Is Selling Stuff at Church Okay?
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Dueling interpretations of this story, one of the Bible’s most famous, became a battle ground in churches when I was a young preacher, starting in the ministry. People were arguing whether or not singing groups should be allowed to sell their albums and cassettes in a church house. By the way, this was happening at the same time we were debating the propriety of guitars and drums in worship. We hadn’t progressed far enough yet to be quarrelling the use of saxophones in church.
At Dad’s church we had a church member who told a group they could come sing at our church, and sell their wares. When the singers arrived, some people complained. The man who invited them told my dad, who had no strong feelings either way on the subject, he had better tell the group to remove their items for sale. Dad grudgingly acquiesced and did this, but it left a bad taste in his mouth.
This seemed to be a watershed event for Dad. Henceforth he let groups bring in their items to sell, and little fuss was ever made about it. Dad, and later I, decided Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was not as much about the merchandise as it was about the hearts of the leaders. He could see their greedy inner cores. What they were doing was merely an outward proof of the thieves they inwardly were.
This story from my past conveys a good reminder to us. Be careful about treating our interpretations as if they are absolutes. It might come back to bite us.
Dad’s generation preached against playing pool, owning a deck of cards, mixed bathing, owning a TV, going to see a movie, repeal of Prohibition, women wearing pants, men having long hair, Elvis, The Beatles, etc. I never preached against any of these things, but I did have my own list of transitory things I treated like everlasting truths: dancing (I’ve still not totally conceded on this one yet), accepting non-Southern Baptist immersion, stores being open on Sunday, missing church on Wednesday night, anti-Catholicism, not wearing suits to Sunday church.
Ever remember, Scripture does not change, but the times do, cultures do, and our interpretations do. We need to speak our beliefs straightforwardly yet humbly.
Matt. 21:12b Holman . . .and drove out all those buying and selling in the
Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once near the beginning of His public ministry (JN 2:14-15), and once near the end. This extensive market was called “The Bazaars of Annas.” When Annas was a young man, the Romans deposed him as High Priest. But through intrigue and manipulation, Annas retained power for decades by using his five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas as puppet high priests.
The mall in the temple was started with good intentions, as a convenience for travelers. On a long trip, bringing money was much easier than transporting an animal. The selling started out good, but went bad due to greed. Somewhere along the way, the merchants crossed the line from being servants to being robbers.
At the temple, for an animal to be offered, it had to be without blemish. Corrupt, bribed inspectors made it impossible to offer any animal other than those sold in the temple. They could always find a flaw in any animal. Once sellers had the monopoly, prices soared, and what had begun as a blessing became a curse.
Beware. This sin is easy to slide into. People who make their own personal income from other people’s piety, as I do, are ever in danger of succumbing to this evil. There is always money to be had in religious dealings. Desperate people will pay anything for help. Their distress can open the door to unscrupulous charlatans.
As your Pastor, I urge you to investigate any agency you give money to. Be assured our 18 ministry partners in Springfield are trustworthy. They have earned and deserve our confidence. This need for accountability can be one advantage of a local church. Checks and balances are often set in place, built into the system.
Jesus could not tolerate what He saw in His Father’s house. Seeing a money altar this close to God’s altar was blasphemous to Him. He was rightly furious.
Before we decide to imitate Jesus’ anger, remember, He showed anger not for Himself, but only for His Father and others. This is a good rule to monitor anger by. Be upset if God and others are hurt, but don’t be mad for ourselves.
Control anger; use it sparingly. At the same time, I remind us its opposite, apathy, is not a spiritual gift. Silence in the presence of wrong carries its own guilt.
Jesus was visibly upset with people who made it hard for others to worship God in His own house. Jesus felt compelled to prove He and His Father, not Annas and money, were the Lord of the temple. Jesus had left Heaven in order to come to Israel, the spiritual center of the world, and then to Jerusalem, the center of Israel, and then to the temple, the center of Jerusalem, to make a statement about what God values most. His chief priority is ever enriching His relationships with people.
Humans, as spiritual beings, were created to relate to God, who is spirit. This has to be preeminent, but the religious leaders were obstructing rather than helping people achieve in the temple this primary purpose for the building’s very existence.
This is no minor matter, for when people worship God wrongly, everything else goes wrong. The ills of any society can usually be traced to incorrect notions about God. This is why society is best altered by regeneration, not reformation. The finest way to change a culture is to change people’s hearts. Our worst problem as humans is always abandonment of God. The nation that forgets God is turned into hell. The overt sins that besmirch a culture are but manifestations of a deeper, more serious, difficulty. The crying need is for people to be made right with God.
We need to be reminded of this because, as Christians, we care about pains and injustices we see. It is easy for our hearts to let social causes monopolize our thoughts and actions. We do need to relieve physical hurts, but must keep salvation as our primary objective. It is our best way of showing real love to others.
Matt. 21:12c He overturned the money changers’ tables . . .
In the temple, people were forbidden to use ordinary money as an offering to God. A heathen symbol or picture rendered coins unacceptable. Money changers pilfered a king’s ransom by shoving righteous money across the table, which kept returning to them through the offering receptacles. Meanwhile, dirty money they received in exchange for holy money stacked up. It wasn’t good enough for God, but made Annas’ family rich. The money was rolling, and Jesus couldn’t stand it.
He cleansed the temple by Himself. Jesus did not have an army with Him. He did this purging alone, yet the sellers “scurried from Him like vermin from the light” (IDB). Why? One, they knew Jesus was popular. They had seen and heard the crowd as He entered Jerusalem. Two, the tradesmen knew the people didn’t like them to start with. Decades later the masses rebelled against this merchandizing. Religious swindlers are still considered among the most despicable of any society.
Three, the dealers probably had guilty consciences. They knew what they were doing to honest, God-fearing, hardworking people. David Thomas well said, “Men will flee as panic-struck cowards before the ghosts of their own crimes”. Poe’s telltale heart still beats loud and clear in guilty people’s consciences.
Matt. 21:12d . . .and the chairs of those selling doves.
Doves were the offering of the poor, God’s provision for those who could not afford a cow or lamb. This is one reason we know Jesus’ parents were poor. They offered doves at His birth. Oh the burden this bazaar put on the poor. They had to scrape to buy one dove, and if they wanted to show extra love by buying another to offer God, the more they were penalized. The holier a person wanted to be, the harder their life was. The sellers cheated the poor by taking advantage of their piety. What was meant to be a benefit for the poor degenerated into a burden.
Do not think Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is ancient history, having no bearing on us today. Jesus still needs to come cleanse His people. He is the only one who can do this. We must seek His face, and plead for Him to glorify Himself, whatever the cost. We have to be willing to be changed. It ultimately hinges on us.
Jesus was able to cleanse the temple, but the religious leaders wouldn’t let Him cleanse their hearts. Let’s not be like them. From preacher to back pew, let’s admit our sins, and yield ourselves to knowing cleansing is our primary need.
When Jesus comes in answer to His people’s prayers, no church can remain impure. As people draw closer to Him, all around them is touched with holiness. He may choose to cleanse us through persecutions or failures or setbacks. Are we willing to pray “Whatever it takes, Lord Jesus. Do a mighty work in me first”?