Jesus is not the one-dimensional preacher of love and peace many people like to envision. Yes, He is loving and compassionate, but He is also angered by evil because He is holy and ultimately concerned about the truth. That concern is evident in this study in the Gospel of John.
Back in the days of Christ, it was the dream of every Jewish person to someday celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the first century, wrote that during Passover Jerusalem’s population would swell to some three million people and more than 200,000 lambs would be offered up in sacrifice as a memorial to that first Passover and their exodus from Egypt centuries earlier.
John chapter 2 now tells us here in verse 13, “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Don’t miss the irony of this moment. The one who was introduced as the Lamb of God is present at the festival along with the Passover lambs. The one who will be sacrificed for our freedom is in Jerusalem as the nation of Israel sacrifices these lambs to celebrate their freedom.
According to the law of Moses, only an unblemished lamb was to be offered as the Passover sacrifice. People could bring a lamb from their own flock, but it would have to be approved by the priests before it was offered. The priests in Jerusalem had created a market where approved sacrificial animals could be purchased. But what started out as a convenience soon turned to corruption.
Inspectors on the payroll of the priesthood would examine the animals brought to Passover for sacrifice. They could always find some reason to reject the animal an individual brought from his own flock, forcing him to purchase one from the temple stockyard. And from what we can piece together historically, the animals were being sold at ten times their normal value. That’s like buying a soft drink at the fair or a baseball game—the cost skyrockets.
In addition to this, the priests charged an annual fee, the temple tax, of every pilgrim who wanted to enter the temple complex. But all kinds of currencies were in use at that time—everything from silver coins from Rome to copper coins from Egypt. The priesthood saw in this an opportunity to make even more money. They demanded that all the pilgrims exchange their money for temple currency they called “shekels of the sanctuary.” Only this currency was accepted for payments in the temple. And of course, the people were charged a fee for exchanging their money.
By the time of Christ, these business enterprises in the temple court had become known as the “Temple-market” or the “Bazaars of the sons of Annas”—Annas being the former high priest.
It was extortion—it was corrupt from top to bottom. And beloved, to this day corrupt religion is always more interested in making money than making disciples.
So with that in mind, Jesus now shows up at the temple—and the Lamb of God is about to roar like the Lion of Judah.
In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (verses 14-16)
Jesus is doing more here than turning over tables. He is revealing His authority over His Father’s house. During the Passover, it was the duty of each family to rid its home of leaven, which was a symbol of evil.
Jesus calls the temple here, His “Father’s house.” So, He is effectively cleaning house! He is declaring ownership and authority over the temple.
Look at verse 18: “The Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’” They knew the only person with this kind of authority was the Messiah. So, they wanted to see His driver’s license, so to speak—they wanted proof of His identity.
Jesus answers them in verse 19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Verse 22 explains that after His resurrection, His disciples understood He was speaking of His own body being raised from the dead on the third day.
Now in chapter 3, John inserts the account of a man named Nicodemus, a religious leader who was moved by the actions of Christ but not quite ready to speak publicly with the Lord. So, he sneaks over at night to where Jesus is staying. The conversation begins in verse 2:
This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus gets right to the point, replying, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (verse 3). He is telling this religious man he is not going to heaven apart from a new birth! Nicodemus no doubt has done a lot of good things in life, but he has not trusted the right thing for eternal life.
Of course, Nicodemus wants to know how someone can reenter his mother’s womb in order to be born again. Jesus explains in verse 5, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” To understand this, we need to keep reading in verse 6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
“Born of water” or literally, “out of water”—the water sac—refers to physical birth. Being born a descendant of Abraham was not Nicodemus’s ticket to heaven. One has to be born of the Spirit. In other words, being born again is a spiritual birth.
But here is the next question Jesus anticipates: If the Spirit of God is invisible, how can we be sure of having a spiritual rebirth? Jesus continues in verse 8:
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
You cannot see the wind, but the wind leaves behind the effects of its power and presence. So also the Holy Spirit can’t be seen, but He leaves behind the effects of His power and presence on those who have experienced the new birth.
Nicodemus’s question in verse 9 reveals that he still does not understand. He asks, “How can these things be?”
Jesus then introduces the clearest illustration yet:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (verse 14)
Nicodemus would instantly recognize Jesus’ reference to Numbers chapter 21, which teaches a connection between faith and salvation. In the wilderness, Israel complained against God, who then sent poisonous snakes into the camp. God told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Those who were bitten could look to the bronze serpent and be cured—literally saved—from God’s judgment. Likewise, it is by believing in Jesus, looking to Him who is lifted up on the cross, that one can have eternal life.
This is the simple message of salvation through faith in Christ. We will look at it some more in our next study, but for now, consider this challenge for Nicodemus.
Perhaps you feel like Nicodemus did: You are trusting in your own good works. Your hope is in yourself—your faith is really in you. But you are still empty. You know you need spiritual life.
Beloved, salvation is the gift of God, and it is received by faith when you look to that old rugged cross and place your faith in the Lamb of God who was sacrificed to pay the penalty for your sin. Ask Him right now to become your Savior, and at that very moment, you will be born again.