By Ed Vasicek
Spring-cleaning finds its origins in the Jewish community, preparing ones home for Passover by removing even infinitesimal dust that might contain leaven. During the Passover season nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus decided to clean house, too. The house was his Father’s house, the Temple.
This event is known as the “Second Cleansing of the Temple,” and we are looking at the account of it recorded in Mark 11:15-19. The first cleansing occurred three years earlier and recorded in John 3:13-22.
Yeshua didn’t clean with detergent, kitchen cleanser, or disinfectant. This was to be a different kind of cleaning, an attempted spiritual cleansing from the grunges of corruption and snobbery.
Studying all three accounts (Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48) suggests that Jesus used the whip on the animals, not the people. He did yell at the people and turned over tables. He was indignant. His anger was not a spontaneous tantrum, but a premeditated responsibility given him by the Father and revealed beforehand in the Old Testament. It involved indignation and intense emotion on Jesus’ part, for sure. But this was how it was meant to be.
The fact that three Gospels record this cleansing (and the fourth Gospel, John, an earlier cleansing) highlights the important nature of this event. John supposed that Jesus did and taught so much that all the books in the world (at that time) could not contain detailed accounts of them all (John 21:25). Putting these facts together leads us to conclude that the Cleansing of the Temple is rich with significance — not just a curiosity. Let’s look at and evaluate this event.
First, please note the two issues that provoked Jesus’ wrath.
The two issues involved were not about merchandising at large; Jesus was not a socialist.
The first problem was that the business conducted in the Temple court was a crooked, dishonest one. The high priest and his family were in control of these enterprises; the people despised their corruption and hypocrisy. These merchants cheated the people, taking advantage of their collaboration with the profiteering priests. This problem is fairly well known and often mentioned in commentaries and sermons.
The second problem, however, was one of the displacement of God-seeking gentiles during Passover. This second problem might even be the greater of the two.
Jerusalem became a crowded city at Passover time. According to chosenpeople.com,
According to the noted scholar Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem had a population of about 20,000 to 30,000 people. But at Passover, one of the three festivals that must be celebrated in Jerusalem mentioned in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16, the Holy City’s population swelled by perhaps another 150,000.
A crowded city meant crowded Temple courts. Since the gentile God-fearers were only allowed in the Court of the Gentiles (unlike Jewish men and women who could enter the inner courts), there was no place left for them; they were crowded out by the merchants and money-changers. Had they located their businesses outside the Temple courts, the high priestly family would have lost its monopoly. We will develop this idea later, because it is a crucial point in understanding Jesus’ actions.
Second, it is helpful to understand the polar opposite viewpoints embraced by the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai.
These two main branches of the Pharisees were in constant tension. In general, Hillel was much more humanitarian and compassionate than Shammai. Hillel and his followers wanted to lead the gentiles to faith in the God of Israel and teach gentiles to conform to the minimal commands God gave to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9). Shammai wanted to keep Jews separate from gentiles as much as possible. If gentiles wanted to be saved, Shammai taught, they must become full converts to Judaism and Torah-observant. An echo of this controversy seems quite clear in the early church, as documented in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
Jesus’ generally sided with the views of Hillel, except in the instance of divorce and remarriage where he embraced Shammai’s stricter interpretation. During Jesus’ day, Shammai’s followers were in the majority and thus controlled the Pharisees. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Shammai’s views died out. Thus all modern Judaism has descended from the School of Hillel.
When we understand these distinctions, it leads us to postulate that the School of Shammai would have had little concern about leaving room for gentile God-fearers in the Temple complex, but we can assume that this was troubling to some within the School of Hillel.
Even after the Temple was destroyed, the debate continued. Should Jews seek to lead gentiles to fear God and study the Torah, or should they avoid gentiles and focus upon separating from gentiles?
Johanan said: A heathen who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written, Moses commanded us a law for an inheritance; it is our inheritance, not theirs… An objection is raised: R. Meir used to say. Whence do we know that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest? From the verse, [Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments:] which, if man do, he shall live in them. Priests, Levites, and Israelites are not mentioned, but men: hence thou mayest learn that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest! … [b. Sanhedrin 59a]
Third, we must ask: “How could Jesus get away with creating a ruckus in the Temple on two occasions?”
If I walked into our city’s Farmer’s Market and began turning over tables and disrupting business, I would end up in the county jail. How was it that Jesus went free?
One answer might be that it was not God’s plan for him to be arrested at this point. And, it would be hard to argue against this. Nonetheless, how can we explain this from a merely human perspective?
The fact Jesus got away with this twice suggests public disgust with this corruption as well — everyone knew Jesus was right. It is feasible that other zealous Jews may have done something similar. The Talmud contains no mention of Jesus doing this at all, which might be expected if the Pharisees (especially the School of Hillel) considered Jesus’ behavior scandalous. The Talmud, however, includes curses on these corrupt priests who prospered from their corrupt enterprises.
Fourth, let’s look at the Old Testament prophecies that come to bear upon Yeshua’s cleansing of the Temple.
Messiah had a special right to purify the Temple; it was expected of him.
Malachi 3:1-3 [ESV], ““Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare 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. 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. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.”
The event recorded in the Gospels is the “substitute cleansing”: The full cleansing will occur when Yeshua returns to set up His Kingdom.
Throughout Scripture we see the “less literal” near fulfillment and the “more literal” distant fulfillment. One previews the other by virtue of a substitute, a sign of things to come (e.g., Zechariah 3:8). Maher Shallal Hashbaz substituted for Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14-16 with 8:14), the Magi for the Kings of the earth (Matthew 2:1-12 with Isaiah 60:5-6), John for Elijah (Luke 1:13-17, Malachi 4:5), Palm Sunday for Jesus’ future coronation, the Mount of Transfiguration for the Millennium (2 Peter 1:16-18), Pentecost for the pouring out of the Spirit on Israel in the Tribulation (Acts 2:17-21 with Joel 2:28-32), and, here, the Cleansing of the Temple as a predictor of the full cleansing.
The Messiah was expected to removed vendors from the Temple (Zechariah 14:21)
Zechariah 14:21, “And every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them. And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”
In the first cleansing, John 2:17, “His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Psalm 69:9, “For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.”
Hypocrisy in the lifestyles of those who utilized the Temple could not be ignored (Jeremiah 7:11). In addition to the anticipation that the Messiah would right what was wrong with Temple worship, Yeshua — as the Son of God — had unique authority: it was his Father’s house.
Jeremiah 7:11, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.”
God’s revealed will was to incorporate — not repel — gentiles to the Temple and to faith in the One True God (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Isaiah 56:6-7, ““And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
This incorporation of the gentiles is a major characteristic of the Messianic era. Thus, if you put all these Old Testament passages together, you end up with this expectation: The Messiah will cleanse the Temple, remove the traders, and pave the way for gentiles to flock to the Temple. This is — in miniature and in a token way — exactly what Jesus did.
The main reason all four Gospels record a cleansing is obvious: like the cross and resurrection, the cleansing of the Temple is a mater of prophetic fulfillment and evidences that Yeshua really IS the promised Messiah. He did what the Messiah was expected to do, but could only go so far because his own people rejected him and refused to believe in him. When he returns to reign, he will clean house fully!