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John 2:12-22 by Robert Dean
Series:John (1998)
Duration:30 mins 53 secs

The Messianic Cleansing of the Temple
John 2:12–22
John Lesson #021
October 4, 1998

John 2:12 NASB "After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and {His} brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days." Why does Jesus start His ministry in the north, in Galilee, and not down in Jerusalem? Is there some significance to that? If we look at Isaiah 9 we discover a prophetic significance to this. Isaiah prophesied regarding the northern area of Israel which is traditionally the tribal land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah 9:1 NASB "But there will be no {more} gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make {it} glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. [2] The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them." So in these two verses is a messianic promise that when the Messiah comes he will come first to the northern area of Galilee. There the people will see a great light, the illumination of the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember how John explained this: John 1:9 NASB "There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man."

John is weaving together for us and for anyone who has a knowledge of the Old Testament how Jesus of Nazareth fulfils Old Testament expectations and prophesies for the Messiah. Here in Capernaum as He set up His base of operations it says He was with His mothers and His brothers, but not His sisters—listed in Mark 6:3. The sisters apparently stayed back in Nazareth.

John 2:13 NASB "The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem." This tells us that we are in the spring, the month of Nisan which according to their ritual calendar was the first month of the year. The civil calendar begins in September but the ritual calendar begins with the 1st of Nisan in the spring, and the first pilgrimage feast was Passover. There were three pilgrimage festivals on the calendar of Israel. The first is Passover and the Feast of Firstfruits. The Passover started on the 14th of Nisan and the next day started the week-long Feast of Firstfruits. All adult Jewish males were required by the Mosaic Law to come from wherever they were to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.

John 2:14 NASB "And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated {at their tables.}" At this particular time in history the high priesthood had become not only politicised but it was almost operating like a Mafia family. Annas was the high priest for a number of years and he made sure that one of his sons or sons-in-law continued to serve as high priest, so they ran the priestly hierarchy and out of that there developed several lucrative religious rackets. They had a racket going based on religious extortion. With all the foreigners coming to the Passover they had to buy animals and pay a temple tax. They couldn't bring the Passover lamb with them from Egypt or Babylon or wherever, so they had to buy one there in the temple precincts. First of all there was racket started and they started parcelling out who gets the right to sell sacrificial animals in the temple. Annas and his family controlled the right to say who got what spot, and who could set up their kiosk in the temple precincts, and they charged an enormous fee for anyone to come in and sell sacrificial animals in the temple. Another way they made money was to change money because all the temple taxes had to be paid in local Jerusalem coinage. So they charged a high exchange rate so that they would make a good profit. One writer estimated that this was so lucrative that these money changers were pulling in at least two and a half million dollars a year in profit. So this was an incredibly lucrative business for Annas and his family and for those who were engaged in this.

The scenario. You come into the court of the Gentiles and see before you the shoulder to shoulder crowds. But in the midst of this you hear the mooing of the cows and the bleating of the sheep. The high priest controlled this racket and we know from literature that this was not accepted by everybody. For decades at this time the rabbis had tried to get rid of this but they had no power against these bazaars in the temple. For years rabbis had fought this system and the Talmud gives evidence of that. Everybody knew it was corrupt and everybody knew it should not be taking place. There was a desire to clean everything up and for reform to take place in the temple but nobody had the power to do it. So Jesus walked into the temple and He finds those who were selling, and these are given in descending economic value: oxen, sheep and doves; and then there were the money changers seated.

There is an interesting word here for temple, the Greek word hieron [i(eron], and this is a word that applies to the entire temple precincts. The inner area which only the high priest could enter was referred to by the word naos [naoj]. Jesus is going to make a point here based on these two Greek words. One refers to the precinct itself and the overall temple, and one refers to the inner area of the holy of holies. But in the outer area where all men and women could come and learn about the Lord and worship is where there is so much distraction. That is where Jesus cleans the place out because He is removing all the distractions from the study of the Word of God and he wants everyone to have free access. It foreshadows what will take place in the church where male or female, economic status, slave or free, Jew or Gentile is no longer an issue in terms of access to God. So Jesus walks in and He is almost hit in the face with the stench and the noise and all the crowds and He realizes what is taking place.

He cleanses the temple again. The other three Gospels all refer to a cleansing of the temple that takes place at the end of His ministry. Only John tells us that He began His ministry with a cleansing of the temple.

