Jesus once said that he came to minister to the lost sheep of the household of Israel (Matt. 15:24). And that he most certainly did. But like the OT prophets before him, he did not lose sight of the implications of the Abrahamic promise for Gentiles. Is it possible that this same concern formed some of the background for Jesus’ cleansing(s) of the temple (John 2:13-22; Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:1-19; and Luke 19:45-46)?
Certainly the first thing that should be noted about our Lord’s confrontation with the money changers in the temple (especially in the Johannine account) was that he asserted royal prerogatives over the temple. He was the Son of God and this was his Father’s house (remember his comments as a twelve year old in Luke 2:49 that he must be in his Father’s house?). The sacred presincts of the temple had been invaded by the mundane commercial interests of the money changers (even though they ostensibly set up shop to assist the Israelite pilgrims in purchasing sacrificial animals and exchanging monies to pay the temple tax). But Jesus’ concern (again most clearly seen in John’s account-whether it is the same temple cleansing or a different one from that recorded in the Synoptics) is to point out that he had come to replace the temple. Jesus in himself embodied the temple of God in the midst of his people. In Exodus and Leviticus we see that the tabernacle (later replaced by the temple) was the place where God dwelled in the midst of his people (bounded as they were on all four sides in the Israelite encampment. God desired to commune with his people as he was their God and they were his people. Jesus was now saying that he was the center of communion with God (John 1:14). Rather than animal sacrifices needing to be offered endlessly, he would offer himself up once for all as the perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 9). If you would commune with God you must now come through Jesus. Paul will later note that by virtue of our close union with Christ, the church as the people of God would be a temple of the Holy Spirit too (1st Corinthians 3 & 6).
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. The temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem was the place where God’s people communed with God and he with them. Over the years some thought that the temple was the rightful possession of ethnic Israel alone. However, from the beginning it was God’s intent that his people include those from other tribes, tongues, and nations. Hints of this come to us in the stories of Rahab in Joshua 2 and in the delightful story of Ruth. God’s intent was signaled long before that in the calling of Abraham. While Abraham is the father of the Hebrew nation, he was a Gentile when God called him away from Ur of the Chaldees. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12 and reiterated many times thereafter to Abraham and then to his progeny and to Israel). Gentiles could become members of Israel.
The Herodian temple in Jesus’ day reflected this reality. There was a court of the Gentiles, a court of women, a court of men, and a court of priests. All these were outside the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Gentiles, as Gentiles, could only go as far as their court on pain of death. While Jesus came to minister to the lost sheep of Israel he did not forget the lost sheep outside Israel. Consider what he says in Mark 11 when he clears the tables of the money changers and forges a whip: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers?” Why was Jesus so mad at the money changers? Was it because they were capitalists? That is highly unlikely. But they did make it impossible for Gentiles whom God may have been drawing to himself to find solace and communion in the house of prayer. Consider the background of our Lord’s comments. He was actually citing Isaiah 56 which says the following in its larger context of verses 1-8: Thus says the LORD: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2 Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” 3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 8 The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (ESV)
While our Lord’s main thrust was to minister to Israel, those who were not of the household of Israel upon whom God had set his love were not far from his mind. In fact the context of Jesus’ comments about his limited focus is his interaction with the Canaanite woman who exhibited faith (Matt. 15:21-28). Now we do need to state that Gentiles were not acceptable to God because they were naturally religious or moral nor were they acceptable merely because they were sincere. The acceptability of Gentiles and Jews is on the same basis: faith in Jesus Christ. And that brings us back around to Jesus as the temple. If Jesus grew angry when the money changers kept God-fearing Gentiles out of the court of the Gentiles, what does he think of all the trappings and accoutrements in the modern church that get in the way of the gospel? Jesus is the only way sinners can enter into fellowship with a holy and good and righteous God. Period.
Jesus replaced the temple as the place of communion between God and his people. And now it is quite clear that the people of God come from every tribe, and tongue, and nation. Do we provide access to the gospel or is it cluttered by other things (things that may be fine in themselves)? Only you can answer that question.