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Jesus and Division

Allan Turner

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Many react with hostility to the Gospel. This is not because Christ’s teaching promotes hostility (see Matthew 5:44; 7:12; John 13:14; 13:35), but because Jesus’ teachings are highly controversial. In Matthew 10:34, Jesus did not mean to suggest that His purpose was to bring hostility or turmoil, but that hostility would, in some cases, be an effect of His teaching (Barnes, 1949, p. 115). It always will be the case that some people will respond negatively to Christ’s teachings, for some always will prefer spiritual darkness to the light of Jesus (John 3:19).

Also See Jesus and Violence (Below)

World Peace
Atheists claim that the absence of world peace indicates that God does not exist, since it would be obvious that He would grant world peace in request to sincere prayers in this regard.

True and False Unity
Christian unity is unity under and through the gospel. It is nurtured through the teaching of sound Biblical doctrine. False unity is unity that is demanded and prescribed by religious leaders to their own ideas and organizations. This is the unity that the religious leaders of Israel wanted and that Jesus threatened.


Jesus and Division
In Isaiah 9:6, the prophet referred to Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.” In the New Testament, He is called the “Lord of peace” (2 Thessalonians 3:16). And at His birth, the angels and the heavenly host said: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14). Around Christmas time we hear folks quoting these passages as if they were originally intended as a remedy for the sad state of affairs in the world (i.e., “wars and rumors of wars”). Contrary to what many people think, these passages are not addressing Jesus’ connection to peace between nations. Neither are they saying that His primary mission was to bring peace between men. Jesus did not come to bring peace in the way we normally think of the word. I know this is true because the Bible says so. In Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus said:

    Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

Again in Luke 12:49-53, the Lord said:

      I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

So, as shocking as it may sound, Jesus said that He came into this world to bring division. But, before we pursue this subject any further, it is absolutely essential that we understand the statements made in Isaiah 9:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; and Luke 2:14. First of all, one can be sure that these statements do not contradict what Jesus said in Matthew 10:34-36 and Luke 12:49-53. The Bible, the inspired word of God, does not contradict itself! In Luke 2:14, the angels and host of heaven are speaking of the peace that would, as a result of this child’s work, be able to exist between God and man. As Romans 5:1 says, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This peace was being bestowed upon all of mankind “through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36), and the “glory” for all of this belongs to “God in the highest.”

    “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:4-9).

In other words, all of mankind became the enemies of God through sin, and the only way they could be at peace with Him was through His goodwill or grace. This, and this alone, is that of which Luke 2:14 speaks. Yes, it would be true that men who were at peace with God through Jesus Christ would also learn how to be at peace with each other (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:11), but this was clearly secondary to, and dependent upon, the peace that could, through Christ, exist between God and man. With this truth firmly fixed in our minds, it is now time for us to try and understand what the Lord meant when He said He came to cause division.

Jesus Christ Must Be Taken Seriously

Although many seem to miss it, the Bible makes one thing very clear: Jesus Christ expects to be taken seriously! If one does not kiss (worship) the Son, then He will be angry with him (Psalm 2:12). Those who think Jesus will be tolerant concerning their religious beliefs are sadly mistaken. Jesus made it quite clear that He is not a way to the Father, but He is the way (John 14:6). Peter taught the same thing when he said, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Consequently, in order to spend an eternity with God in heaven, one is going to have to make the right decision about Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:24; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 7).

For instance, our Muslim friends honor Jesus as a prophet of God. In the Qur’an (Koran), Mohammed wrote, “The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, is but the apostle of God and His word” (Sura 4:169). He had previously written, “We have given Jesus the son of Mary manifest signs, and strengthened him by the Holy Spirit” (Sura 2:54). Even so, Mohammed rejected, as do our Muslim friends, the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnated (John 1:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; etc.). Mohammed believed and taught that Jesus, although a prophet, was just a man. As a result, there is a great division that exists today between those who practice Islam and those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

The Jews, who had been entrusted with the oracles of God and therefore should have known better (Romans 3:1-2), failed to “kiss the Son,” and they felt His terrible wrath when He came in judgment against their nation and their religious institutions in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (see Matthew 24:4-34). Since their rejection of the Messiah, there has been a division between the Jews and Christians.

