13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. 23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
It seems like we sometimes say things without really thinking them through. For instance, I often hear good Christian people say, “I’m praying that we’ll meet Jesus at church today.” Sometimes when I hear that I want to say, “Are you sure about that? Did you read what happened the first time He went to church?”
Would I like to meet Jesus in church? Well, of course, unless I was just playing church or making a mockery of God in church. You see, the first time Jesus went to church, it didn’t turn out so well. The episode is recorded in John 2:13-25. What it reveals is pretty startling: the first recorded time that Jesus went to church in John, He grows so angry that He starts driving people out with a whip of cords!
Why? Let’s take a look.
The Church’s Lack of Love
Now, I am obviously, in this sermon, drawing a parallel between Jesus’ visit to the Temple at Passover and the idea of Him coming to church, but, of course, there were and are great differences between the church and the Temple. The differences are stark too:
- The Jews saw the Temple itself as a physical symbol of God’s presence with and in Israel. The church, on the other hand, is a body of believers. We do not (or should not) view the actual church building in the same way that the Jews viewed the Temple.
- In the Temple, the Jews came to have sacrifices made over and over again. In the church, we come to celebrate the fact that the sacrifice has been made once-and-for-all on the cross.
- There was one Temple. There are many church buildings.
So there are limitations in drawing analogies between the Temple and church. Yet, in a general sense, in both the Temple and the church the people of God gathered to worship, to pray, to seek God, and to seek His forgiveness.
So let us let the analogy stand for our purposes this morning. When Jesus went to church, He was not pleased by what He saw there. Consider:
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
The Passover was a high, holy, religious day. The Passover was that time when the Jews remembered and celebrated God’s miraculous liberation of His people from the bondage of their slavery in Egypt. You will, I trust, remember that the Jews were freed from their enslavement when the Lord informed them that the angel of death was going to pass through Egypt slaying the firstborn son of every house whose doorposts were not marked by the blood of a sacrificed lamb. So do not miss the ironic and poignant scene of this story: Jesus, the Lamb of God, goes up to Jerusalem, to the Temple, at that time in which the Jews remembered that they were saved by the blood of the sacrificed lamb. It is not the only irony we will find in this story.
What He found in the Temple astounded and angered Him:
14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
There are two things happening here: animals are being sold for sacrifice and money changers are converting the coins of the Jewish males into the appropriate currency to be used for paying the Temple tax.
We will consider the specifics of that in a moment, but let me first point out that Jesus’ indignation was excited first not by the fact that animals were being sold but rather by the fact of where they were being sold.
You see, the Temple itself was designed to remind people of how far or close they were from God. Consider this diagram of the 1st century Temple:
You will notice that the outermost court of the Temple was called the “Court of the Gentiles.” This is where non-Jews, Gentiles, who nonetheless feared God could come and call on His name. Let us at least acknowledge that the provision of a court for Gentiles was a gracious gift from the Jews. At the very least, it acknowledged that God loved some of those who were not of Israel.
Even so, it was insufficient, was it not? For instance, it was the farthest place in the temple from the altar and from the place of sacrifice. The God-fearing Gentile who came to worship would have been reminded that he was far from God. Jewish women could go further into the Temple by entering the “Court of Israel,” and Jewish men could go even further by entering the “Court of the Men of Israel.”
What did it say to the Gentile to watch observant Jews pass through doors through which he could not enter? What did his spatial distance from the holy inner courts of the Temple communicate? Well, it communicated that he could call on God, of course, but he was still far from God.
But the Court of the Gentiles is even more significant in this story for it was here that the animal sellers and money changers set up their tables. They brought their oxen and sheep and pigeons into that part of the temple where those furthest from God were supposed to be able to worship.
In doing so, they showed an amazing lack of love for those who needed grace.
Jesus comes into the Court of the Gentiles, that is, into the court of the outcasts, the court of the sinners, the court of those who could not call themselves the people of God. Jesus comes into the court of those who did not feel worthy to approach a holy God and those who were reminded of their unworthiness by the very layout of the temple. Jesus came into the court of those people who, to the Jews, were unclean, who were rebels, whose touch could defile good and holy people.
