“The True Temple”
John 2: 13 – 22
Right now DVD you can see the movie version of C.S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and having seen it a few weeks ago, I can tell you that it is a great movie – and for the most part it is pretty faithful to the book. The book and the movie are essentially part one of a series of books by Lewis called The Chronicles of Narnia, and Narnia is another world outside of our own. It’s a world inhabited by centaurs, dwarves, talking wolves and beavers, fawns, and all kinds of mythical creatures. The land of Narnia is covered in an endless winter as the result of the cruel White Witch. And this world is just waiting for this winter to end. The central character of this book is a lion by the name of Aslan – and Aslan represents Christ. And in The Chronicles of Narnia Lewis is asking what it would look like if Christ had to come to such a world to bring salvation.
One of the differences between the book and the movie is the portrayal of Aslan. When the four children – Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter – end up in Narnia Mr. and Mrs. Beaver tell them about Aslan. They learn that Aslan is the true King and the son of the “Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea.” When they learn that Aslan is a lion – the Lion – and not a man, Susan says, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver replies, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just quite silly.” Then the youngest of the children, little Lucy, says, “Then he isn’t safe?” To this question Mr. Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he’s not safe. But he’s good.”
When you read this story of the cleansing of the Temple, how would you describe Jesus here? Do we see the Jesus from that famous hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” or from the hymn “Gentle Shepherd”? Would the Jesus from these hymns fashion of whip of cords? Would he overturn tables? Would he throw into disarray the worship practices of the day? Would he so deliberately provoke religious leaders? No, the Jesus we have in this story from John’s Gospel is neither gentle nor meek nor mild. Nor is he safe.
The Jesus we have in this story is not so much the Lamb of God as John describes him earlier in the Gospel; rather, what we see here is Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah – and as a Lion here he does indeed bare his teeth. Like a man possessed Jesus drove the animals out of the temple courts. We see him passionate, driven, dramatic, and, yes, it seems, angry. But remember, anger itself is not a sin. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry but do not sin.” There is a kind of anger called ‘righteous anger.’ If we see anger on display here, it is this kind of anger. Righteous anger. But of course this leaves us asking a question: if he is angry, why is Jesus angry here? Why did he overturn the tables, drive out the animals, and spill all the coins of the money-changers? Why did he do this? What was he trying to say? What do we learn from and about Jesus in this story?
First, some context: it is the Passover, the annual Jewish feast commemorating and celebrating the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. This is perhaps the most central and important festival in the Jewish tradition – without the events that this festival celebrates
there would not be an Israel, a temple, a people of God. It was also a pilgrimage festival, meaning that many people travelled great distances to worship in Jerusalem during Passover.
To celebrate the Passover cattle, sheep, and doves were required for burnt offerings in the temple, but those who had to journey from far away would not likely have brought animals with them. Therefore, they needed to buy animals in Jerusalem in order to participate in temple worship. This seems fair enough, doesn’t it?
Well, unfortunately, despite how legitimate this practice was, the spirit behind these practices was not. Priests required that travellers purchase animals at the Jerusalem temple – no where else – and they could charge what they liked, all so that people could offer an “acceptable sacrifice.” To make sure that this is what happened, the priests had to inspect and approve of animals brought into the temple from the outside. All the priest had to do was reject the animal and another one would have to be purchased. It was more or less required, then, that your sacrificial animals had to come from the temple court. They could charge whatever they wanted. And of course it was all in the name of acceptable sacrifice and right worship.
What about the money-changers? Why were they there? Well, all Jewish males and proselytes were required to pay a half-shekel temple tax in the coinage of the temple (this was, essentially, a worship tax). Furthermore, any foreign currency bearing the images of pagan deities or rulers was unacceptable, so the money-changers would exchange foreign currency for a fee.
Not only that, but there was a time when these activities took place outside the temple, but now the merchants, animals, and money-changers have moved inside the temple courts. The specific area where they set up shop was the outermost court – the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were permitted to worship in this outermost court – remember Israel was to be a light to all nations and a blessing to all peoples. As another preacher says:
“Instead of the Court of the Gentiles being a place where the nation of Israel was a blessing to all peoples, it became a disgrace. Why had God chosen Israel and blessed her as a nation? So that through Israel, all the nations could come to know God and be blessed. Israel has lost sight of her calling and purpose. Instead of reaching lost Gentiles with the message of the one true God—they are ripping them off even as they try to come to God. The common people knew they were being ripped off but there was nothing they could do about it.”
The fact is that while according to the letter of the law these practices were legitimate, the spirit behind them was far from legitimate. As Scripture says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Zeal for the Temple of God
This is why Jesus reacted as he did. This is why he overturned the tables, set the animals loose, and spilled the money everywhere, preventing such practices from continuing for at least the time being. Jesus was responding to the fact that his Father’s house – which should be a house of prayer and worship – had been turned into a marketplace, a place for the buying and selling of religion. Both Jews and Gentiles who were coming here to worship were being charged to do so. The temple worship had degenerated from true worship to the practice of religion. And when true worship is replaced by religion, God, as we see, becomes a lion – in our story today Jesus gives us the perfect picture of the Scripture that says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”
While Jesus was yelling at the buyers and sellers to take all their merchandise and coinage out of the temple, we are told that his disciples remembered a Scripture: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” This comes from Psalm 69:9. This points us to Jesus’ passion for true worship, a passion that turns to decisive action when he sees what’s happening in the temple. But it points us most of all to Jesus’ passion for the honor and glory of his Father – who was not being honoured nor glorified by what was happening in the temple.
