A long-standing problem of New Testament studies has been why Jesus is recorded as having cleansed the temple of the moneychangers twice. John records it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the Synoptic Gospels all record it happening at the end. Which is it? Or is it both? If so, why? What sense does that make? In the next few minutes, I will make sense of it for you.
First, let’s read the texts. The synoptic Gospels record the account:
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:45–46).
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:12–13).
And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. . . . And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying 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 den of robbers” (Mark 11:12, 15–17).
John also records a temple cleansing:
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:13–17).
You may notice some differences in the accounts—not necessarily contradictions, but clear differences. The most notable difference has been the subject of much discussion among scholars for a long time: Matthew, Mark, and Luke record a temple cleansing at the very end of Jesus’ ministry while John’s account happens at the very beginning of the ministry. In John’s account, Jesus leaves many believers behind in Jerusalem and eventually goes back home. He is not crucified until years later. In the synoptic accounts, the cleansing follows Jesus’ triumphal entry and it is the very thing that gets Him in trouble with the Priests and scribes, etc., and leads directly to His crucifixion within days.
Liberal scholars have jumped on this problem as evidence that the Gospels are not inspired, but pieced together according to the whims and agendas of their mere mortal authors. Mark used the account for one purpose, John cut and pasted for his own. But this, of course, assumes 1) that the accounts indeed derive from only one incident, or 2) they derive from each other, and/or 3) that even this would disprove the inspiration of the account. This knee-jerk reaction probably says more about the biases of the scholar than it does about the Bible.
The standard conservative response to the problem has been simply to say that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. And while a decent stand-alone case can be made for two cleansings, it still seems arbitrary for Jesus to have done the same thing in the same place on two separate occasions without any good explanation as to why. The standard explanation is that Jesus was just really passionate about the purity of the temple. But He had just moments before wept and pronounced the soon-coming leveling of that temple, and it seems unlikely He would have undergone such an abrupt emotional change to a zeal for its purity. Our Savior was never one subject to such emotional swings. There must be some better explanation for two cleansings.
[In what follows, I will answer this problem with biblical theology which indicates strongly that Jesus did in fact cleanse the temple twice, and that He did so for very clear and powerful biblical reasons. In doing this, I credit a friend of mine in seminary who suggested the seed idea which started this study for me. I also note for you that this article is taken from the slightly longer version in my book Jesus v. Jerusalem. This commentary on a large section of Luke contains this study and many more like it.]
Inspection of a Corruption in a House
Indeed, there were two separate cleansings of the Temple, and there is a better explanation for them. What lies behind these separate instances is Jesus fulfilling the role of the High Priest visiting and inspecting the touch of affliction/corruption in the house. This is described in Leviticus 14:33–53. It accounts for the multiple visitations and the repeated act of removing the corruption, then finally pronouncing the house (temple) unclean and decreeing the total destruction of the house. It also fits in with Jesus’ mission against Jerusalem. Now for considerations of space, I will not reproduce the whole long section of Leviticus here, but it is important that you take up your Bible and read it at this point. What follows are the highlights of the priestly duties throughout that passage, and how they pertain to Jesus’ ministry.
First, the phrase “plague of leprosy,” or “leprous disease” is misleading. It has more relation to translation history than they actual Hebrew of the text. The actual phrase should more simply be translated “touch of affliction,” or “corruption.” The “leprosy” mentioned was not a disease, obviously, since it affected building stones and garments as well as people (see Lev. 14:54–57). It was also certainly not anything like what is known as leprosy today. It was an unknown affliction or corruption and God was giving them detailed steps on how to determine the level of threat and how to deal with it based on the determination. Since it also obviously pertained to something dangerous, undesirable, and potentially unclean, I will refer to it as a “corruption.” (I will also alter the translation of the ESV’s “disease” to “corruption.”)
Second, the owner of the house had to take the initiative when he suspected a corruption was present in his house (Lev. 14:35). In the case of the temple, we know it was Jesus’ “Father’s house” (John 2:16), and thus God the Father took the initiative.
Third, the owner was to contact the priest and the priest was to “go in to see the house” and “examine the corruption” (Lev. 14:36–37). In John’s early account, Jesus “found” the corruption. We should think this was by chance; He was examining everything. In the later incident, we are specifically told by Mark that Jesus “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11), the evening before He actually drove out the corruption. We earlier [see Jesus v. Jerusalem] discussed the idea of “visitation” as a special judgment-inspection in the oversight God had for His people. They were before His face continually, constantly subject to His scrutiny (Ex. 25:30; Deut. 11:12). Jesus incarnated this face, and set it toward the visitation of Jerusalem (Luke 9:51ff).
