As the Holy Spirit has recently been called the “forgotten” member of the Trinity, so well it might be said that righteous anger is the forgotten attribute of Jesus. Today, unwavering tolerance is viewed the ultimate defining characteristic of love, but tolerance, as defined by the present generation, certainly did not seem to define our Lord Jesus. For Him, in order for love to be true, it must necessarily seek justice, display mercy, and clear all obstacles between humanity and God. This led Jesus to display not only outrageous displays of sacrifice and grace, but of holy, righteous anger. Christ’s character is of such a perfect quality that even his anger is profusely filled with love. As Charles Spurgeon wrote, “He could be angry with the sin and yet never cease to compassionate the sinner. His was not anger which desired evil to its object… it was simply love on fire.”[i] Jesus’s love was so great that it compelled him to Calvary to drink down the wrath of God that his chosen flock might be redeemed, and his anger too was toward that end. The righteous anger of Jesus is most predominately displayed when the lost, whom he came to seek and save, are hindered from true fellowship with God.
God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”[ii] but contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that God does not get angry.[iii] Indeed, as Mark Driscoll has said, “if you love people, you’re going to hate injustice. The fact that we do love means we must hate. The fact that we have joy requires that we also will be angry.”[iv] If I love children, I must hate child pornography & abuse. Jesus, because He so fully loves both God and mankind, necessarily hates anything that hinders the relationship between the two.
There are three major scenes in the gospels which most explicitly display the righteous anger of Jesus: (1) the healing of the man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), (2) the temple cleansings, which will be examined together (John 2:13-22; Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), and (3) the address of woes to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-36).
The Healing of a Man with a Withered Hand
First, near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus quickly began to draw clear battle lines between himself and the Pharisees. Now the Pharisees tried to diligently follow God’s Law, but Jesus came and challenged the very foundation of their faith- that obedience to the law was the very essence of Israelite religion. Not only did Jesus’s teaching threaten the Pharisees’ religious beliefs, but their societal authority also very much depended on their position being right.
Now in Mark 2:23-28, the Pharisees, as was their habit, tried to find a way to challenge Jesus. They found the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath and confronted them according to their interpretation of the Sabbath law. Jesus defended their actions by first citing a Biblical example as a precedent for their actions, and then he asserted two things definitively: that the Sabbath was created to be blessing to mankind and that he, as Lord over everything, essentially, can do whatever he so pleases.
This intense confrontation at the end of Mark 2 helped to set up an even more dramatic Sabbath confrontation at the beginning of Mark 3. This time Jesus deliberately enters the synagogue to provoke the Pharisees on the Sabbath. There was a man with a withered hand, and the Pharisees wanted to see if Jesus would break Sabbath tradition. As Donald English relates, “Rabbinic teaching allowed for Sabbath healing if life was in danger, but that is not so here. Having narrowed the focal point to one man, Jesus now widens the question to a general principle.”[v]
Jesus said to the Pharisees, “’Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”[vi] Jesus is angry that these teachers of God’s law would so willingly stop their ears to his plain truth and that their hearts would be so utterly unfeeling towards this suffering man. Throughout the Bible, God is said to hear the prayers of the afflicted[vii] and to defend them,[viii] and here the hearts of the teachers of God’s word are as cold as stone, preferring their religious rules to a miracle of God’s liberating grace.
More still, “They dared to sit in judgment upon the Lord… and yet all the while they professed great reverence for God and for His Law. Though they were fighting against God, they made the pretense of being very zealous for Him.”[ix] They were supposed to be teaching and modeling the path to God before the world, but when they came face to face with God himself, the Pharisees and scribes judged themselves holier and wiser. As they urged the nation of Israel to follow their practice, they pointed God’s people not to God, but towards themselves and towards self-righteousness, the most deadly path of all.
Since Jesus is the Lord of love, such a blatant indifference towards truth, a lack of love for men, and, most importantly, a Pied-Piper-like call towards destruction in the name of God, must lead him to grieved, righteous anger, with an aim to point back to himself as the one true way to life and God.
The Temple Cleansings
Second, our attention is turned to the temple cleansings. In John 2 Jesus and the disciples are headed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They arrive at the temple, and Jesus “found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and over-turned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade’.”[x]
Now, “the temple, together with the worship offered in it, represented Jewish life and religion.”[xi] It was meant to represent God’s glory & His presence among the people, but instead Jesus found that the business of worship had been made to serve the business of the marketplace. Jesus drives out the animals & flips the tables in order to clear the temple.
