In this series we ask whether Jesus was sometimes judgmental, threatening, or violent. Those who say he was violent usually point first to the cleansing of the temple. Mark tells the story, which comes just after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Mark 11 says that upon Jesus’ arrival:
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
What do you think Jesus saw as he looked around the temple courts?
The Story of the Cleansing
Mark also tells what happened the next day after leaving Bethany:
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
Matthew and Luke also report the incident but add no further details.
Some believers claim that Jesus came into the temple, lost his temper at what he saw, then went into a rage and violently attacked the merchants in the market. Some claim this as justification for us to become angry and use violence for God’s cause.
I don’t think this accurately represents what happened that day in the temple courts.How Violent was Jesus in the Temple?
Notice that the picture above shows Jesus ‘whaling the tar’ out of one of the merchants with a whip (‘beating them severely’ for those unfamiliar with this idiom from the American South). However, Mark and the other synoptics (Matthew and Luke) say only that Jesus drove them out, and they don’t mention a whip at all.
While this story describes a disturbance of the merchants’ property and an interruption of their business, and Jesus might well have been upset, there is no suggestion of brutality. There is no indication of any great damage, though there is significant inconvenience. The merchants did not even lose their livestock or money and were likely back in business that same day.
Now it’s true that John’s version of this event does include a whip, but it also tells how Jesus used the whip.
In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 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!”
Jesus uses the whip for its normal purpose—to move livestock. There is no indication that he hit or brutalized anyone though he did tell them, ‘Get these [animals] out of here!’
Does Jesus Fly into a Rage or Does He Stage a Planned Demonstration?
Many retellings of this story portray Jesus as flying into a sudden, uncontrollable rage, but this does not seem to be the case. The lead-up to the story says that Jesus visited the temple the previous day and looked around. He had plenty of time to plan what he would do the next day; and his actions do seem planned—not sudden.
John says that Jesus took the time to make the cattle whip. It was not spontaneous.
But why did Jesus stage this dramatic presentation? It can’t have been to rid the temple courts of the merchants and their market; business would have returned to normal very quickly. I believed Jesus cleansed the temple courts in a public, symbolic act reminiscent of some of the Old Testament prophets.
Isaiah 20 says the prophet preached naked for three years as a symbolic sign against Egypt and Cush. Hosea 1 tells us Hosea married a prostitute, had children by her, and named them to illustrate, symbolically, God’s disfavor with Israel. In Ezekiel 4, the prophet lay on his side for 390 days to symbolize the number of years of Israel’s sin.
And Jesus symbolically cleansed the temple to publicly illustrate the Jews’ dishonor of the sanctity of the temple as a house of prayer for all nations in turning the court of prayer into a marketplace. Jesus got a lot of attention from it; ‘the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.’ The crowd was not the only ones who noticed.
Jesus’ action was also a planned confrontation with the authorities—and it worked. John 2 says:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
He spoke of his coming execution and resurrection. So the Jewish leaders cooperated, unknowingly, with Jesus’ plan: they began to search for a way to kill him. And it wasn’t long until they did.
Is Jesus Violent or Nonviolent? His Final Word on Violence
Jesus’ action in the temple leads directly to his arrest and execution. And I am sure we all remember that throughout this process Jesus never resisted. Among his last words were: “Father forgive them.”
These are not the words of a violent man.
Yet Jesus did speak to his disciples about swords. We will talk about it next time.
Articles in this series: Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence?
Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence?
Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So
Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?
What Does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword?
3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords
Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?
Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion
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