In discussing Jesus' example of nonviolent love, people ask, "If Jesus is teaching/encouraging a nonviolent lifestyle then how do we explain his cleansing of the temple?" or "Didn't Jesus whip people in the temple?" or even "What about Jesus' turning over tables of the moneychangers? Isn't that violence?" All these questions revolve around four passages of scripture. Here they are:
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17, NIV)
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer," but you are making it "a den of robbers." (Matthew 21:12-13, NIV)
In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15, NIV)
When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’" Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. (Luke 19:45-48, NIV)
There are a lot of problems using Jesus' turning over of tables and running out of merchants and animals in the temple for justifying self-defense, or the defense of those in danger in a way that is unloving, violent, or lethal toward an enemy. Here are some of those problems:
1. Jesus was not defending himself or anyone else from any type of abuse in these passages. If he was defending people from any type of abuse it would be financial abuse but even then we must admit that Jesus' top priority is not defending those being financially abused in this scenario. There are many reasons to fight for people. Proverbs 31:9 states, "Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." The folks being taken advantage of by the moneychangers were the average joe's of the day. This passage justifies defending the oppressed but it doesn't promote violence. We'll get into that more in later points. The key message to take away from this point is that Jesus was not concerned with defending his life or the lives of others. This act in the temple is not about reacting to assailants. If it is about reacting to anything it might be structural injustice.
2. Jesus is on the offense in this scenario. He is instigating the action. At least the physical action. The moneychangers initiated the conflict with injustice by pulling the old switcharoo on those who came to make sacrifices and by taking away the place in the temple which was meant for Gentiles. A family would come with their animal to make a sacrifice and be told "Oh no, this animal is not clean enough. Trade in your animal and pay a little for an animal worthy of sacrifice." So they family exchanged and paid. Then another family would come and go through the same motion and the animal they would receive would be the animal belonging to the previous family. A classic con move. This sort of scheme was extremely prevalent in the temple along with other schemes. By putting this marketplace in the Gentile court of the temple the Jewish folks abused the temple and went against God's desire for the temple to be a place for all nations to come to him. The Jews were keeping people from worship. Jesus knows this, see this, and does something about it. He comes into the temple knocking tables over, scattering money, not letting people walk out with merchandise in hand, and calling out the injustice and sin of the moneychangers (who are Israelites)! So far, if this passage grants permission for anything it's some type of social justice vigilante action or protest, maybe even almost to the point of rioting (but not quite). Let's keep going.
3. Jesus' wrath (if you want to call it that - as some do) wasn't one that involved violence against persons in this scenario. Jesus never reacts with physical violence against a person. There is debate if there was violence brought against animals or not. Most scholars say there wasn't. More on that in a moment. Nothing in John 2:14-15 (the only one of the three recordings of the instance that mentions a whip) leads the reader to believe Jesus used his McGuyver style whip to harm people. The whip is a herding tool and that is exactly how the reader at the time of it's telling would have assumed Jesus used it. Some scholars argue the turning over of tables was to make a pathway for the herd of animals but I'm not 100% convinced that was the main purpose. This sort of chaos, animals running through the temple, could be described as a small stampede. This sort of stampede would certainly send all the people in the temple (not just the moneychangers) fleeing the area.
Many scholars believe the disciples were aids in this stampede's inception. Perhaps they were helping direct the animals and making sure people didn't leave with merchandise. If the disciples were involved, as they most likely were given the rabbi and disciple relationship, then we would be wise to assume they'd get violent if Jesus got violent. After all, they were imitating him. This would have classified as a violent riot and drastic action would have been taken. But we're not told about this. We'll revisit this in a moment.
But does that mean the whip wasn't used on people? Well, when we look at the text we don't read anything else about the whip. Mention of the whip is omitted from three of the four accounts. This leads us to conclude that the whip really isn't an important aspect of the story for three of the four authors. If Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who dies for his enemies, forgives everyone, who came to save the world, who rebuked Peter for using a sword, and who spoke clearly about how to handle anger is whipping people then it would be a pretty significant detail to include in the telling of this story. Yet it is omitted.
When the whip is not omitted by John there is no indication that Jesus used the whip against people. If Jesus did use the whip on people the author would point it out since the wording of the text and the cultural assumption point to the whip being used for herding out animals. Had Jesus been violently attacking people in the temple then the Roman guards/soldiers who were there (which they always were thanks to the Roman Empire's occupying of the area and their connection with Jewish leaders) then He would have been taken downtown... or just taken down if it were as extreme as whipping lots of people. Yet this does not happen. The conflict does not escalate to this degree. We all know Jesus' arrest happens later. Jesus and his followers do not start a violent riot. If they had, they'd be overpowered by the armed Roman guards.
