John 2:13-25 – Jesus Clears the Temple Courts

If you’ve been to other parts of the world, chances are you’ve seen an ancient temple. Although we don’t find them much in North America, temples are common features in most older cultures. From Asian temples like Angkor Wat, to Egyptian temples honoring Isis and Osiris, to Incan temples in the Yucatan, to the classical Greek Acropolis some temples are in use today, but most are just empty relics of days gone by.

In today’s story, Jesus continues His mission to clean house, to attack false religion and usher in the age of worship in Spirit and truth by cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem. In many ways, the cleansing of the temple is a continuation of the miracle of the wedding wine from last week, where the flavorless, watered-down old ways are being replaced with the new wine of Spirit and truth. 

The setting for this story is the annual Passover season, when the temple courts are buzzing with visitors from all over the known world gathered to worship the God of the Jews. To fulfill their pilgrimage, temple worshippers would be required to do two things: sacrifice a dove or a lamb, and pay the yearly temple tax in the temple currency (no coins with graven images of Caesar allowed).

That’s why we have caged doves for sale and tables where money can be exchanged.

But Jesus is incensed about this and he makes a whip to drive out the animals, then throws the coins of the money changers across the courtyard, flipping their tables and benches over. 

“Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (v16b)

No sweet baby Jesus, tender and mild, here!

The worshippers, the sellers, and the temple leaders are understandably angry, and they ask Jesus just who he thinks he is.

“What 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.”

They 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.  (v 18b-21)

Jesus offers as proof of His authority His death and resurrection, but that imagery is lost on His accusers that day. It would soon become apparent to them, however.

Three Temples

In today’s story there are three temples we need to consider. The old stone temple, Jesus the temple, and we the temple.

The Stone Temple

The old stone temple began as a tent, a tabernacle in the wilderness that the freed Hebrew slaves toted around with them from encampment to encampment. Later, around 1000 BC, David’s son Solomon built an elaborate temple in Jerusalem.  That temple was destroyed by the Babylonians a few hundred years later, then rebuilt by Zerubbabel (the Priest Ezra) when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon around 500 BC. Eventually, Herod the Great provided for a major refurbishment of the temple before the birth of Christ, and that project continued for more than 60 years. In today’s text we are seeing the temple partway through that construction project. 

In 70 AD, however, forty years after the resurrection, the temple was finally destroyed by the Roman Titus in order to suppress the people of Judea once and for all. Its remains lie buried under centuries of rubble in Jerusalem, currently on land occupied by the Al Aqsa Mosque.

You can see why, however, the Jewish leaders would be upset when Jesus said something about them destroying the temple. It had a long history of being destroyed, and they wanted no part in that.

While there are those who would like to rebuild the temple today, we know that for Christians, the temple is no longer anything other than a rock heap. By the grace of God, the temple where God allows his name to rest is inside of you and me, and we no longer need a physical place in order to commune with God. 

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17.24)

Jesus, the Temple

In today's story, Jesus calls his body a temple, and claims that if they destroy it, he will rebuild it in three days. This is, again, a clear reference to his crucifixion and resurrection which would come later. But it also sets a new precedent that the old temple and it's worship services would soon no longer be required.

We, the Temple

Finally, when we read this passage today in the light of the New Testament, we cannot miss that this is also an obvious reference to the church, collectively, and to each believer, individually. 

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3.16)

We are the temple. When Jesus condemns false worship in the temple, he is de facto condemning false worship in us. 

The severity of his judgment on false worship should give each of us a sobering slap in the face as we consider the state of worship in His new temple: our lives.

Jesus seldom shows His anger in the gospels, but when he does it usually has to do with injustice toward the oppressed and hypocrisy among those who claim to be his people. The particular hypocrisy of false worship, also known as profanity, is what He takes special aim at today.

Whip It Good

So, let’s crack that whip and take a deep dive into the world of profanity. Profane simply means unholy, or that which disrespects God. It is literally the opposite of worship. It comes from the Latin, pro faunus, which means outside the temple. 

Bear in mind that Jesus is consumed with a desire to restore us to worship in spirit and truth.

Because He is zealous for true Spirit worship, he must express his anger at false self worship, also known as profanity.

John reveals three kinds of profanity, or false worship in today’s passage: Caging the Spirit, Commercialising the Spirit through Buying, and Commercializing the Spirit through Selling.

Let’s go forward, move ahead, try to detect it, lest Jesus put a whip to us.

Caging the Spirit

John mentions cattle, sheep, and doves for sale, but pays particular attention to the doves in verse 16: 

To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here!’

Interestingly, even though cattle and sheep were surely present, two of the other gospel writers, Matthew and Mark only mention doves, while Luke names no specific animal – clearly the doves were of particular importance to Matthew, Mark, and John.

Why do you suppose that is? Can you think of someone the gospel writers associate with a Dove? Hint: A person of the Godhead? Anyone? Right. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove. We could go into all the reasons for that, but it makes this episode very interesting when we realize that some of us want the Holy Spirit in our lives, but only locked up in a cage where we can control Him. 

