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Temper tantrum in the Temple?

Always at Passover, someone writes an article in a Christian magazine about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and driving the merchants out of the Temple. All too frequently in recent years, they speculate that he was out of control with anger, throwing what would today be called a temper tantrum. Obviously, Jesus was displeased with what was happening within the Temple precincts on his visits during Passover week, but focusing only on his righteous anger misses the point. Apart from any anger he may or may not have felt (we aren’t told about his anger level), Jesus was enacting a parable for the people of Israel through his words and deeds (words to be heard by the spiritually deaf, deeds to be seen by the spiritually blind).

In a private moment with his disciples later in his ministry, Jesus explained that the words and deeds of his public ministry to the lost sheep of the house of Israel were always to be understood in that manner: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.” (Mark 4:11-12).

In his explanation to his disciples, Jesus, who the Gospels present as the righteous servant of God, was invoking the words of the prophet Isaiah, who predicted sometime around 680 BCE that the people of Israel would, henceforth, be unable to perceive the things of God with clarity: “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

Later in his ministry, Isaiah talked about the mission of God’s servant, saying about him, “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house” (Isaiah 42:6-7), adding that Israel should heed him, “Hear, ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see.” (Isaiah 42:18) Alluding to the continuing state of blindness and deafness of Israel and its consequences, Isaiah asked, “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?” (Isaiah 53:1)

The ongoing nature of Israel’s spiritual state of blindness and deafness after the time of Isaiah was emphasized by the prophets of Israel who followed him. About a hundred years after Isaiah had proclaimed his judgment, and shortly before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II, the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not …” (Jeremiah 5:21). Even later, during the time of the Exile in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel re-emphasized Israel’s blindness and deafness to the things of God by saying, “Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a rebellious house.” (Ezekiel 12:2)

As he began his public ministry, Jesus understood the spiritual rebelliousness of Israel through the preceding centuries and the resulting limitations that had resulted from its leaders being spiritually blind and deaf for a period spanning so many years. It was in that context of long-term spiritual blindness and deafness that Jesus chose to introduce himself to Israel in the manner that he did, by enacting a parable. And that brings us to Jesus’ first cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event that occurred as recorded in the Gospel of John: “And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” (John 2:13-16)

Notice in the above account that John opens his testimony about Jesus’ first cleansing of the Temple by calling attention to the impending Passover.1 As he says, the Passover was “at hand,” specifying that the subsequent cleansing of the Temple occurred a few days before the memorial Passover night when the Jews were commanded to eat the Paschal lamb in remembrance of their deliverance from death in Egypt, and to eat unleavened bread for seven days in remembrance of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Before eating the memorial Passover meal, however, Jews were also commanded to rid their houses of leaven sometime before the first day of the Passover week 2, “Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” (Exodus 12:15)

Even today, devout Jews have strict rules about cleansing one’s house of leaven prior to Passover, and the same custom prevailed in Jesus’ time. It is that act of cleansing one’s house of leaven that explains his “temper tantrum” in the Temple. Jesus was not acting out of anger or rage as far as we know from Scripture. Instead, he was acting in obedience to the commandment to clean one’s house of leaven, in this case “my Father’s house” (remember, Jesus had been recognized by the Father as the Son at the time of his baptism only fifty days or so before this first cleansing event in the Temple) and his actions were a parable-of-deed as well as one of words, thus demonstrating that he considered Israel’s relationship with God through the Temple and its priesthood to be corrupted by manmade teachings and rules and in need of cleansing.

The focus on cleansing leaven as a symbol of ridding Israel of sin was clarified for his disciples and us a year later, just before the second Passover observed during Jesus’ ministry 3, when he warned them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees … How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? …Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6, Matthew 16:11-12)

In addition to performing a symbolic cleansing of the Temple from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees to demonstrate the need for restoring the nation of Israel to true biblical faith, unencumbered by manmade rules and commandments, Jesus was also announcing to the people of Israel assembled in Jerusalem for Passover his authority to do so as the Son of God. It was a bold claim, “my Father’s house,” and the Jews who saw and heard him challenged Jesus, saying, “What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body.” (John 2:18-21).

As far as what is recorded in Scripture, there is no record of Jesus visiting Jerusalem during the second Passover that was celebrated during his public ministry, the one in 29 CE 4, though, as a Jew who observed the Law, he may well have done so without any of his disciples along to witness and record the event. However, the third (and last) Passover during Jesus’ public ministry is the one that was observed during the week of his crucifixion in Jerusalem in the year 30 CE. The events of that festival week are recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, and each includes an account of the second time Jesus cleansed the Temple in preparation for observing the Passover:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer 5; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11:15-17)

And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Luke 19:45-46)

The action-as-parable aspect of the second cleansing of the Temple, which comes at the end of Jesus’ first Advent, mirrors the meaning of the first cleansing of the Temple that occurred at the beginning of his public ministry, namely, the need for a new covenant based on faith in the atoning blood of Jesus to replace the atonement unattainable through sacrifice in the Temple corrupted by manmade doctrine. It is interesting to note that Jesus, instead of saying “my Father’s house” as during the first cleansing, during the second cleansing in 30 CE explains his actions by saying “My house,” indicating what the Father had said earlier about him during the Transfiguration, calling Jesus the Son, to whom “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27).

1 The year was 28 CE.
2The Feast of Unleavened Bread was also called the Passover according to Luke 22:1.
3 29 CE.
4 The Gospel of John specifically mentions three Passovers observed during Jesus’ ministry, one in John 2:13, a second in John 6:4, and a third in John 11:55. The reference in chapter 2 is to the Passover in 28 CE. the one in chapter 6 to the Passover in 29 CE, and the one in chapter 11 to Jesus’ last Passover in 30 CE.
5 Isaiah 56:7 “Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people”

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