And then the Jews – probably the priests and religious authorities – approach Jesus and question him: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” It is interesting here that they show less concern for what he did than for who did it. They aren’t looking for a sign in terms of a miracle here; they’re looking for evidence that Jesus has authority to disrupt and condemn their religious practices. It seems like what they’re saying is this: “Who are you to cleanse the temple? What gives you the right to do this?” One biblical scholar puts it this way:
“Jesus throws the mechanics of temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day . . . [and] who was he to derail their worship?”
And what does Jesus say? Not only does he not provide any evidence of authority, he confuses the leaders even more by telling them he will raise the temple in three days if they tear it down. And they didn’t get it. Their hearts were hard. If their hearts hadn’t been so hardened, he probably wouldn’t have had to take such extreme action. Maybe they could have had a reasonable conversation: “You know, I don’t know that having all this business happen in the temple courts is a good way to honor God. Do you think you might consider moving it outside the temple? And could you stop extorting the people?” “Oh, sure Jesus, You’re probably right. We’re wrong. We’ll do what you say right away.” Not going to happen, right? Things had gone too far by this point. Jesus’ actions were a wake up call to a nation and a people and a leadership that had been asleep and complacent for far too long. There was no other way.
The True Temple
So Jesus tells them to tear down the temple and that he will raise it in three days. This further confuses and infuriates the religious leaders: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” How absurd! Ridiculous! But of course we all know that Jesus is not referring to the physical building of the temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel makes it quite clear – Jesus is here referring to his own body, his death and his resurrection. Why would Jesus bring this up now? Is this not a strange place to raise the topic of his death and resurrection?
Jesus was doing far more than responding to the corruption he saw. So while we’ve already seen some of the reasons why Jesus cleansed the temple – Israel was failing in its mission
to the Gentiles and true worship had degenerated into self-serving religion – Jesus is doing something much more radical and all-encompassing: Jesus is challenging the very system of the temple itself, its religion, its authority, and its worship.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT temple. Thousands and thousands of sacrifices had been offered in this temple for the forgiveness of sins. With Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of himself there would be no more need for temple sacrifice. Note that John has altered the reference to Psalm 69:9 in our passage – “Zeal for your house will consume me – by changing the verb tense from past to future, from “zeal for your house has consumed me” to “zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus knew that he would be consumed – killed and crucified – out of his zeal for and obedience to his Father. Through his death not only would Jesus cleanse the temple, he would replace it. He would fulfill its purpose. God’s purposes would be fulfilled in Jesus.
This is why he brought up his death and resurrection in the way he did. He was telling them that it was his body that is the true object of worship. Another scholar comments that “Since for Judaism the Temple is the locus [location] of God’s presence on earth, v.21 suggests that Jesus’ body is now the locus of God.” No longer does the temple represent the presence of God – from now on Jesus represents the presence of God. Indeed, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh to dwell among us as God with us. In other words, it won’t be long – indeed in John’s Gospel the time had already come – when you won’t have to go the temple to worship God. Once Jesus is raised it is through him that one will worship. It is through him that we worship.
What does this passage say to us today, then?
1.First of all, we have to be careful with equating our own religious practices and institutions – how we do things – with the presence of God. Our way of doing things is not always God’s way. Indeed, in Scripture God tells us: “My ways are not your ways.” We always have to be willing to examine how we do things as a church – is change needed? Is reform called for? Is renewal necessary?
2.Second, the actions of the religious leaders of the day laid a heavier than needed burden on people coming to worship at the temple through taxes and extortion. What requirements do we have of people coming into our sanctuary to worship? What do expect of them? Can they come as they are?
3.Third, worship is not about buildings, the sanctuary, and the facilities we use. It wasn’t in Jesus day and it isn’t now. Worship is about placing Jesus at the center. As the Son of God he is the focus of our worship.
4.”Zeal for your house will consume me.” Do you have zeal, a passion, for worshipping God? Is there a desire deep down in your heart to worship Him? To give glory to Him? Let us all pray that God will give each of us zeal in our faith, for Scripture says, “Never be lacking in zeal.”
One last point: the NT teaches us that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. The OT temple has been replaced by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers – in the body of Christ. Yet there remains the danger of polluting this temple. We can contaminate it. We can make room for sin in our hearts. We can still defile the Lord’s temple with fleshly lusts and desires.
And just as Jesus cleansed the Jerusalem temple, he also wants to cleanse us from all sin – through his death and resurrection this is possible. Each of us has to examine our hearts and ask God to bring any sin to mind that we should confess. Psalm 139: 23, 24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Only then can we truly worship with zeal and bring honor and glory to God – when with King David we also pray, “Create in me a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Jesus will answer your prayer, because while he may not be safe, he is good.