“Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away” (Matthew 24:1a). As He did so, “His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1b). A couple of days prior to this, Jesus had made His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. As He rode, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds went ahead of Him and those following kept shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (21:8-9) This was a dramatic exhibition, full of provocative imagery, stirring passions within the people of Israel in regards to their King and Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of their Creator. Matthew reports that “As He entered Jerusalem the whole city was thrown into an uproar” (21:10a). Jesus was playing upon and creating certain expectations, not the least of which, was that the time of Roman occupation was coming to an end. However, rather than leading a mob to storm the Roman governor’s residence or the fortress housing the Roman soldiers in an attempt to take up His position of earthly power by overthrowing the local representatives of those that were then ruling over Israel, Jesus directed His steps toward the Temple.
“Jesus entered the Temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are turning it into a den of robbers!’” (21:12-13) Some misguided (but perhaps well intentioned) souls look at this and see Jesus taking issue with buying and selling and money changing taking place in the Temple courts. Unfortunately, because these things were actually legitimate and sanctioned activities that needed to take place in order to facilitate the sacrifices for the people, this is a shortsighted view and misses the context provided by what He has said, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah. In the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of Israel’s God, we hear the prophet say “Do you think this Temple I have claimed as My own is to be a hideout for robbers? You had better take note! I have seen for Myself what you have done! says the Lord” (7:11).
What was it that they had been doing? Was Jeremiah simply conveying God’s disgust at the activities taking place in the Temple? Yes, but on a far larger scale than what we might have in mind. What preceded the question and statement of the eleventh verse? Again, speaking for God, Jeremiah has said “You must change the way you have been living and do what is right. You must treat one another fairly. Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands. Stop killing innocent people in this land. Stop paying allegiance to other gods. If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in the land which I gave to your ancestors as a lasting possession. But just look at you! Your are putting your confidence in a false belief that will not deliver you. You steal. You murder. You commit adultery. You lie when you swear on oath. You sacrifice to the God Baal. You pay allegiance to others gods whom you have not previously known. Then you come and stand in My presence in this Temple I have claimed as My own and say, ‘We are safe!’ You think you are so safe that you go on doing all those hateful sins!” (7:5-10) It is this---far more than the simple acts of buying and selling---to which Jesus makes reference with His words and actions in the Temple. By quoting from Jeremiah, Jesus is accusing the Temple authorities of doing all of these things. Therefore, He actually legitimates the ongoing rule of Rome over Israel, as part of God’s faithful covenant actions towards His people, in the face of those that might be expecting Him to act to overthrow that rule and attempt to drive out the Romans, as it was these things to which Jeremiah points that contributed mightily to God’s bringing of Babylon to destroy the Temple and drag His covenant people into exile.
It might be of interest to note that, in order to call Jeremiah to mind, that He quotes the from the eleventh verse of the seventh chapter. He may have been able to quote from another portion of the section provided above, but He did not. He references the portion of Jeremiah’s polemic that speaks of “robbers.” The Greek word translated as “robber” in Matthew is “leston.” Now, this is not to be found in Matthew’s narrative, but in the Gospel of John, we find the man named Barabbas described as a “robber,” using a derivation of the same Greek word used by Jesus and Jeremiah. Matthew merely mentions the fact that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.” The people knew who and what he was. Barabbas, according to Mark, “had committed murder during an insurrection” (15:7), and Luke also mentions the insurrection and murder (23:19). This is interesting, as the Greek term applied to Barabbas by John, and directed to the Temple authorities by Jesus, carries with it the notion of insurrection and revolution---going well beyond simple thievery. We marvel at the genius of the author as ironically, through His triumphal entry, Jesus is stirring thoughts of an insurrection to be carried out against the Romans, whereas those that run the Temple are carrying out an insurrection against the very God that they believe is going to act to deliver them from the power of Rome. Ultimately, as we know, Barabbas, the one that seeks to participate in revolutionary activity that may serve to drive out the Romans through armed conflict, is released rather than Jesus. Eventually, Israel will undertake a violent resurrection against Rome that will result in the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, so that the very place in which Jesus stands and speaks will be thrown down to the ground.