The day Jesus was crucified became the turning point of history. On the cross, the penalty of sin was paid so that the veil separating us from God was torn in two. (See Matt. 27:51.) But at the temple, a few days before Good Friday, Jesus did something else to show His Father’s love to those who are broken, who live their lives on the margins.
THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE
That day, as always, the air was filled with shouting vendors and bleating sheep, sounds that had to compete for one’s attention with the smell of bustling crowds and livestock in the mid-afternoon sun. Though the outer court of the temple was large, everywhere Jesus looked He saw business being transacted as men exchanged money and sold animal sacrifices.
Jews could not pay the temple tax with Roman currency, as it bore Caesar’s image, so money-changers were available in the courts, ready to trade forbidden money for proper coinage—at a small profit, of course. Also, only unblemished creatures were offered to God, so priests were on hand to consider prospective sacrifices and exchange those beasts they deemed unacceptable—again, at a premium.
Upon viewing the scene, Jesus was filled with righteous anger. According to John’s account, He took the time to make a whip of cords (John 2:15). Then He drove out all who were buying and selling—sending sheep and oxen stampeding and birds flying in all directions. He poured out the money that had been collected and flipped over the merchants’ tables. And then He proclaimed, “It is written, ‘And My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a robbers’ den” (Luke 19:46; cf. Isa. 56:7).
It didn’t matter whether he had been born a Jew or a Gentile, what he had done, or what had been done to him. The eunuch’s status could not keep him from God’s love.
There was something more insidious going on than simply making a quick buck, however. The sellers and moneychangers had set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place that non-Jews and those with physical impairments could worship. As Jesus whipped the outer court of the temple into a frenzy, displacing both man and beast, He was likely thinking of those on the fringes—people like the Ethiopian eunuch, whom we read about in Acts 8.
THE CLEANSING OF AN ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH
The words lodged in his mind and heart. He tried to read on but kept coming back to the same few lines on the scroll:
He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth (Acts 8:32-33 NIV; cf. Isa. 53:7-8).
Who can speak of his descendants? The Ethiopian eunuch knew how it felt to live with the knowledge that your family line would die with you. He would never be a husband, never be a father. He had given up those dreams in service to Candace, his queen. For her safety, male royal officials who worked closely with the queen were castrated. And there was no comfort for him, not even when he traveled to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel.
The Bible doesn’t tell us whether the Ethiopian was a Jew by birth, a convert to Judaism, or simply a Gentile who feared God. Whatever the case, he would have been barred from the temple proper and relegated to the outer Court of the Gentiles. The genital mutilation he suffered kept him from full participation in the temple rites. (See Deut. 23:1.) Each time he visited the Holy City, he was reminded that, apparently, God did not—and would not—fully embrace him.
Jesus had people like the Ethiopian eunuch in mind when He cleansed the temple and removed the first of many barriers between God and His beloved.
Scripture tells us that as he pondered the prophet Isaiah’s words on his journey home from Jerusalem, he noticed a man named Phillip walking alongside his chariot. “Do you understand what you are reading?” the man asked (Acts 8:30). By the looks of him, the man was a Jew, so the eunuch invited him into the vehicle and asked, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this?” (Acts 8:34).
Philip explained that Isaiah described the death of Jesus—the Son-of-God-come-to-earth whose life had been cut short for the sake of those He loved. He bore our shame and became our brokenness so that we might be welcomed into the Father’s presence. It didn’t matter whether he had been born a Jew or a Gentile, what he had done, or what had been done to him. The eunuch’s status could not keep him from God’s love.
THE CLEANSING OF US ALL
Though it’s never stated directly, I believe Jesus had people like the Ethiopian eunuch in mind when He cleansed the temple and removed the first of many barriers between God and His beloved. Jesus’ declaration that His Father’s house would be a house of prayer comes from Isaiah 56, where we also read:
For thus says the Lord, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off ” (Isa. 56:4-5).
An everlasting name. Jesus’ actions were prophetic. He was looking forward to a day when a new people, regardless of their race, history, or social standing, would be welcomed into God’s very presence and receive an inheritance far greater than sons or daughters.
By rights, every one of us is a spiritual eunuch at birth. We deserve to be on the outside, far removed from any flicker of God’s goodness. But through Jesus, we are beckoned to come near. Our sins removed. Our brokenness healed. We can receive the joy that Jesus Himself knew, because we, too, can know the Father. In God’s kingdom, no one is a second-class citizen. Each of us can have the joy of the Lord because the Son has carried away our sorrows.
Illustrations by Drew Melton and Patrick White