Temple Turnover- Matthew 21:12-17


Aesop tells the story of a Shepherd boy who called the people of the town out to the field several times crying wolf. And as you remember, the boy who cried wolf finally did encounter a wolf and when he cried out, no one came.

People who are angry all the time are like that. They seem to always be upset or righting wrong committed against them. Because these people are agitated all the time they tend to be people we dismiss. We say, “Oh, they are always upset. Don’t pay any attention to them. That is just the way they are.”

Other people seldom get angry. They are even-tempered, kind, congenial. If they get angry, we take notice because it is out of the ordinary. We wonder what provoked such a response.

The account of Jesus going into the Temple courts, and making a scene turning over tables in the temple courts, shocks us. The reason it shocks us is because it is so out of character for Jesus to get angry. Consequently, we should ask the question: “What is it that provoked such a strong response from the Savior?”

Our text is Matthew 21:12-17. Let’s look at verses 12-13 first.

12 Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 13 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”* 

There is some question about when Jesus turned over the tables in the court. As you read the account in Matthew it seems Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and went to the Temple Court and made a mess. In Mark 11 we are told Jesus walked into Temple after entering the city and He looked around. The next morning, He came back into the city and that is when he cleaned house. It is possible that He thought about what he saw the day before and the more he thought about it, the more anger welled up inside of Him.

The Gospel of John places the account of the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of His Gospel. The question is: is it the same account that John brings into his introduction to Jesus early, or did Jesus do this once at the beginning of His ministry, and once at the end? Scholars are divided. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter.

To understand what was happening, you have to understand the Temple complex. To get into the Temple Complex you would enter a big gate and then there would be a series of courts that surrounded the Temple. These courts were where various people would be allowed to worship. The Temple itself could only be entered by the priests. In the court around the temple is where the Israelite men came to worship. Outside that court was the court of women. Surrounding these courts was the court of the Gentiles. It was where the Gentiles (non-Jews) who wished to worship the God of Israel could go to worship. It was in this court of the Gentiles where the merchants were conducting their business.

Why Was Jesus Upset?

The fact that the currency was being changed into something acceptable was not a problem. It was not a problem that they were selling animals for the sacrificial offerings. People traveled from faraway to worship at the Temple. To bring their own animals that far would make even the most unblemished animal unacceptable for an offering.

It appears that the offense Jesus addressed may have been twofold. First, they set up their “market” in the court of the Gentiles making it virtually impossible for Gentiles to worship reverently. They were not enhancing worship . . . they were hindering it!

Second, there are many who suggest they were also ripping people off. There was a high “service charge” (6%) for exchanging your money. If a person did not have the right change it was another 6% on top of it! Second the animals were vastly more expensive than they were worth (about 50 times as much)! It is said that if you brought an animal from home the priests would disqualify it so you would have to find one of the local vendors to purchase an animal. The whole thing trivialized and hindered worship. It was also a racket; a way to make a quick and substantial profit.

Tim Keller wrote,

The things he threw out were good things. There was nothing sinful about what was going on, but they were good things that had come into a place only God had a right to be, good things that had become too important, good things that had come into the center. That’s why they had to be thrown out. Things that were fine in their place but had usurped the place of worship. So Jesus cleanses the temple of any distraction from the pure and exclusive focus on God. That’s what he did.[1]

Imagine coming into worship and the walls around the sanctuary were covered with advertising signage. Would that distract you? It probably would for a while. Suppose we put a little bakery in the corner and during worship you smelled fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee. Would that distract you. Let’s take it one more step . . . suppose we had people wandering the aisles selling hot dogs, popcorn and beverages. How well would you worship then?

This is what was happening and it made it almost impossible for the Gentiles to worship and probably hindered at least the court of women also.


We have focused on the abuse. Let’s not miss the positive thing Jesus says about the temple. He says the Scripture (or God) declares that His house should be a house of prayer.

The place of worship is a place where people should be able to come in, sense the presence of God and meet with Him. The Grand Cathedrals were wonderfully conducive to this. I remember walking into one beautiful Cathedral in Koln, Germany. Even as you walked up the steps of the building you felt a sense of awe.  As soon as you entered the sanctuary you instinctively talked in a whisper (if you talked at all). You could sense you were in the presence of God. This would have been completely ruined if you had seen a little stand that said, “Souvenirs.”

The trend today is to build sanctuaries like auditoriums or concert halls. We enter these halls like we would any other concert hall. It may be beautiful but it often lacks that sense of awe.

The Lord’s House is to be a place of prayer. Sadly, many contemporary churches are shortening times of prayer during the gatherings of the saints. Do you know why? It is because it disturbs the “flow” of worship. The emphasis is on activity. We want to “hold the interest of the people.” They want to get the people dancing and jumping and feeling energized by worship. The music is loud and the pace is brisk. I wonder, would Jesus be pleased?

Some of our friends in Christian music have observed that songs now are often tailored for their “marketability” rather than their message. Songs that are reflective, songs with deep theological meaning (like some of the hymns of old), are not recorded because “they don’t sell.”

What is surprising is what does sell nowadays. There is all kinds of Christian ‘junk’ you can sell. There doesn’t seem to be much purpose to most of it other than to fatten the pockets of the marketers.

If you read any Christian leadership magazine or article you will find that one of the big words today is “branding.” You are supposed to find a way to sell and market your church or ministry. You need a cool logo (which you can get for several hundred dollars) Churches spend months on a vision statement (which I thought Jesus already gave us: “go into all the world and preach the gospel and make disciples.”) There are strategies, action steps, and much more.

