– Seth Asher
Any time we grapple with questions of dealing with Christian interactions with an increasingly un-Christian environment, we do well to bring these questions back to the person of Jesus Christ. Did Christ deal with a similar event within Scripture? If so, how did he act? If not, can we observe other instances of Christ’s actions and see if they shed light on the matter?
Bringing these questions back to the person of Jesus Christ remind us that we are agents of his Kingdom who seek to be his disciples, striving to bring about his Kingdom in the world in which we live.
This practice becomes all the more necessary when we begin to think about Christians working, playing, worshiping, and living in a broader world that seems to get smaller and more crowded all the time. As Christians, how do we engage “marketplace” environments where differing messages, diverse peoples, and unspoken expectations seem to govern the arena? Beyond that, how can we bring Christ’s Kingdom to such places?
The Gospels record an account of Christ entering just such an environment and acting boldly and redemptively. All four Gospels record the account of the event commonly known as, “Christ Cleansing the Temple” (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-18; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-17). While each account differs slightly, the main event remains the same: Christ enters the Temple marketplace and violently disrupts it, driving away animals intended for sacriﬁce, and destroying the stations of those who exchanged currency. He quotes Isaiah 56.7 (“…My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”) and Jeremiah 7.11 (“‘has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I have seen it,’ declares the Lord.”).
After disrupting the local trade, Christ teaches and heals while the Temple leaders fume and begin to plot his death. What do Christ’s actions mean? In order to answer this question, we must acquaint ourselves a bit more with the signiﬁcance of the Temple during the days of Jesus.
The Temple: The Hub of the Jewish World
Before its destruction in 70 A.D., the Jewish Temple enjoyed great status as a religious and economic center in the ancient world. This grand structure, constructed of gold and marble, stood brilliantly visible for miles. Thousands of people, Jews and Gentiles alike, passed through its gates daily, while a Roman garrison stood close by to keep the peace. In this place, worlds clashed: Jew and Roman, priest and commoner, buyer and seller, crippled and whole. The Temple stood as the hub of Jewish religion and commerce.
The proper observance of the Jewish faith remained the highest functions of the Temple. Pilgrims would come from all over the Empire to fulﬁll their religious obligations, and the Temple became ﬁlled with people during festivals. The outer courts of the Temple served as a marketplace and a kind of one-stop-shop for pilgrims. Those coming to the Temple could fulﬁll their religious duty of almsgiving by giving to the poor and crippled on their way into the Temple. Upon arriving at the outer courts, they could seek out a moneychanger to acquire the proper Temple currency, as foreign coin was not permissible for use; after getting money, one could seek out a livestock dealer to get a necessary animal for sacriﬁce.
If the pilgrim were unsure as to which animal to purchase, priests made themselves available for consultation. Other priests led worship songs and activities during the constant stream of sacriﬁce. Merchants sold and transported their goods across the Temple courts, taking advantage of the massive crowds that ﬂocked there. Jews and Gentiles both could enter the outer courts and observe the events of the day. Beyond the business matters of the marketplace and the Temple proper, the outer courts became a gathering place for all people.
When one considers the marketplace atmosphere of the outer Temple courts, it comes as no surprise that the Temple also housed the wealth of the Jewish people. During the Temple’s construction, sizable donations and valuable gifts came in from other rulers around the Roman Empire. Monetary gifts were used to pay superior wages to workers and fund projects, while precious metals and other items contributed to the spectacular appearance of the Temple itself.
Each devout Jewish male across the world made a yearly donation to the Temple, and collection stations were erected throughout the Empire in order to take in the offerings and oversee the safe transport of the funds. The Temple also operated as a sort of bank, with safety-deposit boxes for local citizens who wanted to keep their valuables safe. The Temple housed the national treasures of the Jewish people as well.
Turning the Marketplace on Its Head
Now that we have gained a clearer picture of the signiﬁcance and function of the Temple, we ﬁnd ourselves in a better position to understand the magnitude of Christ’s actions in clearing the Temple courts. That day, by disrupting the business taking place, Christ attacked the religious and economic status quo. Everett Ferguson, in his work The Backgrounds of Early Christianity, says: “…Jesus’ action in cleansing the Temple looked revolutionary. It was an assault on the economic system and a challenge to the position of the Temple authorities” (pg. 565). How?
Throughout his ministry, Jesus chastises the religious leaders of the times. In Matthew 23.23-24, in the midst of a strong diatribe against the religious elite, Christ condemns the Pharisees for upholding the precise details of the Law and while neglecting justice and mercy and engaging in extortion and self-indulgence. In Luke 20.46-47 Jesus warns his followers to beware of those who enjoy lofty appearances and positions of power while “devouring widows’ houses.” Jesus takes issue with the fact that the priests and Temple rulers cared more for their own comfort and inﬂuence than the causes of the oppressed and needy.
The Temple marketplace reﬂected this. The Law mandated that all must pay the Temple tax, and accounts exist of priests forcibly taking money from those who were poor; however, some wealthy religious leaders re-interpreted the command so as to count themselves exempt. The Law allowed for smaller offerings for those who were poor; however, in the Temple marketplace, the price of these supposedly cheaper animals would skyrocket, causing further ﬁnancial distress to those who already found themselves with limited money.
To top it all off, the Temple marketplace maintained its own form of currency; to do business within the Temple courts, one must exchange for the mandated currency, often at poor rates. The proﬁt would go directly into the Temple coffers. The priests gained immensely from the steady stream of money and sacriﬁce through the Temple gates, at the expense of those who could ill afford to pad the pockets of others.
