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John 2/Mark 11 – Cleansing the Temple of Commerce

Apr 7, 2024 — Jon Here

In the temple cleansing accounts, we see Jesus act very un-Jesus like (according to modern stereotypes). He turned over tables, poured coins all over the ground, and drove out animals and traders with a whip.[1] Were someone to do that in church today it might be described as “extreme” or even “violent.”

Some would have you believe that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple has little relevance for us today, since the temple no longer exists. Let’s evaluate that by carefully considering what made Jesus so upset.

Comparing the accounts

As a testimony to its significance, this is one of the few scenes in Jesus’ earthly ministry that is recorded in all four Gospels. All four have Jesus (1) entering the temple, (2) driving out those selling things, and (3) rebuking them for turning God’s house into something it is not supposed to be.

This is John’s account (2:14-16):

In the temple he found those selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and money changers sitting there. So he made a whip out of cords and drove them all from the temple, with the sheep and cattle. He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those selling doves he said, “Get these out of here! Do not turn my father’s house into a house of trade!”

The Synoptics tell of a separate event, later in his ministry. According to Mark (11:15-17):

When they arrived in Jerusalem, he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. And he would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. Then Jesus began to teach them, and he declared, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The accounts recorded in Matthew 21:12-13 and Luke 19:45-46 match closely with Mark’s longer version. There are no significant details in Matthew and Luke that are not also recorded in Mark; they only differ in minor linguistic matters.[2]

There is good reason to believe John’s account is a distinct event to that of the Synoptics.[3] But whether distinct or not, we should study them both together to determine Jesus’ motivations. The events have more in common than not, and it is unlikely that Jesus would drive out similar commerce in similar ways for different reasons. It is, therefore, appropriate to consult his actions and speech from both events to determine what his motivations were and what implications they have for today.

Was Jesus fulfilling prophecy?

If you consult commentaries on the temple cleansing passages you will find that many scholars interpret them messianically. That is, Jesus made a big scene to show that the temple was soon to be done away with and would be “rebuilt” in him. These interpretations have merit and are supported by the context of the accounts. Mark surrounds the temple cleansing with the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-21), and John follows his account with Jesus’ statement that the rebuilding of the temple would be fulfilled in his resurrection (John 2:21).[4]

Yet many neglect to properly consider the literal significance of Jesus’ rebuke. He did not prearrange for there to be trade in the temple so that he could symbolically drive it out, like he prearranged to enter triumphantly on a donkey (Matt 21:2). While Jesus cursed the fig tree to symbolically confront human sin, the temple cleansings involve him literally confronting human sin.

So yes, these passages do point to Jesus being the Messiah, but his outrage at the traders was not just for show. In all four accounts Jesus rebukes people for turning the temple into something it is not supposed to be. We must determine what he was rebuking if we are to properly understand the passage.

Was Jesus offended by greed?

The main targets of Jesus’ rebuke were those who were selling things. This has led a number of commentators to speculate that they must have been engaged in some unsavory business practices. Jesus’ reference to a “den of robbers” might suggest this, but there is otherwise no reference to greed in any of the texts. We must also ask: If everyone in the temple were completely honest and fair in their business practices, would Jesus have still been upset?

We can conclude with certainty: yes. Jesus did not drive out only those overcharging for their wares, he drove out every seller. Not only did he drive out every seller, he drove out every buyer (Matt 21:12, Mark 11:15). If the sellers were extorting people then the buyers would be the victims. Instead, they are driven out along with the rest of the commerce.

Was Jesus offended by distractions?

The location of the temple cleansing was the court of the Gentiles,[5] the most outer court which was as far as non-Jews could go.[6] The trade of animals would no doubt have been noisy which has led some commentators to guess that Jesus was offended by all the distraction it would have caused from worship in the temple.

But animals had to make their way through the temple complex to be sacrificed one way or another, so removing trade from the temple would have reduced but not eliminated such noise. The temple courts were also a common place for teaching (Luke 2:46),[7] so it was not expected to be a quiet space.

