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Jesus topples tables. Can I?

How do Jesus' actions guide my response to injustice?

By Trent Voth

I recently saw a poster depicting the temple cleansing from John 2:13-22 that pictured Jesus with a whip in hand, bearing down on someone whose hand was raised, begging for mercy. The caption read, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and whipping people are options.” It’s awkward to see Jesus portrayed this way. Yet the poster raises an important question, especially for our USMB family as we discuss what Jesus’ life and teachings entail for our stance on peace and nonviolence. Does Jesus’ example include a whip?

As Christians, we are disciples of Jesus’ teaching and example. Even when Jesus calls us to difficult actions like forgiving those who have wronged us (Matt. 18:21-22) or loving and doing good to our enemies (Luke 6:27-36), we are called to faithful obedience. Our interpretive differences are not based on whether Jesus calls us to love our enemies—he clearly does—but rather on what “love” looks like. That’s why this example of Jesus takes such precedence in regard to peace and nonviolence.

This story is one of the few that appear in all four Gospel accounts (Matt. 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48 and John 2:13-22). Although it is fascinating to compare and contrast each evangelist’s version, this article will focus on John’s. Of all four Gospel accounts, John 2:13-22 is by far the most descriptive and the only one that gives any hint of the manner in which Jesus acted.


One pivotal word

Our interpretation of this passage largely rests on one pivotal word. While it’s not uncommon for our interpretation of Scripture to rest upon individual words, it is rare for a single word to swing our view of Jesus as profoundly as it does in John 2. The term we must understand in this passage is the word “both” in verse 15.

Let’s set the stage. It’s Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays that brings thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem, and Jesus is one of them. These pilgrims come from far and wide, many desiring the once-in-a-lifetime experience of performing a sacrifice at the temple.

By this point in history, the temple sacrificial system is highly regulated. The only acceptable sacrifice is an animal that has been certified by the priests as pure and without blemish. Pilgrims can risk bringing their best animal from home, but what if on the way it is injured, becomes sick or even is scratched. Is it worth the risk of making the long trip just to be turned away from God’s forgiveness at the temple door? Of course not, especially when the temple has its own stock of preapproved animals available for purchase. Never mind that those selling the sacrificial animals also determine whether the animals brought from home are pure enough. Is it any surprise they never are?

By Jesus’ day, it’s unlikely anyone brings an animal from home. The temple monopolizes the sacrificial animals. As with any monopoly, prices increase. To make matters worse, the temple has its own currency. So purchasing a sacrificial animal involves exchanging one’s coins into temple currency. Of course, there is an exchange rate and perhaps a little fee. You begin to see that even with all the sacrificial lambs around, it is the pilgrims who are fleeced by the temple system. But the people pay it—so would we! After all, how much is God’s forgiveness worth?


And or both

As Jesus enters the temple, John tells us that Jesus “found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.” Business as usual—the lucrative business of forgiveness profiteering. So, as John says, “(Jesus) made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts.” And here is where that massively important word occurs, “both sheep and cattle.”

This word “both” comes from the Greek word “te” which occurs frequently throughout the New Testament. It’s typically translated as “both,” “and” or “both and.” That’s why it’s such a problematic word. Notice the difference between its two possible translations: 1) “… (he) drove all from the temple, and sheep and cattle” or 2) “… (he) drove all from the temple, both sheep and cattle.”

In the first instance, John would be telling us that Jesus, with whip in hand, chases everyone and everything out of the temple, including the sheep and cattle. In this case there shouldn’t be anyone left in the temple at all, not even the livestock.

This raises some tricky interpretive issues because in the very next verse Jesus turns to those selling doves and orders them out as well. In order to interpret this text to mean that Jesus uses a whip to drive the people and livestock out of the temple, we’re forced to conclude that “all of them” doesn’t truly refer to everyone, since there are clearly people left in the temple after whatever “all of them” refers to has been driven out.

The second option paints a vastly different picture. In this instance, John would be telling us that Jesus uses the whip to drive out only the sheep and the cattle. In this case, “all of them” would be solely focused on the livestock destined for sacrifice. This translation would also fit the context of the story, not only because people remain in the temple but also because the next verse seems to continue the theme of releasing the sacrificial animals.

Contextually, literarily and even linguistically, John seems to be going out of his way to show that Jesus intends to free sacrificial animals and not to whip people. If people leave the temple while Jesus employs the whip, it is to chase down and recapture their sacrificial animals.


