From making wine to making a whip
Welcome to week four in our walk with Jesus in the gospel of John! Last week we marveled at Jesus’ first sign showcased in John’s gospel, the miracle of turning water to wine. Immediately after describing that miracle, John takes a sharp change in direction. Open your Bible please to where we left off at John 2:13. At first glance, it looks like a different Jesus than the one who gladdened a wedding reception with such a fun miracle. Let’s see what happened and why John showcases this action of Jesus at this point in his gospel. Picking up at John 2:13 we read…
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.
How are we to make sense of Jesus’ anger?
John takes us straight from the happiness of a miracle that keeps a wedding’s joy going, to the intensity of Jesus furious in the Jerusalem temple. Why?
In the Cana miracle, Jesus uses his power to draw people together. Then here in the temple, there are people he drives out. Why?
Dig a little deeper with me: Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say Jesus cleansed the Temple during the final week of his life, while John places it here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Again, why?
If you read the gospels like you read the daily news, you will conclude either that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, or that John was mistaken. But there’s a third option that makes more sense. Matthew, Mark and Luke follow more of a chronology of Jesus’ life and ministry, while John’s gospel gives much more a theology of Jesus’ ministry.
With that aim in mind, John structures his gospel not around the timeline of what Jesus did, but rather around seven miraculous signs and seven exclusive “I am” claims of Jesus. That gives us a huge hint on how to make sense of John placing Jesus’ first miraculous sign up against him cleansing the temple and predicting his resurrection.
Our typical experiences with anger
Dig deeper still with me. How do you make sense of Jesus’ anger in the temple? This doesn’t fit the mental image most people have for Jesus. They picture more of a heavenly Mr. Rogers who never loses his temper. The examples of anger we’re familiar with are almost always destructive and harmful.
Take the example of a 27-year-old man from Minnesota by the name of Justin, who pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault charges for violently losing his temper. Here’s the irony: he was on his way to anger management class when he committed the crime.
According to the criminal complaint, Justin was waiting at a bus stop when he started to harass a 59-year-old woman. Witnesses say he yelled at her over what he felt was a general lack of respect. When she took out her cell phone to call police, Justin punched her in the face. When a 63-year-old man tried to stop him, Justin hit him with a folder that held his anger management homework. Police tracked him down by using the papers inside.
Source: Associated Press, “Man Hits Woman On Way To Anger Control Class,” www.msnbc.com
Is that the kind of thing that was going on in this passage? How do you make sense of this when it was Jesus’ own brother, James, who urges…
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” James 1:19-20
And where would James get the idea that we should be slow to anger? Exodus 34, as the Lord reveals himself to Moses, he describes his own character this way:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…” Exodus 34:6
So how are we meant to make sense of Jesus happily miraculously providing wine for a wedding reception, but then fierce with anger in the temple? Let’s take a stab at answering, and see where the evidence leads us.
A closer look at what made Jesus mad
Carol Tavris is the author of a book titled Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. I agree with her when she says, “I have watched people use anger, in the name of emotional liberation, to erode affection and trust, [to] whittle away their spirits in bitterness and revenge, [to] diminish their dignity in years of spiteful hatred. And,” she notes, “I watch with admiration those who use anger to probe for truth, who challenge and change the complacent injustices of life.”
So here’s the truth, friend: there is a time and place for anger. There are times when it is good…to get good and mad. And this is one of them. This is a time when the Lord, who is slow to anger, finds the end of his patience. Slow to anger doesn’t mean he never gets angry. Let’s keep going.
The miracle of making wine in Cana and the making of a whip in Jerusalem reveal complementary truths about Jesus—that this One who brings joy to those who need to know God also brings judgment against those who make it harder for others to get to know God. The wedding miracle was all about people being welcomed to a good and godly celebration; the temple cleansing was a judgment against those who kept others out of a godly celebration.
Making it harder for outsiders to get in with God
Go deeper with me: We know from history that the part of the temple where merchants had set up shop was called the court of the Gentiles. You can look up a diagram of the temple layout, given by God himself. By God’s design, part of the temple was set apart for people like you and me, non-Jews, to come for prayer.
That was the area that got taken over and turned into a raucous money-making scheme. And that got Jesus good and angry.
Imagine you had lived back then and you found yourself drawn to get to know God. You hear about the mighty Passover miracle and you decide you want to partake in a Passover celebration. People are going to come from all around the Mediterranean basin, from countries all around Israel to sing and worship and pray and eat this memorial meal together.
So you save up and plan for time off work. You make arrangements to stay at a Jerusalem Airbnb. You load up the family and make the long journey to Jerusalem. As you begin to walk the long road that climbs up Mount Zion to the city perched on its summit, hundreds and thousands of fellow religious pilgrims join you. Many are singing the Psalms of ascent, a series of Psalms in the Bible written for just this purpose, to sing while making your way up to the temple.
