John 2:13-22 Jesus Cleanses the Temple
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.”17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple,and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
A Lion at the Barrier
I’ve said a number of times that C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite Christian writers and that he’s one of my heroes in the faith. In fact, his life and writings have inspired me so much that I’m basically just turning into a C.S. Lewis quote generator. Just the other night at our Bible study I quoted or referenced him so many times I actually lost count. So, I figure I may as well do it again. Why not, right? If you guys start to get tired of all the Lewis references, just let me know, okay?
I like his fiction writing too. That was actually how I got introduced to him. When I was about 7 or 8 years old my parents got me the boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia books. I read those books and that was what opened the floodgates to my love of fantasy and science fiction. There was no going back after that. I was hooked. Those were my favorite books as a kid and so naturally when I became a Christian and I found out that he was this former atheist who’d become a theologian and a defender of the faith…well I had to read him. You could call that “divine required reading.” But after I read almost all of his non-fiction books…I went back and I re-read the Narnia books. Talk about a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
But you know, I loved them even more the second time around…because then I knew he had all these Christian references in them. In fact, those books are an allegory or metaphorical re-telling of the Gospel stories in this beautiful fantasy world.
And there’s this incredibly powerful scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Trader that always stood out to me. I’d forgotten so much of those books from when I first read them as a kid….but not this one scene. The main characters, Lucy and Edmund are out on their adventure and they come to this beautiful grassy field that stretches out as far as the eye can see. But in the middle of the field they see this strange white spot. So they’re curious. They take off running until they finally reach this white spot in the field. Now remember this is a fantasy story. There’s this pure white lamb, standing there. And the lamb is cooking a fish breakfast…and it turns out….this breakfast is for them. Now this white lamb is meant to be a Christ like figure. And his cooking for them symbolizes the Eucharist, how God, through Christ provides our spiritual nourishment. The story says it’s the most delicious breakfast they’ve ever had.
And as they eat…they have this conversation about how to get to the land of Aslan…or heaven. So the lamb begins to explain the way and then this incredible thing happens. Lewis describes it like this: “His Snow White fur flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan the lion himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.” Wow. C.S. Lewis was illustrating a great truth of our faith…the Lamb is also the Lion. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. So in Him we see the qualities that we would consider to be lamb like…He’s gentle…He’s meek…but in today’s Gospel reading we see a decisive change in Him. We see the lion.
Now we hear that catchy song about how God’s not dead and how He’s roaring like a lion…but I’m not sure we actually like that image. Jesus is angry…He’s roaring like a lion….and it’s awkward. It makes us uncomfortable and uneasy. If you have a friend or a co-worker that isn’t a believer and you want to tell him or her a little bit about Jesus….this probably isn’t the story you’re going to use.
So here we are. We’ve got a lion on our hands today instead of a lamb. And what the heck do we do with Him? In fact, we might even be wondering if Jesus just needed some anger management or a little stress relief yoga. Well…the purpose of this blog today is to reveal a Lion who stands at the barrier…ready to tear down and destroy anything that that prevents people from encountering God.
Now the story is confusing, so I have to take a moment to address the 'controversies' surrounding this passage. It’s in all four of our Gospels but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke…it takes place at the end…right before Jesus is betrayed and arrested. It’s thought that His actions in the Temple were what led to His arrest and the plot to kill Him. But in John’s Gospel it’s placed at the beginning. So which is it? What’s going on here? There’s a few different theories. Some…in an effort to reconcile the texts have actually said that Jesus did this more than once.
You know, in this three year ministry…it’s time for that annual getting mad and driving out the money changers trip. By the second or third year though…you’d think the money changers would have probably seen it coming. "Jesus is coming today, let’s close up shop early!" This scenario I think is...pretty unlikely.
A second theory says John was right. They say the other Gospel writers changed the timing to show why Jesus was crucified. But the majority of New Testament scholars think the others had it chronologically right and John changed it to make atheological point. This is the view I agree with. John puts it at the beginning because he wants his readers to get something right from the onset….the Temple is no longer the location of God. No…when God becomes flesh in Jesus Christ…God’s presence is now in what Jesus is saying and doing. It’s not in a building. So in a way…what’s going on here…is symbolic.