More importantly, identifying distraction as the main concern stands at odds with Jesus’ words of rebuke. If he objected to turning the temple into a “house of trade”, distractions could only be at best a secondary matter. Further, are “dens of robbers” known for being noisy and distracting? The noise of trade could certainly be an annoyance, but it does not address the heart of the matter.

Jesus was offended by the commerce

It is most reasonable to simply conclude that Jesus was offended by exactly that which he drove out: the commerce.

All the elements of the accounts relate to trade:

  • What did Jesus see? Money and property being exchanged.
  • What did he spill on the floor? Money.
  • What did he drive out? Animals and the people trading them.
  • Who was rebuked? Both buyers and sellers.
  • What had the temple turned into? A “house of trade” and “den of robbers”.[8]

Jews who lived far from the temple were permitted to bring money instead of produce, and exchange it for the items needed for sacrifice when they reached the temple (Deut 14:24-26). There was nothing wrong with selling animals for sacrifice, and Jesus would not have reacted as he did had it taken place in a regular market outside the temple.[9]

We must conclude, then, that it was the circumstance of the commerce that offended Jesus. But what was it about the nature of the circumstance that precluded commerce? We might assume it was because the temple complex was holy ground. However, the original temple initiated by God through Solomon consisted only of the sanctuary and the priestly courtyard (1 Kings 6:36, 2 Chron 4:9).[10] The additional courtyards were added by Herod and have no basis in Scripture. Anyone was allowed in the outer courtyard (the only exception being menstruating women) with no purification practices required.[11] This shows that it was not considered a significantly holy space at the time, whereas the actual sanctuary was (cf. Acts 21:28).

Yet Jesus, speaking from the outer courtyard, referred to the location as “my father’s house” (John 2:16). While the outer courtyard was not sacred ground in the same sense the sanctuary was, it did have a sacred purpose. This is brought forth in Jesus’ rebukes. He does not rebuke anyone for violating the sanctity of the place, but for violating its purpose. In both his rebukes, Jesus compares the original purpose of the temple with what it had become. The temple was being used for a purpose it was not intended for. It was meant to be God’s house where he is worshiped and had become something else.

Implications for today

Bock, in his commentary on Luke, is one of the few authors to actually consider the theological implications for today:

This cleansing of the temple took place at an institution of God that no longer exists. But a principle about worship surfaces in Jesus’ remarks that is still valid, even if the temple is no longer with us. Worship is a sacred trust, where commerce and hypocrisy have no place.[12]

Yet the temple does still exist in a new form. Believers are now referred to as the temple, both individually (1 Cor 6:19) and corporately (Eph 2:21). The temple was holy because it was the dwelling place of God (Matt 23:21), and now God dwells within us, making us the new temple. This makes it all the more important to live holy lives (1 Cor 6:20). Likewise, when we gather together corporately as God’s “temple” we must ensure the purpose of our gatherings is not violated (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34).

The temple cleansing accounts clearly tell us that commerce has no place in the things of God. We can flesh this out with the following practical applications for the church today:

1. Corporate worship should be free of commerce

God has not designated any new places on earth for worship because wherever we gather we function as his temple, whether in a church building or a school hall. As revealed from the temple cleansing passages, it is not the property that is important but the purpose. When the purpose of a gathering is for worship, there must not be any commerce.

An egregious historical example would be the renting of pews (reserved seating in church), which was common only a century ago. Modern day examples include royalties for worship songs, church bookstores, and church cafes. Churches that wish to provide their members with access to helpful books and food should go the full step of providing free access.

However, we should be wary of applying this principle legalistically. For example, we should not forbid renting the church hall on weekdays when it is not being used for worship. Nor should we condemn informal trading between individuals after a church service (provided it is part of socializing and not conducting business). It should apply if any trade is directed towards the congregation as a whole.

