Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there (Matthew 21:12).
A seven-year-old girl was wandering around inside a splendid cathedral, awestruck at the soaring ceiling and the magnificent stained-glass windows. It was the middle of the week and the church was empty. Out in the lobby stood a table with various souvenirs and religious trinkets for sale, and the people tending the table would occasionally get to talking or laughing quite loudly with each other. Other than that, the place was quiet. Inside the worship area itself, I watched the little girl. I could see she was deeply moved by the colorful scenes from the Bible that were glowing in the stained-glass windows. When she saw pictures of Jesus being beaten and crucified, she was overwhelmed with feeling, and she began to sing softly, “My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine…”
Before she could sing any further, one of the people from out in the lobby stalked up to her and ordered her to hush up: “This is a church! You have to be quiet!” The cranky guardian of proper conduct then turned on her heel and headed back to the trinket tables in the lobby to gab noisily and sell more stuff.
That incident reminded me of something that happened to me back in my student days. One summer I spent two months in the land of Israel, studying and visiting various important places. On an especially hot day, I dressed in a shorts and a T-shirt and set out to visit Jacob’s well. I was eager to see a place rich in history and biblical significance; but when I got there, I ran into problems. As I made my way toward the entrance, I noticed a booth nearby selling souvenirs. I was lining up to enter the doorway to Jacob’s well when a man from the souvenir booth sprang up and blocked my path. “You can’t go in there wearing shorts,” he barked. “This is a holy place.”
Now, it was foolish for me, a silly student, to show up at such a place dressed so casually just because it happened to be hot outside. I should have been more aware of local feelings and customs. Still, it struck me as odd that the very person who rebuked me for the unholy act of wearing the wrong clothes into that sacred spot would think it perfectly okay to set up shop just outside and peddle tacky trinkets and grab all the shekels he could right next to that oh-so-holy location.
When religion becomes a money-making racket which piously stifles a sincere seven-year-old singing sweetly for her Savior or pompously turns away an eager young man who isn’t dressed quite right, something is wrong. When formality matters more than the reality of a relationship with God, when profit matters more than helping people or praising the Lord, religion has become a filthy mess, and it’s cleanup time.
Sad to say, it’s nothing new for people running a sacred place to turn it into a money-making venture. It’s nothing new for money-minded nitpickers to stifle the enthusiasm of the young and block access to those who don’t meet the formal requirements. These very things happened in the temple of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. The temple had become big business. Salesmen were setting up noisy shops right next to the place of worship. Foreigners were kept at a distance, and children were expected to stay quiet and not praise the true Lord of the temple.
Here’s how it happened. The high priest of Israel at the time was a man named Caiaphas. This Caiaphas was the son-in-law of a former high priest named Annas. Annas was no longer high priest, but even after he left office, he remained the power behind the scenes. Nothing happened in the temple or in the office of the high priest without Annas’s approval. You could bet that whoever was officially high priest was really a front man, a puppet of Annas. Five sons of Annas and one grandson, plus his son-in-law Caiaphas, took turns in the office of high priest.
Annas and Caiaphas and their clan were part of a wealthy elite called the Sadducees. The Sadducees considered themselves too educated and refined and realistic to believe in angels or spirits. They didn’t believe in life after death or resurrection. These elitists did, however, believe in the power of religion to control people and make money.
At that time animal sacrifices were an important part of temple worship. Rich people would offer a bull or sheep, while poor people would offer doves. God commanded these sacrifices in the time before Jesus as a way of pointing ahead to the One who would die for the sins of God’s people, so it was right for the priests to be involved in these ritual sacrifices. But Annas and his gang turned the sacrificial system into an industry.
People who traveled from other parts of Israel often found it hard to bring an animal with them from home all the way to Jerusalem. They found it more convenient to buy a bull or sheep or dove after they arrived in the city and use their new purchase for the sacrifice. However, only specially consecrated animals could be used for the sacrifices. What an opportunity for money-minded priests! They impressed on worshipers that you couldn’t really be sure an animal qualified unless you bought it at the right place–from priest-approved vendors. The priests then turned the outer court surrounding the temple into a religious mall. Various vendors ran booths and sold animals to visiting pilgrims, with a cut of the profits going back to the chief priests, especially Annas and his clan.
On top of that, those money-grubbers figured out still another way to make money. They required a temple tax and ruled that it could only be paid with shekels, not with Greek or Roman coins or any other foreign money. So if you were a pilgrim who didn’t happen to have any shekels in your pocket, you had to go to a currency exchange and get some shekels before you could pay your temple fee. The exchange rate of shekels to other currency was a ripoff, with big profits for the money changers and big payoffs for the chief priests. And where was this priest-approved currency exchange set up? Where else but in the outer court of the temple, right next to the livestock vendors?
