What is the Church?
I grew up in the Anglican church. In addition to our worship services, an important part of our church rhythm was bake sales, yard sales, barbecue fundraisers, spaghetti dinners and so on. It seemed that every month there was some sort of fundraising event going on. I enjoyed it, not just because it often included food, but because it brought people not normally involved in church into our building. It was great community development.
Later on I became a Baptist and I thought I had pretty much got used to the change until I realized that I didn’t. I was pastoring a Baptist church and I suggested that we have a yard sale. I can still remember the look on people’s faces. It was as if I had suggested casino night with a cash bar. I was informed that “Baptists don’t do yard sales.” Instead of going with the flow, I asked why. I was told that the story of Jesus cleansing the temple was clear teaching that we are not supposed to sell things inside the church building. Together we looked at this story and I told them it was fine to hold the conviction to not sell things inside the church building but that this story is not the best support for it. It ended up that we found a nice compromise. Instead of using the proceeds to fund our church, we donated everything to another ministry. The people ended up having a great time visiting with people who stopped by the church for the great deals.
So if the story of the cleansing of the temple is not provided as a warning against yard sales, then why do we have it? Is there a message in this passage for us and how we do church? This story is one of the few passages that is found in all four Gospels and so I think it is both important and relevant. Let’s take a look at what was happening and what it means for us.
What Was Happening
Luke does not give us a lot of information of what exactly took place in the temple. But looking at the other Gospel accounts, as well as some historical background, we can piece together what took place. Luke simply tells us that people were “selling” in the temple. But what were they selling? I can tell you that it wasn’t a bake sale.
There were two things going on. The first was money changing. Only a certain kind of money was allowed for offerings in the temple and this was not the currency that was regularly used in Galilee or Judea. If people were going to give money at the temple, which was part of their worship, they would need to exchange their regular currency for the acceptable currency. It would be like if we made a decision here that we would stop accepting Canadian dollars in the offering plate and would only accept Israeli shekels. You would need some means of exchanging in order to give to the church. That was the role of the money changers.
The second activity was the selling of animals. Sacrificing animals was an important part of Jewish worship during the temple period. That was fine if you lived in the Jerusalem area, as you could just bring one of your animals to the temple. But what if you lived in Galilee or even farther away in the Roman empire? Would you really want to bring an animal with you all that way? It would be very convenient if you could just purchase an animal directly at the temple.
What I want you to see is that the activity of changing money or selling animals was not bad. In fact, it was good and it helped to facilitate the worship of the people. So why did Jesus get so angry? It was not the activity itself but it was about where and how it was done.
First the where. There was an area outside the temple that was designated for this activity. But this was eventually moved into the temple. There were three sections within the temple, one of these was set aside for the Gentiles or non-Jews. This was the only area in the temple that Gentiles were allowed. That was the space where the selling was moved. It was decided that the needs of the Gentiles didn’t matter, especially if it made things more convenient for the Jews. We will get into this more.
Second is the how. Jesus quotes Jeremiah in describing this as a “den of thieves.” This suggests that some dishonest sales practices were taking place. The people selling and exchanging had full control. If a Jew coming from Italy didn’t like the exchange rate or the price of doves, there was not much they could do about it. It is not as if they would return to Italy without worshipping in protest. The situation was ripe for sellers to take advantage of religious pilgrims.
These two things were why Jesus got so angry. We think of Jesus as meek and mild and yet he flipped tables, drove out people and condemned the dishonest practices. Jesus took this so seriously that he put his life at risk. Historians suggest that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was the final straw in the conflict he had with the religious leaders. If he had not done this, it is possible that he could have survived his trip to Jerusalem. Obviously Jesus thought this was important.
House of Prayer
What does this mean for us? It is dangerous to compare the temple building with a church building as the way the Jews saw the temple is not the same as the way Christians look at church buildings. But Paul in 1 Corinthians identifies the church with the temple of the Spirit. Not the church building but the church as people. As a community of believers, we are the temple. So what can we learn from this passage?
Jesus argues in this passage that instead of using this area to sell, it is meant to be a house of prayer. This means that as a church, prayer must be one of our primary activities. That is correct. We include prayer at numerous places in our worship service and it happens throughout the week as well. But there is more than that going on here. We may think of prayer as a purely vertical activity between an individual and God but prayer is more than that. Although we can pray as individuals, prayer is especially appropriate in community. There is a reason why we have a congregational prayer. We open up prayer for requests, even though it creates a sense of unknown as to what will be shared.
When Jesus mentions being a house of prayer, he is quoting from Isaiah. Here is the larger context:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)
This passage is not just about the activity of prayer but about who is invited to join the community of prayer. Those described as the nations are the Gentiles or non-Jews. Jesus is explicitly saying that everyone is welcome, including the Gentiles. But in the temple, they had prevented the Gentiles by taking up their space. They were not being welcoming.
Although as a church we say we value prayer, do we put limits on who can join the community and experiencing the house of prayer? Is there any way that we take up space or put up obstacles? Are there explicit or implicit ways that we exclude people? Christian community is about radical inclusion of people of all sorts. Is there anything that Jesus might flip over in our church that excludes the people he loves?
Place of Teaching
I love the contrast that we find in this passage when it comes to the activity of Jesus in the temple. On the one hand, we have Jesus getting angry and tossing people out of the temple. And then Luke goes on to describe Jesus teaching in the temple each day. I’m sure that after the first incident, you didn’t have many people talking or goofing off during Jesus’ teaching.
We think of the turning over of tables and chasing dishonest sellers as the cleansing of the temple and that was part of it. But could it be that the teaching in the temple was also part of the cleansing?
Instead of just cursing the darkness, Jesus was lighting a candle. It was not just about criticizing what was wrong but modelling what was right, The temple of God was to be a place of truth and so Jesus taught the truth and people listened. Those who loved falsehood hated him for it.
This is tremendously relevant to us today. What is one of the most common phrases we hear on social media today? Fake news. Even with us being in the information age, people are more uncertain about the truth than ever before. We hear statements like, “That may be true for you but not for me.” Can you imagine if the people who built airplanes followed their own truth and rejected objective truth? Would you still fly in their planes? Truth matters.
One of the important roles of the church is to be a place of teaching and learning. There is real truth out there and we need to put the time in to learn it and experience it. I have heard people complain that they don’t want church to be like school. But life is like school. Even if we never darken the door of a church, we are learning lessons all the time, perhaps truth and perhaps lies. While worship is much more than listening to a lecture, it should include an element of teaching and learning. When we look at the earliest church in Acts, back when they had very little of what we have, they emphasized the study of the traditions of the apostles. Truth is not old fashioned. It is relevant and is needed more today more than at any other time.
Jesus walked into the temple and he saw that they were doing it wrong. How did Jesus correct them? He insisted that the temple is to be a house of prayer. By that, he specifically meant that it was to be an inclusive house of prayer and all obstacles to others were to be removed. Prayer was to be done in community and that community was to be as wide as possible. Jesus also began to teach in the temple. He understood the importance of truth and he spent his time teaching the truth. After his initial outburst, it would have been safer to stay away from the temple but he kept coming back because the truth is that important.
The physical Jerusalem temple no longer exists. But the church as the temple of the Spirit does exist. Those same principles are just as relevant. If I had to boil down the message to its basic form it would be that the church is to be about love and truth. Love without truth and truth without love are both dangerous. But love and truth united under the lordship of Jesus Christ is a powerful combination. That is what the church is supposed to be all about.