A Cave of Bandits
Robert Wurtz II
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (John 2:13–16 NKJV)
And he was teaching them and saying to them, “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” (Mark 11:17 ESV).
Historians tell us that in 30 AD, the High Priest Ciaphas moved the stalls where people sold sacrificial animals and exchanged money from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount. This likely took place right before the feast of the Passover. Though not as wicked as the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who marched into the temple, erected a statue of the Greek god Zeus, and sacrificed a pig on the altar of incense, this move by Ciaphas was a serious affront on God’s jurisdiction. In simple terms, Ciaphas threw open the door and allowed the god of Mammon to invade the territory of God Almighty.
If John’s account is John 2:13-16 is chronological, there were two occasions roughly three years apart where Jesus cleansed the Temple. Early on, Jesus refers to the Temple as “His Father’s house,” but by the time we reach Matthew 23 and Luke 13, there is a change of ownership, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:38 KJV). The people had made it “their house.” This point is very significant because Jesus begins speaking of a new kind of temple, the Temple of His body, soon after these events. One cannot help but make a connection between the way Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem and a point of controversy that God frequently has with people who want to be a part of the Kingdom.
Around the same time that Caiaphas made the Temple a money-making market, John the Baptist was thundering repentance, which included calling the people to repent of their greed and covetousness. Jesus would later reveal that a person cannot serve God and Mammon simultaneously (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:9-13). Mammon is money or wealth. To prove that they had renounced serving Mammon, John the Baptist commanded the people to give away a coat if they had two, stop extorting money, and to be content with their wages. Why? Because money and riches have been an idol in peoples’ lives for thousands of years.
Picture this situation. John is baptizing people in the Jordan, while Ciaphas invited greedy merchants to set up shop right next door to God (so to speak) in the Temple. This is an example of the Devil at work challenging God and His message head-on. While God is telling the people to turn from their greedy ways, Ciaphas enabled the merchants and money changers to make the Temple a den of thieves or, in the literal Greek, a “cave of bandits.”
Cleansing the Temple
The second time around (if so be that it was the second time), after pondering the situation for a day, Jesus made a whip and drove the money changers and merchants back out of the Temple. Undoubtedly this angered the merchants, but it probably set Ciaphas off. He didn’t have the good sense to know the danger he was in by bringing covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5), into the Temple, so it’s not surprising that he set out to have Jesus put to death and even presided over his trial.
James, the half-brother of our Lord, asks in James 2:6, “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” (ESV) Caiaphas, the High Priest, was undoubtedly rich and would have sympathized with the businessmen setting up shop in the Temple. True to the words of James, he set up a kangaroo court to try and convict Jesus. It’s that age-old, “don’t mess with my money” attitude. The preaching of Jesus and John the Baptist could have put all of these greedy people out of business. Why? Because they emphasized that greed is a sin and must be repented of as an example of fruits worthy of repentance.
The Rich Man
We can make a strong case that Caiphas was the rich man in Jesus’ story of Lazarus, who was a beggar and died (Luke 16:20f). There are numerous parallels, including his wealth, clothing, and his five brothers. (Luke 16:27-28). If this is true, it only reinforces the warnings that Jesus gave to anyone who would seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others. The High Priest is supposed to be the example for the people. If he is greedy, it will encourage the people to follow his lead.
The money changers and salespeople in the Temple were known to rip off people trying to abide by God’s word under the Old Covenant. In the time of Simeon ben Gamliel (10 BC – 70 AD), a story is told of a woman who had five miscarriages and needed to bring five sacrifices (doves) for her ceremonial cleansing. So the sellers raised the price from a silver denar to a gold denar, which was twenty-five times the cost. This price-gouging put the price of the sacrifice out of reach for the poor people and would have lined the pockets of the “robbers” had the rules not been changed to bring the price back down (Mishnah Keritot 1:7).
When Jesus took a whip and drove the robbers out, He expressed God’s attitude towards the idolatry of covetousness and greed (Colossians 3:5), especially among His people and in His House. The event is very insightful and instructive. Why? Because at Pentecost, the body of Christ became the Temple on the earth. As individuals, we are living stones in that Temple, and in another sense, we are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Titus destroyed the Temple that Jesus cleansed in 70AD, but not before Pentecost when God’s people became the Temple on the earth.
YOU are the Temple
How does the Temple cleansing apply to the everyday lives of Christians? I once heard an old-time preacher say that if you smoke outside the church building, you might as well smoke inside the church building because the building is NOT the Temple — our bodies are the Temple. It was a keen observation that I have considered for nearly thirty years. God cares about what we do with our bodies because they are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. If we are the Temple, and God detests greed and covetousness, how does He feel when a person uses their body for a profit-making enterprise and neglects spiritual things? Our bodies are not for fornication, and our bodies are not for Mammon.
Everyone needs to make a living, but what kind of person would have the audacity to turn God’s worship and service into a money-making scheme? Answer: the kind that would end up on the end of the Lord’s whip or in Hell as did the rich man in the story of Abraham and Lazarus. Jesus called them a “cave of bandits.” Why? Because they elevated profits over everything else. They may not have physically stolen from people, but they took money in a way that displeased God. It was a sin, and they needed to repent.
Understand that the money changers and the people who sold sacrificial animals had a legitimate business because the pilgrims who traveled from far away needed their services. Nobody would begrudge these people to make a living. We could all agree with that. Why? Because there is always a business aspect to the kingdom of God. For example, Judas Iscariot controlled the finances for the Disciples and Jesus. However, Judas was greedy and elevated money over everything, including his relationship with God.
Jesus repeatedly warned about the trappings of greed and said plainly, “you CANNOT serve God and money.” Money is necessary, but it should never be our focus as Christians. We cannot serve God and Money, but we can make our money serve God. Rather than tearing down barns and building bigger, why not use our resources to further the kingdom of God?