February 22, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Luke 19:45-46 (NRSV)
Then [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written,
‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Religious people sometimes let their religion serve as a kind of hideout, a place of safety from accountability, maybe even a place to hide from God. But, even as Jesus once came to Jerusalem to cleanse the temple, so he comes into our lives. If we open our hearts to Jesus, asking him to forgive and cleanse us, he will purge the rottenness from our lives, allowing us to live openly in freedom and joy.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.
In the first century A.D., if you came to the temple of Jerusalem from another region, you could exchange your money for the currency required to buy sacrifices. Then you could purchase whatever you needed for your personal sacrifice: a dove, perhaps, or even a larger animal. Since most temple visitors had traveled from a distance, money-changing and sacrifice-selling were essential to the temple’s main purpose.
Thus, what Jesus did upon entering the temple was both shocking and highly disruptive. Luke puts it this way, “Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there” (19:45). Effectively, Jesus was shutting down the sacrificial system of the temple.
Why did he do this? We get clues to his motivation from what he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46). At first glance this seems to be an indictment of the temple’s economic system, and there is surely a sense in which that’s true. But more was going on here. Jesus was intentionally quoting from two Old Testament prophets. The “house of prayer” line comes from Isaiah 56:7. The “den of robbers” phrase can be found in Jeremiah 7:11. A careful reading of this whole chapter of Jeremiah gives us deeper insight into Jesus’s criticism of the temple and its leaders.
Through Jeremiah, God warned Israel and its leaders concerning their acts of injustice. They had been oppressing “the alien, the orphan, and the widow,” shedding innocent blood through their evil deeds (Jeremiah 7:5). But they felt protected from the consequences of their actions. Why? Because they had the temple of God in their midst. They were trusting in “these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jeremiah 7:4). Because they had the temple, they would say “We are safe” even though their actions were worthy of God’s judgment. But God confronted them, saying, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah 7:11). Then God reminded them about what he did to the temple at Shiloh when he destroyed it because of the “wickedness of my people Israel” (Jeremiah 7:12). Therefore, God says he will once again destroy “the house that is called by my name, in which you trust” (Jeremiah 7:14).
By quoting the “den of robbers” passage from Jeremiah, Jesus was, first of all, associating the Jewish leaders in his own day with those from the time of Jeremiah. They too were acting unjustly in a way that deserved God’s wrath. Moreover, they were also assuming that the temple was a kind of hideout, a place of safety from God’s judgment. Thus, the temple, which was to be a place of prayerful intimacy with God, had become a barrier between people and God. The temple leaders and even the temple itself would experience the same fate as in the time of Jeremiah: death and devastation. There was no safety in their “den of robbers.”
When we understand the background of Jesus’s use of the phrase “den of robbers,” we can see more clearly why the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted to get rid of Jesus. He was condemning them and, even more perniciously in their view, the temple of God. I’ll have more to say about this as we move on in Lent.
Today, as I reflect on this passage from Luke, with echoes of Jeremiah in my heart, I wonder if I also have a religious hideout. Do I use my faith in a way that excuses injustice and avoids accountability? After all, I have been saved by grace through faith in Christ. I am assured of God’s love. Might I sometimes use this assurance as my own personal “den of robbers,” a place to hide, not just from my sin and its consequences, but even from God and his cleansing, renewing power?
I hope this is not the case. I don’t want to hide from God. But, time and again, we read of prominent Christian leaders who have maintained a secret life of sinfulness and abuse. I wonder if they felt protected because of their faith in Christ, or perhaps because of their influential Christian service. Did they think, “I’m doing so much good for God, surely I am protected.” If Christians of prominence can use their faith as a hideout, surely I’m not immune from this temptation. And neither are you.
Jesus’s so-called “cleansing of the temple” challenges us to take a good, long look at our own lives. We can ask the Lord to show us where we might be hiding out from him. In this season of Lent, I pray that God will enter into the hidden places of our hearts, mercifully enabling us to turn from our sin while graciously forgiving and renewing us, so that we might live in the open, set free from our “den of robbers.”
Have you ever witnessed Christian leaders who appeared to hide in their religiosity, thus avoiding accountability for their sin? If so, why do you think they were acting in this way?
Is there anything in you that relates to people creating “dens of robbers” in which to hide from accountability, even from God?
How willing are you to invite Jesus into the hidden places of your heart? If you resist, why?
The interpretation I have offered for the phrase “den of robbers” is different from what we often hear in sermons about the cleansing of the temple. I should explain that it is not my own. I have learned it from a variety of faithful commentators. But, mainly, I have been struck by the similarities between Jesus’s situation and that of Jeremiah, centuries earlier. Let me encourage you to read Jeremiah 7:1-15 in order to get a better sense for the meaning of Jesus’s actions and sayings in the temple.
Lord Jesus, as I reflect on your cleansing of the temple, I’m struck by my need for something similar. Though I sometimes think I can hide from you, I realize how foolish this is. My religiosity doesn’t protect me from your piercing gaze. But I can close myself off to your cleansing, restorative grace by my hiding. Forgive me, Lord, when I pretend as if you’re not there.
Help me, I pray, to welcome you into my life, all of my life. If I am hiding, Lord, invite me to come out into your light. Where I am sinning, lead me to repent. Forgive me. Cleanse me. Help me to live in the newness and freedom of your grace each day. Amen.
P.S. from Mark
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Den of Thieves, Part 2
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he is the principal writer of Life for Leaders and the program lead of the Third Third Initiative. Previously, Mark was the senior pastor of a church in Southern California and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. Mark has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,000 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark has taught at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
Click here to view Mark’s profile.