Once the priest had seen the corruption, he was to shut up the house for a period of seven days, and then return to see if the corruption had spread. We do not see this played out exactly in the two separate incidents in the Gospels, but this seven-day period is there in John, as I will discuss in a moment. The two cleansings do, however, directly parallel the rest of the inspection process. I will explain why they are separated from the first part momentarily as well; for now, let us finish with the two cleansings as follows:
The Two Cleansings
Fifth, on the seventh day after shutting the house, the priest was to return for another inspection (Lev. 14:39). If the corruption had spread, then he was to remove the spot of the corruption from the house: “then the priest shall command that they take out the stones in which is the corruption and throw them into an unclean place outside the city. And he shall have the inside of the house scraped all around, and the plaster that they scrape off they shall pour out in an unclean place outside the city” (Lev. 14:40–41).
Before we consider this as Jesus’ first cleansing of the temple in John, let us, Sixth, briefly note the continuation of the Levitical house-cleansing process. If the plague returned to the house after the stones were removed and walls scraped the first time, then the priest was to declare the corruption “persistent” (Lev. 14:44), and based on that declare the whole house “unclean.” What followed next was the total destruction and removal of the house: “And he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place” (Lev. 14:45).
Now this progression of first-visit cleansing, second-visit declaration of destruction is basically what we find in Jesus’ two visitations of the temple. And it makes sense of the minor differences in the narratives of John and the synoptic. In the first visit, Jesus drove out the merchants and the moneychangers, poured out their money and turned over the tables. His message then was, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” In other words, Jesus had removed only the corrupted stones themselves, and sent them “away.” After another day or two, He left Jerusalem completely and went into Judea. He would not return for a while.
When He did visit the temple again for inspection, two years later, he found that the corruption of the moneychangers and merchandisers persisted. Upon this inspection he drove them out again but with a message that expanded upon the first: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark, 11:17; Luke 19:46). This was a final condemnation of Israel’s failure to be what he was called to be (as I will explain in a moment). Jesus thus determined that the corruption in this house was persistent. He apparently anticipated this, for He had announced the dismantling of the house as He was riding in. But He confirmed this again only days later when people were marveling at the beautiful stones of the temple: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).
Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated “persistent” or “fretting” in Leviticus 14:44 is ma’ar, and it literally means “pricking.” It literally has reference to the work of thorns, and thus is a direct reference to the curse on the land (Gen. 3:18). It was part of God’s promised curse that if the Israelites did not drive out all the pagan nations from Canaan, then those nations would become “thorns in your sides” (Num 33:55). Thorns were a frequent prophetic reference in God’s punishment of faithless Israel (Is. 5:6; 7:23–25; 32:13; Jer. 12:13; Ezek. 2:6; Hos. 2:6; 9:6) and as a symbol of the curse of fallen man, rightly so.
How then did the money changers and merchants actually constitute corruption in the house? It was just as Jesus said: Instead of making that house a witness to all nations, they were selfish and covetous robbers acting just like the surrounding pagans. It was a fundamental failure of Israel as a nation, of which Jerusalem and the temple were the central representatives. Instead of redeeming the nations, Israel wallowed in his own fallen nature. . . .
New House and New Stones
The house cleansings are separated from the first inspection by seven days, according to the Levitical law. As I mentioned, the seven-day period does appear in John. In order to see it, however, we need to consider the whole picture of what I have discussed so far: Jesus as the true Temple, and His cleansings of the Old Covenant temple as a visitation of judgment on an idolatrous and complacent house. This is the story of Jesus in John’s Gospel.
It all begins at the initiation of Jesus’ public ministry at His baptism. The day of Jesus’ baptism in John’s Gospel begins a seven-day narrative. On the first day, Jesus is baptized, John proclaims Him to be the lamb of God, and the Holy Spirit descends live a dove and remains upon Jesus. This was all done for the purpose, as John the Baptist says, “that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31). There is so much theology here it is impossible to note it all without distraction. In short, here we have the Spirit of God hovering over the New Creation on the first day; here we have the new Ark of salvation coming up out of the water of baptism, and the dove finding the dry land of the New World. But most importantly for our purposes, here we have God’s Spirit-glory filling the New House. This is explained as follows:
In Exodus 40:34–35, when Moses first erected the first house of God, the tabernacle, we read: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Two aspects are important: the cloud, which was God’s Spirit or presence, and the fact that it settled (or dwelled) there. The Hebrew word for “settled” is shakan, from which we get the phrase shekinah glory. It simply refers to God’s abiding presence. (Ironically, the Hebrew word for “tabernacle” throughout the book of Exodus is mishkan—the noun form of shakan—which means literally “a dwelling place.”)
This scene is replayed exactly when Solomon dedicates the temple:
And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell [shakan] in thick darkness. I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell [shakan] in forever” (1 Kings 8:10–13).
