This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John. If you’d like to follow along in your Bible, you can be turning to John chapter 2.
There was a story in the news a few years ago that some of you may have seen. It seems that there was this very old painting of Jesus in a church in Spain. This painting was painted back in the 19th century and, over the years, it was beginning to show some pretty bad water damage.
So, there was an 80-year-old lady in that church who decided that she would fix it. She got some paint and decided to give the old painting a facelift. By the time she was done with it — or rather, by the time the local authorities made her stop — the old painting had been totally ruined, and looked like this. One person described it as “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”
The local leaders asked the lady who ruined the painting, “By whose authority did you do this thing?” And she told them she had permission from the local priest to restore the painting. She insisted, “The priest knew it. I never tried to hide anything.” Of course, the priest denied knowing anything about it. And if I were him, I think I would deny it, too.
Now, I share that story with you to make the point that some of our pictures of Jesus are really bad. And I’m not just talking about paintings like this. I hate pictures of Jesus that have a halo over his head. Jesus did not walk around on this earth with a halo. I think most of our pictures of Jesus have him much too white. He was Palestinian, and so that means he looked like a Middle Eastern Jew. I think most of our pictures of Jesus have him way too effeminate. He always seems to look very weak and helpless, which he was definitely not.
Our text this morning gives us a picture of Jesus that is very accurate, but most of us will find it a little bit uncomfortable. But, it’s an important part of who Jesus was. It’s part of his true likeness.
Let’s watch the video together. If you have your Bibles, you can follow along in John chapter 2, beginning with verse 13.
As I said earlier, this text shows us a side of Jesus we don’t like to talk about much. This wild-eyed, angry, shouting-at-people, overturning-tables Jesus. If you’re on Facebook, you may have seen this meme going around: If anyone ever asks you, “What would Jesus do?”, remind hi that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.
If you were here last Sunday, you may notice that Jesus acts differently in the second half of John than he did in the first half. Last Sunday, we read about Jesus’ tender compassion for a newlywed couple. We saw how he did his first miracle to save them from great embarrassment.
But in the story that John tells here, we see an angry Jesus. We see him wielding a whip, and using it to drive people and livestock out of the temple. And I think perhaps one reason the Holy Spirit prompted John to structure his gospel with these two extremes back to back is because we need a balanced view of Jesus.
We need to see both his tender love and his powerful anger. We need to understand that God is love, but he is also righteous holiness. Or, to put it another way, we need to see that God is someone that we should both adore and fear.
Let me explain a little bit of what is going on in this passage. We’re told in verse 13 that “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” (John 2:13)
The Passover was the greatest of all the Jewish feasts. In fact, the law said that every male Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem was required to attend it. By this time, Jews were scattered all over the world, but every Jew — no matter where he lived — dreamed that he would one day be able to attend the Passover in Jerusalem…at least once in his lifetime. This dream brought as many as two million Jews to Jerusalem every year.
And all of those Jewish pilgrims were a potential source of great wealth to the Jewish leaders. Verse 14 tells us that when Jesus arrived at the temple and entered the outer court, he found that the priests were doing all they could to tap into that source of income. “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.” (John 2:14). Let me explain exactly what was going on.
First of all, money exchangers were there because every Jew over the age of 19 had to pay a temple tax to cover the expenses of temple sacrifice. This tax was a rather significant amount—equivalent to two day’s wages. But the Jewish leaders said that you couldn’t pay this tax with just any coin. Remember that Jews came from all over the world, bringing their homeland’s currency with them. But, the temple wouldn’t accept any money with a graven image on the coin. Those coins were considered idolatrous and unclean, and so that money needed to be exchanged for Jewish currency.
And there wasn’t anything wrong with that, except that the leaders of the temple didn’t provide this as a free service. Rather, they used it as an opportunity to make even more money for themselves. Basically, the exchange rate doubled the cost of the tax. So, now, going to the temple during Passover would cost you four day’s wages.