In an astonishing moment of insight uncharacteristic of the disciples, they remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[xii] If zeal is defined as great energy exercised towards a particular cause, then Jesus is passionately devoted to God’s glory & His worship. It is with a holy wrath & white-hot zeal for God’s glory that he cleared God’s house: “Where God’s name was to be praised it had been dishonored and besmirched. That was something Jesus would not tolerate, even if, humanly speaking, it would cost him his life.”[xiii]
Now it is exceedingly important to remember that Jesus does not get angry in the same way that men do. His anger, as his Father’s, is always justly directed, and it is always thoughtful & purposed. It is clear here that Jesus is not a reactionary flying into an uncontrolled rage, because he carefully & methodically took the time to make a whip. He knew exactly what he was going to do and why he was going to do it. Now, however, there remain other concerns. As John Calvin wrote, “We must admit this is an astonishing sight, the Servant-Messiah who is bound to suffer on the cross for the sins of the many, taking whip in hand and literally emptying the temple.”[xiv] Why, then does Jesus cleanse the temple, and why especially with a whip? There are two primary reasons that can be deduced from Scripture, though the second reason will become more obvious at the second temple cleansing.
The first reason that Jesus gives that he clears the temple is that his Father’s house had become a “house of trade.”[xv] During Passover, pious Jews would come from all over Israel to celebrate the greatest moment in their nation’s history, God’s divine liberation of the nation from bondage to Egypt. They and their families would come to worship, celebrate, and sacrifice together. With some having travelled considerable distance, it was necessary for many families to purchase animals for sacrifice once they had arrived in Jerusalem, so, naturally, a marketplace arose. As Matthew Henry relates, this market had probably originally been located by the pool of Bethseda, but the priests eventually moved it into the temple itself, into the Court of the Gentiles: “for, no doubt, the rents for standing there, and fees for searching the beasts sold there, and certifying that they were without blemish, would be a considerable revenue to them.”[xvi]
As the priests began to profit from the proximity of the peddlers, the peddlers themselves seized the opportunity and began to charge higher and higher prices for their livestock or for exchanging money. In reality, they were extorting people who had come to worship and therefore, as Mark Driscoll said, “It’s not just selling products. It’s really extorting people. And it’s not even just making a simple profit; it’s making an exorbitant profit on the backs of poor people coming to meet with God… And so Jesus was furious.”[xvii]
If extortion was practiced in the house of God, it was communicating untrue things about God Himself. By analogy, if this kind of gouging was permissible in the temple under the auspices of God’s own priests, the people could reasonably be misled to believe that God Himself was unjust, cruel, exacting, and unreasonably demanding. Whereas the temple was meant to show the world that God desired relationship with mankind (though his holiness demanding sacrifice for reconciliation), instead it seemed to show that God was as money hungry and petty as mankind itself. As Tom Wright wrote, “If Israel began… to use the Temple and the promises attached to it as an excuse for immoral and unjust behavior, then the Temple itself could and would be judged.”[xviii] This false communication of the nature and character of temple & therefore of God Himself enraged Jesus and was one of the two primary reasons he cleared the temple.
While the first cleansing of the temple served as an inauguration of sorts, “Jesus went into the temple of God again… At the beginning of his ministry…the reforming Prophet intimated what was needed, and now the King proceeds to carry it out.”[xix] In Mark 11:15-19, a day after Jesus has triumphantly entered the Holy City, he comes into the temple and again overturns tables (thus fulfilling Malachi 3:1-5). Then he begins to teach them, saying, “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.”[xx]
Jesus combines Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 to display that his major point of contention is “that the place intended for Gentiles (‘all nations’) to pray, was being misused by the Jews for trade.”[xxi] How could the nations, whom God had always intended to rescue through Israel,[xxii] meet with the living God in prayer when their space was occupied with salesmen, bleating sheep, and the constant clinking of change? How could any non-Israelite know that God valued him when God’s representatives clearly thought so little of them? Unfortunately, the temple “had come to symbolize not God’s welcome to the nations but God’s exclusion of them.”[xxiii]
For him who so often went out of his way to display love to the forgotten and despised, surely this not only broke Jesus’s heart, but also pushed him to intense and righteous anger. He drove out the corrupt salesman “not for the sake of proper sacrifices but for the sake of prayer- in fact, prayer for all the nations… he focused attention away from the outward acts of Jewish sacrifices to the personal act of communion with God for all peoples.”[xxiv]
This was God’s ultimate desire- that people from every tribe and language and people and nations[xxv] would be able to freely meet with and worship the Maker of the universe. However, the conversion of the Court of the Gentiles into a bustling marketplace proved to be a great hindrance to the nations coming to know and fellowship with God- hindering some of the very people that Jesus would soon die to ransom.
God and, by equivalency of nature, Jesus, is slow to anger, but he is relentlessly determined to break down barriers to bring people to himself. Here again, Jesus’s anger is meant to point people away from false religion and to himself- the true temple. At the end of John 2, after Jesus had cleansed the temple for the first time, the Pharisees asked him what right he had to do such a thing. Jesus spoke metaphorically of his death and his body as the true temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”[xxvi] Zeal for God’s house consumed Jesus, but so did zeal for God’s enemies. His zeal would ultimately lead to His self-sacrificing death to display God’s glory and to make God’s enemies friends.
Woes to the Pharisees
Lastly, just a short while before he was to be delivered over to death, Jesus gives a stern warning to a crowd and to his disciples not to follow the damnable ways of the Pharisees, then turns to directly attack these religious leaders.[xxvii] Eight times Jesus pronounces woe upon them; seven times he calls them “hypocrites;” twice he calls them “blind guides;” once he calls them “vipers.”
