[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the Portland UCG congregation on February 20, 2021.]
I would like to begin today with a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, that you are part of a mob that stormed Capital Hill, or a government building in Portland or Seattle. Let us say that you viewed the governing authorities as being illegitimate and sought to overturn their symbols of power. What do you think the result of your behavior could be? It does not take any stretch of the imagination to recognize that for this action you could be shot or you could be arrested, and rightly so. Yet nearly 2000 years ago Jesus overturned the tables at the Temple, and he was right in so doing. This presents us with a bit of conundrum. Why is it okay that Jesus Christ overturn the tables at the temple, and why is it not okay that we should be rebellious against corrupt and wicked authorities in our own day and age. What is the difference between what Jesus Christ did in cleansing the Temple and what we do in our own anarchical and rebellious times?
The cleansing of the Temple is recorded in all of the synoptic Gospels, but I would like to begin with the account in the book of Matthew, as it gives us the most complete account of what happened as well as the context of the cleansing of the Temple and how it related to other behavior that Jesus engaged in at the Temple during the time shortly before His last Passover on earth. Let us pick up the account in Matthew 21:12-17. What we see here gives us a different picture of what the cleansing of the temple was than we might originally have in mind. Matthew 21:12-17 reads: “Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ” Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise’?” Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.”
Let us also compare this with the account in Mark 11:15-19, which adds a bit of detail as well to what we have already read in Matthew 21. Mark 11:15-19 reads: “So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ” And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city.” Let us close the trio of scriptures with Luke 19:45-49, which is the briefest account of the three, but which also adds details that are worthwhile to keep in mind about the context of Jesus cleansing the temple. Luke 19:45-49 reads: “Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ” And He was teaching daily in the temple. But the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him, and were unable to do anything; for all the people were very attentive to hear Him.”
Let us note at the outset that there are strong similarities between the time of Jesus Christ and our own time regarding the corruption and thievery that was going on in the Temple. There were at least two ways that the priests of the temple were turning the house of prayer for all nations into a den of thieves, and the priests themselves were the thieves. First of all, part of the theft the priests engaged in regarded the exchange of money for tithes and offerings given at the temple. While the ordinary currency of believers consisted of the regular denarii and other coins of the day, which typically contained representations of emperors who regarded themselves as divine, and occasionally other heathen deities, such money was viewed as defiling the temple, and so it was that the priests exchanged these heathen coins for the temple shekels, which had no such idolatrous imagery. This was all well and good, except that the priests tampered with the exchange rate so that they profited off of the process. In addition to this, the priests did not view the doves and lambs and goats and rams and bulls that were brought by believers as being sufficiently pure and without blemish to be offered in the Temple to God, and so they would sell to believers animals that did meet their standard of purity and which happened to come from herds and flocks that they themselves owned and controlled. And, as might easily be imagined, these sacrificial animals were sold at a considerable markup from the price of ordinary and common animals, and this also brought significant income to the priests. To put it modern language, the priests were grifters engaged in insider trading in order to profit off of their institutional power of being connected with the temple worship system. This sort of government corruption is, of course, rampant in our own country and around the world in the present evil age.
Yet despite these similarities in that the temple priests as wLetell as our own corrupt authorities, there are considerable differences between the approach of various strains of anarchists and that of Jesus. For one, the cleansing of the temple was not something that was accompanied by violent threats to the priests, however wicked and corrupt they were. Jesus did not throw molotov cocktails or wield weapons to attack the priests or their surrogates. He did overturn their tables and prevent them from selling their wares, and that was that. It should be noted as well that this was no mere one-time publicity stunt, or an act of looting and destruction. Not only did Jesus overturn the tables of corrupt moneychanging and the selling of overpriced sacrificial animals and whatever other wares were being offered in the Temple, but He also taught daily and healed the various sick believers who came to Him for healing. In short, He used the temple for its proper purposes, and that was providing godly service to believers and in accepting the praise and worship of those believers. The fact that this filled the corrupt leaders of the temple priestly establishment with indignation was merely an added bonus.
Let us also note one additional difference between Jesus Christ and ourselves that makes all the difference in the world in the legitimacy of his behavior. When we seek to overturn the corrupt dealings of authorities in our own time, we do so in rebellion against those who are in authority over us. When Jesus, in a less violent fashion, overturned the temple, He came as the authority over the priests. While our elected and appointed leaders exist to serve our well-being and our interests, however poorly they do so, they are still our authorities. The temple, though, was built to honor God, and God in the flesh was there. The tithes and offerings collected in the Temple were for Him. The songs and prayers and incense were offered up to Him. He was the authority figure come to visit how His house was being run by His servants who had been appointed by Him to serve Him and His believers. However little they recognized their boss in the flesh, He was the Lord and God of those who misappropriated the temple institutions to serve their own selfish interests, and He had every right to put them on notice that He was displeased with their corrupt and ungodly service.
At the end of the day, we are left with the realization that God can do much that we cannot simply because God is who He is and we are not, yet. God can receive worship and praise that is unrighteous to be given to mankind. He can see into the hearts and minds of people in a way that we cannot as fleshly and fallible human beings, and with that knowledge He can justly judge and punish others for their unrighteousness in a way that we cannot do with equal fairness and justice. When we seek to rebel against corrupt authorities and express our displeasure at their corruption, we are engaged in the dubious practice of rebellion in so doing. When God punishes and overturns the behavior of wicked and corrupt authorities, He does so as the ultimate authority, to whom all authorities, no matter how highly they view themselves, are accountable to. Let us therefore resolve ourselves not to take the prerogative of God to hold authorities accountable and to punish them justly for their flagrant and unrepentant corruption, and take our appeals for justice to be delivered to their proper place in the heavenly courts above. For God does not view the corruption and evil of our time any more favorably than He did in past times, and what is evil in our world will, eventually, be made right.