Jesus Cleanses the Temple

When I was a kid, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple confused me. Why would Jesus overturn tables? Why did He make a whip and why would He run animals out of the temple? I remember Sunday school teachers telling this story but they never explained the “why.” After all, what was so wrong with what these people were doing? And isn’t it wrong to get angry?

To understand this story better and to answer these questions, we first need to understand the background of what happened:

There were three great festivals in the Jewish year that were seen as the proper times for payment of the temple tax: Passover, Pentecost (Shavuot) and the Feast of Tabernacles. According to the religious leaders’ interpretation of Scripture in Exodus 30:12-13 and 38:25, every male Jew over the age of 20 had to give a “half shekel” contribution to the temple. In Jesus’ day a half-shekel was worth about two days wages paid to the average worker. 

The temple tax was intended for the upkeep of the temple and after the return under Nehemiah, even Jews that were dispersed outside of Israel continued to pay the temple tax. Josephus recorded that at the end of the 30’s B.C. “many tens of thousands” of Babylonian Jews guarded the convoy taking the tax to Jerusalem (Ant. 18.313).

However, the talmud, which contains Jewish rabbinical teachings, instructed that the temple tax had to be paid with a coin of the highest silver purity. This was a man-made stipulation and not one given in Scripture. Nevertheless, the primary coin in Jesus’ day that qualified for the silver content was the “shekel of Tyre.” Romans coins were only about 80% silver but the Tyrian coins were composed of 94% or more in its silver content. 

The Tyrian shekel was a silver coin that was minted by the Phoenician city of Tyre and was produced from 126 B.C. to 57 A.D. On one side the shekel had the head of Melqart, the god of Tyre, also known as “Baal” or “Heracles.” The reverse side showed an eagle and was inscribed with the statement “Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable,” essentially meaning the “holy city that is never to be broken or dishonored” or the “holy city of refuge.” 

This coin created an issue with religious Jews of Jesus’ day. The inscriptions were contrary to the second commandment for not making graven images. Exodus 20:4 says, “You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” 

The Tyrian shekel was engraved with a depiction of a “foreign” god as well as an eagle. It was further offensive because it called Tyre the “holy city.” 

Because of this, many Jews would not carry the Tyrian shekel but since it was the only coin accepted for the temple tax, money-changers were set up in the temple courtyards. A devout Jew would bring his Jewish money to the temple and exchange it for a Tyrian shekel with which he would pay the temple tax. But the money-changers charged outrageous rates for this service, which was part of what made Jesus indignant and the reason He turned over their tables and rebuked them for making the temple a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). 

But there was a second reason that Jesus was angered by the “marketplace” that they had created. People would often bring their own animals for sacrifice which first had to be inspected by the priests to make sure that they met Scriptural standards. Under Annas’ leadership, both when he was the high priest as well as the influence he wielded afterwards, animals were often rejected, forcing the worshipers to purchase “approved” animals from the sellers in the temple courtyard who again charged exorbitant prices and shared profits with the priests and as well as Annas and Caiaphas, the current high priest in Jesus’ day who was also Annas’ son-in-law. This is the reason that Jesus drove both the money-changers and the animals out of the temple on more than one occasion.

Jesus’ first cleansing of the temple is described in John 2:13-22 and occurred just after Jesus’ first miracle, turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. John 2:13-17 says,

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, and the changers of money sitting. He made a whip of cords, and threw all out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the changers’ money and overthrew their tables. To those who sold the doves, he said, “Take these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a marketplace!” He drove them all out of the temple with the sheep and oxen and poured out the changers’ money and overthrew their tables.

The second time Jesus cleansed the temple occurred just after His “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem during the last week of His life (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, and Luke 19:45–48). This second occurrence is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke but not in John. In the second instance, there is no mention of Jesus using a whip. The religious leaders also confronted Him the following day when during the first event the temple officials confronted Him immediately. The first time Jesus said, “Take these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a marketplace!” The second time He stated, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers!”

So let’s get back to one of the questions, “Is it wrong to get angry?” In answer we need to turn to the character of God:

  • Did God ever get angry? Yes, throughout Scripture you can clearly see God’s anger at sin. 
  • Did Jesus ever get angry? Yes, twice He ran money-changers and people selling animals out of the temple but in both of these stories, you can also see three aspects of righteous anger. 

When you are angry, the first question to ask is: Am I angry for the right reason? 

Jesus was indignant about what they were doing because they were taking advantage of sincere worshippers. 

Second, did you notice that Jesus overturned the money tables and ran out the animals but He didn’t release the birds? Money can be picked up. Animals can be re-gathered but birds would have flown away. They would have been lost to their owners. In other words, even in His anger Jesus was under complete control and even showed mercy. He didn’t fly into a rage when He saw what was happening. He didn’t overturn tables in a tantrum. In John 2 He went out and made a whip. This was planned. He was in complete control.

If anger is righteous, it will first be angry for the right reason. Then it will have the right response. 

It is possible to be angry for the right reason and to have the wrong response. For example, let’s say you see someone bullying a kid and taking his lunch money. You are angry for the right reason. So you hit him with a baseball bat…Totally wrong response. 

When you are angry, make sure you are angry for the right reason. Then make sure you have the right response. Finally, make sure that you take care of your anger in the right time. Ephesians 4:26 says not to let the sun go down on your wrath. This doesn’t mean that you’re in a race against the sunset but that you need to take care of your anger in a timely manner. Don’t stew in it. Don’t let it sit. Don’t let it turn into bitterness. Get it taken care of.  

So, here are the three questions you need to ask when you are angry, all three of which you see carried out in Jesus cleansing the temple:

  • Am I angry for the right reason?
  • Am I having the right response?
  • Am I taking care of it in the right time?
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