The Cleansing of the Temple
Tim Temple


We come to a very well known story about the cleansing of the temple. It is one of those passages which we have to be careful to pay attention to because we are so familiar with many of these things that there is a tendency to “check out” and think about other things. I hope that you won't do that because there is always something new to be seen in the Scripture, no matter how familiar you are with it. I have been reminded of that as I have been studying this Gospel these weeks in preparation for teaching it.

Somebody has labeled this chapter as a study in contrasts, and it really is that. The primary contrast is between the loving, generous help that Jesus gave to a family who had run out of wine at their wedding and were about to be embarrassed and the stern rebuke of the money-changers. As we studied verses 1-11 in our last lesson, we saw that there was a possibility that it might have been Jesus' own family. In that kind and gracious provision of wine, by way of a miracle at the wedding in Cana, He demonstrated His goodness and grace in not only doing something that proved Who He was, but in doing that which also helped people who were in need.

As we come to verses 12-17, we are going to see the other end of the spectrum, and we are going to see a stern rebuke and overthrow of the money changers in the temple. We will also see another contrast—the contrast between the God of glory Who had been receiving praises from angels and human beings from the beginning of time and the fallen, rebellious creatures who make a mockery of all that is precious to Him.

We have divided the chapter into three parts: in verses 1-11, the courtesy at the wedding; in verses 12-17, the cleansing of the temple; in verses 18-22, the confusion of the skeptics.

Corruption In the Temple

In our last study, we looked at the courtesy that Jesus showed this poor family who had run out of wine and were about to be humiliated in that Middle Eastern culture. Now we want to look at the cleansing of the temple which is described in verses 12-17. The first thing that we find there is a discovery that Jesus makes in verses 13-14:

John 2

13And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:

If we were reading or studying this straight through, we would find an immediate total change of atmosphere between what we read in these verses and what we saw in the first eleven verses. In that previous section, He had been an invited guest at that wedding in Galilee. He gave commands and the commands were obeyed. It is obvious that He is the Son of God, doing gracious things for people around Him. Then with just a few days' rest, He moves to Jerusalem. He comes to the religious center of Israel, where He should have been most easily recognized and appreciated. There it is a completely different story. Instead of being accepted and admired and obeyed, He is in a place where everything He holds dear is being made a mockery of.

The text doesn't tell us this. I think John just assumed that his readers would understand it. His original readers would have understood it without being told, but Jesus comes to Jerusalem in this passage because the law said in Exodus, chapter 34, and in Deuteronomy, chapter 12, that every Jewish male over the age of twenty years was to come to Jerusalem three times a year for feast days, the most important of which was the Passover. Every worshiper who came was to bring a bullock, a lamb, or a dove, depending on their financial ability. They were to bring the best offering they could bring, and they were to offer it there as a burnt offering or a trespass offering as a part of the observance of those feasts. Those sacrifices had been designed by God to picture the eventual true sacrifice of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The law also said that those animals were to be examined. The priest was to carefully check them over to see if they were worthy of sacrifice. This was another part of the picture of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. These animals were to be what today we would call show-quality animals . They were to be perfect and without blemish. In fact, they were to be taken at birth. Every time there was a new flock born, they were to examine the flock and find the most perfect specimen in the flock. They were to keep it separate from the flock and make sure that it was not damaged or blemished in any way. That was the animal that they were to bring to Jerusalem. You can see how that pictures the Lord Jesus Christ as the sinless Lamb of God.

That is where this part of the chapter comes into play, because over the years as Israel had gotten farther and farther away from God and from the law of God, they were participating in these kinds of things just as a ritual, not really giving it any thought. That may sound familiar to us in our day and time—religious observance without any real thought to the significance of it. Because of that, the godless priests, who were in control of things by the time the Lord Jesus came on the scene, would in most cases simply declare all the animals unfit. They would just make a cursory examination and declare for whatever reason that this or that animal was unfit. Then the worshiper would have to come up with another animal. The only way of doing that was to buy an animal that the priest had there at the temple for sacrifice. Of course, they had to buy those animals at exorbitant prices.

Another trick of those corrupt priests was what they called the temple tax . Each year the worshipers were to pay a half-shekel. The shekel was a Jewish coin. By the time Jesus was on the earth, the Roman Empire was in control of things, and in most cases, they used Roman money. Jewish money was no longer in much use. It was kind of like confederate currency in our society, so the priest had an opening there, because they demanded that only an ancient half-shekel be used because that was what the law specified. They had set up an elaborate system of money-changing there where they would exchange Roman money for Jewish money. They also charged exorbitant exchange rates in doing that. These priests were literally getting rich at the hands of sincere worshipers who had made this trip in obedience to the Word of God.

