Turning Things Upside Down — Jesus, the Temple and the Endtimes
Editor’s Note — Part 9 of Jesus, Kingdom Builder, a 13-part study of St. Matthew’s Gospel by Dr. Sri. The series will run every two weeks.
Imagine gazing upon a building which makes up about one-fourth of an entire city and occupies an area equivalent to 35 football fields. That’s what Jewish pilgrims would see when they approached the gigantic Temple to worship the one, true God. It has been said that the Temple in Jerusalem was not just a large building in one part of the city. It’s more like “Jerusalem was a Temple with a city around it!” 
The immensity of the Temple is not surprising, considering the fact that this sacred building—and all that it stood for—was the very center of Jewish life. This was the place where the God of the universe came to meet His chosen people. The Jews believed that the Temple housed God’s awesome presence in its innermost chamber called the Holy of Holies. As the connecting point between heaven and earth, the Temple came to be known as “the naval of the world” and the center of the whole cosmos—the place where God’s holiness radiated outward to the rest of creation. 
Indeed, the Jews believed their Temple to be a symbol for the entire world, a miniature replica of the universe made in architecture. What went on in the sacred space of the Temple—sacrifice, worship, and the dwelling of God’s presence—was a reminder for God’s people of the praise and worship which should resound from all corners of the world.
In addition to being the focal point for worship and sacrifice, the Temple also served as the center for Jewish government, their judicial system, and their trade and economics. Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem was the first-century Jewish version of the Vatican, White House, Supreme Court, and Wall Street all wrapped into one. In short, the Temple was everything to the Jews. It stood out as the number one symbol for Jewish national identity.
So why did Jesus go in there and turn everything upside down?
Kingship and the Temple
The great Jewish kings exercised their reign through building or purifying the Temple. David came up with the idea for the first Temple. His son Solomon built it and dedicated it to the Lord. Great reformer kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah built their renewals around restoring the Temple. Judas Maccabeus won a century-long dynasty for his family because he cleansed the Temple from the pagan idolatry of the Syrians. Herod, who was not a true Jew and received his throne from the Romans, tried to legitimize his claim to kingship in Judea by rebuilding the Temple in great splendor. As we can see, kingship and the Temple went hand in hand in Israel’s history.
One of the first things Jesus did when He arrived in Jerusalem was to enter the Temple. There He performed a powerful, symbolic action, which must be understood in light of Israel’s prophetic tradition. Let us recall how Israel’s prophets often communicated more with their actions than they did with their words. For example, in a time when the Temple elders were corrupt and the Jerusalem leaders were leading the people away from God’s covenant, the prophet Jeremiah took a clay jar to the Temple priests, smashed it in front of them, and explained that what he just did with the jar symbolized what God would do with Jerusalem and the Temple because of their unfaithfulness (cf. Jer. 19:10-11). Jesus performed a similar act of judgment on the Temple when He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and prevented anyone from buying and selling in the Temple courts.
Bad for the Economy?
When Jews traveled to Jerusalem for Temple worship, they needed to present the Temple priests with pure animals to be offered in sacrifice. Rather than carry cattle, sheep, or goats with them on a long journey, they generally bought their animals in Jerusalem. But to make this purchase, they needed to obtain the local currency for doing business at the Temple. Hence, they went to the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple courts to exchange their money for the right coinage. This was the first step pilgrims would take when they wanted to offer sacrifices.
By turning all the moneychangers’ tables upside down, Jesus prevented anyone from getting the proper coinage. With no currency exchange, animals could not be bought and, consequently, sacrifices could not be offered. Thus, in one broad stroke, Jesus put a stop to the entire Temple system for a few hours—prefiguring how all sacrifices would soon cease and the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed forever. Like Jeremiah who smashed the clay jar, Jesus’ actions symbolized how the Jerusalem Temple would soon be destroyed by the Romans.
Breaking Down Walls
But why would Jesus condemn the Temple in this way? He explained His actions in the Temple by saying: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:13). First, Jesus quoted a passage from Isaiah 56, which should be read in its context. Isaiah 56 emphasized the universality of God’s plan of salvation. It described how the Lord will gather even the gentiles— the non-Jews—to Himself in the New Covenant era. In fact, the verse which Jesus quoted tells how He wants peoples from all nations to come to the Jerusalem Temple to worship Him: “[M]y house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). Thus, Jesus quoted Isaiah 56 in order to recall Israel’s mission to gather the nations together to worship the one true God.
However, rather than being a source of bringing in the gentiles, the Temple in Jesus’ day had become a source of keeping them out. No other institution stood out more as Israel’s national identity marker, setting the Jews apart from the non-Jews. An inscription over the entryway to the Temple’s inner courts made the point crystal clear: “No alien may enter within the barrier and wall around the Temple. Whoever is caught is alone responsible for the death which follows.” 
Many interpret Jesus’ statement about the Temple’s becoming a “den of robbers” to be a denunciation of the commercialism which supposedly had entered God’s holy house. However, lestes, the Greek word in the New Testament text, often translated “robbers” or “thieves,” actually referred to much more than swindling merchants who exploited people economically. Rather, it referred to those who killed and destroyed while stealing. In the first century, the word lestes could be used to describe revolutionaries who wanted to take up arms against the Romans. Indeed, the Temple had become the focal point for Israel’s resistance to Roman domination.
