notre dame montreal

Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden

John Chapter 2   The Cleansing of the Temple

John 2
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me." Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?"
Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."
The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken


The sermon looks at two things which seem to make Jesus angry in the passage from John.

  1. The first is his anger at what was going on in the Jewish Temple.
  2. The second is Jesus apparent anger with the Temple and Judaism itself.


1. Jesus anger at what was going on in the Temple

Imagine if you can what it would have been like in the temple at the time when Jesus went there and the incident took place which we read in the Gospel today.

What was going on, on the face of it was good. Here was a place of worship, where people went on pilgrimage. People were making their sacrifices to God for their sins, as commanded by God.

But think what it must have been like. It has been estimated (Jeremias) that the population of Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 to 180,000 for Passover. Can you imagine what the atmosphere would have been like? The crowds, the confusion, the noise and smells?

When you think of the scene in which Jesus goes to the Temple to overturn the tables, remember that it was not like going into a church, In fact ordinary people didn’t go inside the Temple at all, they went into something more like a market place in the Temple precincts. It would have been a place of blood and dirt, like an abattoir with all of the animals being sold and killed.

It was vital to have all these traders selling animals and changing money. People needed to obtain unblemished animals to sacrifice and only Tyrian coins could be used for the temple tax according to the Mishnah. The Romans would not allow Jews to mint their own coins and Tyrian coins were noted for the high purity of their silver, ensuring accurate weight. It is thought that the money changers charged about 2-4% for the service.

So if the stuff was necessary, why was Jesus so annoyed.

I am guessing but I can imagine what kinds of activities and conversation were taking place.

  • As people came and brought animals they were inspected by the priests to see if they were suitable for sacrifice. Remember that the priests would have benefited from the animals after sacrifice, this was dinner and there would be dealing in the dead meat afterwards.
  • Then people were trying to buy animals to sacrifice, perhaps after being told that the one they brought was not good enough.
  • Before they could do this they had to convert their money into acceptable coins.
  • And then think of all those poor animals bleating and screaming and trying to escape the certain death. With over a hundred thousand pilgrims in the city to make their sacrifices at the temple, it seems likely that there would be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sheep and cattle. The noise and smell would be overwhelming.We have all seen the dealers on the stock exchange, shouting and waving hands as they buy and sell. The scene would have been like a cross between those dealers on the stock exchange dealing in money and Crufts.

There would have been all manner of arguing and cheating and all kinds of trouble, and I can guess that the ones who suffered the most were the less well off, the one’s who could least afford it, who were not able to stand up for themselves. The sacrificial system as prescribed by Torah is a messy, bloody, smelly business, but we can all imagine the commercial abuses which were going on.

So Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and commands the sellers of birds to take them away. Something which was intended to bring people closer to God, was actually a hindrance.


2. Jesus dislike of the religious system itself.

But there was more going on in this story than just Jesus cleaning up the religious system.
Jesus didn’t want to clear it up. He wanted to get rid of it.

We begin by noticing that the episode takes place at the ‘Passover of the Jews.’ The NIV Jewish Passover doesn’t quite capture the Greek the ‘them and us’ import of the phrase.

The Passover Festival was derived from the episode in Egypt. It was of enormous importance for the Jew and their understanding of identity and salvation. It was at this most significant festival, in the most important and holy place that Jesus decided to carry out this very visual and high profile attack.

Incidentally, John mentions three distinct Passovers in his Gospel, which leads us to believe that the ministry of Jesus lasted three years. ( 2:13, 6:4, 11:55). That is a helpful piece of historical information.

All four Gospels tell the story of the cleansing of the temple (see Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), but the Synoptics place it near the end of Jesus' life whereas John's Gospel places the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It makes sense that the cleansing took place at the end, as the precipitating incident for the crucifixion.
There is some reason to suppose that John would have known Mark’s Gospel, when he wrote his own, if so, then it is even more interesting that he places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus ministry.

So why does John put it at the start?

Firstly, we need to remember that for the Gospel writers chronology was of little importance in comparison to the theological message which they were intending to convey. John wants to make his Gospel about Jesus as the fulfilment of the religion of the Jews, hence phrases such as ‘Passover of the Jews.’ The point being of course, that Christians no longer had need of such a festival. The Passover has been fulfilled in Jesus. The incident takes place at Passover, a time of death and sacrifice, because it is the death of Jesus which ends brings the need for a Passover to an end. Humankind would no longer need to purge guilt by placing onto animals the blame for their own sins.

