I suspect the reason why most preachers focus only on the money changers is due to the words that Jesus spoke. In the Gospel of John He says ‘Stop making My Father’s House a market place!’ (John 2:16). Indeed it was a market place, specifically the temples animal market! This marketplace was necessary for the running of the sacrificial system. However, in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus refers to the temple as a ‘den of robbers’. This has led people to believe that Jesus criticism was about the money changers who were being dishonest with their customers. However this is not what the text implies. “It is written, my house shall be called a house of Prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13, emphasis mine). Jesus says ‘it is written’ which of course means that Jesus is quoting from scripture. The phrase ‘den of robbers’ is to be found in Jeremiah chapter seven. This is the famous chapter in Jeremiah where God commands His prophet to stand at the gate of the temple and proclaim to those who are worshiping (offering sacrifices).
Jesus used a wide variety of rabbinic teaching methods in His ministry and the most well-known of these is ‘parables’; however, here Jesus uses another teaching technique called ‘Remez’ (רֶמֶז). This is where Rabbis quote a brief verse of scripture, but not the entire passage. This allows those who know the Jewish scriptures to reflect upon the wider message at a later time. A better known example is where Jesus, when hanging on the cross, said, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” That is the first line of Psalm 22 and if we visit that Psalm it speaks of Jesus crucifixion but ends in an exultation of praise pointing towards the resurrection. I believe that Jesus is using Remez teaching in the temple. Jesus makes a short and yet powerful statement. I am sure that many of the Pharisees, Sadducees the scribes and the priests knew precisely what part of the scroll of Jeremiah that Jesus was referring to and to its full content. Jesus is being careful not to give them an immediate justification to have a mob of temple worshipers kill Him at this stage, the time has not yet come for that, but He is most certainly giving them a controversial and damming section of prophetical teaching for them to ponder upon.
To truly perceive what Jesus was teaching we have to understand the context of what God says through the prophet Jeremiah. In the Book of Jeremiah the condemnation of the temple is threefold.
- The temple is used to oppress the vulnerable. Sounds familiar. “…do not oppress the alien [the gentiles], the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place [the temple].” (Jeremiah 7:6). The shedding of ‘innocent blood’ in the temple could mean one of two things. Either people who are opposing the temple cult are being violently eliminated, just as they were in Jesus’ day; or alternatively, the shedding of blood within the temple is usually associated with animal blood offerings. It is theologically correct to refer to the sacrificial animals as ‘innocent blood’ or ‘innocent victims’. However you interpret the scripture, the temple is being used for the oppression of the vulnerable and God does not like it.
- People believe that no matter how they live their lives, they can be made right with God through the sacrificial cult. “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know I am watching you says the LORD” (Jeremiah 7:9-11, emphasis mine). From this scripture we learn that the phrase ‘den of robbers’ is connected not to the money changers but is a generic term used to refer to the sinful worshipers (robbers, murderers, adulterers, liars, and the idolatrous). These people think that they are ‘safe’, that they are made right with God because they offer animal sacrifices. The temple cult teaches that if you sin you can make peace with God though burnt offerings. However the people fail to learn the lessons that the sacrificial cult is meant to teach and go on committing their abominations.
- This section of Jeremiah also contains perhaps one of the most controversial passages of scripture in Bible. “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices… …they did not obey or incline their ear, but in stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own councils, and looked backward rather than forward.” (Jeremiah 7:21-22, 24). It is fascinating that Jesus of all people would direct the people in the temple to this controversial section of Jeremiah’s prophecy.
So what aspect of the sacrificial cult Jesus was protesting against? Was it a condemnation of those who sold and brought animals for sacrifice or was it about the money changers who aided the sacrifices? Was it about the noise levels in the temple? Or was it about social justice for those whom were marginalized by the sacrificial cult? Perhaps the answer is, all of the above. Perhaps the answer is bigger than any one single issue. I believe that the motivation for Jesus protests against the temple is much greater than any one of these things.
Stay tuned for Part Six and the conclusion. For those who want to read the entire article: The Activism of Christ.
Thank you for reading and sharing, we pray our articles are a blessing! Comments are welcome. God Bless ~ Phil Guyott