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Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple

A Study of Unauthorized Church Activities

Jesus and the Cleansing of the TempleThe cleansing of the temple is recorded in Matt. 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-18; cf. John 2:13-16. Having entered the city, Jesus went to the temple and removed from it those who were using it for personal business profit. The various accounts show that people were buying and selling, changing money and selling doves (Matt. 21:12; Mark 11:15). Jesus had cleansed the temple similarly on an earlier but different occasion (John 2:13-17). After that first cleansing, apparently the men had returned after Jesus left. It would seem that the rulers, who ought to have kept them out, did not oppose the activity.

Jesus' justified His action by quoting Scripture. The temple should have been a house of prayer (Isa. 56:7), but they had made it a den of thieves (Jer. 7:11) or a house of merchandise (John 2:16). When Jesus had cleansed the temple the first time, it was said that this proved His zeal for God's house (John 2:17).

These activities, which Jesus removed, pertained indirectly to the worship. The animals were offered for sacrifice, and the money was changed so people would have had the right amount of money to give for the temple taxes or perhaps to pay for sacrifices, etc. God Himself had commanded these sacrifices and taxes. What then was the problem?

Probably some of these men were overcharging for their products to take advantage of people who needed sacrifices but could not easily obtain them elsewhere. So God's worship requirements were being used as a means for personal profit to line the pockets of the merchandisers without regard for God or man.

But there is also another reason why the practice was objectionable. Even if the fee had been fair and just, the business ("merchandise") should still have been conducted elsewhere. With fair business dealings, selling the doves and making change may have been acceptable as a business matter. But to do it on the premises of the temple was a perversion of the purpose of the temple. The passage Jesus cited said the temple to be "a house of prayer" -- worship and spiritual service -- not a place of making financial gain. The activity would have been wrong, even if fair prices had been charged, because it was a perversion of the purpose of the temple.

Lessons for today

Jesus' action presents several lessons for today. 

(1) God distinguishes between worship activities and everyday activities. The two are at times separated with regard to time, purpose, and circumstance. When God gives a spiritual purpose to an activity or an ordinance, we displease Him greatly when we change that purpose to another purpose, especially to a purpose that is materialistic or physical in emphasis to satisfy human desires instead of giving Him honor and praise.

(2) God does not have to expressly say a thing is wrong for it to be wrong. The Old Testament nowhere expressly forbade selling or making change in the temple (though unfair business practices were often condemned). But God had said what the temple was for, and these activities were not included. Likewise, we are wrong if we simply do things differently from what He said, in ways that are not authorized or not included in what God commanded. This is the principle that we must have Bible authority for all we do, and we must not change what God has said to follow human ideas instead (Matthew 15:9,13; Galatians 1:8,9; 2 John 9-11; Colossians 3:17; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12; 3:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19).

Applications of these principles can be made in numerous areas because similar conduct is common today in the name of religion. Compare this to modern-day "faith healers" who claim they can do miracles by the power of God like Jesus and His apostles did. But they expect and may even require a generous donation first. Many of them get filthy rich, and yet they are not doing true miracles. In many cases they are frauds and know it.

Other groups make merchandise off the people by offering spiritual benefits (indulgences, masses), but people must pay a fee for the service. Often these services are not Scriptural or not needed by the people, but the religious leaders convince people it is needed and then charge a fee or otherwise get rich off it.

Then compare the modern "Social Gospel" movement. The church is God's temple today (1 Cor. 3:16). This refers to the body or institution, not the building. The church was sanctified by God for spiritual purposes, to worship Him and teach His word, just as the Old Testament temple was (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Cor. 14; Eph. 4:16; etc.). Yet many people today seek to get the church involved in sponsoring or using its facilities for recreation, entertainment, business activities, social gatherings, secular education, common meals, parties, plays, gymnasiums, carnivals, and other carnal attractions for personal desire and enjoyment. And although the church building today is not a "temple" in the sense the Old Testament temple was, yet the principle we are studying applies to the work of the local congregation in general. But that would include the building in that it was purchased to do the work of the church, so the church ought to use it only for that which is legitimate church activity.

Often church involvement in secular, social activities is justified on the grounds that some indirect connection of some kind can be found between the activity and the work of the church. But that was also true for the activities that Jesus cast out of the temple. So the fact is that the activities themselves are no part of what God authorized the church to do, nor is it spiritual in its nature and emphasis. There may be no specific passage forbidding them, but they violate God's purpose and intent for His church just as surely as these moneychangers in the temple. Jesus, were He to return, would cast them out of His church as surely as He cast these money changers out of the temple. Those who share His zeal for the church will act as He would.

For further study about church organization and work, or about miracles for today, please see our detailed articles on those subject on our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/

(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2006

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