What makes you angry? What really winds you up? What sort of things make your blood boil and cause steam to come out of your ears? A crashed computer, a tax bill or a traffic jam perhaps? Sadly our anger is often sinful or petty, isn’t it? Our anger is often unjustified rage caused by wounded pride, thwarted ambition, impatience or even indigestion!
But there is such a thing as righteous anger, isn’t there? There is such a thing as justified anger against evil and injustice. It is surely right to get angry with the perpetrators of injustice, with those who do evil or exploit others. It is surely right too, to censure and rebuke ourselves, when we do things we know to be wrong. And it must be right, as Christians, to get angry when we see God’s people being persecuted, or God’s name dishonoured.
Open any Sunday newspaper today and anyone with a ‘moral compass’ ought to get angry at some of the things we will read about there. Jesus certainly expresses righteous anger in our passage today:
- An anger that shows he wasn’t always ‘meek and mild’
- An anger he expressed with strong words and a whip.
- An anger that sent animals running in all directions, scattered coins across the floor and left tables overturned.
But before we look at what prompted Christ’s fury, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, as we look at the powerful events in our passage today, help us to understand their significance and appreciate their relevance to our lives today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
- The Old Temple: A market-place instead of a prayer-place! (v.13-17)
Have you ever been somewhere that was so beautiful, so special, so enchanting that you felt Heaven was touching Earth? Somewhere where you felt especially close to God? Perhaps you have felt close to God in a beautiful area of countryside, or in a historic place of worship, or under a starlit sky.
If you had asked a first century Jew the same question, they would have undoubtedly said that they came closest to God whenever they went to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple complex was believed to be the most holy ground in the world, the most sacred space on earth. It was God’s ‘footstool’, the place where the Creator came into closest contact with his creatures. Every Jew knew the Temple was the building where God’s glory dwelt on earth.
Its no surprise then that the Temple was a place of prayer, a place where God’s people could come to talk to him, sing him songs of praise, and to hear the Scriptures taught. To do many of the same sort of things, in fact, that we do together in church today.
But there was one significant difference. Because the Temple was also a place of sacrifice – a place where various animals were slaughtered to make atonement for sin. It was a place where cattle, sheep and doves were killed to make atonement for human sin - to try and take away people’s guilt. The sacrificial system of the Temple was a huge reminder that every human needs his or her sins forgiven before we can enjoy a true friendship with our good God.
The Temple was so significant that it was every Jew’s religious duty to visit it on a regular basis - especially at the major feasts such as the Passover festival. It was meant to be the place to receive God’s forgiveness and draw near to him.
But as Jesus entered the Temple precincts for the Passover festival in AD28, he saw that reality was falling far short of this ideal. Verse 14 today tells us that “in the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.”
At first glance, you may think that there is nothing wrong with either of those things:
- After all, pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem needed animals to sacrifice, and it made sense for them to buy them in the city, rather than bring them with them all the way from home. Surely the animal sellers were doing nothing wrong?
- And pilgrims to the Temple rightly wanted to make a financial contribution to its treasury. They wanted to support its ministry and show their gratitude to God. (We have a similar opportunity here at St Michael’s next week, with our annual Gift Day).
But these were the days before cheques, standing orders and online transfers, and pilgrims had to give in cash. So before they could give to the Temple, many visitors to Jerusalem needed to change their foreign coins into Jewish ones. In one sense the money-changers performed a useful service.
But the trouble was that both the money changers and animal sellers were doing their business in the Temple itself. They had been allowed to ‘set up shop’ within the Temple’s outer court. This outer court was the place where people from all nations - Gentiles as well as Jews - were allowed to come and pray. It was meant to be a place of peace and prayer, not a crowded market place full of animals, noise, haggling, dodgy dealing and a general commotion. A place where prayer would have been impossible.
Imagine if I announced that next Sunday’s service would be taking place in the middle of the Gallows Corner roundabout. We would all have to risk life and limb to get there, and even if we did make it to the middle, the noise of traffic would be deafening. It really wouldn’t be a conducive place for praise and prayer!
A similar commotion was what Jesus found in the Jerusalem Temple that day, and it rightly provoked his wrath and aroused his anger. Money changers and cattle had no right to be in the Temple court, so Jesus drove them out. Verses 15 and 16 tell us that he “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. [And] to those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” Jesus was furious that his Father’s house, the Temple itself, had become a market place instead of a place of prayer. A place where the priority was profit maximisation, rather than a relationship with the living God.
Before we point the figure at those money changers and animal salesmen, we need to beware of similar sins in our own lives.
- Are we too busy accumulating possessions or pursing our career, to give enough quality time to God?
- Are we sacrificing our spiritual life for the sake of worldly success?
- Are we more concerned about our relationship with our boss or our bank than with our Creator?
As Christians we do need to make sure we spend time with our Heavenly Father – both alone during the week and together here on Sundays. Prayer is a wonderful privilege, and a lifeline for God’s people – so we should keep it a priority in our busy lives.