John wants to establish right at the start of his writing what Jesus was about. He represented the end of the old of the old order and the beginning of the new. So it is that John starts his Gospel by showing that Jesus brings a new order, a transformation of religion and a time when sacrificial worship is brought to an end. The death of Jesus brings death itself to an end. Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises of God, he is about nothing less than the complete reconstitution of the worship of Israel around himself. The temple will become redundant, it will have no more purpose, it is obsolete. Rather it is the body of Jesus which is to be the true Temple.

It may well be that some of the trading which was going on in the temple precincts was inappropriate, but we miss the point of this episode if we think that this is what Jesus was so angry about. Jesus takes on the opposition fearlessly and his actions recalled to the disciples the passage from the Old Testament
‘Zeal for thy house will consume me.’ Psalm 69:9
Make no mistake, Jesus did not have this zeal because he was on a mission to stop corruption, he has a much bigger target than that. Jesus is not involved in a clean up exercise, he wants nothing less than an end to the Jewish religion itself.

The response of the Jews

The Gospel writer John tells us that the Jews when confronted by Jesus and his words completely misunderstand what he is saying. They demand a sign and then think from Jesus response that he is saying he can rebuild the temple in three days which has already taken 46 years.
They can only think in terms of the physical and material, they are incapable of discerning the spiritual truths,

The disciples would have understood Jesus words so clearly after the resurrection, it was he who would be raised in three days, and it is his he who will come to be the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, not a physical building.

You can see that John is not a lover of the temple! He sees Jesus as the place of worship, not the building.


Our response

So what will our response be this Lent to the words of Jesus? I suggest that we have to think on two levels, a personal response and a corporate response

1. Personal response

This Lenten season calls us to reflect on who we are and how we behave. There is no room in the Christian life for spiritual complacency.

Let each one of us examine what effect our religious faith and practice faith has on our lives. We need to take to our hearts Jesus desire that there should be true religion which brings us closer to God, not creating barriers. There is often the presumption that our religion is good, but religious practice can be a hindrance and not a help. Religion is not always a good thing. We can all think of examples of where religion does not make better people.

  • Do we share the same zeal as Jesus to make our lives places of prayer, a meeting place with God ?
  • Are we prepared this Lent to allow God by his Holy Spirit to make us cleansed temples ?
  • What prevents us from being the temple on earth that Jesus was so zealous to have ?


2. Corporate response

We certainly must be careful to ensure that our worship is honouring to God.

Our worship and liturgy must be celebrated with reverence and obvious signs of

We need to be more openly welcoming to outsiders and strangers.

I read one sermon on this passage where the preacher was reflecting on our hospitality to visitors, and suggested that when we pass the offering plate, we should announce that people who were visiting the church are not expected to give because they are guests.

Perhaps not!

But in what ways might we better become a place where anyone seeking God might feel they are welcome, safe, and free to enter?

There is also the need for us, like Jesus to be angry in the face of abuses.

There is a need for righteous anger in the face of injustice, extortion, and especially, the exploitation of vulnerable people. Righteous anger is about taking of control, a move out of passive acceptance and toward change.

Anger at such things is not a bad thing. It is a good, cleansing thing. Such anger is not the opposite of love. Anger at injustice is an appropriate expression of love -- it is a cry for righteousness.

Righteous anger is not a loss of control. Jesus is not out of control in this reading -- he's very clear about the targets of his wrath.

St. Augustine of Hippo said,

"Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage:
Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

The cleansing of the temple is a stark warning against any false sense of security. The Christian is led by the example of Jesus to confront evil and take the initiative in attacking that which dishonours God in human life. I think immediately of the phrase attributed to Edmund Burke,

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil in the world is for good men to do nothing.’

You can see that this is a very appropriate passage for Lent. A challenge to us all, personally and as a Christian community. May God open our eyes to our real selves that we might discover possibilities for change. And may we seek his power in enabling us to be the living witness which he calls us to be.

Closing Prayer

"Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant from willful sins; may they not rule over me...May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer" (Psalm 19:12–14).