Sunday’s Message was one of the longest messages I have ever taught. I had to go through many Old Testament passages because Matthew had quoted them, and I wanted you all to see Matthew’s quotations with the context that I’m sure Matthew knew, but we might not remember. Looking at all those passages in context gives a clarity to Matthew 21 that we couldn’t get otherwise.
Of course, the downside is that by looking at those passages in context, not only does it take longer, but it also led us to conclusions that are not commonly taught regarding Matthew 21. As a result, I had to do a lot of explaining.
Still, because the message was so long, I decided to give a textual summary here and to post Sunday’s message split up into briefer segments as well.
The Big Idea
On Sunday, I claimed that the big idea from Matthew 21 is that Jesus hates it when insiders keep outsiders out. However, that isn’t what usually gets taught from Matthew 21, so we need to take some time analyzing the passage. Along the way, we took every one of Matthew’s Old Testament quotations and looked at them in context. It all begins with what we usually call “The Triumphal Entry,” the event we celebrate on Palm Sunday.
The Triumphal Entry
Jesus asks his disciples to get him a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, and Matthew gives us his first quotation:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ” — Matthew 21:4-5 NIV
The quotation came from Zechariah 9:9, so we looked at it in context:
But I will encamp at my temple to guard it against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. — Zechariah 9:8-10 NIV
Clearly, this is a passage prophesying the arrival of a victorious king. He is not riding on a horse for battle, but on a donkey to illustrate that there is no need for battle. However, he is also entering Jerusalem to “encamp” at the temple, to guard it against marauders and oppressors. Furthermore, he is going to proclaim peace to the nations, not just to Israel. Note this. The word “nations” is often translated “Gentiles” in the Bible because Jewish people used the word “nations” to refer to the world of non-Jewish people.
Next, Matthew tells us how the people behaved as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They were excited!
The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” — Matthew 21:9 NIV
Matthew doesn’t call this a quotation, but it is clearly a reference to Psalm 118. Here are a few verses from that Psalm:
LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. — Psalm 118:25-27 NIV
Hosanna means “Save us,” and the people have chosen to take branches off trees and join a procession toward Jerusalem. It’s a clear parallel, but once again, Matthew is referring to an Old Testament passage about the representative of God leading a procession not only to Jerusalem, but also to the temple, even to the horns of the altar in the inner court of the temple.
When Jesus did this, I’m sure that most of the people would have seen it as a Messianic moment. I’m sure that most people would have thought Jesus’ was about to enter Jerusalem, go to the temple, kick out all the Roman “oppressors” lead a sacrifice on the altar, and then rally the people to his side for whatever it would take to “proclaim peace.”
However, what they couldn’t know is that Jesus was about to proclaim peace to the nations by going to the temple and driving out Jewish people!
Jesus Cleansing the Temple
This is how Matthew records it:
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ ” — Matthew 21:12-13 NIV
My understanding of this passage differs significantly from the most common interpretation.
The Common Understanding
For most of my life, the pastors I have heard preach on this passage have taken the same basic approach. They claim that Jesus had one or both of these two basic problems with what was happening in the temple:
- The temple courts should not be used for commercial enterprise. The commerce was the corruption.
- The people doing the business, especially the money changers, were robbing the worshippers through fees and unjust prices.
Most pastors I hear then use this understanding of the passage to talk about the problems that might be faced by modern churches. Some churches who see the first point as the problem have decided to keep all business practices outside the church. They don’t sell books or coffee or other things and they don’t allow the church organization to follow modern business practices because they don’t want the church building or organization to be contaminated by the corruption of commerce.
Other churches who see the first point as the problem go more metaphorical and talk about all the ways the “world” can influence the “integrity” or “sanctity” of the church. They talk about how there should be a strong line between the things of the world and the things of the church, and they all give their own definitions. Some churches will say “politics” and the discussion of “political matters” should be kept out of the church. Some will say that “secular music” should be kept out of the church. Basically, many churches embrace point number 1 to create a list of the ways the church can get corrupted by things that should be kept out of the church.
Then, there are churches who see the second point as the problem more than the first. They say that the issue isn’t whether “worldly” things are finding their way into the church but that the real problem is theft and dishonesty wherever it shows up. For some of these churches, they might even go so far as to say that Jesus is mad at the world for taking advantage of Christians.
However, I disagree with these interpretations specifically because they fail to address the Old Testament underpinnings of everything that was going on there in the temple and what Jesus’ statements were really communicating.
The Old Testament Context
The Old Testament context begins with understanding that the commerce going on in the Temple area was actually an attempt by the Israelites to obey God’s Law!
There are two commands God gave through Moses that directly address this. First, from Deuteronomy:
But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. — Deuteronomy 14:24-26 NIV
In Deuteronomy, God gives the people the freedom / permission to exchange their tithe (animals, produce, etc.) for silver (money) to make travel easier. Then, they are allowed to exchange that silver for “whatever you like” to sacrifice and celebrate. Therefore, the idea of buying and selling sacrificial items was commanded by God and it was most convenient for that to happen near where the sacrifices would actually be taking place. However, since the celebration involved the whole family, it couldn’t happen in the inner court of the Temple. Only Jewish men were allowed in there. Therefore, it makes the most sense for the buying, selling, and celebrating to happen in the outer court of the Temple.
