to meet with God; he has come to us in his Son and now in his Spirit.

Paul's argument for the sanctity of the covenant people turns on our existence as God's temple dwelling place (2 Cor. 6:16-18). The temple of God has no agreement with idols. Jesus has cast out idols, God's people cannot go about replacing them! God dwells in our midst in the person of the Holy Spirit, as our covenant God. We are his covenantal resting-ruling place. The writer to the Hebrews says "and we are God's house" (Heb. 5:6, NIV). The apostle Peter also makes use of similar temple imagery when he says, "the Spirit of Glory and of God rests upon you" (1 Pet. 4:12-19).


New covenant believers are God's more glorious temple! God is not speaking of any mere building when he promises that the "glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house..." (Hag. 2:9, NIV). Indeed we have a temple glory which shall not depart because it has been obtained by divine temple cleansing by one who is able to do it through the power of an indestructible life.

Not only are we God's temple, but we still have a religious life in the temple. For the evangelist, to truly be in the temple is to be in Christ because he is the true temple. John wrote his gospel to the end that we might find ourselves standing in the temple (Jn. 20:31; Col. 3:3). To be in the temple is to be in communion with God. It is to have intimate, personal fellowship with God. Whoever is united by the Spirit to the ascended Lord is now in the true, heavenly, Spirit-filled, temple and worships truly.

Hope Reformed Church, Reformed Church in the United States
Kansas City, Missouri