2. Ministry itself should always be free

Jesus was offended by commerce happening in a place of worship, and yet everything that was sold in the temple was ordinary: sheep, doves, and different currencies. Just imagine what he would think if it were not just ordinary animals being sold but ministry itself! What happens today is not just the sale of ordinary things but spiritual things: teaching, worship songs, sermons, biblical counseling, etc.

We know what Jesus would think because he clearly forbids selling ministry in Matthew 10:8 (“Freely you received, freely give”), and we have the testimony of other passages as well. The temple cleansing reveals how seriously Jesus takes this issue.

3. We should avoid participating in the commercialization of Christianity

An often overlooked facet of the temple cleansings is that the buyers were driven out along with the sellers. We too should avoid participating in commerce when it takes place in the context of worship and ministry. One important consideration, however, is that there is often no alternative available to us. Jews could have purchased animals outside the temple and brought them in, but were too tempted by the convenience the temple sellers offered. The same can’t be said for many forms of ministry today.

If your church charges for lunch, it is probably permissible to participate for the sake of fellowship. Though, the issue of payment should be raised with your church leadership.

When it comes to buying Christian books, you may need to buy a copy if you can’t access it via other means (such as a physical or online library).

There are, however, things we can easily avoid. We should not participate in paid worship events when so many other options for free corporate worship are available to us. We should not direct people we are discipling to purchase resources, but rather pay for them ourselves (if needed). We should not promote commercial ministry online or at church if it’s unnecessary, or would potentially endorse the commerce.

These matters require wisdom, but in general, we should endeavor to support those providing free ministry rather than propping up existing commercial systems.

4. Rebuke is appropriate

I do not propose we emulate the Lord Jesus’ means of rebuking commerce in the temple. As a sinless man and as God’s son he could righteously overturn tables without a hint of hypocrisy, just as he could rebuke his disciples for lacking faith (Mark 4:40). As fellow sinners who struggle with our own forms of greed, we should always correct and rebuke with a degree of humility. That said, Jesus’ rebuke for commercializing the temple is one of the harshest rebukes ever recorded from him. While some may criticize us for confronting the commercialization of ministry, we can hardly be said to be excessive until tables have been flipped.

Would Jesus turn over tables today? Would he enter the church bookstore and send all the products crashing to the ground, bending their pages and scratching their glossy covers? Would he yank the payment terminal from the wall and knock customers’ smartphones out of their hands?

In an age where it is not merely animals being sold but the truth of the gospel itself, let’s hope that’s all he would do.

  1. While it is tempting to guess that Jesus just drove the animals out with the whip and did not direct it at people, it is more likely from the actual text that he directed it primarily at the merchants (see Klink, John; Mounce, John). This does not necessarily mean the whip made contact with anyone but it was certainly forceful psychologically at the very least. ↩︎

  2. All three share a similar context, all recording the temple cleansing as taking place soon after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So we can safely conclude that they are all recording the exact same event. Mark tells of Jesus first looking around in the temple, but then staying the night in Bethany because it was late, before returning to cleanse the temple the next day. Since Mark includes more details of the event in general, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus did do this reconnaissance even if Matthew and Luke do not mention it. ↩︎

  3. There are several things that suggest this is a separate event. Jesus makes a whip out of cords in John’s account, he refers to the temple as his own father’s house, and claims they have turned it into ‘a house of trade’ (rather than ‘a den of robbers’). But most significantly, John describes the event as taking place near the start of Jesus’ ministry, well before his later triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12). Whereas the Synoptic Gospels all record Jesus cleansing the temple shortly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:11, Luke 19:28, Matt 21:1).

    Some scholars who doubt the argument for two events do so because they also doubt the historical reliability of the Gospels. They assume that either John or the Synoptics got the wording or the placement of the story wrong. While it is peculiar that neither John nor the Sypnoptics include both events, John has a lot of different material to the Synoptics in general.