John 2:15 NASB And He made a scourge of cords, and drove {them} all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables." This verse is tough for the anti-violence crowd and the crowd that doesn't think anybody ought to have personal weapons in order to protect their homes or their own personal freedom, because Jesus clearly makes a personal weapon for Himself here. This is not the mamby-pamby peacenik Jesus that people are so fond of painting pictures of. This is a very strong, physically powerful man who is going to drive all of these people out. There is a saying by a Texas Ranger 100 years ago who said: "No one can take a stand against a good man who knows he is right and keeps on coming." Everyone there knows that Jesus has the moral high ground. The fact that this is an area of corruption in the temple is not unknown to them and no one tries to stop Him. No one questions Him about whether He should be doing this. They all know it is wrong. Jesus physically runs these people out. But notice he doesn't touch the sacrifices of the poor. He leaves the doves and the pigeons in their cages.

John 2:16 NASB "and to those who were selling the doves He said, 'Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business'."

The background to this must be found again in the Old Testament. Zechariah 14:21 NASB "Every cooking pot in Jerusalem and in Judah will be holy to the LORD of hosts; and all who sacrifice will come and take of them and boil in them. And there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts in that day." By the time Zechariah wrote they were not having a fight between Israel and the Canaanites. The term "Canaanite" had become by that time a Hebrew idiom for a Gentile merchant and then for any merchant whatsoever. So Zechariah is prophesying that there will be a time when the Messiah comes that there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord of hosts, that they would be driven out and there would be purification in the temple. That is what is partially fulfilled here in John 2. So just as the turning of the water into wine in the first part of this chapter is a promissory note of the joy that the Messiah will eventually provide, so the removal of the animals is a promissory note of the eventual cleansing of the world and worship in the Millennium. John is giving us Jesus' credentials. This is Jesus' calling card. He comes into town and he cleanses the temple. And when he does this; when he drives everyone out and His disciples are standing by the sidelines watching this, remember that they know their Scripture. It was Nathanael who was meditating on Jacob's ladder, sitting out under a fig tree. It was James and John who were disciples of John the Baptist because they were looking for the Messiah and were searching the Scriptures. So they understand the messianic prophecies. And while they are watching this they remember Psalm 69 where it is said of the Messiah: "For zeal for Your house has consumed me." So the disciples are beginning to put two and two together as they reflect on Old Testament prophecies and see its fulfilment before their very eyes.

John 2:18 NASB "The Jews then said to Him, 'What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?'" Notice: The Jews answered Him. Did He ask them a question? He didn't ask then a question, what He did was asking a question, because He came in their and His cleansing of the temple was a statement that "I am the Messiah, I have the right, I have the authority to cleanse this temple." Now they are going to ask him, "What sign do you show us." He is saying by His actions: "Do you accept me as the Messiah?" So now they want a sign, and this shows their spiritual darkness, the depravity that is there, because He has just given them a sign. He has just fulfilled prophecy before their very eyes by walking into the temple and cleansing it. The disciples understood this as they reflected on Psalm 69, a Davidic psalm about the righteous sufferer.

Psalm 69:4 NASB "Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; Those who would destroy me are powerful, being wrongfully my enemies…" What the psalmist is saying in context is that those who are aligned with the cause of God develop many powerful enemies in the cosmic system. "…What I did not steal, I then have to restore." This is the plea of the righteous sufferer which is repeated again in John 15:24 when Jesus applies it to Himself: "Those who hate me without a cause."

Psalm 69:8 NASB "I have become estranged from my brothers And an alien to my mother's sons." Another messianic prophecy. John 7:3-5, Jesus applies this verse to Himself: that His mother and His brothers did not understand Him. Another indication that Mary, even though she had all of those wonderful thing said to her at the birth of Jesus, there is a time when she is not sure what this son of hers is doing; she can't put it together. He is estranged from His family.

Psalm 69:9 NASB "For zeal for Your house has consumed me, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me." Jesus is saying here that this is a picture of the rejection of the Word of God in that day and time, that they were negative to doctrine and negative to truth. They had rejected God incarnate and they were taking a Levitical law and were using it to abuse the people. Then when Jesus comes in  and identifies Himself with God by saying, "Stop making my Father's house a house of merchandise," identifying Himself with Yahweh, the Old Testament term for God, he is rejected. This is so significant because later on the key people who he offends at this particular time are the ones who are going to crucify Him. He antagonizes them on this day and they never get over it. When He is brought to trial they are going to go back to this very episode and they are going to say, "Remember, this is the man who said that when He tore the temple down that He would rebuild it in three days." They take Him out of context, that is not what He said. In verse 19 He said: "[You] Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Because of His identification with God they reject Him.

