The Rev. James Gibson has an outstanding reflection posted today at Vicar’s Versicles:
Here’s an excerpt, but really, go read the full entry!
With the best of intentions, the temple had been constructed to house the presence of God and stand forever as a symbol of that presence in the midst of God’s people. But, by Jesus’ day, it had become a symbol of elitism and corruption, a prime target for God’s wrath. Thus, when Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the money-changers, he quoted the prophets in pronouncing judgment, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
The use of the term “robbers” in most English translations obscures the true meaning behind Jesus’ words. Most interpreters today will read this passage as merely a condemnation of the commercialization of sacred space. We have lost a lot in the translation.
The word translated “robbers” is better rendered “brigands.” In Jesus’ day, “brigands” were not robbers or thieves, at least not in the sense we think of today. They were the radical revolutionaries, the ultra-nationalists who saw their special status as the chosen people of God not as a call to be a light to the nations, but as a confirmation of their spiritual and political superiority. They did not wish to draw others in, but to drive everyone else out. In condemning the religious elites for turning the Temple into a “brigand’s den,” Jesus was expressing the righteous anger of God against Israel for having abandoned its true vocation, turning in on itself rather than reaching out to the world.
The Temple was the place of sacrifice. There was nothing morally or religiously suspect about the exchange of money in the Temple courts for the purchase of sacrificial animals. It was not economic injustice Jesus was decrying when he overturned the tables of the money-changers. Rather, he was bringing the whole Temple system under judgment because it was not serving its intended purpose. Indeed, the Temple could never be anything more than a vague reflection of God’s ultimate intention to draw all nations into the light of his eternal kingdom. The moment Jesus entered the Temple, its days as the symbol of Israel’s special relationship with God were numbered.
The fall of the Temple at the hands of the Romans, a mere forty years later, was decisive because there was an inextricable link between it and the true “house” which Jesus himself “raised up” through his death and resurrection. In his vision of New Jerusalem, John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place [literally, “tabernacle”] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3) A few verses later, he says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22).
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus restored the original dynamic of God’s relationship with his people. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [literally, “tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14a). From the very beginning, God has desired to dwell not “in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48b), but in the midst of his people, finding in their hearts, cleansed from sin by the blood of the Lamb, his true and eternal home.