When God Flips Tables
I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ provocative actions in the Temple—when He wielded a whip as He drove out the moneychangers. What should we make of a whip-cracking, table-flipping Jesus? Did this angry Jesus condone the use of violence in dealing with this world’s problems, or does He reflect something altogether different?
How can we reconcile our views of a peaceful and mild Jesus with His table-flipping, whip-wielding outburst in the Temple? To find the message in this story, we should consider Jesus’ motivations and concerns.
The first thing that catches my attention is that Jesus acted alone to make things right. He didn’t ask the disciples to join Him in the riotous act. The clarity of Jesus’ actions rests in the scripture that He quoted. Jesus drew everyone’s attention; a large crowd gathered around to listen to Him teach from Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7.
As Jesus entered the Temple courts, He examined everything (Mark 11:11). If you are familiar with the biblical Sanctuary or Temple layout, don’t envision Jesus walking up to the altar and water basin in the courtyard. To understand Jesus’ actions, it helps to know the later Temple layout during His time. The outer precincts of the Temple had been enlarged, as King Herod had added a covered marketplace in the courtyard of the Gentiles. The Temple was thus operating not on holiness and praise but on political power and wealth. Though its system was intended to properly redistribute tithes for the poor and be a shared place of worship and praise for all nations, the Temple was not only exploiting the poor but banning the Gentiles from entering and participating in certain activities.
To make matters worse, the commerce in the large marketplace had expanded into the court of the Gentiles. In all the commotion, the Gentiles were excluded not only from entering the Temple precincts but from prayer and communion, so the Temple was no longer fulfilling its mission as a “house of prayer for all people.” Jesus cleared the outer court, restoring it as a place where children as well as the blind, lame, and poor could praise God (Matthew 21:14–15). Jesus’ love extended to those left outside the Temple; He welcomed the strangers, foreigners, and outcasts (Isaiah 56:6–7).
Jesus also looked upon the Temple’s sacrificial victims. The Temple had become a lucrative slaughterhouse devoid of ethics. For those reading through the lens of compassion for animals, it is clear that Jesus freed the animals, throwing the coins on the ground to insist that His creation not be treated in this manner. Jesus gathered the cords used to tether the sacrificial animals, twisting them into a whip to liberate rather than lash them. He knew God’s creation was being exploited by an oppressive economy of dominion and power. Abuse is wrong, and Jesus is against the exploitation of both people and animals.
Jesus’ heart went out to the poor, who believed that the forgiveness of sin required the shedding blood. Instead of enjoying the Temple as a place of relationship and closeness with the divine, the poor had to literally buy their way into God’s presence—if they could afford it—and the Gentiles additionally had to have their sacrifices carried to the altar by someone else. These people sought closeness with God, but the corrupt priests took advantage of their desire to gain wealth. The exorbitant Temple coin exchange rates exploited the poor, greatly indebting them for trying to experience divine closeness. Jesus targeted the tables of the priests who profited from these overpriced sacrifices. They stole both money and ritual closeness, but worse, they engaged in theological theft of God’s reputation (Jeremiah 7:11).
What did Jesus think of the Temple, which conveyed His Father’s intent to dwell among His creation (Exodus 25:8)? Jesus disrupted its economic transactions, but He did not aim to destroy it. In the first cleansing of the Temple, Jesus said, “You destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up… But the Temple He was speaking about was His body” (John 2:19, 21). There is something mysterious about these words. On one level, the Temple refers to Jesus’ body and resurrection. On another level the Temple represents creation. If you want a glimpse of what the new creation and eternity look like—the best of human experience and a love worth living—look at Jesus’ resurrected human life. Jesus will rebuild the Temple. The Temple reflects heaven and earth coming together—the restoration of creation itself.
Though we may be uncomfortable with Jesus’ aggressive display in the Temple, the disciples described the look on His face and the sadness and power in His voice when they quoted from what was written: “For zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me” (Psalms 69:9; John 2:17).
Psalm 69 conveys an image of Jesus pained and with tears in His eyes. His heart was heavy with anguish, but it nonetheless beat with holy zeal. Jesus’ zeal—His holy love—was consuming Him. This zeal was not born of anger but of His all-consuming love that overflows for the world that God in Christ redeems and heals. His consuming love does not want us to be exploited by other purposes or powers. Exposing such pretense and corruption was costly for Jesus, as He went to the cross for us, consumed in that passion and radical love.
Jesus didn’t flip over tables as punishment but so His Father might fully dwell among us. Most important is to dwell with God, without anything cheapening the experience. Jesus wants us to fully experience His Father. Jesus’ anger was not like human anger but reflected a pure love that draws us to experience its passion. As scholar N.T. Wright notes, the table-flipping also prophetically previews the later destruction of the Temple (Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, pp. 420–27).
Jesus performed in the Temple a prophetic critique, not a violent tantrum. The objects of His anger were not people or animals but the injustice and pain caused by those pursuing power and abusing creation. Jesus came to the Temple to challenge this self-absorption and corruption. While the whip of prophetic judgment made from the sacrificial cords would eventually be felt in the horrific pain of Jerusalem’s war and destruction, it would first be felt in the lashes upon Jesus’ body at the hands of His enemies. Anger and judgment were expressed through His suffering for a broken world.
So, when Jesus again returns to His creation Temple, how will the world respond? Will we run from His presence like the corrupt priests and merchants? The Jesus who attracted the children, the poor, the lame, and the outcasts is the same Jesus who drove away these greedy money changers and merchants. When the cosmic powers are shaken in the end, many will flee and cry for the rocks and mountains to fall on them, hiding them from the wrath of the suffering lamb (Revelation 6:16).
If Jesus walked through and examined the courts of our lives today, what tables might He flip over? I want Jesus to enter my courts, driving out everything that hinders a close relationship with Him, because life’s most important goal is dwelling in His presence.
May Jesus come once more to flip over the tables of pretense and exclusion, of all religion infected by politics. May He flip over the tables of economic oppression and exploitation, of corruption, and of abuse toward His creatures, so we can become part of the beautiful new creation He desires. May Jesus flip over everything that keeps us from fellowship with Him.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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