And what did He see here? He saw that insult had been added to injury and the court of the outsiders had been desecrated by the foul smells and loud sounds of animals and commerce.
After all, what exactly do oxen, sheep, and pigeons do to a sacred place? To be delicate, the necessities of nature would inevitably lead these animals to taint the place with excrement and with stench. The money changers doing their business helped to transform the court of the Gentiles into something like a crude shopping mall.
Jesus is incensed that the house of prayer has been transformed into a house of commerce, but He is particularly incensed that the Gentiles, those farthest from God, have been so demeaned as to render their efforts at worship unpleasant and odious.
No doubt there were some Jews who objected. It would be unfair to suggest otherwise. But at least a sizeable portion of the Jewish authorities, as well as those actually involved in the commerce, did not object.
But Jesus did object.
What they were doing was roughly equivalent to you bringing an embarrassing relative to church only to tell him to sit in a folded chair in the court, out of sight of the real action going on in the sanctuary.
The reason Jesus had none of this in the Temple and will have none of this in the church is that He understands something that we religious people too-often forget, and that is this: there is no foyer in the Kingdom of God. There is no outer court. There is no back of the balcony. There is no “over there” as opposed to “up here.” There is no dark corner.
Because of the blood of Jesus, the most terrible sinner can draw as close to God as the most righteous person. The blood of Christ is the great equalizer, obliterating our petty distinctions.
Grace, brothers and sisters in Christ, is horribly embarrassing. It does not honor our manufactured caste systems, social stati, class ranks. Grace does not favor the couple who has it all together more than the couple who are a train wreck.
Grace cries out to those on the outside, those sheepishly hiding in the corner just hoping maybe to get to touch the hem of the robe, and it says, “What are you doing back there? You are the special object of My love! You are the apple of my eye! Come on down! Come near to me! You do not have to stand at a distance anymore!”
Jesus was enraged at the lack of love being shown to the Gentiles. He was angered by their shameful relegation to a secondary class of miscreants.
Let us be honest: how often do we communicate in ways both subtle and explicit that we prefer these kinds of people but not those? How often have we been guilty of ushering him to the front of the line, but not him; of giving her the good seat, and putting her in the back?
A friend of mine used to serve as an Associate Pastor at a large urban church. He was telling me that a young family once visited the church. He said that the lady looked like a model and so did her husband. They were good looking folks: successful, articulate, nicely dressed. He said their children were models of politeness, charm, and grace.
He visited a moment with this family at the back door and they departed. When they left, an elderly lady in the church leaned over to my friend, motioned to the departing family, and said, “Now those are our kind of people!”
My friend was expressing how uneasy this made him. It makes me uneasy too. “Our kind of people”? What does this say about us? What does this say about the church?
Let us make this perfectly clear: all people, regardless of their problems, regardless of their issues, regardless of their baggage, regardless of this lives, who come and call on the Lord Jesus Christ are God’s kind of people. Gentiles are God’s kind of people. And we had best make sure that our kind of people are God’s kind of people or we risk becoming the objects of God’s wrath.
Let us not dishonor anybody who is seeking God.
Are we doing this? Do people who come into this church know that we love them wherever they’re at? Do they know that we love them?
Fred Craddock once told the following story:
“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge.” That’s what he always said.
Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,” and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.” I guess I heard it a thousand times.
One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.” They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I look around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.
He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
“I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”
And he wrote, “I was wrong.”
Oh, church, let us prove the world wrong. Let us show them that we love people, and we love them all alike. Let us show amazing grace and radical love to any and all who would draw near.
After all, we are the Gentiles in the story, and radical love has been shown to us.
The Church’s Profiteering
Jesus was also enraged by the commerce that was taking place. To be sure, those selling animals were providing a kind of service. After all, it is difficult to cart your own animals from far away to be sacrificed at the Temple, and the risk of injury is great. No doubt these animal sellers had convinced themselves they were doing the Lord’s work in setting up shop.
