Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘”My house will be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’ Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.
The importance of this incident can be judged by the fact that all four gospels relate how Jesus reformed and purified the Temple in Jerusalem. I want to begin by reminding you about the meaning and purpose of the Temple.
1. THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF THE TEMPLE.
In the Garden of Eden God came each day to converse with our first parents. He and they lived together in the same space. Then after the fall and the great divorce God said to some of Adam and Eve’s descendants of the line of Abraham, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell with them” (Ex. 25:8). He wouldn’t simply make occasional visits to them. He would live in their midst, illimitably accessible. A typical home for desert herdsmen consisted of a tent with two rooms and an adjacent yard in which there was a fireplace for cooking. God’s home had exactly the same design, but it was a particularly beautiful tent because he was a glorious Lord. They were going to the promised land and he would travel with them too, and when the time came for them to move into stone houses and settle in Canaan then God too moved into a stone sanctuary, but basically of the same design as the tabernacle two rooms with a curtain between them and a yard with a fireplace altar. Once again it had to be the most splendid building in the whole country because Jehovah is an infinitely splendid God.
The door of the Temple was never closed. All day, all night, the Temple stood open, no bolts, no bars preventing entry. It seemed to encourage access. So it stood for a God who welcomed sinners to come to him in the ways he’d appointed. It speaks to us of the Saviour who has outstretched arms and calls upon people to come to him. He speaks from his heart and tells them to come to find rest for their souls. Why perish away from me? Come to me! The Temple was a symbol of God our refuge and our strength, who is also a very present help in trouble. He has pledged to make himself available to us and to hear us when we cry. He says, “Come all you who are guilty and find a home in God.”
The Temple stood right in the heart of the royal city of Israel, Jerusalem. It reminded the people of their unique privileges; of all the nations of the world God had chosen them, and he lived in their midst, not anywhere else on earth. God says the same thing to us; “Don’t be proud of your election because I didn’t choose you because you were smart or great in number or mighty in power and beauty because you were nothing like that. I chose you because I had pity on you and loved you.”
The Temple also symbolized the Eden they’d lost. Entrance into the presence of God had been barred to them, and yet by sacrifice and by a priest becoming their representative they could in solidarity with that chief priest again enter the Holy of Holies. Of course the Temple speaks to us of Jesus Christ and our access to heaven through him. Jesus my great High Priest offered his blood and died; my guilty conscience seeks no sacrifice beside. What had been lost by the sin of the first Adam has been regained through the righteousness of the last Adam.
The Temple was also a place of beauty, purity, order and holiness, and the worshippers of the Lord were called upon to imitate that righteousness in their own lives. In daily communal living the streets and homes of Jerusalem were to reflect that kind of home that God had set up for himself in the city, and then out and out in concentric circles to its suburbs and to the homes in Bethany, and then on to Bethlehem, and then south in Nazareth and further down to Beersheba and then in the far north of the country in Dan all the people in every place of the land were to live in homes which reflected the home of God in Jerusalem. Visitors to Canaan from other countries were to be struck by the quality of home life of those who worshipped Jehovah. And in order to remind them of this then every four moths they were to come to the feasts in Jerusalem and visit the Temple and consider the decency and order and purity and beauty of God’s house. Mending clothing was an act by which Israelite clothing and hangings were restored and their neat clothing was a reflection of the exalted clothing of the high priest, and the beautiful curtains or veils of the Temple. It was wicked to continue living in rags and hovels when God had made his own house so attractive. With the same spirit today we are called to holiness in all we do. We wash dishes in his name and that reflects his great work of cleansing and sanctifying multitudes of men and women. The Temple said to each individual that he or she should be holy, keeping their bodies pure from all defilements. In the New Testament the bodies of Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are exhorted “let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cors. 7:1).