It means the end of the whole temple system. This massive building that took 40 some years to build…is no longer valid. It’s no longer needed. So in a sense Jesus driving out the money changers…is like Jesus walking in to a bank and saying I’d like to close this checking account. It’s obsolete. We won’t be using it anymore. That’s John’s overarching theological point and that’s why I think he switched the timeframe.
But there’s a lot to unpack with the immediate context of this too. It was the Passover and this was the greatest festival time of the Jewish people. Thousands of pilgrims would’ve come in to Jerusalem for the feast. Pontius Pilate knew it was pandemonium so he increased the presence of Roman guards and soldiers all over the city. A mass of humanity. So Jesus and the disciples make their way through the throngs of people and into the temple…specifically in the large space that was known as the Court of the Gentiles.
This was the one place where Gentile seekers of the God of Abraham could go to learn about Yahweh or to worship Yahweh. So this is where Jesus encounters the money changers. They were lined up all over the place like street vendors outside a concert hall or a sporting event. And that thought leads us to the actual problem…and why Jesus got so ticked off. If you’re like me, you like to go to sporting events. My dad was an OSU grad and so he was a season ticket holder for many years. We would go to almost every Buckeyes game. But if you go to sporting events…you know how it is. Those beers are like 9 dollars. Those tiny little pizzas with five slices are…what…ten bucks? 5 bucks if you just want a bottled water…right? That’s what’s going on here.
What the money changers were doing wasn’t a sin in and of itself. There was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was a necessary function. People came from all over the country…miles and miles….to Jerusalem for Passover. This was in the days before Uber. It could take days or even weeks to get there.
And you couldn’t just bring animals from all over the place to make your sacrifice at the temple. They couldn’t make the long trek. So you had to buy one. But you can’t buy one with the standard Roman currency. Why? It was actually for spiritual reasons. The Roman coins had Caesar’s face on them and the writing on the coins…literally declared him to be a god. So it was idolatry. It was a violation of the first commandment.
So that wasn’t the problem. The function they performed should have been good. But in reality several High Priests set it up so they were making massive profits. It was your $9 Bud Light. The costs of those animals….were fifteen times higher than what they should’ve been. So if you bought a lamb from outside the temple…you pay the equivalent of a dollar. You buy one from inside the Temple you pay $15. No Black Friday deals. No Amazon prime. New Testament scholars have said the high priests were making the equivalent of a $170 million a year with this. So Jesus gets mad and makes a whip.
This thing would have hurt like hell if you got hit by it. He starts turning over tables and swinging His whip at the money changers. The scene would have been utterly chaotic. People running and screaming. Animals running. And Jesus says “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” That’s the key to the whole story. You can underline it in your Bibles at home. That was the issue. The High Priests had created barriers to seeking and worshiping God. This was the only access to the Temple that the Gentiles had.
But if you were a Gentile seeking to know who this God was…what would you think…seeing that? What would be your first impression of Yahweh? How does that song go…it’s all about the Benjamin’s baby? And if you were a Jewish person…chances are you’d be turned away if you couldn’t afford those outrageous prices. No prayer or offering for you this time. Better luck next year.” Just imagine the heartbreak of all that. You want to draw near to the place where God dwells…and you can’t afford it. The bouncers throw you out. Barriers.
Now at first glance this Gospel lesson might seem pretty far removed from our world today. We might even be tempted to think this was a uniquely Jewish problem. But it isn’t. Let me tell you a quick story.
It was 2010 and my wife and I were looking for a new church home. We’d been visiting a few different places and we decided to visit an Eastern Orthodox Church. At the time, it seemed like a natural fit because I was studying with Greek Orthodox Monks and taking retreats at their monastery. I became really good friends with one of the monks and he invited us to the church where he served. So we went.
The sanctuary was breathtaking. The most amazing I’ve ever seen in my life. I thought to myself…maybe this is what heaven looks like. But the experience was shocking. Aside from our monk friend…not oneperson greeted us…or even smiled at us. We were the only visitors in that church and not one word of welcome. At one point we walked right by the parish priest and he didn’t even bother to say so much as a “hello” to us. In fact, people were seriously looking at us like….’what are they doing here?’ It dawned on me that we were the only people there that weren’t ethnically Greek. Apparently if you weren’t Greek, you weren’t welcome. Now surely not every Orthodox church is like that…that’s not at all what I’m saying. But it was probably the worst church experience I’ve ever had. Here you’ve got this beautiful cathedral…and yet what we saw was a spiritual arrogance…a spiritual ugliness. We’re better than you. You don’t belong here.
