The Zeal of the Lord John 2:12-25


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John 2:12-25

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v.12     Capernaum was by the sea; Cana was in the uplands, some 16 miles southwest of Capernaum; so the verb “went down” is literally correct. Capernaum was to be the center of the Lord’s Galilean ministry, though we don’t know exactly why. Had the family left Nazareth by this time? The Lord’s “brethren,” without any further qualification, would naturally seem to indicate his siblings, the other children of Joseph and Mary, all, of course, younger than he.

v.13     This is the first of three Passovers that John mentions explicitly, with a fourth suggested (5:1). It is from these references to Passover that we understand the Lord’s public ministry to have lasted approximately three years. There would be, of course, three years separating four Passovers. People “went up” to Jerusalem both because it was higher in elevation than Galilee and because it was the capital city and the location of the temple.

v.14     The animals, of course, were for sacrifice. It was much easier, for those who could afford it, to buy them on site than to bring them from home. The money-changers were there primarily to provide the approved currency for the payment of the temple tax and other offerings. Those who came from all over the empire to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem would, of course, bring all manner of coins with them. These they would change into the Tyrian coinage that was approved because of its purity. The money-changers, then as now, would take their cut in the transaction.

v.16     There is no suggestion made that the merchants and money-changers were dishonest or that they were cheating their customers. The Lord’s objection was not to their practices but rather to where they were conducted, in the outer court of the temple itself. Where prayer should be heard, there was the sound only of commerce. What is more, all of this was located in the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court of the temple, which was the only place Gentiles might go. If they went to the temple in hopes of praying to God, they found themselves instead in the midst of a bazaar. If you’ve ever been in a middle-eastern bazaar you have some idea of what the Court of the Gentiles must have been like. Imagine how noisy all of those animals bellowing and bleating must have been and all of that selling; and imagine your devotions in such a setting.

It is important not to exaggerate the effect of the Lord’s action. You need some kind of whip to drive animals. There is nothing to suggest that he whipped people. Further, what he did could not have created too much of a stir or it would have come to the attention of the Roman authorities who were stern with those who disturbed the public tranquility and who garrisoned troops very near the temple area. Malcolm Muggeridge, in his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, recollects a Christian he knew when Muggeridge himself was a young man and decidedly not a Christian. Muggeridge, at this time, was a socialist, committed to class warfare and the uprising of the masses against the capitalists. So, the episode of the Lord’s driving out the money-changers from the temple was a favorite with his circle. “I regret to say,” Muggeridge writes, “[I] mocked at his pieties, and tried to shock him whenever I could. I can only now remember one single remark he made to me; a propos Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple (a favorite episode, for obvious reasons, in my father’s circle), Lester said with great earnestness and, for him, emphasis, that he was quite sure that the rope Jesus took up never touched anyone.” [116] Well, I don’t know for sure if that is so, but we shouldn’t exaggerate the Lord’s action.

v.17     John doesn’t make it clear here whether the disciples remembered this at the time or, as in v. 22, they remembered it later, from the vantage point of the deeper understanding they had following the resurrection.

v.18     The Jewish authorities make what seems a natural enough demand: prove your authority to regulate the worship of the temple as you just did. But their demand betrays them. The demand seems to imply that they themselves realized they were not dealing with a nut or a political revolutionary. They would not have hesitated to deal promptly with either of those. It may well be that they were already well aware of the growing reputation of Jesus as a worker of miracles, as v. 23 suggests. But, then, they show themselves not really worried about or interested in pure worship, the point Jesus himself was making as  the reason for his action, but only about Jesus’ authority and status. They were concerned to protect their turf, not the sanctity of God’s house. The gospels will make no bones about this all the way through their account of the public ministry. The religious leadership was eaten up by jealousy of the Lord Jesus. They are virtually demanding that he do magic tricks in front of them to prove that he is truly a prophet. Something right-minded men would never do!

v.19     At the Lord’s trial, three years later, you will remember, the charge was brought against him that he said he would destroy the temple and raise it up again. The mockers hurled the same charge at him as he hung dying on the cross. Interestingly, however, the Lord’s comment was sufficiently enigmatic that the witnesses brought against him at his trial couldn’t agree as to exactly what he had said and the charge had to be dropped! Jesus’ reply is, of course, enigmatic on purpose. He didn’t expect that they would destroy the temple, of course, but they had asked for a miraculous sign and that would certainly be it. He was, at one and the same time, refusing to perform miracles at their beck and call and laying the foundation for a right understanding of the meaning of his resurrection.