Probably the most offensive part of all of this was that it took place inside the very walls of the temple of God. Not only was it merchandising worship, but it also disgraced the very purpose for which the temple was built. It ruined the worshipful attitude with the noise of the animals and the shouts of the traders and all of the hubbub going on in the place that was supposed to be a house of prayer.

This is a technicality, but you need to know also that the three other Gospels speak of Jesus' cleansing the temple just before His death, but John has it at the beginning of His ministry. Matthew, chapter 21, verses 12-17, Mark, chapter 11, verses 15-18, and Luke, chapter 19, verses 45-48, are the references that you might read when you have time. Each of these three Gospels clearly states that the cleansing of the temple took place just before the death of Christ, and the critics have claimed that this is a contradiction in Scripture. Some have concluded that John just misplaced the passage and has it out of place for whatever reason. Of course, that is a possibility because John did deliberately take various things out of their chronological order to make a point that he was trying to make. John is not necessarily writing his Gospel in chronological order, although it is mostly in chronological order. However, this is a big change to move it from the end of His ministry to the beginning of His ministry.

Another possibility and one that most Bible scholars accept is the fact that there were two cleansings of the temple—one at the beginning of His ministry and one at the end of His ministry. If that is true, John may have included this one because the others left it out. John wrote his book last, and if there were two, he may have mentioned this one because the others didn't mention it. It also includes a true picture or sign of what Jesus came to do as Messiah. Remember, that was one of John's big themes. He emphasized the signs that Jesus gave.

Look at Malachi, chapter 3, verses 3-4:

Malachi 3

3And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.
4Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the LORD, as in the days of old, and as in former years.

That seems to be a clear prophecy of what Jesus did here in cleansing the temple. The prophecy had to do particularly with the priests and the purging of them so offerings could be made in righteousness. This seems to be a clear prophecy of the cleansing of the temple.

John may have chosen that here at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus as a sign of Who Jesus was and what He came to do. In fact, no doubt that is what he had in mind whether he is just describing the cleansing of the temple out of its actual order or whether there were two cleansings of the temple. Either way, Malachi, chapter 3, verses 3-4, is a clear prophecy of this.

If you compare the details of the account John gives and the accounts the other three Gospels give, you find that there are some significant differences. Matthew says, “The children shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David',” but John doesn't say anything about children in his account. In John, chapter 2, verse 18, the Jews ask Jesus for a sign of His authority for doing that, but the other Gospels don't mention that. I believe that there were probably two cleansings of the temple—one at the beginning of His ministry and one at the end of His ministry.

Another reason that that makes sense is that the other Gospels tell about the cleansing of the temple as being the catalyst for really putting in motion the final events of Jesus' life—His arrest, trial and ultimately, the crucifixion. The Jewish leaders were so enraged at Jesus' cleansing the temple like this, and though none of the Gospels say that is what put it in motion, if you read through there, it seems that is when the Jews got the most agitated and began those events that led right up to His crucifixion.

The reason that I say the two cleansings of the temple makes sense is that John's account is so different, for one thing, but also if there had been a first cleansing and then Jesus had come back two years later and did it again, those Jewish priests and leaders might have been like the person who says in our day, “Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.” They just weren't going to have it twice, and it enraged them to the point that they went ahead with their plans to kill Him. At any rate, those are things that you need to know if you are going to be well taught about the Gospel of John. There is that difference between John and the other three Gospels.

The Dispatch of the Traders From the Temple

In verse 15, we find the dispatch of the traders from the temple:

John 2

15And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables;

Just try to imagine for a minute the majesty and holiness of God that was probably displayed in Jesus' face as He brought about this demonstration of righteous indignation. Think how righteously angry He must have been—He who sat in on the design of the temple in Heaven, He who observed as He gave Moses the plans for the tabernacle on earth and watched as people sincerely with hearts of pure faith bring those sacrifices to the tabernacle and later to Solomon's temple year after year. Just imagine how the God of glory must have looked in His human form as He went through the temple that day knocking over tables and driving these animals out of there. This must have been a terrifying thing for people to see.

John tells us that He made a whip of cords, and John is the only one who tells us that. That is another difference between John's account and the other accounts. Jesus probably didn't need the whip. I imagine they could see on His face the anger and the righteousness combined as He went through the courtyard doing this. I think this incident should help dispel the notion of Jesus as a wimp which is so commonly foisted upon us.

