Scripture readings: Ex. 20:1-17; Ps. 19; 1 Cor. 1:18-25; John 2:13-22 Sermon by Martin Manuel (from John 2:13-22)
Jesus: The Zealous House-Cleaner
I have a question for you today: Is your house clean?
In one of his sermons, John Wesley said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Though not found in the Bible, this statement has been embraced by many Christians as a principle for godly living. Nevertheless, many Christians, me included, would not invite a home inspection! Even the most scrupulous among us will admit that our homes get dirty quickly and are not easy to clean. Though some hire a house-cleaner, the responsibility for a home’s cleanliness lies with its owner.
Today we will see that spiritual cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness. Though the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the dust and dirt that accumulates in our homes, it does say a lot about sin and its effect on us, and thus the necessity for spiritual cleansing.
Today is the third Sunday of Lent. Historically, Lent was a time when people prepared to be baptized on Easter Sunday. It was also a time when believers who had drifted away from God were restored to genuine discipleship. For many Christians today, Lent is a time of introspection that includes fasting—giving up something to seek after God. Lent is thus a time of cleansing and renewal, looking forward to Easter.
Our Gospel reading today in John 2:13-22 is about cleansing—specifically, the time Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem, casting out the money changers and others defiling God’s house. Why did Jesus do what he did that day in the temple? Did his act have symbolic meaning? And how should we view Jesus’ passion for a clean temple today? My intent in this sermon is to remind us of the zealous house-cleaner Jesus was and is. We will see that spiritual cleansing is a key focus of his ongoing ministry through the Spirit, and we will be reminded of the spiritual disciplines that help us participate in our Lord’s house-cleansing work.
The event recorded in John 2 occurred during Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem after his public ministry began. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention a similar event late in Jesus’ ministry, so perhaps there were two such events.
Jerusalem meets the anointed visitor
The event John describes occurred at the time of the Passover. Travel to Jerusalem for this festival was common practice for many Jews, and was probably an annual trip for Jesus. This time he traveled in his newly identified role, considered by some to be a rabbi, but actually he was the Messiah—God’s anointed. Note John’s account:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. (John 2:13-14)
Crowds swelled around the temple at Passover. Jewish pilgrims, coming from near and far to participate through animal sacrifices at the temple, found it convenient to purchase their sacrifices nearby. Entrepreneurial merchants took advantage, selling in the temple courts live animals and birds ready for the altar. Others found business opportunities in currency exchange. This marketplace in the temple courts not only reduced the space there for people to assemble in worship, but fostered a secular atmosphere that was inconsistent with the purpose of those sacred courts. This contemptuous practice dishonored the God of Israel for whose honor the temple had been built. Jesus likely saw and bristled at this activity many times before. This time, he decided to do something about it:
So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:15-16)
Jesus’ bold act caught the attention of everyone nearby—perhaps the more pious among temple attendees, feeling powerless to overrule the permissions of the religious leaders, liked what he did. Others may have felt intimidated by these forceful actions.
Jesus was indeed forceful, but not violent. No one, seller or buyer, was hurt and even the doves were not released from their protective cages. Nevertheless, Jesus’ acts drew attention, instantly affecting the attitudes of the people in the courts. Even more alarming was Jesus’ assertion that the temple belonged not to the marketers but to his Father! Two strong but radically different reactions were expressed:
His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (John 2:17-18)
Jesus’ followers saw in Jesus’ acts and words King David’s reverent approach to worship expressed in Psalm 69—a reverence not shared by the average Israelite. The other group, irreverent and arrogant, challenged Jesus to prove that he had authority to take such radical action. Jesus’ reply to them was cryptic: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).
This contentious conversation occurred in one of the courts that surrounded the temple. This magnificent temple, originally constructed by King Solomon, rebuilt after the Jews returned from their exile to Babylon, and recently restored by King Herod, was in full view. Jesus’ comment confounded his detractors who replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” (John 2:20). They viewed what Jesus said as blasphemy. Later, when Jesus was on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, one person called to witness against him recalled these words of Jesus, prompting the high priest to make a demand that led to Jesus’ condemnation (Matt. 26:61-64).
The angry reaction of Jesus’ critics was not shared by his disciples. Although they did not understand Jesus’ remarks, they believed in him, and that belief stirred them to listen to and consider his words. They did not forget them either, recalling them after Jesus’ resurrection:
But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:21-22)
This later reflection resulted in deeper understanding of the Scriptures and stronger faith in Jesus. They realized that Jesus’ prophetic statement was part of a large collection of evidence that confirmed their Lord’s true identity.
What does cleansing the temple mean to us?
The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. Besides serving as a meeting place for Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem shortly after the beginning of the church, the temple had no lasting relevance to them. Within a few years they were forced to find places to meet far beyond Jerusalem. So what significance is this temple episode to Jesus’ followers then, and to us today?
Let’s begin to answer this question by noting that Jesus chose to cleanse the temple shortly before the Passover, a festival traditionally preceded by a time of personal ceremonial cleansing of Jewish pilgrims. That cleansing is mentioned in John 11:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. (John 11:55)
Matthew Henry’s Commentary says this about this cleansing:
This was either, first, a necessary purification of those who had contracted any ceremonial pollution; they came to be sprinkled with the water of purification, and to perform the other rites of cleansing according to the law, for they might not eat the passover in their uncleanness… Or, secondly, [it was] a voluntary purification, or self-sequestration, by fasting and prayer, and other religious exercises, which many that were more devout than their neighbors spent some time in before the Passover, and chose to do it at Jerusalem, because of the advantage of the temple-service.