v.20     The complete misunderstanding of the Jews, rooted in their spiritual pride, is going to be a constant theme in John. But also this persistent irony. The Jews would destroy this temple Jesus was speaking of, it would be raised up, and they would be granted the miraculous sign they asked for. But it wouldn’t bring them to believe in Jesus.

v.23     The Lord was doing other miracles that John has not reported. We will be reminded of that in 3:2. The strength of this early faith of many will be tested later and, in many cases, it will prove itself too weak to last.

v.25     The point here is not that Jesus was omniscient and could look into the hearts of all. The point is that he understood human nature. He knew how passing are the enthusiasms of men and how little these men understood who or what he was and what he had come to do. He did not require man’s approval. The Master had a mission from God to fulfill and he went his own way.

There is a little detail in this text that is very suggestive of what John thinks is important about this history he has recorded for us. In v. 17 there is a citation of Psalm 69:9. But in the original psalm, both in the Hebrew and in the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT from which the verse is quoted here, the verb is in the past tense. “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” John turns that past tense into a future. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” He is treating the statement in the psalm as a messianic prophecy of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, a prophecy that will be fulfilled.

Psalm 69, by the way, is one of six psalms most often referred to in the NT. Jesus himself, later in John, will cite the psalm twice in reference to himself (15:25; 19:28). Like the other five psalms, Psalm 69 was understood to be a prophecy of the Messiah that Jesus fulfilled in his own life and work.

David said in that psalm that he had suffered reproach because of his zeal for the house of the Lord. What happened to David will happen much, much more to David’s great descendant, the Messiah. In a way that, at this point, only anticipates much of what is to come, the Lord is identified as the Messiah, the greater David, his future suffering and death is prophesied – they will destroy the temple of his body – and, perhaps also, the fulfillment of the temple and the replacement of its rites and sacrifices as a result of the sacrifice of Christ are foreshadowed.

As in the miracle at Cana, a picture of the Lord Jesus is beginning to emerge and the nature of his life and work is becoming slowly but surely clearer.

What is also becoming clearer, here for the first time in the gospel, is the opposition, the outright hostility that the Lord would face from the religious leadership on the one hand and the superficial loyalty that the crowds would give to him. “He came home,” we read in 1:11 but his own did not receive him.” And they didn’t receive him in two very different ways. Some were overtly hostile and opposed him at every turn. Others welcomed him for all the wrong reasons and so were easily brought from love to hatred when the issue was finally joined the last week of the ministry. They seemed to believe in him; but he knew better than to believe in them!

Now, I suppose this continues to surprise us even today. As Christians we are taken aback by the hostility, sometimes vicious hostility, of people to our most precious beliefs. If you have not experienced this lately, you have not been on a university campus or been reading journals of opinion. And the religious people can be the most hostile of all. After all, it was the devout folk, the folk committed to the worship of the temple, whom the Lord drove out of the Court of the Gentiles. I’ll bet there were in that group at the temple people who formed a hatred of Jesus Christ that day – “who does he think he is judging me! – who never stopped hating him until they had crucified him. And I’m quite sure they comforted themselves in the knowledge that in hating Jesus they were loving God!

And, it doesn’t take very long in the Christian life to encounter for oneself the fact that the commitment of many so-called Christians evaporates as soon as it is put under any pressure at all. There are all sorts of religious enthusiasm, even Christian enthusiasm, that will not stand the test of true loyalty to God and Christ.

Jesus Christ may be the Son of God, he may be the Messiah, he may be the Savior of the world, but when he came into the world and ever since he has had many more enemies than friends! We like to think that if only people knew the Lord, they would love him. But, the fact was and is today, that the closer people get to him, the largest number of people like him less and less. And you will not understand the gospel or the meaning of the life and death of Jesus Christ unless you understand that most people hated him and still do.

And the reason for that is that Jesus is not only the one who so tenderly said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” He also made a whip of cords and drove people out of the temple court, scattered and upset their animals, overturned their tables and scattered their money all over the pavement. He offended them, treated them as though they were wicked and evil, made them look foolish in front of their friends. He was completely out of line, they thought. He over-reacted. He could have sat down with the merchants and the bankers and worked something out. But he was a hot-head. He didn’t think. He let his emotions run away with him. And so they hated him and they patronized him. And men and women have been doing the same ever since and do it today.

