Monday: Controversy in the Temple

If we were living at the time as Jesus and Jesus spoke to our denomination right now what do you think he would say? It is valuable to ask how God views us and our church right now. Believer, you might hear of controversy in our denomination and it may be challenging to know what to believe. You might have hard questions about what is going on and you must understand what to think in the context of the church’s history. What is the context?  The theme of the church has always been controversy. More recently, when you look at the 1950s and the conditional covenant, or the splitting from the CRC because of common grace, you will find one thing in common: controversy. As we see in our examination of passion week, you will see that controversy is natural for the church.

Jesus was no stranger to controversy. He was not what the world would call likeable or nice. He was impolite, called the world horrible names and if the world had their way, they would end His life sooner rather than later. How dare He preach such harsh words and point out their sins! That is not to say He was not peaceable, but He had an unalterable message of judgement for the wolves.

No, Jesus did not beat around the bush: the truth of His Father was paramount. He went to great length to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In Matthew 23 He spends an entire chapter pronouncing woes upon them, calling them serpents and generations of vipers that cannot escape the damnation of hell (33)! Such are strong words for those that seem good by outward appearances. Jesus’s words intentionally stirred up fighting amongst the wolves.

No, Jesus was no stranger to controversy. In the last week of His life, as the people wondered if this Jesus was their deliverer from the Romans, Jesus entered Jerusalem and showed them just how far from that kind of saviour He was. He came to Jerusalem, knowing full well the spiritual cesspool that it had become. Ah yes, the temple was found there; and yes, the people welcomed him back with palm branches, smiling faces and open arms, but living at the dead centre of the temple was counterfeit spirituality. “Where is the lie? Where is the error? Not in my synagogue!” the Pharisee and scribe might have spoken. “We be Abraham’s seed” (John 8:33)! Yet the sinful bondage of their heart was plain.

Jesus did not need to search for the error. It did not hide, for at the core of the church, was a departure from the truth; and the priests, the teachers who brought the truth from Sabbath to Sabbath were not out fighting the error: they were teaching it. The error was not in hiding as errors often are: it was in the bleating of goats and the cooing of doves. It came in the form of the buying and selling of wares and the excrements that scattered across the temple floor. Jesus did not need to hear men preaching lies, although that was there too. The evidence of false doctrine were plain in the thievery and robbery and crying of wares where there ought to be peaceful prayers (Matt. 21:13).

When we examine the text, we might wonder whether Jesus could have been more tactful or less controversial than by taking a scourge and driving out those that made the temple into a place of spiritual unrest. But He had no patience for church leaders who should have known the scriptures. They may have professed to know the Word of God, yet in action, they professed their ignorance.

The Pharisees, in particular, were legalists, perfectionists, who obeyed the letter, but not the spirit of the law. Valuing the praise of men above all, they used their self-righteous example of obedience, not in thankfulness to show how thankful they were for grace, but to bolster their social status, believing that their obedience earned for them quite the reward in heaven (Luke 18:9-14). They emphasized their activity in place of God’s unmerited grace. With such men, Jesus would have no part.

Why did Jesus forsake them and throw them out of the temple? It should hardly be a question in our minds. We should hardly question why Jesus was not more patient with the scribes and Pharisees: they despised grace and replaced it with filthy, corrupt self-righteousness. Obedience to the law they called it. Obey the law and thou shalt be saved and thy house was their moto! Yet in action, they forsook the politically incorrect truth of Jesus, calling His confession that He is the I am that I am blaspheme and worthy of death (Mark 14:61-64). They, the most righteous men, the teachers in the church, desired the death of the truth.

Yes, Jesus was a man of controversy. He stands at the centre of controversies that surround the church saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). To some, that statement is abominable and controversial, yet to the people of God, it is a peace that surpasses all understanding, the peacefulness that though a storm rages they find rest. They rest! How? They rest not in how many good works they have done, in how many tithes and offerings they bring, but solely in the knowledge that salvation is God’s gracious gift.

Our gracious God throws out the self-righteousness that lives within our flesh and fills within it a newness that we might not say, “this must I do to be saved,” as the self-righteous Pharisees do, but with thanksgiving say what a privilege it is to be saved confessing, “I thank Thee that I may thank Thee!”[1] With that confession, we understand passion week, knowing that as Jesus cleansed the temple in the last week of His life, so God will keep purifying the church, protecting her from all that would seek to harm. May that comfort you and me.


Originally published April 2021, Vol 80 No 4


[1] This statement is also made in Reverend Herman Hoeksema’s sermon What must I do to be Saved? in which he emphasizes the proper understanding of our activity in salvation.