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)
Due to the dispersion of the Jews throughout the ancient world by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, etc., by Jesus’ time Jerusalem would have been filled with all kinds of travelers and pilgrims at Passover. These travelers would have had foreign money or Roman money and might not have had adequate sacrifices to offer. From the 4 gospel accounts (Mt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-48; Jn. 2:14-16) and other historical sources, we can say that the following transactions were taking place within the temple walls (probably in the court of the Gentiles): people would enter the temple and exchange (for a fee) foreign and Roman coins for shekels to be used for offerings and the temple tax; they would then take their shekels and buy animals for the sacrifice (at a mark up appropriate with the fact that there was low supply and high demand).
Although Matthew transitions immediately from Jesus being welcomed with palm branches in verses 1-11 to him arriving at the temple in verse 12, we know from Mark’s account that Jesus actually left Jerusalem after the Triumphal Entry and spent the night in Bethany. It is when he returns to the city the next morning that he clears the temple out.
I’ve found that seemingly everybody has some familiarity with this story, even if they know little else about the gospels. I’ve heard these verses used (by both Christians and non-Christians alike) to condemn capitalism in general and anything resembling commerce on church premises specifically. I’ve also heard them used to excuse aggression and anger. I think each of these interpretations misses the point.
So what’s going on here? Before we talk about what Jesus was doing, let me explain what he was not doing.
1. Jesus was not condemning “the 1%.” Notice that he doesn’t kick only the sellers out of the temple; he kicks out the buyers too. Jesus wasn’t making a statement that it is wrong for businesses to raise their prices in accordance with supply and demand at the expense of the poor consumer. The consumers weren’t innocent victims. They were part of the problem. And either way, Jesus was not trying to make an economic statement.
2. Jesus was not condemning capitalism. Read verse 13 again. The focal point of Jesus’ criticism is not what was taking place but where it was taking place. Even the word translated as “robbers” can also be translated as “insurrectionists” and was originally applied to undisciplined mercenaries. (Ironically, this same word for “robber” or “insurrectionist” is used to describe Barabbas, the two men who would be crucified with Jesus, and, outside of Scripture, the Zealots, who wanted to violently overthrow Roman rule.) This essentially removes the commercial connotation from the word and takes the attention away from the fees and mark ups. And again, Jesus was not advocating for or against a specific economic system.
3. Jesus was not (necessarily) condemning church bookstores or fundraisers. While Jesus was concerned with where this commerce was taking place, there was a specific reason for that (which we’ll see shortly). The temple also had much greater significance in the worship of God prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection than church buildings do now. There are some parallels between the two but not many.
4. Jesus was not giving us an excuse or endorsement to act out of anger or aggression. None of the 4 gospel accounts tell us that Jesus was angry. Now obviously it’s hard to imagine him overturning tables and kicking people out of the temple with a smile on his face. But we need to be careful that we don’t imagine him red-faced and seething with steam coming out of his ears while he screams in a blind rage and whips everyone in sight. Whatever his emotions were at the time, Jesus was in full control and acted righteously. We also need to remember that he had as purpose behind his actions (as we’ll see), and that we are commanded elsewhere, “in your anger, do not sin” (Ps. 4:4; Eph. 4:26 NIV). [That being said, this is one of those passages that invalidates the view of Jesus as some hippie pacifist that never said a harsh word and didn’t know how to fight.]
So what was the point of Jesus overturning tables, brandishing a whip, and kicking everyone out of the temple?
1. It was a sign that Jesus was the promised Messiah and King.
By piecing together the synoptic accounts of the beginning of Passion Week, we see that Jesus actually enters Jerusalem at least 3 times after having spent each night in Bethany. J. Vernon McGee believed that his first entrance, which was marked by a quiet visit to the temple (Mk. 11:11), emphasized his role as Priest; that his second entrance, marked by the cleansing of the temple, emphasized his role as King; and that his third entrance, marked by his weeping over Jerusalem, as well as prophesying and teaching (Lk. 19:41-44, 47-48), emphasized his role as Prophet. At the very least, the cleansing of the temple is one of the few truly Kingly things Jesus did during his first coming, and it did have Messianic significance.
Malachi 3:1-5 says that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple … He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord,” and Zechariah 14:21 adds that, “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.” Jesus also quoted Isaiah 56:7 in referring to the temple as “My house.” By saying the temple was his house, he was equating himself with the One whose presence had once rested within. The cleansing of the temple isn’t just some random angry outburst by Jesus. It is a declaration of Kingship and Divinity, as well as another fulfillment of Messianic prophecy in a chapter that has been full of them.
2. It was a reminder that God desires relationship and obedience more than sacrifice.
The purpose behind the transactions that were taking place in the temple was to ensure that people could “worship” God in the manner he prescribed. People needed to pay their temple tax, and they needed unblemished animals to offer. As they so often did in the Old Testament, Israel’s religious leaders were so wrapped up in the outward method of worship that they forgot the inward spirit of worship. The temple ceased to be “a house of prayer.” It was no longer the place where God communed with his people, where they sought his will and glorified his name. “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? … because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer…” (Jer. 7:11, 13). This is why the location was a bigger problem that what was actually going on. They had failed to see that the temple was so much more than a building. It was the place where heaven met earth, where God tabernacled among his people, and where the people petitioned God to remove their sins. Instead they viewed it as a place to go through the motions and try to hide their sin … and make a quick buck while they were at it.
3. It was a rebuke for failing to be a light unto the world.
In the Bible Exposition Commentary, Warren Wiersbe writes:
The purpose of the court of the Gentiles in the temple was to give the “outcasts” an opportunity to enter the temple and learn from Israel about the true God. But the presence of this “religious market” turned many sensitive Gentiles away from the witness of Israel. The court of the Gentiles was used for mercenary business, not missionary business.
This is why in point #3 above, I qualified that Jesus was not necessarily condemning things like church bookstores or fundraisers. The takeaway for us in post-temple days is not to think all commerce is banned from church property. The church building is not the temple. The question is: what role is it serving? Is it to glorify God and benefit his people or is to exploit people and make a profit selling things that they “need” to worship God? Furthermore, what witness does it give to unbelievers? Does it hinder them from encountering God? Is it mercenary business or missionary business?
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Am I going through the motions of worship or do I approach worship as an encounter with the living God?
2. Do I treat the church or the Christian life like a marketplace, seeking the way that I can profit (monetarily or otherwise) best?
3. Do I treat my job and other encounters with unbelievers as mercenary business or missionary business?
4. Is there anything in my life that Jesus would want to turnover and kick out of his temple (1 Cor. 6:19)?