The Temple was a great symbol of God himself, the furnishings, the fire on the altar just outside the Temple and the constant offerings of lambs and goats and heifers, the smell of roast meat and burnt flesh and the rivers of blood running across the dust, the sacrifices obtaining divine pardon. There were the activities of the priests and Levites sacrificing and also instructing the worshippers. There was the preaching and pastoring that took place in the Temple courts – it all spoke to them of Jehovah the living God. And then there was the furnishing inside the Temple that they never saw (except perhaps glimpses of them through the open doors of the Temple) but which they knew all about. The decor told them about God, the table that was there on which bread was laid out spoke of family communion with the Lord. The lamp-stand was always giving out its soft light and it spoke of a God who illuminated men’s minds and hearts. There was an altar on which fragrant perfume always ascended to heaven and it spoke of a prayer-answering God, and behind the veil lay the Holy Holies where God’s presence was particularly present. His chair or throne was there; it was the ark of the covenant, and they could enter that place but only in the person of the High Priest carrying the blood of sacrifice by which they also had an audience with a reconciled God.
This was God’s house with all it said to the people. It was the home of God and the voice of God, and the beating heart of God. It wasn’t just a church on a street corner. It was the centre of worship, of national celebrations, the place of Israel’s pilgrimage, the place for mourning, for instruction and encouragement when the children of Israel trusted in Jehovah. It was a place where you would find more animals both alive and dead than anywhere else, but above all it was where Israel’s God lived in the midst of his people. This particular Temple, originally built through the initiative of Herod fifty years earlier, was a magnificent building, one of the wonders of the ancient world, with its dazzling blocks of white marble. Little wonder that it was the focal point of the whole nation and of national life.
2. WHAT THE TEMPLE WAS LIKE WHEN JESUS ENTERED ITS COURTS.
It was Monday morning and Jesus arrived at the temple for four days of preaching, and a sight greeted him that never failed to horrify him. The temple courts were filled with the din of trade and bargaining. There were moneychangers doing their work, and there were those who were selling sacrificial animals. Now understand where and how this world of commerce had sprung up and prospered in the Temple precincts. It was required, if you came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, to bring an unblemished animal. Now if you had an animal from your farm that was perfectly acceptable, you might bring it all the way to the Temple and then find out that according to the examination of a Levite that that animal had a blemish – “Unacceptable . . .No!”. Then you were in a fix. It was impossible to travel all the way back, say, to Nazareth for another animal. Well, some bright spark along the way decided, “Here’s an idea, to set up the sale of sacrificial animals that have already been pre-approved by the Levites. Visitors from far away can come and purchase one of these sacrificial animals, and we’ll make a modest profit. They’ll be able to offer their sacrifices, we’ll make a profit for our families and everything will be wonderful.”
So they did it. Hundreds and hundreds of them. They set up stalls and pens in the courts of the temple, selling these animals, hundreds and hundreds of them. Larger animals like oxen and heifers were bought and sold, and then there were cages of pigeons and doves for the sacrifices of poorer people. The cost of sacrifices could be inflated fifteen times. In other words, a pilgrim would pay a pound for a lamb in the markets of Jerusalem but ten pounds for a lamb inside the temple courts. This trade within the Temple was plain and simple extortion at this major tourist event. In equivalent pounds of today, Annas the chief priest had an annual 100 million pound business going. Yes, Annas and his high priestly family had the best and biggest business in the country, and it was concentrated in the temple. They robbed men of their earnings and they robbed God of his glory which is to offer a free pardon to repentant sinners. God’s house had become the haunt of hypocrites.
Now of course, there was another artificial problem, that in the temple precincts, they didn’t accept foreign money. They didn’t even accept money from the towns around Galilee, you had to have the Hebrew coinage of Jerusalem in order to purchase and trade in this setting. Roman and Greek coins had images of the emperor on them and so they were deemed inadmissible to the Temple; the staff declared that that currency broke the second commandment and was unclean due to the pagan image of the Caesars. Your money would have to be exchanged for Jewish “kosher” coins. And so some moneychangers came along and said, “You know, what a wonderful service we could render to the pilgrims at the time of Passover; we could open up a money exchange for them. For a modest profit we would give them the type of coinage they needed in order to purchase sacrificial animals. We’d be assisting them in the spiritual worship of the living God.”
This is what the Lord Jesus saw again in the Temple, on the Monday of what we call ‘Holy Week.’ There were money-changers announcing the latest exchange rates, and competition from the various men selling the animals. There was the hawking of currency and the sale of lambs and doves and pigeons and goats and heifers. It was all a rip-off. The Jewish historian Josephus contemptuously told his readers about the “bazaars of Annas.” Annas the high priest had four sons and one son-in-law named Caiaphas and they were all high priests and up to their necks in this business. This family made big bucks out of the temple trade. It was the biggest racket in town.
