Read John 2:13–25.
“No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.” So read the signs that once marked the dividing line between the outer court of the temple and the temple proper.
Archaeologists have uncovered two such signs, and they are, as far as physical remains go, the closest ties we have to the temple Jesus visited. In fact, these signs illustrate why Jesus unloads on the merchants and moneychangers here in John 2.
You may have heard that the men selling sacrifices and the others exchanging coinage were ripping people off. They probably were, because that’s the nature of sin, but Scripture doesn’t give us that detail. What we do know is that both groups were actually providing a valuable service to faithful Jews coming to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh.
Think about it for a moment. Suppose you were a Jew who lived in Galilee and traveled some ninety miles to the temple for the Passover, would you really want to bring your sacrifice with you? Not only would such an undertaking slow your journey considerably, but also the effort would be for naught if, on the way, the animal was injured or marred in any way. It made much more sense to buy an animal locally.
The same goes for the currency exchange racket. Temple authorities required the purest possible coinage for the taxes they collected, and so the standard Roman coins travelers had with them simply would not do. The money had to be exchanged for something better, and being able to get the correct currency right there at the temple made the experience for travelers a lot easier.
The problem has less to do with what they’re doing than where they’re doing it. This is the temple of the living God, the “Father’s house” (John 2:16). This outer court is the only place in the temple complex where non-Jewish people can gather to pray and worship. They can’t come any closer—remember the signs—but they can come to this outer court. This is their place to draw near to Yahweh. The Jewish authorities don’t care about Gentiles, however, and they’ve allowed the court to become a one-stop shopping experience for weary travelers.
Jesus is having none of it. He flips over tables, scatters the money, and chases everyone out. My favorite detail is unique to John’s Gospel: Jesus leaves the temple to go make a whip. This isn’t some rash decision made in the moment. Jesus is on mission. He’s angry, but His actions are still fueled by love—love for God and love for outsiders.
John tells us, “His disciples remembered that it is written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (v. 17; compare with Psalm 69:9). They connect Jesus’ actions with Psalm 69. Back there, it was David who was consumed with zeal for God’s house. He said so in his appeal to God for deliverance. Though David was righteous and loyal to Yahweh, he suffered at the hands of his enemies. David’s life, in this regard, foreshadowed Jesus’ suffering. It’s a note that John and the other New Testament writers pick up on repeatedly; they cite elements of Psalm 69 all over the place in reference to Jesus . In citing a verse from the psalm here, the Beloved Disciple is pointing us to the cross.
In case we miss that road sign, Jesus is happy to provide a flashing neon billboard. The Jewish leaders ask Jesus what authority He has to clear out their market, and they demand a sign. Their thinking goes like this: only a prophet from God could do such things, so they want to see a visible sign of God’s power at work.
Jesus obliges: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (v. 19). The religious leaders scoff, knowing that the temple in which they are standing is a work in progress, forty-six years in the making and counting. But Jesus is talking about His own body, the greater temple. His words are another arrow pointing to the cross. Jesus is the Lamb of God; He’s going to die for the sins of the world, and that includes the sins of the Gentiles, whose place in the temple courts He has just restored.
Jesus is the true and lasting temple, our place to meet with God. In Him, there are no divisions—no inner courts and outer courts, no signs prohibiting certain people from coming to the Father. All are invited. All are welcome. Jesus is the way home for everyone who will come to Him.