Jesus’s virulent language may seem strange, because he is so often seen to display pity on the broken and those who do not know God.[xxviii] However, with these prideful, self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus is absolutely merciless. He clearly intends to make them look foolish before others and undermine their authority. His attacks are leveled at these wolves in sheep’s clothing in order to protect the sheep. As J.C. Ryle wrote, “They would not believe the Gospel themselves, and they did all in their power to prevent others believing it.”[xxix]
The only loving thing Jesus could do would be to redirect the attention and trust of his hearers from the religious leaders and to himself: “The scribes and Pharisees piled the great load upon them… how different was Christ’s teaching: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!’”[xxx]
While there are numerous warnings in Scripture against unrighteous anger[xxxi] through the lives and prayers of David,[xxxii] Nehemiah,[xxxiii] and Jesus himself, it is clear that anger can be a holy and righteous attribute. As Christians, Paul has encouraged us in fact to “be angry and do not sin,”[xxxiv] just as James has encouraged us to “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”[xxxv] How then do we reconcile these seemingly disparate opinions? How do we grow in discernment about when to confront someone boldly before others as Jesus did and when to when to lovingly remind someone of God’s unreserved love?
First, as we look back over these three scenes, we can see a common thread. Jesus’s righteous anger is displayed to clear obstacles standing between sinners and the true worship of God. He clears the temple to display God’s justice and his heart for the nations. He heals the crippled man to show God’s love for mankind and that mercy is indeed better than sacrifice. He rails on the Pharisees to awaken the people to the beauty that we can come to God solely on the basis of grace, not by works.
Therefore, taking Jesus’s slow yet perfect anger as our measure, we see that it is Christlike to angrily denounce injustice, oppression, unrighteousness paraded as righteousness, and false teachings about God. We should then, prayerfully and slowly, without regard to our reputations, as Christ had no regard for his own, be willing to boldly and angrily confront others in order that they or others may find freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ. On the campus for me, I think that this means a tactful but bold willingness to confront blatant hypocrisy in people’s lives and to undermine the authority of false teachers in order to point others to the truth, way, and life.
[i] C.H. Spurgeon, “Jesus Angry with Hard Hearts” (sermon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, UK, March 28, 1886), http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols31-33/chs1893.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013).
[ii] Exodus 34:6 (English Standard Version)
[iii] Deuteronomy 1:37, Zechariah 1:15, 1 Kings 11:9, etc.
[iv] Mark Driscoll, “Angry Jesus Cleanses the Temple” (sermon, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA, July 10, 2011),http://marshill.com/media/luke/angry-jesus-cleanses-the-temple (accessed April 5, 2013).
[v] Donald English, The Message of Mark, ed. John Stott, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), page 77.
[vi] Mark 3:4-5 (English Standard Version)
[vii] Psalm 10:17 (English Standard Version)
[viii] Psalm 72:4 (English Standard Version)
[ix] C.H. Spurgeon, “Jesus Angry with Hard Hearts” (sermon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, UK, March 28, 1886), http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols31-33/chs1893.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013).
[x] John 2:13-16 (English Standard Version)
[xi] Donald English, The Message of Mark, ed. John Stott, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 190.
[xii] Psalm 69:9 (English Standard Version)
[xiii] Sinclair B Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), page 185.
[xiv] John Calvin, “Commentary On John: Volume One,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library,http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.viii.ii.html (accessed April 5, 2013).
[xv] John 2:16 (English Standard Version)
[xvi] Matthew Henry, Commentary On the Whole Bible: Genesis to Revelation, ed. Leslie F Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961), page 1516.
[xvii] Mark Driscoll, “Angry Jesus Cleanses the Temple” (sermon, Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA, July 10, 2011),http://marshill.com/media/luke/angry-jesus-cleanses-the-temple (accessed April 5, 2013).
[xviii] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), page 151.
[xix] C.H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Popular Exposition of Matthew (1893; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1962), page 178.
[xx] Mark 11:17 (English Standard Version)
[xxi] Sinclair B Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), page 190.
[xxii] See Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 22:27-28, Psalm 86:9, Isaiah 49:6, etc.
[xxiii] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), page 152.
[xxiv] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), page 217.
[xxv] Revelation 5:9 (English Standard Version)
[xxvi] John 2:19 (English Standard Version)
[xxvii] Matthew 23:1-39 (English Standard Version)
[xxviii] See Matthew 9:36, Matthew 20:34, Mark 1:40, etc.
[xxix] J.C. Ryle, Matthew and Mark, vol. 1 of Expository Thoughts On the Gospels (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), page 302.
[xxx] C.H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Popular Exposition of Matthew (1893; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1962), page 205.
[xxxi] See Proverbs 14:29, James 1:20, etc.
[xxxii] See Psalm 139:19-22
[xxxiii] See Nehemiah 5:6
[xxxiv] Ephesians 4:26 (English Standard Version)
[xxxv] James 1:19 (English Standard Version)