As we begin our study of Jesus’ surprising behavior in John 2:12-25, it reminded of this video of a protestor who ran onto the field during a Rams/49ers football game.
When he first jumped onto the field, carrying a smoke canister which let out pink smoke, referees blew the whistle to stop play, but the protestor was fast enough that security personnel couldn’t catch him. As they are supposed to do, the players on the field watched as security chased the guy. That is until the guy made the fateful decision to run near the Rams sideline. One of the Rams players had enough of the protestor’s shenanigans, and just as the protestor was passing near him, the Rams player lunged and tackled the guy. There was actually a second protestor at the same time, but she didn’t make it far onto the field by the time security tackled her. People run or streak onto the field, often just for fun, but these two were protesting. Their cause was animal rights, and they decided to interrupt the game and draw attention to their cause. It worked.
Believe it or not, this is quite similar to what Jesus did on at least one occasion. In John 2:12, we read that after the wedding in the town of Cana, Jesus, his disciples, his mother and brothers went to the nearby town of Capernaum and stayed there a few days. Capernaum was one of the largest towns in the region of Galilee, so Jesus made Capernaum his home-base for ministry.
Just as quickly as we learn these details about Capernaum and Jesus’ entourage, in verse 13, we read that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a major festival was commonplace, so in his decision to participate, Jesus is just doing what any good Jew would do. It was a 90ish mile trip, likely requiring 3-4 days. As we will learn, it seems his disciples went with him. We hear nothing further about his family.
What happens in Jerusalem is shocking, but first we need to set the scene. Look at verse 14.
Jesus goes to the temple, which is a massive place. Throughout the history of Israel there had been two previous temples. The original temple built by Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians, which we learned in our recent Ezekiel series. Years later after the Jewish exiles returned from exile, the second temple was built under the leadership of Zerubbabel, but that temple was smaller than the original. The Jews longed for the days of Solomon and the glorious temple he built.
That longing led to the third temple, and that was the one in Jesus’ day. It was called Herod’s temple, because Herod the Great, the same king who wanted to kill all the babies born in Bethlehem at the time Jesus was born, ordered a total overhaul of Zerubbabel’s temple. The temple building itself was about the same dimensions as the previous temples, though Herod’s temple was 15 stories high, and it had a new and extensive system of courtyards surrounding it, making it by far the most magnificent of the three temples.
The temple courtyards were still under construction during and long after Jesus’ day. If you visit Jerusalem today, the temple and its outbuildings are gone, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. There is one wall remaining, the famous Wailing Wall. Centuries later, when Muslims controlled Jerusalem, they built the mosque still there today, the Dome of the Rock. It was opened in the year 1023. But even today you can still see the size of the temple mount, which gives a sense of the extensive courtyards. The temple mount covers 37 acres.
In Jesus’ day the four courtyards were the wide-open spaces where people could come and pray. The temple was not like a church, where anyone could enter the temple building. In fact, most people never went into the temple building itself. That was only for the priests.
So the regular Jewish person would come to the temple courtyards to worship. But it wasn’t so simple as that. There were various courtyards you could access depending on who you were. The priests had the most access, able to enter all four courts. Jewish men had the next level of access, able to enter all but the courtyard of the priests. Jewish women could enter the courtyard for women. Non-Jews had the least amount of access, only able to go to the courtyard of the Gentiles. But there were still places for all of them.
Except there was a problem. In the Courtyard for the Gentiles, the religious leaders had allowed a market of sorts to take place. It wasn’t like they just built a grocery store inside the temple. It seems the original intent of the market was actually a good one, to help people worship. How so? The market had two main kinds of businesses: sellers of sacrifices and money-changers. Regular worshipers often needed both of them.
Just as God commanded them in the Old Testament Mosaic Law, the Jewish sacrificial system required people to buy a variety of animals to sacrifice. But because they came from all over the world for feasts, they were bringing numerous kinds of currency. Some people needed money changers, therefore, just to buy the sacrifices they needed for worship and give monetary offerings. To make worship convenient for worshipers, the religious leaders allowed these small businesses to set up shop right there inside the temple, in the courtyard of the Gentiles.
Otherwise, the people would have to traipse all over the city taking care of the business of money-changing and purchasing sacrifices for worship. Convenience is a good thing. But the religious leaders took it too far. They allowed what was supposed to be a place of worship, a place of connecting with God, to become a place of busy, bustling, distracting, commercialism.
Jesus enters the temple, sees this, and he is very, very concerned. This was to be a place of peace, a place for Gentiles to pray and worship. Instead it had become a place of commerce, where people were making money off worshipers, interrupting worshipers. As Jesus stands there, my guess is that he already knew this marketplace was there, from his previous visits. What he does in response is wild.
In the next post, we’ll find out what Jesus does.