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There’s a story about Jesus that has always disturbed me. Yet it’s in every Gospel and, without it, any portrait of him feels uneven and flimsy. When I began writing songs for an album about Jesus, I knew I needed to try to capture this scene in song form. But writing this song (see the lyric video embedded on this page) only left me more disturbed.

It’s the story of Jesus walking into the temple and flying into a righteous rage: throwing furniture, wielding a whip, driving out the moneychangers and merchants. A fire in his belly and a jealous gleam in his eyes.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why Jesus was so angry? Consider this: these merchants were providing sacrificial animals and temple currency, both important resources for believers who wanted to draw near to God. In the same way, modern Christian leaders provide God’s people with books, podcasts, music, Bible studies, and more, all to help us along in our worship. What’s so wrong with that?

As someone operating in the Christian resource “industry”—singing God’s story at concerts, releasing new albums and merchandise, speaking and leading at the occasional conference, all while longing to be a faithful servant of Christ—writing a song from this story left me with unsettling questions. Would Jesus turn over tables in our churches? Our social-media feeds? Our conferences? My concerts? My heart?

Important Context

Every year, pilgrims from all over the Ancient Near East flocked to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In order to worship Yahweh in accordance with Jewish law, they needed kosher animals fit for sacrifice. Because many were traveling long distances, bringing sacrificial animals was not feasible, so they would buy the animals on arrival. In order to pay the required temple tax, the pilgrims also needed to change their native money into temple currency.

The merchants and moneychangers in the outer courts provided sacrificial animals and temple currency. They prepared the pilgrims for worship. Commentator Leon Morris says they “performed a useful, even necessary function.” There was nothing wrong with the commodities per se, or even with the buying and selling. In fact, without these traders, the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem would have no way to draw near to God.  

Reasons for Jesus’s Rage

So, why did Jesus rage against them? I see at least three reasons.

1. Tarnished Witness

The merchants and moneychangers had set up shop inside the court of the Gentiles. Imagine being a foreigner, seeking to worship the God of Israel in this outer court, being able to go no farther in the temple. How were you supposed to worship and pray in this overcrowded marketplace, filled with the loud shouts of buying and selling, the noise and stench of livestock, the jingling of coins? Jesus raged because the “house of prayer for the nations” had become a house of trade (Mark 11:17). God’s plan was for Israel to draw all nations to his worship, but now the nations could hardly get in the building because of all the commercial activity.

2. Hollow Worship

On the same day Jesus cleansed the temple, he cursed a fruitless fig tree. Tim Keller notes the fig tree is “a perfect metaphor for Israel, and beyond that, for those claiming to be God’s people but who do not bear fruit for him.” The cleansing of the temple was an indictment of empty religious activity, lip service, and fruitless ritual. The merchants had made God’s house of prayer into a market, serving a hollow, transactional, get-in-and-get-out worship.

The cleansing of the temple was an indictment of empty religious activity, lip service, and fruitless ritual.

3. Self-Centered Why

Jesus quotes Jeremiah 7:11 when he says these merchants were making the temple into “a den of robbers.” Under the guise of services and resources, they exploited the pilgrims’ devotion, often charging exorbitant amounts for their goods. Their motive was profit and personal gain instead of facilitating the worship of Yahweh. At best, they are twisting worship into a business opportunity. At worst—and this seems to be the sense we find in Jeremiah—they are hostile to God and wickedly greedy. Either way, they rob the people of their money and God of the glory he is due.

Turning Tables in Today’s Church

Does the contemporary Western church culture look and feel more like those bustling outer courts of the temple than we care to admit? We’re quick to wag our fingers at the more egregious examples, like greedy false teachers who exploit the vulnerable by promising health and wealth. But is there a more subtle, insidious, widespread culture of commercialism in today’s church? Have the mercenary ways that provoked Jesus’s anger crept into our churches, our hearts? 

This story of Jesus cleansing the temple sounds a warning for me as a singer-songwriter who makes money by singing God’s story, promotes my music on social media, and runs a “merch table” after concerts. It should warn all of us, as Western evangelicals awash with Christian celebrities and a multitude of Christian merchandise.

Have the mercenary ways that provoked Jesus’s anger crept into our churches, our hearts?

What’s our response to this warning? Should we stop writing and promoting our Christian books and music? Should we shutter the publishing houses, the record labels, the conferences? Would Jesus flip over my merch table? 

Perhaps.

These questions are hyperbolic, and we should not draw one-to-one comparisons between the temple and the church. But let’s sit in the discomfort for a moment. Let’s wrestle with this question before God: How have we become like the merchants and moneychangers Jesus raged against?    

Are our churches, events, and social-media profiles so glutted with sales pitches that we have crowded out the voice of the gospel for the nations and our lost neighbors? Where have we promoted resources for worship to the neglect of repentance and wholehearted discipleship? In what ways have we chased profit, platform, and our glory above the glory of God?

Each of us must ask God to cleanse our witness, our worship, and our why—again and again—in the same way Jesus cleansed the temple. Oh that we would ask him to turn over the tables in our hearts, churches, and organizations, sanctifying our motives so that our deepest longing would be to worship him.

Jesus: True Temple and Our Only Hope

Jesus is the truer, better temple. He is the fulfillment of the law, the perfect high priest, the spotless lamb. He is the truer, better witness—through him, every nation, tribe, and tongue can and will draw near to God. And Jesus lived a life of perfect worship, motivated not by personal gain but by sacrificial love and obedience to the Father. 

Jesus, turn over tables if you need to, that this may be true of us.


Watch the “Turn the Tables” lyric video, featuring artwork by Stephen Procopio:

Lyrics:

Verse 1
You exploit the ones who would worship
Use devotion to make a dime
Sell the sacred to turn a profit
Make the holy into merchandise

When all the world tries to get in the building
They can’t get in the door ’cause it’s
Overcrowded with goods and salesmen
In the holy house of the Lord

Verse 2

Jesus comes in turning over tables
Flies into a righteous rage
Makes a whip and drives out the idols
He’s jealous for his Father’s name

When all the world tries to get in the building
He’ll stand like an open door ’cause in
Three days gonna raise a signal
This way to the house of the Lord

Chorus
Turn the tables, turn the tables over
Turn the tables, turn the tables over

Verse 3
Do you want to make a cut on the story
Do you want to see your name in lights
Do you want a percentage of the glory
It’s not something you commodify

Don’t you know that your heart is a temple
He’s knocking down your door so
Let him in and he’ll turn over tables
Make your heart a house for the Lord

Chorus 2x

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Turn the tables, turn the tables, turn the tables over
Turn the tables, turn the tables, turn the tables over

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