Finally, the outline of the temple comes into view. It’s the grandest structure your family has ever seen. You’ve heard about it, you’ve read about it in the Scriptures, now finally you’re there. You can’t wait to join those from so many other nations in that special part of the temple created just for you, for Gentiles who want to draw near to God.
But as you make your way in, instead of singing, you hear hucksters shouting, trying to reel in foreigners to exchange their money for temple money, the only kind you’ll be able to use to purchase your sacrifice. Apparently what you brought from your own flocks isn’t good enough, nor is your money.
Instead of hearing God’s Word being recited and explained, you hear coins clinking and haggling over prices. Where you had expected to find peace and quiet and learning and reverence, instead all you see and hear are the sights and sounds of greedy merchants taking advantage of foreigners who want to get close to God. Your access to God is being blocked by those who just want to make a buck in the name of religion.
So it’s not just what was being done in the temple; it’s where they were doing it—in the place designed by God himself where spiritual outsiders could become insiders, getting in on God’s goodness. That’s what caused ‘slow to anger’ Jesus to run out of patience.
Matthew tells Jesus explained his actions by quoting the prophet Isaiah chapter 56, saying, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
You’ve probably never read the larger passage that Jesus cited, but it’s worth it. Listen to God’s vision for what the gathering of his people in worship was meant to be. This is Isaiah chapter 56.
“And as for the outsiders who now follow me,
working for me, loving my name,
and wanting to be my servants—
All who keep Sabbath and don’t defile it,
holding fast to my covenant—
I’ll bring them to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
They’ll be welcome to worship the same as the ‘insiders,’
to bring burnt offerings and sacrifices to my altar.
Oh yes, my house of worship
will be known as a house of prayer for all people.”
Isaiah 56:6-7 MSG
This is what got Jesus…good…and angry—the ungodly contrast between a wedding reception that welcomes and brings joy to all, up against the ugliness of the very area of the temple set apart for Gentiles being taken over, hindering them from experiencing the presence and peace and forgiveness that God designed for them to enjoy.
What making wine and making a whip reveal about God’s Kingdom
And so what these two events together reveal, the miracle in Cana and the cleansing of the temple, are that Jesus ushering in God’s kingdom inaugurates a party, inviting in anyone who wants to know God. And Jesus ushering in God’s kingdom also inaugurates judgment against those who hinder outsiders from God. Jesus’ ministry inaugurates both.
As one writer puts it, the finest wine and a braided whip reveal both the joy and the judgment of God’s kingdom come. In Jesus, there is celebration for those who want to know God, and there is condemnation against those who hinder others from God.
The religious hucksters don’t like that. They have a good thing going. They’re making money hand over fist, and Jesus is messing up their gig. So look with me at verse 18. They challenge Jesus by what authority he is driving out of the temple those who had turned it into a marketplace. Here’s Jesus’ answer:
“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (Jn 2:19).
183 times in the gospels, Jesus is asked questions. He answers only three of them. And this answer totally confounds his accusers.
They’re standing in the courtyard of a massive temple that at that point was in its 46th year of construction.
For comparison, think of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Parisians were shocked 2 ½ years ago when it went up in flames. Donations poured in from around the world. Clean-up and repairs began almost immediately. Yet even today, with all the money and all the technologies we have that didn’t exist in the first century, the latest is that they hope it will be partially open for prayer in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris: five years after the fire. They say construction in full could take another 15 to 20 years.
The greatest sign of all
That’s the kind of emotional impact with which Jesus’ claim hits them. The temple is to them far more than Notre Dame is to the French. It is for Jews at that time the centerpiece of the entire nation, their national and religious pride and joy. So Jesus’ claim made no sense. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days?”
What’s he doing? John doesn’t keep us in suspense. He tells us, verse 21: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”
Right from the start of Jesus’ ministry, then, John already points us toward the greatest sign of all concerning Jesus: his resurrection from the dead. All the other signs pale in comparison to that one, the one that verified that indeed, Jesus is the Passover Lamb. What that Passover feast that Jesus came to celebrate anticipated, Jesus soon fulfilled.
And so this morning we remember the momentous, history-altering events resulting in that temple being destroyed and raised again on the third day—Jesus’ death and resurrection, the greatest sign of all of who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who takes away your sin and mine.
As we sing and celebrate in the song In Christ Alone…
On that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid, here in the death of Christ I live
And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ
No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand
Til He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!
Pray with me, please.
Lord Jesus, for your miraculous sign of turning water to wine to keep a wedding’s joy going, we praise you.
For the temple’s design showing your heart for spiritual outsiders, we worship you.
For your righteous anger against those who would block the way to you, we thank you.
For you coming to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we acclaim you.
For your death and miraculous resurrection, we bow before you.
And for your promised return, we gladly cling to you.
Cleanse us of sin and renew a right spirit within us even as we remember your death for this very purpose, we ask, our Lord and Savior.