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Jesus Clears the Temple – John 2:13-23

Jesus and the money-changers John's Gospel

Casting out the Money Changers by Danish artist Carl Bloch (1834-1890)
Source: Wikimedia

Gospel of John Bible Study Notes, Week 6

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found people 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 courts, 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! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”  His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” John 2:13-17 (NIV 2011) 

John conveniently punctuates Jesus’ ministry with three Passovers (John 2:13, 6:4, 11:55), enabling us to ascertain that Jesus’ earthly ministry was of approximately three years duration. When Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast on this occasion, he found the temple looking more like a cattle yard than a house of prayer.[1]

“The sale of cattle and doves and the privilege of exchanging money were permitted in the temple court as a convenience for the pilgrims who would need animals for sacrifices and temple shekels for their Under the chief priests, however, the concessions had become merely a way to make money and had debased the temple into a commercial venture.” (Tenney 1981:44)

Furious, Jesus drove out the cattle and sheep, he scattered the coins of the unscrupulous money changers and he shouted at those who were selling doves. The scene was one of chaos and confusion. The animals would have been bawling and running around, and the money changers would have been scrambling to pick up their money off the floor.  (Tenney 1981:44)

Jesus was passionate. “He had come to assert the claims of God upon his own nation, and he keenly felt the spiritual indifference which had turned worship into a means of profit.” (Tenney 1976:84)

How do you picture Jesus?

The image of Jesus that many of have grown up with is of a gentle man with a serene, inscrutable countenance and a wistful, far-away look in his eyes. He is usually very well-groomed, with neat wavy hair and impractically white, clean clothes. In this passage, however, we see a Jesus that doesn’t fit in with that image. Here Jesus is clearly fired up. He is angry with the people who are desecrating the temple.

The “meek and mild” image of Jesus often portrayed in traditional, religious art, or often taught about in Sunday school, is a caricature that exaggerates two of Jesus qualities while ignoring many others. Jesus was on a divine, world-changing mission of global redemption. He was zealous and dedicated to his task. He was tough. He endured humiliation, rejection, misunderstandings, insults, suffering and pain for the sake of his mission.

Jesus was not always a nice or polite person. “Niceness” is neither a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), nor a character trait of Jesus. Jesus was tremendously kind and gracious to most people, especially the oppressed, but he scathingly denounced the hypocritical religious leaders who stubbornly refused to believe Jesus’ true identity as Messiah, and who were burdening the people with unnecessarily rigorous, religious rules.[2]

While we are called to be loving, kind and gentle, we are also called to be strong and courageous. Allowing unbelief, ignorance, injustice, and evil to go unchecked, where we can make a difference, is not love.

Not only did Jesus act of clearing the temple reveal his passion for the things of God, it also revealed his authority. “Jesus’ act in cleansing the temple presupposed authority as the representative of God.” (Tenney 1976:84) John writes that while watching this impressive spectacle, the disciples were reminded of Psalm 69:9 which says: “Zeal for your house has consumed me!”

Rebuilding a New Temple

The Jews then responded to him, “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. 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.
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. John 2:18-23 (NIV 2011)

The Jewish leaders were astonished at Jesus’ actions and demanded a sign which might signify and prove the authority that Jesus had assumed. Jesus did not perform a sign (miracle); however, but he gave a cryptic answer that was taken literally by the Jewish leaders, and misunderstood.

Jesus did not perform signs for the hard-hearted Jewish leaders. He knew that even the miraculous would persuade them (cf. Matt. 12:39). But he did perform signs so that others would believe that he truly was the Messiah (John 1:23).

John uses an interesting literary device in his Gospel: Jesus says something, but the listener takes it too literally and fails to understand Jesus’ intended spiritual, metaphorical meaning. Nicodemus had misunderstood Jesus’ meaning of being “born again” (John 3:3–4), and the Samaritan woman had misunderstood the meaning of the “living water” (John 4:10–11). In John 2:18-22 the Jewish leaders fail to see the significance of Jesus’ metaphor concerning the temple.

In 70 AD the Jerusalem temple would be literally destroyed and ransacked by the Romans. However, Jesus’ death in around 30 AD (approximately 40 years earlier), which fulfilled the Old Covenant sacrifices, meant that the continuing temple services and sacrifices became meaningless and obsolete. Moreover, on the day of Jesus’ death, the veil of the temple was torn in two, exposing the Most Holy Place. God’s Presence (Shekinah) was no longer confined to this special place. Interestingly, according to the Talmud Tractate (Yoma 39a), the Jewish rabbis reported that during the 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD the light of the seven-branched Menorah had been extinguished. This was taken as a sign that the Shekinah Presence of God had departed from the Temple.

Jesus’ resurrection signalled the beginning of a new era with a new way of worship: a new and living way (Heb. 10:19–21) and a new temple. The church, the community of God’s people, also known as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), is the new temple (1 Cor. 3:16).


[1] The other gospels have similar accounts of later episodes where Jesus again cleared the temple. (See Matt. 21:10–17; Mark 11:15–19 and Luke 19:45–46.)

[2] Jesus knew the true heart of the people around him (John 2:24). Because we can never truly be certain about the inner heart of a person and their circumstances, open rebuke is rarely something we should engage in (cf. 1 Cor. 5:4).

« Water into Wine – John 2:1-12
» Faith, Belief, Trust and Salvation – John 2:24-25 

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2 thoughts on “Jesus Clears the Temple – John 2:13-23

  1. I was always taught no selling in the church. Recently, my church talked of an indoor yard sale. I became concerned and made comment. Our pastor responded and said he was fine because it was raising money needed at church. I have been taught for 50 years no selling in church. I was looking for something that would clarify what market is in this context. Is it anything that is sold for money or only livestock?

    1. Hi Dianna, the Temple at Jerusalem is very different from a building used by a congregation for church meetings.

      The livestock in the story in John was being sold for money. However, it wasn’t ordinary livestock. It was animals that were bred and sold especially for temple sacrifices.

      Jesus wasn’t angry that vendors were selling livestock to be used for temple sacrifices. He was angry that the vendors and money-changers were overcharging and being dishonest. They were ripping off people who had come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and worship God. It was the dishonesty that Jesus was angry at.

      It’s a good general practice not to let people do business and sell things in church buildings or when the church is gathered for meetings. However, I can’t see anything wrong with the church fundraising and having a yard sale. It sounds like a fun community activity.

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