One of the Holy Week events which all the four Gospels enact is the explosive scene in the Jerusalem temple.
The humble Jesus, meek-and-mild, who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey, appears to have been suddenly transformed into a whip-wielding angry prophet.
The patient teacher from Nazareth is furious. The veins on his temple are bulging as he upturns tables and packs off the avaricious money changers with loud authoritative commands and wild gesticulations of his whip—all the while shouting words of prophetic Scripture.
What was he doing, for God’s sake?
What was he saying?
What was the meaning of all this commotion?
From childhood, this story is etched in our minds; commonly referred to as “the cleansing of the temple”. That’s how most headings in modern Bibles speak of this incident.
Some of us would find an excuse for our outbursts of so-called righteous anger in this solitary story. (Can’t I also lose my temper, once in a while, when even Jesus lost it, big time?)
So, what did Jesus actually do?
How should we understand this event in the Holy Week?
First, we could begin by brushing aside the traditional heading (“cleansing/clearing”). Why? Simple. It is not original to the text. These headings in our Bibles (here and elsewhere) are not assigned by the Gospel writers; they are a matter of tradition. And traditions, by their very nature, are not always good or the best.
Second, Jesus’s actions were limited to a small section of the outer courts, frequented by the Gentiles. And for all the drama and commotion, the exploitative money changers and traders, who were caught off guard that day, were surely back the next, ready with reinforcements in case ‘that Jesus guy’ came around again.
So, in a sense, nothing was cleaned up. Instead, this action accelerated the Jewish overlords’ plan to eliminate Jesus. They rightly understood that his actions posed a threat to the whole Jewish religious hierarchy.
Third, we are pointed to the powerful significance of this action when we heed Jesus’s words.
Jesus claimed that he was in his Father’s temple; hence, he had divine authority to set things right.
Among other things, he quoted Isaiah 56:7 (“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”) and Jeremiah 7:11 (“You are making it ‘a den of robbers’”).
All the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11 and Luke 19) mention these two texts. (We will come to John’s Gospel in a bit.)
Notice, that in Matthew and Mark there is another story linked to this temple action: the cursing of the fig tree. In Matthew, it follows soon after the temple drama.
But don’t miss the way Mark 11 tells the story: this is one hugely significant “Markan sandwich”. The story of the Temple action is sandwiched between the narrative of Jesus “cursing” the fig tree (Mark 11, verses 12–14 + 15–19 + 20–21). Mark intends for his readers to think of the two events—the cursing of the fig tree and the prophetic action in the temple—as one compound reality.
Jesus had prophetically cursed the temple!
Yes, instead of “cleaning” it for future use, he had pronounced God’s judgement on it and prophesied the end of this elaborate religious system!
Then, a few days later, Jesus died on the cross. This time God performed an arresting act: the thick temple curtain, that separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple, was torn, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).
In essence, God said: “Enough of this drama in this temple. Sadly, its purpose is over.”
Again, remind yourself that when Jeremiah pronounced the words recorded in Jer 7:11, he was prophesying doom on Jerusalem. He was foretelling the destruction of the temple and the city by the Babylonians. That tragic event came to pass. Jesus chose those very words of Jeremiah.
Luke records in the previous passage (19:41–44) that Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, and wept. In true prophetic posture, by his dramatic act, Jesus pronounced the doom of this whole temple establishment that had miserably failed God’s ultimate intention—to be a house of prayer for all nations. Like that fig tree, the temple would soon wither away.
So, what about the temple of God?
Here John is helpful, though different from the other three Gospels. John forefronts this story (John 2: 13–25). John is not that interested in mere chronology; however, this does not mean, as some have mistakenly held, that there were two such dramatic actions.
The disciples remembered the burning zeal of Jesus (Psalm 68:9: “The zeal for your house will consume me”). They might as well have remembered other biblical texts, such as Malachi 3:1 (“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.)
Then Jesus speaks enigmatically about his death and resurrection—about destroying the “temple” of his body and that he would be raised in three days (2:19–22). The obvious derision and questioning that followed are understandable.
The Jerusalem temple was to be no more, forever! The Temple that was dedicated with great fanfare by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, and later slowly rebuilt after the exile, was in Jesus’s time quite a magnificent sight (see the awestruck disciples in Mark 13:1). This great monument was soon to be no more. Its fate was sealed! And the Roman armies under general Titus smothered Jerusalem and rubbished it in AD 70.
John is clearly pointing to this amazing truth: Jesus now takes the place of the temple. Access to God is now available to all people through the Lord Jesus Christ. What a seismic transition!
Later, when Jerusalem was celebrating the rededication of the temple (John 10:22, 36), Jesus points to himself as the one the Father had dedicated. For the Father, the celebration around the building of the Jerusalem paled in comparison to how Heaven viewed Jesus.
We can now enter the presence of God through the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb of God. And wonder of wonders: the apostle Paul reminds the believers at Corinth that they, as a gathered congregation, were the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17). [For those who may not have caught it, this passage in context (unlike 6:19), is not about the “body” of the believer but the church.]
So, we should not be surprised, when we read that in our future destination, “the new heaven and new earth”, there is no temple (Rev 21:22). Why would you need one when the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are present? What a great and glorious salvation is now freely offered to all people!