The final sacrifice

But now with Jesus’ arrival, sacrificial animals are unnecessary. There’s only one more sacrifice required and with Jesus standing in the temple, there’s no reason for the other sacrifices to be there. The impact of Jesus’ atonement and emancipation is prophetically and symbolically experienced by his actions in the temple.

This raises another important historical note. There is a reason that Jesus’ temple actions don’t lead to his immediate arrest. The temple is the center of Jewish life and identity. It is the locus of Jewish rebellion and revolt against foreign occupations. The Roman authorities know this so well that they built an intimidating garrison at the edge of the temple mount stocked with a legion of soldiers to quickly respond in the event of a violent outburst in the temple. However we interpret Jesus’ actions, the Roman authorities—whose very lives depend on responding quickly to violent demonstrations in the temple—don’t interpret Jesus’ actions as violence.

Apparently neither do the Jewish authorities, who don’t instantly send the temple police to arrest Jesus. Instead, they interpret Jesus’ action as a symbolic prophetic action by asking, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” This is not a question of whether Jesus’ actions are violent and damage property. This is an issue of Jesus’ authority to disrupt the temple system.

Jesus interrupts the temple sacrificial system for just a few minutes, and the world doesn’t end. Jesus is teaching the crowd a valuable lesson, but it is a dangerous lesson to teach under the watchful eye of the religious authorities. Life can go on without the temple working properly; indeed the temple hasn’t worked properly for years.


An historic heart transplant

For first-century Jews, the temple is the heart of cosmic reality, the nexus of heaven and earth. If the temple stops functioning, stops pumping out God’s life to the cosmos, the universe will die. This is a story of Jesus detaching the cosmos from the broken temple system, taking the universe off bypass and giving all of history a “heart transplant.”

While John 2 might not definitively prove Jesus is a pacifist, it also doesn’t provide an example of Jesus employing violence. Even if it did, there’s an awfully big leap from the violence of a whip to the violence of a sword, gun, drone or cruise missile. But what about overturning tables? If John 2 demonstrates Jesus’ authority to disrupt the temple system, can’t we be following Jesus’ example when we topple some tables? Well, yes and no. Again, it depends on how we translate one word. This time the word is “overturned,” the combo word "anatrepo" in Greek.

"Ana-trepo" literally means "overturn." In this sense the typical English translation is very direct. However, this word is only used two other times in Scripture, and in these places our English translations don’t tend to translate it as "overturn." In fact, "anatrepo" is frequently translated as "upset."

2 Tim. 2:18 reads: "They are upsetting the faith of some" (NRSV). Titus 1:11 says: "They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families …" (NRSV). While a potential translation in John 2:15 could be that Jesus “upset their tables," that just doesn't quite seem to fit the context.

However, there is a third translation that is beautifully appropriate for all the situations. "Anatrepo" can also be translated as "subvert" or "corrupt." Such a translation is not only a better fit for 2 Tim. 2:18 and Titus 1:11, it is by far the best translation of John 2:15.

In the fleecing of pilgrims and the rampant abuse of both the people and the temple system, Jesus sees "corruption." Moneychangers and sacrificial animal sellers have “subverted” the temple. So Jesus, in an absolutely beautifully holy and symbolic move, liberates the sacrificial animals and then precedes to "anatrepo" the tables of the moneychangers.

Jesus "subverts/corrupts" the tables of the moneychangers and in the processes "cleanses” the temple of corruption and subversion. Jesus identifies the corrupting influences and the purifying influences in God’s house. Ironically, the religious authorities believe Jesus, the purifier, has corrupted their system. He truly has.

There are times when, in our attempt to look like Jesus, we search for places where Jesus looks and acts like we do. Who, in his anger, acts violently, whips people and damages property. We must be especially careful to not project this kind of Jesus into the Bible in an effort to defend why we could also employ violence and property damage in our own moments of “righteous” anger.

When we interpret Jesus to look like us, we end up anatrepoing the true Jesus. We overturn, subvert and corrupt what the Gospel writers spend most of their time communicating—the example of in his confrontation of injustices. As we convert to be Christ-like, we have to be careful that we don't convert Jesus to be like us.

Trent Voth is the assistant pastor of youth and worship at College Community Church MB in Clovis, Calif.

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