Why were there money changers in the Temple?
Pastors often declare these people were making an outrageous profit by selling sacrifices in the Temple, on the analogy of the vendors at an airport or sports arena. Since they had a captive market, they were free to price-gouge. However, “There is no evidence the animal merchants and money-changers or the priestly authorities who allowed them to use the outer court were corrupt companions in graft” (Carson, John, 179). While Jesus calls the Temple a “den of thieves” in the Synoptic gospels (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46), that is not the charge here. Jesus cites Scripture to condemn the merchants in the Temple courts, but it is not because of excessive profiteering.
The term used in John 2:14-15 is ἱερόν and refers to the whole Temple complex, while the word used in John 2:19 is ναός, referring to the Temple building. The sellers are not “in the Temple” since they would have no access beyond the Court of the Men. Selling was restricted to the court of the Gentiles, a much larger area. Köstenberger therefore suggests the main point of Jesus’s attack is that the sellers were taking up the only area of the Temple where the Gentiles could worship (Köstenberger, John, 106). I am not sure how many Gentiles came to Passover to worship and not is certain the sellers took up the entire area, The Court of the Gentiles was 300×450 meters (slightly less than 1000×1500 feet for the American reader); larger than the size of four football fields. Was the whole area one gigantic flea-market? This seems unlikely, although at Passover the area would have been extremely crowded.
Jesus disrupts the sellers by overturning tables and driving animals away. He “pours out” the coins, using the verb ἐκχέω, normally associated with the pouring out of blood during a sacrifice (in the LXX, Exod 25:6, for example). In Rom 3:15, for example, Christ’s blood is poured out for us, but in Acts 2:17-18, 33 and Titus 3:16 the Holy Spirit is “poured out” on God’s people.
He makes a whip and drives animals out of the court. Since the Temple authorities did not permit weapons in the Temple courts, this is an improvised whip. Jesus used the whip to drive animals, not the merchants. Raymond Brown suggested Jesus made the whip from rushes used for bedding animals.
To explain his actions, Jesus alludes to several texts from the Hebrew Bible in his condemnation of the sellers in the Temple (Zech 14:21, Mal 3:1, 3, Psa 69:9). Jesus quotes Psalm 69:9, “zeal for the house of the Lord” in order to explain his violent response and the defilement. (See this post on the meaning of zeal in the New Testament.)
The allusion to Zech 14:21 is more subtle. In the coming eschatological age, the Temple will be either rebuilt or purified and there will be no need for “merchants.” Several observations are important for understanding Jesus’s allusion to this text. First, Zechariah has the future restored Temple in mind, not the present “second Temple.” All the nations will come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. Second, word translated “merchants” in Zechariah 14:21 could be translated as “Canaanites” (as in the NIV 2011, but not the ESV). The name Canaanite means something like merchant and in the verse’s context it seems likely the original point was there will be no need to sell sacrificial animals since every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be equally pure as the Temple Mount. Third, this is the final line of the prophecy of Zechariah, it is the “finale” of his prophecy of the coming ideal age. Canonically, Malachi 3:1-3 is not far removed from this text in the Hebrew Bible.
By alluding to these verses, Jesus is announcing the beginning of the new age of the Messiah. The vendors must leave the Temple since the time is coming when they will not be needed. Jesus’ action at (a coming) Passover will solve the problem of sin and render these sacrifices superfluous.
Jesus is not condemning the Temple or the sacrificial system in this protest, he was looking forward to a coming time when the Temple will be ultimately purified, when all of Jerusalem and Judah are “holy to the Lord. The object of this action in the Temple authority which condoned (and perhaps profited) from economic activity in the Temple courts.
If I am right here, then Jesus’s actions are similar Jeremiah 7. The prophet protests against a dangerous misunderstanding of the Temple. And like Jeremiah, the Temple aristocracy will pay close attention to Jesus as a threat to the central symbol of Jewish faith in the first century.
But is there an economic edge to this protest? Beyond the theological symbolism, does Jesus have something to say about the use and abuse of money at the Temple? What are some contemporary ramifications of Jesus’s condemnation of the money changers in the Temple?