The Romans don't react. Only the people do. Mark's account goes on to state, "The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching." Apparently not everyone was afraid or even terribly upset. The crowd (the common folk) were amazed. Amazed is typically a positive word. It invokes the internationally known and practiced statements "oooooo" and "aaaaaah." The priests and teachers were pretty irked though and they weren't even present apparently. They only heard about the ordeal! I'm sure some of the moneychangers were a bit upset while being amazed though. Afterall, they lost a decent amount of money and were called robbers. If the people were getting whipped, even by accident, they'd be more than amazed. They'd want to kill Jesus along with the priests and teachers. Especially the moneychangers. But we don't get that reaction from the people for some reason. At the very most this passages grants permission for Christians to knock over furniture, scatter things like money, and herd animals (with herding tools if needed).
4. Similar to the first point, Jesus isn't fighting for the purpose of protecting people as much as he's fighting for God's temple in an attempt to rebuke. I do believe Jesus is fighting for justice on behalf of those being swindled and kept from the temple courts (obvious oppression) but he does it in a particular way. The main issue was that the temple was being abused ad thus people were being abused. This is why he cries out "My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers" in both the account in Matthew and in Mark. Jesus was concerned with the misuse of the temple by the people of God. What was supposed to be sacred and used to bring people closer to God was being used for evil and separating people from God. The place of reconciliation was becoming a place of sin. That's a big deal. I can see how the Messiah would be a little irritated by it and cause a scene.
Jesus attacked tables and money in this protest (if you want to call it that). He made it clear what needed to be done away with (interestingly he herds out the animals from the temple only to later be the final sacrifice for sin... connection? Possibly). The market didn't belong there, the Gentiles did. Jesus is seeking to correct this. He disrupts the injustice and then teaches scripture and truth. People are amazed and those in charge get upset. Jesus' words prove his concern and intentions. His actions promote his teaching. If Jesus was violent towards men and women in the temple then he would contradict various other teachings such as "love your neighbor." So while Jesus is in fact acting on the behalf of the Gentiles as he rebukes the Jewish people here he's not using violence to defend them as though they were being attacked. Jesus doesn't attack the people bringing oppression but the system (which has shades of Ephesians 6 in it).
Final thoughts: At this point it becomes hard to remember why we would be arguing this sets an example for violent defense of human life. There seems to be no way to connect the what Jesus was doing with what we want to do to our enemies. Despite that, let's entertain the idea that this is indeed a permission slip for violent action. If this is a justification for any type of violence then it's clearly not just self-defense or the defense of innocents. As my brother SirNickDon once wrote, "This would be an example of a person being told by God to attack with violence the people who are betraying his religious convictions. It would justify religious terrorism, of all things. I can't see how any middle ground is possible. Either this passage is not an instance of violence, or it is a form of extreme violence that Christians and people of good will everywhere would be right to reject."
Granted, Jesus' religious convictions are more in-tuned to the Father's will than any other person who has ever walked the earth but the example he would be setting is a dangerous one for it would still be a justification for religious terrorism of sorts. I'm not sure any of us are willing to accept that sort of thing. If we are there are plenty of other groups, such as the KKK, who are willing to promote that sort of activity.
Jesus' cleansing of the temple certainly seems to be the most "violent" of Jesus' interactions in the Gospels and strangely it doesn't have anything to do with protecting the innocent or hurting the wicked. Jesus seeks to clean out the temple of evil and injustice. He herds out animals, knocks over tables, messes up the tills of swindlers, and spends some time quoting scripture and teaching. Had Jesus committed violence, attacked people, and implemented what my friend calls "religious terrorism" then we might call this Jesus Dirty-Ups the Temple. Had Jesus whipped people with chords violently then we certainly wouldn't call this a cleansing. It'd be an attack. It'd be proof that Christ didn't walk His talk.
As it stands, Jesus does walk His talk and lives out His Lordship through His cleansing of the temple. At no point does He compromise His love for enemies or love for victims. He displays himself perfectly. He disrupts the evil and injustice around His people. He preaches the Word of God. He teaches. He possibly even points to His coming sacrifice through living metaphor. Jesus doesn't dirty up the place in the least. He cleans it. May we, like Christ, keep our hands clean as we seek to clean the world around us from evil with love, authority, and power.