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The Story Before the Easter Story

Today, Good Friday, we recognize the crucifixion of Jesus which occurred nearly 2,000 years ago.  The following article explains why Jesus was crucified.  -- Tom Erdos

Before the Crucifixion

by Tom Erdos

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business."

 His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house will consume me."

 The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?"

 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

 The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

-- John 2:13-22

Jesus cleared the temple twice in his public ministry - once at the very beginning, and again at the very end. This is the story of the first clearing of the temple.  This simple story, usually depicted in the manner of a minute or two in movies on the life of Jesus Christ, reveals so much about Jesus. And it begins the complicated story of why Jesus was crucified three years later.

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When Jesus cleared the temple, He did so in opposition to massive, systemic corruption that was profiting heavily upon the Mosaic laws that devout Jews were trying so hard to understand and follow. Year after year they suffered exploitation in order to observe the Passover. When Jesus cleared the temple, he stood up against those practices. And, it got the attention of those profiting from the business in the temple. For the next three years, there is no account of Him publicly returning to Jerusalem until He did so at the end of his ministry, only to clear the temple again. When He did decide to publicly return to Jerusalem, it was with recognition that He would be killed. Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John recounts that Jesus made a scourge of cords – cords that in all likelihood had been use to tie animals sold in the temple. With the cords, Jesus drove all of the sellers of sheep and oxen out of the temple, with their sheep and oxen. The temple as built by Herod was very large; it may have taken some time to drive them out – much more than typically depicted in movies.

What were animals doing in the temple?

Leviticus 1 sets forth laws regarding burnt offerings to the Lord. The offering may be from the herd or flock or a bird. An offering from a herd must be a bull without defect. An offering from a flock must be a male sheep or goat, again without defect. Finally, an offering of a bird must be a dove or a pigeon.

According to Exodus 12:3-16 and Numbers 9:3, on the tenth day of the first month of Abib (Canaanite) [or Nisan (Babylonian)] , each man was to select a year old male lamb without defect from the sheep or the goats. One lamb was to be selected per household, although smaller households could share a lamb. The lamb was to be slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, at the place the Lord chose as a dwelling for his Name – the temple in Jerusalem. It was to be roasted and eaten at this place, with no meat remaining until morning. Deuteronomy 16:1-8. It was not to be eaten with bread made with yeast. For six days, the Israelites were to eat only unleavened bread, for Passover was also the start of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Leviticus 23:4-8.

It had become the custom for oxen to be sacrificed in addition to lambs. The addition of oxen is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 35:7-9 where Josiah and his officials had provided oxen in addition to sheep and goats for the Passover. The addition of sacrifices of oxen to the Passover appears to have been permitted in Deuteronomy 16:2, in which an animal is to be sacrificed from “your flock or herd.” But the sacrifice of an ox would be in addition to, not instead of, the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb. The oxen may also have been sacrificed for a second Passover feast called the “Chagigah” which came to be held on the day after Passover. This is probably the “Passover” referred to in John 18:28.

Perhaps the doves were for the burnt offerings and sin offerings of new mothers who could not afford a lamb. Leviticus 12:6, 8. Or, perhaps they are due to Exodus 23:15, which required that none who visit the Temple to celebrate one of the three annual festivals appear before God empty handed. Rabbinic teaching interpreted this as requiring an offering with a minimum value of either one ma’ah of silver or two pieces of silver, depending upon which Rabbinic school of teaching you asked - Beth Hillel or Beth Shammai.

The Old Testament law required that firstborn animals (firstlings) brought for sacrifice be without blemish. If a firstling was slaughtered for sacrifice and then found to have a permanent blemish, the firstling was to be buried by the priests and the person who brought the firstling was required to pay reparations to the priests for the burial plus the cost of the loss of the priest’s own Levitical purity, which made him ineligible to eat from the portions of offerings set aside for priests. Altogether, the cost of reparations could be significant.

To avoid reparations and to ensure the fitness of animal sacrifices, the animals could be examined in advance for any presence of permanent blemishes by experts specifically authorized to perform such examinations. These experts were allowed to charge for inspections, could charge more for larger animals than smaller animals, and could not charge differing rates depending upon whether an animal was blemished or not. If an expert made a mistake and a blemished animal was slaughtered, the expert was required to make reparation in most cases. It appears that the priests were allowed to make similar charges for inspection, unless an inspection fee had previously been paid, in which case charging again was prohibited.