    It is unlikely that commerce stayed out of the temple for long. Without enforcement from the temple authorities, who obviously opposed Jesus’ actions (John 2:18), sellers no doubt soon returned. When balanced with all the evidence, it is far more likely that there were two cleansings of the temple, and there is little to suggest otherwise. The fact that Jesus drove commerce from the temple on at least two separate occasions shows how persistent the sin was and how seriously Jesus took it. That he was willing to again enrage the temple authorities who subsequently plotted to kill him after the second cleansing (Mark 11:18). ↩︎

  4. There is also the possibility of Jesus fulfilling Zech 14:21 depending on if כְנַעֲנִ֥י is translated literally as “canaanite” or figuratively as “merchant”. ↩︎

  5. There is scholarly consensus on this. All accounts describe Jesus entering the ἱερὸν which most likely refers to the temple grounds as opposed to the temple sanctuary (ναός, John 2:19). Herod’s temple had separate courts for gentiles and women, the court of the gentiles being the outermost court. It is most likely that commerce was taking place in the court of the gentiles. There is historical evidence for this, but also Jesus’ rebuke that the temple was to be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). ↩︎

  6. Foreigners were allowed to offer sacrifices (Lev 17:8), though some were reserved for only those who had been circumcised (Exod 12:48). So it would appear that the rules of entry imposed in Herod’s time were unbiblical. ↩︎

  7. See also Matt 21:23, Mark 12:35, Luke 19:47, John 7:14. ↩︎

  8. Some commentators believe ‘den of robbers’ refers to insurrectionists and Garland even goes so far as to say “The reference to the ‘den of robbers’ has nothing to do with the trade in the temple. Instead, it denounces the false security that the sacrificial cult breeds.” (Garland, Mark, NIVAC). This betrays the immediate context of Jesus’ words in favor of an importation of the context of Jeremiah 7:11. Greed is part of the condemnation in Jeremiah 7 which is likely what Jesus is referencing. To completely reinterpret Jesus’ actions based on a single obscure reference while ignoring the immediate context of commerce is simply bad exegesis. ↩︎

  9. Some scholars believe the money changers were present in the temple to assist those paying the temple tax (Exod 30:13), but they may also have been there to simply serve those trying to purchase animals for sacrifice. Like the merchants, they were a necessary service for temple worship. ↩︎

  10. There was a courtyard that surrounded the temple and palace in Solomon’s day (1 Kings 7:12) but it was not part of the actual temple. The temple was modeled on the tabernacle, which also only had one courtyard for the priests (Exo 27:9, Num 3:10). ↩︎

  11. The outer courtyard had a degree of sanctity as women were not allowed in during their menstrual period (Josephus, Against Apion, translated by Whiston, book 2 section 8). Since Josephus mentions only the exclusion of menstruating women, it can be assumed that other people during their periods of defilement (Leviticus 15) were permitted. So tabernacle/temple rules were not being applied to the court of the gentiles. ↩︎

  12. Bock, Luke, NIVAC. Bock should be commended on making this accurate observation, yet he does not follow it to its logical conclusion. That commerce has been given a place in worship today, such as in regard to royalties paid for song use in churches. He waters down his own conclusion with statements such as “the temple has become an excessively commercial enterprise.” Yet there is no evidence in the passage that Jesus was offended by an excess. He did not drive out those charging too much. Rather, he drove out everyone charging anything at all. ↩︎

Jon Here

Founder of Gracious TechMDiv

Jon has served as a pastor, a missionary in South-East Asia, and went on to start his own company for creating apps for mission. Every app his company makes is free to use and open source.

The first app I made was for evangelizing using plain Scripture. It was almost done when I realised Bible translations forbid sharing plain Scripture! Copyright has been the number one barrier to my ministry ever since. The more I've reflected on Scripture and the practices of modern ministries, the more concerned I've become.

All original content is freely given and dedicated to the public domain.