Hindus believe there are many paths that lead to heaven. (See Section Religious Pluralism in Why Christianity?) They believe that Jesus is but one of those ways (i.e., they believe Jesus is a way). But, again, Jesus clearly said that He was the way (John 8:24). When Christians teach that Jesus is the only way to the Father, there is a great rift that develops between the Hindu and the Christian.

Now, I’ve said all that to say this: What one thinks about Jesus causes division, and Jesus emphatically said it would! So sharp would be the divisions caused by Christ, that He said:

    For I have come to “set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; and “a mans enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:35-36).

Again, in Luke 12:52-53, He said:

    For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

This sharp division over Christ will one day culminate in the great judgment scene where the wise and the foolish, the sheep and the goats, those on the right hand and on the left, and the doers of the word and the hearers only, shall be divided for an eternity (Matthew 7:21-27; 25:31-46).

If all this is true, then why is it that we hear so many Christians complaining about disagreements and divisions taking place in churches of Christ over God’s word? Did anyone who loved the truth back in the Fifties and Sixties not think that institutionalism, unless repented of, would cause division? When the current false teaching on marriage and divorce began circulating (i.e., the unbeliever is not amenable to Christ’s marriage law), did anyone who loved the truth think that this would not, without repentance, cause division? These divisions occurred and will continue to occur because the word of God does exactly what the Lord intends it to do—provide a criterion for separating the spirit of truth from the spirit of error (1 John 4:1-8), and ultimately separating sheep from goats (Matthew 25:31-33).

See Several articles on Marriage From a Christian Perspective and

Can Christians Divorce and Remarry?

It is extremely unfortunate that some who make a plea for the restoration of New Testament Christianity are caught up, quite erroneously, in the pipe dream of a golden era of the church when there were neither problems nor divisions. But when was that? Churches of Christ have always been plagued by strife (Philippians 1:15-16), false teachers (2 Peter 2:1-3), perverse and destructive leaders (Acts 20:29f., Jude 4), the preaching of a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), servants of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), and divisiveness (3 John 9-10). This is why Jude exhorted Christians “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3b). This is why Paul admonished Christians to: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13, NIV). What the kingdom of God needs today are more soldiers of the cross and less spiritual pacifists, who only stand around bemoaning what they say is a lack of love among brethren, and who frequently point accusatory fingers at those whom they consider to be much too strident.

Now, I realize that those who are at peace with God through Jesus Christ ought to be at peace with each other (James 3:18). And if we were all what we ought to be, then this would be the case. In fact, the objective standard for the peace mentioned in James 3:18 is clearly set forth in 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 4:3; Philippians 1:27; 1 Peter 3:8; and John 17:21. Unfortunately, the redeemed do not keep this standard perfectly. Yes, it is certainly wonderful when brethren live together in the unity of the Spirit and faith for which Christ died (Ephesians 4:3, 13), and we ought to cherish those times and circumstances, but because Jesus Himself is the standard of authority for God’s people, there will be times when we will have to oppose those who teach or practice error.

See Judge Not?

Furthermore, if we do not keep the standard, we, too, will have to be opposed. This is simply the effect of following a standard outside of ourselves. Of course, when compelled to oppose error, we need to be very careful that we don’t fall into some sin ourselves (Galatians 6:1). Nevertheless, heresies, contentions, dissensions, and other works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) must be opposed. When this happens, divisions usually occur. As uncomfortable and unpleasant as this is, this is as it ought to be when the truth is at stake. Consequently, let those of us who follow Christ not grow weary in well-doing, but let us confront, oppose, and identify those who do not obey God’s word (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15).

In the final judgment at the end of time, all things will be set right. In the meantime, the tares and the wheat grow together in the same field (Matthew 13:24-30). Let us determine to spend our time here in this world proving ourselves to be the “good seed” sown by our Lord, Jesus Christ. Remember, the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira, who basked in the twilight of the 1st-century, were condemned by the Lord for tolerating false teaching. Reflecting in the daybreak of the 21st-century, let us make sure that we are not guilty of the same misdeed.