But that wasn’t the only cost you had to factor in when you calculated the price of your trip to Jerusalem for Passover. Jews were required to make an animal sacrifice for their sins and the temple leaders were more than happy to provide oxen and sheep and doves for that purpose. And, again, there wasn’t anything wrong with that. This was a necessary convenience. I mean, if you had traveled all the way from Spain, you wouldn’t want to lug a cow or a sheep along with you for a sacrifice! So, it was a good thing the temple provided these animals for you.
The problem was that, once again, the Jewish leaders didn’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, they did it to fill their wallets with even more money, so they priced animals inside the temple much higher than the ones you would have bought back home. Plus, even the animals that were brought by Jews who lived near Jerusalem were usually found to be “unacceptable” by the temple inspectors, which forced them to buy a new animal for as much as ten to twenty times the fair market value.
It was kinda like going to the movies and seeing popcorn that costs a few cents to make—being sold for $8 a bucket! To me, that’s just plain criminal. And you expect that out in the world — but not in God’s temple where every Passover, the people were basically being blackmailed by the priests. And this absolutely enraged Jesus! Pilgrims to the Passover who could barely afford the trip in the first place were being cheated in God’s house! What had begun as a service had turned into a racket.
And the priests used this as an opportunity to really pile up the money. When the Roman governor Crassus raided the temple treasury in 54 B.C. and confiscated all its gold, he took from it our equivalent of ten million dollars.
And you can imagine the effect that all of this must have had on the Jewish people. Instead of getting excited about going to worship God in his temple, many of them started to dread it. And so, when Jesus saw the way that Jewish leaders were treating the people and using God’s house to do it, he was furious.
“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.” (John 2:15)
And, of course, the Jewish leaders – the ones who were in charge of keeping the peace and making sure that everything was being done decently and in order — ran out and demanded to know: “By what authority are you doing these things? What gives you the right to disturb the peace like this? Just who do you think you are?”
And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that if we had been in the temple that day, we probably would have wanted to know the same thing. Imagine how you would react if a stranger burst into worship service on an Easter Sunday morning and started made a big ruckus, shouting at people and turning over communion trays. We would try to get that crazy man out of here as fast as we can.
This Jesus isn’t the smiling flannel graph Jesus we remember from Sunday School. The one who gently cradles lost lambs on his shoulders, and welcomes children to come sit on his lap. This table-turning, whip-cracking Jesus disturbs our peace.
A large part of what made Jesus so disturbing to the Jewish leaders was that he upset their status quo. They were used to things running a certain way year after year. And whether people liked it or not, it was what they were comfortable with, and they just accepted that that’s the way it’s going to be.
Sure, they might have grumbled at the exorbitant price they were being charged for sacrificial animals, and they may have complained about the horrible exchange rate. And yes, God would probably be unhappy with everything they saw, but nobody wanted to say anything. Nobody wanted to disturb the peace. Until Jesus.
It’s a fact of life that humans tend to resist change. But, there are times when change needs to happen. A change of direction. A change of vision. A change of scenery. But for a lot of reasons, we don’t usually handle change well. We have this image in our minds of how things ought to be, and usually it’s the same way they’ve always been.
We may acknowledge that the way we’ve been doing things is not very effective. We might even question whether God would truly be happy with the way we do things. But as soon as someone says, “This isn’t working anymore; we need to do this a different way”, we get uncomfortable. Some folks even freak out.
Because it messes with our vision of how things are supposed to be. Because we’re very comfortable with our old, familiar ways. So, in our mind, whenever someone says, “things need to change”, whatever change they’re proposing is about as welcome as the changes that Jesus brought to the temple that day.
And that’s especially true when it comes to church stuff. Because we know that deeply significant matters are at stake. We want to know what authority this person has for coming in and making changes. That’s why the Jewish leaders were so freaked out. Jesus came in and disrupted a system that had been in place for hundreds of years. He caused a ruckus in a temple their ancestors had built. And he was saying crazy stuff about how the temple was going to be destroyed.