You may know that the government has recently put forward plans to relax Sunday trading restrictions. If these reforms go through, we Christians will need to be even more disciplined about spending time with God. If the rest of society stops making Sunday special, it will be much more tempting for us to go shopping on Sunday mornings rather than spending time with our Christian brothers and sisters here. We will need to be well-disciplined to keep Sunday worship a permanent fixture in our diary.
- The New Temple: Jesus’ body! (v.18-22)
In our internet age, one way to catch up with the news is to take a look at YouTube. You probably know that YouTube is a video streaming website, where people upload videos of eye-catching, significant or just silly events. Over the past week two of the most popular clips have been a whale jumping over a canoe in California, and Jeremy Cobyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple is an event that would certainly have been posted on YouTube if it happened today. With coins scattering, cattle running wild and doves in the air, I’m sure it would have made great TV!
Verse 17 tells us Jesus passion that day was so intense that it reminded his disciples of the words of Psalm 69. Words originally written by king David, but which now applied well to Jesus – “zeal for your house will consume me”.
If the disciples were awestruck by Jesus’ zeal, the Temple leaders were just annoyed. We read in verse 18 that they confronted Jesus and demanded of him “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” What could Jesus say or do to justify his behaviour?
John tells us in verse 19 that Jesus didn’t reply with a sign from above or an amazing miracle - but with an enigmatic sentence. “Destroy this Temple” he said, “and I will raise it again in three days” (v.19).
The Jewish authorities made the mistake of taking him too literally. They thought that Jesus was referring to the stone Temple in which they stood. A Temple that had taken forty-six years to build and could never be rebuilt over a long weekend. A Temple that really was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and has never been rebuilt since.
The religious rulers were mistaken because the ‘Temple’ Jesus was referring to was his own body. A body that would indeed be ‘destroyed’ when he died on the Cross, before being ‘rebuilt’ when he rose again on the first Easter day. The great sign, the greatest miracle that Jesus would perform would be his resurrection from the dead.
Verse 22 tells us that Jesus’ disciples themselves only understood what Jesus meant after his resurrection. It was only after he came back to life that they understood what type of Temple rebuilding Jesus was referring to. It was only after Easter that Jesus’ first followers realised that certain Old Testament passages had been fulfilled. Passages like psalm 16, for instance, which promised that God’s holy one would not stay in the grave and see decay. And passages like Isaiah 53, which said that God’s great servant would suffer first but then see the light of life.
By claiming that his body was a new Temple, a temple that would be destroyed and then rebuilt, Jesus was making a remarkable claim about himself. He was claiming that he had come to replace the Temple in Jerusalem. He was claiming that he himself now performed the functions of the Temple. In other words:
- He was claiming to be the place where God’s presence now was, the place where God’s being now dwelt.
- He was claiming to be the place where God could now be worshipped, the one to whom we should direct our prayers.
- And he was claiming that his body would be the place where a final, once for all, sacrifice would be offered. The place where sins could be paid for once and for all. The place from where God’s forgiveness would flow.
It was Christ’s claim to be the new Temple that helped the first apostles and other New Testament authors to appreciate that Jesus was fully and truly divine. It was a realisation that Jesus was the new Temple that led John to describe Jesus as God’s word made flesh, who had come to dwell among his people. Calling Jesus God’s ‘temple’ is a short-hand way of saying what the apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:9. Because he writes there: “In Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form.”
And if we understand that Jesus’ body was the new Temple, it helps us understand why his death on the Cross was so significant. It was the full and final sacrifice that all the animal sacrifices in the stone Temple were meant to point towards. The death of God’s Son accomplished what the blood of cattle could never fully accomplish – namely, the true and lasting forgiveness of everyone who trusts in him. A true and lasting forgiveness that remains on offer to us today.
Conclusion: Come to Christ to come to God
As I finish this morning I hope today’s passage has reminded us of the importance of prayer. The importance of prioritising time with our heavenly Father in our busy lives.
But above all, I hope it has taught us that the place where heaven has most truly touched earth was not a stone temple or cathedral, or in a beautiful stretch of countryside - but in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ:
- If we come to him we come to God.
- When we honour him we honour his Father.
- When we look at him and listen to his words we encounter our Creator.
- And when we ask him for forgiveness we benefit from his perfect sacrifice upon the Cross.
But perhaps you are not persuaded? Perhaps you remain to be convinced about Jesus’ claim to be God’s Son? Perhaps you remain a little sceptical, like those Jewish rulers in Jerusalem? If that’s you then look at the key piece of evidence that John points us to in verse 22 today - the evidence of Jesus resurrection from the dead. Take time to investigate the case for Christ’s resurrection, the reasons why Easter was real – perhaps by joining our Christianity Explored course next month.
Because if Christ really did conquer the grave, then his words in the Temple court came true, the Old Testament scriptures really were fulfilled, and he truly was God’s Word made flesh!