By Sam E. Stone
The messages of two prominent Old Testament prophets provide background for today’s lesson. Both focus on the cleansing of the temple during the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Isaiah had preached around 740 BC, while Jeremiah came some 55 years later.
R. C. Foster noted, “Jeremiah denounces the wicked character of the people worshiping in the temple and the false trust of Israel in the temple; Jesus applies this to their misuse of the temple and their misconduct in the temple. The passage from Isaiah affirms the holy character of the temple, the necessity for righteousness in the lives of the worshipers, and the share which the Gentiles who accept the Lord will have in the temple.”
Isaiah 56:6, 7
Foreigners would one day be accepted in God’s house, although for years they had been excluded from worship assembly under the old law (Deuteronomy 23:1-6). James E. Smith explained, “Faithful eunuchs, for example, would have honorable representation in the future house of God.” Eventually Gentiles would be gathered as well as Israel, and both would become one body before the Lord (Isaiah 56:3-8). This describes the result when non-Jews make a formal commitment to God, binding themselves to the Lord to minister to him. This would be shown in their respect for the Sabbath and their faithful burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Isaiah warned that the temple was not what many of the people seemed to think. They evidently viewed it as a sanctuary where those who broke the commandments of God could still be safe. All of the abominations that the people committed were based on specific disobedience to the Ten Commandments (for example: theft, murder, adultery, false witness, and worship of other gods). They had convinced themselves that they were safe as long as they went to the place designated for worship of the one true God.
Jeremiah told them that the mere presence of a sacred building would not excuse Judah from God’s judgment and punishment. As Smith put it, “The presence of the Temple could not spare Judah because the land promise was conditional. Judah needed to start practicing ‘justice between a man and his neighbor.’ History refuted their theology.”
The prophet asked, “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury . . . and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house . . . and say, ‘We are safe’ . . . to do all these detestable things?” They were continually breaking the Lord’s specific commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). Seemingly oblivious to the implications of their abominable lifestyle, the people continued to insist that they were safe, protected by God with nothing to worry about. No wonder Jesus quoted Jeremiah (7:11) when he cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:13).
All three of the synoptic Gospels note that this event followed the triumphal entry, but only Mark points out that it took place on the very next day. Three years before, Jesus had cleansed the temple at the first Passover of his ministry (see John 2:13-17). Now the temple had again become a marketplace where vendors of all kinds could take advantage of the worshippers from out of town by charging them inflated prices. Merchants would gouge the worshippers and force them to pay higher prices than normal, since the worshippers were required to exchange their money into acceptable coinage and also purchase birds for the various sacrifices.
All of this was contrary to the Lord’s intent of what the temple should be—a house of prayer for all nations. R. C. Foster pointed out that “Christ’s cleansing of the temple gave the Jewish leaders opportunity to send out waves of subtle propaganda against Christ. In contrast to their spirit, Jesus drove out the profiteers from the temple court and welcomed the helpless and the suffering.”
Jesus quoted both of the Old Testament prophecies we have considered (from Isaiah and Jeremiah) to show God’s intent that the temple be an inclusive place. The Jewish religious leaders had been plotting to kill Jesus even before this confrontation (see John 11:45-53). Now they increased their efforts, bringing his betrayal and crucifixion even closer.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.