John’s mention of the timing of Jesus’ initiative to cleanse the temple serves as important background information. Given the tradition of individual pre-Passover cleansing, the cleansing of the temple makes a lot of sense. In doing so, Jesus showed the importance of community spiritual house-cleaning.
Even more importantly, Jesus’ act at the temple demonstrated who he was and is—the Son of God the Father. He reinforced this fact by reminding those who witnessed the house-cleaning that the temple belonged to his Father. His words stuck with his disciples who noted his messianic zeal, and after Jesus’ resurrection, their Lord’s words brought them a deeper understanding of who he is.
Jesus spoke of the temple as being a symbol of his human body. That body was crucified in Jerusalem three years later, fulfilling this prophetic statement. After Jesus was raised to life and ascended into heaven, his body came to be understood as the church. Note what Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth:
Now you [Christians] are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church… (1 Cor. 12:27-28)
Paul said something similar to the church in Ephesus:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
Cleansed by the word
At times, the new covenant temple of God, the church, just like the ancient temple in Jerusalem, is in need of a house-cleaning. Providing that cleansing is one of Jesus’ jobs. Note what Paul says in Ephesians 5:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Eph. 5:25)
Here Paul uses three metaphors to speak of the church: body, temple and bride. All three help explain Jesus’ cleansing work—first through his blood at the cross, then through the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Jesus’ followers through the word.
Our readings today in Exodus 20, Psalm 19 and 1 Cor. 1 emphasize the cleansing effect of the word of God as given first to Israel under the old covenant, then to the followers of Jesus from all nations under the new covenant. Jesus said to his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). John then wrote of this cleansing in his first epistle:
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9)
Jesus’ blood cleanses us from the guilt of sin. Jesus’ word, through the work of the Holy Spirit, cleanses us within from the practice of sin.
The church consists of “saints”—those who have received the forgiveness Jesus has purchased for them, and thus are set apart as God’s dearly beloved children, his “holy ones.” But we are saints who sometimes sin, and so Jesus works within the church, through the Spirit, to cleanse us both individually and corporately. A notable example of the latter is the Protestant Reformation that occurred 500 years ago. Another is the reformation that came to our fellowship, starting about 30 years ago. In both cases, the written word of God played a central role in that cleansing.
As Jesus visited the temple in Jerusalem, the living Christ in heaven spiritually visits the Church through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. What does the living Jesus encounter in his visits today? Does he, from time to time, need to address abuses by individuals who persist in making themselves wealthy at the expense of those they are called to serve? Does he have to confront leaders who use political alliances to exercise power at the pulpit and in their communities? Does he have to pointedly remind his followers about who he is and about his relationship with the Father and the Spirit so that his followers may grow in their reverence for the triune God?
We can be sure that the church, the temple of God in the world today, belongs to the Father, Son and Spirit, and whatever cleansing it needs, it will receive from the zealous living Christ, by the Spirit.
How are we to participate in this cleansing? Simple: continue to trust in the blood of Jesus that removes the stain of sin; be willing to confess sin that manages to reappear like dirt in our lives; and consistently and persistently receive the word of God that through the Holy Spirit cleanses us within.
We receive the word through daily personal study of the Bible and through being taught the word in sermons, Bible studies and discipleship classes. These spiritual disciplines help us participate in Jesus’ cleansing work by making our minds and hearts readily available for the Spirit’s cleansing work. Our minds, like the temple, are places for the occupancy of something. The God of Israel designed the ancient tabernacle—later the temple—as a dwelling place for his holy presence. It was not to be empty, and it was not to be contaminated by anything that did not belong there.
The concept of Lent as merely a time to give up something fails to see that corrupting things must be replaced by holy things. Jesus ousted those who illicitly occupied the temple courts so that his people could make use of them for prayer.
If you’ve chosen to fast this Lent (and that’s good!), I also recommend you fill the space created with something better. What about replacing time wasters, sin-enticing entertainment, and temptations to overindulge with hunger and thirst for God’s word?
Today’s Gospel lesson is an invitation for each of us, through prayer, to ask Jesus to visit us and our congregation for the spiritual cleansing that will help us conform more fully to him—to share more actively in his holiness. The spiritual disciplines can be daily stimulants to such spiritual growth, and Lent can serve as an opportunity to establish or strengthen the habit of practicing these spiritual disciplines daily.
Given that we have indoor plumbing, it probably strikes us as odd that royalty from long ago would say, “I take a bath once a month, whether I need it or not.” Just as we appreciate what a bath or shower does to cleanse our human bodies, we also appreciate the spiritual cleansing Jesus brings to his body, the church (whether it realizes its need for cleansing or not).
Jesus’ blood cleanses us from the guilt of sin. Jesus’ word, through the work of the Holy Spirit, cleanses us within from the practice of sin.
Lent is a reminder to us each year of our need for both corporate and personal cleansing that comes not by us, but by Jesus Christ the zealous house-cleaner. Of and by itself, fasting does not cleanse us spiritually. However, it does focus our attention on our walk with the Lord. It helps us to be willing participants in the cleansing the Holy Spirit is doing by the word of God. May we all be willing participants. Amen.