You see, the Holy Spirit, when left to do as He pleases, will make certain demands. He will ask us to change some of our ways. He will convict us of sin. And so it is easier just to handcuff the Spirit; to cover Him up, and only let Him out when we need something. 

Does this strike a chord with you? Have you seen it in others? They’ve seen it in you! And I’m sure, if you’ve been watching you’ve seen it in me from time to time. 

Caging the Spirit is just one of the profanities that stirs Jesus to anger.

Now let’s look at commercializing the Spirit, both buying and selling.

Commercializing the Spirit

I am always shocked at the ways people try to buy and sell God. Oh, not God exactly, but God’s favor. Let’s call it that. This type of profanity, or anti-worship – the commercialization of the Spirit – is symbolized by the money changers in today’s story

Every once in a while, this buying and selling of the Spirit’s favor literally involves cash. You’ve seen corrupt TV preachers, but it goes way back. From Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel, to Ananias, Sapphira, and Simon Magus in Acts – there are plenty of people who think they can buy and sell God’s favor. 

More often, however, the currency is social approval and spiritual control. False teachers often prey on those who want acceptance and approval, and offer to provide that if the buyer will give them what they want. By the same token, “buyers” are all-too-eager to be taken advantage of by manipulators, and will often do anything that is asked of them in hopes that it will secure them God’s favor.

To make matters even more complicated, just as the bullied become bullies, and victims become victimizers, and the abused become abusers, those who are manipulated by spiritual hucksters often become spirit mongers themselves.

Neither those who attempt to buy God’s favor, nor those who attempt to sell it, will find it. Instead, they will discover Jesus’ deep disappointment.

The Holy Spirit is not for sale. God’s favor is not bought or sold. It is freely given to those who trust and obey, who follow Jesus and commune with Him directly.

Let us beware of our own latent tendencies to commercialize the Holy Spirit by allowing ourselves to be manipulated, or by manipulating others.

A Final Warning

John leaves us today with a final warning: 

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. (John 2.23-25)

Jeremiah 17.9-10 says:

The heart is deceitful above all things
    and beyond cure.
    Who can understand it?

“I the Lord search the heart
    and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
    according to what their deeds deserve.”

John uses the same Greek verb here in verses 23 and 24: “pisteuo” for both “believe” and “entrust.” The people believed Him, but He refused to entrust himself to them, because he knew what Jeremiah 17.9 said was true: the human heart, for all of it’s poetry and high notions, is forever prone to even greater wickedness and unpredictability.  

They were willing to entrust themselves to Him, but He was not willing to entrust himself to them.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Just follow your heart”?  We have all sorts of vandals here at the church. One of them, who seems to be a philosopher, tagged our dumpster with these sage words, obviously aimed at churchgoers: “Believe in yourself. Faith in God will follow.” Setting aside the arrogance it takes to paint one’s philosophy on another person’s property, that sentiment was placed precisely where it belongs: the dumpster. 

Oh, I know that isn’t very hip of me to say. After all, who could argue with the saccharine sedatives of “Just follow your heart” or “Just believe in yourself.” 

Well, for starters, I could argue with it plenty. I want you to imagine your least favorite political leader of all time. Now, ask yourself: do you think they followed their heart? Do you think they believed in themselves? From Pharaoh to Pol Pot, from Tiberius to the Taliban, surely we can agree that following one’s heart and believing in ones’ self are practically prerequisite for an evil dictator. 

The problem with the follow-your-heart philosophy is that it makes a faulty assumption: that the human heart is predictably good. When in truth, our hearts are really just the opposite: predictably broken.

That’s why Jesus doesn’t entrust himself to the crowds. He knows that they might be praising him now, but they will stab him in the back tomorrow.

As we finish today, let’s remember that the gospel is not about the light of God intersecting with a world that is already full of light and human goodness. No, if we are going to hear anything about Jesus in John’s gospel, it is that He is the light, and the world is wandering in darkness. 

The point of John’s gospel is to lead us to belief. Not belief in ourselves, but belief in God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ. If we approach Jesus expecting him to strike a bargain with us based on our virtue, we are sorely mistaken. He did not come to merge our darkness with his light to come up with some dim mixture of light and dark, but to completely overwhelm and drive out our darkness. Like pinholes of light shining into the darkness of our caves, these stories of Jesus illuminate our souls.

Young people… Old people … Believers … Skeptics … Go forward. Move ahead.  if there is one thing John is saying to us it is this: Do not follow your heart. It is desperately wicked and dark, even on your best day. Neither believe in yourself. 

Instead, believe in Him.

Lord, I thank you that it is not too late for you to whip us into shape. Clear out the courts of our hearts. Put away the profanity that aims to worship ourselves, that ties down the Spirit, and puts your favor up for sale. Show us how to worship you in Spirit and truth.