Monday, May 9, 2016

When Jesus purged the temple at Jerusalem

(by Daniel Peterson 5-5-16)

All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17 and Luke 19:45-46) tell of the Savior’s “cleansing” of the temple at Jerusalem — the Latin term for the event (“purgatio templi”) is much more expressive — as does the gospel of John (John 2:13-17). Some scholars think there were two different cleansings, but, for this column, I’ll set that issue aside.

According to the gospel narratives, the temple court was filled with tables where the Greek and Roman coinage used for ordinary daily transactions had to be exchanged for Jewish coins or, alternatively, coins from Tyre, northward on the Mediterranean coast in what is today Lebanon. (Gentile coins were unacceptable within the temple precincts because, rather like many modern coins, they featured graven images.)

It’s easy to imagine there was a considerable markup in the exchange because the money-changers enjoyed a wonderful monopoly: There was only one temple in Judaism. The newly acquired “temple coins” were then used to purchase animals — the Gospels mention pigeons, sheep and oxen — for sacrifice on the altars of the sanctuary. And, once again, the merchants in the temple courtyard had, and presumably took, every opportunity to ring up a handsome profit at the expense of devout pilgrims who might have made a very arduous journey from distant parts of Palestine (and well beyond it) to worship their God.

We can, I think, learn a great deal from the story of how Jesus reacted to this situation. I will mention three points:

First of all, we plainly see that the Jesus who some have imagined, a man so tolerant and accepting that he would never presume to judge, reject or exclude anybody, is non-biblical. The New Testament Jesus was indeed gentle, kind and loving, and his love is our only hope of salvation. Still, on this occasion, he took the time to calmly make a whip out of cords and then waded in among the money-changers and drove them out, explaining while he did so that whereas the temple had been erected as “a house of prayer” (“for all nations,” adds the account given by the Greek physician Luke), the greedy and exploitative money-changers had turned it into “a den of robbers.” Afterward, recalls John, the disciples who had witnessed the Savior’s action saw in it a fulfillment of Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”

The Jesus of this story can be righteously angry. “A false balance,” says Proverbs 11:1, “is abomination to the Lord: but a just weight is his delight.” And although we have no reason to believe Jesus seriously injured — let alone killed — anyone, it’s plain he was willing to take vigorous action to defend what, according to John 2:16, he called “my Father’s house.”

Which brings us to a second point that we can take away from at least John’s recollection: By calling the temple of Jerusalem “my Father’s house,” the Jesus of the fourth Gospel seems quite plainly to be identifying himself as the Son of God. Notice that he doesn’t say “our Father’s house.” He is claiming a unique relationship with the Father.

A third and final point: His zeal for the temple and his description of it as “my Father’s house” — some Greek manuscripts of Matthew 21:12 identify it simply as “the temple,” but others call it “the temple of God” — show that Jesus considers it a holy place that should be treated as sacred. Some Christians have argued that Jesus rejected the temple and that his followers should therefore do the same. But there is no evidence for such rejection during Jesus’ lifetime, and the story of his purging of the temple argues powerfully to the contrary.

Of course, some have asserted that Jesus’ death on the cross eventually did render the temple irrelevant and that, accordingly, Christians should reject it. Once again, though, the biblical evidence contradicts this view. After Christ’s crucifixion, after his resurrection, and even after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (which some mainstream Christians like to view as the real “birth” of the Christian church), the book of Acts tells us where the Savior’s apostles spent their time — very possibly at considerable risk of arrest and certainly of harassment by hostile authorities: They were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple … praising God” (Acts 2:46-47).
Both Jesus and his disciples reverenced the temple, and so should we.


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