Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple Once or Twice?

*** Edited 4/10/19 ***

In my previous blog post, I mentioned that Jesus “cleansed” the temple 2 times during his ministry.

Because some think there was only 1 temple “cleansing” during Jesus’ ministry, I thought it helpful to write this blog post that shows reasons why I am convinced there were 2 temple “cleansings”…

Q: Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple Once or Twice?

A: 

All four gospels record Jesus physically clearing the temple (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22).  However, John seems to place this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the others indicate it happening at the end. Were they all speaking of the same event, or were there two temple cleansings?

Though it is possible they were speaking of the same event[1], the evidence seems decisively in favor of seeing two temple cleansings.

Consider:

1.     The Dating of Herod’s Temple

Immediately following Jesus’ temple cleansing, and in response to Jesus claiming He would raise up the temple of His body after it was destroyed, the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple,” (John 2:20).  They are here referring to Herod’s rebuilding of the temple. Herod began this project in 20 BC (Netzer 2008, 12).  Adding 46 years to this date places the setting of John 2:20 at AD 26.  Since Jesus was likely crucified in AD 30, after his 3.5 year ministry (Mauro 2001), the dating of Herod’s temple places the temple cleansing recorded by John at the beginning, not end, of Jesus’ ministry.

2.     The Timing

In John’s account, the temple cleansing is placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—shortly after Jesus’ first sign of turning water into wine (see Jn. 2:11-13)[2], and before John the Baptist goes to prison (cf. John 3:22-24).  Even more, a careful reading of the entire gospel of John will show how strictly he adheres to a tight chronology in describing the events, thereby making it all the more absurd to think he intended people to think an event in chapter 2 could have actually happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the temple cleansing happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry—within days of Jesus’ death, and well after John is put in prison (cf. Matt. 4:12; Mk. 1:14).  The plainest and most natural reading of all the gospels, therefore, would make it impossible for these mutually exclusive times to describe the same event.

3.     Jesus is Falsely Accused

In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, we read that false witnesses rose up to condemn Jesus at the end of His life, accusing Him of saying, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days,” (Matt. 26:61; see also Mark 14:58).  However, nowhere in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke do we see Jesus making the very statement they claim of Him.  Instead, it is John who reveals that Jesus made this statement in His earlier temple cleansing (cf. Jn. 2:19).  Not only is this a key difference in John’s account of the temple cleansing (not to mention an incredible proof that the gospels are interdependent, and not contradictory), but the inability of witnesses to readily and correctly remember the details of this statement of Jesus only a few days after the temple cleansing of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (see Matt. 27:60-61 and Mark 14:55-59), may suggest that Jesus’ statement must have been made earlier in His ministry.  This leaves us with good reason to believe that John’s account records an authentically earlier temple cleansing, where Jesus says the very statement quoted against Him in garbled form at the trial.

4.     The Differences

Though there are clear similarities between the temple cleansing accounts in all four gospels, there are also striking differences between John’s temple cleansing and the others:

  1. John focuses exclusively on the sellers (John 2:14-16), whereas Matthew (21:12), Mark (11:15), and Luke (19:45) show Jesus paying attention to the buyers, too.
  2. John alone records oxen and sheep as part of the temple cleansing (John 2:14-15).
  3. John alone records a whip of cords (John 2:15).
  4. John alone records Jesus as scattering the money (John 2:15)
  5. John alone records Jesus telling the dove-sellers to, “Take these things away!” (John 2:16), but does nothing else with them. Whereas, Matthew (21:12) and Mark (11:15) record Jesus overturning the seats of the dove-sellers, without saying anything to them.
  6. Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke (19:46) record Jesus quoting Isaiah 56:7, but John does not.
  7. John alone mentions the disciples as recalling Psalm 69:9 in reference to this incident (2:17)
  8. In John’s account, Jesus objects to the temple being a, “house of merchandise,” (2:16), whereas Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke (19:46) show an objection to the dishonesty of the sellers (“house of thieves”).
  9. In John’s account, the Jews question Jesus’ authority by asking for a sign (Jn. 2:18), but in Matthew (21:16) they question Him on why children were praising Him, and they do not directly question Him at all in Mark or Luke.
  10. Mark 11:18 and Luke 19:47 show that the Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus as a result of this incident, and Matt. 21:15 remarks that they were, “indignant.” In contrast, John never records the Jews’ reaction besides their questioning.  In fact, he later tells us, through Nicodemus, that some of the Jewish rulers initially believed Jesus to be a teacher from God around this time (see Jn. 3:1-2).
  11. In John’s account, Jesus refers to the temple as, “My Father’s house,” (2:16), which is not unlike His reference to “My Father’s business,” while at the temple in Luke 2:49, before His pubic ministry began. However, Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke (19:46) all record Jesus calling the temple, “My house,” instead of, “My Father’s house,” when quoting Isaiah 56:7.  This could indicate a progression: At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the temple = “His Father’s,” (Luke 2:49; John 2:16), but at the end of His ministry it is His own.  Even more, the progression continues when Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, shortly after the later temple cleansing, and refers to it as, “Your [the Jew’s] house,” (Matt. 23:38). Therefore, after they reject Jesus a final time, the temple is no longer the place of God the Father or God the Son’s presence, but belongs now to the Jews, devoid of God.  Whereas, today, God’s new temple is not one made with hands, but is the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Pet. 2:5), which He hinted at in the first temple destruction (John 2:21)[3].

5.     Jesus Repeated Words and Actions throughout His Ministry

Though it is true that there are multiple similarities in the two temple cleansings, it should be noted that in other places in the gospels, Jesus repeats words and actions.  For one of many examples, consider: In Matt. 14:13-21 and Mark 6:30-44, we are told that:

  • Jesus departed from the crowds,
  • Thousands sought Him out,
  • Jesus had compassion on the multitudes,
  • Jesus wanted to feed them,
  • The disciples said they only had a few loaves and fishes,
  • Jesus commanded the multitude to sit on the ground,
  • Jesus blessed the food and broke it,
  • Jesus gave the food to His disciples to distribute to the people,
  • All of the thousands ate and were filled,
  • Afterward, they picked up multiple baskets of leftover food, and
  • He departed from them on a boat.

Astonishingly, every one of these eleven points are repeated in a different event that is recorded by the exact same writer only a chapter or two later (compare Matt. 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-10), and with only slight variations (i.e. the numbering of loaves, fishes, etc. is slightly different).  Among other things, comparing these two events informs us that it is not uncommon for Jesus to repeat Himself in words and actions.  This should not be a surprise, however, since God is known to repeat Himself throughout the Bible (for instance, consider that God’s word repeats itself in 1-2 Kings compared to 1-2 Chronicles, as well as the four gospels studied in this harmony).

Furthermore, it seems self-evident that every good teacher is one who repeats themselves to emphasize their message, so no one should be shocked that Jesus (the ultimate Teacher) does this very thing.  All of this enhances the plausibility of Jesus repeating the temple cleansing, which would be a clear teaching point that He begins and ends His ministry by cleansing the temple (the very thing He was doing spiritually, and finally accomplished for the church [which is now God’s temple] in His death and resurrection).

6.     Uniqueness of John 1-5

The rest of John 1-5 is unique to John’s gospel and found nowhere in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  It is unexplainable, then, why John would have inserted a well-established later event (i.e. Jesus’ later temple cleansing) into John 1-5, when every other story in that section is set at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and entirely unique from all the other gospel writers (See Carson 1991, 177; L. Morris 1995, 167).

7.     Logical Deduction

When John wrote his gospel, he either:

  • knew of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and/or Luke, or
  • did not know of them.

If he knew of them, he would have known the details of their temple cleansing accounts, and especially that each writer placed it at the end of Jesus’ ministry.  If this was the case, it is highly unlikely that John would have intended to write about the same event in John 2, while changing the timing of it, and all of the major details. Instead, if John knew of the other gospels’ accounts of this story, it is most likely that he wrote of a different temple cleansing in John 2.

