I grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist church, and one of my earliest memories that made a distinct impression is seeing Jesus for the first time, literally. There was a large painting on the wall of our church building, and it was of Jesus praying in the garden. He was lily-white, and there was such an aura of peace and calm around him, complete with the halo around his head. He looked pretty skinny, even frail. If that’s the picture of Jesus you grew up with, then please let me disabuse you of that image: It has nothing to do with the picture the Gospels paint of him. He was a blue-collar worker, and probably had calloused hands from his carpenter’s job (based upon the fact that most sons went into their fathers’ line of work). And he experienced the full range of human emotions: fear, happiness, anger, frustration, etc. This is not to say that he ever lost his temper, but he was angry at times. What made Jesus upset? What made his blood boil?
For an answer to that question, we have today’s passage. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might've noticed something about this story. It’s in the Synoptic Gospels as well, but they all place it in the last week of his ministry, while John places it at the beginning chronologically. There are at least two explanations for this.
The first is that all the writers are talking about the same incident, but John, for stylistic reasons, decided to forgo strict chronological order in order to present a theme. There are some conservative Bible scholars--who fully believe in the inspiration of Scripture--who forward this explanation.
The second, which I hold, is that there were actually two temple cleansings, one at the beginning of his ministry and the other at the end, both being sort of bookends to his public appearances. The main reason I hold to this--apart from being uncomfortable with the notion of John leaving behind chronology for the sake of some type of thematic arrangement--is the respective descriptions of the temple cleansings. The Synoptic versions are extremely similar to each other, but different from the one found in John.
So what was it exactly that made Jesus so upset? The first answer is his desire for Gentiles to come and worship the one true God, which was blocked by this marketplace, which we’ll examine in more detail next year when we look at Mark’s Gospel. The other concern was for the poor. It was well-known--an open secret--that the market in the temple was a scam meant to line the pockets of the religious leaders, particularly the Sadducees. Here’s how it worked. When a would-be worshiper brought an animal, say a lamb, to be sacrificed, it would have to pass inspection by a priest before it could be offered. The priest would frequently claim that the animal would fail the inspection, that it was flawed somehow. The disappointed worshiper would have no choice but to buy another animal, there in the temple market, always at inflated prices. The priests would all get their cut of the profits to be made, so everybody made out well, except for the poor guy trying to worship the Lord.
As I’ve mentioned before, you have to look long and hard for a book of the Bible that doesn’t contain some aspect of God’s concern for the poor, usually in the form of dire warnings against taking advantage of them. Abusing the poor would be bad enough, but to do it in his Name, in his temple, in the process of worshiping him? Are you beginning to see what made him so upset?
What about us? Maybe we’re not so blatant in abusing the poor, but are we honest in our dealings with people? Especially if we claim to be followers of Christ, we need to be concerned about that. On a related note, what temple does God inhabit now? The Lord doesn’t have a building that he lives in, so where is his house? Every believer is a housing for the Holy Spirit. Is there any sin, any disobedience that needs to be cleaned out? Zeal for the Father’s house is what drove our Savior to do some serious house cleaning. Does he need to do that with you or me?
Lord Jesus, please examine me through and through. If there’s something that needs to be swept out, please do it. No matter how dear it is to me, if it’s a rival to you, it needs to go.