Now our Lord had seen this scene before and he had dealt with it before, when he was a young preacher, newly arrived on the scene. We read about it in John’s gospel chapter two, right after his first miracle, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana in Galilee. The timing is made quite clear. We are told that after the wedding he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and disciples and they stayed there for a few days (John 2:12), and then we read, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem . . .” (Jn. 2:13) and he cleansed the temple. John describes this cleansing, setting the time as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It was considered to be the action of a zealous young prophet and I suppose most people recognized that it needed doing, that the scene in the Temple was a great shame, a blot on the name of the Lord and the reputation of his home. So no action was taken against Jesus. It was attributed to the fire of youth. There were many things that Jesus did twice in his lifetime and many things that I have done twice or more, some good and others not so good. We know that he fed two vast crowds of men with loaves and fishes on two different occasions, and that two different women anointed him with fragrant oil, and that he raised three people from the dead, and gave sight to different blind men. Why not? Why must men say when they find that sort of repetition in the Bible that one of the incidents was simply a rewrite of the other, or that one of the gospel writers got his chronology wrong?
3. JESUS’ RESPONSE TO THE DEFILEMENT OF HIS FATHER’S HOUSE.
When Jesus saw this scene again, the Temple turned into an emporium, he took action in a big way and what he did is recorded, I say, in all four gospels. He drove out those men. It is the word that is used in Luke’s gospel for driving out demons from the possessed. He rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, the piles of money falling into the dust. He pulled down the booths of those who were selling the sacrificial animals. The doves went flying up and away, the cows and sheep ran all ways through the crowd. Then he shamed the charlatans themselves. He made a whip out of cords and he lashed them over their shoulders and drove every single one of them out of courts as if they were a herd of animals. He quoted from Scripture; “‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (v.46).
Jesus came to the city; Jesus wept over the city, and then Jesus dealt with the running sore at the heart of the city. He didn’t say to these crooks, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your lives.” He didn’t tell them that there were three steps they needed to take, A. B. and C. No, first they needed to feel the pain of their wickedness in the eyes of the living God. What blasphemy within the Temple precincts and in the shadow of the altar to be making money from people’s guilt and their need for mercy. Reconciliation with Jehovah, repentance and renewed trust, solemn and joyful worship, had degenerated into a bazaar, a Middle Eastern market. It was Petticoat Lane.
The Lord Jesus was never so popular in Jerusalem as when he did this for a second time. “What courage!” people must have said. We are told that on every day that week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, he returned there and stood his ground making sure the thieves did not return. And instead of the lines of tables and pens of animals and salesmen vast crowds of people came to hear our brave young Saviour preaching. “Every day he was teaching at the temple” (v.47). The people did not think his action politically incorrect. They did not murmur, “Crank” Religious fundamentalist!”
Now we can all understand the anger of Jesus. I trust we share in his anger. The Bible tells us to be angry and sin not, and we are not sinning when we consider this greed in the very courts of the Temple destroying the reality of drawing near to God for mercy. This buying and selling and trading and exchanging had absolutely undermined the true purpose of the Temple itself. It had denigrated the process of worship via the sacrificial system. The chief priest and his family were seen to be crooks. They were hypocrites. The very worship of God had been profaned in Jehovah’s own home. There is nothing more spiritually detrimental to me than suspicion of the sincerity of the preacher or my witnessing any activity undermining my relationship with God, when I feel it is being questioned by such factors as commercialism (“He wants my money!”), a personality cult (“Who does he think he is?”), psychological trickery, manipulation of our feelings, theatrics, music, drumming, lighting, comedy, unseemly language, sex, entertainment – all of that horribly detracts from my coming just as I am to God just as he is. All of that stuff is engineered to make up for the loss of the Holy Spirit who has long been grieved by all this elevation of man. The gentle holy dove has flown away. Commercialism and human personality cults in religion merely succeed in erecting a huge barrier between ourselves and God. “Please stop it!” we cry “Go away! I can’t come just as I am to God with all this distraction in front of me and around me. I don’t want the blond in the tight jeans playing a guitar and screwing up her face when I am singing God’s praise. I am seeking to escape from man and cast myself on the Lord’s outstretched arms.”
