Jesus Clears the Temple

December 9, 2022


In John 2:13-22, Jesus clears the temple courts of animals and moneychangers. This passage is often misunderstood as a text where Jesus displays his anger over the financial greed which was taking place in the temple, based on the quote, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16). While certainly Jesus was concerned about greed, there is much more behind the scenes.

John 2:13

After a short sojourn in Capernaum, Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and the text implies that the disciples accompanied him (2:12, 17, 22; 3:22).

For the first time in the Gospel, we meet with direct notice of a Jewish liturgical feast: the Passover of the Jews is near. As an observant Jew, Jesus makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and enters the temple area.

The temple was the most important institution and building in Jewish life. It was the place where God dwelt among his people in a special manner, and thus it was a central factor and component in Jewish life.

The temple was God’s house, the place where he made himself known, instructed his people, and received their worship. As the psalmist sang, “How lovely your dwelling, / O LORD of hosts! / My soul yearns and pines / for the courts of the LORD” (Ps 84:2–3). The temple operated under the auspices of the high priest and the priestly aristocracy in The sale of animals and exchange of money occurred somewhere in the large outer courts of the temple, in the so-called Court of the Gentiles.

John 2:14

Upon entering the temple precincts, Jesus saw those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the moneychangers seated there. Since Passover was a pilgrimage festival, it attracted an international crowd of pilgrims, which swelled the population of Jerusalem with hundreds of thousands of people.

It was Herod the Great who around 19BC began to rebuild and greatly expand the size of the temple. It was Herod who also installed various courtyards within the temple area, including courts for priests, Israelites, women, and Gentiles.

The Court of the Gentiles was actually far larger than the Temple building itself, and its Inner Court, which were restricted to the Jews.

Historical writings at the time of Christ tell us that the area occupied by Herod’s Temple and its courts was over 35 acres, and the Court of the Gentiles occupied about 10 acres of that space. Modern archaeological excavations have confirmed this. So the area that Jesus cleansed was no small place.

Gentiles could get no closer to the Holy of Holies than this outer courtyard. Only Jews could enter the inner courtyard areas. In fact, archeologists have found a large stone that served to warn Gentiles from getting any closer to the inner courts than the outer Court of Gentiles. Its inscription reads: “No foreigner is to go beyond the balustrade and the plaza of the temple zone. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.”

Since foreign coinage often carried the image of emperors or kings (Mark 12:15–17) and such images were considered a violation of the law (Exod 20:4), the pilgrims needed to exchange their currency to pay the temple tax and buy sacrificial animals in money acceptable in the temple (hence the moneychangers).

These God fearing foreigners would never have existed without the Diaspora, the wide diffusion of Jewish congregations throughout the known world.

In ever greater numbers, these people, called “fearers of God” (phoboumenoi ton Theon) attached themselves to local synagogues and observed as much of the Jewish piety as they were able. We know of one such man at Caesarea, named Cornelius, who kept the regular fasting days and hours of prayer. It is hardly surprising that some of the “God-fearers” should also want to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the major feast days in the Temple. So, to accommodate them, Herod the Great had constructed a large courtyard around the Second Temple, where they could gather and worship: The Court of the Gentiles.

When Solomon dedicated the original temple, we see a surprising prayer for the foreigner/Gentile:

“Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for the sake of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm, when they come and pray in this temple; then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name. 2 Chronicles 6:32-33.

The court of the Gentiles was supposed to be a place of prayer!

John 2:15

Jesus then drove out those who supplied pilgrims with the proper temple coinage and the animals for the Passover sacrifices.

What was the intended purpose of this area? It was supposed so be a quiet area, an area devoted to prayer and the worship of God.

But what was going on in this area of the Temple in Jesus’ day? The Levites had turned it into an animal market.

Now let’s focus more clearly on the shame issue. When the Jewish people of Jesus’ day were selling animals and exchanging money in the Court of the Gentiles, they were in essence declaring the Gentiles to be second-class citizens, foreigners, excluded, outsiders.

John 2:16, Mark 11:17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves.”

So picture this: The Temple area, a ten-acre space that issupposed to be a quiet place of prayer and worship, is filled with stalls of baying animals and their refuse, possibly thousands of shouting people, and no doubt arguments about prices. Instead of quiet, prayer, and worship, there is noise and chaos.

