Temple Cleansing: A Biblical-Theological Sketch
The cleansing of the temple by our Lord just prior to his passion and crucifixion is usually seen as a powerful indicator of his deity. While it is certainly that--and not less than that--the episode recorded in Matthew 21:12-13 (Mark 11:15, Luke 19:45, John 2:13) invites further Biblical-theological reflection. What follows is a brief sketch of temple cleansings in the Bible, followed by some concluding applications.
Temple Cleansings in the Old Testament
In order to understand the rich theme of temple cleansings in the Old Testament, we must go back to Eden. Recent scholarship has argued, persuasively in my judgment, that the Garden of Eden was a miniature replica of the cosmos; the cosmos itself being created as a giant temple of the living God. On this view, the entire universe is the heavenly temple and Eden is a replica of this temple. Seeing Eden in this way sheds light on a familiar Old Testament passage. In Genesis 2:15, Adam is placed in the Garden to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Fascinatingly, Beale notes that when these two verbs occur together elsewhere in the Old Testament, they have reference to priestly service in the temple. It is fair to conclude, then, that Adam was not simply a primeval farmer (though he certainly worked the land) but the first priest in God’s microcosmic sanctuary.
One of the main functions of the priests in the Old Testament was to discern what was unclean and what was clean (Lev 11:1ff; Deut 14:1ff.). Part of Adam’s sin was his failure to keep what was unclean out of the garden-sanctuary; he failed in his priestly duty when he did not immediately strike down the wicked, questioning snake. Satan himself thus entered in and polluted God’s Edenic temple-sanctuary, making unclean that which was clean and holy. The sad record of sin, brokenness, and strife that has marked out Adam’s race since the fall bears damningly eloquent testimony to the effects of our first father’s priestly lapse.
Accordingly, Genesis 3:8 records the first temple cleansing in human history. Following Kline, the better translation of this pivotal verse is “When they heard the sound of the Spirit of the Day.” Adam and Eve did not hear God strolling in the Garden, coming for a daily chat, as is often intimated by our English translations. Rather, they heard the terrifying thunderclap, as it were, of God’s presence coming in judgment (cf Ez 1:4-28). This is why they (very appropriately!) hid themselves in abject terror. God proceeded to do what Adam failed to do and cast out that which was unclean from the Garden-sanctuary. But, consonant with the rest of the Old Testament, grace was given in the midst of judgment, for God promised the fallen priest that one day a Deliverer would arise who would cleanse the world-temple finally and fully by crushing the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15).
Space forbids an exhaustive consideration of other Old Testament temple cleansing episodes (e.g. Nehemiah 13:4-9), but one stands out among the rest: the exile of God’s people. Since Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6), the destruction of Jerusalem and the resultant destruction of the temple during the exile were a kind of temple cleansing. Indeed, the exile was a type and shadow of the coming cosmic temple cleansing. One of the primary reasons God cast his people out of the land and destroyed the temple was because of the idolatry committed there (cf. Ezekiel 8:1-18). The world-sanctuary was polluted by sin and so was the sanctuary of Israel; God cleansed the latter by removing his people from the land as a picture of what he would ultimately do for the world. And even though the temple was rebuilt at Jerusalem, by our Lord’s time, as the Gospels indicate, it had once again degenerated into a place of idolatry and pollution. The Old Testament temple, like the world in which it found itself, cried out for a full and final, as opposed to a temporary and provisional, cleansing. The New Testaments opens with the answer to this “cry for cleansing.”
Temple Cleansings in the New Testament
The first temple cleansing (after a fashion) recorded in the New Testament is John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The word translated “dwelt” is better translated “tabernacled.” By “taberncling” among us, Jesus Christ, the true tabernacle-temple, comes to cleanse God’s image and ultimately his creation-temple from the defilement of sin that God’s first son, Adam, brought into the world. The wonder of the incarnation is that God would now not simply dwell in the Holy of Holies but among his people personally in the Lord Jesus Christ. As God in the flesh, Jesus reveals God to us and inaugurates the final temple cleansing.
Thus, when Jesus cleansed the temple during his earthly ministry, there were at least two purposes. First, as indicated at the beginning of this study, our Lord was fulfilling Malachi 3:1 (among other passages): “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” He is Yahweh come in the flesh (cf. Is 40:1; Mal 3:1; Mark 1:1-3) and thus he alone has the authority to cleanse the temple. Second, Jesus’s cleansing of the temple had an eschatological purpose. He was, in effect, pointing forward to the day when all manner of defilement would be finally removed from God’s presence.
