Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

160. The Second Cleansing of the Temple (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48)*

"Because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation." At the time of the Triumphal Entry Jesus visited the temple in warning, "looking round about upon all things." Now, next day, he visited in anger. Yesterday "thy king came unto thee, meek, and riding upon an ass." Today he comes with the wrath of heaven on his brow.

During these few days before Passover all Jews everywhere were busy spring-cleaning their houses. It was their formalised fulfilment of the Passover commandment: "Seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses" (Ex. 12 :19). This instruction was generalised, as it is to this day, to include all kinds of dirt and dust.

So Jesus set about the spring-cleaning of his Father's house. This had been done with anger, vigour and efficiency at the first Passover of his ministry. But most of the old abuses had crept back again after a while. This racket meant so much money for the chief priests that it could not be lightly let go. There was one period when Annas and Co. actually succeeded in driving the holy prices so high that the poor had to pay a piece of gold for a pigeon!


It was a big task Jesus now repeated (Gen. 41:32), and it required time, even though the twelve were very willing helpers. A guard would have to be set at each of the gates (Mk. 11:16; Ps. 84:10!) This detail is in the prophets: "I will encamp about mine house as a garrison, that none pass through or return: and no exactor shall pass through them any more; for now I have seen with mine eyes" (Zech.9 :8). Every phrase here fits this incident. And the next verse is the prophecy of the triumphal entry. Now the Lord whom they pretended to seek had come suddenly to his temple (Mal. 3:1). Forthwith all who were in any way concerned in this nefarious traffic were unceremoniously cleared out of the temple area. It is known that at one time the market for the sale of animals for sacrifice was sited on the slope of the Mount of Olives. The pointed mention of pigeons only (Mt. Mk.) suggests that the Lord's earlier onslaught had not been without its effect and that the animals were no longer in the temple court itself.

But there were abuses enough. So, vigorously, Jesus began to drive out these profiteers who made such a good thing out of the piety of the people. Mark's word "began" perhaps implies that as soon as these mercenary fellows realised what was afoot they moved off as fast as they could. It was no good attempting to stand up to Jesus of Nazareth. They could have called the temple guard. Perhaps some of them did. Yet no man raised a finger to oppose Jesus. In this mood he, this king who only yesterday had meekly come to the holy city on an ass, was to be feared, and all the more because the sympathies of the people were solidly behind him. So, tables, market-stalls, and cash desks were unceremoniously "overthrown," as though they were a spiritual Sodom (s.w. Gen. 19:21,29; 2 Pet. 2:6), and their owners cleared out. And all this at Passover when, because of the rush of overseas visitors, trade was at its busiest!

But this time Jesus introduced a new development in his campaign. Those also who were buying with a view to sacrifice were also turned out of the temple area with the rest (Mk.). It was Christ's open declaration that the time for the abolition of Mosaic sacrifices was at hand. But what alternative did they have? (It is useful to note, in passing, that this turning away of those who were there to offer sacrifices was not insisted on at the earlier cleansing of the temple (Jn.2 :15), for then the time for such prohibition was not yet come. But now was the time to assert the truth of Malachi 1:10, 11.

The Lord now took his spring-cleaning operation a stage further. The temple area occupied a considerable part of Jerusalem. For those making their way from one part of the city to another, avoidance of the sanctuary enclosure often meant an appreciable detour. So the practice had grown up of using the outer court as a short cut. The temple was become a thoroughfare.

Stationing his disciples at the various gates Jesus now forbad this demeaning of the holiness of his Father's house. Water carriers, people going shopping, and all such, he now rebuked for their sacrilege. The court of the Gentiles was as holy as the rest of the temple. Let them recognize that very soon Gentiles would be called to worship God on equal terms with the seed of Abraham.

Thus, in effect, instead of clearing the land of Gentiles (as the nation would dearly wish him to do), he cleared the temple of unworthy Jews and welcomed godly Gentiles in their stead (see John 12 :20-23, which happened only a couple of days later).

Prophecy fulfilled

Next, Jesus held a massive "open-air meeting in the temple court to explain to the multitude just what he had been doing, and the prophecies about it: 'The Word of God declares this temple to be a place of prayer and of reconciliation for all nations—Gentiles as well as Jews.' The Hebrew text of Isaiah 56 :7, just quoted, has the word normally used for the tribes of Israel, thus implying that the "strangers" (v.6) are to become Jews; but with a flash of insight the translators of the LXX turned it into the Greek word for Gentile nations. Jesus quoted it verbatim. "But (he went on) you, the Chosen Race, have turned it into the headquarters of a gang of brigands and plunderers.'

The chief priests and Pharisees were there on the edge of the crowd, their eyes smouldering with hostility, and Jesus directed his accusation specially at them.

There must have been some among these rulers who had the wit to see the force of the 'context of that prophecy. There the leaders of the people are excoriated as "blind watchmen . .. dumb dogs . . . greedy dogs which can never have enough, shepherds that cannot understand, every one looking for gain" (10,11). And that word "dogs" turns Jews into Gentiles. But the same context offers a warm welcome to "the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord . . . taking hold of his covenant" (v.6).

It is surely probable that Jesus also quoted them the prayer of Solomon when he dedicated the temple: "Moreover concerning the stranger, that is not of thy people Israel. . . when he shall come and pray toward this house, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place . .. that all people of the earth may know thy name . . ." (1 Kgs.8 :41-43). It was on that day of dedication-the only other comparable day in Israel's history?-when the court of the Gentiles had been sanctified for the offering of sacrifice (v.64)! Thus was foreshadowed the day when "the middle wall of partition" would be broken down, making Jew and Gentile one before God (Eph.2 :14).

