Temple and the Tree | Matthew 21:12-22
Topic: New Testament Passage: Matthew 21:12–21:22
Good Morning! We are in our series on the book of Matthew; the Gospel account of Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, as the Christ, the Savior – King of God’s people. This series covering Chapters 21-25 has been titled the Rejection of the King. During the first 20 chapters of Matthew we have seen the miraculous nature of Jesus birth and the numerous miracles, signs, and wonder performed by Jesus for the purpose of revealing his identity as the Son of God and the promised Messiah of God’s people. Two weeks ago we transitioned in this narrative from the 20 chapters of Matthew covered 33 years of Jesus life and detailed 3 years of ministry, to the last 8 chapters covering Jesus final week in Jerusalem, his death, burial, and his resurrection. We saw Jesus triumphant entry into the city on the back of a small donkey as crowds coming with him and those before him cheered “Hosanna (Save Now) to the son of David” showing their great expectations for radical transformation and restoration in the holy city of Jerusalem. This week we will see precisely what type of transformation Jesus has planned for his people. It is dramatically different then what the crowds desired or expected. Jesus wastes little time getting busy with the purpose of his arrival.
Matthew 21:12-22 12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Verse 12-13 | Jesus Enters, Jesus Overturns
Jesus has now entered the holy city of God’s people. His arrival does have a purpose; Jesus does have a mission of rescue and restoration planned. The overturning of pagan rule and expulsion of the insidious occupying forces can now begin. Everyone is likely anticipating a great conflict with Roman forces as the first order of business, yet Jesus has another target, the temple. The explicate place of worship of the God of the Bible. It was designed and built specifically as a place of praise, prayer, sacrifice, and worship. It was the specific dwelling place, meeting place between God and man on the earth. You had the holy of holies in the middle that would only be entered once a year by one high priest would have gone through a rigorous ceremonial cleansing process, for a sacrifice of atonement. It had a sanctuary court reserved for the other priests and several sets of outer courts farther from the Holy of Holies staring with the court for Jewish men, then Jewish women, and finally the outermost court for the non-Jew Gentiles.
If you wanted to be close to God you went to the temple. It was to be a holy, clean, set apart place distinct from the rest of daily life. Worship of God was directly tied to physical place and structure of the temple. This gets misapplied often by Christians who apply these standards to our church buildings/spaces. Let’s be clear while our space is significant it is not the holy of holies or the temple. I’ve actually seen this text used by a pastor to deny a youth group bake sale between services to raise money for a mission trip to say “no money changing in the foyer!” We’re ok with a book table by the coffee. When our daughters were selling bracelets last year for $1 to help build the house in Honduras Jesus wouldn’t come in, kick their bracelet box and whip them to the parking lot. He’d probably buy a bracelet and encourage them.
So what is really happening here? It’s believed that during a festival of Passover there would have been more than a million people packed in to this city. Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire where coming back to this holy city hoping to worship the Lord. Some are ethnically Jewish and others are gentile “God-fearers” All the commerce we see is happening in the court of the most outer court of the gentiles. Each activity described had a semi-legitimate function to help facilitate faithful worship and offerings. Money changers were necessary to turn all the random regional coins of various values in to locally acceptable currency to pay the prescribed “half-coin” temple tax each Jewish man was accountable for. Wealthy or affluent individuals who wanted to make an offering for their sin were to bring a lamb to sacrifice, but for those who didn’t have a flock or couldn’t afford a lamb they could bring doves or pigeons. The pigeon dealers were actually intended as a service for the poorest of the poor especially for those who have travelled from distant regions so they wouldn’t have to haul/carry animals with them. What was happening here did not start as a bad thing, but got pervert into something truly despicable. The money changers were taking way more than reasonable/standard 6% interest/fee in the exchanges. There were charging exorbitant interest for people who had no other option. They were gaining from the poor purely out of greed. It’s the same thing that happens at payday loan places every day. Additionally, the pigeons dealers had gone to business school and realized you could set a higher price for a product if it was in a place of urgent need and limited options so the going rate of pigeons were 50x higher in the temple then out in the streets. They likely only took local coins as well so you got hit twice like tokens at chucky cheese you spend to get tickets to buy garbage. This created a noisy and busy scene that looked and sounded more like a crowded market place or a casino then a holy temple for prayer and communion with God. The bottom line is all these dealers were robbing the poor economically and they were robbing the gentiles of the ability simply pray in peace. Service had turned into exploitation. Forget Roman taxes or oppression, the Big Temple Industry was effectively placing great burden and pain on God’s people. Put simply, there is sin in the holy temple, what is intended for pure worship of the Good God has been defiled. This the scene tells as a lot about the nature sin.
