12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” – Matthew 21:12-13 ESV
There are few scenes related to the life of Jesus that are more recognizable than the one of Him cleansing the temple. But the image of the Savior of the world wielding a whip in His hands and angrily clearing the temple courtyard is difficult for most of us to reconcile. It seems so out of character. Just a few verses earlier, Matthew described Jesus riding serenely on the colt of a donkey, basking in the adulation and praise of the crowd. People were shouting His praises, declaring Him to be “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:16 ESV).
But here we see the prophet doing what prophets were prone to do: Calling the people of God to account. He walked into the temple, His Father’s house, witnessed the unacceptable, carnival-like atmosphere, and was appalled.
It’s important to remember what the people had said about Jesus as He made His way into Jerusalem. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David and the legal heir to his throne. And as such, He had a God-given responsibility to protect the integrity of God’s house and name. Here is what God had said to Solomon, David’s son and heir after he had dedicated the newly constructed temple.
And the Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.” – 1 Kings 9:3-8 ESV
Solomon was responsible for the protection of the temple but, more importantly, he was responsible for protecting the integrity of his own walk. He was to be a model son of God and king of the people of God. But he failed. And, as a result, God would bring about the destruction of His own house. And the book of 2 Kings tells us exactly how it happened.
In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 ESV
And here, in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus walking into Herod’s temple, a far-less-luxurious version of the original temple, and seeing signs of Israel’s sordid spiritual condition yet again.
This scene most likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only place on the temple grounds where non-Jews were allowed to gather. The religious leaders had turned this area into a marketplace filled with money changing booths, as well as vendors selling doves and other sacrificial animals. You would have heard the bleating of goats and lambs, the bellowing of oxen, and been confronted with all the smells that come with domesticated animals. And to top it all off, there was graft and corruption taking place. The priests were responsible for approving the animals brought for sacrifice. And if someone brought an unacceptable animal, they would be sold a replacement, at a healthy profit. Then the priests would take the original “blemished” animal and recycle it for sale to another pilgrim.
It was this atmosphere of blatant sin and corruption that angered Jesus. Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus emphasized the glaring difference between God’s view of His temple and that of the religious leaders of Israel.
“…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.” – Isaiah 56:7 ESV
God had been relegated to the background. The Feast of Passover, intended to commemorate and celebrate God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, had been desecrated by the greed and avarice of men. And the sacred sacrificial system God had provided as a means of atonement for the sins of men had become a man-made spectacle that had little or no bearing on its original intent. God had designed the temple as a place for the people to receive atonement for their sins. Now, they were committing sins within the very gates where sacrifice and forgiveness for sins were to be found.
Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had recorded God’s anger against Israel for their blatant disregard for His holiness and their own unrighteousness.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 7:3-4 ESV
The people of Israel were guilty of viewing the temple as a kind of security blanket, providing them with comfort and a sense of God’s approval, regardless of how they actually lived their lives. But God had bad news for them.
“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 7:8-11 ESV
God accused them of exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows. He described them as murderers and idolaters. And yet, they continued to come to the temple to offer their sacrifices to God, as if nothing was wrong. They were unrepentant and unapologetic, stubbornly clinging to their sinful behavior.
And, over the centuries, nothing had changed. There was a new temple, but they suffered from the same old problem. They were putting all their hope in a building. In their minds, it was the temple that assured them of God’s presence. Like their ancestors, they stood before God in the temple courtyard and said, “We are delivered.” But they were wrong. The temple’s existence was not a guarantee of God’s presence. And it certainly was not a sign of God’s approval of their lifestyle.
It is important to remember that Jesus had come to Jerusalem with a single objective in mind. He was on His way to the cross, to give His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. He was to be the sacrificial lamb who, as John the Baptist had stated, “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV). We can only imagine the anger Jesus must have felt at the spectacle He witnessed. The priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, had turned the sacrificial system of God into a farce. It had become nothing more than a ritualistic, holiday-like scene where the grace and mercy of God had been crowded out and long forgotten.
But Jesus had come to change all that. He came to give His life as a payment for man’s sins. And unlike the sacrifices that took place in the temple, His death would be a one-time, and once for-all-time sacrifice.
He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:27 ESV
…so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. – Hebrews 9:28 NLT
What an amazing contrast. Here was the sinless Lamb of God having to cleanse the house of God, because the people of God had defiled it once again with their very presence. The place where atonement was to be found had become a spēlaion or hiding place for thieves, idolaters, liars, the immoral, and the ungodly. They felt no conviction for their sins. Instead, they viewed themselves as right with God. But they were sorely mistaken.
In his gospel account, Luke records that as Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem, He saw the city from a distance and wept over it, stating:
“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.” – Luke 19:42-44 NLT
Jesus was prophesying the future destruction of Jerusalem, when on August 10, 70 A.D., the Romans would quell a Jewish revolt by putting the city to the torch and destroying the temple. Jesus would later predict the devastating nature of this event, letting His disciples know that the destruction of the temple would be complete.
“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:2 NLT
The people of Israel were not interested in a Savior. They viewed themselves as the chosen people of God and, therefore, protected by His hand. As long as they had the temple and the sacrificial system, they were safe. Or so they thought. They had long ago forgotten that the temple was to be a place of prayer, but a specific kind of prayer. Solomon, in his prayer of dedication of the temple, had been very specific about the kind of prayer that was to be prayed.
“…if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel…” – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV
But the people of Israel remained unrepentant. Even now, with the Messiah standing in their midst, they would refuse to accept Him as their Savior. Yet, Jesus would go through with His God-ordained mission to provide a permanent solution for man’s sin problem. He would die. Not in spite of their sin, but because of it. And His death would do what no other sacrifice could: Provide sinful men with a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.