Matthew Chapter 21 - A Withered Temple


MATTHEW 21:12-22

MY WIFE HAS BEEN TO St. Peter’s in Rome. I have been to St. Paul’s in London. Between us we have seen the two largest churches in the world. And if you have ever been in such a building, something so massive, ornate, and meticulously designed, you likely experienced what we experienced— that inexplicable architectural euphoria.

For most first-century Jews, especially those country bumpkins from Galilee we have been following for some time now, entering Herod’s temple in the holy city produced that same sense of euphoria. The temple was one of the world's most magnificent structures. Its outer walls, for example, were com­prised of huge double colonnades, made with hundreds of pillars of pure white marble, covered with roofs adorned with cedar painstakingly engraved and painted. Most of these columns were thirty feet high, and some of them were a hundred feet high. The columns were so massive that it would have taken three persons with hands joined together to surround one of them at the base. Those were just the boundary walls of this immense and extravagant edifice, a building that took 10,000 carpenters and masons, laboring over four decades, to build.

At the heart of the temple was the Holy of Holies; then came the Holy Place (its doors were between sixty and 100 feet high), then the Court of the Priests (where the altar was and the sacrifices were made), then the Court of Israel (for Jewish men), then the Court of the Women (for Jewish women), and then surrounding these center structures, last and certainly least, was the Court of the Gentiles (a place for non-Jewish converts to Judaism).

This Court of the Gentiles is important as it pertains to our passage, for it is there in that thirty-five acre, open-air courtyard where Jesus would have made, as everyone did, his entrance into the temple.

Worship in the Temple

With all that in mind, when we read in verse 12, “And Jesus entered the temple,” we perhaps expect to read something about his euphoric experience. Perhaps he would say, as his disciples would (in Mark 13:1), “What wonder­ful stones and what wonderful buildings!” Or perhaps we expected something more—that something supernatural was about to happen, especially consider­ing the history of Israel—the glory of the Lord filled the temple in the days of Solomon. Concerning the entrance of the one “greater than Solomon” (12:42), the one who is touted in verse 9 to be the coming King, “the Son of David,” the triumphal entrance of the Lord who opens the eyes of the blind, we may well have expected the shekinah glory to fall upon this sacred place then and there.

However, if we had such expectations they were surely not met, for we read at the end of verse 12 that when Jesus got there, what he did was so shockingly unexpected: he “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.”

What Jesus saw as he entered the Court of the Gentiles was none other than “a huge religious circus!” Although God had originally instructed his people to bring sacrifices from their own flocks (Deuteronomy 12:5-7), Jesus noticed that the religious authorities disregarded that specific law and insti­tuted instead a convenient and profitable marketplace wherein travelers could purchase an overpriced but authorized animal. And for the sake of expediency instead of offering such a “service” outside the temple walls (as would be more proper) they authorized the use of this immense Court of the Gentiles.

The problem with this was that this was the only place where Gentile converts to Judaism could worship. So Jesus saw that these Gentiles, some of whom would have traveled long distances (think of someone like the Ethio­pian eunuch), came into the temple only to find that their place of worship was crammed with livestock and loose change, that their sanctuary resembled the bizarre mix of a county fair and the pit of a stock exchange.

That’s what Jesus saw. What Jesus did was drive out and overturn, which are two very symbolic actions. He was overturning these new, unlawful, unmerciful, and anti-Abrahamic-covenant temple traditions. And he was driv­ing out the spiritual swindlers (those who squeezed the poor), the currency exchange racketeers and the used pigeon salesmen. Out they went and in went the poor: “the blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” free of charge (v. 14). Jesus opens the gates of the temple—dare I say the Holy of Holies?—to those normally excluded from entrance (cp. 2 Samuel 5:8), yes, to those who “eke out their existence as beggars” outside the city gates. He lets them in to him—to his presence and healing touch.

