The church building – the structure itself – is often called the house of God. Traditionally it has been thought of as a sacred place, where God’s Spirit dwells. That concept comes out of ancient Hebrew culture, where in the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, and the Temple in the Old & New Testaments, both were constructed with an inner chamber called the Holy of Holies, the place where God’s Spirit was present on earth. As a man came to worship in the Temple, Jewish law stated that every man should pay a tribute for the service of the Temple with a Jewish coin known as a “shekel.” [Exodus 30:11-16]
By the time of the first century, many Jewish people scattered all over the Roman world in the Middle East no longer used Jewish coins or money. They worked, lived, and were paid in Roman currency. It became a matter of necessity (convenience?) to have a place where sojourners to Jerusalem could change their money from Roman to Temple currency. The outer courtyard of the Temple was called the Courtyard of the Gentiles, and was actually more or less a thoroughfare from the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem connecting a passageway to the city on the West. In this courtyard the money-changers would provide their services for a “fee” the “exchange rate.” During the Passover week when almost one million Jewish natives would come to Jerusalem to celebrate their heritage, changing money was a profitable business, which led to fraud and corruption at the highest levels of the priesthood.
Money is one thing, but these leaders extorted the Jewish people in another way. Again, according to Jewish Law [Leviticus 14:22], two doves or pigeons were required as a sacrifice. Most travelers didn’t bring these birds with them on their distant journey, deciding to simply purchase the offerings at the Temple on their arrival. The sacrifice brokers would set up shop and have plenty of animals, but at outrageous prices, extorting God’s people for profit. There were merchants selling cattle and sheep as well, all at exorbitant costs.
Enter Jesus. There are two specific recorded times when Jesus cleansed the Temple: John 2:13-22, and Matthew 21:12-13. The first time was right after His first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana. The second time was after His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem beginning the week of Passover, just before His arrest and crucifixion. The description of the cleansing process employed is much more detailed in the first account. Jesus observed, then acted. He made a “scourge of cords” and whipped the merchants into shape, overturning tables of coins, and commanding those selling animals, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”
In many places across our land today, church has become big business. Recently I’ve seen coffee bars, bookstores, and money raising plans out the wazoo. I’ve listened to different church leaders talk about money in ways that make me wonder who’s kingdom they are really trying to build. It feels like “squatters” in the Temple all over again, and it makes me wonder what Jesus would do if He visited these places. Would He lash out like in the Temple and say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a robber’s den,”?
How do we return to the intended purpose of making a journey to God’s house? Perhaps by entering in the spirit of prayer, by not going through the motions of tradition, by not succumbing to the temptations to turn our places of worship into temples of enterprise.
We need to quit being squatters in the House of God. We need to return to the heart of worship.