But, at bottom, the source of the opposition – whether overt or latent – was not that Jesus was quick-tempered. It was that he cared very deeply about what neither the religious leaders nor the people cared about much of all. And, what is more, he demanded that they care about those same things or suffer the consequences!

The Greek word “zeal” comes from the verb “to boil.” As Coleridge, the English poet put it, a boiling pot is the “visual image” of zeal. [Whyte, The Walk, Character, and Conversation of Jesus Christ our Lord, 151] But we are talking not about boiling water but about boiling blood. And blood can boil in a bad heart as well as in a good heart. The Bible has plenty of examples for us of zeal that is unholy. There are all manner of quick-tempered and hot-headed people in the world. And there is a great deal of what the Apostle Paul calls “zeal that is not according to knowledge.” In fact, the movements that have most terribly devastated the human race – we think of fascism and communism most recently – have had behind them and beneath them a white-hot zeal, but a zeal that was ignorant and selfish and cruel.

Indeed, most of the divisions and persecutions that have desolated the Christian church from Pentecost to our own day have behind them this same wicked kind of zeal, which is nothing but self in a frenzy.

But that was not the Lord’s zeal. There was nothing wicked about it. It was as holy as his love and his gentleness and his grace are holy. In fact, the Lord’s zeal was his love. As Luther once said, “zeal is love made angry.” [BOT 391, 8]

And that is what it was in the heart of the Lord Jesus. He loved the house of God. He loved its worship, its sacrifice, its prayer. And all of that was true because he loved his Father in heaven with a perfect passion of love. He loved to worship him and he loved to see others do the same. He loved men and women and loved to see them get the true good and the true blessing that men can get and only get when they give themselves in faith and worship to God above.

And when he came into the temple that day, all of that love was profoundly offended. The house of God had been turned into a market, as if the worship of his heavenly Father were nothing more than a transaction, a piece of business that should be performed in the most convenient, the most efficient, the most timely way. And what better convenience than to sell the sacrificial animals right there where they were to be sacrificed. “One-stop worship” as it were. Let’s put the mall in the church and we can shop and worship in one trip! No thought of the glory of God or the supreme value of the soul in thinking like that!

And, then, there were the men, especially the Gentiles, who were kept from the worship of God. There were any number of men, called “God-fearers” in those days, who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but who were not yet, for whatever reason, converts to Judaism. The Court of the Gentiles was as close as they could get to the heart of the temple and its ancient and powerful sacrificial worship, with all that it spoke to the penitent heart of God’s forgiveness through the death of a substitute. But when Jesus came to the temple that day, he saw the so-called people of God more concerned about their own convenience than that others should be drawn up into the love and purity of the living God.

This was what animated our Savior that day and caused his zeal to boil up and to consume him. It was love for his Father, for his Father’s house, and for his Father’s people, and that love made angry by all that offended it. These were extraordinarily important things to him and he reacted accordingly. And, of course, he was absolutely right to respond as he did!

And the rest of the ministry would be the same. The Lord’s zeal would eat him up for three years before it finally took him to the cross – his boiling passion for God’s will and for God’s name and honor and his boiling passion for your soul and mine, your salvation and mine. It all finally consumed him and destroyed him. Thanks be to God that temple was raised up again on the third day!

But, you see, brothers and sisters, so long as there is prevailing sin in the world and in the hearts of all men, so long as men remain rebels against God, so long as they remain lovers of themselves, so long as they are offended by every demand to think and feel and act as God would have them think and feel and act, there is cause for those who follow Jesus Christ to have his same zeal! In Christ at the temple we see what a man ought to be in the presence of sacrilege, how a holy man will act who has the honor of God and the good of men and women on his heart.

The fact is, brethren, everyone is zealous. The Lord Jesus didn’t always carry a whip in his hand and he wasn’t always furious at someone. He was usually entirely calm and most often very gentle with folk, even folk who deserved worse from him. His zeal boiled up and consumed him that day in the temple because of the way in which what he saw there so offended his sense of right and wrong and so offended his love for God and man. Zeal is not always so public, so obvious. Zeal will consume him for three years and finally cause him to give himself up to the cross. But he didn’t normally, for all that zeal, have a whip in his hand, he didn’t naturally overturn tables.

