The Whip of Christ
Recently I heard the story of a man who felt called to be a pastor, so he enrolled in a prestigious seminary up north. But things didn’t go as this student expected. During his first semester, a professor questioned many of his beliefs about Moses. The next semester, another prof deconstructed many of his ideas about David. And then at the start of his third semester, his teacher questioned whether the Bible actually taught many of this student’s firmly held beliefs about Jesus. Well that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After class one day, this student went down to the cafeteria, grabbed some food, and made his way to a table. Then, in the midst of this crowded dining hall, the student, while still standing, slammed his tray full of food on the table and shouted at the top of his lungs, “You can mess with Moses. And you can mess with David. But don’t mess with my Jesus!”
What a great line. “Don’t mess with my Jesus.” Sometimes I feel the same way, and that’s because Jesus is special. See, Jesus came to show us what God is like and also what we are to be like. When our conception of Jesus gets messed with, it calls into question our understanding of God and our understanding of how we are to live in this world. The whole experience can be incredibly painful.
This morning we’re going to reflect on a passage from the Gospel of John that seems to mess with our understanding of what Jesus is like. It’s found in the second chapter of John, beginning with verse 13. Here’s what John writes there:
13 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those selling cattle and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers doing business. 15 When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle, and he also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. 16 And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” ~ John 2:13-16 (NKJV)
Wow! Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, as this story has come to be called, is described in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John … they each describe this event. But the Gospel of John is the only one that mentions Jesus using a whip. Did you catch that? Jesus has armed himself with a whip! What is going on here?
I mean, whatever happened to all of Jesus’ talk about loving enemies? Did Jesus forget to practice what he preached? This Jesus doesn’t remind me of the Prince of Peace. This Jesus reminds me of our modern-day action heroes. He’s like Chuck Norris, flipping tables and fighting bad guys. He’s like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Jews. Jesus pulls out a whip and starts lashing people in the temple. And he’s like Robin Hood stealing from the rich moneychangers and pouring out their coins for the impoverished masses to reclaim. Gone is the nice, kind, gentle Jesus we’ve grown accustomed to, and in his place we find an angry, aggressive, even violent Jesus.
In fact, John’s account of the temple cleansing is the one and only time in all of the Gospels in which Jesus appears to get violent. And that’s problematic, for you see the sad reality is, the Church has a long and checkered history of latching on to this image of a whip-wielding Jesus and using it to justify horrendous acts of violence. Augustine, for example, used this passage to justify slaughtering heretics. John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer, defended burning people at the stake with this Gospel story. And the Knights Templar of the Second Crusade were told by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux to [quote], “Go forth confidently and repel the foes of Christ, who armed his most holy hands with a whip.”
For those of us that cling to the cross of Christ instead of the whip of Christ, John’s account of the temple cleansing can really mess with our understanding of Jesus. Many don’t know what to do with this text. So they simply ignore it. And that’s a tragedy. For you see, I believe God inspired John to include this story for a reason. And when rightly understood, this passage actually deepens and enriches our understanding of Jesus in a very good way. So this morning, we’re going to reexamine John’s account of Jesus cleansing the temple. We’re going to spend most of our time debunking the popular claim that John depicts Jesus as being violent … as physically hurting or injuring people. Once we dispel with this violent depiction of Jesus, I’ll end by suggesting a different way of reading the text.
So let me begin by trying to debunk the common belief that John depicts Jesus as being violent. And to do that, we’re going to venture an answer to this question: Did Jesus whip people? What do you think? Does John’s account of the temple cleansing state that Jesus whipped people, or that the whip was merely used as a tool to herd animals out of the temple? Well, let’s act like investigative reporters and examine the actual evidence contained in this passage. Prepare yourselves! We are about to dive deep into the details of this text. And let’s begin by examining what John actually says about the whip itself:
According to John, when Jesus entered the temple and saw the animal-sellers and moneychangers making a huge profit off religion, Jesus then “made a whip out of cords”. In other words, John explicitly states that Jesus made the whip once he was already in the temple. And what’s more, John even names the material Jesus used to construct his whip. Jesus made his whip out of cords. Now, the Greek word being translated here as “cords” is sxoini/wn. And sxoini/wn is the Greek word for “rushes or reeds that are peeled apart into strips similar to rattan or wicker material.” We still use this kind of material today to make things like wicker baskets.
Well, when I learned this, I went out and bought a long roll of wicker material. Then I worked hard, took my time, tried multiple designs, and eventually, this is the most intimidating whip I could construct. Not very scary, is it? In fact, I doubt this whip is even capable of causing bodily harm to others. If Jesus started wildly waving a whip like this at people, I’m not sure if they would have fled in fear or fallen over laughing. I think the best we can say about my creation is that it’s somewhat like a whip. It’s a rough approximation of a whip.
