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Cleansing the temple

Nov 19, 2014

Jesus cast the bankers out of the temple twice. The first time was near the beginning of His ministry, and the second was toward the end. John 2:13-16 says,

13 And the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated. 15 And He made a scourge of cords and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a house of merchandise.”

This may have been the first Passover of Jesus’ formal ministry. John says that “oxen and sheep and doves” were being sold” the first time Jesus cast them out. But in Matthew 21:12 and Mark 11:15 we read only of those selling “doves.” Likewise, the purpose of each cleansing was as different as the two comings of Christ.

Jesus Consumed by Zeal

In the first cleansing, John 2:17 tells us,

17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Thy house will consume Me.”

This is a prophecy from Psalm 69:9, which was one of the Passover psalms that prophesied of Christ’s death and betrayal at the hands of Judas. The verse reads,

9 For zeal [kina] for Thy house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach [charaph] Thee have fallen on me.

In other words, zeal for maintaining a clean temple would consume Him, and the reproaches (taunts, defiant blasphemies) that were really directed against God would be directed at Jesus. Two verses earlier, it is written, “for Thy sake I have borne reproach.” The word translated “zeal” is kina, whose root is kana, or Cana.

In John’s gospel, Jesus cleansed the temple with “zeal” after He had turned the water to wine at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:11). Hence, John connects Jesus’ first miracle at Cana to David’s prophecy about “zeal” for the Lord’s house. Turning water to wine, then, when applied to the temple in Jerusalem, was the equivalent of transforming it from fleshly religious activity to a true house of prayer as God had designed it to be.

Of course, under the New Covenant, this prophecy applies to our bodies, which are now the temples of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). It is God’s intention to transform our bodies from natural to spiritual, in order that we might truly become houses of prayer, having pure communion with God. We are not to use our bodies as houses of merchandise, nor should we use the church as a profit center at the expense of the people.

The Hebrew word kana is the root word for both Cana and Canaan. Canaan means “lowland,” probably on account of the plain near the Mediterranean Sea. But a Canaanite came to mean a “merchant or trader.” It is so translated in Isaiah 23:8 (“merchants”).

http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=H3667&t=NASB

No doubt this is also the underlying meaning of Zechariah 14:21, where the prophet concludes his prophecy by saying, “And there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts in that day.” While many have taken this to be a racial statement, it actually refers to those priests who had turned the temple into a house of merchandise.

The second chapter of John, then, shows the contrast between Jesus, who changed water to wine and the priests, who had changed the temple from a house of prayer to a house of merchandise. The temple was in need of a re-transformation back to its original purpose, and Jesus did this by casting out the merchant-priests.

Healing the Blind from their Traditions of Men

Just before Jesus was crucified, when Jesus cleansed the temple again, Matthew 21:14 says of this,

14 And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.

Mark 11:16 says that “He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple” for the purpose of selling them at exorbitant rates. Luke, however, gives us no further revelation about Christ’s purpose in cleansing the temple. It is clear, however, that the purpose of this second cleansing was so that the temple could minister properly to the needs of the people—the blind and the lame in particular.

In the greater sense, the whole nation suffered from Jerusalemitis, a condition of spiritual blindness, as Isaiah 29:10-12 had prophesied,

10 For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep, He has shut your eyes, the prophets; and He has covered your heads, the seers. 11 And the entire vision shall be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, “Please read this,” he will say, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, “Please read this.” And he will say, “I cannot read.”

In other words, this blindness is not physical, but spiritual. It prevents both the literate and illiterate from truly reading the word of God with understanding, for the word is like a sealed book. In fact, the next verses tells us the reason for this blindness.

13 Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, 14 therefore … the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be concealed.”

Jesus quoted this passage in Matthew 15:7-9 as an indictment against the religious leaders of His day. Recall that Jesus then took His disciples on a lengthy trip to Phoenicia in order to meet a Canaanite woman. There He showed the disciples an example of great faith (Matthew 15:28), proving that genealogical Canaanites can have faith, too.