Sin at its core is a rejection and rebellion from God. It separates us and creates barriers that keep us from God. God purposed this temple for his glory and we’re going to use it for our personal gain. The market place scene inside the temple is a barrier that keeps those coming to worship from experiencing and connecting with God. Sin distracts and discourages worship of God. You have noise and activity inside one of the courts of the temple. Verse 13 Jesus calls the temple a “house of prayer”. Jesus is quoting Isaiah 56:7 which says “for all people” The temple was the “Come and see” center of worship and for those who were gentile their “reserved space” was filled with money changers and animal dealers. This is as close as they can get to the presence of God and it is a worse environment for worship then a crowded market place. They came to pray, but why bother even trying? Sin in their court makes worship worthless. The noise would have risen up and been heard in the court of the women distracting from prayer. It was certainly heard and known about just outside the temple as you see the merchants going in and out making the outer court of the temple indistinguishable from the rest of the city. Sin stains what is holy making it unholy and common. Sin devours and destroys. The limited resources those coming to the temple have are taken from them with the great burden of compelled necessity based on falsehood. What little joy, life, resources, you have are given and gone to a force that would rather see you destitute and destroyed then have real communion with God, experiencing His glory, and enjoying life with Him and his people.
How Jesus responds to the scene in this unholy temple shows a lot about his character and how Jesus views and deals with sin. Jesus doesn’t come in and try to negotiate with the money changers. He doesn’t try to better understand the pigeon dealers. He does not quietly ask them to keep their noise to a minimum, adjust their hours, or suggest they keep their activity contained to just part of the court, try to limit their distraction from worship. He doesn’t change the definition of what is good and holy to include the greedy, selfish and shameful activities of those in the courts and tell everyone he has new modern interpretations that make what they’re doing in the courts worthy of celebration rather than concern. There is never any negotiation with sin that keeps us from worship of God. Jesus sees sin and responds with instant radical removal. These activities have no purpose in this place of worship and drastic measures are needed to and remove them. So with Jesus you now have a new form of noisy intense activity that at first doesn’t look that peaceful or loving. You have this chaotic scene with change hitting the floor, Jesus cracking a whip, tables overturned, merchants, their customers, and animals fleeing the holy court. Entrenched sin removal can look chaotic at first as things that seem orderly, but are actually strangling life, are uprooted and removed.
We need this Jesus. The Jesus who has a righteous anger kindled against sin and all that keeps us from true worship. He is bold, he is mighty, and he gets results! Jesus is gentle and kind. However, gentleness and kindness does not mean there is no firmness, no confrontation, and sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is the most sever. Jesus speaks and acts with authority. Change happens! As Christians we don’t worship God at a place, the temple, we worship God as a person Jesus. As Christians we are the go and tell people of God. Talking about how God saves through Jesus work, and God changes through His grace. We don’t have a temple others come to. We are the temple that goes and shows. But we are all defiled temples with sin deep rooted sin that distracts and devours our worship.
1 Cor 9:18-20 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Jesus is in the business of taking defiled sinners who were made to worship a Holy Good God and makes us clean, blameless, and presentable before God. Jesus knows we are made for worship, he care about our hearts. He calls us to flee from sin with the power of the Holy Spirit and live lives as holy temples.
Verse 14-17 | Jesus Heals, Jesus Affirms
This is what our Jesus does, he enters with triumph, and he authoritatively declares our lives and our heart as temples of worship for His father. He then assertively and aggressively begins the chaotic process of expelling sin that hinders the purity of our worship. He removes what distracts, what defiles, and then he heals bringing peace. Jesus heals the blind and the lame, and restores the temple to its intended purpose. These people were not traditionally even allowed in the temple. Their ailments were seen as “unholy”, defiling the temple and yet here is Jesus healing them in a place the world said they do not belong.
