Why did Jesus overthrow the temple? Was he angry to find traders in the courtyard? Did he expect to find people in quiet meditation and prayer instead? What was the temple, and what was Jesus doing there?
Christians often think of the temple as like a church for Old Testament people, a building to hold crowds of worshippers singing songs and listening to sermons. Or you might have heard the temple explained as a place where guilty people came to offer sacrifices and receive forgiveness for their sins, because that’s how we’ve conceived the Christian gospel.
But the temple was never designed as an auditorium for worshippers or a place to relieve personal guilt. It was a house for Israel’s divine sovereign to live among his people and lead his nation. Forget our ideas of the separation of church and state, for Israel’s God was their king.
God’s house had two rooms: a Holy Place where his servants performed their duties, and a private chamber devoted to the king (Most Holy Place). The ark was his throne, the place where Israel’s invisible king sat enthroned between the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6; Psalms 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah 37:16). Of course, God was enthroned in the heavens (Psalms 2:4; 123:1), so the ark was the footstool of his throne (Isaiah 66:1; 1 Chronicles 28:2; Psalms 99:5; 132:7), the place where the heavenly sovereign directed his nation (Exodus 25:22).
When this nation asked for a human king, it sounded like a rejection of God’s kingship (1 Samuel 8:7). David realized that it sent the wrong message if they had a house for the earthly king and not for the heavenly king (2 Samuel 7:2). David’s desire to recognize God’s kingship by building him a house was upstaged by God’s promise to build the house of David to represent his kingship forever. The house of God and the house of David are so entwined that the son of David who represents heaven’s reign on earth can be called God’s son (2 Samuel 7:10-16).
The house Solomon built for God lasted almost 400 years before this symbol of divine kingship was destroyed along with the Davidic kingship. They rebuilt the temple, but remained under foreign rule — without God’s throne in the temple (Jeremiah 3:16), without a son of David enthroned as God’s anointed.
Although it hadn’t happened, the prophets announced the good news of the return of God’s reign (Isaiah 40:1-11; 52:7-10; 61–62). They said that when David was king once again, God’s dwelling place would be with his people (Ezekiel 37:24-28).
The crowds had heard Jesus proclaiming the restoration of God’s reign (the kingdom of God). Then they saw it: his triumphal entry, just as the prophets had said (Matthew 21:5). They proclaimed him king: the son of David, entering in the name of the Lord (21:9).
So, the first thing the king does is visit the temple to see who’s occupying God’s house. It should have been in the care of the king’s servants, those authorized to bring the people’s petitions before the throne. You’d expect them to be seeking the return of the heavenly sovereign’s reign through his anointed representative, a son of David.
But the king finds God’s house occupied by outlaws, thugs with no interest in the restoration of God’s reign. God’s house has become a cave of violent criminals who will not hesitate to kill God’s anointed to keep their power.
How is this any different to the days of Jeremiah when God tipped his people out of Jerusalem because his royal house had become a cave of thugs (Jeremiah 7:10)? That’s the challenge the king’s Son raises for the occupants of his Father’s house: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a cave of thugs’ (21:13).
So begins the conflict between the son of David returning to restore God’s reign in Jerusalem versus the thugs who are currently occupying God’s house. This confrontation over who is the genuine authority representing the king in heaven occupies the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, because this is what’s wrong with world. This is the issue Jesus must resolve if he is to restore earth as a kingdom of heaven.
It isn’t the Hitlers of this world who block the restoration of God’s reign. We who lead God’s people are the ones who hasten or hinder his purposes. What are we known for in his world today?
Open Matthew 21:12-13.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996), 424:
I conclude that Jesus’ action in the Temple was intended as a dramatic symbol of its imminent destruction; that this is supported by the implicit context of Zechariah’s prophecy, and the quotations from Isaiah and Jeremiah; and that Jesus’ specific actions of overturning tables, forbidding the use of the Temple as a short-cut, and the cursing of the fig tree, were likewise all designed as prophetic and eschatological symbolism, indicating both the arrival of the kingdom and the doom of the city and Temple that refused it.
Malachi 3:1–2 (NIV):
1 Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.