Each of the four gospel records describes an occasion when Jesus went into the temple in Jerusalem and “drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Matt. 21:12; Mark 11:15; Luke 19:45; John 2:14).
Superficially it looks like the same event, recorded with a different emphasis by each gospel writer. Many scholars take this view. But a more careful study of the biblical text strongly suggests that Jesus cleared out the commercial stalls from the Temple on two occasions. The first must have been early in his ministry and the second four days before his death (John 2:11-14; 12:12; Mark 11:12). This is confirmed if we examine the significance of Jesus’ actions. Why did he enter the Temple and ‘cleanse’ it on two separate occasions?
Every event and almost every discourse of the Lord Jesus are prophesied or symbolically foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and this occasion is no exception.
In Leviticus 14, an interesting ritual is prescribed when there is plague in a house. “He that owneth the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘It seemeth to me there is as it were a plague in the house’” (v. 35). The priest was to go in to see the condition of the house, and was to “empty the house” (v. 36).
Jesus examines the house
There can be no doubt from the gospel record that Jesus deliberately acted as the priest of Leviticus 14. He examined the house on the first occasion and “emptied it.” He was examining “his Father’s house” (John 2:15-16). Just as the priest had to do, Jesus waits to see if the plague, the moral “leprosy” had spread among God’s people. He hoped and prayed that God’s house did not have a “spreading plague.”
When he arrived for his second examination, he saw the plague had spread, so he took even more drastic action. “He shall cause the house to be scraped within round about…and take other stones, and put them in the place of those stones, and he shall take other mortar, and shall plaster the house” (Lev. 14:41-42). At this point he took personal responsibility: he called it “my house” (Matt. 21:13). The Lord replaced the stones. He chose Peter (meaning ‘stone’) and other “living stones” to replace the rotting, fungus-infected leaders of God’s people.
Tragically, the plague proved to be malignant. In the tropics, home owners and builders know that there are thousands of species of mould that can infest houses. With a lot of effort, most mildews and fungi can be eradicated and the building saved. But we fear the spread of one or two species of deadly lithophagic and dendrophagic fungi. “If the plague be in the walls of the house with hollow strakes, greenish or reddish, which in sight are lower than [that is to say, deeper into] the wall,” the situation is serious (Lev. 14:37).
Then, after maybe a third examination, “if the plague come again, and break out in the house…after he hath scraped the house, if the plague be spread in the house”, the case is hopeless (vs. 43-44). In the Caribbean we have all seen houses like this. There is no hope. No one can live in such a house without contracting a potentially fatal mycosis of the respiratory system. This is the reason for the desperate measures described in Leviticus 14. “It is unclean” (v. 44). Then there is only one solution: “He shall break down the house, the stones of it, and the timber thereof, and all the mortar of the house: and he shall carry them forth out of the city into an unclean place” (v. 45).
A den of thieves
The Lord Jesus had no illusions about the outcome of his visits to the temple. On the second cleansing it was no longer “my Father’s house” that was unclean. Three gospels record his words: “My house shall be called the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matt. 21:13). He told them that, as in Leviticus 14, he as priest would come a third time, and it would not be a pleasant visit. “There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). “Your house will be forsaken and desolate” (23:38). We know it happened exactly 40 years later when “the king was wroth; and he sent forth his [Roman] armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city” (22:7).
What was the deadly fungus which had made imperative the total destruction of God’s house in which He had dwelt in cherubic glory?
At the time Jesus visited it, there were no idols in the temple. It was dedicated to Yahweh, the true and living God, with professional choirs singing His praises, and throngs of worshippers who, as history tells us, were ready to die for the true faith. What then was the plague?
The temple had become a marketplace, a “den of thieves” (Mark 11:17). The fungus of materialism and worldly greed had eaten into its every stone and timber. The whole religious system, although based upon the Bible, had become an oppression, infected with a deadly legalistic leprosy. It offered no hope of true life and godliness to the poor, the humble, the contrite seeker, the poor in spirit. God is love, but since there was no love in God’s house, there was no God there either; it was “empty” and “desolate.” Of course, this real plague was in people’s souls, not in its literal stones.
We are living stones
We are living stones in our Father’s house (I Peter 2:5). If we are infected with the same deadly plague as those whom Jesus expelled from his house, then, like the church in Laodicea, we will be spewed out in the same manner (Rev. 3:16). At our conversion and baptism we were “renewed” (Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10). The old stones were thrown out and new, clean ones replaced them. The walls were plastered and painted in beautiful colours.
Malachi tells us that the Lord whom we seek will “suddenly come to his Temple” (3:1). When he comes, will he find all the ugliness regrown? When our Lord does come in judgment and in glory to examine his house, how wonderful it will be “if the priest shall come in, and look upon it, and, behold, the plague hath not spread in the house, after the house was plastered: then the priest shall pronounce the house clean, because the plague is healed” (Lev. 14:48).
James Samuels, Spanish Town, Jamaica