Reading: Matthew 21
[The following is not devotional in nature, but more technical. While much longer than usual, I have attempted to write it in an nontechnical fashion.]
On July 19, 2009, I delivered a message titled, The Coming of the King, which I would like to re-title, The King and the Advance of His Kingdom. That message covered Matthew 21:1-22 which really addresses the coming of Christ into Jerusalem and the unique way in which His kingdom will advance. Or, how it will function in a way so unlike the kingdoms of this world.
While I will not restate that entire message here, I will speak to one particular point because 1) it was one which invited some questions from some “Bereans” in our midst who desired to make sure that the application I made was accurate (which is great to see), and 2) it is one supported by further study into this section of Matthew's Gospel, so I thought it might be helpful to use this forum to make some of these thoughts available.
In particular, I wish to speak to the contrast which I believe our Lord sets up in His prophetic demonstration upon entering the temple, when He turned over the tables of the money changers.
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.' " (Matthew 21:12-13)
This scene is truly intriguing. It stirs up images of anger & indignation. However, I suggest it is executed prophetically, with calmness and deliberation, not rage. As the prophets often communicated with an audio-visual effect using demonstration followed by words, so Jesus the prophet (see 21:11 where He is called “the prophet”) has a well thought out action which is explained by His words. His words are obviously planned as He carefully selects Isaiah 56:7 and combines it with a Jeremiah 7:11 creating a contrast between prayer and thievery... or, is it prayer and something else? I suggest it is prayer and something else.
In that sermon I went more into the background of Isaiah and Jeremiah in those particular chapters. I won't restate those things here. I will assume those thoughts and remind us that this Jeremiah quote is capturing an idea; an idea of the temple being a hide out. “Den of robbers” is a play on “den of lions”. Lions are predators, not scavengers—they don't steal their food, they kill their food. The Hebrew word used in Jeremiah 7:11 is more readily translated, “den of murderers,” not “den of robbers.”
So why do our New Testaments use the word, “robbers”? And why do most Old Testaments translate “robbers”? I will start with the first question.
The Greek word translated “robbers” can be either robber/thief, or insurrectionist, revolutionary, rebel who favors the use of force. [See UBS Greek Dictionary, Gingrich Greek Lexicon, Friberg Greek Lexicon which all show this.] Which one is meant? Context is always important. Remember Jeremiah 7 is quoted from the LXX (Septuagint, Greek Old Testament), but was originally Hebrew. This Greek word translated the Hebrew word for murderers, treacherously violent, destroyers of life.
Matthew uses this word again in this final section of His Gospel.
At that time Jesus said to the crowd, "Am I leading a rebellion (insurrection), that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. (Matthew 26:55)
Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. (Matthew 27:38)
There is no evidence to suggest that robbers were crucified under Roman law. However, insurrectionists were, indeed they would be the prime targets of crucifixion. In fact, these two insurrectionists were supposed to have a third insurrectionist crucified right between them, one much more notorious...
A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. (Mark 15:7)
This may explain why the people of Israel putting palm branches on the road at the beginning of the week, shouting Hosanna, are willing but a few days later to shout crucify Him, and ask for Barabbas. These palm branches are reminiscent of the deliverance from Gentile oppression through Simon Maccabees a century and a half prior. Palm branches had become a symbol of nationalistic fervor and freedom. It might be that they think Jesus is an insurrectionist. In John's Gospel we found they wanted to make Jesus king by force at one point.
Is it possible that once they realize Jesus isn't going to free them by force, deliver them from Roman oppression. Barabbas is a much better option and he would have been popular as an insurrectionist rebel!
So this word is translated “robber” because that is one of the good translations of the word. However, “insurrectionist” is another good translation, and I believe the context supports the latter translation. (I will have more on this in a moment.)
Why do most English translations translate “robbers” in Jeremiah 7:11, if the Hebrew is more indicative of murderers? For good reason, when translating the Old Testament, scholars consider the LXX also. And if it is assumed that the LXX reads, “robber” rather than “insurrectionist,” and if this verse is quoted in the New Testament, especially when it is as well known a verse as it is, translators will often translate it that way. However, if the LXX can be read as insurrectionist, then murderer, the more likely translation, should prevail. (Believe me, I am no Greek or Hebrew scholar, but I have read a few commentaries by real scholars which bring this translation out.)
If this is correct, Jesus is contrasting the insurrection with the power of prayer. Or to say it another way, the power of the sword with the power of prayer. The power of this temple is in prayer, not fleshly power.
Remember Jesus question in the Gethsemane, which we just read, “Am I leading a rebellion (insurrection)?” This follows Peter cutting off the ear of the high priest's servant, where Jesus responds,
"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:52-53)
Note the contrast between the power of the sword and the power of prayer. The sword represents leading a rebellion, an insurrection. Prayer brings the power of 12 legions of angels.
Now, if all of this is true, then we must get back to the original scene and ask if it makes sense. Is Jesus calling the money changers murderers? Or, is he calling them thieves? My answer is that he isn't calling them anything. I believe He is speaking to the leaders of the temple religion—Pharisees and teachers of the law. I don't think his beef is with the money changers in particular. If it is, then this is the only time they are brought out as objects of correction. There is nothing else in the Storyline to support it.
Usually we construct the idea, based on the translation robbers, that the money changers were extorting huge profits from the poor travelers when they bought animals for sacrifice. While it is entirely possible that this is true, there is apparently no historical evidence to support it. In fact, it is quite plausible that these money changers were providing a service which made travel to Jerusalem possible while preventing the losses which might be incurred while trying to bring animals on such a journey. Indeed it may have been helpful, not harmful.
However, if Jesus is calling the leaders of the temple, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, murderers, then we have much in the context to support it. In fact, from this point forward to the crucifixion, it seems to be a constant theme. Later in the same chapter we read,
"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Matthew 21:35-39)
And we are told that the tenants Jesus was talking about, were indeed the leaders of the temple.
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. (Matthew 21:45)
Immediately following this is the parable of the wedding banquet in which we read of those originally invited to the banquet,
"But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.” (Matthew 22:5,6)
Again this is referencing the leadership of the temple religion. Finally, though not exhaustively, you have the 7th woe pronounced against the teachers of the law and Pharisees in which Jesus says,
31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
33"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. (Matthew 23:31-35)
I believe there is significant evidence to support then, that the contrast being created in Jesus' prophetic demonstration of overturning the tables of the money changers is between a house of prayer and a den of insurrectionists. Jesus is the king of a different kind of kingdom. His is not one which will advance by the power of the sword, rooted in some sense of Manifest Destiny. Rather, Christ will reign with a heavenly power. His kingdom is engaged in battle not with “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore we are to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (6:18)
How often do we trade the methods of Christ (prayer) for the methods of Barabbas (rebellion/insurrection/hatred/murder) and reject the Savior afresh! How often do we groan inwardly because of the brokenness of this fallen world, but spend so little time praying for heavenly power to engage it redemptively?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,