Psalm 69:21 NASB "They also gave me gall for my food And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Here we see a prophecy of what happened when Jesus was on the cross—Matthew 27:48. So Psalm 69 is a picture of the crucifixion and John at this early stage of Jesus' ministry is already foreshadowing the crucifixion. He is preparing us for the crucifixion. Jesus came to die. Acts 1:20 applies Psalm 69:25 to Judah: "May their camp be desolate; May none dwell in their tents." So here we see a very significant prophecy in Psalm 69 that tells of many things that were fulfilled at the first advent in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

So the Jews come to Him and says: "What sign do you show us?" And they revealed their spiritual darkness and depravity because everything that he has done is a sign. The same is true today. People today are looking for spiritual truth, spiritual reality. Their concept of spirituality has nothing to do with what the Bible says about spirituality. Their concept of spirituality is something they have just generated on their own from whatever it is that makes them feel like they have some kind of relationship with the other, whatever that may be. Nobody wants to look at the Bible as the source of truth. The spiritual darkness and blindness of the religious Jews is the same as today. Just because people are religious doesn't mean they have a clue to spirituality. In fact, the more religious people are the less of a clue they have for spiritual realities. When these Jews come to Jesus and they question Him they are in essence asking Him for His authority. Jesus' answer to them is very sophisticated and very subtle. When they have ignored the one sign He has already given he gives them another sign.

John 2:19 NASB "Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up'." In effect what Jesus is saying is, you are going to provide the sign yourself, you are going to crucify me, and then three days after that I will be resurrected physically from the grave and I will conquer death. But the Jews completely misunderstood Him.

John 2:20 NASB "The Jews then said, 'It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?'" They do not understand what has gone on as the disciples did in v. 17: "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME." Yet they should have known it. They should have gone back to Malachi 3:1 NASB "'Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,' says the LORD of hosts. [2] But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. [3] He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness." This is a picture of the Messiah coming in judgment of the temple. So they should expect the Messiah to come as the purifier, as the one who is going to cleanse the temple. But when they see that they completely ignore it, and in ignoring it they seal their doom and they will use this again against Jesus when He comes back. 

What we see with Jesus is that true love involves judgment at times, purification, even committing violence. This is a love that elevates truth and doctrine above everything else, a love that elevates the realities of the spiritual life and spiritual truth above everything else. That is what true love is. Jesus exemplifies what true love is here. True love is focusing on doctrine; true love is removing the distractions that that kept people from learning the truth in the temple; true love involves at times violence and judgment and cleansing the temple.

So the Jews don't understand Jesus and they focus on just the physical, and in v. 19, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up', Jesus changes His verb to naos [naoj], which can also refer to the temple of the body. This is what becomes apparent to John and the disciples years later. John 2:21 NASB "But He was speaking of the temple of His body." He is already foreshadowing the resurrection. [22] "So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken." They don't remember it when He says it, they only remember it when He is resurrected from the dead. The disciples' belief here is not related to salvation, they are already saved. It has to do with their spiritual growth, their understanding of other doctrines related to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Now they are going to believe that Jesus is all that he claimed to be and will begin to put all of these signs together to understand their dynamic and fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

What is the dynamic of this episode? It has a long range impact. Although John talks about the first cleansing of the temple and he quotes this, it is not quoted in Matthew at all; it is not in the synoptic Gospels. But in Matthew 26:60 NASB "They did not find {any,} even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, [61] and said, "This man stated, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days'." This is brought up again by His accusers. His false accusers misquote Him as saying, "I am able to destroy the temple," rather than what he did say. Then again, in Matthew 27:40 NASB "and saying, 'You who {are going to} destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross'." The mob remembers this before the crucifixion, but this is the man hanging on the cross. Then in Acts 6:13, 14 this episode is brought up again during Stephen's trial when he was accused of blasphemy. They remind the court that he is follower of that man who said that if he would tear down the temple then He would build it up again in three days. So this was a statement that rankled, it got under the skin, it challenged them to the very core of their religious beliefs.

What is the doctrine that John wants us to focus on here? It is that after the temple is destroyed God's has a unique place with men. Jesus recognizes this by His cleansing of the temple and we see it again in Revelation 21:22 NASB "I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." After all is said and done God will have His own temple on the earth. We learn from this that theologically earth is the centre of the universe and God wants to make His habitation with men. God wants fellowship with man. It is here that the angelic conflict is resolved. It is here that God will tabernacle with men. It is here that God will reside throughout all eternity in a new heavens and new earth. God is moving history forward so there will be a time of universal fellowship with God for all who have put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.