Examining the real reason Jesus flipped tables.
It isn’t very often we think of Jesus as a violent man, but in the book of Matthew, chapter 12, this seems to be what we see…
“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” –Matthew 21:12-13 (ESV)
And this wasn’t a solitary incident. At the beginning of His ministry, in addition to table flipping, He actually made a whip and chased everyone out of the temple with it. (John 2:15)
These accounts, not surprisingly, have raised some interesting questions. One in particular that I would like to focus on here is this: If a church has a bookshop in its lobby, or sells merchandise on occasion, does that inherently mean it’s become a “den of robbers” and has neglected its responsibility to be a house of prayer? I say no. There are some, however, who use these scriptural accounts as grounds for saying the opposite. Their argument simply holds no water. I believe this to be a simple matter of misinterpretation, due to the neglect of understanding context. When we take time to look at the historical significance surrounding the text, we can see a much clearer picture of why Jesus became so infuriated.
Setting the stage.
Firstly, according to historians and Bible scholars, the specific place in which the money-changers and sacrificial animal salesmen had set up shop was called the “Outer Court”, or the “Court of the Gentiles”. This area was the only place in the temple where non-Jews—specifically Gentiles—were welcome to come hear God’s Word and pray and worship Him. But instead of respecting this purpose and inviting all people into meeting with God, the temple leaders had turned it into a marketplace, thus making it incredibly difficult for anyone but Jews to find a place in God’s House.
Secondly, the business being conducted here was corrupt and deceitful. The merchants and money-changers charged far too much for their services and products, and took advantage of foreigners who didn’t know that they were paying more than they needed to.
“The Temple only accepted shekels (cf. Ex. 30:13). There were no longer any Jewish shekels available but there were Tyrian ones. Pilgrims were charged exorbitant prices for exchanging into this coinage. The doves were available for the poorest people so that they could make a sacrifice (cf. Lev. 1:14; 5:7; 12:8; 14:22), but the High Priests were charging exorbitant prices even for them.”
Now let’s attempt clothing this story with a more relevant, modern day scenario. Imagine showing up at Church one Sunday morning and instead of being welcomed into a sanctuary with plenty of space for worshiping and hearing the Word of God, you find yourself in a room filled with tables from wall to wall. At some of these tables there are people collecting mandatory church service taxes. What’s more, they don’t accept regular money. So you have to exchange your money for theirs at a rate much higher than normal currency exchange costs. And that’s not all! After paying out the wazoo to acquire “church currency”, you must proceed to another table where a Communion salesperson waits to sell you small pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice, which, for the same amount of money, could buy you a whole loaf and gallon from the supermarket. If you’ve even made it this far, you can now take your Communion Sacraments and find a place to sit on the floor—probably in a corner—and strain your ears to hear the Pastor over the pandemonium.
Notwithstanding the obvious liberties required in translating a 2 thousand year old ceremonial context to one more fitting for today—namely animal sacrifice*—this is essentially what it would look like. No wonder Jesus got mad. God’s servants, who were supposed to be helping people draw near to Him, were conducting dishonest and excessive business in the “sanctuary” built for the Gentiles! He became furious with them because they were literally standing between God and His people, denying them a place to worship Him and hear His Word. They had essentially desecrated the temple, perverting its original purpose.
This, then, goes much deeper than whether or not churches sell merchandise—which, like many things, is not bad in and of itself. As per His usual way of addressing things, Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter. He clearly and powerfully displays that what truly makes God angry is the hindering of His people from encountering His presence. Which then begs the question: could the way our church services are being conducted actually cause His blood to boil? If Jesus were to visit my church, would He joyfully join in the service, with no hesitations, or would He interrupt it to rebuke the Pastors and leaders? Without giving way to fear, it is important that we consider these questions soberly.
Another interesting thing to see, in regard to this subject, is what Jesus does immediately after rebuking the religious leaders for their corruption. In one short sentence, we catch a glimpse of His heart for the church, and begin to see what is most important to Him:
“The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.” -Matthew 21:14 (NIV)
Jesus wanted all people to feel welcome in His House—especially those deemed “unfit” by overly religious standards. He clearly displayed that God’s heart is for people to come and experience His healing presence. That’s what makes Him happy. What makes Him angry, then, is anything that stifles this. Our resolve, therefore, should be to make sure that in our church gatherings everyone is encouraged to experience God’s presence, and that each individual is unequivocally shown they have a place in His House.
*If it were difficult for the people to come hear the Word of God and worship Him with the clutter and clamor of the money-changers and merchants alone, how much more, with the addition of a veritable barnyard.
 Utley, R. J. (2000). Vol. Volume 9: The First Christian Primer: Matthew. Study Guide Commentary Series (174). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.