The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
(John 2:18-22 ESV)
There is something we need to get right from the start as we look at this passage. The “cleansing of the Temple” is reported in all four Gospels. In the other three, the so-called Synoptic Gospels, the incident happens at the beginning of Holy Week, probably on Monday, if we accept Jesus Triumphal Entry happened on a Sunday.
W. Hall Harris, in his commentary on John’s Gospel on the website Bible.org is commenting on the differences between John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple and the ones in the Synoptics. He says, “The most important difference is one of time: In John the cleansing appears as the first great public act of Jesus’ ministry, while in the synoptics it is virtually the last.”
Even if John’s Gospel is not in chronological order, wouldn’t it be strange to lift an event out of Holy Week and place it, out of context, prior to any of the teaching Jesus did that raised the ire of the Temple leaders and public officials? Hall’s solution to the problem is to suggest that Jesus probably did this symbolic act on two separate occasions.
Hall’s suggestion seems likely. Look at what people did or said immediately after Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables.
In Matthew, the Chief Priests are angered, and act like children themselves: And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
(Matthew 21:14-17 ESV)
Mark is a little more blunt. He simply says, “The chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.
(Mark 11:18-19 ESV)
And Luke joins Mark in his brevity and adds the conclusion that the crowds were devoted to him. “And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.”
(Luke 19:47-48 ESV)
I think the key to whether this is one or two events is really in the response. And the response of the Jewish leaders that appears in John’s Gospel is so different that it leaves me with the conclusion that Jesus may have been using this symbolic “cleansing” to signal the beginning and the end of his public ministry. I think he’s also pointing us to the Temple. He wants us to know that the whole thing – all his miracles, all his teaching, all of his healings – everything, was about worshiping and loving his Father. In a very tangible way Jesus is saying to the world, “Look! It is here. This is not even about me (the earthly Jesus). This is about God the Father. And I want to testify to him.”
Even Jesus, who certainly allowed people to fall at his feet in worship and adoration, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” HE always pointed to the Father. And he calls us to as well.