The first event after the hosannas of Jesus entering Jerusalem was the cleansing of the temple. Mark records it this way – “Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.”” (Mark 11:15–17, NASB95) As I thought on this I began to wonder about Jesus’ motivation for these actions. His cleansing of the temple seems out of character, a rare moment of anger and aggression. So why then, why there?
In a way, the merchandisers and money changers were performing a valuable service. Travelers and pilgrims could not easily bring the required animals for sacrifice. Nor was it likely that they had the proper currency for the Temple tax. However, like a visit to a modern day sports stadium, the vendors took advantage of their captive audience. How many of us have felt kind of robbed at paying six dollars for a dollar worth of soda (or pop, or coke, or soda pop depending on where you are from). But was this Jesus’ major issue or a symptom of a larger problem? One commentary suggests that, “The temple was not fulfilling its God-ordained role as witness to the nations but had become, like the first temple, the premier symbol of a superstitious belief that God would protect and rally his people irrespective of their conformity to his will.” (EBC) The verse that Jesus quoted as justification for His actions, Isaiah 56:6-7, confirms this thought. “Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, everyone who keeps from profaning the sabbath and holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” God’s goal in establishing the Tabernacle was not to provide an identity for a people, but to provide a place where folks from every nation, tribe, and tongue could encounter God and enter into His covenant. Not only had the buzz of the marketplace drowned out the quiet reverence of the temple, but the “only those who meet our criteria” attitude of the Jewish leaders prevented the temple from fulfilling its God-given purpose. Could it be that Jesus’ anger was sparked not just by the merchants and money changers but more so by the abandonment of God’s desire for the tabernacle?
But what about today, what about us? Those who follow Christ are called the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 3:16, 1 Cor 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16). We now carry the purpose of the temple; to be a house of prayer for all the nations. We too can be, have been, distracted from our God-given purpose – to be a witness to every tribe, tongue, and nation of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Too often our eyes are turned to what we want from God irrespective of our conformity to His will. Like the Temple in Jesus’ day, the issue is not just the distractions but our attitudes and judgements about who is or is not worthy to meet with God. Or, who is and is not worthy of prayer, or to hear to good news of Jesus Christ, or to receive a cup of cold water in His name, or to be clothed and fed in His name, or to be visited when sick or in prison, or cared for in innumerable ways. There is another difference between the Jerusalem temple and today. Back then folks had to go to the temple, today the temple can go to them, no matter who they are or what they have done. The big question for all of us is – if Jesus came to clean out our temple so that we could become a “house of prayer for the nations”, what tables would he overturn? What things would He remove? What attitudes would He change?