Echoing with redoubled contempt and anger the searing scorn and trenchant arraignment spoken by Jeremiah, Jesus denounced these holy peculators who stood there glowering at him: "You have made my Father's house a den of robbers, and you still use it in that way (Mt.)." (Jer.7 :11)—and in A.D.70 the words became quite literally true. Again it is important to observe that this Jeremiah allusion was not made simply because the phrase happened to fit, in the way that a modern politician might quote Shakespeare. The context is marvellously right: "Behold, ye trust in lying words that cannot profit. . . and ye come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, Deliver us; that ye may do all these abominations . . .Behold, I, even I, have seen it (the Lord's inspection of the temple abuses; Mk.ll :11). But go ye even now to Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did ton for the wickedness of my people Israel... And I will cast you out of my sight. . . even the whole seed of Ephraim. Therefore pray not thou for this people.. ."(Jer.7:8-16).

There was not only hatred but also the furrow of anxiety on the faces of the religious rulers. After all this interference with the offering of sacrifice and so much else of the temple routine, what next? Was this Jesus set on taking over the priesthood as well?

The blind and the lame

But for all his indignation against these unholy abuses, Jesus was beset by a yet stronger emotion—his overmastering compassion for the afflicted.

Since the time of the capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, "the blind and the lame that hate the soul of David" (2 Sam.5 :8 LXX) had been forbidden the sanctuary of the Lord. Right up to the time of Jesus this rule was observed. So there were plenty such in Jerusalem who, because of their disability, had never known the privilege and pleasure of entering the temple area.

But now Jesus, having "cast out" (excommunicated?) the spiritually blind and lame, brought the physically decrepit into the holy court. They would have to be invited and urged to enter, or they would not dare defy the ancient ban. And there in the precincts of the House these Gentile Jews, the blind and the lame who loved the soul of the Son of David, had fellowship with him and were healed.

Little children

These wonderful works (s.w.Ps.9:l) prompted some of the little children, brought by their parents, to take up once again the Hosanna cry which they had heard from the excited crowd the previous day.

For the chief priests it was provocation piled on provocation. First, the high-handed interference with their temple market. Then, his prophetic denunciation of themselves before all the multitude. After that, a constant demonstration of gracious healing power. And now to be acclaimed by mere infants as the Messiah: "Hosanna to the Son of David" (Dt.31 :19). It was the last straw, the very limit in unseemliness. It also gave the best handle for criticism of Jesus himself. So they let Jesus know what they thought about it.

'Do you hear that?' they asked him, all righteous indignation. 'Why don't you shut them up?'

'Yes, I hear them,' replied Jesus with warm approval. 'Haven't you realised he added, 'that they too are fulfilling Bible prophecy?' And he went on to quote the splendid words of Psalm 8: "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou didst fashion praise." What a lightning mind Jesus had, and so superbly stocked with perfectly understood Scripture, to be able to go within a second to words so apt; for the continuation is: "that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger." And the same short psalm goes on to celebrate the exalted authority of the Son of man, made a little lower than the angels, yet given dominion over the works of God's hands, including even sheep and oxen, the cattle of the field, and the birds of the air (Ps.8:2,5-8). So, of course, he as Son of David had every right to put an end to sacrifice of birds and animals in His Father's house!

One is tempted to wonder whether in his teaching Jesus added here an allusion to another superbly appropriate prophecy in Isaiah 28, for the gospel writers are very selective from the inexhaustible wealth of material available to them. First, there is the spiteful mockery of the unworthy rulers in Jerusalem: "Who shall he (Jesus) teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts (the praise of little children) ... for with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people (the scornful despising of uneducated apostles with a coarse Galilean dialect being used to preach the gospel!)... Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem . .. Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation (the new altar of reconciliation—Christ himself) . . . And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand . . ." (ls.28:9-19).

Hatred and plotting

For these scornful men in Jerusalem the whole day was one long vexation. What were they to do with this man Jesus? Somehow they must get rid of him! Must!! They went off to go into consultation as to what might be done. But all their combined cleverness failed to come up with a water-tight scheme for destroying this pestilent prophet. Always they were up against the obstacle of the Nazarene's popularity with the crowd. Just as, earlier in his ministry, the people had marvelled at his miracles, so now at Passover his teaching in the temple court likewise carried them away. They were soaking up every word. "For all the people hung upon him, listening." Here Luke uses a remarkable word found in only one other place: "the life of Jacob is bound up in the lad's life (the life of Benjamin)" (Gen.44:30).

There was only one thing for it—to come on him when there was no multitude about. But even if they managed to lay hands on him in that way, wouldn't there be a riot when the word got round? Their exasperation and frustration were almost comical.

Jesus knew well enough how great the danger was. To attempt to stay the night in the city was to invite trouble prematurely. This night there was no safety for the King in his own capital. So once again, as darkness fell, he. and the twelve made their way out to Bethany.

Notes: Mt. 21:12-17

The temple of Cod. An unusual mode of description. But in 23 :38 it is "your house."

The money changers. The normal rake-off was 12-16% (Century Bible)
Shall be called. Here Lk. reads "is'—to empasize the fulfilment of the prophecy. But why is it that Lk. the non-Jew, fails to mention the several special details in this incident which concern Gentiles?

Thieves. Not surreptitious picking of pockets, but open unashamed roguery.
Mouth. Singular, not plural! It is only when there is one mouth that praise is perfected!

Perfected praise. This verb also means: "to lay a foundation" (of a new temple!). Mk. adds here: "all the people were astonished at his doctrine." Cp. Mt. 7 :28; 13 :54; 19 :25; 22 :33; Mk.1 :22; Lk.4 :32.

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