If, on the other hand, John was unaware of Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s gospels when he wrote his own gospel, then his knowledge of Jesus’ later temple cleansing would have been by Spirit-guided memory[4], and perhaps other witnesses. In that case, if John was attempting to describe the same temple cleansing as Matthew, Mark, and Luke based on memory, it would be remarkable that he agrees on details like overturning the tables, confronting the dove-sellers specifically, and driving out the sellers of the temple, while he, others, and/or the Holy Spirit could not remember that this event happened at the very end, instead of the very beginning, of Jesus’ ministry, nor remember the main reasoning Jesus gave for clearing the temple, and other crucial details!  This is beyond credulity.

Therefore, in either of the different possible scenarios, it is most likely to assume John was describing a different temple cleansing.

8.     Would the Jews Tolerate 2 Temple Cleansings?

A main objection for having two temple cleansings is the fact that the Jewish leaders would never tolerate someone to do that more than once.

However:

  • John 2:23 indicates that Jesus may have had popular support in His first temple cleansing (perhaps He even had help, though this is beyond what the text records), and thus it would be more difficult for the Jewish leaders to protest the event.
  • When the first temple cleansing occurred, Jesus would have been relatively unknown to Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and so it would have caught them by surprise more than awaken long held bitterness toward Jesus, thus immediate retaliation was less likely.
  • As Jesus’ support grew, the chance of direct Jewish retaliation for the earlier temple cleansing would become less plausible, for fear of an uprising from killing such a popular figure.
  • The Jews specifically feared the timing of Passover to move against Jesus, in case of a possible riot (see Mark 14:1-2). This, of course, was the timing of the first (as well as the second) temple cleansing.
  • In cleansing the temple, Jesus was actually consistent with, “existing provisions, which prohibited anyone from entering the Temple Mount with…his wallet, and which specifically denied the right to make of the forecourt ‘a short by-path,’” (Lane 1974, 406), because the Jews were guilty of both practices. Therefore, the act was not as rebellious and reckless as some may presume.
  • The temple cleansing would have been viewed as an act of prophetic “authority”—instead of trivial hostility—by the Jews, which caused them to be more concerned with whether He had authority to do such things as a God-sent prophet, than to question whether the act itself was legitimate[5].
  • There is no immediate action taken by the temple authorities in the latter cleansings recorded by the other gospel writers, either. Thus, if the Jews did not take immediate action in the latter temple cleansing, why is it unthinkable that they would not take action in the time between the first and second cleansing?
  • Finally, it seems very likely that some (or many) of the Jews were convicted in their conscience of what they knew to be wrong conduct in God’s house (not that there was a major change, as is evidenced by the fact that Jesus had to cleanse the temple again only three years later), thus those with pierced consciences would (hopefully) not organize a concerted protest toward Jesus immediately, and lack the opportunity to act at a later time if conviction gave way to resentment. In fact, we have record of at least one of the ruling Pharisees earnestly seeking Jesus only one chapter later (see the exchange with Nicodemus in John 3), and indicating that other ruling Jews shared his feelings (note the “we” of John 3:2).

For these reasons and more, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that Jesus could have performed this strong demonstration on more than one occasion.

[1] If it was the same event, it either happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry or at the beginning, and the other gospel writers placed it somewhere else for thematic reasons. If it happened at the beginning, then Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place it out of order. This seems unlikely since they write the last events of His life in fairly tight and connected sequence, which included the temple cleansing. If it happened at the end of His ministry, then only John placed it out of order. This, too, seems unlikely considering John’s gospel is consistently chronological (more so than any other gospel—see throughout this harmony). Thus, either scenario seems very unlikely, yet still possible.

[2] New Testament scholar, D. A. Carson writes, “The natural if not conclusive reading of [John] 2:11-13 makes the temporal connections pretty tight,” (1991, 177).

[3] More on this can be found at https://fmi360.live/2015/10/16/my-house-your-house/.

[4] See John 14:26.

[5] See John 2:18-22, compare also Mark 11:27-28, as well as the example of a sharper, yet celebrated act in Num. 25:6-12 and Ps. 106:28-31, the prophetic preaching of Jeremiah in the temple gate as recorded in Jer. 7:1-14 and 26:1-15, and the temple cleansings celebrated as righteous acts before Passover in 2 Chron. 30:14-15 and 2 Kings 23:4 (See Carson 1991, sec. John 2:18; Lane 1974, sec. Mark 11:15 for more details).