Our monk friend was actually apologizing to us afterwards. He invited us to come back again and promised it would be different the next time…but we never did. Like the money changers in that temple they’d erected this impenetrable spiritual barrier. They were denying people access to God. It’s funny…I contrast that experience with my seminary trip to Korea. Now the churches we visited there…we didn’t even speak the same language. But it didn’t matter. My classmates and I were welcomed by the people in every church we went to. Everyone was coming up to us and shaking our hands. We sang hymns together…them in Korean and us in English…..and that…that was Christian fellowship. That was Christian love. Any potential barrier just evaporated…and we experienced that unity….that oneness of what it means…to be the body of Christ. That my sisters and brothers...is the new Temple.
The Holy Spirit is inside each one of us and we become the new temple when we gather in Christian fellowship and worship.
So the question becomes….what kind of Christians will we be? There’s a lion that stands outside the doors of all our churches…. and all of our hearts....ready to tear down and destroy anything that that prevents people from encountering God. We’re a divisive culture and in spite of ourselves….we bring that ugliness….the spirit of those money changers….into the church. I think most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it…because that’s just the way we’re used to being.
We’ll reject someone because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. We’ll reject someone because of the box that they check for their political party. We’ll reject someone because of the way they dress. We’ll reject someone because of where they live or their income status.
Now the church I'm privileged to serve as pastor is totally unlike what we encountered in that Orthodox church all those years ago. The difference is night and day. It's truly like a big family and that’s how church should be. But I'm always challenging even the people of my parish to practice holy introspection.... because, my dear readers, just like with them, if we’re being honest with ourselves…we’ve all probably erected barriers at some point and intentionally or unintentionally….denied people access to God. It’s so easy to do. I’ve done it myself. If we had all day...I’d tell you some personal stories about how I’ve messed up. We all do it.
But let me tell you…That lion’s going to drive out anything thing that’s keeping us from being a welcoming community of faith. This is where our text picks up from my previous blog entry…denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. Here’s the deal. The more we’re committed to Christ and His Kingdom…the less these worldly things matter. We shouldn’t be erecting barriers…we should be tearing them down. The causes of peace, love, and justice…should be all-consuming for us. That’s the true way of the Cross and Christian discipleship.
And the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is giving all of us a tough message today. He’s telling us….through the theology of John….it’s not just about the building and the property. It’s about having an outward focus not aninward focus. We come here every Sunday because worship and being in community helps us to see God in all areas of life. But we can’t horde these things like those money changers at the Passover.
No, we have to redistribute the 'wealth' God’s given us. The gravitational pull of our lives has to be outward…from the church to the community…from one believer to a neighbor and from the church to the world.
As Christians we must always be asking....what more can we do to be a radically welcoming community of faith? What risks can we take? Are we ready to try and fail? What barriers can we tear down in this community that prevent people’s access to God? These have to be driving questions here and with God’s help I know we can keep doing great things.
We’re being called to be lions ourselves. That’s the bottom line. And that’s the really scary thing about this passage. Take up your crosses and follow me. Be imitators of me. God’s telling us that we have to go from being lambs to lions sometimes…just like what happened with Aslan in that scene from Narnia. We drive out the spirit of the money changers from our own house. Then we go out into our town and into the world and we drive out the spirit of the money changers there. He’s saying tear down the barriers…tear down the walls. There’s so many things in our world today that prevent people from having access to God.
And the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is calling us to be ready with our own whips and to come out swinging.
Let’s work to clear the pathways of people’s hearts so that God can come in. It’s not an easy task to become lions. Can we do it? Amen.
A Question for my Readers: Have you ever had a negative experience at church like I did? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. What happened and how did it make you feel? Did you ever return to the church, or was that it for you? My prayers are with all those whom we have wounded, either intentionally or unintentionally.