And that, my friends, is a very interesting observation, because the two oldest manuscripts that we have of the Gospel of John, along with multiple other manuscripts, they each include the Greek word “hose” immediately before the word for whip. And the word “hose” means to approximate something. For example, in Luke 22 the word “hose” is used to state that Jesus sweat something like blood while praying on the Mount of Olives. So, if “hose” was originally included in John’s account of the temple cleansing, which is what the earliest manuscripts suggest, then the passage reads that Jesus “made something like a whip out of cords.” Jesus made “a whip of sorts from cords”. So maybe Jesus’ whip did look a lot like my pathetic excuse of a whip.
Either way, here’s what we know for sure: John’s Gospel does not describe a well-designed instrument of torture. Jesus’ whip was not constructed by a skilled craftsman under ideal conditions with choice materials and plenty of time. Rather, it was a makeshift whip that Jesus assembled from a limited selection of materials and likely in haste.
OK, let’s move on and examine the second piece of evidence, which is the location of this event—the temple. If Jesus had violently threatened or injured anyone in the temple with the whip, it’s difficult to explain why security personnel did not intervene. For you see, the temple employed armed guards and Roman soldiers were stationed at a fortress immediately next door. This fortress had a tall tower from which the soldiers kept watch over the temple below. And their primary task was to intervene if unrest ever erupted in the temple. Such unrest occurred, for example, in Acts 21 when the temple crowd tried to kill Paul. And as you may recall, the Roman soldiers quickly intervened and put a stop to the violence. So, if Jesus had whipped people in the temple, it’s difficult to explain why the Roman soldiers and temple guards did not intervene.
Sheep & Cattle:
The third piece of evidence has to do with what we know about the sheep and cattle. For starters, we know from historical records that cattle herders and shepherds used whips, similar to the one Jesus constructed, as a tool, not to injure their animals, but rather to move them from place to place. In other words, the sheep and cattle were use to being herded with a whip. What’s more, Jesus was likely already standing by the sheep and cattle. For you see, the prevailing theory amongst scholars is that Jesus “likely fashioned his whip from the rushes used as bedding for the sheep and cattle.” It’s hard to explain where else one would find this sort of wicker-like material in the temple. If that theory is correct, and it is our best guess, then it means Jesus was already with the sheep and cattle. And third, if Jesus wanted to remove the animal-sellers from the temple, all he needed to do was cause their source of income to flee the scene. By driving the sheep and cattle out of the temple with a whip, Jesus would have been able to remove the animals and their sellers, for the sellers would very likely have gone chasing after their income.
The Greek Text:
Ultimately, all the evidence we’ve considered thus far does little to prove that Jesus only whipped animals if John clearly states in the original Greek text that Jesus whipped people. So the time has come to finally look at what John actually says in the middle of verse 15.
According to the NKJV, which is the version I read at the start of the sermon, the first half of verse 15 reads: “When he had made a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle.” That sure makes it sound like Jesus whipped both the people and the animals. But other translations, like the NRSV and NIV, make it sound like Jesus only whipped the sheep and cattle. For example, the NRSV reads: “And making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” So which is it? What does the original Greek text actually say?
Pantas – All:
If we translate the Greek quite literally, without smoothing it out in English, the crucial sentence begins: “He drove out from the temple all.” It doesn’t say “all of them” in the Greek. It just has the word “all”. He drove out from the temple all. Now, if John had stopped the sentence right there, and left off the closing part about sheep and cattle, then there would be absolutely no way for us to determine if the word all is referring to the moneychangers and animal-sellers or to the sheep and cattle. Grammatically speaking, the word all can refer to either group.
Dove-Sellers Still In Temple:
So at this point, some scholars simply use the narrative itself to determine which group the word “all” is referring to. They point out that John can’t be saying Jesus drove out all of the animal-sellers with a whip because the very next verse tells us that the dove-sellers are still in the temple. In verse 16 we find Jesus ordering the dove-sellers to remove their birds from the temple.