Thus, when Jesus said, “You made this house a den of lestes,” He was not primarily condemning economic exploitation. Rather, He was saying that the Jerusalem Temple was meant to be a light to the nations, a house of prayer for all peoples, but its leaders had made it a point of focus for resistance.
Jesus’ frustrations with the Temple can be seen when He exited the building with His apostles another time later in the week. As they gazed at the magnificent structures of the Temple, the apostles marveled at the beautiful edifice which was one of the most impressive buildings of the ancient world. In the midst of their amazement, Jesus told them that this massive, impressive building soon would be destroyed: “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Mt. 24:2).
The apostles asked Him when this would take place and what would be the signs. Jesus responded with a lengthy apocalyptic discourse in which He spoke of wars, earthquakes, famines, the sun and moon darkening, stars falling from the sky, and the need to flee from the city to the mountains. He concluded this discourse by giving a timetable for when all this would occur: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place” (Mt. 24:34).
Many interpret Jesus’ words in this passage as referring primarily to His second coming at the end of the world. However, there is one problem with this interpretation: Jesus said these events would take place within a generation. We know the stars in fact did not fall, and the sun and moon continue to brighten the sky. So did Jesus get the timing of His second coming wrong?
Here we must see that Jesus was using traditional Jewish apocalyptic imagery, which in the Old Testament was not meant to portray the physical destruction of the world and the end of the space-time universe. Rather, Israel’s prophets used such cataclysmic language to describe the fall of great empires, powers, and institutions that were corrupt and hostile to God’s people. Cosmic metaphors fittingly depicted how God would rid the world of those wicked rulers, bringing their reigns to an end.
For example, when speaking about the judgment that would fall upon a wicked Jerusalem, the prophet Ezekiel used the imagery of famine, pestilence, and wars, and he warned the Jews to escape to the mountains to describe the horror Jerusalem would face when the Babylonians would soon come in and crush the city (cf. Ezek. 7:14-16). Similarly, the prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah called for Jews to flee from Babylon on the day when Yahweh would liberate and vindicate His people by demolishing the Babylonian empire (cf. Jer. 50:8, 28; Zech. 2:6-8). Other prophets used the image of earthquakes to depict great nations which soon would tumble to the ground or the cosmic imagery of the sun and moon darkening and stars falling from the sky to describe how Israel’s enemies such as Babylon and Egypt would lose their strength and fall from power (cf. Is. 13:1, 10; 14:12; Ezek. 32:7-8; Joel 2:10).
Israel’s prophets routinely spoke this way in order to portray God’s intervention in the history of the world’s great powers as dramatic, “earth-shaking” events. Although this prophetic imagery was not meant to describe the end of the world, it certainly emphasized the imminent end of a world— the end of the Babylonian world, the Egyptian world, and the world of other powers who opposed God’s people.
Standing in that same prophetic tradition, Jesus spoke of famines, wars, earthquakes, people fleeing, the sun and moon darkening, and stars falling from the sky. And He did so in the context of His predicting the destruction of the Temple (cf. Mt. 24:2). Like the prophets before Him, Jesus employed these catastrophic images to prophetically foretell how God was coming in judgment on Israel’s enemies. However, He did so with an ironic twist. This time, the enemies of God’s people were not Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, or even Rome, but rather the leaders in Jerusalem and the Temple! God’s judgment now would fall upon the leaders of Israel who had become corrupt and were leading the people away from the true Messiah-King, Jesus.
The End of a World
Jesus prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed within one generation. Jesus’ prediction was right on the money. About 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, Roman troops raided Jerusalem, burned down the city, and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.—all taking place within a generation, just as Jesus had foretold.
Think about what the end of the Temple would mean. We saw earlier how the Temple summed up Israel’s entire life and covenant with God. Practically all aspects of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh in the Old Covenant were related to the Temple. Thus, insofar as the Temple summed up the Old Covenant, the end of the Temple would symbolize the end of the Old Covenant world. Indeed, that is exactly what we have seen Jesus bringing about: the end of the old, so He could usher in the new.
Furthermore, there may be at least one secondary sense in which Jesus’ words can be seen as pointing not only to the destruction of Jerusalem, but also to the end of the physical world. Recall how the Jews viewed their Temple as the center of the universe and as a symbol for the entire cosmos. As such, the destruction of the Temple might signify what the end of the world may be like. While Jesus’ words point primarily to the demise of the Temple in 70 A.D., they also prefigure what could happen to the entire cosmos at the end of time.
 T. Wright, The Original Jesus (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1996), 57-58.
 M. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1998), 75-76.
 Ibid., 76.
 George Montague notes how the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world could have been closely associated in Jesus’ mind, “for Jews considered the Temple to be one of the foundations of the world, and the end of the one would be the end of the other.” G. Montague, Companion God (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 262.
Questions for Discussion:
- What did the Jews believe about the Temple? In what ways was the Temple the center of their lives?
- What is the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions in the Temple?
- Is Jesus talking about the end of the world when He uses the apocalyptic language in Matthew 24? How was cataclysmic imagery used in the Old Testament? How does Jesus use it?
- Why would Jesus condemn the Temple? Why was the Temple facing God’s judgment?
Reprinted with permission from the October 1999 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 1999 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp
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Category: Sacred Scripture