On day two of Holy Week, Monday, Jesus finds himself in the temple in Jerusalem. As a celebration of God’s deliverance of his people from bondage to Egypt, all of Israel would be offering animal sacrifices in Jerusalem this week. The required animals were not always easy to come by and with many of the people traveling a great distance, transporting the animals was also difficult. It was generally easier to purchase animals after already arriving in the city. Taking advantage of the predicament of these worshipers, salesmen set up shop in the court of the Gentiles outside of the temple. These salesmen set things up so that travelers essentially had no choice other than to purchase animals from them at higher price than normal. This feels a lot like paying six bucks for a Coke at a modern movie theater - no one watches a movie without something to drink and theaters are more than happy to make you pay six times more than the average price!
Jesus wasn’t having it. He proceeds to overturn the tables where the animals are being sold and chastises the criminals with words from Deuteronomy, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” and words from the prophet Jeremiah, “you make it a den of robbers!” He exposes the thievery of these supposed religious men who were taking advantage of the people. John’s Gospel also records a time at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in which he clears out the temple in a similar fashion. Some scholars have concluded that either John or the other gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) made a mistake in where they place Jesus’ temple cleansing, but there isn’t much warrant to that conclusion. Jesus actually cleansed the temple on two separate occasions. Jesus' quotation of Jeremiah 7 hints at this because Jeremiah also prophesied judgment on the temple on two separate occasions (Jer. 7:1-15; 26:2-6).
Jesus does this at the beginning and the end of his earthly ministry for a specific purpose: to demonstrate that the entire temple system of animal sacrifices and corrupt priests was coming to an end. No longer were people going to make a pilgrimage to a single location and kill animals to atone for sin. No longer were temple salesmen going to profit off of the piety of poor people. Salvation was not to be found in a place, rather salvation would come through a person: the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus makes this emphatic point just a few verses later in Matthew 21. He remained at the temple healing the blind and the lame and performing miracles, which earned him the praise of children nearby. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they shouted. “Hosanna” was a Hebrew term that meant “save,” and “Son of David” was an official title reserved for the Messianic king promised to king David centuries before (2 Samuel 7). In other words, the children were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to save them, and this didn’t sit well with the chief priests and scribes who heard them. The praises by the children made these leaders very angry. In their mind, the children were blaspheming, or using God's name in vain, and they expected Jesus to shut that down. Rather than silence the children, however, Jesus affirms what they proclaimed and even takes it a step further.
Blasphemy is only a valid charge if Jesus was not who the children were proclaiming him to be. But he was. He is. The Jewish leaders turn to Jesus in the midst of the hoopla and ask him, “Do you hear what these [kids] are saying?” In his typical stroke of genius Jesus responds with a quote from Psalm 8, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” Psalm 8 is a song all about how wonderful and majestic the one, true God is. In the lyrics of the song, the Psalmist describes children praising “The LORD” and this praise silencing the LORD’s enemies. Essentially Jesus has just said to the chief priests and scribes, “I will not silence these kids because they are correct. I am the majestic God worthy of all worship and anyone who stands against that is my enemy!” Mic drop.
The temple system is over not because it was simply time for a change, but because the eternal God of the universe who created all things became a man and sacrificed himself for his people. There would be no more need for the slaughtering of lambs and doves because the Perfect Lamb was going to be sacrificed. We wouldn’t need priests to make these sacrifices anymore because Jesus is not only our sacrifice, but our High Priest who brings us to God as well. Making an annual trek to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast would no longer be necessary because through the Holy Spirit, God’s presence resides in his followers, not a building. Jesus was beginning the fulfillment of the redemption of humanity.
I pray that you recognize this reality this week. Rituals, sacrifices, and commitment to religious work will never make you right with God. Only Jesus is able. We may not necessarily be taking advantage of a temple by overcharging for animal sacrifices, but we may be guilty of having the same spirit. The salesmen likely didn’t think they needed God and the chief priests thought they could appease God with their rituals. Both beliefs will get you left out of the kingdom and paying for your own sins in eternity. Focus on the only Lamb who saves you from your sin and follow him. This is the way to eternal life.