I have never seen a movie or a dramatization of the life of Jesus yet that comes anywhere near looking like I think Jesus must have looked. I think that Jesus was a man's man. I think He must have looked like some of those World War II heroes and some of those Viet Nam veterans, a man in the highest sense of the word and yet, a man who didn't have any of the tainting of sin in His face or in His features.

For whatever reason, most people who project Jesus have Him as a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, wimpy and sissy. That is one of my pet peeves. This incident would have shown Jesus as He really was. It would have really taken quite a bit of strength to go through there and drive those money-changers out. After all, these were Jewish merchants, and it is not easy to separate a Jewish merchant from his merchandise. Jesus accomplished that in quick order. It would have taken some strength to turn over those tables. In that day, they had not yet started to make tables out of aluminum. They made them out of oak or some other heavy wood, and Jesus, apparently without anybody else's help, turned those tables over, scattered that money, and drove the animals out of the courtyard. Nobody helped Him, and He did that over the protest of the people who had brought the animals in there and had planned to make money with them. This was a tremendous display of manliness and strength and courage, I believe.

In verse 16, the dispatch was accompanied by the discourse:

John 2

16And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.

This is the key to the whole episode. In a way like no other man, this was His Father's house, and He, unlike anybody else, could refer to it as My Father's house . The other Gospels tell us that His Father's house was to be a house of prayer, but they had made it a den of thieves, so Jesus was angry.

Another sideline lesson that we can learn from this is that anger in itself is not a sin. The Scripture tells us that God is angry with the righteous every day, and this passage makes it clear that Jesus was angry. A better term for it would probably be righteous indignation because Jesus was not sinfully angry; but the fact that Jesus had these emotions and yet is said to have never sinned indicates to us that anger by itself is not a sin. The Scripture tells us, “Be angry and sin not.” Sin enters when we become so angry that we are not responsible for what we do and say. Jesus was angry with a righteous anger, with a holy indignation.

A Demonstration of Truth

Verse 17 records the demonstration of truth that this was for the disciples:

John 2

17And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.

That is a quotation of Psalm 69, verse 9, which was always taken to refer to the Messiah. Until this incident took place, nobody knew what that verse meant. The Bible scholars of those days knew that it was something that would be true of the Messiah when He came, but the disciples remembered that Psalm when they saw how angry Jesus was. They saw that it was literally true of Him. The zeal for God's house had eaten Jesus up.

It is interesting to me how often the Scripture uses terms that we are familiar with. “You know, So-and-So is eaten up with those feelings. He is just eaten up with that cause.” This Scripture said that that would be true of the Messiah. He would be eaten up with the desecration of His Father's house, His house.

The result of this incident was the further strengthening of the disciples' faith. They had been strengthened when they saw Him do the miracle at the wedding; and a few days later they have this incident, which shows them further that He truly must be the Messiah.

Confusion of the Skeptics

The next paragraph is going to reveal that it had exactly the opposite effect on His enemy. Chapter 2 is a study in contrasts. We have seen the cleansing of the temple, but it continues in verses 18-22 with the confusion of the skeptics. First, there is the confusing sign that Jesus gives them in verses 18-20:

John 2

18Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?

Let's think about this question for a moment: “What sign shewest thou unto us?” The disciples, who were ignorant and unlearned men, as somebody was going to describe them a few years later, had immediately sensed the truth of the Scripture. Here were these men, who had studied the Old Testament all their lives, and they did not have that Scripture brought to mind. They were not positive enough toward God and the Word of God that they even remembered that the Scripture had said something like this was going to happen. They were so negative and their minds were so closed against Jesus Christ being the Messiah that apparently that Scripture didn't even come to mind. Jesus had given a sign that He was the Messiah by having the zeal of the Father's house eat Him up like it did, and here they come saying, “What sign do You show us since You do these things?” The request itself was a sign of their unbelief. If they had been in tune with God, they would have had the same reaction that the disciples had.

