This is one of the most misunderstood passages in the New Testament. It’s been used to justify all sorts of crazy behavior over two thousand years. It essentially boils down to this, based on what we read, it looks like Jesus throws a temper tantrum in the temple and throws out the money changers. He does this wielding a whip and uttering strong language. Thus, the age old analogy, even Jesus lost his temper so we can as well. I think we read too much into the story. We’ve seen paintings, illustrations from our Bibles, and created pictures in our minds. Yet, when what we’ve seen is so out of character from what we read about Jesus throughout the gospels, we ought to immediately call into question our most basic assumptions about this story. Could something which diverges so radically from the portrait of Jesus we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke (and elsewhere in John) be that accurate in the first place? John’s gospel was written between the years 90-95 AD. That’s some sixty years after the events he’s describing with first hand dialogue. John places the temple incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; where other gospel writers locate it in the week before Jesus’ death. There are enough questions surrounding this passage that should make us want to ask more questions. What’s going on here? What’s the point of telling us this story in the first place?
Follow the money. This passage is about money. It’s not about Jesus’ humanity and justifying our own expressions of anger. In the end, this passage is about the use of the temple to exploit the poor people into parting with what little money they had in order to do what ought to be free. The temple had its own currency. This currency was ritually clean and wasn’t used anywhere beyond the temple walls. Pilgrims who came to the temple would come to money exchanges (as you might encounter in a foreign airport) to change their local Roman currency for the temple currency. These money changers charged exorbitant rates to change their currency; making obscene profits for themselves and the temple authorities. One armed with the temple currency, the religious pilgrims would buy doves, pigeons, or other animals to sacrifice according to rituals proscribed in the Torah. The temple authorities were colluding with what was effectively organized crime to rob their own people, people attempting to do their religious duties as proscribed by the Bible. People had to come to the temple, they had to have the sacrifices, and they had to have the approved temple currency. This was the worst kind of corrupt monopoly one can imagine. This is institutionalized corruption backed up with the force of Roman arms.
This made everyone angry. Jesus knew the game. The whole world knew the temple was a religious charade. It wasn’t as if Jesus said to his disciples one morning, “You guys know what’s really going on up there? What you say I go get a whip and we’ll show them we mean business?” If Jesus had said something like that, they would have been, “You and what army?” Remember, Roman troops protected the Temple. Jesus also knew (as well as the Pharisees, temple authorities, and the money changers) that if he goes in there any flips over a few tables (there were probably hundreds of money changers, Jesus probably only flipped over six or seven tables) and runs them out, within an hour, they’re up and running again. Within 24 hours, no one remembers what he did at all. It’s not as if when he walked in there the practice stopped, the corruption ended, and the world came to its senses. Far from it, things kept on going.
If everyone knew about the corruption and the turning over the tables had zero long term impact on the temple, why do it? For fun? Just for kicks? To make a scene? Yes. That’s closer to the point than you may realize. Jesus needed to shake up the temple authorities and their Roman overlords. There was a consensus in upstanding Jewish society that people wouldn’t dare question how the temple authorities ran the place because people didn’t do that kind of thing. The temple authorities (the Pharisees, elders, scribes) maintained an uneasy peace with the Romans. God was worshiped and things seemed to work. No one was going to call them out on things that would simply make everyone uncomfortable; except for Jesus. Jesus was more than willing to make everyone uncomfortable. Jesus wanted to “go there” and be the “oh yes he did” kind of Savior. Those boundaries of corrupt propriety that were keeping people in bondage no longer mattered to him. As the Contemporary English Bible says, he was consumed with passion for God’s house. He was changing the ground rules on which religion was understood. He was one person. The system would restart the next hour. Yet people would know the corruption could be stopped. The program could be rewritten with new rules.
See what I mean? There’s so much happening here more than an “angry” Jesus with a whip. It’s a chess match, I can imagine Jesus smiling as he turns over each one of those tables. He’s making an opening gambit. He’s picking a fight he’s prepared to both loose and win but that’s another story.