Now, in God’s plan for the temple, that outer court was the place for Gentiles. It was the place for non-Jewish people from many nations who had put their faith in the one true God of Israel to come and pray and worship him. But how could they focus on God in worship when their entire worship area was crowded with livestock and noisy salesmen and money changers? They couldn’t. But so what? The chief priests didn’t care if their market and currency exchange crowded out foreigners and made such a racket that even the Jewish people worshiping in the inner courts of the temple could hardly concentrate. There was money to be made! There was a system to maintain! That’s all they cared about.
But then Jesus showed up. It was cleanup time.
On the Sunday before Jesus died (which Christian observe today as Palm Sunday), Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd waving palm branches and shouting in praise of Jesus. “Jesus entered Jerusalem,” says the Bible, “and went up to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany,” (Mark 11:11) a village just outside Jerusalem, to spend the night. On Palm Sunday Jesus saw how the noise and commerce around the temple were drowning out genuine worship, and he decided to do something about it the next day.
On Monday Jesus returned. This time he didn’t just look around; he sprang into furious action. The Bible says,
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'” (Mark 11:15-17)
Oh, was Jesus furious! God had designated that area of the temple for people of all nations to worship him, but the chief priests had turned it into a noisy, smelly marketplace. God had said through the prophet Isaiah, “Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him… these will I bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer… for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-7). Jesus quoted from that Scripture to show what his temple was meant to be. Then he quoted from another Scripture to show what it had become: a den of robbers. Back in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord had angrily rebuked greedy priests by saying, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:11). As the true Lord of the temple, Jesus quoted those words and shut down the religious mall and threw out the money grubbers.
Needless to say, Annas and Caiaphas and the rest of the big shots were upset. This man Jesus was a threat to their income and their authority. When Jesus drove out the animals and toppled the tables of money, and when the chief priests and teachers of the law heard Jesus speak of them as a den of robbers, the Bible says “they began looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18). They weren’t about to let Jesus wreck their business.
For the next few days, however, Jesus took over the temple and made it what God intended it to be: a place of teaching, healing, and joyful praise. “Every day he was teaching at the temple,” says the Bible, and “all the people hung on his words (Luke 19:47-48).
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise”? (Matthew 21:14-17)
I began this program by telling about a sales clerk peddling stuff in a booth in the lobby of a cathedral and then shushing a little girl who was singing “My Jesus, I love thee.” Much the same thing happened when the chief priests turned the temple courts into a marketplace and then tried to silence the little ones who were shouting in praise of Jesus. However, Jesus made it clear that God loves the praise of the little ones and hates the greed of the official guardians of ritual and formality.
Old Testament Scripture had warned that cleanup time would be coming. The prophet Malachi wrote: “Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple… But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap… he will purify”! (Malachi 3:1-2). The religious leaders of Jesus’ day may have thought they were in tune with God, but when the Lord himself suddenly came to his temple in the person of Jesus, it those leaders turned out to be at odds with him, and things needed to be cleaned up.
But, you might wonder, what’s this got to do with us? Well, we’d be wrong to hear all of this only as something that happened long ago, or just to cheer for Jesus and boo the bad guys. Instead, we need to consider whether we ourselves need to be cleaned up.
We’ve been looking at how Jesus stormed into the temple and drove out the salesmen and upended the money tables and generally made a mess of organized religion which put money and heartless formalities ahead of true worship. Jesus didn’t only with attack what was wrong, however. He went on to restore the temple to the uses it was meant to serve.
Picture it in your mind: Jesus stands among overturned tables, broken chairs, scattered coins, cowpies and dove droppings. It looks like a mess, but the real mess–the money-grubbers with their merchandise–has been kicked out. Then three things happen: Jesus teaches God’s truth where previously the merchants had been shouting to potential buyers; the sick and disabled came to Jesus in the temple and are healed; and children shout in praise of the Lord Jesus. Those three things–being taught by Jesus, being healed by Jesus, and praising Jesus–are what God wants to happen in his holy place.
Cleanup time isn’t just something that had to happen in a temple in Jerusalem long ago. It’s something that needs to happen every time a religious system becomes corrupt and religious leaders become self-serving. For example, it has been reported that the head of a church denomination used church donations for himself, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foreign dictator to influence American government officials, and used church money to build a house which he shared with a female denominational official. His angry wife set fire to that house. And yet, at his denomination’s convention, this man somehow managed pull enough strings to remain president of the denomination. When leadership is so corrupt, it’s cleanup time.
