“Jesus never really got angry…. Except when he cleansed the temple!” I have heard a version of this sentiment at various stages throughout my life. It’s the idea that Jesus was a super peaceful, loving, calm guy… except that one time when he totally lost it.
The issue with painting the temple cleansing instance as the only time Jesus gets angry is that it encourages us to think flatly about who Jesus was. A number of caricatures exist that overly simplify the Jesus we see in the Bible. For instance, I often hear about a Jesus who sounds more like a throwback ’60s hippy who we’d find on a street corner reciting the Sermon on the Mount; or a Jesus who is so wrapped up in teaching that he never performed any miracles or healed anyone; or a Jesus who was a complete socialite, constantly hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, and never teaching or rebuking people.
Each of these caricatures contains a whisper of the description of the Jesus we find in the biblical text; however, if we extend these whispers to encompass the entirety of the character of Jesus, we lose sight of the complex man that he was. Moreover, it encourages a dichotomy between the “loving Jesus of the New Testament,” in contrast to the “angry God of the Old Testament,” a heretical split which many churches still harmfully employ today.
So we have the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, and Jesus definitely gets angry. Look at the way John 2:13-17 describes it:
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 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 overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Jesus gets really fired up because of the amount of business they were conducting in the temple, so he dumps the coins the money exchangers were using and forces everyone out. The disciples then call to mind Psalm 69:9, in which the psalmist prays for the Lord to rescue him, and details how many people despise him. The cleansing of the temple is ultimately a layered text about Jesus’ different-ness. He and the Psalmist hold in common that they do not behave as all others do; rather, they strive to attain a holy life that honors God. That leads the Psalmist to beg God for deliverance, and to Jesus cleansing the temple. Out of care and devotion, Jesus gets angry.
And we see Jesus get angry a number of other times. When he’s sending out the 72 disciples in Luke 10, he states that if a city doesn’t welcome them, “it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (v. 1-12). In Mark 11, Jesus is hungry as he and his disciples are walking, and he sees a fig tree. He’s hoping it has fruit, and when he realizes it doesn’t, he curses it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v. 12-14). Interestingly, the fig tree incident in Mark takes place just before Jesus cleanses the temple, so while we know that he’s justifiably mad when he’s in the temple, he also may have been a bit hangry.
Jesus gets upset. And it’s not a bad — it’s human. By embracing the reality that Jesus was willing to get angry in moments when it mattered, we see a picture of a complex, dynamic Savior, rather than a flat and basic caricature. We also see even more deeply how much Jesus cared about God, about his disciples, and about the world in his willingness to become a bit undignified, passionate, and even fiery. So give yourself a bit more grace, and know that we have a God who is willing to express emotion, especially for what matters most.