“Jesus’ Ministry: Getting the Temple Clean” – John 2:13-25
Introduction: Cleaning & Cleanliness
OK… it’s hard to believe but it’s a year ago already that everybody got locked down because of the virus. It’s hard to believe that it’s a year already, but on the other hand it seems like we have been living in this unwelcome reality for FAR TOO LONG!! Can you even remember what “normal” life is like – you know… vacations, not staycations; family visits, not Zoom visits; eating at a restaurant with friends, not just ordering in? When that shut-down happened in March 2020, people just had to stay home, and a lot of cleaning took place – spring cleaning, closets of old don’t-wear-these-anymore clothes, windows, vacuuming, cupboards, kitchen floors, walls, declutter your home, the attic, the garage, you name it – it got cleaned… because there wasn’t much else to do.
Cleaning is a good thing. Cleanliness is a good thing. Maybe you’ve heard that saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Does anybody know where in the Bible that is found? Is it 1 Timothy 6? That’s close… it says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” Maybe it’s in the Proverbs? Nope. The Psalms? Not there either! You may have heard it from your grandmother, but you didn’t hear it from God because it’s NOT in the Bible!!
We may call the expression “cleanliness is next to godliness” a proverb, a wise saying, but it doesn’t merit Biblical status. It’s about outward cleanliness and personal hygiene, not so much about true God-likeness. Now, to be sure, the Jewish people and the Jewish religion seemed to be a lot about cleanliness. There were clean and unclean foods. There were things that made you unclean – like touching the carcass of a dead animal or touching a person with leprosy. There were rules for cleaning your cups and pitchers and kettles. But avoiding those unclean things or people didn’t make you more Godly. The Jews were also more about personal hygiene, because, you know… they had germs and viruses back in those days, too.
Jesus once highlighted the distinction when He said that “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” He was making it clear that there is a difference between outer cleanliness and inner cleanliness. And that’s what our story from John 2 is about today. Let’s explore…
1. Review: Jesus’ Ministry theme
Let me just remind you that during this season of Lent we are unpacking various aspects of Jesus’ ministry. We started two Sundays ago with Jesus’ temptation and His crucifixion forming bookends for His ministry, with His Baptism and resurrection being the prologue and the epilogue. Last week, we looked at the importance of getting things straight – Jesus’ identity, His mission, and our discipleship. Today, the sermon title is “Getting The Temple Clean,” and our Gospel reading takes place in the Jerusalem temple during Passover time.
2. Context: Passover and the Temple
Passover was that Jewish festival that celebrated God’s great Old Testament act of deliverance for the people of Israel – saving them from the angel of death, leading them out of slavery in Egypt under Moses, across the Red Sea, and finally leading them to the Promised Land. That was the one yearly festival that Jewish people from far and wide would come to Jerusalem to celebrate. They would come to Jerusalem because that’s where the temple was, and it was the main religious city and place. They would come from all over Israel, and they would even come from Jewish communities in foreign countries. It was kind of like people coming home for Christmas in our time. For them, it was a grand celebration – both for public worship and for family meals – and so the population of Jerusalem ballooned during Passover week.
In this John 2 story, the problem was what was happening in the temple. To understand this properly, we need to understand some of the context and what the temple looked like in Jesus’ day.
The focal point was the Holy Place, and then even the Most Holy Place where once a year on the Day of Atonement the high priest would go to offer a special and sacred sacrifice for the sins of the people in God’s very presence. Surrounding the Holy Place was the place where adult Jewish males could worship and offer their prayers. Outside of the Men’s Court was the Women’s Court, and outside of the Women’s Court was the Gentiles’ Court. (Gentiles were anyone that wasn’t Jewish by birth.) There was actually a wall, a physical barrier that would separate the Gentiles from the Jewish area of worship. Think of Donald Trump’s border wall keeping the illegal Mexicans out of America. Same kind of idea.
3. The Gentiles’ Court
Then let’s consider something else which helps us to understand Jesus’ actions that day. We heard it in the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 56:6-8). There the prophet Isaiah – speaking God’s own words – talked about foreigners that joined themselves to the Lord, served Him, loved Him, those who keep the Sabbath and hold fast to God’s covenant. God says that He will make those foreigners / those Gentiles joyful in His house of prayer, and that He will accept their offerings and sacrifices. Why? Because His house is to be “a house of prayer for all peoples / all nations.”
Now when you consider that it was in the area of the Gentiles’ court that Jesus found oxen, sheep, pigeons and money-changers, it’s no wonder that it riled Him up a bit. Let me explain that a bit more. People selling animals for the sacrifices that were required at Passover time – that was necessary. In fact, it’s very possible that the shepherds around Bethlehem – the ones who were told by an angel about the Saviour’s birth – it’s possible that the Bethlehem shepherds were raising sheep that were destined to be sacrificed as Passover lambs. The temple in Jerusalem was only about 10 km. from Bethlehem. But you wouldn’t expect people from Bethlehem or Jericho or Capernaum or Nazareth to bring their own sheep or pigeons to Jerusalem for those required Passover sacrifices. So, the animals needed to be close, and accessible for the visitors from distant places. But NOT right in the temple!! Out on the street, in the marketplace, but NOT in the temple!!
And the money-changers. They were necessary, too. Remember there were Jewish people coming for Passover from Egypt and Damascus and Antioch. This was the first century Roman Empire and everyone would have Roman coins. Travelers to Israel would have to have their money exchanged into the local currency for the temple tax, which required Jewish coins (shekels) without human images, like Caesar’s face. Like the animal vendors, those money-changers also should not have been working in the temple proper. Besides that, they would often charge an exorbitant exchange rate and the visitors to Jerusalem could not do anything about it.
