Why Jesus Cleansed The Temple Twice (A Long-Standing Mystery Solved)

A long-standing problem of New Testament studies has been why Jesus is recorded as having cleansed the temple of the moneychangers twice. Which is it? Or is it both?

Jesus Christ established a new house of God, and He has made us to be stones in that house. The old house was full of corruption. And as He cleansed the corruption out the first time, He began replacing it with new stones for His new house. When He returned finally to that old house and found the corruption persistent, he declared it to be destroyed completely.

 

A long-standing problem of New Testament studies has been why Jesus is recorded as having cleansed the temple of the moneychangers twice. John records it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the Synoptic Gospels all record it happening at the end. Which is it? Or is it both? If so, why? What sense does that make? In the next few minutes, I will make sense of it for you.

First, let’s read the texts. The synoptic Gospels record the account:

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:45–46).

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:12–13).

And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. . . . And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:1215–17).

John also records a temple cleansing:

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 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. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:13–17).

You may notice some differences in the accounts—not necessarily contradictions, but clear differences. The most notable difference has been the subject of much discussion among scholars for a long time: Matthew, Mark, and Luke record a temple cleansing at the very end of Jesus’ ministry while John’s account happens at the very beginning of the ministry. In John’s account, Jesus leaves many believers behind in Jerusalem and eventually goes back home. He is not crucified until years later. In the synoptic accounts, the cleansing follows Jesus’ triumphal entry and it is the very thing that gets Him in trouble with the Priests and scribes, etc., and leads directly to His crucifixion within days.

Liberal scholars have jumped on this problem as evidence that the Gospels are not inspired, but pieced together according to the whims and agendas of their mere mortal authors. Mark used the account for one purpose, John cut and pasted for his own. But this, of course, assumes 1) that the accounts indeed derive from only one incident, or 2) they derive from each other, and/or 3) that even this would disprove the inspiration of the account. This knee-jerk reaction probably says more about the biases of the scholar than it does about the Bible.

The standard conservative response to the problem has been simply to say that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. And while a decent stand-alone case can be made for two cleansings,[1] it still seems arbitrary for Jesus to have done the same thing in the same place on two separate occasions without any good explanation as to why. The standard explanation is that Jesus was just really passionate about the purity of the temple. But He had just moments before wept and pronounced the soon-coming leveling of that temple, and it seems unlikely He would have undergone such an abrupt emotional change to a zeal for its purity. Our Savior was never one subject to such emotional swings. There must be some better explanation for two cleansings.

[In what follows, I will answer this problem with biblical theology which indicates strongly that Jesus did in fact cleanse the temple twice, and that He did so for very clear and powerful biblical reasons. In doing this, I credit a friend of mine in seminary who suggested the seed idea which started this study for me. I also note for you that this article is taken from the slightly longer version in my book Jesus v. Jerusalem. This commentary on a large section of Luke contains this study and many more like it.]

Inspection of a Corruption in a House

Indeed, there were two separate cleansings of the Temple, and there is a better explanation for them. What lies behind these separate instances is Jesus fulfilling the role of the High Priest visiting and inspecting the touch of affliction/corruption in the house. This is described in Leviticus 14:33–53. It accounts for the multiple visitations and the repeated act of removing the corruption, then finally pronouncing the house (temple) unclean and decreeing the total destruction of the house. It also fits in with Jesus’ mission against Jerusalem. Now for considerations of space, I will not reproduce the whole long section of Leviticus here, but it is important that you take up your Bible and read it at this point. What follows are the highlights of the priestly duties throughout that passage, and how they pertain to Jesus’ ministry.

First, the phrase “plague of leprosy,” or “leprous disease” is misleading. It has more relation to translation history than they actual Hebrew of the text. The actual phrase should more simply be translated “touch of affliction,” or “corruption.” The “leprosy” mentioned was not a disease, obviously, since it affected building stones and garments as well as people (see Lev. 14:54–57). It was also certainly not anything like what is known as leprosy today. It was an unknown affliction or corruption and God was giving them detailed steps on how to determine the level of threat and how to deal with it based on the determination. Since it also obviously pertained to something dangerous, undesirable, and potentially unclean, I will refer to it as a “corruption.” (I will also alter the translation of the ESV’s “disease” to “corruption.”)

Second, the owner of the house had to take the initiative when he suspected a corruption was present in his house (Lev. 14:35). In the case of the temple, we know it was Jesus’ “Father’s house” (John 2:16), and thus God the Father took the initiative.

Third, the owner was to contact the priest and the priest was to “go in to see the house” and “examine the corruption” (Lev. 14:36–37). In John’s early account, Jesus “found” the corruption. We should think this was by chance; He was examining everything. In the later incident, we are specifically told by Mark that Jesus “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11), the evening before He actually drove out the corruption. We earlier [see Jesus v. Jerusalem] discussed the idea of “visitation” as a special judgment-inspection in the oversight God had for His people. They were before His face continually, constantly subject to His scrutiny (Ex. 25:30Deut. 11:12). Jesus incarnated this face, and set it toward the visitation of Jerusalem (Luke 9:51ff).

Once the priest had seen the corruption, he was to shut up the house for a period of seven days, and then return to see if the corruption had spread. We do not see this played out exactly in the two separate incidents in the Gospels, but this seven-day period is there in John, as I will discuss in a moment. The two cleansings do, however, directly parallel the rest of the inspection process. I will explain why they are separated from the first part momentarily as well; for now, let us finish with the two cleansings as follows:

The Two Cleansings

Fifth, on the seventh day after shutting the house, the priest was to return for another inspection (Lev. 14:39). If the corruption had spread, then he was to remove the spot of the corruption from the house: “then the priest shall command that they take out the stones in which is the corruption and throw them into an unclean place outside the city. And he shall have the inside of the house scraped all around, and the plaster that they scrape off they shall pour out in an unclean place outside the city” (Lev. 14:40–41).

Before we consider this as Jesus’ first cleansing of the temple in John, let us, Sixth, briefly note the continuation of the Levitical house-cleansing process. If the plague returned to the house after the stones were removed and walls scraped the first time, then the priest was to declare the corruption “persistent” (Lev. 14:44), and based on that declare the whole house “unclean.” What followed next was the total destruction and removal of the house: “And he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place” (Lev. 14:45).

[1] See the six-point case made in Craig A. Blomberg, the Historical Reliability of the Gospels(Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987), 171–173.

Read More