Allan Turner is a preacher, writer, editor who lives in Corinth, MS. You can write him at allan@allanturner.com



Jesus and Violence

What about Jesus LASHING OUT at the Scribes and Pharisees as a "BROOD OF VIPERS, HYPOCRITES, WHITEWASHED TOMBS, SONS OF THE DEVIL"?????

Jesus was a first-century Jewish teacher/prophet, in constant argument with His theological opponents. MOST good rabbi's and prophetic speakers of the day used strong, in-your-face, hyperbolic language in such situations, and so did Jesus.

These types of dramatic and colorful language were not confined to one's 'enemies' at all--the strongest language is where Jesus calls his closest associate Peter "Satan"!

Jesus' use of this type of confrontational language was part of the prophetic role, NOT a 'lashing out at enemies'. It was a matter of urgent and dramatic confrontation with religious hypocrisy, self-centered leadership, and cold-heartedness toward God and the concerns of His heart for His people. There was nothing self-centered, nor even a hint of reprisal in these formulas and truthful denunciations.

And these terms were standard prophetic forms, not indicative of 'violence' but of the severity of the problem. These images can be seen in forms in the Hebrew Bible and Qumran--these are not the creations of a violent Jesus, but the terminology of the prophetic critique of the Jewish religious elite:

The image is rooted in the Hebrew Bible:

    Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short That it cannot save; Neither is His ear so dull That it cannot hear. 2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear. 3 For your hands are defiled with blood, And your fingers with iniquity; Your lips have spoken falsehood, Your tongue mutters wickedness. 4 No one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly. They trust in confusion, and speak lies; They conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity. 5 They hatch adders’ eggs and weave the spider’s web; He who eats of their eggs dies, And from that which is crushed a snake breaks forth. [Isaiah 59]

    Rescue me, O Lord, from evil men; Preserve me from violent men, 2 Who devise evil things in their hearts; They continually stir up wars. 3 They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; Poison of a viper is under their lips. [Ps 140]

    Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods? Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? 2 No, in heart you work unrighteousness; On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands. 3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. 4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent; Like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, 5 So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, Or a skillful caster of spells. [Ps 58]

And this was echoed by John the Baptist, in good prophetic style:

    Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 “Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance [Matt 3.4]

Or the plea of hymnist from the pre-Christian Jewish Qumran group (1QH a p 1536ff):

    "But I have been the target of slander for my rivals, cause for quarrel and argument to my neighbours, for jealousy and anger to those who have joined my covenant, for challenge and grumbling to all my followers. Even all those who e]at my bread have raised their heel against me; they have mocked me with a wicked tongue all those who had joined my council; the men of [my congregation] are stubborn, and mutter round about. And with the mystery which you have concealed in me they go slandering towards the sons of destruction. But to show my path and because of their guilt you have concealed the source of knowledge and the foundation of truth. They plot evil in their heart, [men of] Belial have opened a lying tongue, like vipers' venom which stretches for periods like those who throw themselves in the dust they cast a spell, serpent's venom, against which there is no incantation.

It is simply mistaken to interpret verbal prophetic confrontation (like the above) with the Jewish leadership as being 'lashing out at HIS enemies'.

What was His orders to His Disciples to BUY SWORDS for their defense?????
I don't know a single reputable commentator that takes that verse in a literal sense of actually buying swords… for example, (Hard Sayings of the Bible, Kaiser/Davids/Bruce/Brauch, IVP:1996. )

    "This is a hard saying in the sense that it is difficult to reconcile it with Jesus’ general teaching on violence: violence was not the course for his followers to take. It is widely held that this saying was not meant to be taken literally, but if not, how was it meant to be taken?

    "It occurs in Luke’s Gospel only. Luke reports it as part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus reminds them of an earlier occasion when he sent them out on a missionary tour and told them not to take a purse (for money) or bag (for provisions) or sandals. Presumably, they could expect their needs to be supplied by well-disposed people along their route (Lk 10:4–7). But now things were going to be different: people would be reluctant to show them hospitality, for they might get into trouble for doing so. On that earlier occasion, as the disciples now agreed, they had lacked nothing. “But now,” said Jesus, “if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag”—they would have to fend for themselves. More than that, “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” If that is surprising, more surprising still is the reason he gives for this change of policy: “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.”

