Jesus actually cleanses the temple twice during His ministry. Once at the beginning (John 2) and again near the end after the triumphal entry (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19).
While all of the accounts focus on driving out those doing business and turning the temple into a market, John 2 also displays how Jesus fulfills prophecy as the messiah.
“His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” – John 2:17 quoting Psalm 69:9
In John 2 Jesus also takes the opportunity to prophesy about His death and resurrection.
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:18-22
For the second instance we turn to the synoptic gospels. In Mark 11 it is recorded that after the triumphal entry, Jesus arrived at the temple late at night.
“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” – Mark 11:11
It is interesting to picture Jesus in the temple late at night thinking about what He was about to do the next day. Jesus didn’t just walk into the temple and suddenly decide to drive the money-changers and sellers out. It was something that He had planned to do.
The next day Jesus went back to the temple and disrupted their “den of robbers.”
“And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘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.” – Mark 11:17
When we take a look at the context of the scripture that Jesus was quoting we better understand what Jesus was doing.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.” – Isaiah 56:6-8
Jesus is making it clear that salvation is for all people, including the gentiles and the outcasts. After driving out those who were using the temple to make a profit for themselves, the outcasts of Israel came to Him and He healed them and taught them.
“And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” – Matthew 21:14
“And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words. – Luke 19:47-48
The chief priest, teachers of the law, and Pharisees along with their business partners had made God inaccessible to the poor and outcast. They were hampered in their ability to come into the presence of God and worship Him. Even if they did have money, they would be taken advantage of at the temple and what was supposed to be a time of worship would be a loud, confused, haggling affair. Jesus cleared out the temple and then began to meet with the people as God in the flesh, healing them and teaching them. The temple once again became a place where the presence and power of God was felt.
Of course this angered the religious elite and those that had been profiting off the temple so that they looked for a way that they could “destroy him” and put an end to what Jesus was doing, little knowing that they would be following God’s plan in doing so and spreading the work of Jesus that they were trying to stop. In some ways, Jesus had taken “their” temple from them and they wanted it back. However, by killing Jesus and then through His resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit, every believer becomes the temple of God, it is no longer bound by a geographical location (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20).
Jesus spoke of this when we was with the Samaritan woman shortly after clearing the temple the first time when she asked about where people should worship God.
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:21-24