"The more important question is what did Jesus do?"
-Dr Rod Rosenbladt
There's a picture going around the internet which some wag put together, and it looks like this:
The point of this is to try to encourage ethically-minded people that taking direct action isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that Jesus was not a pacifist. Its certainly true that Jesus is not opposed to action, even violence. Its not like Jesus didn't exist in the trinity during the Old Testament period when the Israelites were ordered to obliterate the Caananites. And when Jesus returns in glory, He's bringing justice and hell with Him.
People are easily confused by the Gospels into thinking Jesus was all pacifism and meekness because his role at the time was to be a suffering servant. He came to earth to obey God perfectly and die for the sins of people who did not - you and me. So He didn't fight back when taken, because that was the plan all along: to die on the cross. He didn't slay the crowds of people who tried to kill him several times, because he wasn't a conqueror, he was a servant.
That said, the incident in the temple was a moment of explosive violence and anger. And its one of the several shocking moments in the Bible which seem to come out of nowhere. Before we get to those, I want to examine some responses to this image.
One of the stupidest and most dangerous - dangerous for us, that is - things we do as humans is to try to use the Bible as a political weapon, as a hammer to truncheon opponents into submission. You see this happen regularly such as claims that God in on our side in a war, or how Jesus taught x political position.
This is a flaw which is the reverse of how we should approach scripture. There's an incident in the book of Joshua (chapter 5) which illustrates the proper way of looking at the Bible.
And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?”
14 So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?”
15 Then the Commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.
So Joshua, one of the most successful commanders in the history of humanity is about to fight a battle with Caananites, and he encounters this soldier who makes Rambo look like Joe Biden. Joshua's first concern is a reasonable one: are you on my side or theirs? And the response of this soldier is hilarious: "no."
He's not on the side of either of you bozos. He's on God's side, which is separate from your fight. Something critical to understand here is that most theologians (and translators, note the capitalized "He" in verse 14) believe this to have been a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ.
See, God's not on our side. He's on His side, and we should be too. When we come to the Bible, we should approach it from that perspective: am I measuring up, am I on this side of things? Instead of trying to find support for what we believe, we should be looking for what we ought to believe and move our support to that side.
So when I see this picture show up I always cringe a little, because it ends up being a "Jesus is on our side" moment far too often. And almost always the interpretation is deeply flawed.
For example, usually someone says "yeah, they were moneychangers, Jesus got mad because of greed you filthy capitalist!" The problem is, Jesus encountered greed all over the place in his life, he constantly was meeting up with greedy people. Remember Zaccheus, the little tax collector? He collected much more than the taxes required and kept the extra for himself. That was legal, by the way, its how tax collectors got paid. The government didn't pay them a sesterrii, they had to make their own money by collecting more than the actual owed taxes. And Zaccheus, like most collected quite a bit more to fatten his own coffers, as was common among the job, which made them pretty despised people. Greed.
But Jesus didn't respond by beating Zaccheus up, did he? In fact, when he faced every other example of greedy people he seemed sad and gentle, with an attitude calling for repentance and salvation, not punishment and rage.
So what was different in this situation, in the temple? Well that last word is a bit of a clue; the greed was happening in the temple. Yes, Jesus raged about a "den of thieves" but he was upset because that den was in His father's house. In other words, what upset Jesus was not so much the greed as the lack of respect and reverence for His Father.
In fact, if you examine the Bible you find that the times when God exploded most suddenly, violently, and shockingly into punishment was not for greed, not for sexual immorality, not for abuse of power or mistreatment of widows and orphans - although those sins all anger God - but for lack of reverence and respect for His name.
Repeatedly, God tells the Israelites to respect and honor His name, that He is a jealous god, that He will punish disrespect. From fire exploding out of the altar to obliterate Aaron's sons to the ground swallowing people up to instant death one after another in the New Testament in both abuse of the Lord's Supper and the gifts to the church, God strikes fast and hard against those who will not honor His name.
And that's the key here. This isn't about anyone's political agenda, this isn't about social justice, this isn't about greed. Jesus got so upset he started kicking over tables and beating people with a whip because they were mocking God by their actions. And God will not be mocked.
Sit back a moment and consider this. I'm fine with a call to action, and its true that Jesus wasn't a passive meek wimp. He certainly won't be when He comes back. But the event in the temple was a dire warning to all of us.
Do not mock God. Honor His name, not just in word but deed. That's the main thing we're on this earth for, or as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Now when you post that picture, is that your purpose and intent? Is that what you're trying to accomplish? Are you primarily concerned with God's glory, or with your political goals? Is your call to action because of a desire that God be glorified above all things, or that you are unhappy with the present administration? Are you more concerned with God's glory, or with the loss of a beloved country?
Its not that you can't be both, but using this particular image and event for anything that lacks a concern for God's glory is particularly troubling, given its context.
What would Jesus do? Live a perfect life we could not, and die the sacrificial death we deserved, in our place, to bring us salvation and glory we do not deserve. And in this image, his perfect obedience was given expression by an outrage over the mockery of God and His temple so fierce He tore the place to pieces and instead of fighting back, everyone ran in terror before His righteous anger.
There's a little story in the gospel of Luke (chapter 13) in which the Disciples were wondering about an event they'd heard of. Pilate, then governor of the Roman district called Palestine, had killed a group of people during their sacrifices in the temple; likely they were plotting the overthrow of the Romans, as happened so often in Palestine at the time, but we don't know exactly. The disciples asked a question: so what sins did they commit to be put to death like that? Because they, like Job's friends, were certain that terrible things would never happen to a righteous man.
Jesus put them straight in a hurry.
2 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
Jesus' point is pretty clear: they didn't die because they were extra sinful. You all deserve to die equally, for being sinners. Repent while you still can.
And that should be our attitude when we come to the Bible, too: I'm a sinner. I deserve God's wrath. I cannot point a finger of condemnation at anyone else for being worse a sinner than I am. We must all repent. We must stop using the Bible as a weapon, unless its against our own sin.