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A Bible Study on the Cleansing of the Temple Passages

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

The Texts

Matt 21:12 (NIV) Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 "It is written," he said to them, "`My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a `den of robbers.'"

Mark 11:15 (NIV) On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, "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.'" 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

Luke 19:45 (NIV) Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. 46 "It is written," he said to them, "`My house will be a house of prayer'; but you have made it `a den of robbers.'" 47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.

John 2:13 (NIV) When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me."

The Commentary

1. What is the temporal setting (When did the cleansing happen)?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke (The synoptic Gospels) record a cleansing of the temple that occurred at the end of Christ's Ministry, immediately after what we now call Palm Sunday. John seems to record another incident of the cleansing of the temple, one that happened near the beginning of His Ministry. I write, "seems" because John's Gospel is not strictly chronological. But the language of the preceding context and language of the text give more weight to the assertion that what we have here in John's Gospel is a separate cleansing incident.

2. What is the physical setting (Where did the cleansings happen)?

There is general agreement that the cleansing incidents happened in "The Court of the Gentiles" (also known as the outer court). See the attached map. There are two words in New Testament Greek for "temple." Naos refers to the temple proper, the Sanctuary, where the priests did their work, which included the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant had once been. Hieron, the more common of the two, refers to the outer temple which surrounded the naos. For example, when Luke's Gospel tells of Zacharias (John the Baptist's father) seeing the angel Gabriel in the temple, naos, is used, for he was working as priest in the Sanctuary (Luke 1:9,21,22). But when Luke later reports that Simeon the prophet came up to Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the temple, hieron is used, since Mary, as a woman, would not have been allowed into the Sanctuary, nor even the Court of Israel, but the Court of Women only (Luke 2:27; see also 2:37).

It is of note that all mentions of the word "temple" in the cleansing of the temple passages above are translations of hieron. The occurrences of naos are few, and when they occur, they always refer to the Sanctuary, the temple proper, where God met with His people. That is why Jesus used naos when He said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up," for He was referring to the temple of his body – He was the temple of God! That is also why when the New Testament Church is called "temple" (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22; 2 Thess. 2:14) or when the Christian's body is called a temple, naos is the word that is used.

In conclusion, though there is a definite distinction between these two Greek words and we should observe this distinction, we should guard against making too much of it. It is noteworthy, that in John 2:16, Jesus calls the hieron (where the buying and selling are transpiring) "My Father's house."

3. What is the Prophetic setting (what prophesy if any does it fulfill?)

In the second cleansing of the temple which the Synoptic Gospels record, Jesus quotes two passages from the Old Testament. He quotes Isaiah 56:6-7, which says in full, "And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." This is a great Old Testament prophesy about Gentile nations coming to the temple to worship.

Jesus also takes the phrase "den of robbers" from Jeremiah 7:11. This is part of a larger section (Jeremiah 7:1 to 8:3) in which God through Jeremiah warns the people against false trust in the temple. A lengthy quote here is necessary:

    Jere 7:1 (NIV) This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 "Stand at the gate of the LORD's house and there proclaim this message: "`Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 "`Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 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? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

The Jews at this time are accused of having turned the temple into a "robbers den," meaning a refuge for robbers – a place where sinners gather to hide from their sin. Their problem was that they were living in all manner of sinfulness (see v. 9) and thought that as long as they kept "coming to church" all would be "okay" (see v. 10). They thought their presence at the temple guaranteed God's favor. Jeremiah's message: they must repent!

Finally, though the New Testament doesn't say so explicitly, the two cleansings of the temple appear to be a clear fulfillment of Malachi 3:1-3, a Messianic prophecy:

    See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness."

In other words, Jesus' cleansing of the temple, is a direct fulfillment of this Old Testament prophesy. This was one of the salvific works that the Messiah was to do.

4. Who were the sellers and the money changers and what were they doing in the temple?

The prominent feature of all four Gospel readings is that Jesus becomes enraged and throws out of the temple those who were buying and selling animals and those who exchanging currency. Who were these people and what were they doing there?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention those selling doves and the money changers. John gives us a fuller picture, and we can probably safely assume that the same kind of sellers were present for the second cleansing. John tells us that, "In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money."

All sellers were there to provide a service to God's people in the temple. Those selling animals were providing a service to those who needed to sacrifice during Feast time. Obviously this had been approved by the Jewish leaders in the temple. This was a great convenience to Jews traveling great distances, since they did not have to have livestock in tow. They could buy the necessary sacrificial animals right at the temple.

To explain what the money changers were doing there, I quote from the great Lutheran exegete, Lenski,

    Places to change money were also needed; for a tax was collected from every Israelite who was twenty years old, Exod. 30:11-16. This was due during the month preceding the Passover (17:24, etc.) and was either sent in by those who lived at a distance or paid in person by those who attended the festival, who then, however, had to have Jewish coin, which fact compelled those who came from foreign parts to have their money exchanged (Lenski, Matthew, p. 813).