My friend pastor friend David Carmichael Emailed me this week attaching a recording of a sermon preached by one of the most sensationalist American preachers of our day. The sermon had been sent to him for comment and comment he certainly did. “In my opinion it is a sermon that crosses the lines of decency and should never have been preached. His exposition is prurient and deliberately designed to shock and titillate his listeners. The sermon is quite disgraceful as he plays to the base nature of his listeners. This is an example of a man preaching to promote his own celebrity as he seeks yet again to prove that no one can match him when it comes to being coarse or uncouth. He clearly loves his carefully cultivated image and uses his preaching not to be a spiritual blessing to others but rather to keep his name to the fore as a so-called edgy preacher. People might want to defend his non-allegorical interpretation of the text, so be it, but surely no-one would want to defend the language and illustrations that he used to present his exposition. If this is an example of new Calvinism, then you can keep it!” I am afraid after hearing David’s comments on the sermon I don’t have the heart to listen to it.
Jesus took action in his day and so he showed that he was the Lord Sabaoth’s Son, the incarnation of divine righteousness. He also foreshadowed the judgment day, showing us what God thinks of unspiritual and unholy worship, that he detests it. So the Lord Jesus brings his judgments against these activities in the temple, and he justified what he did by appealing to Scripture. He turned to Isaiah chapter 56, verse 7, the second half of that verse, and he quoted, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” This temple was intended to be the place where God met with his people, and there they communed with him, and offered up prayers and praises to him, and were thrilled again at his mercy, but now you could barely hear the sob of a convicted sinner, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” for the shouts of the salesmen and the stallholders.
And then the Lord Jesus reminds us of another passage in Jeremiah chapter 7 verse 11 where the words “robbers’ den” are used with regards to Jerusalem and the temple. God says, “You are making my own house into a hide-out for crooks, and they are running the show!” Full scale apostasy was in every level of society, and even the activities of the God’s Temple were a cover up for greed and theft and all kinds of lawlessness. The Lord Christ came to the Temple uninvited and he brought divine judgment upon it.
The historian Philip Schaff mentions in his History of the Christian Church, that Jesus’ ministry began with a cleansing of the temple, and the purging away of worship abuses. And we see here that it ended with this same concern four days before he was killed. I say that this has characterized all the living spread of the gospel through the centuries. As the church spread through the middle east as it is described in the book of Acts we see continually the reformation of worship and the turning away from idols in many different places. Then in the history of the church you meet it with Savanarola and Huss and Wycliffe and Tyndale and Knox and of course especially in the Reformation in the sixteenth century. That great work of God began with Martin Luther cleansing the abuse of the indulgence system in the Roman church. That was a huge money-making ploy to fill the pope’s coffers and pay for his lavish building programme by offering to take people out of purgatory if their relatives bought an indulgence or paid for a mass. That is real biblical ecumenism: uniting church practice with biblical precept.
Here is the living God reforming and refining and sifting his people, and especially the way that they worship. This passage is a picture of the spiritual state of the old covenant people of God. Israel thinks she is doing fine with Jehovah, and that it is fine to tolerate all this money-making in the Temple. In fact, much of her worship is dead. There may be the external forms, but the heart is gone, and the very context in which they are worshiping is almost like a cattle mart.
We stand in solidarity with the judgment of Jesus upon the carnal worship planned by the chief priests and the scribes who condoned what was happening in the Temple. We condemn the people who were carrying on these sick practices in this place, the people specifically whipped out of the place by Jesus. But before we think ourselves to be superior to them, we need to ask ourselves a question, “What is the state of my heart?” If the Lord were to come to his house today (and we are by his grace the temple of the Holy Spirit, not this building but this people that are gathered to worship here), what would he find in our hearts? Would he find in our minds that we’ve hardly left our businesses and we’ve been selling doves and exchanging money as we are gathered here? We can go through the motions of external piety, but church attendance will never provide for unrepentant sinners an immunity from divine judgment. When crooks imagine that they can salve their consciences by Sunday attendance, and the motions of worship, by slipping a ten pound note into the offering box but they lack a change of heart, then what they’re doing is turning the house of prayer into a hang out where unrepentant thieves get divine approval.