Matthew 21:12 may be as important a verse as 20:28. Don’t overlook it. Don’t underestimate its importance. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Lamb of God (the ultimate and final sacrifice for sin, who would bring healing to the hopeless) who is also the lion of Judah (the king who came to judge Israel and soon all the world in righteousness) walked into the temple. He walked into the temple to save the poor in spirit but also to judge those who are rich in religious hypocrisy.

Here is where that good old fig tree thickens the plot. Skip over verses 15, 16 (we’ll come back to them) and look ahead to verses 17-19.

And leaving them [the indignant chief priests and the scribes], he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 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.

What’s with the fig tree? Certainly the fact that Jesus was “hungry” illustrates his humanity. Our Lord could get hungry and need food. However, it is not his hunger that surprises us as much as his seemingly ir­rational and irritable behavior. The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell, as he examined the cursing of the fig tree, accused Jesus here of what he called “vindictive fury.” For him this whole episode tarnished Jesus’ character. “I cannot myself feel,” Russell wrote, “that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.” Russell is not alone in claiming that Jesus was in some ways “acting like a spoiled child who did not get his way.” That is perhaps the natural but uninformed reading.

For those of us who know enough about Scripture and a bit about botany, we recognize that Jesus here is not, with supernatural spite, taking out his frustrations on some organic object. We remember he could do without food. He went without food for forty days in the wilderness, resisting the tempta­tion to turn stones into bread. And we remember he could surely produce fruit from this tree if he so desired. He did after all multiply the loaves and fishes. So we doubt he would be stymied by a little fruit tree. But that raises the ques­tion, if Jesus was not acting like a spoiled child endowed with supernatural powers, what was he up to?

Let me offer a short explanation that starts with a brief lesson in horticulture. Let’s talk about fig trees, a topic too often neglected in Ecclesias today. In the land of Israel, during the month of March, fig trees produce small edible green buds called paggim (called taqsh by modern Palestinian Arabs). In April large green leaves sprout forth. Then in May these buds fall off and are replaced by figs. Now we know from the time in which Passover was celebrated and the mention of the “leaves” (v. 19; Mark 11:13, “in leaf’) that this incident occurred in April. Thus when our Lord saw from a distance the green leaves he expected not to find figs (for as Mark tells us, “it was not the season for figs”). But he did expect to find something—paggim or taqsh— those early but edible fruit buds. However, this particular tree was deceptive. With all its green foliage, there should have been fruit. There should have been something. But, alas there was nothing. This fruit tree, which had the signs of fruit, was found to be fruitless.

So you see, Jesus didn’t curse this fig tree because he was upset at not getting food from it. Rather he cursed it to provide his disciples (those who “heard” [Mark 11:14] and “saw” [v. 20] this curse) with a visible parable or object lesson of what was happening to Israel, as Israel was often compared to a fig tree in the Old Testament (Micah 7:1-6; Jeremiah 8:13). Like this green tree, Israel was fruitful in appearance alone. Spiritually they were barren. From a distance the temple looked inspiring, but upon close examination it was fruitless. Inside the activities that surrounded the Passover sacrifice were only hollow rituals offered to God neither in spirit nor in truth.

When Jesus entered the temple, the fruit he expected to see were prayers and praises offered up to God, along with the necessary fruits of righteous­ness—humility, kindness, and justice. Instead he discovered merciless in­justices as the Gentiles were pushed out and the poor were extorted. That’s why he cited Isaiah 56:7, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer.’” Matthew stops there. That verse from Isaiah ends, however (and perhaps Matthew implies—with his emphasis on the nations—what Mark makes explicit), “for all the nations” (11:17).

The popular Jewish literature of this time informs us that the Jews ex­pected the Messiah, when he came, to purge Jerusalem and the temple of Gentiles and foreigners. Jesus’ attitude and action, however, was “exactly the reverse.” As the true Messiah, the one who came to fulfill the Scriptures, Jesus “does not clear the temple of Gentiles, but for them.” He clears the temple so that Gentiles might worship God! So Jesus quotes from Isaiah 56 because it is there where the prophet “speaks of the extension of God’s salva­tion to people who formerly were excluded from it,” where Isaiah speaks of how the temple is not the sole property of Israel but is a witness to the nations.

