Righteous anger and zealous piety: the incident in the Temple (John 2; Lent 3B)

How might we characterise what Jesus wants all of his followers to exhibit? Loving kindness, gracious acceptance, patient servanthood, self-effacing humility? If we take seriously the disturbing teachings we heard last week (Mark 8:34-38), these will be the central characteristics we will exhibit. And such characteristics are, as we noted last week, disruptive and destabilising!

However, in yet another instance of such disruptive instability, the lectionary this week offers a story about a time in the life of Jesus when he was anything but humble, gracious, and self-effacing. The infamous story of “Jesus cleansing the Temple”, set for Lent 2, is found in all four canonical Gospels. It occurs at the very end of the public activity of Jesus in the three Synoptic Gospels, where it provides the catalyst for the arrest and trial of Jesus.

By contrast, and quite strikingly, in the fourth Gospel, the book of signs, it is recounted very early on, immediately after the very first miracle that Jesus performed (2:1-11). It stands as a kind of “programmatic statement” which declares what Jesus is on about in the whole of his ministry (in much the same way that Luke 4:16-30 provides a “manifesto for mission” in the Lukan presentation of the story of Jesus).

And the Jesus who is portrayed in this striking account demonstrates very little gracious, self-effacing humility. Rather, he acts out his righteous anger, embodies zealous piety, and provides an intensity of focus on the role to which (according to this author) he has been called: “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19).

I. Righteous anger. First, this story depicts Jesus as manifesting “righteous anger”, both in his actions (2:15) and in his words (2:16).

The actions of Jesus include overturning the tables of the money changers (as noted when this story is reported in Mark 11:15 and Matt 21:12) and driving them out of the temple area (as is also noted in Mark 11:15, Matt 21:12, and Luke 19:45).

They also include tipping out the coins of those money changers (not reported in other accounts), and knitting together cords to form a whip, by which he carried out these actions (also absent from the Synoptic accounts of this scene). The fact that this would take some time to do indicates that, at least in John’s eyes, Jesus was entering the area with intention and purpose.

James McGrath notes that “both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions” (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers). What Jesus does is therefore not an incidental act of anger; it is part of a deliberate plan of action.

McGrath suggests that the reference to the Temple as a marketplace might be an allusion to the eschatological prophecy of Zechariah, that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech 14:21). Is Jesus enacting this prophecy through his actions in the Temple forecourt?

Certainly, the words of Jesus (2:16) are sharp and accusatory. There is both the sharp command to take the elements of money changing out of the precinct, as well as the accusation that what the traders are doing is “making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus commands them directly to “stop”.

This is similar to, but not the same as, the Synoptic accusation that the money changers are making the temple “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, Matt 21:13, and Luke 19:46). That most likely references the rhetorical question of the prophet Jeremiah: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer 7:11).

Gail O’Day considers that “by going to the Jerusalem temple and disrupting the practices that were necessary for the celebration of Passover, Jesus places himself in a long line of Israel’s prophets who go to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power, and announce and enact the word of God.” (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/cleansing-or-cursing)

In this dramatic prophetic action, Jesus acts and speaks carefully, deliberately, with “righteous anger”. This concept is explicitly is named in an earlier Jewish text, telling of the moment when Mattathias exploded in anger at the desecration of the land that he was witnessing by the foreign powers that held Israel under their power.

Mattathias the Maccabee:
bronze head (1894) by Boris Schatz

Mattathias watches a Jew come forward to make a sacrifice on the pagan altar erected in Modein, in accordance with the command issued by Antiochus. It is said that Mattathias “burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar” (1 Macc 2:24).

Does Jesus stand in this tradition, when he enters the Temple, is disturbed by what he sees there, and acts to purge the forecourt of the activities taking place there? Is this an expression of righteous anger? (Not to the extent of killing a person; but still, enacting vigorous actions and speaking striking words.)

Of course, anger—presumably, justified, or righteous, expression of anger—is a characteristic of God throughout Hebrew Scriptures. Moses experienced the anger of the Lord (Exodus 4:14), as did all of Israel in the wilderness (Num 11:1,33, 12:9, 25:1-5, 32:9-15; Deut 6:15, 11:17, 29:19-28, 31:17, 29, 32:22), and then this divine anger is present as a regular and consistent element through the narratives of the ongoing story of Israel.

Certainly, there are places in Hebrew Scripture which repeat the formulaic claim that God is “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:8). Nevertheless, scripture contains invocations to God to put aside his anger, such as that by Moses (Deut 9:19) and the prayer of Daniel, “O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain” (Dan 9:16). God’s anger was well known.

So in this incident in the temple, Jesus is manifesting, not just the righteous anger of the revolutionary Mattathias, but the anger of the righteous one himself, the Lord God. And this anger is directed at those who debase the Temple, the house of God, through their actions.

II. Zealous piety. Second, the incident is interpreted as a manifestation of zealous piety from Jesus. Interestingly, it is not Jesus himself who directly expresses this; rather, the author indicates that this interpretation was made after the event by the followers of Jesus. They understand the actions of Jesus in the terms of a verse from the Psalms, “zeal for your house will consume me” (Ps 69:9, quoted in John 2:17).

The expression of zeal is linked with anger in the same extract from 1 Maccabees that we saw above: “Mattathias burned with zeal … and gave vent to righteous anger” (1 Matt 2:24). There are further examples of intense zeal amongst the people of Israel–most notably Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, of whom God said: “he has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites” (Num 25:11). That shows the power of zeal, to restrain God’s wrath!

A depiction of Phinehas

Zeal for the Lord is expressed by Jehu the king: “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD” (2 Kings 10:16). Later, in the time of return and restoration in the land, Ezra notes, “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, or wrath will come upon the realm of the king and his heirs” (Ezra 7:23)

Like righteous anger, intense zeal is attributed to God at a number of places in scripture. For instance, “the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (2 Kings 19:30-31)

That refrain recurs elsewhere. Most famously, as the prophet Isaiah says of the one promised by God, “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:7).

And again, later in Isaiah: “from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 37:32).

In the period of the Maccabees, zeal for the law was highly valued. The instruction found at 1 Macc 2:50, “now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors”, led directly to the movement which became known as the Zealots—revolutionaries who would go to any length to stand up for the Law. Josephus later describes this “fourth philosophy” (alongside Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) as being characterised by precisely this characteristic—a zeal for the Law—to the extent that Zealots were willing to put their lives on the line in defence of their traditions and customs.

A later Jewish document describes such people (Jewish political rebels) in this manner: “a common zeal for nobility strengthened their goodwill toward one another, and their concord, because they could make their brotherly love more fervent with the aid of their religion” (4 Macc 13:25-26). And the key figure from earlier Jewish stories, for these zealous rebels, is Phinehas, whom we noted above (Num 25:11) as exhibiting zeal that changed the mind of God.

Jesus, entering the Temple precincts, seeing what is taking place in the outer courtyard, is filled with the zeal of the Lord and expresses the righteous anger of the Lord, as he confronts the money changers.

Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple
oil painting by Quinten Massijs (1514)
(Museum: Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

The conclusion of the Johannine account of this incident makes it clear that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and so, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

This distinctive Johannine interpretation of the incident in the Temple points to a major theme that runs through the book of signs: the conflict between Jesus and “the Jews”. Which needs a blog in its own right …..


This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)