Capernaum, a town in Galilee, was the home base of Jesus for much of His Galilean ministry (Matt. 4:13), and John 2:12 tells us that Jesus went to Capernaum after performing His first miracle in Cana. But He was not in Capernaum long before it was time for Passover, and being a faithful Jew, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast according to the law’s prescriptions (John 2:13; see Deut. 16:1–8). Upon arriving and visiting the temple, our Lord found merchants selling animals and exchanging currency in the temple courts, and He drove them out (John 2:14–16).
Of course, this story of the cleansing of the temple is well known, and similar accounts occur in the Synoptic Gospels not at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry but toward its end (Matt. 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46). Because of this, many commentators argue that John has moved the event, which actually took place at the end of Jesus’ ministry, to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for theological purposes—to show how Jesus opposed the religious authorities in Jerusalem from the very start. While it is possible that John moved the record, it is more likely that Jesus actually cleansed the Jerusalem temple twice. Given the fallenness of human nature, it is easy to believe that the people would readily resume their sacrilege once Jesus was gone from the city, and John’s chronology is so tight in these opening chapters that it is difficult to conceive of His placing this event out of historical sequence.
But why did Jesus cleanse the temple? The animal sellers provided a service to worshipers, enabling them to travel the long journey to Jerusalem without having to haul the sacrificial animals with them. The moneychangers likewise served the people by enabling them to trade their currency for shekels, the only money in which the temple tax could be paid. These activities in themselves were not wrong; the problem was the locale in which they were conducted. They made worship impossible in the temple courts, for the ruckus of animals and commerce certainly is not conducive to a reverent atmosphere.
The scene prompted the disciples to recall Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (v. 9). In that psalm, David was opposed by those who disdained his respect for true worship and for the temple. The parallels with Jesus are clear, for He encountered opposition for His cleansing the temple (John 2:18–22). Like David, Jesus was opposed for being zealous for God and His worship.
Matthew Henry comments, “If God be our Father in heaven, and it be therefore our desire that his name may be sanctified, it cannot but be our grief to see it polluted.” We should be grieved to see the church polluted by false worship and bad theology. And when we see such things, let us work to improve them, insofar as we are able.