Thanks for considering,

Brian

“My House” / “Your House”

Throughout the Bible, the temple of God is referred to as God’s house.

For instance, in 2 Samuel 7, God tells David that his son, Solomon, will build God a, “house”.  And after Solomon built this, “house,” for God, and they brought the ark of God’s presence into the temple, we read, “a cloud filled the house of the LORD…the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD,” (1 Kings 8:10-11).  In other words, this was God’s house, and–if I may say this reverently–He was making Himself right at home.  It is called “God’s house,” because it is the place where He dwells.

The same language is used for the temple during the time of Jesus.  Consider:

  • At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He forcefully drove people out of the temple for their misdeeds, and called the temple, “my Father’s house.” (John 2:16).  Likewise, His disciples noted that this incident fulfilled the Scripture that says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17, quoting Psalm 69:9)
  • At other times, Jesus could refer to the O.T. temple simply as, “the house,” (Lk. 11:51), which clearly infers it was God’s house, and so translations render this as, “the sanctuary,” or, “the house of God,” to convey the same meaning.
  • And at the end of Jesus’ ministry, when He drove people out of the temple again, He quoted Isaiah, and said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matt. 21:13, see also Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).

So throughout Jesus’ ministry–the temple is referred to as, “God’s house.”

However, shortly after Jesus’ 2nd “temple cleansing,” He talked with His disciples about a day when the temple would no longer be standing: “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” (Matt. 24:1-2).  He would go on to describe the events of this temple destruction as happening within the generation of His disciples (Matt. 24:34).  Of course, this was fulfilled in the terrible and bloody temple destruction that happened in 70 AD (remarkably, this was 40 years after Jesus’ death, which is the biblical time period of a generation–Num. 32:13; Ps. 95:10).

But, as fascinating as all this may be, what is even more striking is what Jesus said immediately before He described the temple being destroyed.  Look at Matt. 23:37-38: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.”  Notice the striking shift in describing the temple.  Jesus calls it “your house,” not God’s house.

Up to the time of Matt. 23:38, the temple was always known as, “God’s house.”  But now, Jesus calls it, “your house,” and shortly after describes how it would be destroyed.  Perhaps even more significantly, in the rest of the N.T. the temple (that is, the physical building) is never again called, “God’s house”.  It ceased to be “God’s house” from the time Jesus called it, “your house,” and described its collapse.

A significant shift clearly occurred.  This shift was hinted at during Jesus’ ministry.  For instance, immediately following the first temple cleansing, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (2:19).  Of course, the Jews thought He was referring to the physical temple (2:20), but John writes: “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 2:21-22).  So Jesus calls His own physical body the temple.  Why?  Because God dwelt in Him.

Then, after Jesus died and resurrected, we read things like:

  • “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48)
  • “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)
  • And others (Heb. 3:2, 5-6; 10:21; 1 Pet. 2:5; 4:17).

See, the shift had taken place.  Initially, God dwelt in a temple made with human hands.  Then, He dwelt in Jesus Christ.  And now, He dwells in the church (which is also called Jesus’ “body”–1 Cor. 12:27; Col. 1:18; etc.).  And never again would God call the physical temple, “His house”.

The implications of all this are far greater than anything I could put in a blog post.  But one thing that I wanted to touch on here is the significance that is placed on the temple’s destruction in 70 AD.  It was this event that caused Jesus to clearly mark the shift from, “God’s house,” to, “your house,” (Mt. 23:38).  It was this event that “sealed,” in a sense, what was said throughout the N.T. (which was mostly written before the temple was destroyed)–that God’s temple is now composed of the human members of the church, and not a physical building.  And, it is this event that is the theme of Matt. 24, and some of the prophecies of Daniel (alluded to in Matt. 23-24) that mark the end of a specific stage in God’s economy–that is, the people of God are no longer defined by physical lineage, a physical temple, physical circumcision, etc.  Instead:

“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise,” (Gal. 3:29).