Now, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like change, I’ve got some good news for you — you’re absolutely normal. The truth is, we as humans are wired that way. We are all attracted to ways of doing things that make us feel safe and comfortable. And usually, that’s a good thing. We need a routine. A sense of normal. A feeling of security.
And so, whenever we need to make changes in our lives, it’s difficult, even if the change is good for us. If you’ve ever tried to change your diet or stop smoking or start an exercise schedule, you know what I mean. Every part of your being says, “I want to keep doing all those things that I’m used to doing. That’s what I’m comfortable with.” But, the good news is, even when something is uncomfortable, eventually we can adjust, so we begin to feel comfortable with a new routine.
But when someone starts disturbing your peace and disrupting your routine, you at least want to know why you should change. What’s the benefit? What do I get if I embrace this new thing? What can you show me to convince me that I need to do something difficult or uncomfortable to make this change?
Which is basically what the Jewish leaders were asking Jesus: “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (John 2:18). They wanted Jesus to show them something that would convince them that he had the authority to bring about all this change and disruption.
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles are never called “miracles. They’re always called “signs”. Because Jesus’ miracles were signs that pointed people toward what God was doing through Jesus Christ.
Bible scholars sometimes refer to call John 2-11 as “The Book of Signs.” These chapters record seven signs that Jesus did. And all of those signs pointed toward what God was doing through Jesus. They revealed God’s plan for changing the world.
Signs like Jesus turning the water to wine; and feeding 5,000 people with the loaves and fish from some kid’s lunchbox point us toward a God who wants to transform our need into joyful abundance.
Or when Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed most of his life, and another man who had been blind from birth—these signs point to God’s longing to bring healing into our lives. To set us free from hopelessness and despair, so that we can live life to the fullest.
Then there was the time when Jesus was summoned to heal the child of a royal official. It’s a story about two people reaching out to each other across ethnic and social status lines to bring about healing. It’s a sign of what God is working out for humanity through Christ. In John 3.16, we read, “For God so loved the world…” When Jesus healed the official’s son, it was a sign of how big the world God loves really is. It’s you. It’s me. It’s the stranger up the road or across the ocean. God’s love embraces all creation.
And then there’s Jesus walking across the water on a stormy lake to meet his disciples. It’s a sign to us that God is always present through Jesus. And through Jesus, God comes to meet us in the storms of our lives, and bring us safely home to him.
But the most spectacular sign of all comes from John chapter 11. When Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead after he’d been in the grave for four days. Verse 33 says that Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” (John 11:33). But, the Message may convey the idea even better when it says that Jesus saw all these people crying over Lazarus and “a deep anger welled up within him.”
Raising Lazarus was a sign that God is angry at death. God is angry that people we love are ripped from us by death, leaving us lonely and weeping. And so, when Jesus raised Lazarus, it was a sign that God isn’t going to let death get the final word. Jesus will defeat death.
All of these signs point us to a God who loves us deeply. A God who is angry at death, and whose deepest longing for us is not just that we will survive, but that we will thrive and flourish. As Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Or, to put it another way, “I came so that they could live life to the fullest.” All seven of these signs point in that direction.
So when the Jewish leaders asked Jesus: “By whose authority are you doing these things?”, Jesus could have just said, “By God’s authority.” But he didn’t. When they asked him: “What miraculous sign will you show us?” Jesus could have pointed to any of these seven signs. But he didn’t.
Standing there in the middle of the temple, where people were coming to worship on the most holy day of the year, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)
Of course, the Jewish leaders and probably anyone else who heard Jesus say that thought that he was out of his mind. That temple had been at the center of their religious life for centuries. It was the place where God dwelt among his people. Why should it be torn down? And how could anyone rebuild a temple in three days that had taken over forty years to build in the first place?
Even Jesus’ followers didn’t understand what he meant by that. John says it was only after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead three days later that they realized the temple Jesus was talking about was his body.
