Cleansing the Temple – Matthew 21:12-13

After the Triumphal Entry, Jesus goes to the Temple and is angered by merchants who are buying and selling in the Temple (21:12-13). Jesus makes a prophetic demonstration, overturning the tables of merchants and moneychangers and This is usually called the “cleansing of the Temple.”

cleansing the temple

The cleansing of the Temple is often attacked as historically suspect. Is it likely Jesus could enter the Temple courts and start a riot? More recent scholars of historical Jesus find the story plausible since it provides the reason why Jewish authorities question Jesus in the next chapter and eventually decide to execute him (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 61-67; Meier, Marginal Jew 2:893).

Matthew’s version of the cleansing of the Temple is quite brief, only two verses, although he adds an additional story about Jesus healing in the Temple after he overturns the tables. Mark 11:12-33 has far more detail, and John 2:13-25 has a similar event.

Commenting on the version of this story in John, Köstenberger suggests the main point of Jesus’ attack is that the sellers are taking up the area of the Temple where the Gentiles are permitted to worship (Köstenberger, John, 106). I am not sure how many Gentiles actually came to Passover to worship, not is certain the sellers took up the entire area (300×450 meters, a bit less than 1000×1500 feet, larger than the size of four football fields).

The action is intentional symbolic. Like the curse on the fig tree, the “turning of the tables” functions as a condemnation of the Temple aristocracy. By overturning tables, Jesus challenges the religious authorities to be obedient to Scripture by making the temple a house of prayer for all nations.

Selling sacrifices and changing money was a necessary service provided by the Temple. It was very difficult to travel to Jerusalem with a lamb for the Passover sacrifice. If it was injured or found to be in some way unclean, then the worshiper would not have a sacrifice for the festival. To assist people in their Temple authorities sold “pre-approved” lambs for people traveling from the Diaspora for the Passover Festival. The sellers are vending oxen and pigeons along with sheep. These might be thought of as the high and low end of the sacrifice scale. A wealthy man may choose to sacrifice an ox while a poor person could only afford a pigeon.

Moneychangers were required because the half-shekel Temple Tax was supposed to be paid in a Tyrian coin (a stater or tetradrachma) which had a higher silver content. It is frequently stated that the Tyrian coin did not have the image of a Roman emperor who claimed to be God on it, making it more acceptable for the Jewish Temple tax. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor disputes this majority opinion since the Tyrian coin used an image of the god Melkart (the Tyrian Hercules from the sixth century BC). Melkart (“King of the city”) was equivalent to Baal of the Hebrew Bible.

Tyrian stater, tetradrachma

If these sellers and moneychangers provide a necessary service, why does Jesus attack these sellers and moneychangers? Popular opinion is that these vendors were making an outrageous profit by selling in the Temple, on the analogy of the vendors at an airport or sports arena. Since they had a captive market, they were free to price-gouge on sacrifice prices. Commenting on the John version of this story, D. A. Carson says, “There is no evidence that the animal merchants and money-changers or the priestly authorities who allowed them to use the outer court were corrupt companions in graft” (Carson, John, 179).

Jesus combines two lines from the Prophets to condemn the merchants: Isaiah 56:7 (“My house shall be called a house of prayer”) and Jeremiah 7:11 (“you make it a den of robbers”). It is supposed to be like this (the ideal), but you have made it into the worst possible thing, the generation which witnesses the destruction of the Temple.

The context of Isaiah 56:7 is important. At the beginning of the third part of Isaiah, Isaiah 56:1-7 looks forward to an eschatological gathering at the Temple where those excluded from worship (eunuchs and foreigners) will be welcomed. These excluded groups will make acceptable sacrifices in the temple because they “hold fast” to the covenant and honor the Sabbath. Jesus will heal the blind and lame (21:14), people who were excluded from Temple worship, and children will worship him (21:15), another class of people who were too low socially to enter the Temple gates and worship the Lord.

In Jeremiah 7, the prophet preaches to those going up to the temple to worship the Lord condemning then for their hypocrisy. They think their worship honors the Lord and will save them from the coming judgment. Jeremiah is clear: they have not defended the rights of widows, orphans, and immigrants, so their belief temple worship protects them is “deceptive words” that are worthless (7:8).

It is possible Jesus also has in mind Zechariah 14:21 is more subtle. In the eschatological age, the Temple will be either rebuilt or purified and there will be no need for “merchants.” Several observations are important for understanding Jesus’ allusion to this text.

Zechariah 14:21 Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite (footnote, merchant) in the house of the Lord Almighty

First, Zechariah has the future restored Temple in mind, not the present “second Temple.” All the nations will come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. Second, “merchants” in Zechariah 14:21 can be rendered “Canaanites” (as in the NIV 2011, but not the ESV). The name Canaanite means something like merchant, and in the context of the verse it seems more likely that the original point was no more sellers will be needed to vend sacrificial animals since every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be equally pure as the Temple mount.

By alluding to these verses, Jesus is announcing the beginning of the new age of the Messiah. The merchants must leave the Temple since the time is coming when they will not be needed. Jesus’s execution at Passover will solve the problem of sin and render these sacrifices superfluous. In that eschatological age, all the excluded people will be included in Temple worship.

3 thoughts on “Cleansing the Temple – Matthew 21:12-13

  1. I believe, the original selling of worshiping offerings were sold outside, prior to entering the Temple. From my experience of what the religeous rulers of that day, the trend had become so permissible, that the selling of offerings had worked its way within the Temple itself, thus, why Jesus had become so irritated about it. As he said himself, the Temple is meant for worship and worship alone.

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