These two practices – selling animals in the area of the Gentiles’ court, and charging those high fees – prevented the Gentile people from properly observing the Passover, and it also made their worship space into a marketplace and business.
4. A house of prayer, NOT a den of robbers
That was Jesus’ observation and declaration and accusation. In Mark’s account of the cleansing of the temple, we hear Jesus refer back to that Isaiah passage about God’s house being a house of prayer for all nations. He charged the people with making it a den of robbers instead. Not only did the money-changers take financial advantage of the out-of-town visitors, but they also robbed the temple of its sanctity. And in John’s account we heard Jesus blame them for making HIS Father’s house into a house of trade. It was supposed to be a place of prayer and worship and connection with God for the Gentile visitors, just the same as for the more privileged Jewish worshipers. You can imagine that the sound of the bleating of sheep and the mooing of oxen and the bartering of the mid-Eastern money-changers would have carried over roof-less walls of the temple so that even the Jewish Passover worshipers would have been distracted and annoyed.
And that’s why, with righteous anger, Jesus made a whip of cords, drove out the animals and the people, and overturned the tables of the money-changers. It was the principle of the thing. It was His passion for the right thing, in the right way. And we heard that his disciples remembered and connected another Old Testament passage from Psalm 69 – “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal can be an angry love or a jealous love. Jesus’ zeal springs from His love toward God and His love for His people, and His intense desire for them to be connected in a meaningful relationship. Jesus wanted to keep God’s house and God’s people pure and holy.
It’s because of this story that still today we don’t sell things in the space and during the time when people worship God. We like to keep our church sanctuary as a relatively quiet and holy place for people to connect with God. It’s too quiet today!! And I think I speak for all of us when I say that we can’t wait to fill our sanctuary with people who truly want to pray and sing and hear God’s Word. I believe that that day is coming again.
Let’s make another application of this story to our lives and our reality. Can you imagine Jesus showing up, right here in our church, threateningly waving a whip of cords at us? We would cower in the pews, we might run out of the building. Jesus would not do that… if we were doing what we are supposed to do in the church – pray, hear God’s Word, sing His praises, receive the Lord’s Supper, worship.
5. Jesus cleans our temple / our lives
a. Our bodies = Holy Spirit’s temples
But in a sense Jesus does do that. He pulls out a figurative whip of cords for the inside of our lives. Did you pay attention to the last couple of verses of our Gospel reading? It says, “He knew all people… He, Himself, knew what was in a man.” He knows what’s in a man / woman. He can read our hearts. He sees our lives. He sees our secret sins. He perceives our thoughts, He hears our words, He observes our deeds. And that’s what He comes to clean – even today. Because that’s what doesn’t belong here in the church. We do, but our sinfulness doesn’t. So, still today, Jesus comes to get the temple clean.
But, remember, we heard this Bible verse a couple of months ago – “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” That’s the temple that Jesus really wants to get clean. He wants to clean your thoughts, your words, your deeds, your hearts – so that when you come to Him, you really do come for prayer, for connection, for spiritual wholeness.
b. “Destroy this temple… I will raise it up.”
You see, when the Jewish people questioned Jesus about His authority to toss the animals and the money-changers out of the temple, that’s what He referred to. He said, “Destroy this temple…” He was referring to His body, He was pointing ahead to His own death, by crucifixion. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” That was such a cryptic message that of course the people didn’t understand, and they thought He was talking about the Jerusalem temple made of stones. But no, John’s Gospel makes it clear – “He was speaking about the temple of His body.” And after those three days, after His resurrection His disciples remembered this conversation and believed!! They believed the Scriptures. They believed Jesus!
We know the whole story. Jesus did die… on the cross… for us! His earthly body was ‘destroyed.’ He did rise so that we would be forgiven, clean on the inside. Soap and water can get our hands or feet clean on the outside, but it is Jesus’ forgiveness that gets our hearts clean on the inside.
That day in the Jerusalem temple during Passover week, Jesus was concerned about getting the externals of the temple clean so that what was infinitely more important – the temple of people’s faith and hearts and lives – would also become clean. Jesus’ ministry was about getting the temple of people’s faith and hearts and lives clean.
c. Spiritual cleaning – Baptism, Absolution, Communion
This spiritual cleaning is not just that annual spring cleaning like you might do for your house one of these days. This spiritual cleaning that Jesus is interested in is something that He calls for weekly, even daily. When Martin Luther wrote in his Catechism about Holy Baptism, he referred to Romans 6:4 to say that Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam [the Old Eve] in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man [or woman] should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Whether it’s a recalling that in our Baptisms we are clean and that a new man or woman rises daily, OR the weekly absolution which affirms in plain words that God forgives all your sins, OR the regular participation in Holy Communion that is the tangible, sense-oriented assurances of God’s grace… in any and all of these ways you can be certain that your temple – body, mind, heart and spirit – is made clean, and stays clean. (For those of you who are Hope Lutheran people – you will have an opportunity for Holy Communion again this week. Check your e-mails, make an appointment. If you are a visitor, please check with your own pastor about receiving Holy Communion. If you don’t have a church home, I would be happy to speak with you – phone or e-mail – to help you find a church home that is close to you where you can be spiritually fed and cleaned.) That’s what Jesus ministry was about – getting the temple of people’s lives clean. He did that – once and for all – when He died and rose again… for you. You are clean! Amen.