So the money changers were also providing a convenient service to the temple worshipers, exchanging Hebrew currency for Roman.

5. Exactly what was the reason for Jesus' anger? What sin was being committed?

Obviously the target of Jesus' wrath was those people who were buying, selling, and exchanging in the temple; for he chased them out of the temple (John's Gospel says with a whip made of rope), overturned their tables and stools, and verbally rebuked them. But what exactly had they done that was so wrong?

The typical assumption is that is was not the mere buying and selling that was wrong, but that the merchants were doing so dishonestly or greedily: i.e., they were cheating the people or making too much profit, etc. But not a word of this is said in any of the four accounts! What of Jesus accusing them of turning the temple into "a den of robbers"? First, in John's account, Jesus doesn't say this at all (see below). Second, in the synoptic accounts, Jesus is quoting from Jeremiah. As was mentioned above, calling those who are dishonoring the temple a "den of robbers" does not imply that the sin in question is stealing. It was not so in Jeremiah's day (stealing is merely one of many sins mentioned, and not even one of the prominent ones). So how can we assume that this was the sin in question in Jesus' day? It is more likely that Jesus, like Jeremiah, is rebuking the temple goers for thinking that their mere presence in the temple covered their detestable ways.

Even if it is true that in the second cleansing the sin in question is dishonest business, this cannot be the case with the first cleansing, as recorded in John 2. In John, Jesus says nothing about cheating or stealing. What He does say is: ""Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

The word translated "market" is the Greek emporion, from which we get our English word, "emporium." The word only occurs here in John 2:16. It means "market," "merchandise," "a place of buying and selling." The Greek text actually reads: "Take these things from here. Stop making my Father's house a house of merchandise."

Jesus' complaint is not that there is dishonest buying and selling going on in the temple -- but that there is buying and selling going on at all! His complaint is that by buying and selling in the temple they have turned His Father's house into a house of merchandise, an emporium. And this is true, even though they have could have protested that they were doing it all for the good of the temple and the people attending the temple. But Jesus' answer strongly suggests that in this case the end does not justify the means. Once again Lenski:

    There is a strong contrast between "my Father's house" and "a house of merchandise." This Father and any house of his have to do with prayer, worship, true religion. What a desecration to make his house deal with emporia, trading, gain getting, which is so much mixed with unjust dealing and at best is only secular, even if it is here conducted on the plea of providing things that were necessary for worship. Have we not enough places for buying and selling – "emporiums" as our time loves to call them – without invading the place that should be sacred because it is dedicated to God? (Lenski, John, 208.).

The evidence of all four accounts points to the conclusion that it was not dishonest or greedy buying and selling that was the problem, but buying and selling at all. It was this that was totally out of place in the temple. It was this that brought down Jesus' anger upon them.

6. How does this apply to New Testament Christians?

The Jerusalem temple buildings no longer exist. Therefore Christians are not in danger of buying and selling there. However, the New Testament does repeatedly teach that every Christian congregation is the temple of God, for God dwells in them and among them. For example, Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people'" (2 Corinthians 6:16; see also 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Eph. 2:21). The New Testament Church is now the temple of God.

If it was wrong for buying and selling to take place within that temple, is it not also improper for buying and selling to be taking place within our New Testament temple? Should Christian congregations (the temple of God) be turning the Church into an emporium, a place to buy and sell merchandise in the form of fairs, suppers, and bazaars? Some would immediately cry out in protest that our buying and selling is different. But is it? The Jerusalem merchants could have argued that they were doing it all for God, for His temple, and for His people. They did it to provide animals for sacrifice and the correct currency. We do it to raise money for the church and other charities. But their end didn't justify their means, and I would argue, neither does ours. "But they were doing it for their own profit, while we are not" some might say. True enough. But as said above, there is nothing in the above texts, especially John's account, which indicates that profiting personally was the sin in question. Rather, the weight of the evidence leans toward "making God's house an emporium" as the problem. The temple was to be a place of worship – period. Not a place of buying and selling. So also the New Testament temple, the local congregation, is to be a place of prayer, worship, and the hearing of God's Word.

Another way to say this is that making the temple an emporium is being guilty of confusing the two kingdoms, the Church and the world (a major teaching of Luther and the Confessions). Buying and selling merchandise is quite appropriate in the kingdom of the world. It is not appropriate in the Church. To be clear on this, let's remember what the Church is and is not. The Church is found wherever Christians are gathered around the preaching of pure Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments (see Augsburg Confession 7). There are many "para-church" organizations that are really businesses in the kingdom of the world, even though they are staffed by Christians and exist to sell goods and services to Christians. Examples of these are Concordia Publishing House, Focus on the Family, and local Christian bookstores. But these are not the Church, the temple of God, as the local congregation is.