It’s also cleanup time whenever buildings or business become more important to a church than its divine calling to teach God’s truth, bring help and healing to the needy, and praise the living God through Jesus Christ. Huge sums of money can be spent on building projects, huge amounts of time and energy can go into fundraising and management, while the church’s true purpose is neglected. A friend of mine came back from another nation and told how that country’s dominant church took such poor care of its seminary for training new preachers that there wasn’t even enough money for chairs or books. Meanwhile, the church hierarchy was planning to spend $50 million on a new cathedral! Apparently, a fancy building is a higher priority than sound instruction in God’s Word. When splendid buildings matter more than biblical preaching, when maintaining church bureaucracies matters more than helping people, when expensive formalities matter more than the free gospel of salvation in Christ, it’s cleanup time.
But enough about that. Let’s get more personal. Whether or not it’s cleanup time for a particular church or religious organization, each of us must face the need for cleanup time in our own hearts. As we think of how Jesus cleaned up the temple, let’s not forget that the Bible says we are to be God’s temple. Jesus said that with his coming, the time had arrived to worship God not just in a particular place, but in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-23). So, then, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple must be applied to each and every individual heart. Just as Jesus drove out the merchants and overturned the money tables in the temple, we need Jesus to drive out our selfishness, overturn our greed, and make room for God.
Have you, personally, ever been through a cleanup time? Or is your life so crowded with money matters and busyness that you have no room for God? Computer tycoon Bill Gates has said, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion isn’t very efficient. There is a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” Well, if it’s efficient to keep chasing money when you’ve already got far too much, if it’s efficient to save an hour on Sunday morning and ignore where you’re going to spend eternity, then I guess billionaire Bill is right: it’s efficient to ignore the Lord Jesus. But wouldn’t it be better if Jesus stormed into the temple of your heart and upset what you think is efficient and important and made room for what matters most?
Only then can you hear his teaching, receive his healing, and offer him your love and prayers and praises. As Jesus sets up his temple in your heart, God can also use you to help others as you spread the truth of Jesus, bring healing to those in trouble, welcome strangers and foreigners and children, and join together in exuberant celebration of Jesus. The way Jesus transformed the temple can be repeated in you and in me.
Pastor and author James Boice tells the story of a boy years ago who was riding with a well-known Bible teacher on a train. The teacher was reading his Bible. The boy was reading the newspaper. Finally, the boy looked over at his mentor. “I wish I knew the Bible as you do,” he said in a complimentary way.
The teacher gently replied, “You’ll never get to know it by reading the newspaper.” The boy got the message, put the paper away, and began to read his own Bible. In time he went on to become a widely known Bible teacher in his own right.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should never read the newspaper, or that we should never spend time on work and business. But it does mean that you and I need room in our lives for Jesus and his Word. We need to experience his healing forgiveness and share it with others. We need to delight in Jesus and praise him.
So again, have you ever been through cleanup time? Has Jesus come into your life and taken over? Are you continually being cleaned up and renewed by Jesus? Is he making you a temple where God lives, a place of divine teaching, healing, and worship?
So far we’ve been thinking about cleanup time in terms of what Jesus did in the temple near the beginning of Holy Week. But the ultimate cleanup time came at the end of Holy Week. On Good Friday Jesus allowed the temple of his body to be destroyed. Then, on Easter, he raised it up again.
When Jesus took charge of God’s temple early in Holy Week, Annas and Caiaphas and the other corrupt leaders arranged for Jesus to be arrested and nailed to a cross and killed. Their plan was evil, but behind their evil plans lay the good plan of God. God the Father was giving his Son Jesus as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for the sins of the world. Without that sacrifice, none of us could be saved. Without the blood of Jesus, none of us could be cleaned up. Without Jesus’ death, the only way for the Lord to cleanse his fallen creation would be to storm into the world and throw out all of us sinners and cast us into hell. But instead Jesus chose to die in our place and to pour out the blood that can wash away any sin. Once he had completed that great cleanup task, God raised Jesus to life again, overturning the powers of death and putting Satan to flight.
These things happened long ago, but the very same Jesus is alive and at work right now. In fact, he may be speaking to you at this very moment, telling you it’s cleanup time. Don’t resist him. Trust in the power of his blood to wash away your sins. Count on the risen Savior to give you new life. Invite him to make your heart his temple. Ask him to drive out out whatever interferes with your relationship to him. Then rejoice as he takes over and cleans up and makes you into a suitable home for God himself.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.