The disciples needed this lesson, because they had been raised to believe that all Canaanites were on the level of dogs and were incapable of the kind of faith seen only in those who supposedly had better genetics. They grew up with the idea that the covenants and word of God were only for genealogical Israelites and Judahites. Jesus baited the disciples when the Canaanite woman cried out to Jesus for help, for at first He responded with statements that reflected those traditions of men.

The idea that the law and covenant was given only to Israel was one of the most deeply rooted traditions of men in Judea at the time, and Jesus felt it necessary to take the disciples on a long trip in order to root out that false idea about God’s will and plan for the nations. While it is true that God gave the covenants and law to Israel, it is equally true that there were many foreigners among them. By coming out of Egypt with the Israelites, they were part of the nation of Israel, and as such, they vowed obedience to God along with everyone else.

This, and many other examples, show that the term Israel was often used to describe a nationality, rather than a particular genealogy. In later years, it referred to the northern nation whose capital was Samaria, and at that time the term Israel was used to distinguish that nation from Judah. Obviously, the term was national, rather than racial, since both nations came from Jacob-Israel.

The Dividing Wall

Jesus cleansed the temple, not only to transform it from a house of merchandise to a house of prayer, but also to make it a house of prayer for all people—including Canaanite people. When Jesus cast out the money changers, He quoted two Scriptures in Luke 19:46. The first was from Isaiah 56:7, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” The second was from Jeremiah 7:11, “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

Isaiah’s prophecy was meant to show that the temple was made for foreigners as well as for Israelites, as Solomon had said in 1 Kings 8:41-43. Jeremiah’s prophecy was meant to indict the priestly stewards of the temple for making it a den of robbers, that is, for using the temple for personal gain or for personal advantage. When we put the two ideas together, as Jesus did, we see that Jesus was incensed not only at the merchandising of sacrificial animals, but also for the dividing wall in the temple which kept foreigners from getting too close to God.

That dividing wall, which Jesus came to abolish (Ephesians 2:14, 15), was a major foundation of the “traditions of men” that instilled in the people a divisive spirit that was based on physical genealogy. That tradition persists to this day as part of fleshly religion. The dividing wall created a breach, not only between Jews and foreigners, but also between men and women, for the inner court was accessible only to Jewish men. All women were restricted to the Court of the Gentiles.

This dividing wall represented the greatest spiritual breach in Scripture, and Dr. Luke’s main concern was to write a gospel that specifically addressed this problem. No doubt Luke and Paul had discussed this issue thoroughly over the years during their travels. In fact, Paul’s entire ministry was devoted to repairing this breach, and for this reason He was hated and opposed by the synagogues wherever he went.

The dividing wall was not commanded either in Moses’ day (in the tabernacle) nor later in the building of Solomon’s temple. I have found no record showing when this dividing wall was built. Was it part of the second temple in the time of Zerubbabel? I doubt it. All we know is that when King Herod reconstructed the temple into the massive structure just before Jesus was born, a dividing wall was built in the court yard.

The Law Declares the Heart of God

The primary victims of this dividing wall were foreigners and women. By abolishing this dividing wall, Jesus reconstituted their rights as victims of the traditions of men. Further, He established the law of impartiality that was given as part of the law of equal weights and measures. Leviticus 19:33-36 says,

33 When a stranger [foreigner] resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. 35 You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity. 36 You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin; I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt.

It appears that God had brought Israel into Egypt in order to learn what it means to be oppressed and mistreated as a foreigner. They ought to have learned by personal and national experience that such unequal treatment and lack of love was not consistent with the character of God. The divine command is, “you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” This was then linked to the law of equal weights and measures. There were to be no double standards in the land, whether these were in weights, measures of length, measures of capacity, or measures of justice meted out to the people.

These laws were being violated in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus came to cleanse the temple. He came to heal the blind and the lame. He came also to transform the temple from a house of merchandise (and a den of robbers) back to its original purpose as a house of prayer for all people, regardless of their genealogy or nationality.


This is the 107th part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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