Updated: Apr 2, 2021
In the Gospel of John, this is Jesus’ first important public appearance on the larger religious stage, before this, we have that magisterial prologue where Christ’s Divinity is revealed, then we have the testimony of John the Baptist, telling us to behold the lamb of God, then Jesus begins to attract attention and gains his first converts, and right before the events of today’s gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at the wedding at Cana. On the larger scale of things, not much has happened.
Jesus’ relative obscurity in this time in his ministry is shattered by the actions of today’s gospel, he in this act is taken to the national religious stage, there is no comparison that I could meaningfully make to illustrate the magnitude of the act which Jesus carried out. What Jesus did here, as an obscure Rabbi, in clearing out the central building of both the National and Religious identity of Israel was shocking, if that wasn’t enough, Jesus did this at a central time in the Jewish religious life, the Passover, where all Jewish males in the entire world would present themselves at the Temple. A weak comparison can be made to the recent events at the capitol building, an important place to our national identity, and an important time, though the shock of that situation still pales in comparison because of the centrality of the temple. The temple in the Old Covenant was the place where God’s glory dwelt, the local manifestation of the presence of God, and the only place where forgiveness could be sought by the sacerdotal service of the priests in their sacrificial function. It is a place holy par excellence, where heaven meets earth, where all care is to be taken, lest one be struck down, for God is in the midst of them, it is his dwelling place, and it is in this place where the sacrilegious actions of the Jews took place in today’s gospel. They had perverted what was supremely holy, the ultimate act of blasphemy had taken place by profiting themselves off of the worship of the thrice-holy God in the very house where his magnificent glory dwelt.
It is into this environment that the God whom they were blaspheming came in flesh, where he saw His Father’s honor desecrated. In response to what he saw, the Son of God’s heart was kindled by what is described as “zeal”, St. Thomas Aquinas describes “zeal” as a ‘mixed affection,’ It is a mixture of both hate and love, wherein someone loves supremely a certain object, and due to this abundant love, he hates whatever is opposed to it. It seeks to remove any impediment to the glory of the object of his love. It is the same affection that causes a man to be willing to go off to war because of the love which he has for his family and fatherland. This causes him to be in violent opposition to anything opposed to them. The first description of a zealous man in the bible is of the High Priest Phineas, men were adulterating themselves to foreign women and worshipping a false God, zeal arose in his heart as a man blatantly transgressed the commandment of God at the door of the tabernacle, and he grabbed a spear and thrust them through with it. It is this same affection of Zeal that arose in the heart of Jesus, the High Priest of the New Covenant when he saw his holy Father who he loved being dishonored. As a result, due to the intensity of the love He had for His Father, He grabbed a whip of cords and cleared out the sacrilege. Jesus was zealous for the purity of the worship of God, are you? Are you zealous that we worship God in the beauty of holiness, that we worship him with reverence and awe? Are you willing to clear the temple, so to speak, that God may be honored? Where there is no zeal, there is no love.
A common interpretation of this text, especially among liberal theologians is to make Jesus out to be an anti-Capitalist or an anti-authoritarian fighting against power structures of oppression. But, there is something much more significant going on here below the surface which we ought to pay close attention to, which Jesus addresses in these next few verses wherein he connects this cleansing of the temple to the destruction of the temple, and his crucifixion and resurrection. In this, we see that Jesus is establishing himself, not as a political radical, but shows forth the fact that he is the High Priest of the New Covenant and the Messiah, the Christ. To understand this, it is important to look at the Old Testament background of the cleansing of the temple in Leviticus 14, the 33rd verse to the end of the chapter, here God commands the priests what to do if there is a defiled house. The head of the house is to go to a priest, and priests are to go into the house, inspect it for defilement, and to cleanse it, ritually purifying it from sin. Then, they are to come back 7 days later and inspect it again, and if it is still impure from disease, he removes defiled bricks from the house, and then he comes back a third time, and this third time, if the house is found to still be defiled he destroys the house, not one stone is left standing upon another. It is this ritual cleansing that Christ fulfilled in his actions. It has long been a point of confusion why John and the other gospels differ in the timing of this event, John putting it at the beginning of his gospel, and others at the end of the gospel, but if we look at this event as a fulfillment of the cleansing of the house it makes sense, for the priest went in twice to cleanse the house. We have Christ the High Priest being informed of the defilement of the house of God by its owner, the Father, and sent to investigate, he cleanses this house twice, in this chapter first, and second at the end of the Synoptics, and then, due to the exceeding defilement of the house, it needed to be destroyed brick by brick, which happened in 70 AD, when Christ came back in judgment in the destruction of the temple, which he prophesies beforehand in the gospels.
This cleansing of the temple can be applied mystically in two ways, first to the church and second to the individual believer.
For, the church is called the temple of God, where the presence of God dwells under the species of bread and wine, and the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving occurs week by week. The church of God can become defiled outwardly with sin and corruption and must be cleansed. St. Paul tells us to “purge the leaven from amongst us” and to “judge those who are within the church.’ This purging is both on the level of the laity and the clergy. The New Testament assumes a church that disciplines its wayward members, wherein those among us who are in public and unrepentant sin are kept from partaking of the Holy Eucharist, and as Paul describes are “handed over to Satan that they be taught not to blaspheme.” Among the clergy, it means that they are kept to the standards of doctrinal orthodoxy and personal piety, that we follow bishops with valid apostolic succession, who ordain orthodox clerics and discipline those who are heterodox in This diocese. Though Christ has promised that the church catholic will never pass away, he has not promised that the Anglican communion, or the ACNA, or the Gulf Atlantic Diocese, or Epiphany will never pass away, therefore we must be zealous for the purity of our church, as St. Paul writes “For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure bride to Christ.” Read Christ’s epistles at the beginning of Revelation, entire churches will fall under the same destruction that Christ wrought against the temple. Therefore, we ought to push the church of God towards purity, building ourselves up in sanctity and learning, using our gifts to build Christ’s body, to be, as St. Peter writes, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”