Deeper insight into our Holy Father and his heavenly actions on earth emerge when we take time to explore the Bible's historical context. By employing the literary tools of language and culture, we can see a familiar gospel story—and hopefully ourselves—in increasingly biblical ways. Take, for instance, the cleansing of the Temple.
Set in first-century Jerusalem, our story takes place during the season of Israel's Passover. We find our hero Jesus confronting merchants plying their trade in the precincts of the temple that Herod built. It is an event that will become iconic in the historical imagination of Christianity; the fiery young prophet raging against a nation of hypocrites, calling down judgment upon their place of worship.
However, is that an accurate portrayal of what happened and why? To better comprehend the significance of this event we need to ask the question, how did those who left us eyewitness accounts understand these things?
John not only recounts Jesus' explanation but gives insight into how the early church processed both his words and deeds, "He told those who sold the pigeons, 'Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.'" (John 2:16-17)
The first important concept to grasp is the phrase "my Father's house." The Jewish people of the day recognized from Scripture that God is a Father to his covenant children. "Our Father and our King" is language from ancient prayer formulas still active in Jewish worship today. To say, my Father, however, was unthinkable; this was a day and age when even the sacred name of God was not spoken for fear of defiling the Holy. By saying my Father, Jesus was making messianic connections.
Though subtle and easy for us to miss, to those who heard him it was a shocking claim of exclusive relationship evoking Psalm 2:7, 89:26-29, and 2 Samuel 7:12-16. These sacred texts were front and center in a vibrant cultural conversation about the coming Messiah's identity. The result was polarizing. Luke's record of the event observes, "he was teaching daily in the temple; but the chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people were trying to destroy Him, and they could not find anything that they might do, for all the people were hanging on to every word He said." (Luke 19:47-48)
Further, our Lord's description of the temple as his Father's house (house of prayer for all the nations, Mark 11:17) gives evidence of his heart for the place and the people. We first encountered this revelation in another story that took place at Passover. At that time, the young messiah answered his parents with a single phrase that carries the interchangeable ideas of needing to be about my Father's house and my Father's business (Luke 2:49).
The second important concept to grasp is the meaning of zeal, the word his first followers chose to describe Jesus' state of mind as he cleansed the temple of merchants and merchandise. Behind the English word zeal, is the Hebrew word qin'ah which means ardor or passion. We all know the experience of our blood pressure rising as we get passionate about a subject, that is qin'ah. Some scholars have linked the Hebrew word to a root related to color that flushes our cheeks when we experience zeal. Zelos, the Greek equivalent, suggests being hot enough to boil.
Biblically speaking, ardor is manifested in relationships: God towards humanity, men and women towards God, or between one another. Most importantly it can have negative (often translated by the word jealousy) or positive connotations depending on the context. Out of which kind of zeal is Jesus acting in our story? More importantly, what clue does John give us regarding Jesus' motivation that sheds light on his actions?
The third important concept to grasp is the early church's use of Psalm 69 as a commentary on the temple incident. The New Testament provides evidence that Psalm 69 played an active role in first-century Judaism's messianic expectation. Not only is it cited or alluded to at least six times, but each usage also draws on a different verse in the psalm showing its rich range of application.
Patterned after the five books of Moses (Torah), the Psalter has a five-fold division. Psalm 69 is part of Book 2, which is titled, "The Prayers of David the Son of Jesse." The psalm itself has a title attribution as a Psalm of David. So when "His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me,'” they expect us to go back to the popular but commonly misunderstood figure of King David to know what is going on with Jesus.
THE HEART OF DAVID
Perhaps no character in the Bible of Jesus is more familiar than King David. We have his exploits and accomplishments recorded in narrative histories and artistic compositions. However, many Christians are not aware that within Judaism, David stands as a powerful voice in the tradition of the prophets (see Acts 2:30). Biblical prophets call God's people to return to him in such a way that provides insight into what he has done, is doing, and will do on earth.
David's life consistently exhibited a zeal that had three clear components. First, it arose from a burning heart of love for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Second, David's inward fire longed to see God's covenant purposes worked out through his people in his own and future generations. Third, David desired to be an active contributor to those loving ends. And don't miss this—he attributed these things to the activity of the Holy Spirit (see Psalm 51)!
That is why he wanted to build the Jerusalem temple; it represented the one true God dwelling in the midst of his chosen people to extend his redeeming love to the nations. That is why God chose David as king and called him a man after his own heart.
"Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and everything that moves in them.
For God will save Zion
and build up the cities of Judah,
and people shall dwell there and possess it;
the offspring of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall dwell in it."
- Psalm 69:34-46
THE HEART OF JESUS
This background provides an essential framework for going forward in our gospel story. The zeal of Jesus is not against his Father's house, heaven forbid! His passion is for God and God's people. His action is directed at what the temple had become in the hands of greedy and unscrupulous leaders. The divine design to reach the poor and poor in spirit was now working against God's goals. In both Mark and Luke's account, Jesus quotes Jeremiah in his condemnation of corrupt religious leaders and those who profit by working for them, "but you have made it a den of robbers."
Tragically, that powerful prophetic indictment echoes through the corridors of time, ringing true of religion in our generation as well. However, we cannot see our collective selves in the mirror of Scripture if we paint all of Israel or her leaders with the same brush. The Jewish historian Josephus and others recognized the problem in their day; there were reformers and reform movements within Judaism. One prominent part of messianic expectation in the first-century was that God would raise a leader like King David to get his redemptive project back on track.
Jesus would do just that, renewing the covenants by making them new in his death, resurrection, and Spirit outpouring. John makes an intriguing edit when he quotes Psalm 69:9. Instead of "zeal for your house has consumed me" he modifies the text to say “zeal for your house will consume me.” What is going on here? The text illuminates the temple event, but it seems to have more to teach us. The early church discerned that Jesus' all-consuming passion for God and his redemptive work on earth explain both his life and his execution.
Keep in mind that when a New Testament author references the Old Testament, they include the context of the text as well. When John takes us back to Psalm 69, we hear echoes of the suffering servant reminding us what kind of king we serve. Further, when we watch how the psalm is employed by an author like Paul (Romans 15:3), we see that the reproach and rejection Jesus experienced will be, at some level, our portion as we attempt to love people for whom he died.
THE HEART OF A DISCIPLE
Passion for God, his people, and his purposes fueled the entire trajectory of Jesus' life. He encapsulated this in his vision of the Kingdom of God and identified it as a gift of the indwelling Spirit. As a result, his life had a cruciform shape long before the cross came into view. As our Master, he longs to share his passion with us.
I want you to know that even while sharing these thoughts with you I am both convicted and conflicted by the beauty of this zeal and my natural aversion to it; deep down I know the cost. I also know from personal experience the perils of a counterfeit religious zeal that leaves my temple uncleansed and unchanged.
At the same time, we find tremendous encouragement in this story. Jesus is indeed our hero, defeating Satan, sin, and death. The invitation to join his redemptive movement reminds us that though we have a place in the salvation story, it is about so much more than us. Partaking in the Messiah's passion and contributing to his kingdom is possible—by his Spirit, who generates a day-by-day, lifelong quest to be faithful to Immanuel.
On this point, David has much to teach us as well. He asked the LORD God to share his heart with him, repeatedly, over the course of his life. When the inevitable failures to live out the grace of God in a fallen world overwhelmed him, his aim remained true because his core passion continued to burn.
"Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you, I wait all the day long."
- Psalm 25:4-5
Want to go deeper? Click here to explore audio seminars by Dwight A. Pryor.
Interested in taking one of our dynamic online courses? Click here.
This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.