JESUS CLEANSES THE TEMPLE
(Matt. 21: 12-14; Mk. 11: 15-17; Lk.19: 45,46; Jn.2: 14-19)
Recently I was challenged with the concept that Jesus was exhibiting violent behavior when He cleansed the temple. I realize that His followers are simply to obey the Lord’s commands, but I had a hard time accepting that Jesus didn’t live how He instructed us to live. Also knowing that people grab for anything possible to justify or condone their own violence or promote the “just war tradition”, I was sensitive to the concept.
My first line of defense was defending the Lord’s actions because He was rightfully administering His high priestly calling of cleansing the temple of sin, with the analogy that we too should be zealous in expelling sin from the temple, which is our body. Then again, I pointed out the interesting fact that these only incidents of supposed violence were against the religious system of His day. In like manner, He also spoke very harshly to the religious leaders calling them hypocrites and snakes whose father is the devil, while the strongest He spoke to others was, “go and sin no more”. Maybe this is a lesson for us to come out strongly against sin in the church today. But, the deeper message is not touched by these little analogies, and the interpretations presented to me appear to make Jesus hypocritical and could be used to justify violence; such as bombing unoccupied abortion clinics, even killing abortionists, or backing a nation destroying life and property in war.
The response that no one was injured in the temple cleansing events does not fly with those who believe brandishing a whip, removing people by force and overturning tables of money are violent actions. I had to admit, I would consider these actions violent too, albeit that no one was harmed. But then the issue of the temple guards came to mind. I mean, where was this force that had the authority to investigate and later track Him down and arrest Him outside the city. I thought the leaders were looking for a reason to accuse Him, and yet neither of these “violent” and “disruptive” events are mentioned in the later charges against Him. And then I found a key word in the accounts.
The gospel accounts record that in speaking with the dove venders before, and with others after the animals were driven out and the tables overturned, “Jesus said to them”. So, I pulled out my Strong’s Concordance online to find that sure enough the Greek language is capable of stronger words than ‘said’. For instance, there are words that are usually translated ‘shouted’ and ‘cried out’ (Strong’s-2896 shrieked), and another term used is ‘loud voice’ (5456 & 3173- mega+phone). John 7:37 states that on another occasion in the temple, Jesus ‘cried out’ (2896), and Matt. 27:50 records that Jesus ‘cried out’ (2896) with a ‘loud voice’ (5456 & 3173) for Lazarus to come out of the tomb. So, the Lord did at times shout in a loud voice, even in the temple, but not in these occasions.
Now if I picture the temple scene as presented in art and film, of total chaos with crashing tables, charging animals, furious venders, yelling and screaming by all, the Lord Himself would necessarily be screaming out orders. But no “He said to them”, or as Mark puts it in 11:17 “He taught them by saying”. Matthew adds that afterwards the blind and the lame came to Him and He healed them in the temple. So, this supposed violent event was over and Jesus begins immediately teaching in a normal voice and healing the sick. It doesn’t appear that those present were much affected by the actions, other than He took His rightful place of authority and drove sin from His house of prayer.
Not only did the audience not seem to think the Lord was out of character, but the leaders merely asked Him in the first event, “What sign do you show us, seeing that You do these things?” (Jn.2:18). In other words, “show us your authority”. In later charges against Him (Mk.14:58) it is only His response to this question that is twisted, i.e. that He would raise the destroyed temple (of His body) in three days. So they picked out this detail, but no reference was made to the alleged violence involved in two similar events?
There are always those who bring up the matter of the whip. If we could place ourselves in the situation we would quickly understand that animals are not properly driven by being hit with a whip, but by the sound of the crack of a whip. All the Lord had to do was crack the whip and the animals would begin to move toward the exit. Remember it is recorded that there were both sheep and oxen. Have you ever tried to move against the flow of moving animals? I would contend that at the movement of the animals toward the exit, the people naturally, and maybe involuntarily, went with the flow. In this scenario it could be said that the animals drove them out of the temple, but because Jesus cracked the whip it is properly said that He drove them out. We must also note that when John records the first event, he says that Jesus told the dove sellers in a normal voice to get the doves out, and Mark records that in the second event Jesus merely turned over the seats of the dove sellers. Oxen and sheep can be rounded up, but released doves are gone. This clearly shows that He was not there to destroy their investments and livelihood, but simply to make the point that this was not the place to sell.
So, are we still concerned that He turned over the money tables and emptied the money bags? If so, we are apparently more concerned than his enemies who were present that day. He treated the money changers in the same way He treated the merchandisers. They were told of their sin, and had to pick up or round up what they owned.
It really all boils down to the question presented to Him after the first event. What is His authority? The answer to how He was able to singlehandedly pull this whole thing off twice, is in His apparent voice of authority. Mark writes of the 2nd event that Jesus did not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. Now that is speaking with authority. I believe that those present recognized that He acted with authority and the merchandisers simply obeyed. In fact the dove sellers apparently removed their merchandise just by His command in a normal voice. This response to authority is much like a museum curator telling everyone to leave, or a policeman a crowd to move on. In these scenarios, there is no need for shouting or raised voices, because the person speaks with authority. Possibly when Jesus spoke the merchandisers realized they were wrong and were content that the only penalty was to collect their things and get out. The record does not reflect that anyone was upset as He went on to teach and heal.
This look at the temple cleansings will no doubt shatter scenes of mayhem with Jesus whipping everyone into submission, but the evidence within the passages does not reveal this. Rather the passage reveals a calm Jesus walking into the temple and speaking in a normal tone with authority. He tells the dove sellers to remove their doves and says that no more merchandise can enter the temple. He then cracks a whip enough to get the sheep and oxen to exit, along with their owners. He scatters the money as He did the stock, states His reasons for His actions, and begins to teach and heal the people. The incident did not spring temple guards into action or raise accusations from His enemies. Jesus was as consistent in His non-violence in cleansing the temple as He was in every part of His life and teaching. May we follow in His steps.