This is the word of the Lord,
Matthew 21:12–17 ESV
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.
Let us pray!
This is a sermon I’m frightened to preach, and yet not nearly frightened enough.
I want you to know that if during this sermon the Lord chooses to strike me down, he is fully righteous in doing so. And yet, I preach it only because of one sure hope in my heart which I will share with you at the end of this sermon.
If we are to comprehend the weight of this text, if you desire to feel the gravity of this text, then we must begin elsewhere and not here. We have to go back to looking at a singular word.
I thought hard and fast about what to title this sermon, the second in a series of sermons about Jesus as he unveils himself as King overall in this chapter and on. I first thought about ‘The Anger of the King’. It would be an appropriate title but it seemed to me that the word anger in this passage is only the emotion or affection or medium of conveyance. The question is ‘why’ is he angry, and ‘what’ is he angry about?
That brought me to a deeper word, and it is the word – holy.
Hence, the title – ‘The Holiness of the King’.
The Picture of Holiness
Genesis 3:8–10 ESV
8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”
Genesis 32:30 ESV
30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
Exodus 3:2–6 ESV
2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
- Israel’s fear at Mount Sinai
Exodus 20:18–21 ESV
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
Joshua 5:13–15 ESV
13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
- John, the Apostle
Revelation 1:12–18 ESV
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
It is a fitting thing to say that when men saw God’s glory unveiled, they were terrified. But what was it that terrified them? Was it the magnitude of his power and greatness, or was it the demeanour of his appearance? What made these men lie prostrate on the floor?
- And I want to argue that it wasn’t sheer magnitude that frightened them, it was holiness. You see, the word ‘holy’ means ‘another’ or ‘otherly’. It is a word used to mean that someone or something is entirely separate from the rest. God is ‘holy’, which means that God is entirely separate, and alien being to our limited worldly constructs. In other words, God is otherworldly.
We get a glimpse of this when Jesus’ disciples lose faith in the middle of the storm and cry out for his help as he lay asleep in the boat. When Jesus wakes up and calms the storm, we read
Mark 4:41 ESV
41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”At Jesus’ miracle, they weren’t exceedingly delighted, they were exceedingly afraid. Fear fell upon them and the question they ask is – what kind of man is this? What manner of being is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?
What frightens them is not the sheer magnitude of his power, rather it is the alien nature of his power that clearly shows us just how separated he is from us.
- When Isaiah has the vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6, the fear that fell upon him was on hearing the echoes around heaven’s throne, of the Seraphim crying – Holy, holy, holy!
The Fear of the Lord
The most repeated imperative or command in Scripture is ‘Fear not’ or ‘Do not be afraid’. Yet, Scripture is full of verses that command us to fear.
Proverbs 1:7 ESV
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
- Any learning in the world is not a measure of knowledge if it does not start with the fear of the Lord. This world is passing away and so will those who dwell on the things of this world. True knowledge must begin in one book – the word of God.
- Fools despise wisdom and instruction. This knowledge that begins with fearing God brings wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 9:10 ESV
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
- Here, wisdom is emphasised but it goes hand in hand with the previous text. Here, this wisdom comes from knowledge and we are given what kind of knowledge – of the Holy One.
- In other words, knowing God is the beginning of knowledge. This fear of God is wrought in the knowledge of the Holy One. We will come to the emphasis on holiness shortly.
Proverbs 8:13 ESV
13 The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.
- Knowledge of holiness brings fear, and that fear hates evil. Pride. Arrogance. The way of evil. Perverted speech.
Proverbs 14:27 ESV
27 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.
- Holiness brings a fountain of life because it causes us to turn away from the snares of death.
Proverbs 15:16 ESV
16 Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.
- It drives away trouble and brings delight in little because our treasure is elsewhere.
Proverbs 19:23 ESV
23 The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.
- Holiness brings rest.
2 Samuel 23:3 ESV
3 The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God,
- Holiness is what anchors a ruler. Politicians, Governors, Pastors, Fathers, Husbands, Wives.
Even Jesus said,
Matthew 10:28 ESV
28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
- Holiness is acutely aware of damnation.
Exodus 20:20 ESV
20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
- Holiness purges sin.
2 Chronicles 19:7 ESV
7 Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.”Psalm 25:14 ESV
14 The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.
- Holiness brings God’s friendship.
Psalm 34:11 ESV
11 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
- How do you teach fear? By teaching about a Holy God.
The Trauma of Holiness
Isaiah 6:5–7 ESV
5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah, as many of these other men in the Bible who saw God’s holiness, had the experience that R.C Sproul calls – ‘the trauma of holiness’. To behold God in his glory is a traumatic experience.
- Burning coal – Seraphim can’t touch
- Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for
Matthew 21:12–13 ESV
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.”
- Matthew seems to be giving us a thematic narrative rather than a chronological one.
