Jesus Cleanses the Temple and Drives Out the Merchants

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Jesus wasn’t one to shy away from conflict. If someone was in the wrong, He would say so, regardless of the expected social etiquette, the power dynamics at play or the status of the person He was talking to. We see this constantly in how He interacts with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of His day.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus frequently stands alongside the poor, challenging those who have harmed them. One of the more memorable instances is when Jesus cleanses the temple before Passover, driving out merchants, animals, and money changers from the courts, tossing over tables, and accusing people of exploiting the poor.

While the passage represents just a few short verses in a ministry full of confrontation, the cleansing of the temple was one of the driving factors behind Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

Whether you’re focusing on the narrative of Holy Week or simply trying to understand the character of Jesus, this is an important passage to examine.

Jesus cleanses the temple

All four Gospels contain an account of Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem before Passover (Mark 11:15–19, Matthew 21:12–17, Luke 19:45–48, John 2:13–16). Mark provides his account just after Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The crowds gather to see Him riding in on a colt and shout, “Hosanna!” Then He enters the temple and sees what has become of God’s dwelling place.

Here’s Mark’s account:

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city (Mark 11:15–19).

Interestingly, Mark bookends this moment with Jesus cursing the fig tree and returning to see it has withered, implying a symbolic connection between the two events.

Matthew adds that immediately after cleansing the temple, the blind and lame came to Jesus, and He healed them (Matthew 21:14). He also notes that children were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” in the temple courts, which angered the chief priests and teachers of the law (Matthew 21:15–16).

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Why did Jesus cleanse the temple?

The Gospels don’t give us much context about what was happening in the temple courts or why Jesus responded so strongly—He just gets in there and starts causing a commotion. But there’s quite a bit that we can piece together from what’s happening culturally.

For the ancient Israelites, the evening of Passover culminated in a sacrifice, ideally an unblemished lamb from one’s household. If someone didn’t have a lamb or couldn’t bring one all the way to the temple, they could purchase one. In fact, it was quite risky to travel with a sacrificial animal—if it got injured or sick on the journey, it would no longer be fit for sacrifice. Instead, Jews could sell an animal at home, then use the proceeds to purchase an unblemished animal upon their arrival at God’s dwelling place (Deuteronomy 14:24–25 offers this as a solution for the tithe). 

Merchants selling animals for sacrifices weren’t inherently exploiting people. They were providing a needed service. So why did Jesus drive them out of the temple? Likely because of where and how they performed this service.

On a day like Passover, there would have been a massive influx of people needing to purchase animals. The process was bound to take up far more space than usual, spilling over into the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles. The Mishnah (the oral tradition of Jewish law) notes that greed made sacrifices so expensive that the poor couldn’t participate, and the increased demand for sacrifices would have made it easy to drive up prices.

If someone couldn’t afford a lamb, they could purchase doves instead. In the hierarchy of sacrificial animals, birds were on the bottom—a concession for the poor (Leviticus 12:8). The gospels specifically point out that Jesus targeted the merchants selling doves. In other words, Jesus was most frustrated with the merchants who were selling sacrificial animals to the poor.

But the money changers were on the hook, too. Various cities and regions had their own currencies, and the money changers in the outer courts allowed Jews and Gentiles alike to exchange their currency for one they could use to purchase a sacrifice. Similar to the merchants selling sacrifices, this was a necessary service that could easily become exploitative, and it essentially allowed “the robbery” of selling animal sacrifices at high prices to affect those who had come to worship from other nations.

Notably, the outer court was the only part of the temple Gentiles were allowed to access. If it had been taken over by commerce, then there was no room for the temple to serve its intended purpose. The temple was meant to be a house of prayer and worship for all nations, but the outer court had undoubtedly become a noisy, filthy marketplace that exploited the poor of all nations, where the calls of merchants drowned out any sounds of prayer.

Upon His arrival in the temple, Jesus would have immediately seen that there was little difference between what was happening in the outer courts and just outside the temple walls. 

John also notes that afterward, the disciples remembered an Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). They saw this moment as the fulfillment of David’s prophecy in Psalm 69:9.

What was Jesus quoting from?

Jesus frequently says things like, “You’ve heard it said,” or “isn’t it written . . .” and then refers to well-known Old Testament passages, popular sayings, and other ancient Jewish writings. Sometimes He does this to challenge a common understanding or practice, like in the Sermon on the Mount. Other times, Jesus is pointing out when a prophecy has been fulfilled or provides new context.