This is exactly what God told John the Baptist to watch for in Jesus: “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain” (John 1:33). It is clear from this image alone that Jesus, the Son of God, was in fact God’s New House, New place of dwelling. Jesus was the New Temple. This would mean, of course, that the old temple in Jerusalem was already obsolete. From the day of the revealing of the true temple to Israel, all those old temple rituals and all the traditions and idolatrous practices that had grown up around them, were nothing but corruption in God’s house of Israel. The new house was already established and indwelt by the spirit. The by definition “closed” the other house for covenant business. The closing of the house, also, was part of the seven-day wait period (Lev. 14:38).
It is ironic that it is only in John’s Gospel that Jesus claims he would “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20). He then tells us that He spoke of “the temple of His body.” So Jesus was conscious that He was the New Temple as soon as it had happened, and this was His sign to the Jews for His authority to cleanse the old house of corruption. The irony of this is in the fact that no one else mentions this claim of Jesus until the second time He cleanses the temple three years later. Yet, none of the synoptic accounts record Jesus saying this during the second cleaning. Nevertheless, this is the very claim that “false witnesses” bring against Him during the kangaroo court as recorded in the synoptics (Matt. 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29). If He didn’t say this during the second cleansing recorded in the synoptics, then where did these people even get this idea? It could only have come from the first cleansing episode years earlier when Jesus actually did say something like this, and which is only recorded in John 2. This would also account for the fact that their versions of the claim were not quite accurate.
John’s Gospel then begins counting the first few days of Jesus’ ministry. The New House was established at the baptism. That was day one. On the “next day” (day two, John 1:35), Jesus begins making disciples. One unnamed disciple of John the Baptism follow Jesus, plus Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael (John 1:35–51). Then, “on the third day” (John 2:1), Jesus performs His first miracle, changing water into wine at the wedding of Cana (2:1–10). He then visits Capernaum for “a few days” (2:12). Then, we are immediately told, “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (2:13). The Passover itself was held on the 14th day of the month Nisan, and it was a sabbath day. So this means this whole story of John 1:29–2:13 takes place in the space of seven days. And it means Jesus visited Jerusalem when that seventh (Sabbath) day was “at hand.”
In other words, Jesus (who already knew the first house was corrupt) established the New House, then waited seven days, and visited the house (this time, the old house) for a second inspection. Finding the corruption, he removed the stone. He returned later and found the corruption persistent, and He declared the house would then be completely demolished.
Another interesting aspect is that of the Levitical duty to replace the corrupted stones which had been removed. The law says, “Then they shall take other stones and put them in the place of those stones, and he shall take other plaster and plaster the house” (Lev. 14:42).
We saw in John that Jesus successfully recruited disciples, but He only made five on that second day; no others are mentioned. But as soon as He removed the corrupt stones from the temple (the merchants, moneychangers, etc.), He also began making new disciples: there were many who believed in His name (John 2:23). Among these was Nicodemus, who asked about being born again, and who later helped bury Jesus’ body (John 3:1ff; 19:39). Not long afterward, Jesus is seen with a larger number of disciples, from which He chose twelve to be apostles (Luke 6:12–16). Indeed, Jesus had selected “other stones” to replace the corrupted members of the old order. In fact, when Andrew brought his brother Simon to Jesus, the Lord renamed him on the spot—“Cephas” or “Peter” in Greek—“A stone.”
This is exactly how Peter himself saw the members of the New Testament church: as stones in the New Temple which was the body of Christ. He wrote, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4–5).
Jesus Christ established a new house of God, and He has made us to be stones in that house. The old house was full of corruption. And as He cleansed the corruption out the first time, He began replacing it with new stones for His new house. When He returned finally to that old house and found the corruption persistent, he declared it to be destroyed completely.
There is yet a final note we must make in this study. When a house was declared unclean, everything in that house by law also was declared unclean. For this reason, the priest allowed everything to be removed from the house before his initial inspection, “lest all that is in the house be declared unclean” (Lev. 14:36). Jesus had pled and pled with the Jews all over Samaria, Judea and Jerusalem that the visitation was about to come, but they would not come to Him. Instead, all that were in the city themselves, even their children, would by proxy be pronounced unclean as well. This is stated in Jesus’ mourning over Jerusalem: “For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:43–44).
Jesus’ second cleansing of the temple was His final judgment-inspection of the house of Jerusalem. It was indeed “the time of your visitation” for the city. Jesus had, from the day of His baptism, focused His mission on that city, and the message of destruction He would one day bring to it. Here in Luke 19:41–46, we see that judgment made and that message delivered. From here on out, it was merely a matter of fulfilling that which was determined.
[For more studies like this, see Jesus v. Jerusalem, or get my latest work on the law of God and its application today, The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty.]
 See the six-point case made in Craig A. Blomberg, the Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987), 171–173.