What Does Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple Mean to Us?
In John chapter 2 we have a very unusual, unique story in the life of Our Lord: his cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem.
It is by far the most physical and animated description of Our Lord in the gospels. And what makes this story so challenging is that in it, we are confronted with a very angry Jesus. He is white-hot mad. His anger represents what we might call “the elephant in the room” of this event.
We are told that anger is a sin. Our Lord himself says in his sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
(Interestingly, in the King James Version the verse reads, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”)
We’re commanded to love our neighbors; to turn the other cheek. The picture of the dutiful Christian is generally one of the mellow peace-loving pacifist, not someone on a table-slinging scene-causing tirade. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple challenges us to consider that the picture of a dutiful Christ-follower evidently includes both.
We believe Our Lord is without sin. His anger must then have had a cause, and not only a cause, but a justified and righteous cause.
And in truth, his anger was justified, and it was righteous.
It was the time of the Passover. Many faithful Jews were traveling from near and far to Jerusalem for this great feast. There was a Temple tax, which was fine and good. If people traveled from different regions with different currency, they needed to make change to pay the Temple Tax. That was also fine and good. But what was not fine and good were the money-changers gouging these faithful pilgrims with outrageous exchange fees.
The faithful also made sacrifices, and again, many who traveled a great distance would need to purchase animals for this purpose. Also fine and good. But what was not fine and good was gouging the faithful pilgrims for the cost of the animal sacrifices.
There was lots of unholy behavior happening in a holy place: selfishness and sin in the name and presence of God, and of the worshipping faithful.
And it made Jesus super mad. And not only does he call out these unholy behaviors, but in-so-doing he also reveals a bit more of himself, and the work he was sent to do.
Calling the Temple his “Father’s House,” was a not-so-subtle way of identifying himself as the Son of God.
The Temple leaders recognize that Jesus actions, and his language, are potentially those of a prophet, so they put the question to him, “Ok, mad guy, you’re acting like a prophet, show us a sign then that you are one; that you are actually sent from God to act and speak the way that you do.”
(We must bear in mind the fact that the Temple leaders knew darn well about the unjust and unholy business being conducted in this holy place. I have to wonder if some of them weren’t shaking in their sandals knowing that Jesus was on to them.)
Jesus response to them is the prophetic climax of the event. He gives them the cryptic answer, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Nobody understands that he is speaking of his own body, not even his disciples, who, St. John tells us only remembered this saying after he was raised from the dead.
We, of course, have the luxury of hearing Jesus words through the lenses of history. In this prophetic action, and in his prophetic words, we see that he was showing his friends and foes alike, just one more glimpse of the New Covenant that he had come to fulfill; and the once-for-all sacrifice that would initiate that New Covenant.
Jesus sacrifice was the fulfillment, and the end of all other sacrifices. It would end the need for repeated sacrifice in the Temple. Jesus is the Sacrifice. And Jesus is the Temple. He is both the victim and priest; the Son of God, the Word of God, and the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world. This momentous transition in God’s Salvation History is all brought to bear in Jesus cleansing of the Temple.
It’s a very important part of the story of Jesus, but what significance does it have for us today?
For starters, in this story we see that there is such a thing as righteous anger – that not all anger is sinful. It’s important for us to know and understand this. In fact, we ought to find ourselves angry with the devil: with Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God – with the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God – and with all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.
(If you recognize those phrases, that’s good, because they’re from our baptismal covenant – where we vow to renounce all of them.)
The Devil is like a bully on the playground of life who is merciless in pushing us around. But we don’t have to just sit there and take it. We should denounce him like Our Lord did, “Get behind me Satan!” We should defend his attacks with Holy Scripture, as Our Lord did in the wilderness. When Jesus tells Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church, we often forget that gates don’t attack – we are the ones that attack the gates of hell and the powers of death with the perfect and unfailing love of God in Christ.
It’s not ok to be hateful – but it’s ok to be angry with evil. We do so in the name of Christ and in defense of his Kingdom.
But there is still more for us to learn from this event.
We see in it that the very nature of the Temple of God is changing. Jesus points away from the building, and towards himself. He refers to his own body as the Temple of God. And the truth is that every Christian – by virtue of our baptism – is also a Temple of the Holy Spirit.
In baptism we are united with Christ and filled with the Holy and unifying Spirit of God. Through Christ, God’s Spirit dwells in us. St. Paul writing to the Corinthians says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own.” As St. Peter writes, we are, each one of us, like living stones, built into a spiritual house. Through Christ, we are Temples, tabernacles of the living God.
In Christ, the nature of the Temple of God may have changed, but God’s desire to keep His Temple pure and Holy has not changed – and will never change.
I used to read this passage and think, “Boy, I’m sure glad I wasn’t one of those money changers, or pigeon sellers, or Temple leaders.
But the reality is that those unholy and sinful acts in the Temple that day, are no different than the unholy and sinful acts in us – who are now Temples of God in Christ.
And so we ask, “What would Our Lord see – and what would he do if he entered into our Temples – our souls and bodies this day? Would he be filled with righteous anger? Would there be anything to cleanse, or purge, or purify?”
St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
… to us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God.
Notice that the phrase “being saved” is a present tense one: it indicates the process of salvation – the process of sanctification Our Lord is working in us through His Holy Spirit.
Our role in this process is to continually choose the cross, to choose God’s will, to choose holiness, and righteousness and truth, to choose to die to ourselves, and be cleansed by the power of God.
Let us continue to choose the cross, that the power of God might be manifested in us and cleanse us, and purify us, that our joy may be complete