This stuff isn’t all bad. But the focus seems to be on building a bigger ORGANIZATION. God says He wants His house to be a house of prayer. He wants us to be quiet. To listen. And to share the deepest part of who we are with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

The real test of worship is not: did you enjoy worship? It is not even, “did you learn something?” The real test of worship is this: did you enter into the presence of the Almighty”

An Object Lesson

The actions of Jesus pretty well shut down the Temple for a while. There was chaos. People couldn’t get what they needed to offer the proper sacrifice! It was definitely bad for business. Then we read,

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the Temple, and he healed them. 15 The leading priests and the teachers of religious law saw these wonderful miracles and heard even the children in the Temple shouting, “Praise God for the Son of David.” 

But the leaders were indignant. 16 They asked Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” 

“Yes,” Jesus replied. “Haven’t you ever read the Scriptures? For they say, ‘You have taught children and infants to give you praise.’*17 Then he returned to Bethany, where he stayed overnight. 

The blind and the lame were usually excluded from the temple because they were imperfect or defective in the mind of society. But amid all the chaos Jesus turned the temple into a place of healing. Instead of the Temple being the place of the powerful and mighty, it was, for a while open to the broken and the wounded.

The church is to be a place where the wounded find healing, the lost are found, the broken are helped to put their lives back together. Those believers who say they don’t want to attend a church because so-and-so is there show they don’t understand the concept of grace at all!

The children in the temple were praising Jesus in words that parroted the crowd that came into Jerusalem. You get the feeling that the crowd was grateful Jesus took a stand against the men who were victimizing the worshippers. Churches that admit only those who are “like” them have missed the point!

Jesus’ response about the infants giving praise seems to mean since the leaders refused to praise Jesus, God raised up the children to do so.

Putting it into Practice

The overturning of the tables of the Money Changers has been a source of great debate in churches across the world. The question we must ask is: “What is the principle behind this account?” Is the principle that nothing should ever be sold in the church? Are church fund-raisers, bazaars, concerts, selling books written by the Pastor wrong? I don’t think the Lord was angry that money was being exchanged it was where and how that was the problem. I see three principles:

First, the church is not a business. We need money to operate but we must remember that we are not building an empire We are not creating “our own identity.” We already have an identity: we are followers of Christ. Our hope should be that what people remember about our church is not our slogan, our music, our atmosphere or anything else about us. Our prayer should be that what people remember is that they met God in this place.

We must remember what the church is meant to be: it is meant to be a place of prayer. In other words, it should be a place where people are seeking the Lord! Anything that distracts from that should be evaluated as to whether it is turning the house of God into something it was never meant to be.

Second, anything that draws attention away from the Lord and worship is detrimental. This can be anything. It also may not be the same for every church. Here are some things that can overtake the worship of the church.

  • Political action
  • Endless fund-raising
  • The personality of the Pastor
  • Social action
  • Marketing of the Church
  • Isolationism . . . the belief that we are the only ones who hold to the truth

When a church becomes obsessed with such things there is trouble! They have lost sight of who they were created to be.

Chuck Swindoll wrote

A new way of “doing” church is emerging. In this radical paradigm shift, exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics. The pulpit, once the focal point of the church, is now being overshadowed by a variety of church-growth techniques, everything from trendy worship styles to glitzy presentations to vaudeville-like pageantries. In seeking to capture the upper hand in church growth, a new wave of pastors is reinventing the church and repackaging the gospel into a product to be sold to “consumers.” Whatever reportedly works in one church is being franchised out to various “markets” abroad. As when gold was discovered in the foothills of California, so ministers are beating a path to the doorsteps of exploding churches and super-hyped conferences where the latest “strike” has been reported. Unfortunately, the newly panned gold often turns out to be “fool’s gold.” Not all that glitters is actually gold. Admittedly pastors can learn from growing churches and successful ministries. Yet God’s work must be done God’s way if it is to know God’s blessing. [Swindoll Church Awakening- Kindle, 3648] 

Third, we must deal fairly with all people. To take advantage of a situation is wrong. When there is a natural disaster and merchants sell bottles of water for $20.00 each, that is despicable. To exclude people from worship simply because they are different or difficult is to turn the church into something it was never meant to be.

The Lord showed us that all people should be welcome at His house; especially broken people. When we start setting up requirements meant to “weed undesirables out” we have become a corrupt church. We have deserted the gospel message of grace for all who will believe.

We must work hard at this. It means greeting those who are different. It means making the effort to get to know someone even though they made a poor first impression. It means looking at the problems of others and asking “is there something I can do to help?”

Fourth, we should pay attention to what is going on in our own temple. And here I am not talking about the church. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul wrote,

19 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So, you must honor God with your body. 

Our body is meant to honor the Lord. If we are abusing our bodies, we are abusing the temple of God.

  • If we are eating poorly
  • If we are feeding our minds with garbage
  • If we don’t get any exercise
  • If we participate in immoral activities
  • Even if we physically absent our self from worship we withhold spiritual nourishment from our bodies.
  • If we live a life that is inconsistent with what we proclaim is true.

All these things are abuses to the temple that lives inside of us. WE are His church. We are now the temple of God. He wants us to honor Him in all we say and do. It is a reasonable request. He deserves to be honored and so very much more.

There are lots of voices constantly alerting us to various dangers. It is easy to become numb to these people. However, when the Lord gives us a warning . . . we ought to pay attention.

[1] Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).

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