Christ’s action paralyzed the normal economic business of the Temple for the day. Pilgrims could not exchange money and purchase animals, and the priests could not offer sacriﬁce. Even if only for a short while, the Temple business ground to a standstill. Christ denounced those operating there as thieves – the priestly class chose to neglect proper matters of faith, such as justice and mercy, in order to take ﬁnancial advantage of the poor and needy for their own inﬂated egos and personal comfort. Jesus made the message clear: Such “business” has no place in the House of God.
The Gospel of John also contains an interesting epilogue to this event, in which Christ speaks to the nature of the Temple itself. John 2.18-22 tells of Jews who approached Jesus and demanded a sign of his authority, after seeing the Temple business had been disrupted. Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews thought Christ spoke of the physical Temple, but John tells us that Christ spoke of his own body. Christ makes a point: the presence and power of God dwells within people, not within structures. If people are being cheated and justice is being neglected in the Temple, the responsibility for these sins lies with the people in charge of the Temple instead of the Temple system itself. Christ’s assertion challenged the authority and spiritual condition of the Temple leaders as well as their worthiness to lead others in worship and true adherence to the Living God.
Christ’s actions cut deep into both the daily operation of the Temple and the basic understanding of the purpose that the Temple served. By disrupting the status quo, Christ could bring about a different set of activity within the Temple: redemptive acts of teaching and healing that bring about personal and corporate holiness.
Directly applying this passage to daily life appears difﬁcult at ﬁrst glance; the times have changed, and our interpretation and application of Scripture must take this into account. However, a couple of points emerge as we study this event. Christ’s changed understanding of the Temple itself challenges all those who seek to follow his teachings, while his willingness to disrupt the status quo of a deeply ﬂawed marketplace sets a strong example of how Christians should engage contemporary settings.
One’s body serves as a Temple of the Living God. Christ brought a new understanding of the concept of Temple when he answered the Jews in John 2.18-22. Those questioning Jesus held that the true presence of the One and Only Almighty God lived within the Temple; however, Jesus spoke of his body as a Temple while the Jews spoke of the physical structure. The Apostle Paul develops this understanding in 1 Corinthians 6.17.20 when he exhorts the Corinthian church to avoid immoral behavior because the Holy Spirit lives in them. The religious leaders of the Temple may have upheld the Law and honored the presence of God within the Temple building, but they failed to understand and honor God’s presence living in them by acting unjustly and exploiting the poor. The actions of Christ condemn the leaders for being unworthy to act as stewards of God’s house.
Christ’s actions serve as a stark reminder for Christians who live and work in marketplaces today: we must honor the presence of God that lives in us by living accordingly. Just as the Temple should have been a house of prayer, we must be people of prayer. Our interactions must be guided by mercy and justice, while our decisions must be led by God’s Holy Spirit. Each marketplace will have understandings and norms that operate contrary to God’s Kingdom principles. As called ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must live out this understanding of personal Temple-hood and not compromise God’s living presence for the sake of marketplace acceptance or operation. Will we heed Christ’s call to be people of integrity and justice who live only by the principles of His Kingdom?
Redemptively engage the marketplace. The picture of Christ that we see here provides us with an example of how to engage marketplace culture: redemptively, and even disruptively, if necessary. Christ knew that the marketplace status quo did not uphold the principles of God’s Kingdom. He acted by disrupting the current operations: overturning tables, driving away sacriﬁcial animals, and bringing redemption into the marketplace through teaching and healing.
Christ calls us as his followers to redeem the marketplaces that we engage. Part of this redemption means having a full understanding of what takes place within the marketplace and not turning a blind eye to operations and causes that defy God’s Kingdom. Once aware of how the marketplace falls short of the Kingdom of Heaven, we can then engage the marketplace in ways that introduce Christ’s paradigms of justice, mercy, and redemption rather than paradigms of greed and consumerism. At times, this will mean breaking the status quo. In these moments, we should remember that we are acting as agents of God’s Kingdom, setting up shop in places that desperately need the presence of the Almighty to break in. Operating redemptively in marketplaces may ﬂy in the face of how many think marketplaces should work. However, we, as disciples of Christ, live by a different paradigm.
As we seek to engage marketplaces in our day and age, the account of Christ cleansing the Temple provides us with an example of how the power of God can break into an environment, challenge the economic and religious status quo, and act redemptively in ways that bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth. In the power of the Holy Spirit, may we do the same.
Aland, Kurt., ed. Synopsis of the Four Gospels: English Edition. Broadway: United Bible Societies, 1982.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
Betz, Hans Dieter. “Jesus and the Purity of the Temple (Mark 11.15-18): A Comparative Approach.” Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (1997): 455-472.
Ferguson, John. “The Cleansing of the Temple.” Modern Churchman 24 (1981): 27-30.
Evans, Craig A. “Jesus and the ‘Cave of Robbers:’ Toward a Jewish Context for the Temple Action.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 3 (1993): 93-110.
Casey, Maurice. “Culture and Historicity: The Cleansing of the Temple.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (1997): 306-332.
Dawsey, James M. “Confrontation in the Temple: Luke 19.45-20.47.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 11 (1984): 153-165.
Seth Asher received a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in May 2011. He combines a passion for Scripture with a heart for practical application. He authors the seasonal devotional Continuum of Grace (available at http://continuumofgrace.wordpress.com). After being ordained in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Seth relocated to Newark, Delaware. Read more about the author here: http://continuumofgrace.wordpress.com/about-the-author/.