The middle section of the sandwich, or chiasm, is in vv15-19. It is an episode often known as “The cleansing of the Temple”, which is an apt name. Jesus enters again into Jerusalem, and goes to the temple, where late in the previous day he had inspected all things. Here again we see the diligence of Jesus who is active and articulate in all his doings. This time, coming into the temple, he sets about driving out “the sellers and the buyers in the temple”, those who were doing trade in temple goods. For, in Jesus’ day it was far from practical that each family should keep their own animals and bring such as was needed for sacrifice, and so worshippers would come and purchase their sacrifices in the temple courts, and particularly they had taken over a portion of the outer court, known as the Court of the Gentiles, since this was as far as Gentiles were permitted to enter into the temple. Not only does he drive out such as these, he also overturns the tables of money-changers (for the temple tax had to be paid in Tyrian shekels, not the Roman currency) and the chairs of dove-sellers. Jesus drives out people and upturns furniture! There is a very similar incident in all 4 gospels, though John’s record is far earlier in gospel and chronology, and I am persuaded it is a separate though similar event. Jesus’ actions are extended in v16 where he disrupts the normal thoroughfares of the temple, whether “vessel” be understood as merchandise or temple-vessels or simply using the temple area as a short-cut. What is the meaning of Jesus’ strange actions? For this we turn to Jesus’ own teaching, in v17. For Jesus teaches them, and quotes Isaiah 56:7
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
Though several times the scriptures speak of the temple of God as a ‘house of prayer’, it is only in this verse that the scripture speaks specifically of “for all peoples”. So, while Jesus’ actions may not necessarily clear a proper space for prayer, as if the market had taken over the whole Gentile court, certainly his words give this meaning. The temple is meant to be a place for true worship, and even the nations are meant to come and worship here, and Jesus’ action declares, most symbolically, that the temple has been perverted from this purpose by their abuse of it. This is then the second half of his statement, “but you have made it a den of robbers”, which alludes quite directly to Jeremiah 7:11, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.” which Jesus applies as well-fitting to the present situation also.