    "It is doubtful if the disciples followed his reasoning here, but they thought they had got the point about the sword. No need to worry about that: “See, Lord,” they said, “here are two swords.” To which he replied, “That is enough” or, perhaps, “Enough of this.”

"Luke certainly does not intend his readers to understand the words literally. He goes on to tell how, a few hours later, when Jesus was arrested, one of the disciples let fly with a sword—probably one of the two which they had produced at the supper table—and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” and healed the man’s ear with a touch (Lk 22:49–51).

"So what did he mean by his reference to selling one’s cloak to buy a sword? He himself was about to be condemned as a criminal, “numbered with the transgressors,” to use language applied to the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53:12. Those who until now had been his associates would find themselves treated as outlaws; they could no longer count on the charity of sympathetic fellow Israelites. Purse and bag would now be necessary. Josephus tells us that when Essenes went on a journey they had no need to take supplies with them, for they knew that their needs would be met by fellow members of their order; they did, however, carry arms to protect themselves against bandits.

"But Jesus does not envisage bandits as the kind of people against whom his disciples would require protection; they themselves would be lumped together with bandits by the authorities, and they might as well act the part properly and carry arms, as bandits did. Taking him literally, the disciples revealed that they had anticipated his advice: they already had two swords. This incidentally shows how far they were from resembling a band of Zealot insurgents: such a band would have been much more adequately equipped. And the words with which Jesus concluded the conversation did not mean that two swords would be enough; they would have been ludicrously insufficient against the band that came to arrest him, armed with swords and clubs. He meant “Enough of this!”—they had misunderstood his sad irony, and it was time to drop the subject. T. W. Manson rendered the words “Well, well.” In contrast to the days when they had shared their Master’s popularity, “they are now surrounded by enemies so ruthless that the possession of two swords will not help the situation.”

'This text … has nothing to say directly on the question whether armed resistance to injustice and evil is ever justifiable. It is simply a vivid pictorial way of describing the complete change which has come about in the temper and attitude of the Jewish people since the days of the disciples’ mission. The disciples understood the saying literally and so missed the point; but that is no reason why we should follow their example.

Some interpret it as a symbolic act:

    "However, now that He was to be taken away from them, they would have to make preparations for their ministries including a purse . . . a bag, and . . . a sword for personal protection. Jesus was about to die and be numbered with the transgressors, a quotation from Isaiah 53:12…When the disciples responded that they had two swords, Jesus replied, That is enough. This response has been interpreted in at least four ways: (1) Some understand the words as a rebuke to the disciples. If that were the case, then Jesus was saying, “Enough of this kind of talk!” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to St. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 310) (2) Others understand the words to denote the fact that even two swords are enough to show human inadequacy at stopping God’s plan for the death of Christ. Swords could not stop God’s purpose and plan. (3) Jesus may simply have been saying that two swords were adequate for the 12 of them. (4) Others see the clause in conjunction with the quotation from Isaiah and understand Jesus to mean that by possessing two swords they would be classified by others as transgressors or criminals. This fourth view seems preferable. [BKC, at Luke 22]

Again, this is not even remotely an indication of an act of "unlawful physical aggression" on the part of Jesus…

What was His statement DENYING THAT HE CAME TO BRING "PEACE" and asserting that he CAME TO BRING A "SWORD"?

This has nothing to do with violence. These types of passages are indications that truth will be divisive in a world full of different people, with different attitudes toward God and truth…

The passage is from Matthew 10.34ff:

    Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 “For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. 37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 “He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it.

Again, I don't know of any reputable commentators that understand this any differently than a description of the polarization of people around the truth of Jesus Christ:

    "The context of Micah 7:6, cited here, describes the awful evils in the land and the untrustworthiness of even the closest relatives and friends that would continue until the Lord would come to vindicate those who hoped in him. Given the belief held by many Jewish people that a time of sufferings would precede the end, the disciples would probably have understood this saying as suggesting that they were already experiencing the sufferings of that time…Jesus here expounds on the text just cited (Mic 7:6) to make a point virtually inconceivable to most of his hearers. Loving family members, especially parents, was one of the highest duties in Judaism; the only one who could rightfully demand greater love was God himself (Deut 6:4–5; cf. Deut 13:6–11; 2 Macc 7:22–23). [BBC]