While it is true that they were “foreigners to the covenant” (Eph 2:12) between God and Israel, it is obvious that the original intent of the temple was to invite foreigners to come and pray. It was Solomon’s prayerful hope that God would answer their prayers, resulting in these foreigners coming to know God as the true God. In this way, the “outsider” could become an “insider.”

How difficult, though, it would have been for the Gentiles to pray in the environment found in the Court of the Gentiles, surrounded by the sounds… and smells… of animals, of the hustle and bustle of sellers trying to get a good price, of money changers clinging their coins. It would be a mixture of trying to worship in a bank and a barn all at the same time. Impossible!


How shamed they must have felt as they stepped around… and in… the remnants of cattle and sheep. It was a constant reminder that they did not belong. Despite Solomon’s prayer, I’m sure the Gentiles asked themselves a time or two, “Is this really the house of the true God? Does this God even care about us? Do these dirty animals and smelly conditions mean that God is not concerned about me and my prayers?”


Jesus, though, saves the day. He “drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (2:15). While it is clear that this cleansing of the temple is also a judgment of Israel for excluding the foreigner (see Jeremiah 7:11; Zech 14:21), it also creates a sacred space for the Gentiles—a place where they…too…can come to the temple and pray to the true God. Isaiah 56:7, quoted by Jesus in the temple cleansing in Mark 11:17, hits the nail on the head: “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” All nations! Yes, God does care for the outsiders.

John 2:17

Jesus’ disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The quotation is from Ps 69:10, but John has a subtle but very significant difference. In the ancient Greek version the text reads, “Zeal for your house consumed me” (Ps 68:10 †LXX), but in John the verb is in the future tense, “will consume me.” Jesus’ zeal for his Father is one of the principal reasons that he will be consumed on the cross.

Just as he saved the Gentiles from a shameful situation in the first century, he does the same today. There are many who feel like they are excluded—outside of God’s care and concern. Certainly God could not care for little ‘ole me” is their motto.




John 2:18–19

The temple authorities (the †Jews) then challenge Jesus: What sign can you show us for doing this? They are looking for some †sign from God that would provide sanction for Jesus’ provocative actions in the temple. Jesus gives them an answer: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. The Gospels report that Jesus connected his actions in the temple with a statement that prophesied the temple’s destruction. His words and deeds in the temple recall the prophet Jeremiah, who threatened the destruction of the first Jerusalem temple if the people of Judah would not repent of their sins (Jer 7:1–15).4 These prophetic words of Jesus must have been quite memorable because they reappear, in a misunderstood (and twisted) form, in accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in Matthew and Mark (see Mark 14:56–59;15:29–30).

John 2:20

The temple authorities, however, do not understand, and they issue a further challenge: This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days? The construction work referred to is the renovation and expansion of the temple started by[…]

John 2:21

The temple authorities think that Jesus is talking about destroying and rebuilding the actual temple building, but John provides us with the intended spiritual meaning of Jesus’ words: He was speaking about the temple of his body. The Evangelist has taught that the †incarnate Word is the new dwelling of God in the world: the divine Word “made his dwelling among us” in Jesus (1:14). Similarly, when Jesus alludes to Jacob’s dream at Bethel (which means “the house of God”; 1:51), he suggests that his disciples will see that the incarnate Word is the “house of God,” the place of divine revelation. The bodily resurrection of Jesus—the raising up of the temple of his body after death—will be the sign that provides the Father’s confirmation and sanctioning of all that Jesus said and did (see comments on 20:20).

John 2:22

Like the temple authorities, Jesus’ disciples did not understand his words at the time. But when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. In 2:17 and 12:16, the disciples are said to remember. This activity goes far beyond simple recollection. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you” (14:26). The disciples’ remembering will be guided by the Holy Spirit in them after Jesus’ resurrection. The New Testament writings often speak of Jesus’ resurrection as the key to fully understanding the Scriptures in their depths. In Luke 24 the risen Jesus, standing in the midst of his disciples, “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45; see 24:25–27). When John tells us here that the disciples came to believe the scripture, he probably refers to the whole Old Testament, which, when read in light of Jesus’ resurrection, clearly speaks of the death and vindication of the †MessiAH.

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