In asking for this sign, they are saying in effect, “By this mighty act, You claim to be the Messiah; show us some sign to prove Your credentials.” That was exactly what He had just finished doing, and they were very confused about all of this. Jesus' reply is in verse 19:

John 2

19Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

That is one of the most familiar verses in the Bible. Most people who know anything at all about the life of Jesus have heard of that verse. Throughout His ministry—we will see this more and more as we move along in the ministry of Jesus in the next few chapters—men chose to refuse to believe what Jesus was saying in situations like this. We will see them over and over again in the Gospels where Jewish leaders, who were familiar with the Old Testament and should have known, would see a clear evidence that here was the true Messiah fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament, and they would deliberately refuse to believe what they saw. When that happened, Jesus would stop speaking in clear language and start using parables. He explained to the disciples that He was doing just that. So people who chose to refuse what they could have known would just not have clear truth presented to them again, and here is an example of it.

What did Jesus mean when He said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.”? You have heard this story before, so you probably know what He means, but let's think about it. The meaning is given in verse 21:

John 2

20Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
21But he spake of the temple of his body.

Let's be fair about this. The Jews had the same reaction in verse 20 that you might be having if you were reading this for the first time; but in verse 21, John tells us that He used the word temple to describe His own body. It was true of Jesus in a way that had not ever been true of anyone before, that His body was the dwelling place of God. Of course, that is what the temple was; it was a dwelling place of God, so He was the first one. But since that time, millions of people have become the temple of God. You and I, who have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior, are the temple of God—not in exactly the same sense that Jesus was; but just as realistically, we are the temple of God because God Himself dwells in us. We are the dwelling place of God, but Jesus was the first One Who could say that and the One Who could most literally say it.

Jesus knew that within thirty or forty years there would no longer be a Jewish temple. He said the same thing when He was talking to the woman at the well in Samaria. He said, “The hour is coming, and now is when men shall worship the Father. It won't matter whether they worship at this mountain or if they worship in Jerusalem.”

In 70 AD, the Romans marched into the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, so Jesus knew that the city was about to be destroyed. Of course, from the divine standpoint this was all because the symbolism of the temple was only intended to point to the Messiah. After He died and arose and ascended into Heaven, the temple was no longer needed because everything that the temple stood for was fulfilled. Everything that the temple pictured was fulfilled, and so it really wasn't needed any more. From a human standpoint, God accomplished the destruction of the temple with the Roman armies in 70 AD. Of course, as I said, since that time we have been the temple of God. Our bodies are now the temple of God.

That has tremendous applications for the way that we live, as Paul emphasizes there in I Corinthians, chapter 3, when He makes that statement. That was the meaning of this confusing sign that Jesus gave: “Destroy this temple and in three days I shall build it up again. In verse 22, we see the memory of that, that the disciples had. Look at verse 22:

John 2

22When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

You see, the disciples had continued to grow all the way through the ministry of Jesus Christ. Even after the Resurrection, all of these things fell into place for them. They remembered what Jesus had said. As I said, these men were not Old Testament scholars like so many of the skeptics were. They were ignorant and unlearned men, but they had more understanding than all the enlightened, religious leaders of their day. It was simply because they had faith to believe what they saw and heard.

It should be pointed out that whether they understood it or not, the crowd did remember what Jesus had said about destroying the temple, because this was the main charge that they used against Him at His trial, according to Matthew, chapter 26, verse 61. In fact, at the trial, that was the only real charge they brought against Him. Matthew tells us that they even hired witnesses to come and try to twist what Jesus had said about the destruction of the temple.

That brings us to verse 23. Actually verses 23-25 fit better with chapter 3 than they do with this chapter. You realize that I have said that before and many other Bible teachers have said before that the chapter divisions are not inspired. They are just put there as a handy device to help us move around in the Scriptures, so I am not doing anything sacrilegious by changing the chapter divisions. Actually verses 23-25 are obviously a part of what happens in chapter 3, and we will be looking at that in our next lesson. I hope that you will see that and agree with me.

Cleansing the Temple

We have seen that the purity of the temple was very important to the Lord Jesus, and it is very possible that there is a need for the cleansing of the temple in our day, too. The same thing that happened in that physical Jewish temple in Jerusalem in those years into which Jesus came could easily happen in the temple which is our body. A couple of standpoints from which we could think about that are: First, the place to look is right here in our own bodies. There are probably things in some of our lives that are just as infuriating to the Lord as those money-changers and animal-changers would have been to the Lord Jesus in His day.

There is a very simple but easily taken for granted passage along these lines in I Peter, chapter 3. These are verses that God has really impressed on me for my life the last couple of weeks. This is another example of the value of having memorized Scripture as a child and how God can even use portions of Scripture. As I have been thinking about my life and my walk with the Lord, there was just a piece of one of these verses that kept coming to my mind. It was the King James version of the verse and it says: “Let him eschew evil.” The phrase kept going through my mind. I knew generally what the context was, but I had to look it up in the concordance to see exactly where it was. I think it is extremely important in terms of the cleansing of the temple. Notice verse 10:

I Peter 3

10For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile [deceit] :
11Let him eschew [turn away from] evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue [pursue] it.
12For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.