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” (Rom. 2:28-29).

Anyway…I’ve been chewing on all this recently, and thought some of you may appreciate “chewing,” too.

Blessings,

Brian

Have you been faithful over “a little”?

In Matt. 25 and Luke 19, Jesus gives parables showing that your faithfulness/stewardship with the things God has given you in this life directly relates to the spiritual and eternal riches you will be given.  He says things like, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much,” (Matt. 25:21).

Similarly, in Luke 16:1-13, Jesus talks about someone who was planning for a future day where he would have to give an account of his faithfulness and stewardship to his master.  The moral of the story was: “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:11-12)

In other words, your faithfulness with small and temporary things corresponds directly with God giving you large and eternal things.  Now consider this:

  1. Elijah called Elisha into a prophetic ministry when he found the young man, “plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him,” (1 Kings 19:19).  See, Elisha was being called as a prophet to the 12 tribes of Israel, but it started with him being faithful in taking care of 12 oxen.
  2. When David was anointed as a king of Israel, he was, “keeping the sheep” (1 Sam. 16:11).  This corresponded to his faithfulness in watching over the sheep of Israel as their king.  And, in contrast, when Saul (the unfaithful king) was anointed as Israel’s king, he was looking for (but not finding) his father’s donkeys (1 Sam. 9).  See, as he was not able to tend donkeys, so was he unable to tend the people of Israel, which caused God to anoint David as king, instead.
  3. Or when Moses met God in a burning bush and was commissioned to lead Israel out of Egypt and through the desert, guess what he was doing?  “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law…and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness,” (Ex. 3:1).  You read that right.  He was leading a flock of sheep through the desert when God told him that he would lead His sheep (i.e. Israel) through the desert.  Even more, we find that God only began to speak to Moses, “When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see [the burning bush],” (Ex. 3:4).  In other words, Moses’ faithfulness to turn aside toward the Lord-in-the-burning-bush showed God that he could speak His words to this person.  If he was not faithful to turn, it is questionable if God would have ever spoken.

And this carries over into the N.T. as well.  As Watchman Nee points out in his book, What Shall This Man Do?, the ministries of Peter, Paul, and John directly correspond to the task they were doing when the Lord called them:

  • Peter was catching fish when called by Jesus (Matthew 4:18; Mark 1:16).  Correspondingly, his ministry was one of evangelism.  He was the first person to preach the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10).  He “caught his fish,” spiritually.  He was given a vision of a sheet coming down (similar structure to a net catching fish), and was shown that this means God wants him to “catch” the Gentiles, too (Acts 10).  However, fish in a net need more structure.  They need a formation.  And so…
  • Paul was building tents when (and after) Jesus called him (Acts 18:3).  He took an unformed group of Christians and was given a primary role of shaping the church, and teaching them how to live and work together after they are believers.  As he formed physical tents by trade, he also was forming God’s spiritual tabernacle through his words and deeds.  This is the thrust of the N.T. letters written by Paul.  But…
  • When Jesus called John as a disciple, he was repairing nets (Matt. 4:21; Mark 1:19).  It is true he was with Peter as they fished together, but his role, at the time of his calling, was one of mending the nets.  And, remarkably, the ministry of John (as seen through his written works in the N.T.) was always one of restoring and mending.  John’s gospel comes after Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the church has historically believed his gospel came to correct errors that the people had misread into Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Similarly, John’s 3 letters, and the book of Revelation are placed at the end of the N.T., and their function is to “repair” places where the church had been missing the mark.  He spiritually fulfilled the task he was physically doing when Jesus called him.

Peter caught fish, Paul built the structure, and John repaired what had been tearing.

The theme is consistent in the O.T. and N.T. – the physical, seemingly meaningless tasks set the trajectory for the larger ministry God gave them.  For the believer, this ministry may happen later in their life, but it ultimately foreshadows the tasks God will grant in eternity…all based on how we steward the small and seemingly meaningless tasks before us.

Sort of changes the value of all those things we do while wishing we were doing the “really important” things…doesn’t it?

Brian