We know from Mark that Jesus did not immediately enter the temple upon his arrival in Jerusalem to cleanse it.
Mark 11:11 ESV
11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.It is only later in v15 that he enters into the temple to cleanse it.
- This is the part of Christ’s passion that we would like to ignore. Whenever I’ve heard or even quoted this verse myself, it has always been about justifying anger in Christian apologetics.
Though that application may be made, it is not the point of the text whatsoever now, is it?
- But what angered the Lord? What had him so angry that he went beyond a strong word to physical assault?
Jesus enters the temple and finds that the people have made it a marketplace, a place of trade.
This was the second time Jesus cleansed the temple. The first was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in
John 2:13–17 ESV
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
So, three years later, at the end of his ministry, Jesus repeats the incident and though the details of the incidents are not identical, it is safe to surmise that the situation of the temple at the end of his ministry was probably more dire than at the beginning.
Trade was back in full swing and as far as the people were concerned, the angry prophet was no longer around.
But here we see that Jesus repeats the disciplinary process of purging the temple because the zeal of his father’s house does not diminish in him. His zeal at the beginning bliss of his ministry is the same at the end as he marched to his grave.
- Now, if you see in this passage, the sin of the people and the anger of Christ, and nothing more, you are missing out on a great deal indeed.
Why the title ‘holiness’?
The question that prompted the change in the title of my sermon was, “Why was Jesus so angry about the profaning of the temple?” His imminent death and resurrection were going to do away with the temple. The curtain was going to be torn.
What about the sale and purchase of goods in the temple provoked him?
Matthew 21:13 ESV
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.”
You see, it wasn’t what one would call a ‘secular’ activity that was happening there. The moneychanger was there to change Roman currency with temple currency so that when people tithed it wouldn’t have the image of Caesar on the coins. The people who were there selling pigeons for the purpose of sacrifice were certifying these pigeons as being ‘clean’. The trade happening here made it easier for those who came to worship in the temple. One might even consider it a service to God.
Now, without question, there was a lot of robbing happening in the bargaining of prices because the traders there were looking to make a profit. But if the robbing was the primary issue, then Jesus would have asked them to continue trading without robbing. Instead, he overthrew their tables.
So, let me give you three reasons why I believe that this text is all about ‘holiness’ and not mere anger.
a. The fuller reading of Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus here quotes. In Isaiah 56, God is addressing the foreigners (Gentiles) who choose to follow Him.
Isaiah 56:3–5 ESV
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
- This blessing is reserved for those who keep their Sabbaths. What do we know about the Sabbath? That one should keep it holy. Here the plural Sabbaths refer to holy days.
- The one who chooses the things that please him and holds fast to his covenant. These are the things that made the Jews a holy people.
- Holiness is at the centre of this passage.
Isaiah 56:6–7 ESV
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
- To minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, keep the Sabbath, hold fast to the covenant – These are the people God brings where?
- To his holy mountain. And on this holy mountain, we find what? – the house of prayer.
Therefore, when Jesus calls the temple a house of prayer, this is the house that sits on a holy mountain. This is a direct reference he is making to the sanctity and purity of the temple where the presence of God is present to bless his people.
God required more than sacrifices and rituals, more than liturgy and tradition, that his people recognise that he is holy. The first lesson he taught the Israelites about worship as they stood in front of Mount Sinai was not to touch the mountain.
b. The fact that nobody reacted. This was something more than the anger of a man.
c. The Jewish temple was divided into three sections – the outer court, the holy place, and the Holy of Holies.
These divisions were meant to emphasise degrees of holiness. The outer court was also called the court of Gentiles because that was supposedly the least holy place where even the Gentiles could enter. The Jewish leaders presumed that such a place could be more open to other activities.
Mark points out that:
Mark 11:16 ESV
16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.
The outer court was also used by travellers to pass through to the other side. And Jesus halted all of it.
But, what you have in this picture is ‘the presence of God’, God himself, coming out of the Holy of Holies and purging the outer courts. The anger of Christ in this passage is an explosion not of rage but of holiness. For the Holy of Holies has now expanded beyond the outer courts. God requires not of the high priests alone, but of every Christian the holiness of Christ.
What angered Jesus was not the mere practice of trade but the unholiness of it, the ordinariness of it. The Jewish thought of trade in the outer court was so ordinary, so human, so worldly. But they were not called to be worldly. What angered Jesus was that they knew nothing of the holiness of God.
- The new temple is not the church. It’s your body.
- The cleansing of the temple is a picture of our salvation. This is what Jesus did in driving out the unholiness in our hearts and opening our eyes to the holiness of God.
Isaiah 6:7 ESV
7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
The holy anger of Christ that fell upon the temple was a picture of the full weight of than wrath that fell upon him on that cross to purify you and me.