In the second chapter of John’s gospel, we read about an incident where Jesus demonstrated his zeal in such a way that God did something great. It reminded the disciples of a prophecy from the Scriptures, “Passion for God’s house will consume me (John 2:17 // Psalm 69:9).” What did Jesus do that causes such a stir? Verses 13-16[i] say:
It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; he also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money. Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables. Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!”
First, we have to understand what this story isn’t about, before we can appreciate what it really is about. This story isn’t about fundraising in the Temple. I’ve heard a lot of people who have used this passage of scripture to promote the idea that it’s wrong to do church fundraisers on church grounds. Such ideas prohibit yard sales, bake sales, Brunswick stews, on church property, because the church property is seen as to be too holy for such activities. In reality, this wasn’t Jesus’ issue at all. To make it easier for people to purchase animals for sacrifice, animal vendors were allowed on Temple property. Money changers were necessary because Roman coins weren’t allowed in the Temple—so purchases had to be made with Temple shekels. These transactions had to be made so that people who couldn’t raise their own sacrificial animals might have animals to offer God. So Jesus didn’t object to the presence of moneychangers or vendors in the Temple. If not this, then what did Jesus get upset about?
First, the moneychangers were offering an unfair exchange rate, making a huge profit and off a religious practice that was required by Law. Second, the vendors were likewise charging too much money for their livestock. Third, their setup was blocking the Court of the Gentiles, so that the outsiders—perhaps those who needed God the most—weren’t able to come in. For this reason, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He had to do something, regardless of the risk. He got carried away for the sake of God’s house, and the result was that God did something great.
However, sometimes we can become so zealous that we actually cause harm. Halford Lucock says, "I was impressed several years ago when I read that Eugene Ormandy dislocated a shoulder while directing the Philadelphia Orchestra. I do not know what they were playing, but he was giving all of himself to it!"[ii] Ormandy’s zeal was, quite literally, his undoing. One translation of John 2:17 is, “Concern for God’s house will be my undoing[iii].” So, I guess we need to ask ourselves whether our zeal for God’s house is something that might be painful yet constructive, or whether it could be something that undoes us or even undoes the church.
How could zeal for God’s house be destructive instead of constructive? When the physical church building becomes more important than the people inside. When the people on the inside become more important than the people on the outside. When our reverence from policies and procedures prevents real ministry. When we become more concerned about the forms of worship than either the One we worship or the needs of the worshipers. When the way we’ve always done it before keeps us back from the way God wants to do it in the future. This type of zeal undoes us, undoes others, and undoes the church. And I’ll say boldly that this is a large part of the reason why churches are in decline today. Too many people are zealous for God’s house, but they’re zealous for the wrong things!
To be sure, Jesus’ zeal certainly was destructive—but it tore down obstacles to worship, and also built people up. It created equal access to God for everybody. It exposed those who were in the Temple because it was a business or a show or just a habit. Certainly, it didn’t win Jesus any admirers when He overturned the tables. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, His actions began to overturn the status quo. In the same way, we’ve got to let zeal for God’s house consume us. We’ve got to put our own needs and wants last, letting our egos be undone rather than allowing our agendas to cause the undoing of the church. We’ve got to be able to say, “Passion for God’s house will consume me!” Then, allowing it to consume us totally, we need to get out of the way and let God do something great.