As Jesus turns over tables, he turns the Jews’ attention to their prophets— first to Isaiah and second to Jeremiah. In the second half of verse 13, where Jesus says, “But you make it a den of robbers,” he quotes from Jeremiah 7:11. (Here’s where it really gets interesting!) Look below at Jeremiah 7:1- 11. I think Jesus had this whole text in mind.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house [the temple], and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:1-11)

This is precisely what Jesus himself has seen and now judges. The temple has become “a den of robbers.”

Understand what he is saying. Thieves don’t do their robbing in their den. Rather, their den is their safe hideout. So here Jesus is not merely denounc­ing all the buying and selling. Rather, he is denouncing the false security of those who come into the temple to offer a sacrifice for sin without the fruits of repentance. The temple, Jesus is saying, has degenerated into a hideout where people think they can find God’s fellowship and forgiveness no matter how they live.

Many faithless Jews, who stole, murdered, committed adultery, lied under oath, and worshipped other gods (in other words, didn’t heed the two tables of the Law—love God and neighbor) nevertheless came once a year to Jerusalem, bought their proper animal, had it sacrificed, and stood before God in the temple and said, “We are delivered!” They thought they could just walk into this oversized confessional booth, go through the motions, and walk out completely absolved of their sins, so much so that they would run right back to them and then go through the same motions the next year and the year after that and so on. Do you see what Jesus saw? What hypocrisy!

Let’s stop and turn the tables on ourselves. I want to talk for just a mo­ment to the hypocrites. And I don’t mean all of us. I don’t like when preach­ers say to the unbeliever’s question about Brethren of hypocrisy, “Hey, we are all hypocrites. The Ecclesia is full of hypocrites. Come join the hypocrites.” If the Ecclesia is truly full of hypocrites, as the Bible defines hypocrisy, why on earth would anyone want to join us? Our Lord Jesus never has anything good to say about hypocrisy (see especially chapter 23). Sure, as Brethren we all still sin against God and against each other, but that is very different than being a hypocrite, someone who has no heart for God but will do whatever is necessary to make sure the “god” in his life is appeased and the people in his life are pleased.

So I’m talking now to the real hypocrites. I’m talking to you who rob God throughout the week by doing things you ought not to do and not doing things you should do and then go to the Meeting to find “sanctuary,” a hiding place for a now guiltless conscience. There is no fear of God before your eyes! But listen, if there is anything we learn from this passage it is that the green leaves of your religious practices cannot cover a fruitless life. The leaf of baptism or the leaf of Ecclesial membership or the leaf of praying the prayer—these things cannot hide your nakedness from the eye of an all-seeing God. As Jesus came closer to the fig tree and as he entered into the temple to check for fruit, so even now he enters to examine your lives, looking for the fruit of repentance and holiness of life and sincerity of faith. And if there is no fruit, then stop fooling yourself and others. There is only one thing to expect—judgment!

Isn’t that what is so vividly displayed in our text? Here we see that Jesus will have none of this religious hypocrisy, this playacting in piety. Those in the temple on that Passover can say all they want. They can shout, “We are de­livered. We are saved!” Like thieves after their looting, they can return to their hideout, and they can stand within the temple and profess, “We’re safe! We’re safe! This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” But, the Lord has suddenly come into his temple (see Malachi 3:1b). And there and then the Lord Jesus, standing in the midst of their hideout, tells them the game is over. By overturning the tables, driving out those who sold the animals necessary for sacrifice, our Lord was doing something radical, perhaps his most revolutionary action to date. He was making a prophetic protest and pronouncement. He was not cleansing the temple; rather he was cursing it! He was withering Israel’s fig tree.

And of course, that’s the significance of what happens in verses 19, 20, where we discover that Jesus has done more than merely condemn the tree. He has killed it.