The experts were required to charge the same for the inspection of an unblemished animal as they did for the inspection of a blemished animal so that there would be no financial incentive to the expert in making the decision. But, once oxen and sheep are sold at the temple for sacrifice, there becomes a financial incentive - to find a blemish, in particular if the priests are making the inspection and profiting from the sale of pre-inspected, pre-approved animals. It is very easy to infer from the circumstances of the animals in the temple and Jesus’ response that the system of inspections had become corrupt for profit’s sake, and it may have been that way since He was a child.

And there was profit. According to the Mishnah, on one occasion the price for a pair of doves reached one gold denarius – approximately-twenty five days of pay for a Roman soldier. After a prominent Rabbi complained, the price dropped reduced to 1/100th of its original price.

Why bring an animal all the way to Jerusalem, pay a fee for inspection, only to have it rejected and have to buy a pre-approved animal at the temple anyway? Why bother? It is very likely that those who could afford to pay for an animal at the temple did so.

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Next, John recounts that Jesus poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

Once a year at Passover, every Jewish male over the age of twenty had to go to the temple and pay a temple tax of half a shekel. The half shekel tax refers to the atonement offering from Exodus 30:11-16 in which each male over the age of twenty paid a half shekel in atonement money as he was counted during a census. The half shekel was measured according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighed twenty gerahs.

Many priests claimed exemption from the temple tax on the grounds that Leviticus 6:23 states that every offering of a priest must be burnt, not eaten. The priests used the temple taxes to pay for offerings such as the two wave loaves and the shew bread, which were afterwards eaten by the priests. They reasoned that since the tax paid for the offerings that were eaten by them, the tax did not apply to them.

The temple tax had to be paid in the designated temple coin. At the time of Christ, this coin was probably the silver shekel minted at Tyre, which originally met the silver standard set in Exodus 30 until the silver purity of the coin was reduced by the Roman government in 19 B.C. At that time, it is believed that King Herod obtained approval to mint a version of the Tyrian shekel in Jerusalem which met the silver content standard, and that such coin was minted in Jerusalem from 18 B.C. until 66 A.D. and bore the marking “KP.”

Within Palestine in the time of Christ circulated silver and copper Palestinian coins as well as money from Persia, Tyre, Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In order to obtain the correct temple coin, many Jews would have to exchange their money. On the 15th of Adar, exactly one month before Passover, the money changers, or Sulchanim, would open stalls in every country town. After ten days, they would relocate their stalls to Jerusalem.

The money changers made a statutory charge, called a qolbon of a Ma’ah (or some say half a Ma’ah) on every half-shekel. The exact value of a ma’ah in relation to a shekel is unclear today; it has been variably valued at anywhere from 1/12th to 1/24th of a shekel, so the charge of a ma’ah on a half shekel would equal between 16 1/3% to 8 1/3%. If a person tendered a coin worth more than two shekels, he had to pay a double qolbon, one for his half-shekel temple tax money, and the other for his change.

In addition, many foreign Jews traveling to Jerusalem for Passover would need to exchange their money into local currency. Throughout the year, Jews saved money for the Second Tithe. According to Deuteronomy 14:22-27, Jews were commanded to set aside a tenth of all that its fields produce and was to eat that, along with the firstborn of its herds and flocks in Jerusalem. If Jerusalem is too far away to carry the tithe, the Jews were to exchange their tithe for silver, and take the silver to Jerusalem and use it to buy whatever they liked - cattle, sheep, wine or anything else - for their household to eat while in Jerusalem in the presence of the Lord.

When foreign Jews came to Jerusalem for Passover, they would have had enough money to represent up to a tenth of their gross income in foreign currency. The money changers made money on these exchanges as well, charging an exorbitant price for the exchange, sometimes as much as half the value of the currency being exchanged. The temple made enormous revenues from this practice.