And so it is today. Everyone is zealous, even those who seem most placid and, even, lifeless. You have only to offend their loves and you will see their zeal. People all around you are being consumed every day of their lives by their zeal for power, or for praise and fame, or for complete freedom from constraint, or for pleasure or for ease. And they may well be entirely reasonable and even-tempered people, you will hardly know the strength of their zeal, until you offend it. Until you condemn that desire for power or pleasure or money or freedom or fame; until you suggest that God will not give them what they want and will punish them for wanting it so. Then you will see their zeal, as Jesus Christ saw their zeal. The Lord would have been fine and no one would ever have bothered him if he had performed his miracles but never criticized, never condemned, never offended the tastes and the interests of men.

But, he did; he had to. He was on an errand from his heavenly Father. He was himself the holy Son of God. He could no more fail to be offended by the sinfulness of men than he could fail to be holy himself.

And all of this leaves us all with these questions: What are we zealous for? Where is our zeal? When does it boil up and for what reasons?

When you see the Lord Jesus Christ with the whip in his hand, do you love him for that as you love him for his mercy and for his dying in your place for your sins? Are you fired today by an ambition to be zealous as he was zealous, to care so deeply for what is good and lovely and true and right, to love God so much, that you would be, as he was, consumed by zeal for such things? Everyone is zealous for something. What are you zealous for? How pure and holy is your zeal?

I am hoping that many of you and, especially, that many of the young people who are hearing me now are thinking that they want such a fire kindled in their hearts, or, even, that they can feel such a zeal welling up within them.

You know the love of God and of Christ, you know how right and true it is. You know, or you are coming to know, how ugly and how deadly and how evil sin really is, despite all the Devil’s effort to make it seem so attractive and so benign, so harmless. You know that the Lord Jesus was right to be so consumed by zeal at the sight of the sacrilege he saw and heard in the temple that day. And you know, yourself, that you want nothing so much as to care about the right things as deeply as the Savior cared about them!

You have it in your hand, brothers and sisters. You have the torch to kindle that zeal in your heart and life that will make you more and more like Jesus Christ himself. And that torch is Christ himself, and the thought of him and meditation upon him and his love and his life. It is just that: thinking about him and meditating upon him and imagining him that makes a Christian heart hot toward Jesus Christ and hot toward all that matters deeply to him. John so wanted you to see Jesus Christ in his zeal that he included in his gospel this picture of him consumed by zeal.

“My heart grew hot within me,” David wrote, “and as I meditated, the fire burned.” [Psalm 39:3] Is your heart too cold? Are you too little offended by sin and by the Devil’s and the world’s destruction of souls all around you and by the offense that is always being given to the name of the Lord your God? Then think of Christ’s zeal, holy, pure, and full of love as it is. Look at it until you can see it clearly and until you have fallen in love with it and want it more and more to boil up in your own heart. Think of how zeal for the house of the Lord consumed, simply ate up, our Savior, and what it made of his life: the long nights awake at prayer for the souls of men; the faithful performance of his ministry day and night for three endless years; the constant watching over his own heart that he might not sin, no not even once; the enduring of the cruelest and most unjust opposition with patience; and, finally, the giving himself up to suffering and death. His zeal consumed him. And when we watch it consume him, no Christian can help but want such zeal to consume himself or herself as well.

Put the question to yourself today: What is there in my life that is evidence of such zeal as consumed the Lord Jesus? And, this question: Is there anything better to consume one’s life than zeal for the house of the Lord, and the name of the Lord, and the cause of the Lord?

Is that not our problem, yours and mine, brethren? We have too little zeal. Too little to overcome our own sins, too little to carry the day for Christ in the world around us. See what Christ’s zeal accomplished! Look at him in his zeal until you find that same zeal filling up your heart.

Alexander Shields, one of the Scottish covenanters, preached a sermon in Aberdeen in which he is reported to have recommended to his hearers, “a pint of hope, three pints of faith, and nine pints of hot, hot, hot burning zeal.”

Look at the Lord Jesus in the temple that day. You young people look at him. Ought you not to be like him in that holy zeal? His adversaries are yours too, even today. He said to us, “if they hated me, they will hate you also!” The world will, the Devil will. Unless we have so little zeal, they needn’t bother. But not that for you or for me! And remember this, the Holy Spirit that gave the Lord Jesus his zealous heart and that gave the Apostle Paul his white hot heart has been given to you and is within you even now.

God! Fight we not within a cursed world,

Whose very air teems thick with leagued fiends –

Each word we speak has infinite effects –

Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell –

And this our one chance through eternity

To drop and die, like dead leaves in the brake…

Be earnest, earnest, earnest; mad if thou wilt;

Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,

And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.