It’s a scene that is familiar to most Christians and many who don’t claim to follow Christ: a righteously angry Jesus making a whip from a bundle of cords and driving the money-changers out of the temple. We can picture tables being toppled and animals being scattered as Jesus exercises his fury against these corrupt and faithless merchants. And we don’t really wonder why he did it, because it isn’t very difficult to imagine exchange rates being inflated along with the prices of sacrificial animals that were being sold. Of course Jesus was angry at the greed and injustice that was perpetrated, lining the pockets of the influential temple authorities from the hard-earned and sincerely brought offerings of the worshipers. The temple merchants had shown a total lack of respect for the house of God, and Jesus, who was God in the flesh, took exception to this and drove them all out.
The whole passage seems pretty straightforward, in fact, with ready-made applications against greed and irreverence, especially in a place of worship. And this interpretation is reinforced by Jesus’ explanation after he had finished driving the merchants out of the temple, when he said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17). This seems to prove that Jesus’ was upset about the outrageous profits being made off the backs of temple worshipers, who perverted the true purpose of God’s house by their lack of respect.
But it is worth noting that in his teaching Jesus quoted from 2 different Old Testament passages, and before we come to a final conclusion on the interpretation and applications of this event, we ought to take a look at them. The first quotation comes from Isaiah 56:7, “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This pronouncement is part of a section following the death of the Servant as a sacrifice in Isaiah 53 in which all who “join themselves to the LORD to serve Him” will be saved, both of Israel and the Gentile nations.
Jesus, who is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, will bring salvation to all men who believe on his name. He is not simply the Savior of the Jews but also of the Gentiles, and so he quotes this verse to bring attention to the fact that he is about to be crucified in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and to usher in a new era in which Jews and Gentiles will be saved together by faith in Christ. And so, it should not surprise us that immediately after cleansing the temple and teaching these things we read that “the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (Matt. 21:14). And further that the children who were in the temple began crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He was putting on a very powerful physical display of the new order which was coming. The temple as the focal point of worship and faith would be supplanted when he had given his life as the once-and-for-all offering to take away sin.
But then there’s that other quotation. In fact, this one is the reason that I am writing this today, because we read it yesterday on our church reading plan. That little phrase, “den of thieves” is taken from Jeremiah 7:11. At the beginning of that chapter, the Lord had told Jeremiah to go to the temple and stand in the gate as people were coming and going and to proclaim a strong message of warning to them. The people of Judah were corrupt and wicked, yet they foolishly believed that the presence of God’s temple in Jerusalem would protect them from harm. They would say, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these.” But it was nothing more than self-deception, for God said to them, “Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’?” And then Jeremiah spoke these words, “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the LORD.” He goes on to declare that, not only had he seen their hypocrisy, but he was going to utterly destroy the temple that they had so foolishly counted on to protect them.
This is the message that Jesus referred to by quoting Jeremiah: God’s judgment would not spare his temple nor would the presence of the temple spare the Jewish people. His wrath against sin burns with intense heat and will consume those who refuse to repent. So Jesus was emphasizing the other side of the coin, so to speak. Not only was he ushering in a new era of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike, but he was also passing judgment on all those who refused to turn from their sin, even those who were externally religious and self-righteous. Was he upset about the money-changer’s greed and irreverence? No doubt. But he was also making the greater point about his own mission as both the Savior and the Judge of all the world.