The Via Dolorosa, Latin for “way of grief,” is recognized in Christendom as the final route of Jesus Christ as He traveled the agonizing path to Mount Calvary. It started at the seat of Pontius Pilate where He was condemned to death, and it ended at Golgotha where He suffered and died for the sins of all mankind.
Three days later Jesus rose victoriously from the grave, marking the end of what is known today as Passion Week. Beginning with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Passion Week was full of familiar events cherished by Christians.
Scripture records events such as Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, the spreading of palm leaves and garments, the temple cleansing, the Last Supper, Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane, His betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and more.
In the midst of all the familiar, however, lies hidden in plain sight a portion of Scripture often ignored or overlooked altogether. Chapter 21 in Matthew’s Gospel records the beginning of the events of Holy Week.
Mark provides the best chronology, explaining that on the first evening of His first day in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple, made some observations, left Jerusalem, then traveled to and stayed the night in Bethany.
The next morning Jesus returned to Jerusalem, immediately making His way back to the temple.
Matthew records the scene: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves” (Matthew 21:12).
First, some background
What provoked Jesus? What made the temple “a den of thieves?” Why did Jesus cast people out and overthrow tables?
This was Passover Week. Passover required the people to bring specific sacrifices to the temple – particularly oxen, sheep, and doves.
Because of the multitude of people coming from distant lands and many miles from Jerusalem, their circumstances would have made it difficult for them to bring along their sacrifices. Thus it would be necessary for them to buy one when they arrived at Jerusalem.
In addition to the animal sacrifice each year, all Jews and Jewish converts were required to pay the annual temple tax, which was a half shekel. This tax was instituted in the Wilderness when God instructed Moses to take a half shekel from every male 20 years old and older (Exodus 30:11-16).
That money was first used for the tabernacle, and then later for the work of the temple. This practice was still being observed during the time of Christ.
With nothing inherently wrong with the tax or the animal sacrifice, what angered Jesus?
What defiled the temple?
It was not the temple tax or sacrifices. In part, it was the exploitation of the church.
People coming from foreign lands would mean foreign currencies. Currency bearing a heathen inscription, or a heathen monarch’s image, wasn’t allowed to go into the temple treasury – meaning foreign money had to be exchanged for a half shekel.
These two scenarios made way for the corruption, and sadly, the chief culprits were the temple priests. These were evil men who saw an opportunity to line their pockets.
Defilement occurred when the money was exchanged, as the moneychangers charged an inflated fee for swapping the foreign currency for the half shekel.
Furthermore, under the guise of “helping” and being “convenient” for worshippers, the priests permitted the animal sellers access to the Gentile court for a fee, allowing them to set up shop and exploit the Gentile converts.
The greedy priests would further their gains by securing a percentage of the profits of the animal sellers and moneychangers.
Because of the priests’ power, they could take this “business” a step further. Before a sacrifice could be offered, it had to pass inspection by a priest. The people couldn’t object, as this practice was in keeping with specific instructions God had given Moses.
The priests would pick out those who had brought their own sacrifice, inspect it, and find something “wrong” with it, thus forcing them to buy one from the temple sellers – which was sold at an exorbitant fee because the buyer was at their mercy.
What a picture
Imagine. It’s Passover. Jerusalem is flooded with people coming to worship and sacrifice. They arrive to find their area of worship, the outer court, resembling a county fair with animals and moneychangers.
They were left with little choice but to be taken advantage of in order to obtain a sacrifice and a temple tax so they might offer their worship.
That was the picture of the house of God and the people of God that Jesus saw when He entered Jerusalem.
Is it any wonder Jesus was disgusted?
The overlooked portion
Most are familiar with the story to this point. It makes perfect sense Jesus would have angrily cleaned house. How dare the religious people take advantage of the worshippers!
A closer look at Matthew 21:12, however, reveals a phrase that is often overlooked: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves.”
Who was it that “bought?” The worshippers!
Interestingly, God’s people are being mistreated and taken advantage of, yet, they receive the same discipline and rebuke as the ones committing the misdeeds.
Why is that? Were they not being exploited? Were they not the victims here?
Not really. They knew the standards, but the world had made it easy to worship.
Admittedly, it would have taken greater effort, but they could have brought their own sacrifice as Scripture commanded (Deuteronomy 12:6). They could have exchanged their money elsewhere.
But they forsook what they should have done for the convenience of easy worship.
They shunned their responsibilities for easy religion, and Jesus ran them out because of it.
At the end of the day, God’s people allowed the defilement and, to a degree, were complicit with it. Jesus held them responsible.
Who would Jesus kick out today?
Who is responsible for the filth and immorality that permeates the church presently?
The world will not be held responsible for the church’s failure. The church will.
It is no coincidence that Christ’s first act in Jerusalem during Passion Week was to cleanse the temple.
He passed by all the many ills of society and proceeded immediately to the house of God.
Could it be, with all that is taking place today, that Jesus is cleansing the church?
Peter reminded early believers, “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17).
That admonition holds true today.
Jude 3 says it well:
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
(Editor's Note: This article was published first in the AFAJournal and was posted HERE)