Te … Kai … Phrases:
While this is a fairly convincing argument for Jesus only whipping animals, I’ve saved the most compelling evidence for last. For you see, John didn’t stop with the word all. The full sentence reads: “He drove out from the temple all, te the sheep kai the cattle.” Our quest to discover if Jesus whipped people or just animals ultimately depends how we translate this te … kai … phrase. Thankfully, these te … kai … phrases are quite common. They occur 90 times in the New Testament, once here in verse 15 and 89 times elsewhere. And here’s the staggering reality: When you look at the phrase’s other 89 uses in the New Testament, translators are in complete agreement that in every one of those instances, the phrase is clearly telling us what its subject is comprised of. Every single time. 89 out of 89 times. Without exception. So let me show you a few examples of how this phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible:
- Acts 8:12 reads, “When the crowds believed Philip …, they were baptized, both men and women.” The phrase “both men and women” is a te … kai … Te men kai women. So, let me ask you: Who were the “they” that got baptized in this verse? The “they” were comprised of “both men and women.”
- Or consider 1 Corinthians 1:24. There, Paul wrote, “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks.” Who were those that had been called? The called were comprised of both Jews and Greeks. te Jews kai
Now, wouldn’t it be great if there were other occurrences in the Bible of a te…kai… phrase modifying the word “all”, just like it does in John 2:15? Well, guess what! There are 10 other times in the New Testament when a te…kai… phrase modifies the word “all”. And guess what? In each of those ten occurrences, the te…kai… phrase tells us what the “all” is comprised of. Check out these two examples:
- Matthew 22:10 “[The master’s servants] went out into the streets and gathered all, both good and” Who were the all that the servants gathered? The all were comprised of both good and bad.
- Acts 19:10 speaks of “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and” Who were all the residents of Asia comprised of? They were comprised of both Jews and Greeks.
So, when John wrote that Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out from the temple all, te the sheep kai the cattle … John was telling us what the all was comprised of. The all was comprised of both the sheep and the cattle. “And making a whip of cords,” John wrote, “Jesus drove out from the temple all, both the sheep and the cattle.” In other words, Jesus did not whip people. To claim that he did is to translate the te…kai… phrase of John 2:15 in a way that its never used anywhere else. Simply put, there is zero evidence to support the claim that John depicts Jesus whipping people. He did not. All the evidence supports what the Greek text actually says: Jesus used the whip to drive the sheep and cattle out of the temple.
OK, well, we’ve covered a lot of ground in a little time. But we can’t stop quite yet. For you see, even if you now believe that John does not depict Jesus as violently hurting people with a whip, this text can still seem problematic. While he may not be hurting people, Jesus still seems angry, assertive and aggressive. Jesus is still flipping over tables, pouring out coins, and giving a good tongue-lashing to the dove-sellers. So how do we make sense of that?
You may recall that at the start of the sermon today I stated that I believe God inspired John to include this story for a reason. When rightly understood, I believe this passage deepens our understanding of Jesus in a very good way. I believe it advances our efforts to faithfully follow in the footsteps of our Prince of Peace.
So, let me end by proposing a different way of interpreting Jesus’ actions. Imagine this scenario if you will: One day a father unexpectedly gets off work early. So he heads home, opens the front door and walks into his living room only to discover that his teenage daughter and her friends are injecting heroin into their veins. Instantly, his heart breaks at the sight of what he just stumbled upon. So he walks over to the card table that has all of the drug paraphernalia on it and he flips it over. Then he grabs the five-dollar-bags of heroin, goes into the bathroom and pours them into the toilet and gives it a good flush. Then finally he walks back into the living room, looks his daughter and her friends in the eye and says while choking back tears, “Your bodies are the temple of God. But you’re destroying them and turning them into a wasteland!”
Now, was this parent angry, assertive and aggressive? I suppose you could view his actions that way. Did the parent flip over tables, pour out drugs, and give the teens a firm lecture. You bet he did. But I suspect most of us would agree that these were the actions of a parent who deeply loved his daughter and even her friends. His actions were motivated by love, by a deep desire to not see these teens destroy their lives with bad choices.
I want to submit for your consideration that the same sort of love motivated Jesus’ actions in the temple. Was Jesus angry, assertive and aggressive? I suppose you could view his actions that way. Did Jesus flip over tables, pour out coins, and give a firm lecture to those making a huge profit off religion? You bet he did. And each of those actions was motivated by love. A love that refused to sit idly by and allow the animal-sellers and moneychangers to frustrate God’s good intentions for them and for others.
Far from messing with our understanding of Jesus, John’s account of the temple cleansing actually deepens and enriches our understanding of Jesus. If I had to summarize the main lesson for today in one short sound bite it would be this:
John does not describe Jesus as being violent; rather, John teaches us that Jesus was not passive. This story teaches us that Jesus refused to idly sit by and do nothing when faced with a situation that was not right. For those of us that seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our Prince of Peace, we must learn to not remain passive in the face of injustice. Motivated by love, we too must actively contend for the restoration of others. We must lovingly strive to make things right. That’s what I believe John wants to teach us today from his account of Jesus cleansing the temple.