The money changers were there to convert currency into Tyrian coinage whose purity of silver made them acceptable as a form of payment for the Temple tax.
In both case, money was being handled and profits were being made. The Temple was being perverted into a place of commerce and the people of God were being reduced to objects for financial gain.
Jesus makes a cord of whips and drives these people from the Temple. What a terrifying sight that must have been! It is not the business of the church to profit off of people!
Let us be clear: giving is a spiritual act of devotion and one for which we will not apologize. I have no intention of apologizing that we pass the offering plates. It is good and right to give back a portion of that which has been given to us. But let us quickly add that it would be better for the church to close its doors than to use the name of God for profit and to use the people of God for gain.
Let us give cheerfully, and let us encourage one another to give as we should, but let us never pervert the gospel into financial gain!
Is it not odd that, in many cases, the church’s spiritual power decreases as her wealth increases? Not always, mind you. There are churches who have been richly blessed and are richly blessing others with what they have, but, tragically, this is not always the case.
A medieval writer named Cornelius once told a fascinating story about St. Thomas Aquinas:
St. Thomas Aquinas was in Rome. He was walking along the street with a cardinal. The cardinal noticed a beggar. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a silver coin and gave it to him. Then he turned to Aquinas, the great doctor of the church, and said, “Well, Thomas, fortunately we can no longer say, as Peter did, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’
St. Thomas replied, “Yes, that is true. But neither can we say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’”
Why is it that our spiritual power sometimes decreases as our wealth increases? This is especially true when a church determines that it wants to be a wealthy church. This inevitably leads to a perversion of worship and the manipulation of God’s people for financial gain. It is a deep tragedy, and one we must avoid.
A friend of mine once went on a mission trip to India. What he saw in India had an amazing impact on his life, especially the squalor and poverty of that nation as it contrasted with the wealth and power of the American church. When he returned home, he wrote a poem entitled “My Easy Christ Has Left the Church.” (As an aside, the question that is asked of Jesus repeatedly in the poem – “Quo Vadis, Domine?” is Latin for, “Where are you going Lord?):
My easy Christ has left the church.
Who can say why?
Maybe it’s because His video-logged apostles all
read diet-books, travel agency brochures
and Christian fiction thrillers
on how the world should end
But none read books on what the starving ignorant
should do until it does.
He left the church so disappointed that Americans
could all spell “user friendly”
but none of them could spell “Gethsemane”
Can we say for sure he’s quit?
Oh yes, it’s definite, I’m afraid:
He’s canceled his pledge card.
I passed him on the way out of the recreation building
near the incinerator where we burn
the leftover religious quarterlies
and the stained paper doilies
from our Valentine banquets.
“Quo Vadis, Domine?” I asked him.
“Somewhere else,” he said.
My easy Christ has left the church,
walking out of town past seminaries where
student scholars could all parse the ancient verbs
but few of them were sure why they had learned the art.
He shook his head confounded that many
had studied all his ancient words
without much caring why he said them.
He seemed confused that so many
studied to be smart, but so few prayed to be holy.
Some say he left the church
because the part-time missionaries were mostly tourists
on short-term camera safaris,
photographing destitution to show the
pictures to their missionary clubs back home.
I cannot say what all his motives were.
I only know I saw him rummaging through dumpsters
in Djakarta looking for a scrap of bread
that he could multiply.
“Quo vadis, Domine?” I asked him.
“Somewhere else,” he said.
He’s gone – the melancholy Messiah’s gone.
I saw him passing by the beltway mega-temple
circled by its multi-acred asphalt lawn,
blanketed with imports and huge fat vehicles
nourished on the hydrocarbons of distant oil fields
where the poor dry rice on public roads
and die without a requiem, in unmarked graves.
Is it certain he is gone?
We saw him in the slums of Recife,
telling stories of old fools
who kept on building bigger barns,
oddly idealistic tales of widows with small coins
who outgave the richer deacons of the church.
I saw him sitting alone in a fast-food franchise
drinking only bottled water and sorting through
a stack of world-hunger posters.
He couldn’t stay long.
He was on his way to sell his
old books on Calvin and
Arminius to buy a bag of rice for Bangladesh.