Jesus quotes from two Old Testament passages in His condemnation of the merchants and money changers: Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. Both of these passages refer to Israel’s relationship to foreign nations and harshly rebuke their behavior.

In Isaiah 56, God talks about gathering foreigners and accepting their sacrifices in His temple, making it a “house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). At the time, the temple hadn’t been rebuilt yet, so referencing it here juxtaposes God’s vision for His people and His dwelling place against what had actually become of it. The latter half of Isaiah 56 condemns the Israelites for their greed and slothfulness, creating an unflattering comparison between God’s chosen people and those who had been excluded from His covenant. Jesus is standing in the outer court, where Gentiles have come to offer sacrifices and honor God, and Jewish merchants and money changers are crowding into this space and profiting from it.

Jeremiah 7 condemns Israelites from Judah who openly sin and then hide in the safety of the temple, making it “a den of robbers.” They were essentially saying, “This is OK because God is here, and He’s on our side.” The rest of the passage is a warning of coming judgment that even alludes to the destruction of the temple.

While it’s easy to focus on the immediate implications of Jesus’ words and His condemnation of the way the Israelites were using the temple, referencing these passages in the temple would have had an ominous undertone to anyone familiar with them. The religious leaders present wouldn’t have just seen it as a rebuke, but as a threat.

Why did the chief priests want to kill Jesus?

Throughout the gospels, we often see Jesus doing or saying something incredible, and then the chief priests and teachers of the law plotting how they might get rid of Him. But this particular event occurs shortly before Jesus’ arrest in the Synoptic Gospels, suggesting it played a stronger role in actually driving those who opposed Jesus to take action.

In this one moment, there are several reasons why the religious leaders would have been upset with Jesus. First and foremost, He significantly disrupted what they considered to be the regular activity of the temple. They had accepted the cacophony of commerce in the outer courts as a normal part of the preparation for Passover, and Jesus not only tossed over the tables and drove the animals from the temple, but prevented anyone from bringing merchandise into the temple afterward (Mark 11:16).

It’s worth noting that while the gospels constantly position religious leaders in opposition to Jesus, they certainly didn’t see themselves as “the bad guys.” Nor did they hate Jesus simply because He was undermining their authority. The religious leaders here likely saw what was happening in the courts as a necessary process to ensure that everyone could make the sacrifices they needed to participate in the Passover and maintain the covenant with God. Jesus was obstructing that, and they may have seen His actions as creating a barrier between people and God, or inhibiting their responsibilities as priests and teachers of the law.

Additionally, Jesus harshly rebuked them, quoting passages of Scripture that carried threatening undertones. The quote from Jeremiah would have felt like He was calling them murderers, adulterers, thieves, and idolators, with the hint that the temple may be destroyed as a result of their wickedness. The passage in Jeremiah honored the faithfulness of foreigners and condemned the Israelites.

Matthew’s account adds an important exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders:

But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise’” (Matthew 21:15–16).

These children were essentially saying, “praise the Messiah!” And by not rebuking the children, the religious leaders understood that Jesus was accepting this praise. When they confront Him about it, Jesus tells them that God is prompting the children to say this. It’s arguably an admission that He sees Himself as divine, which gave the religious leaders the ammunition they needed. Unfortunately for them, the crowds were on Jesus’ side, and at this moment, their authority didn’t give them control over the situation.

Shortly after, they would find an opportunity to arrest Jesus in secret and turn the crowds against Him. But it was all part of God’s plan.

The connection to the withered fig tree

At first it might seem strange that in Mark’s account, before Jesus cleanses the temple, we see Him curse the fig tree, and afterward, the disciples point out that the fig tree has withered. But Mark is bookending the temple cleansing with the fig tree to imply a connection. Israel is the fig tree. And just as the fig tree failed to produce fruit, so too had Israel. The purpose of cleansing the temple was to warn of Israel’s coming judgment, and the fig tree was a powerful representation of Israel’s judgment.

Keep exploring Jesus’ ministry

Over the course of His three-year ministry, Jesus consistently challenged norms and revealed a better way to live. Every interaction He had with others helps us discover more about who He is, what He is capable of, what the kingdom of God looks like, and how we should live in light of that. His parables offer a wealth of wisdom, and His life provides a powerful model of sacrificial love.

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