Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies (Lk 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44) do good to them (Lk. 6.27, 34-35), bless them instead of curse them (Lk. 6.37), give to them without expecting anything in return (Mt. 5.44; Lk. 6.30, 34), never resist them with force (Mt. 5.38-39), treat them the way we wish they would treat us (Lk. 6.31), turn the other cheek when struck (Mt. 5.39; Lk. 6.29), and pray for them rather than seeking to injure them (Mt. 26.51-53).
Many, however, will argue that since Jesus acted violently when He cleansed the temple, this proves that Jesus did not intend to his teachings about loving enemies to be taken as absolutes or intend to teach total non-violence. The much discussed passage can be found in Mark 11.15-18, with parallels in Matthew 21.12-17, Luke 19.45-48, and John 2.13-17.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say 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 robbers’ den.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.
In order to understand what Jesus was doing in the temple, we must begin by examining the context. Examined in context it becomes clear that the temple cleansing is not an example of random, uncontrolled wrath. There are key observations that can be made from the texts which indicate that Jesus’s actions were premeditated, intentional, and loaded with meaning. Jesus was acting purposefully to make a point. Only after understanding the point Jesus was making will we be in a position to wrestle with the implications of this text upon our lives.
The Context: Jesus’ Warnings of Judgment Against the Temple
The temple cleaning scene is presented to us in close connection with (and perhaps as the climax of) the rest of Jesus’ work. Jesus often warned of judgment that would come upon those who refused His call to repentance. Even more specifically, Jesus frequently warned that the temple itself would be judged and destroyed for rejecting his message (Mt. 24; 26.61; 27.39-40; Mk. 13; 14.58; 15.29-30; Jn. 2.19; Acts 6.14).
These warnings create a context where the actions of Jesus in the temple would not have been viewed as those of a random Jew whose religious zeal led him to misbehave. These were the actions of the man who had continually warned that the temple would be destroyed as a result of rejecting His message.
Matthew (21.18-22) and Mark (11.12-14; 20-26) both present the temple cleansing in close connection with Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit. Mark actually splits Jesus’ judgment of the fig tree into two parts, with the temple cleansing sandwiched in the middle. The cleaning of the temple explains and is explained by the cursing of the fig tree for failing to bear fruit.
Luke (19.41-44) places the cleaning of the temple immediately after Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because they had not accepted “the things which make for peace”, and as a result would suffer destruction.
John (2.18-22) connects the temple cleansing with Jesus’s prophetic warning that the temple would be destroyed. This makes it clear that Jesus was acting symbolically to demonstrate that God was displeased with the corrupt religious practices of the temple. In response to the temple cleansing, everyone who witnessed the event understood that the temple cleansing was anything but a spontaneous tantrum of the part of Jesus. The people understood the deep significance of Jesus’ actions.
In all four accounts the cleansing of the temple must be read in close connection with Jesus’ warnings of judgment and the destruction of the temple. Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus overturned the tables and drove out the animals with a whip, He was making a point, and everyone knew it.
What Point Was Jesus Making?
After Jesus cleansed the temple, He quoted form Jeremiah 7.11 to make his point immediately and explicitly clear (Mark 11.17 and parallels). Jeremiah 7 is part of an important sermon of Jeremiah in which he denounced the temple and offered warning for those who unthinkingly trusted in it. Although lengthy, it is worthwhile to read the entire context from which Jesus selected this quote.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.
Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ – that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD….
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place.”
Jeremiah 7.3-11, 20
The main thrust of Jeremiah’s warning is abundantly clear. Jeremiah offers a serious critique of the Jews of his day, who had placed their confidence in the temple, while simultaneously using the temple as the rallying point for all kinds of wickedness and violence. As a result, the temple would be destroyed.
To refer to this scene as the “temple cleansing” is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus was not simply cleansing the temple of a little bit of corruption. He was warning that the temple would be destroyed because once again, as in Jeremiah’s day, the temple had become a den of robbers.
The word translated “robbers” is not the word used to describe swindlers and thieves. It is the word used to describe those who would use violence to take what they wanted. It is the word that was used for what we would describe as “bandits” or “thugs”. Josephus frequently used this word to refer to violent revolutionaries who were willing kill to bring about their political aspirations (Antiquities Book 13, 16.5; Book 15, 10.1; War Book 1, 16.2-4). The same word is used in John to describe Barabbas, who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15.7; Jn. 18.40).
Jesus was not simply critiquing greedy businessmen in the temple who had inflated their prices. Jesus was warning that the temple would be destroyed because it had become the dwelling place of violent political revolutionaries.
This gives understanding as to why the “cleansing” of the temple is so closely connected with Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem for rejecting his message of peace. What Jesus was doing in the temple is parallel with what Jesus had done to the fig tree. Because those in the temple had failed to bear fruits of repentance, because they had failed to embrace Jesus’ enemy-loving message of peace, they would be destroyed.
Violence Brings God’s Judgment
Rather than demonstrating that violence is sometimes acceptable for the followers of Jesus, when Jesus cleansed the temple he was dramatically demonstrating that violence brings God’s judgment. What we read is not a random outburst of wrath, but rather a premeditated and symbolic condemnation of violence.
But still, the question remains, did Jesus act violently in the temple? Did Jesus use the whip violently against his enemies to make his point? And if so, can the disciples of Jesus use violence for similar purposes?
Jesus most certainly acted aggressively, but the text is not entirely clear that Jesus acted violently. For example, Preston Sprinkle argues that John 2.15 should be translated “And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, that is, the sheep and the oxen”, thus indicating that the whip was only used against the animals, and not against people. Others, such as Greg Boyd, have observed that generally speaking, whips were not used to harm animals, but rather to drive them by making a loud cracking sound.
I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the strengths or weaknesses of these suggestions, but I do find it significant that Jesus was not immediately arrested on the spot, as would be expected if Jesus was actually whipping people.
But suppose for a moment that Jesus did use the whip violently against his enemies. If this is the case, we still must not ignore the main point of the scene. Yes, this might indicate that Jesus did not intend an absolute prohibition against all violence in all circumstances. And yes, this might indicate that there could be exceptions to Jesus’s other “love your enemy” commands, whereby we might be allowed us use violence in limited circumstances. But, even so, we must not look for the exception to the rule to replace the rule itself.
It is a common mistake to look to the temple cleansing to prove that violence is sometimes acceptable, and then starting with the exception, work backwards into Jesus’ commands about loving enemies. This approach reduces “love your enemy” into little more than “be nice to your grumpy neighbors.” Instead, we must start by grasping the main point of the temple scene and of the rest of Jesus’ teachings. If there are exceptions to this main point, they must be treated as exceptions, and not the rule itself.
The main point of the temple cleansing is not to show that it is acceptable to use violence against enemies. The point is nearly the opposite. The temple was to be judged because they had rejected Jesus’s enemy-loving message of peace.