My easy Christ has left the church.
I remember now where I last saw him.
He was sitting in one of those new
square, crossless mega-churches
singing 2x choruses and playing bongos
amid the music stands and amplifiers
with anonymous Larrie and Sherrie.
He turned to them in church and said
“I am He! Follow me!”
But they told him not to be so confrontational
and reminded him that they
had only come for the music and the drama,
and frankly were offended that he would dare
to talk to them out loud in church.
After all, they were only seekers, with a right to privacy.
I followed him out through the seven-acre vestibule,
where he passed the tape-duplicating machine
where people could buy the “how to” sermons
of the world’s most famous lecturers.
He left the church and threaded his way
across the crowded parking lot,
laying down those whips and cords
he’d once used to cleanse the temple,
and looked as though he wanted to make
key-scrapes on Lexi and huge white Audis
and family buses filled with infant seats.
He stooped and shed a tear after
and wrote “Ichabod” in the sand.
In a sudden moment I was face to face with him.
“Quo vadis, Domine?” I asked him.
“Somewhere else,” he said.
My easy Christ has left the church,
abandoning his all-star role in Easter pageants
to live incognito in a patchwork culture,
weeping for all those people who
cannot afford the pageant tickets.
He picked up an old junk cross,
lugging it into the bookstore
after the great religious rally,
and stood dumfounded
among the towering stacks of books
on how to grow a church.
“Are you conservative or liberal,” I asked him.
But he only mumbled, “Oh Jerusalem…”
and said the oddest thing about a hen
gathering her vicious, selfish chicks under her wings.
He left the room as I yelled out after him,
“Lord, is it true you’ve quit the church?
Quo vadis, Domine?”
“Somewhere else,” he said.
Let us love people where they are. Let us never use people for financial gain. Let us never pervert the worship of a holy God. And let us NEVER become a church that Jesus would not attend.
The Church Missing the Point
Ultimately, however, Jesus reveals His anger that those who were most religious missed the truth of God that was standing right in front of them. Jesus was incensed by the empty religiosity of man that, far from drawing him closer to God, actually blinded him to the things of God!
Did you know it is possible to be religious and completely miss Jesus? The Temple authorities proved this:
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
After Jesus’ great and terrifying prophetic act of cleansing the temple, He makes an astounding assertion: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews are bewildered at the statement, for they take “this temple” to be a reference to the building itself. But the disciples would learn, of course, that Jesus was speaking of His own body.
There is rich irony here. The Temple was that place that symbolized the presence of God with His people. And here stands Jesus, God-with-us, in the Temple trying to get the Jews to see and understand. What He was trying to get them to understand was nothing less than this: that what the Temple symbolized and typified had come to its completion in Christ. Christ fulfills completely what the Temple could only hint at incompletely.
Christ was saying that He was the Temple.
Would you see God? Run to Jesus. Would you come into the presence of the God? Run to Jesus. Would you enter the holy of holies? Run to Jesus.
In redefining the Temple to His own person, Jesus spoke of his crucifixion (“Destroy this temple…”) and His resurrection (“and in three days I will raise it up.”) He did so because it is precisely through His crucifixion and resurrection – that is, through the cross and the empty tomb – that we are ushered into the presence of God. For Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes unto the Father except through Him.”
How is it possible that they could not see? How could they be blind to the truth of God standing in the very Temple of God conversing with the Son of God?
I’ll tell you how: because their religion had blinded them to God, and what the Temple had become had blinded them to the One to whom the Temple was meant to point.
It is a profound calamity when those who should be most keen to the things of God miss the things of God!
How about you? Have your religious duties blinded you to the person of Jesus? What has church become for you?
Honest question: would you really like to meet Jesus in church? Would you?
Our Lord Jesus loves to shower His grace on all who come to Him. However, He is not mocked.
Let us make it right. Let us call upon His name for forgiveness today.
Let us return worship to what it is supposed to be.
 Fred Craddock. Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.14.
 James Montgomery Boice, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), p.65.
 Calvin Miller, The Unfinished Soul. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.