Profiting most from this practice was the family of the former High Priest, Annas. Annas was a Sadducee who had been High Priest for only five to six years, but he had since controlled the office, filling it with five of his sons, his son-in-law Caiaphas, and a grandson. He continued to enjoy all of the power of the office, but was not encumbered by its administrative responsibilities. Caiaphas served as High Priest from 18-36 A.D. The Babylonian Talmud criticizes four priestly families as causing the Temple Court to cry out, one of which was the Annan family’s priesthood for having secret enclaves to oppress the Jewish people.

According to Josephus, approximately 3,000,000 people were in Jerusalem for Passover in 65 A.D. With that many visitors, it is easy to see how profitable these practices were. The temple revenue was held in gold and silver in temple, which made it very much like today’s Fort Knox. The extent of the profit that was made is illustrated by what subsequently became of the temple treasure. Following the Seige of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D., a portion of the gold and silver taken from the temple was used by Vespasian to finance the building of the Colosseum in Rome. The amount of wealth that had been accumulated in the temple is all the more remarkable given that the temple was previously looted in 54 B.C. by the Roman general Crassus.

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Next, John recounts that He did not release the doves, but told those selling the doves to take them away. His words, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”

His disciples remembered the words from Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” It is likely that his disciples were not the only ones thinking of this prophecy of the coming Messiah, for the Jews asked Jesus, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?”

Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” This is referred to as the sign of Jonah, who was three days in a large fish or whale before being coughed up. The resurrection was the sign of Jesus’ authority to clear the temple and the admonition to “stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”

Jesus’ answer, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” would, three years later, be quoted in Jesus trial.

But Jesus’ answer was lost on the audience. King Herod had just renovated and expanded the temple. “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” they asked. There is no record that Jesus answered this question. It appears that it was not until after Jesus was resurrected that the disciples realized He was referring to the temple of His body.

Malachi 2:1-4 contains a prophecy that God will rebuke the descendants of Levi for not setting their heart to honor His name. “‘And you will know that I have sent you this admonition so that my covenant with Levi may continue,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Malachi 2:4. Malachi 3:1-2 adds, “‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to the temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”

In this final book of the Old Testament, written around 430 B.C., concludes with a prophecy of the coming Messiah at the temple. The Jews in the temple could have witnessed Jesus’ words and actions as the admonition and realized that Jesus was one sent from God, but instead they asked for a sign. This was a people who sought signs before they would believe.

The next verses in John record that Jesus did many miraculous signs, and people saw them and believed in his name. “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.” John 2:23-25.

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I see two significant truths in this story. First, the Jesus who is often depicted as kind, loving, and peaceful in answer to the hypothetical question, “What would Jesus do?”, wasn’t all that kind, loving, and peaceful. He stood alone against massive corruption, not once, but twice, knowing that He would be put to death for doing so – and He was.

But, second, and more importantly, He also knew that he would resurrect from the dead after three days – and He did. He said that His resurrection be the sign of His authority from God, three years before it occurred. Without the resurrection, none of this would matter.

This is what motivates me to learn more about the life of Jesus Christ. He is a person to follow. Not because He was kind, loving, and peaceful, but because He had authority from God to do and say the things He said and did, and that authority was confirmed by His resurrection. You cannot accept the resurrection and not follow the risen Christ. Likewise, you cannot reject the resurrection and still follow Christ, for you have rejected the sign of His authority from God.

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This is the complicated story of why Jesus was crucified. But it doesn’t answer the simple question of why Jesus died.

1 Peter 1:18-19 says, “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or God . . . but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” 1 Peter 3:18 adds, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit”

 The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.

-- 1 John 5:10-13

In Acts 16:30-31, the Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The answer was quick in response, and positive in content: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” Paul and Silas preached the gospel to the jailer and those in his house; they believed and were saved.

What is this gospel that saves when believed?

First, it is: “that Christ died for our sins.”

Second: “that He was buried.”

Third: “that He was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).

Jesus Christ the God-man died for you, was buried for you, and rose from the dead for you; and is now at the right hand of the Father interceding for you (1 John 2:1).

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). The gospel is the power of God for salvation only when you believe. Your faith in Jesus Christ releases the power of God that saves your soul.

The man born blind received physical sight by a miracle; but, spiritual sight came when Jesus asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “Lord, I believe” (John 9:35-38).

Setting aside his doubts, Thomas believed and confessed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:24-29).  

When you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9, 10).