Secondly, there was a passage in Leviticus that said this:
Every value is to be set according to the sanctuary shekel, twenty gerahs to the shekel. — Leviticus 27:25 NIV
A major problem in ancient societies was the use of unequal weights and measures as a means of taking advantage of people. God addressed this in the Law by establishing a standard weight called the “sanctuary shekel” and declared that all values needed to be determined based on that standard weight. In other words, the “sanctuary shekel” was a means of eliminating dishonesty and injustice in the exchange of goods and services. Therefore, the “money changing” going on in the temple was necessary not just to obey God’s Law but also to make the buying and selling fair and honest. Additionally, just like before, it made the most sense, for convenience, to have the money changing go on in the outer court of the Temple. Outside the Temple area, you couldn’t be sure you were dealing with real “sanctuary shekels” or that you were buying “approved” sacrificial items or that you were doing business with an authenticated Jewish person.
To obey God’s Law, to ensure the sanctity of the process, and in the interest of making things convenient and easy for the Jewish people coming to worship, it made the most sense to have the buying and selling and the money changing right there in the outer court of the Temple.
So, if the commerce in the Temple was supposed to happen, and if the money changing was to prevent dishonesty, then why was Jesus so upset with what was happening in the Temple?
It comes down to understanding what Jesus meant by what he said.
“It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ ” — Matthew 21:13 NIV
The first phrase is from Isaiah 56:7 which says this:
…these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” — Isaiah 56:6-7 NIV
If you only read verse 7, you get the impression that God wants to bring Israelites to the Temple to have joy there, to offer their sacrifices and have them be accepted by God, and to experience the glory of being in God’s House of Prayer!
However, you would be wrong because verse 6 gives us an understanding of who the passage is really about.’
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” — Isaiah 56:6-7 NIV
Once you see the context, it’s obvious that the passage in Isaiah is talking about a future day when foreigners, non-Jews, will come to the Temple and will have their offerings accepted on the altar because God’s house is a house of prayer for all nations. This is a radical prophecy because there was no understanding among the Jewish people of Jesus’ day that Gentiles should have any part in the worship at the Temple. In fact, Gentiles were not allowed anywhere near the altar let alone allowed to make sacrifices there. The only part of the Temple area where a Gentile could go in Jesus’ day was the outer court.
Let that sink in for a bit.
The only part of the Temple area where a Gentile could go in Jesus’ day was the outer court. They even called it The Court of the Gentiles.
When Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7, do you suppose he knew verse 6? Do you suppose he understood the context? Do you suppose he understood the main thrust of the entire prophecy? I think so.
If Jesus understood the prophecy he was quoting, then his problem with the Temple was that all of this buying and selling and money changing was Jewish people doing Jewish things for other Jewish people because of their Jewish obligations and doing it in the way that was most convenient for the Jewish people. Jesus was furious that the Temple had become a Jewish enterprise when the Temple was supposed to be a place for all nations to be welcomed into the worship of God.
Jesus was upset that the Temple had become a place of Jewish privilege and also a place of prejudice and exclusion. Their religious activity was excluding Gentiles from worship.
Now, when I talk about these things, I have at times heard people push back. They have told me I was misunderstanding the passage. They say that the passage is obviously talking about unjust commerce because of the phrase “den of robbers.” However, that phrase also proves my point when you see it in its original context. That phrase is a quote from a prophecy in Jeremiah:
“ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. — Jeremiah 7:9-11 NIV
Of course, this passage begins with a statement of judgment against people for their sins of stealing, murder, adultery, perjury, and worshipping other gods, but notice closely that the full meaning of the passage is not a judgment against the people for those sins. The judgment is against them for doing all those sins and then running to the Temple for safety. They are living sinful lives, but then going to the Temple as their Sanctuary believing that because they have the Temple, and because they go to the Temple, they are good with God. God knows of their “detestable” lives, but he’s upset with them treating His house as if it is their safe place. The emphasis is not on them being “robbers.” The emphasis is on them treating the Temple as if it is their “den” or to use a word we understand better, their hideout.
If Jesus understood the context of the verse he is quoting, then he was kicking out these people and judging them for treating the Temple like it belonged to them and like it existed for them and like it was for their benefit. Jesus was saying, “This house doesn’t belong to you, nor is it for you! This is my Father’s house, and it exists for all the people who want to worship.”
Put the two quotes together in their Old Testament context, and you see clearly that Jesus was upset by the fact that Jewish people were using the Temple in ways that excluded the “outsiders” instead of inviting them in.
The Healings in the Temple
Just to put some icing on this cake, Matthew tells us what happened immediately after Jesus cleansed the Temple:
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “ ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’ ?”
Matthew 21:14-16 NIV
Blind people and lame people were considered “unclean” by the religious establishment of Jesus’ day. They were not allowed into the Temple area at all. But Jesus received them and healed them reversing their unclean status! Children were likewise disdained and the idea of them shouting even words of praise in the Temple area was offensive, but Jesus received the children, declaring that their words about him were words of praise to God!
The first 16 verses of Matthew 21 tell a clear story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem to be the King for the Outsiders. He isn’t getting rid of all the insiders, he didn’t kick every Jew out of the Temple area, but he clearly indicated that no longer could insiders act in ways that kept outsiders out.
There is no one “unqualified” for Jesus’ Kingdom except for the people who think the Kingdom exists for them.
Tune in tomorrow for a follow-up post where I talk about how to apply this lesson.