Each of the four Gospels includes an account of Jesus cleansing the Temple. John’s account appears at the outset of his Gospel, while synoptic accounts put it at the end of Jesus’ life. It is likely that John purposely put this violent scene early in his Gospel to immediately and dramatically set the divine authority of Christ against that of established Jewish leaders. The effect is indeed dramatic and inescapable.
And what should we suppose it was about this setting that aroused such a violent reaction in Jesus? Commentators go into detail to explain the kind of blatant extortion being inflicted upon the poor pilgrims who came to Jerusalem at great sacrifice to worship–all the worse that such injustice happened in the name of God. This alone is sufficient ground for Jesus’ anger.
However, we can take our examination to another level by comparing John’s account with those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. As one studies the Gospels in general, it is easy to see that everything about Jesus stood in stark contrast with the corrupted, irreverent system of Judaism. No wonder that Jewish leaders challenged the ministry of Jesus at every turn–He was a direct threat to their positions of social and political power, and to everything they taught about what it means to be acceptable to God.
First of all, one can only imagine the raucous scene around the moneychangers and sellers of animals. Animals brought in from the outlying regions, while far cheaper, were likely to be rejected as not meeting standards; and an animal purchased within the courts might go for as high as 20 times more in price. Then there were the fees charged for money exchange, since foreign coins were unclean and not permitted for Temple use. This was a market atmosphere at its worst–anything but reverent. No wonder Jesus was appalled at this display.
Secondly, there is the hypocrisy of the entire sacrificial system itself. While there is no question that there were those who worshiped rightly, the sacrificial system too often became a substitute for true devotion. Thus the Old Testament prophets frequently expressed God’s displeasure with, and at times outright rejection of it. Are there expressions of our faith today that substitute for true and undefiled religion? Does our faith walk demonstrate a heart in tune with God’s, and express the kinds of things that truly matter to God? (See Micah 6:8; James 1:27.) Do we do things to earn his acceptance of us, or from a heart transformed by His gracious favor toward us?
William Barclay points out an intriguing third reason for Jesus’ anger, drawn from Jesus’ remarks recorded in Mark’s account: “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The temple divided itself into four courts: The Court of the Gentiles, The Court of the Women, The Court of the Israelites and The Court of the Priests. The Court of the Gentiles was the location for extortion and all the corrupted money- changing practices. What would a devout Gentile witness when he or she came there to worship and pray? Only the worst expressions of a depraved religion. As Barclay put it, “The conduct in the Temple court shut out the seeking Gentile from the presence of God” (The Gospel of John: Vol. 1, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, p. 114). Certainly this would deeply offend the Savior of the world. Is there anything in our church life that would turn away the seeking stranger? May we see the world around us as God sees it, and may His heart for the world transform us into the very fragrance of Christ. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24).