So many times we fall into the trap of thinking that an enjoyable life comes from the world's standards. Subconsciously we get the idea that the way to really enjoy life is the way the television commercials and the world system pours into us all the time. If we just wear the right clothes and drink the right beverage, drive the right kind of car, live in the right style of house—all of those temporal things—that's where the good life is.

The Scripture says, “He that will love life, and see good days…” That is what we really want, isn't it? We want to have a life where we see good days and where we just love life. Well, here is the formula for that: “Let him refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” That is the first part of it. There are some things that need to be overturned and cast out of the temple. Two of those are evil speaking and deceitfulness, and in the first part of verse 11, evil in general. Then there are some new furnishings that need to be put into the temple in place of those things. It says: “Turn away from evil.” “Eschew evil” if you use the old King James . “Turn away from evil and do good.” Then, “Seek peace and pursue it.” God's promise of blessing is automatic, for “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open unto their prayers, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

It is a beautiful passage about the cleansing of the temple. I hope that God might use that in your life as he has convicted me about the importance of cleansing the temple and the way God can go about that in our lives.

Attitudes About Church Activities

There is another area of cleansing the temple that I think we could learn from this passage and that might be in our own attitudes about church activities. It is interesting to me how many people would never be late for a business appointment or a medical appointment, but they stroll into church when they get ready. It is interesting to me how other attitudes that we would never allow ourselves to have about secular things, we sometimes can be guilty of in spiritual things. There are many people who would not consider going into a meeting with their boss or with some committee that they are a part of and then just letting their minds wander, thinking about what they did yesterday or what they are going to do tomorrow during that meeting. In that meeting that is important to them secularly, they are zeroed in and thinking, and yet some people will come to church and use that time for a mental break. The temple needs to be cleansed when that kind of thing is going on.

People who are normally very considerate of others seem to completely overlook the fact that when they come into the sanctuary before the service begins, there are people there who use that time to prepare their hearts for worship. We come into the sanctuary and keep right on with our conversations or initiate new conversations, perhaps, when in a secular setting if we saw someone was trying to have some peace and quiet, we would quickly move over somewhere else and be considerate of that person. There may be some cleansing of the temple that needs to be done in that area.

Another area of concern that I think we still have is the danger from the merchandising standpoint of the cleansing of the temple. In this day of para-church ministries asking for money on radio and television and in the mail, it is a hard distinction to make sometimes. There are legitimate ministries on the air who ask for support, and there is nothing wrong, in my opinion, of their making their needs known and asking you to pray about the possibility of giving them support. That is what we do here in this church, and that is the right that every ministry has; but we need to think very carefully about those who offer a gift in exchange for simply praying for them.

I heard two ministries recently say, “If you will just pray for us, we will send you a gift. Of course, we would love it if you would send us some money along with it, but if you indicate an interest in our ministry, we will send you this gift.” We need to think very seriously about that kind of thing, but it is a very hard thing to know when to draw the line. You should not receive a gift to pray for somebody. Probably you should not accept a gift for just praying for somebody. If they ask you to pray for them, you ought to be willing to do it without them doing anything else about it.

Ministries should not use gimmicks like that to raise support. There is nothing wrong with letting their needs be known publicly, but it should stop with that, as I understand the Scripture, and let the Holy Spirit take it from there. There is nothing wrong with making helpful materials available to listeners or to church members, but ministries should be very careful to charge a reasonable price for those materials, asking for an offering in addition, perhaps, but not padding the price.

There are video tapes being offered by ministries today that I know from my experience with the television ministry are charging five or more times the price that you can go down and purchase the video tape for, and the time it would take to put it together and all of those kinds of things. There is a lot of that going on within the Church of Jesus Christ today even on the part of legitimate ministers who are really handling the Word of God clearly. So, that is a more general area that we also need to think of in terms of the cleansing of the temple.


As we conclude, let me draw us back to ourselves. How clean is your temple? Does your temple need to be cleansed? Jesus is just as anxious for that to be done today as He was two thousand years ago.

Home Bible Studies Books King James
Abilene Bible Church
Dr. Daiqing Yuan Tim Temple Dr. Joe Temple
Some icons on this site used courtesy FatCow Web Hosting