    "Jesus said He had come at this time not . . . to bring peace to the earth . . . but a sword which divides and severs. As a result of His visit to earth, some children would be set against parents and a man’s enemies might be those within his own household. This is because some who follow Christ are hated by their family members. This may be part of the cost of discipleship, for love of family should not be greater than love for the Lord (v. 37; cf. comments on Luke 14:26). A true disciple must take his cross and follow Jesus (cf. Matt. 16:24). He must be willing to face not only family hatred, but also death, like a criminal carrying his cross to his own execution. In addition, in those days a criminal carrying his cross was tacitly admitting that the Roman Empire was correct in executing its death sentence on him. Similarly Jesus’ followers were admitting His right over their lives. In so doing one would find his life in return for having given it up to Jesus Christ (cf. comments on 16:25). [BKC]

    "The form of the statement not to expect Jesus to bring peace suggests that this would have been the natural inclination of the disciples. Was not the gospel a message of peace (cf. 5:9; 10:13)? Would not the age of the kingdom of God bring peace with it (cf. Luke 1:79b; Isa 9:6; 11:9)? The answer must clearly be yes in its final realization and even in some sense in the present (cf. John 14:27). But in the peculiar and unexpected interim period of the proclamation of the kingdom, as has already been shown, strange things may be expected by the disciples and later messengers of the kingdom. The hostility now in view—that between otherwise close family members—is described with the metaphor of a “sword”. Elsewhere in the Gospels the word is used only in the narrative of the arrest of Jesus (where it is used in its normal sense)... The sense in which Jesus has not brought peace but a sword is made clear in the following two verses

    Although althon dichasai, “I came to divide,” would ordinarily be taken in the sense of purpose, here it is more a way of describing the effect of the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the kingdom. Response to the message of Jesus and his disciples will be mixed and hence cause dissension among members of the same household. The potential seriousness of such division was already alluded to in v 21. The words describing the oppositions here are drawn from the LXX of Mic 7:6 with slight differences: Matthew drops the two verbs and substitutes “man,” for “son,” employs the preposition kata for epi (both meaning “against”), and makes a couple of slight changes in the wording of v 36. The Micah passage refers to a time of trouble before eschatological deliverance... The Talmud also regards family dissension as increasing just prior to the messianic age (m. Sota 9:15). The experience of the disciples and those who come to believe their message will be not only that they will be widely hated (cf. v 22) but that they will be rejected even by their own family members. This is part of the reality of the proclamation of the good news. [WBC]

    "Prince of Peace though he is, the world will so violently reject him and his reign that men and women will divide over him (vv. 35-36); cf. Luke 12:49-53). Before the consummation of the kingdom, even the peace Jesus bequeaths his disciples will have its setting in the midst of a hostile world (John 14:27; 16:33; cf. James 4:4)." [EBC]

What is clear from these comments is that the metaphorical sword, in this case, is in the hand of the enemies--not in the hands of the disciples. It is Jesus' followers who will be "chased with a sword", as they are hated by all men because of His name (Lk 21.17).

Let's take a close look at this…

There are two incidences of Jesus clearing the temple courtyard, one described by John and the other by the Synoptic gospels:

    And the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers seated. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves. He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a house of merchandise.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Thy house will consume me.” 18 The Jews therefore answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?” 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken. (John 2.13ff)

    And Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves. 13 And He *said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers‘ den.” (Matt 21.12ff)

    And they *came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers‘ den.” (Mark 11.15ff)

    And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were selling, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘And My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a robbers‘ den.” (Luke 19.45)

InPlainSite.org Note: This was the final spark that set off the chain of incidents that led to the cross. Few realize that Jesus’ words The phrase, “den of robbers,” comes from the prophecy of Jeremiah which spelled doom for the temple, which God was about to destroy as a part of his judgment upon Israel (7:12-15). By using this passage, Jesus not only inferred that the temple authorities were dishonest thieves, but also that God was about to judge the temple and destroy it. [Details]

Let start with some observations about the setting and event:

1. The moneychangers and animal merchants had their stalls set up in the outer court of the Temple, in the Court of the Gentiles. This had not always been so, but by Jesus' time it was a major disruption of worship:

    "At one time the animal merchants set up their stalls across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, but at this point they were in the temple courts, doubtless in the Court of the Gentiles (the outermost court)" [D. A. Carson, John]

    "Jesus' complaint is not that they are guilty of sharp business practices and should therefore reform their ethical life, but that they should not be in the temple area at all. How dare you turn my Father's house into a market! He exclaims. Instead of solemn dignity and the murmur of prayer, there is the bellowing of cattle and bleating of sheep. Instead of brokenness and contrition, holy adoration and prolonged petition, there is noisy commerce…by setting up in the court of the Gentiles, they have excluded Gentiles who might have come to pray…" [Carson, John]

    "The court in which all this noisy and boisterous traffic took place was the only court to which Gentiles might go when they wished to pray or mediate in the Temple. They ought to have been able to worship in peace. Instead they found themselves in the middle of a noisy bazaar. ' [Morris, John]

2. It is amazing that they would even let the animals into the courtyard:

    "At first sight it seems unlikely that animals would be allowed into any of the Temple courts, because of the risk of their getting loose and defiling the sanctuary. But V. Eppstein argues from Rosh Hash. 31a and other passages in the Babylonian Talmud that there was a dispute between Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, as a result of which the high priest allowed merchants to set up animal stalls within the temple precincts." [Morris, John (rev ed)]

3. The physical actions involving the whip were directed at the animals, and was forceful but not cruel:

    "Jesus' physical action was forceful, but not cruel: one does not easily drive out cattle and sheep without a whip of cords. Still, his action could not have generated a riotous uproar, or there would have been swift reprisals from the Roman troops in the fortress of Antonia overlooking part of the temple complex." [Carson, John]

    "The driving out of the animals from the temple area (the outer court) serves as a symbolic act. The implication is that the animals should not have been in the temple at all, and it is in this sense that the denunciation of the market atmosphere must be understood. The whip (15) was necessary to control the animals rather than to inflict any punishment upon them. " [New Bible Commentary, at John 2]

4. Commentators see this more as a 'demonstration'; a dramatic, stern, and prophetic act of expulsion [e.g. Richard Bauckham], more driven by the personal power of Jesus and not by some quickly-fashioned "lash of twisted rushes" [Schonfield's phrase, cited by Morris, John (rev)]:

    "Jesus made a whip of "cords" (more probably "rushes") and proceeded to drive the traders from the Temple with their goods. It is clear that it was not so much the physical force as the moral power he employed that emptied the courts. 'It was surely the blazing anger of the selfless Christ rather than the weapon which He carried which really cleared the Temple Courts of its noisy, motley throng.'…He commanded the dovesellers to take their birds away." [Morris, John: notice he didn't let the birds out--he didn’t cause loss of property, for even the cattle/sheep owners would eventually recover their animals, just as the moneychangers would get the coins from their respective nationalities sorted out.]

    "On the necessity of sternness in the face of evil Wright quotes Ruskin, that it is 'quite one of the crowning wickednesses of this age that we have starved and chilled our faculty of indignation'" [Morris, John]

    "Luke's narration follows this pattern well, with Jesus entering the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court of the time, where he engages in what Luke describes as a brief, small-scale, but highly symbolic censuring of the temple systems." [Joel B. Green, Luke]

    "This notice indicates that Jesus expelled the merchants from the Court of the Gentiles in order to safeguard rights and privileges sanctioned by God. The use of the forecourt as an open market effectually prevented the one area of the Temple which was available to the Gentiles form being a place of prayer." [William Lane, Mark]

    "His cleansing of the temple was what would have been recognized in Old Testament times as a prophetic action—the kind of action by which a prophet would occasionally confirm his spoken message and bring it home to the people around him. Jesus protested that the temple was being prevented from fulfilling its purpose as “a house of prayer for all nations” (see Is 56:7)." [HSOBx]

