Spring clean — Matthew 21:12–13

The King’s judgements

“A den of robbers,” said Jesus about the temple. But if so who were those who ran the temple of Jerusalem stealing from?

The images above show different stages in the life of the Jewish temple.

It started out as a tent so that it could be transported through the desert from Egypt to the land God had promised. It remained as a tent through the time of the Judges and the reigns of Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. When you read a psalm attributed to David mentioning the Temple he is talking about a tent.

David’s son King Solomon built a very large majestic temple. So magnificent that people from other lands came to look at it. Following Solomon there was a civil war, the land was divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, with the temple in the southern country of Judah. Almost immediately, in the reign of Judah’s first king, Rehoboam, the temple was plundered by King Shishak of Egypt who removes the gold shields that Solomon had provided. The riches of Egypt that Israel had brought out of Egypt are returned to Egypt. Solomon’s Temple had a checkered history, at times being left to go into decay and its rooms used as grain stores before being restored in times of reform, such as the ones under king Jehu. Less than 500 years after Solomon built it, the Temple of God in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians and what treasures are left are carried away.

70 years later a small number of Jews return from Babylon with the temple treasures. This new temple, built by Zerubabel, is nowhere near as magnificent as that built by Samuel. The temple is small, befitting the country which is now little more than a 15 mile, 20 km, radius from Jerusalem. Most of the exiles remained in Babylon.

After about 500 years Zerubabel’s temple is enlarged by Herod the Great and becomes a magnificent structure again. It is this temple that Jesus visits.

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 ESVUK

How things have changed since the temple was a simple tent. The Jewish Law, written to a bronze age agricultural society, told the people to bring crops from their own fields and animals from their own herds as a sacrifice. Now there is a vast marketplace because the sacrificial animals have to be bought from the temple markets using temple coinage, hence the money changers. The people wishing to present their sacrifices are getting ripped off by the very people who are there to represent God.

That is not the worst of it. Who is the temple for? Some commentators have said that the markets were in the court of the Gentiles. Although Solomon’s Temple had a court of the Gentiles, a place where non-Jews could worship God, I do not know whether such a court existed in Herod’s Temple at the time of Jesus. But things changed during the Babylonian Exile. Post-exilic books of the Bible tell of Jews of mixed ancestry being excluded from worship, which contrasts with King David, whose great-grandmother was Ruth, from Moab. Religion had become a thing about racial purity. How could the keepers of the temple know if Jesus, whose father was unknown to them, was racially poor? How dare he come in and do something like this? He dared to do this because the priests who ran the temple had stolen the temple of God from non-Jews.

I have kept the studies on the entry into Jerusalem back until the season of epiphany, which ends with Candlemas on Wednesday for a reason – Epiphany is about the glory of God being revealed to Gentiles, people who are not Jewish. The question of who is the temple for is important. The Temple had a court of the Gentiles so that all people, even non-Jewish ones, could worship God. Jesus says to all people, so that includes you, that whoever comes to him will be accepted. I wish certain parts of the church would remember this instead of putting up barriers so that people not like them feel unable; or are actually unable to get in. The disabled and LGBT+ are two that spring to mind.

One reason that incense is mentioned in worship in Jerusalem is that the smoke is symbolic of prayers ascending to God. The smoke means God hears. The other reason is that the place had a nasty stink. The temple was little more than a glorified slaughterhouse. A very ornate slaughterhouse, but even though songs of praise were sung here and prayers to God offered up, its main function was animal sacrifice. Thousands of animals were killed as an offering to God here daily. The sacrifice of Jesus is only a few days away from his clearing the temple of God. This sacrifice which happened at one place in historical time is for all people for all time. The temple as a place for sacrifice is no longer needed and the office of priests, people who offer sacrifices, is redundant.

But God still has his temple, and that temple is now in the hearts of those who have come to Jesus. Do you know Jesus, if so I ask you to come to him now in whatever way suits you best. Jesus accepts people, all people, as they are, welcoming them in love with a smile.

If you already know Jesus I have this to say. Don’t you realise that the temple is the place where God lives and that is in you?

  • Is your temple derelict and neglected as the temple of God before Jehu reformed it?
  • Have you plundered God’s temple in you by taking the treasures of God that are for the world for your own use like Rehoboam?
  • Are you keeping God for yourselves and excluding others like the post-exilic Jews?

If so you should let Jesus in to do a spring clean.


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