This passage, this picture of judgment on the temple, is not only a reminder to take stock of our own hearts, it is a reminder of the judgment to come. J.C. Ryle says, “Let us see in our Lord’s conduct on this occasion a striking type of what he will do when he comes again a second time. He will purify the temple. He will cleanse it of everything that defiles and works iniquity and cast every worldly professor out on its tail. He will allow no worshiper of money or lover of gain to have a place in that glorious temple which he will finally exhibit before the world.” May we all strive to live daily in the expectation of that coming.
3. JESUS REMINDS US OF WHAT LIES AT THE HEART OF OUR WORSHIP.
The days were rapidly coming to an end when men would make the long journey to Mount Zion and gather in the precincts of the Temple to worship God. Soon that Temple would be there no longer. For almost two thousand years there’s been no worship in that sad Temple. Jesus had told them of this; “They will not leave one stone on another” (v.44). It had taken sixty years to build but in forty years’ time it was going to be leveled to the ground in weeks by the frenzy of Roman soldiers armed with their crowbars. Jesus had told the woman of Samaria, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:21-24). The holy land and the holy city and the holy building and holy garments and holy vessels would soon all be gone. Their functions would all be fulfilled because Jesus Christ the Son of God had tabernacled – ‘templed’ – here on earth, and seeing him we weren’t looking at a mere sign of God’s presence, but at the real thing, the very presence of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And we worship him today around the word of his gospel.
So what did Jesus do for the next three days after cleansing the temple? Did he march around the Temple courts and glare at any tradesman who hinted that he would be setting up a money-changer’s table? Not at all. What did he do? “Every day he was teaching at the temple” (v.47). The place was packed with silent, inquiring, worshipping men and women. This was the way ahead. This was the direct line from the Temple in A.D. 30 or so and us in Aberystwyth 2012. What do we do today when we followers of Christ gather together? We don’t sacrifice – the Lamb of God has died, yea rather, that is risen. We don’t dress up in religious costume and call ourselves priests. We have a great High Priest who has gone into the heavens who ever makes intercession for us and so can save us to the uttermost. We want pastor-preachers who will copy the mighty Jesus and teach us about the gospel of the Lord Christ.
You might complain that that is boring and that you have a visual sense of religion, and you want costumes and music and the drama and choreography of ritual, that your psyche needs it. But does God want all that? That is the question. Has God required rituals from us? What did God want in Jerusalem during the Passover? He wanted his Son Jesus to teach the word of God in the Temple every day, and no one who heard his teaching was bored. Some were convicted, some wept, some grew angry but not one was bored. Rather we are told, “All the people hung on his words” and with that phrase the chapter ends. You may have had a bad experience with preachers and you are suspicious of my preaching and don’t want to be swayed by a man. That is good and wise, but you ask the ordinary church members who are sitting around you what they think of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. They don’t appear to me to be a bunch of vegetables. They seem to be thoughtful, sensible men and women. Why do they hang on to the words of Jesus? Since God has become man and told us about himself don’t you think it is sheer wisdom to hang on to his every word? Here are eleven words of one syllable that he spoke: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Don’t you think it would be profitable to hang on to every one of those words, and listen to preaching about Jesus Christ? Don’t you wish that at times you were sitting with your heart strangely warmed? That’s what happened to John Wesley. We hang on to the words of Jesus because we hang on to everything that Jesus said and did. We hang on to him and his salvation for ever. Life for us is to keep hanging on to him. His words for us are spirit and they are life. No man spoke like him. “Feed me now and evermore,” we sigh.
But not all the people loved to hear him. Some would love to have killed him there and then, including the religious leaders of the day. All their religion did not make them wise or compassionate (v.47). They opposed everything he stood for. They were for making money but he was for helping the poor. They were for the saved while he was for the lost. How often is it that the bishops and religious spokesmen have compromised and distorted the gospel and its ethic while it is ordinary folk who know more about true Christianity? We are not interested in making anyone religious. We are interested in this, in making people aware that they are sinners and that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour, and that he is willing to save them from their sins. Have you made that discovery? That is where true religion begins, when I see that I am a great sinner and that Jesus Christ is a great Saviour and I go to him and ask him to save me, and I don’t cease until I know he has indeed saved me.
1st April 2012 GEOFF THOMAS.