Let me begin by setting my cards on the table: I am a libertarian-leaning, conservative, reformed Christian. I believe that the abuse of government power is a massive issue not only now but in every age. I also believe that the violent rioting and looting is despicable behavior and likely to result in the one thing neither I nor the true protesters want – a more militarized police force and the expansion of the police state.
Though I have opinions (fairly well-read, I hope) on politics and economics, I am not trained in either discipline. However, I have received fairly extensive training in one particular discipline: biblical interpretation. It is to that I now turn, because for weeks now I’ve consistently seen Jesus’ cleansing of the temple used as justification for rioting and looting. From memes which say, “Destruction of property is not a valid form of protest” and then have a picture of Jesus flipping tables, to social media posts which claim saying that if you are against the rioting and looting you would be against Jesus, it seems that our culture wants to conceive of Jesus as a political revolutionary and use Him to substantiate the events taking place in cities across the United States.
However, if there’s anything I’m good at sniffing out, it’s specious exegesis and poor hermeneutics, and this fits the bill in spades. In the following eight points, I hope to show that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is no justification for rioting and looting. For those wishing to check my arguments against the Scripture (which I hope is all of you), the relevant passages are Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-25.
One more qualification before I get to the eight points. Contrary to what some may claim, nothing I say below in any way indicates that I believe the murder of George Floyd was anything but that: murder. He was a man created in the image of God and his death is a great injustice. However, I have not seen anyone appeal to Jesus to justify his murder, if I had, I would write about that as well. Now to the points.
1. Jesus Didn’t Loot
First and most obviously, there is absolutely zero evidence that Jesus looted the temple or took any money or property for Himself at all. The same could not be said of those rioters who have sacked stores and run away with their goods. Jesus was not motivated in any part by greed nor could He be accused of such, since He took nothing for Himself. Again, the same could not be said of those who loot stores in “protest.”
2. Jesus Was Motivated by Pure Worship
Second and on the theme of motives, Jesus was motivated by zeal for the purity of God’s worship. John cites Psalm 69:9 and applies it to Jesus, saying “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” (John 2:19). Furthermore, Jesus was angry that the money-changers had turned God’s holy sanctuary into a hideout for thieves and robbers. He cites Isaiah 56:7 calling the temple a house of prayer for all nations and charges the money-changers as perverting it so that it is as Jeremiah said, “a den of robbers” (Jer. 7:11). Whatever motivation the rioters have, it is clearly not concern for the purity of God’s worship.
3. Jesus Was Fulfilling Scripture
Third, John’s citation of Psalm 69:11 shows us that when David was speaking in that Psalm, he was speaking as the anointed king of God’s people and a type of Jesus, the consummate king of God’s people. Jesus’ actions show Him to be the fulfillment of David’s Psalm and the Old Testament anticipation of a coming individual who would purify and refine God’s people with a refining fire (Mal. 3:2-5). The rioters are not fulfilling any Scriptures nor can Psalm 69:11 be interpreted as typological of them.
4. Jesus Was the Last Adam
Fourth, in cleansing the temple, Jesus was acting as the second and last Adam, fulfilling his priestly and kingly offices in guarding the sanctuary of God’s presence. Adam was tasked with the priestly duty of keeping and guarding the garden-temple (Gen. 2:15, Num. 3:8) and yet failed when he allowed the serpent to profane it by its presence. Significantly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all present Jesus as the second and last Adam at the beginning of his ministry through the temptation narrative. John does not recount the temptation of Christ but instead places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to point present Jesus as the anti-typical Adam. The actions of the looters have nothing to do with Adam except perhaps showing the effects of the Fall.
5. Jesus Acted Against Those Breaking the Law
Fifth, the money-changers in the temple, whose tables Jesus overturned, were actively breaking God’s law. Jesus was acting directly against those responsible for the sin of profaning God’s temple. They had turned it into a den of robbers and so Jesus overturns their tables. Jesus did not overturn the grocery carts in the local farmers’ markets, His actions were directed specifically at those who were breaking God’s law. The rioters, however, seem indiscriminate in their violence and their actions are directed against those who plainly have nothing to do with the death of George Floyd. Grocers in Philadelphia did not participate in a murder in Minneapolis.
6. Jesus Fulfilled the Temple
Sixth, in the Johannine account of the cleansing of the temple, the Jews question Him and ask for justification for His actions. In response, Jesus points to His own resurrection, saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The significance of this is that Jesus was showing that He was the fulfillment of what the temple pointed to all along. From the beginning, the temple was a new garden of Eden, a place where God met with His people. The most common name for the tabernacle in the Old Testament is “The Tent of Meeting.” In cleansing the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus not only shows Himself to be the second Adam and true Israelite but the anti-type of the temple itself, Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus’ action, then, was a redemptive-historical act moving towards His ultimate resurrection and exaltation, it was not merely an expression of frustration at injustice.
7. Jesus Was Perfect
Seventh, Jesus was born under the law (Gal. 4:4) and lived in perfect conformity to that law (Heb. 4:15). That law contained both the divine command, “You shall not murder,” but also the command “You shall not steal.” Jesus obeyed both of those laws perfectly, internally and externally, His entire life. As the God-man Jesus has perfect, holy wrath against murderers the likes of which these rioters could not fathom. Yet, it never led Him to sin and so break any of God’s laws (which are, according to His divine nature, His own laws). If Jesus is an example to us in any way (which He certainly is and much more), He is an example to obey all of God’s law and use violations of one command (murder) as a pretense to break another command (steal).
8. Jesus Was Unique
Eighth, Jesus’ action of cleansing the temple is never held up as one for which believers are encouraged to imitate. To be sure, Jesus is held up as an example in the New Testament (1 Pet. 2:21-25, 1 Cor. 11:1), but He is not an example in every way. Any hermeneutic of imitation must deal with the uniqueness of His person as the God-man and the uniqueness of His mission to accomplish God’s redemptive plan. When such theological concerns are taken into account, it becomes clear that there are many ways in which Jesus is not our example, such as, Christians should not (indeed, could not) imitate Jesus in atoning for the sins of others; Christians should not give pronouncements of binding divine law like Jesus (the new Moses) did in the Sermon on the Mount. Christians should not take unto themselves the authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins (ex. Mark 2:1-12). In all these examples, Jesus is acting as a unique figure (both ontologically and redemptive-historically) and therefore we cannot build a hermeneutic of imitation based on the assumption of a 1:1 correspondence between Jesus’ life and ours – there were things that it was perfectly legitimate for Jesus to do which would be utmost presumption for Christians to attempt.
There you go, eight reasons why you cannot use Jesus as a pretense for looting. Much more could be said about the significance of Jesus’ cleansing, its placement in the gospels, the nature of protests, the nature of property, the effectiveness of violent rioting, systemic racism, etc. But those are well beyond the scope of this article. The only thing I hope to do is set out the eight considerations you need to take into account before using Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as justification for the rioting and looting taking place today.