The twenty-first chapter of Matthew marks the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry, though we are only two-thirds of the way through the Gospel at this point. Matthew 21 marks this beginning because it records the events leading to Jesus’ final break with Judaism. We looked at one of these events in the last study: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Monday (Mt.21.1-11). Jesus intended it as a presentation of Himself to Israel as her Messiah and King. It provoked the praise of the people as well as the hostility of the religious leaders. The second event is the one we come to now: the cleansing of the temple (vv.12-17).
Ten chapters before this (Mt.11.10), Matthew wrote that Malachi 3.1 was fulfilled by John the Baptist, described as a messenger sent to prepare the way for God’s Messiah. But that is not all these verses from Malachi say. Malachi comes at the end of our Old Testament, and the thrust of Malachi 3.1-4 is that God will send the Messiah to purify the temple and His people. These verses say: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts [Almighty].”
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. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
These words, as well as other passages similar to them (Ezekiel 40-48 and Zechariah 14.20-21), were well known to the Jews and had led to the belief that the Messiah would purify the temple when He came. Therefore, when Jesus followed His triumphal entry by driving the money changers and those who were buying and selling from the temple, He presented Himself as the Messiah acting in this role. Jesus both made a disclosure about who He was and asserted a claim to authority over the religious life of Israel.
Jesus had done this before, at the start of His ministry (John 2.12-17). But the money changers had turned their tables back up, scooped their scattered coins together, and returned to their business. So here, at the end of His ministry, Jesus cleanses the temple once more.
To get a proper understanding of what was going on, we have to know that the temple was a huge religious complex. The temple itself was relatively small, consisting merely of the Holy Place, where the priests ministered, and the Most Holy Place, which only the high priest could enter once a year. But this comparatively small building was surrounded by several concentric courts, the outermost of which was the very large Court of the Gentiles. This is where the money changing and the selling of sacrificial animals took place because, being the place for Gentiles, it was not thought of as particularly sacred.
Two kinds of business were transacted. The first was the exchange of various national currencies for the temple coins used to pay the temple tax. The temple tax could be paid in the provinces prior to Passover. This is why, several months prior, the tax authorities had asked Peter whether his master had paid the temple tax. As Passover drew near, however, the half shekel tax could be paid only at the temple.
The other kind of trade was the sale of sacrificial animals. Worshipers did not need to buy them at the temple; they could bring their sacrifices with them. But this was inconvenient for pilgrims coming from distant areas of the country or from abroad. Moreover, the law stipulated that the animals had to be without blemish. Whether they were or not was determined by the priests, and there was always a chance that the priests would reject an offering even after it had been brought a long way.
The justification for these practices was not bad. They stressed the holiness of God and the need to offer Him the best possible sacrifices. But both were open to abuse. The money changers charged 6 percent for changing money, and if the coin was of greater value than the required half shekel, they charged an additional 6 percent for giving change. The total charge was about half a day’s wage for a laboring man. Abuses associated with the sale of the sacrificial animals were worse. A person could bring his own sacrifice, but almost certainly the inspectors would reject any animals not purchased from their concessions, and they were not cheap. For example, a pair of doves could cost fifty times more inside the temple area than outside.
Add to this the fact that at Passover time, which this was, Jerusalem was literally thronged with pilgrims. The city would normally have several thousand residents. But at one Passover season, Josephus, the Jewish historian, reported that 256,500 lambs were taken into the city. When we remember that one lamb was eaten by one household, that the houses were crowded, and that more pilgrims resided in the surrounding villages than in the city itself, as was the case with Jesus and His disciples, we realize that many millions of people crowded the temple courts each day.
Clearly, by the time of the Passover at which Jesus presented Himself as Israel’s King and Messiah, the temple had become a bazaar. Is time in Church worshipful or more like a carnival?
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org