Matthew 21:12 – 16 (Jesus cleanses the temple)
Seriously startling and stunningly shocking events. One man, three groups of people. Three authorities, one king.
In two further demonstrations of his kingship, following his ride the previous day into Jerusalem on a donkey as the promised Davidic Messiah, the Son of David, Israel’s king (Zechariah 9:9), Jesus, firstly, purifies the temple, and, secondly, he heals the impure, namely the blind and the lame.
We cannot ignore the irony of this. The temple authorities had allowed the ‘impurity’ of questionable practices of the merchants (exchanging money and selling animals for offerings) to take place within the temple, and yet they forbade the blind and lame from entering the temple precincts because they were deemed to be impure.
Merchants had set up a market in the court of the Gentiles (the one place within the temple precincts where foreign visitors/pilgrims could worship, and pray to, God). In this noisy and ungodly place, the nations of the world had to compete with these merchants to worship the one, true, living God. The poor were exploited because they were charged exorbitant rates as they exchanged forbidden Roman coinage (bearing the image of the emperor) for temple currency. Furthermore, the foreign visitors were overcharged as they purchased pigeons for their offerings.
Jesus’ removal of these dishonest and disrespectful practices was a sign of his kingly authority to purify the temple, to restore it to its place as a house of prayer for all nations. The previous day, Jesus had demonstrated that he was indeed Israel’s promised king. Now, in this incident of cleansing the temple, Jesus demonstrates that he is king of all nations (Isaiah 56:7), because he will allow nothing or nobody to get in the way of allowing the nations to worship and to pray to God.
Jesus calls this market a “den of robbers”. In the context of Jeremiah's prophecy (Jer. 7:9-11), the "robbers" in view were nationalist rebels (the meaning of the Greek word, ‘lestai’ used by Jesus here), not the merchants exploiting the poor and visitors. The authorities had turned the house of prayer into a stronghold of Jewish nationalism that dishonoured the temple while they, the leaders, maintained a superstitious respect for the temple and its traditions. A house of prayer had become the meeting-place of deceit, dishonour and disrespect. The first group – merchants who exploited the poor and vulnerable.
The second demonstration of Jesus’ kingship was his healing of the blind and the lame who came to him in the temple (Mt.21:14 – “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.”). Here, within the temple, the healing of the blind and lame functions as a further ‘sign’ to authenticate the gospel message and to show that, in Jesus, the Kingdom of God had come. The second group – the sick.
Despite the purifying of the temple and the healing in people’s lives, the religious authorities still sought to divert attention from themselves and from their responsibilities. What better than to turn against the least and the voiceless, namely the children? But, ironically, the children were not voiceless – it was they who were recognising and honouring Jesus, as they cried out in praise, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Mt.21:15). Perhaps, the authorities thought that they could pressurise Jesus into telling the children to be quiet. The temple was after all the home of many traditions - of respectability, of dignity, of restraint! Maybe, the authorities were fearful of upsetting the Roman soldiers. Maybe, they were furious with Jesus because he had stopped a source of income (however questionable), and therefore they sought to take out their irritations on the children. Jesus refuses to silence the children, and his response is a masterstroke.
To the experts, Jesus asks, “have you never read Psalm 8:2 – “Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies.” (NIV 2011)?” There are occasions when God takes the weakest, the least, the voiceless, the powerless, and, through them, he communicates to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear something that is truly from his heart.
Psalm 8:2 speaks of praise that is directed to God. But, here in the temple, the children are directing their praise to the Messiah, the Son of David. By using Psalm 8:2 to justify the children’s praise, Jesus’ response can only be explained if he held that he should receive praise given to God. Jesus does not silence the children, nor does he deny his divinity. Here, through the crying out of the ‘voiceless’, we see the Messiah proclaimed, the third demonstration or declaration of Jesus’s kingship within the temple. The third group – the children.
Yes, seriously startling and stunningly shocking demonstrations of Jesus’ kingship. And three authorities: the temple authorities, the Roman authority, and God’s authority. Things are on course to come to a conclusion in a few days time! But, for now, the king exercised his authority within the temple.
So, how do these events relate to us this Holy Week?
Am I part time, or am I all in, for Jesus?
Are there areas of my life that are questionable and/or dishonest?
Do I need to cleanse my heart of any attitudes or actions that dishonour God, that prevent me from being all in for Jesus, that prevent Jesus from being Lord and King of my life?
Written by John White