Church Cleaning Day

Many Churches have a day each year when the people of the church gather to clean and do repairs at the church. The goal of these days is to get many odd and often unattended tasks accomplished. As good as these cleaning days are however, sometimes the cleaning needs to go much deeper.

This morning we read about Jesus doing some cleaning at the temple. If you compare the three gospel records of this cleansing it seems this cleaning of the Temple took place on the Monday after Palm Sunday. The Gospel of John mentions a cleansing of the temple at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. There is no reason to think that Jesus could not have done this twice during his three year ministry. The account in Luke is short and to the point.

45 Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. 46 “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.

What Was Going On?

In order to understand the account we need to know a little background. Jewish people from all over came to Jerusalem to make sacrifices and pay the temple tax. This was part of their spiritual duty. Many would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the time of Passover.

This created a logistical problem. Animals used for a sacrifice had to be “without blemish”. This made it very difficult to bring an animal from home. Even if you started with an unblemished animal it might not be unblemished when you arrived. To address this problem, “unblemished” animals were available for sale to pilgrims. Because people came from many different areas they also came with many different kinds of currency. Near the temple were money-changers (like a currency exchange) where you could turn your money into the temple currency to pay your tax.

These things were not necessarily bad. They were a service to travelers. However, like people who price gouge in a time of disaster, these “services” had greatly inflated prices. Some records say the animals may have been 125% more expensive than they would have been anywhere else. The exchange rate was also multiplied like that of a loan shark. At the head of this financial scam were the High Priest and his cronies.

At first these services were provided outside the temple complex, but at the time of this account it had moved inside the temple area. They had set up in the outer area of the temple called the court of the Gentiles. This was the only place where Gentile converts (who had not yet become full Jews) could worship the Lord. Consequently the animals and merchants doing business made it very difficult for Gentiles to worship. Imagine trying to worship while we had a petting zoo and a rummage sale also going on in the sanctuary!

When Jesus walked into the temple complex He saw all that was going on and became furious. Some wonder how Jesus could do such a thing without the temple guard stopping him. I imagine that Jesus was accompanied by another good sized crowd. I suspect there were many people who were quite pleased at the fact that Jesus was addressing the corruption taking place. They may have even helped with the house cleaning! The temple guard knew if they arrested Jesus they would have had a riot on their hands.

It is important that we hear the words of the rebuke of Jesus, “It is written, My house will be a house of prayer [Mark adds, “for all nations”]; but you have made it a den of robbers.” Jesus said they had perverted the most holy of acts; the act of worship. There was no way anyone could pray in the midst of all the commerce in the temple court. The exorbitant fees evidenced the opposite mindset of what God would approve. The people had made a travesty of worship (and thus of the God who is worshipped). Jesus was also angry that they were putting up barriers to worship for the Gentiles.

Some people are distressed by the anger of Jesus. We call this “righteous anger” because Jesus is not angry because of something that was done to Him. His anger was on behalf of the Lord and on behalf of those who were being deprived. Think of it like the anger Abraham Lincoln had toward slavery; or Ghandi’s anger at the oppression of India; or even Martin Luther King Jr’s anger toward the second class status given to blacks in America. It is an anger directed against what is sinful and wrong out of passion for what is right.

We are uncomfortable with the actions of Jesus because, quite frankly, we lack this zeal or passion for the Lord. These leaders were making a mockery of the temple and of the Lord. Jesus was not about to stand idly by and let this happen.

Consider this: suppose someone was making fun of your child or treating them unfairly. Would you stand up in their defense?  Of course you would! Most of us would do so quite strenuously and feel quite justified in doing so. This is what Jesus is doing.

Would Jesus be Angry with the Contemporary Church?

 Some people conclude from this passage that the church should never have fund-raisers. I think that is a superficial interpretation. The church should not become a for-profit business. It should not take advantage of people. Its focus should not be financial gain. However, raising money is a part of ministry. It’s a question of how you are doing things.

The deeper question raised by this account is: “Is the contemporary church doing things that anger the Lord?” This question raises some important questions,

  • Would the Lord be upset with extravagances that catered to the comfort of men rather than the majesty of God? In other words, would He rebuke us for spending say $5 million dollars on a church building that included a gourmet coffee bar and racquetball courts while giving only $5000.00 to help the hungry?
  • Would He throw some Pastors out of the church because of their indulgent lifestyles?
  • Would Jesus be upset by music that was so loud you could no longer understand the words that were being sung? Would He be upset when musicians were adored more than He was?

These are not easy questions. God created music to touch our souls and different people respond to different kinds of music. He is not against music. God designed worship in the temple to consist of great pageantry. He is not against drama. Both the tabernacle and the temple were extravagant in their design and grandeur. God is not against architectural beauty. Many of the fathers of the faith were prosperous. God is not against people doing well financially. So where is the line?

Jesus said the temple was to be called a place of prayer. Perhaps we should ask, “Would our church be called a place of prayer?” Is this a place where we talk to and listen to God or is our focus something different? Ask somebody sometime why they attend a particular church. You may be surprised at the answers:

  • They have a great band
  • My kids have a good time
  • It has a lot of people
  • They do cool things
  • They have a charismatic leader

I am concerned that many churches are eliminating times of prayer and the public reading of Scripture because it is a “drag on the flow” of worship! They want a service to be up tempo and filled with energy. I am not against energy and activity but not at the expense of quiet and reflection! Churches are replacing the preaching of the Word and the practical implications of God’s truth with pep talks, political discourses, and motivational talks that may please the crowds (because it makes them feel good and makes no demands) but never leads people to an encounter with the God of truth.