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. When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”

The first disciples may not have understood the symbolic significance of this day with its many strange events, but we as readers of Matthew’s Gospel are able to fill in the gaps. Throughout his ministry we are able to see that Jesus has been subtly taking the place of the temple. He announces forgiveness. He heals the sick. He brings sinners into a saving relationship with God. He is (dare I say?) the temple!

With that in mind come back to verses 15, 16:

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, 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’?”

If the religious leaders thought what Jesus did in the temple was “won­derful” (beyond belief), what he had just said is even more “wonderful.” He quotes from Psalm 8:2 (8:3 LXX) verbatim, which depicts children rightly praising Yahweh, and applies it to himself. How truly wonderful—i.e., blasphemous! Or how truly wonderful—i.e., the praise of Yahweh and the praise of Jesus are inseparable! Jesus applauds the children’s acclamation. He ac­cepts the title (“Son of David”) and the praise (“Hosanna”). Is this not the precursor to Revelation 4, 5? First, God is worshipped, then the Lamb:

"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:13, 14)

What the children in Matthew say will be echoed throughout eternity! No wonder the chief priests and scribes are “indignant” (v. 15) or in Mark’s version are now plotting “a way to destroy” Jesus (Mark 11:18). Ah, but we are all too aware of the irony of their indignation and the actions of that indignation. For we know from the end of this Gospel that it is this very de­struction (the death of Christ) that brings an end, a destruction, to their temple.

It is very important to understand some of the basics of Christadelphian doctrine. According to the Gospels Jesus “cleared” the temple two times—once at the beginning of his ministry and once (as we have here) at the end. The first time “the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’” (John 2:18) And Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jews, of course, were quite baffled by this response, so they said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). Thankfully John helps us by inserting his commentary, “But [Jesus] was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21).

As we look at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 21—28), we find this same theology at play. When the temple of Jesus’ body is destroyed (i.e., he dies), at that very moment the temple in Jerusalem (the building itself that will be destroyed literally in just a few decades) is symbolically destroyed. It has theologically gone out of business.

Let me show you what I’m talking about. Let’s look ahead to the cruci­fixion scene. Look at chapter 27, starting in verses 39, 40: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would de­stroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!”’ Skip down to verse 50: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” Then what happened? What happened at the moment of his death? Underline it. Circle it. Put a star by it. Write it on your forehead. “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (v. 51).

The curtain that divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world, from the Court of the Priests, from the Court of Israel, from the Court of the Women, from the Court of the Gentiles, was torn asunder. The point is that through Christ’s sacrificial death the earthly temple completely crumbles to the ground and is replaced by the one who said of himself, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (12:6). Through Jesus’ death, the curtain has been torn in two, so that all people, all those who believe in Israel’s Messiah (“Hosanna to the Son of David!”) might be sewn together into one body, the Ecclesia—slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28).

I think this is the precise point Matthew is trying to make in 27:54. In that verse we find these remarkable words: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” The Jewish children and Gentile soldiers alike praise him.

The Worship of the Temple

The onetime president of Princeton, James McCosh, once said, “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that.” Here in Matthew the Bible has once again made us think. As we have looked at these first eight verses of our passage, we have thought about the temple—the purpose of the temple, Jesus’ relationship to the temple, and Jesus’ reaction to what was going on in the temple. But we are not done thinking just yet. As we move to verses 21, 22, we move into a section of application, a set of exhortations on faith that I want you to see are very much connected with what came before. Think of verses 12-20 as “The Worship in the Temple: Faithless and Fruitless.” That’s my title for them. Then think of verses 21,22 as “The Worship of the Temple: Faithful and Fruitful.” That’s my title for those verses.

The phrase “the worship of the, temple,” of course, picks up on the lan­guage of the New Testament epistles, where Paul, for example, unabashedly calls Brethren “God’s temple.” In 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17 Paul says to believ­ers, “Do you not know you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?... God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

Such language would be sacrilegious if Herod’s Temple, with its priest­hood and sacrifices, was still the place of God’s presence, the one and only place where one meets God and where sins are forgiven. But if this earthly temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, if this temple mount has been (so to speak) “thrown into the sea” (v. 21), and if Christ is the new and everlasting temple, the one and only person in whom we meet God and have our sins for­given, and if his Spirit dwells in those who now believe, then what Jesus calls his followers to in verses 21, 22 makes perfect sense. There is no awkward­ness in the transition of thought then. Outside of Jerusalem and the temple, Jesus calls his Ecclesia to worship. He calls us to have faith.