5. This act of Jesus was not the act of an individual Israelite (like almost all of His others); it was an act of leadership/governance. As such, it would entail the lawful and legitimate use of appropriate force for timely expulsion or judgment (if necessary), such as will occur upon His return to earth as Vice Regent. That His action was so understood as an act of authority by the Jewish leaders is clear from their response in verse 18-22, demanding a sign "to justify such a display of authority as that which ventured to regulate the temple." [Carson, John]

6. In fact, Jesus actually ended up enforcing existing rabbinic policy, which was NOT being enforced by them:

    "Jesus was appalled at this disregard fro the sanctity of an area consecrated for the use of Gentiles who had not yet become full proselytes to Judaism. His action in driving out the merchants and their patrons, overturning the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves, and standing guard over the court to prohibit its use as a thoroughfare, was an astonishing display of zeal for God's honor and respect for the sacredness of the Temple precincts. Ironically, Jesus' spirited protest entailed a rigorous application of existing provisions, which prohibited anyone from entering the Temple Mount with a staff, sandals or his wallet, and which specifically denied the right to make of the forecourt a 'short by-path' (M. Berachoth IX.5; TB Berachoth 54a)." [William Lane, Mark]

There are a number of elements in the story that suggest that it is not as 'violent' as is sometimes visualized:

    1. The fact that the Roman guards did not intervene--as they did with the riot over Paul in Acts 21--strongly suggests a "lower key" visualization.

    2. The seats of the dove sellers and the counters of the moneychangers were simply parts of their merchant 'stalls'. The money-tables would not have had much loose coinage on them--the coins would have been in bags behind the counter, and so the common image of many coins scattering everywhere is likely false. And it would not have taken but one example of 'pouring out' of a money bag to get everyone else's 'cooperation' in leaving!

    3. Jesus simply ordered the dove sellers out (and probably the merchants too, although they would have followed their larger animals out of the temple anyway), and the makeshift whip/lash was for the animals.

    4. There was no indication that any human being was assaulted, hit, harmed, or hurt; and the "scourge" was hastily constructed of rushes/weeds pulled out of the cracks in the Courtyard floor/walls (not a whip of the sort He was scourged with).

    5. Jesus forbade subsequent entry simply by his presence, to any non-worshipper who tried to enter.

    6. The many OT/Tanach prophetic references are ample indication that Jesus was acting in prophetic confrontation/symbolic mode.

    7. One should never confuse zeal, judgment, drama, prophetic symbolic action--or even forceful expulsion of destructive agents--with acts of unlawful physical aggression or 'violence' or 'lashing out at enemies'.

Perhaps William's assessment is the most realistic:

    "First, then, back to the observation that it is reported as a "violent" act. Part of the reported action, blocking the way of traffic, perhaps involving the obtaining of animals for sacrifice, is more in the mode of nonviolent protest. Overturning the tables of the money changers may be viewed as "violent," but it should be noted that the entire protest is of very short duration. It is not narrated as though there is any intent to harm anyone, to maintain a long occupation, or to assert Jesus' power over the Temple and its dealings. It is clearly in the tradition of the prophets' dramatic representations of Israel's situation and God's word of judgment. In a situation of oppression and a brewing mimetic crisis, it is impossible to avoid the taint of violence if one is to act decisively. The word decision itself, a "cutting off" or "cutting from," already suggests that the harmonious reconciliation of all persons and elements in a situation will not take place. This is the human condition in the world of differences, especially when these differences no longer manage the mimetic desire and rivalry that are ever present and effective." [BVS:228f]

This act was one of dramatic disruption, not destruction and assault. This is so far removed from the violent options that He rejected:

    Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18.36)

    Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18.10ff)

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” At that time Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? (Matt 26.52ff)

These usages of language, metaphors, and prophetic/dramatic protest/demonstration might seem 'harsh' to our Western culture, but they simply were not considered abusive or assaultive in that culture of the time (and wouldn't be considered such in many Middle Eastern cultures today). And, since these elements--being the 'best candidates' for being labeled 'violent' by Western culture--prove to be nothing of the sort, the rest of the acts and words of Jesus become even more pronounced in their gentleness (without compromising on confrontation, truth, and prophetic critique of the aberrant elements in the religious leadership of the day).


Index To Articles On ‘Jesus’

Artwork provided courtesy of James "theo" Theopistos.