The concept of Jesus overturning tables challenges the prevailing view of the “nice Jesus,” the benign teacher the modern world prefers. While Jesus is “nice,” He also displays righteous anger when appropriate. A case study is John 2:15, best understood when read alongside the verses surrounding it:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:13–16)The event of Jesus overturning tables in John 2:15 also appears in all the Synoptic Gospels. In fact, Jesus cleansed the temple on two separate occasions: once at the beginning of His ministry, and again at the end (Matthew 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46).
In contemporary Christian circles, the phrase Jesus overturns tables or Jesus flips tables is used to communicate the iconoclastic nature of Jesus’ ministry. The saying also serves to counterbalance the distorted modern portrayal of the Son of God as an insipid, weak man who was all about “peace” and “love” and never about correction or judgment.
We see that Jesus “overturns tables” in many ways in Scripture. He countered the incomplete teaching of the scribes (Matthew 5:21–28), He confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matthew 23), He reached out to “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1–2), He violated custom (Matthew 15:2; John 4:7–9), and He publicly spoke against the king (Luke 13:32).
We should recognize that Jesus’ actions in John 2:15 were justified. His anger was properly motivated, rightly focused, and self-controlled. Nothing Jesus did in cleansing the temple should serve as an endorsement for unchecked anger on our part (Ephesians 4:26–27; James 1:19–20).
So, why did Jesus overturn tables? Conducting commerce within the temple was problematic by itself as that undermined the sacred purpose of that place (John 2:16). Yet there were deeper issues at play. In the Synoptic accounts of the second cleansing, Jesus denounces the money changers and merchants for transforming the temple into a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:45; cf. Jeremiah 7:11). It seems it wasn’t just business taking place, but exploitation. The devout were being cheated; especially vulnerable were foreigners and the poor, in direct violation of God’s commands (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:33–34; Deuteronomy 10:18–19; Isaiah 1:17). As Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, He referenced Isaiah 56:7, which calls the temple God’s “house of prayer.” Jesus’ anger was ignited by the misuse of the temple and the injustice taking place within it.
What implications does the event in John 2:15 hold for us today? First, our perception of Jesus must be grounded in Scripture, not sentiment. The same Jesus who played with children and conversed gently with the Samaritan woman could construct a whip and overturn tables. He embodies the traits of both a lion and a lamb. In fact, Jesus would be an inadequate Savior and incompetent Lord if He failed to express anger against sin and oppression. What kind of person shrugs at abuse?
Second, given that Jesus sets the standard for goodness, there are appropriate times to not be “nice.” There are times we cannot simply “go along to get along.” We should emulate Jesus’ example and confront abuse and injustice, especially within the church. When God’s reputation is at stake, and when people are being exploited, we should act.
Finally, we should remember that Christians today are God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). Just as Jesus was zealous for His temple in Jerusalem, so is He for us (John 2:17; cf. Psalm 69:9). We must take care not to defile His temple with sin; rather, we should make every effort to ensure that our bodies are “houses of prayer” to honor God.