Continuing through the New Testament, we learn that God’s people, the church, are now the temple of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:19; 1 Pet 2:5). The Holy Spirit now indwells the church (Acts 2:1-4) and individual believers in union with Christ (1 Cor 6:19). Since Christ’s body, the church, is the place where he dwells, it follows that he has already cleansed her: “Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3; cf. Heb 10:22). Christ’s bride is justified in him and therefore never needs to fear condemnation again (Rom 8:1).
Nevertheless, we find the same already-not yet tension that colors the entirety of Biblical eschatology in the theme of temple cleansing. We do not, individually or corporately, see in practice what we are in principle. Thus, the exalted Christ, the Life-Giving Spirit, by that same Spirit continues to cleanse his bride, both individually and corporately. We could term this the “ongoing eschatological cleansing” of his people.
Our individual and corporate cleansing of Christ’s temple reaches its apex at the end of this present age. Remarkably, the apostle John sees the new heaven and new earth, made without hands, descending from heaven as a garden-city-temple. Given what we have seen so far, it should come as no surprise, however, that the new heaven and new earth will be a cleansed temple: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27).
So we can see why Jesus’s temple cleansing during his earthly ministry was a thoroughly eschatological event, for these reasons: 1) it pointed beyond merely driving out idolatrous moneychangers to the great cosmic restoration of all things. 2) It gives us a graphic picture of sanctification in this present life. 3) It gives us hope as we look forward to the day when God completes what he began after he cleansed the Edenic garden-temple.
Some Concluding Observations
It will help us to close us to close out this brief Biblical-theological tour with three observations:
First, God alone cleanses the temple. This fact may seem too trivial to even mention. But it highlights the fact that God sovereignly accomplishes the salvation of his people, which is just the cleansing of his temple-bride (see again Rev 21:27). While salvation is not equivalent to temple cleansing, the two are closely related as interlocking Biblical-theological themes. And like every aspect of our glorious salvation in Christ, the triune God alone is the effective agent. To be incorporated into the cleansed temple, Christ’s body, and to experience ongoing cleansing in this life, are both the result of God’s astonishing grace alone.
Second, seeing our sanctification as a sovereign temple cleansing provides a powerful theological category to pursue that holiness without which no one shall see the Lord (Heb 12:14). In the ongoing debates about the relationship between justification and sanctification, one thing both sides can agree upon (in principle at least) is the priority of God’s gracious activity in both justification and sanctification. However, seeing sanctification as a temple cleansing is demanded by the New Testament texts themselves and provides a Biblical-theological base from which to further explore how sanctification is, as Richard Gaffin put it, “100% our work and 100% God’s work.” Viewed in this light, the individual believer can be strengthened in his own walk with Christ when he has the unshakable confidence that his own growth in grace is as certain as the past event of Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. In other words, the historical event of our Lord’s ministry provides the present day believer with the existential comfort of knowing that he or she will be sanctified because the temple has been cleansed. The former is as certain as the latter.
Third, the Christian can fight sin and pursue holiness with joy and assurance of ultimate victory. There will be lapses, perhaps even grave lapses into sin, but, like a few moneychangers that may have made a desperate attempt to grab some coins as they ran, those besetting sins will eventually be driven out by Jesus. Nevertheless, as those who are cleansed in Christ, as those who are a kingdom of priests united to our great High Priest who has succeeded where Adam failed, let us be busy about guarding the sanctuary. We must see sanctification as a form of sanctuary guardianship. Therefore, let us refuse to let unclean thoughts enter our minds and drive them out when they do (Rom 12:1). Men, let us guard our marriages from any unclean thing defiling our marriage beds, from pornography to other partners. And let us guard the sanctuary of our churches, so to speak, by exercising godly church discipline.
Let us do all of this with joy for we are united to the One who has pronounced us clean because he himself was numbered with us, the unclean, outside the city, outside the temple, banished from God’s presence. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps 23:6), his cosmos-engrossing temple, because we have been sprinkled clean by the great High Priest’s blood. In this way, we have come to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).
Rev. Gabriel N.E. Fluhrer is the pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC and the executive editor of reformation21.org.
 I will leave aside, for the moment, the question of how many temple cleansings there were in Jesus’s ministry. Most older commentators believed there were two. Many newer commentators believe that there was only one.
 The best treatment on this subject is G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 29-80. Beale’s argument was anticipated in part by Meredith G. Kline in Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006). See also Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1991), 9-40.
 Beale, Temple, 67.