This is the nature of the gospel. It is radically inclusive AND it is radically transformative. Jesus comes and accepts us where we are but he never lets us stay the way we are. The blind don’t want acceptance, the lame don’t want affirmation, they want healing. Here they are now in the temple, a house of prayer, a place of healing and the first thing the blind see is Jesus, the first time the lame experience true freedom of movement it is in the place set aside to worship God. Amazing! This is why Jesus cleaned the temple BEFORE the healings. The blinds’ first sight wouldn’t be a desecrated temple, the lame’s first bold steps of freedom wouldn’t be in a crowded chaotic court yard.
Jesus is agressively cleansing sin and radically transforming the broken and response from the powerful is indignant rejection. In this we see Jesus hates our sin more than we do. We’ve grown numb to it, or we value it more than submission to God’s authority in our lives. The Chief Priests didn’t have an objection to the dirty dealers, because they didn’t have any claim or effect on their authority. They don’t see the beauty in the healing only the issue of Jesus authority. The leaders can handle the temple being defiled but they can’t handle the cry of the crowds “Hosanna, Son of David” now being echoed by the next generation. Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2 talking about how God ordains praise for himself from the mounts of young children. In doing so he’s making the claim clear, He is God and is worthy of praise.
Verse 18-22 | Jesus Curses, Calls us to Faith
After leaving the temple, and the city, when he returns Jesus shows the same level of contempt for a fig tree as he did the temple. Why? Because the Fig tree has all the appearance of something that is life sustaining and joy giving. Yet on closer inspection it yields neither. It is false advertising. Jesus isn’t upset it’s not bearing enough fruit or the best fruit but because it is bearing no fruit at all. With fig trees, leaves always equaled fruit. The tree is a living example of hypocrisy. It bears the promise of fruit but is lying. For those that come to it seeking something life giving they will be misled. Jesus is saying if you’re going to profess to be a source of life and you should actually be bearing fruit. Jesus has no place for pretenders in His kingdom. Israel with their temple worship was playing the part of religion but denying it’s power. Their temple will be destroyed and their holy city defamed as much as this fig tree was withered. Acting and pretending like we are a source of the life giving gospel when our lives are completely fruitless is as pointless and useless to others as a fig tree with only leaves. We are made holy to be a blessing to others.
As difficult as it may seem I actually believe this is a very hopeful act by Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, and us, to have great faith in His transforming and cleansing power and do not doubt his abilities. In ourselves, alone, we can accomplish very little. We will comprise with and invite in sin that takes deep roots. We will settle for lives that are completely fruitless even if they resemble something living. We can’t clean our own temple. Mountains are always seen as obstacles; driving out sin is removing a great obstacle we cannot do on our own. We cannot will ourselves to bear our own fruit. But Jesus, and the Holy Spirit can and will do both. So we pray to the Father for cleansing, for restoration, for fruitfulness and we ask boldly knowing God shows us his character in Jesus who radical removes sin, hates hypocrisy, and loves us enough to shed his blood to pay for all our sin. His blood that pays for sins also cleans away our sin. Because Jesus rose again he gives us real abundant life. It’s a radically healed life no longer blind to our sin, no longer lame unable to walk out God’s purposes for our lives. He gives genuine life where we are free to see His glory, able to worship and commune with God, and have the freedom to walk in the good fruitful works He has prepared for us to walk in. As living holy temples, we are houses of prayer, we pray having faith in God’s will and that he will accomplish what he has promised. So we ask God to provide victory over oppressive sin, with faith he will answer our prayer. We pray for faithfulness and fruitfulness leading to life and joy for yourself and others with faith he will answer our prayer. Have faith, pray, and Trust Jesus!
More in Rejection of the King | Matthew Part IV
June 14, 2015The Woes from the King Part 3: Forsaken City | Empty Temple - Matthew 23:37 - 24:2
June 7, 2015The Woes from the King Part 2: Seven Charges - One Verdict | Matthew 23:13-36
May 31, 2015The Woes from the King Part 1: Unbearable Preachers | Matthew 23:1-12