So, why did Jesus give them that as a sign? I think what Jesus was trying to say is that God had dwelt among his people for centuries in the temple. But now, God had come to live among all people through his Son, Jesus Christ. And God was going to show this by raising Jesus from the dead.
When Jesus chased all those animals meant for sacrifice out of the temple; and he told all the people who sold the animals to clear out, he was saying: “God is bringing about a change. He’s making everything new. And before long, this building will be irrelevant. Because God is present in me. And everyone will worship God through me.”
The Jewish authorities demanded that Jesus give them a sign, a sign that would show he had authority to disrupt the life of the temple, and to shake their understanding of God right down to its foundations. But even after the promised sign had been fulfilled, and Jesus was raised on the third day, most of them still had a very difficult time embracing the changes he brought. Because change is difficult. So difficult that they refused to do it.
And unfortunately, that still happens to a lot of folks. Even good people. Even when the changes we need to make are healing and liberating and give us a chance to live life to the fullest.
So, here’s where we take this lesson and apply it to our own lives. You and me and us together as a church. I want to draw your attention back to John 2:21, “He was speaking about the temple of his body.”
And Jesus, of course, was talking about his own body being a temple. But I want you to notice how the apostle Paul uses these ideas of the temple and the body of Christ.
In I Corinthians 12, Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” (I Corinthians 12.27, NLT). Paul says that the church is now the body of Christ in the world.
And then, in Ephesians 2, Paul says that the church is growing “into a holy temple in the Lord” and that we are “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2.21-22)
If you read those passages together with John 2:21, that Christ’s body has become the temple, it tells us that the church — you and me and us together — we are here in this world to carry on what God began in Jesus Christ. God dwelt in Christ, and now we dwell in Christ, and so God dwells in us. And through us, God dwells in this world.
Which raises a question: When the world looks at us — at me, at you, at all of us together — When the world looks at us, do they see Jesus? Not a perfect likeness. Like that 19th century painting, maybe our colors have faded a bit. But do they see Jesus in us?
Or do they maybe see something else? Like that ugly painting in Spain. The one that doesn’t look like Jesus anymore. Something horrifying that people would run away from, or maybe laugh at and not take seriously?
When the world looks at us, do they see Jesus? The signs in John’s gospel point out what our lives and the church will look like when we let Jesus dwell among us. Like Jesus, our lives will be filled with joy. We’ll reach out to bring healing and reconciliation among ourselves and in the world. We’ll step out in faith to do difficult things, trusting that God will get us where we need to be. We’ll live life to the fullest, because we know and trust that God won’t let death have the final word.
But, if you look at your life, and you realize that maybe it doesn’t look like Jesus —and I think we all have some areas of our lives that look less like Jesus than others — then you need to ask yourself this question: What do I need to change to look more like Jesus? And that’s where things get scary. That’s when we start to get defensive. We resist. We want to know by what authority the preacher is asking us to change things about ourselves.
And I get it. I totally get it. Which is why I’m not going to ask you to change everything right now. But I am going to ask you before you go to bed tonight to figure out one area of your life that doesn’t look like Jesus. I want you to pray over it. And get to work on it.
It may be something difficult. Maybe there’s a relationship in your life that’s damaged, and you need to reach across your comfort zones and work for reconciliation. Maybe you need to develop the courage to speak up and share your faith in Jesus with your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers.
Or maybe it’s something simple. Maybe you feel led by Jesus to speak a word of hope and love and joy into someone else’s life by sending them an encouraging note or visiting them to see how they’re doing. It’s okay to start small. But whatever it is, commit to doing it.
And imagine the difference it will make in your life, and how the world sees Christ in you, if you will commit to making this change.
In today’s story, we saw a side of Jesus that makes some people uncomfortable. But it opened us up to see more fully the beauty of who Jesus is and what he came to do for us. My prayer for all of us as we go out from here, is that we’ll commit to doing something this week that might be uncomfortable or scary or outside of our comfort zones. Make some changes.
And if, at any point, you start freaking out, demanding to know who authorized you to make these changes in your life, the answer is this — it was Jesus.