Twice the word “faith” is used in the final two verses, but the concept is in every phrase.

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. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (vv. 21,22)

As followers of Christ, we are here exhorted to “have faith.” Question: In whom? Answer: Follow the children’s lead—in Jesus! Question: Where? Answer: Wherever Jesus is. Lo, he is with us always. In other words, there is nothing sacred about Jerusalem. There is nothing sacred about the temple, that desolate house they just abandoned and that will be laid to the ground in forty years (23:38), never to be rebuilt. Have faith in Jesus now and anywhere and everywhere. Question: For what? Answer: Whatever—“whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (v. 22).

When we first read that verse, and the one before it where Jesus speaks of tossing mountains around, we might be tempted to align ourselves with the proponents of today’s health and wealth gospel—that is, to accept the teach­ing that all we need to do is just “name it” and then “claim it,” and God then must indeed “give it.” So if you want a new car, name it (make and model, year and color), claim it in faith, and let God work his magic.

A couple of years ago I heard one of these health and wealth teachers share his story of “faith.” He and his wife were walking through a nice part of downtown Houston, and he said, “Oh I wish we could afford a house like that,” and his wife said, “You just have to trust God.” Then his church grew, and then his salary grew, and sure enough God answered their “prayer of faith.” Now they live in one of those multi-million dollar houses.

We can be quite certain that is not what Jesus is talking about here. These verses indeed teach that God will answer our prayers, but not as a result of positive thinking. Jesus’ statement here was not a blank check. To pray ef­fectively, you need faith in the Lord, not faith in yourself or faith in your own faith or faith in the object of your request.

Scripture teaches that God does not grant requests that violate his own nature or will or are not in harmony with the purposes of his kingdom. So keeping in mind that there are some things Brethren should not ask for and some things God will not give, we are nevertheless encouraged here to pray, to pray in faith—to pray confidently and expectantly.

So what does the worship of the temple look like? You might say it is praise of Jesus as the temple of the living God. We are to praise him as the children did. But it is also faith in him, a faith that trusts in him and prays through him for “whatever,” knowing that if we abide in him, we will bear much fruit.

The Ultimate Temple

Right before I planted New Covenant Church, in my last talk at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois (our sending church) I said something like this: As I move on to Naperville I will miss so many things about College Church. I will certainly miss my colleagues in the ministry and the staff and the people. And, being an admirer of aesthetics, I will also miss the building with its great aesthetic value its Roman columns, its high ceiling, its circular space, its thoughtful use of natural light, its acoustic excellence, and its subtle extrava­gance (the massive organ tucked in behind and above the choir loft). I said I would miss all that as I went to preach in some auditorium or gym or comedy club or backstreet alleyway (you never know where you’ll end up meeting in a church plant) or the children’s museum basement (been there) or little theatre (done that).

But I said that the one thing I wouldn’t miss is the temptation that comes with such a structure. You see, one of the beauties of church planting (not aes­thetic beauties but theological beauties) is that it is easier to keep first things first. It is easier to keep faith in Jesus at the center of our everyday worship and our Sunday worship. For our church buildings are no temples, our teachers are not priests, and there is no Holy of Holies tucked behind the organ. But God’s people are the temple, and in and through Christ all Brethren have entered the Holy of Holies. So if our church building crumbles to the ground or someday its doors are closed, the Word of God exhorts us today (and always) to worship. It exhorts us to have faith, to have faith in Jesus, the ultimate temple of the living God.


(R. Kent Hughes. and Douglas Sean O'Donnell., 2013; edited Carl Hinton., 2020)

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