Chuck Swindoll writes,

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]

Just as lawmakers and judges in our country should be continually examining the Constitution to make sure that the country does not drift from its course, so we as God’s people, need to keep coming back to this truth: The Lord’s house is to be a house of prayer. Worship is to be a place where we talk to and listen to the Lord of the Universe. If our worship becomes something different than this we have lost sight of what we are supposed to be and we should not be surprised if the Lord turns over our tables!

The Response of the Leaders

There is something else to see in this account.

47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.

First, notice that Jesus remains faithful in spite of the consequences. Even though Jesus knows what is going to happen at the end of the week He continued to teach at the temple. I can imagine Him with a crowd of people around Him in the outer court instructing them in the truths of God and praying with and for the people.

There is a simple principle here: It is never wrong to do what is right. Jesus continued to do what He was called to do regardless of the response from the religious leaders. What people did to Him was irrelevant. Serving the Lord in a faithful manner was all that mattered.

Don’t you wish we could get that right in our own lives? We are often guilty of doing just the opposite. We often compromise our faith and convictions so people will like us. Jesus shows us that there are times when we need to choose between doing what is right and doing what is popular and pleasing. As believers our job is to follow Christ before anything else.

Now contrast with the fact that the religious leaders remained resistant. These guys saw and heard what Jesus did and they chose to respond with anger. Rather than listen to and submit to the instruction of the Lord, they were defensive and became determined to eliminate Jesus. They were unwilling to adjust their behavior to the truth.

Before we condemn these guys we should realize that we might very well respond in the same way. Our first reaction when someone criticizes our actions (especially if they were to do so with the anger exhibited by Jesus) is to defend ourselves (and our actions). Proverbs again and again tells us that a wise person is one who listens to the rebuke of a godly man.

A good way to test yourself is to look at the way you respond to what you read in the Bible. When you read something you don’t like, what do you do? Do you seek to understand what is being said and then adjust your life to the truth proclaimed? Or do you scramble for a way to excuse yourself from doing what is said?  If we want to be people who submit to the Word of God we need to respond differently. Let’s get specific,

  • We should work at forgiving rather than trying to explain why our situation is different and therefore God would not expect us to forgive.
  • We should change the immoral situation in which we are engaged rather than justifying what we are doing even prefacing our justification with “I know God says this is wrong but . . . . “
  • We should live with integrity and honesty rather than excusing our behaviors saying “if I don’t do these things I can’t survive in a corrupt world”, “or this is the way it is done in the world.”
  • We should stop feeding our mind with garbage (i.e. change the channel!) instead of saying, “I know the values of the program are terrible but . . . “
  • Instead of excusing our excesses (in activities, alcohol, work, spending) we should work to reign in our desires in the pursuit of holiness
  • Instead of blaming our spouse for all the horrible things they do (thus justifying our sinful behaviors or indifference) we should work to be faithful in our own responsibility before God.

In other words, our job is conform our lives to His Word rather than seeking to conform His Word to our lives or to discount His Word so we can continue to do what we want.

Take Home Points

Let’s attempt to draw some conclusions.  First, we are reminded of the true purpose of the church. Late Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson once said,

In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise. [Swindoll, Church Awakening (kindle) 537]

The church is not a business. The gospel is not a product to be marketed. The church is not a social club where people go to “have a good time” The church is also not primarily a relief agency. It is not a museum which must be preserved. Our primary purpose is to be a house and place of prayer. We are called (especially on Sunday mornings) to be a place where people meet with God. Anything that derails that endeavor is harmful to the church and offensive to God.

Second, we should draw encouragement for Christian missions. The court of the Gentiles was taken over by the merchants thus making it impossible for the Gentiles to worship. Jesus had a heart for all people and so should we. Jesus wanted to eliminate barriers that kept other people from worship. We need to do the same.

We must work hard to explain our faith without using the “church words” that others may not understand. We must work hard to communicate clearly. Let’s make every effort to make this a place where people feel warmly welcomed rather than desperately out of place. We want to open doors rather than close them.

On a global scale our job is not simply to export American Christianity . . . our job is to find ways to introduce people of different backgrounds to Jesus. We should support missionaries, we should show Christ’s love by giving practical aid and we should seek to live out of faith so that the world sees Christ in us. Our Lord was passionate about making it possible for all people to know and honor Him. That should be our passion as well.

Third, we are reminded that passion for the Lord often comes with opposition. To stand up for the truth of Christ today will often make you a target of the world. The majority does not want to hear the truth about their sin. They don’t want anyone to tell them that they must change direction of face judgment. They don’t want to be told that there is an absolute standard of truth: the Word of God. They will rebel at the narrow-mindedness of saying their only hope of forgiveness and new life is Jesus Christ.

We need to expect opposition. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” Rather than be intimidated by such things we should endure the hostility for the glory of God. Obviously, that is easier said than done. We must prepare ourselves to pay whatever price necessary to stand faithful before the Lord.

I’m sure you have learned from experience that the bigger the mess, the more difficult it is to clean it up. Sometimes the mess becomes so overwhelming that we just give up. We probably all have a closet or storage space that is “out of control”.

This can happen in our spiritual lives if we do not straighten up our lives every day. We must continuously examine our motives, methods, and thoughts by measuring them against the standard of God’s Word. If we do that, we can keep things in order and stay on the path. However, if we neglect this regular attention to our spiritual life, we will drift away from the truth and God will send something into our lives to “overturn the tables” of our complacency and wake us up. It is easier to work on the problems now before we have even a bigger mess to address.

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