In Matthew 21-23, we see the final confrontation between the Savior and the religious leaders of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. The confrontation takes place within the Temple precinct. The Temple of Herod was the spiritual center of Judaism during the time of Christ. Though the Synagogue grew in importance during this time, the Temple remained at the heart of Jewish worship for it was only in the Temple that the sacrifices required by the law of Moses could be performed.
The Temple was also the focus of the activities of the three major feasts and pilgrimages of the law of Moses: the Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Indeed, the whole of the law of Moses had the Temple at its core.
The Temple was built upon a hill that was biblically known as Mt. Moriah. It was to here that Abraham brought Isaac to be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord (Gen. 22:2). Surrounding the Temple were several courts. The Temple with its several courts was enclosed by a large massive retaining wall. All together, the Temple, the courts, and the large outer wall were known as the Temple Mount-the Hebrew term for the Temple Mount is literally “the mountain of the house.”
The following is a picture of the Temple Mount as reconstructed in the Holy Land Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel.
Description of Temple
Generally, Israelite worshipers entered the Temple Mount from stairs ascending through the southern wall into the Court of the Gentiles. Referencing the Palestinian Talmud, Safrai has noted: “Everyone, priest or layman, took a ritual bath, even if he were clean, before entering the Temple.” This could be done in the ritual baths associated with the Temple, especially those located next to the southern entrance of the Temple.
Safrai also states: “It was customary for visitors to the Temple to wear white rather than coloured clothing, for the former was held to indicate modesty and piety: pious people were careful always to wear white. Before entering the Temple courts they removed their shoes, and laid aside their staffs, their money belts, their cloaks and bundles.” (1)
The stairs leading up from the triple gate opened into a large open court known as the Court of the Gentiles. As the Salt Lake Temple is surrounded by Temple Square, so this court surrounded the Temple proper (which included the inner courts and Sanctuary) and received its name from the fact that gentiles could proceed no closer to the Temple proper than this court.
Surrounding the Court of the Gentiles were porticoes two columns deep and each 25 cubits high upon which lay a flat roof. The rituals associated with the Mosaic Law were not performed in the Court of the Gentiles; “rather, its colonnades served as a gathering place for the people before and after worship, or for those who ascended the Temple Mount to hear the words of the Law … Business transactions relating to the Temple, as for example the purchase of sacrificial doves, oils, wines, and even the money changing, were not conducted in the inner courts but rather on the outer court of the Temple Mount” (2)
The Temple proper was separated from the Court of the Gentiles by a balustrade that was chest-high. There were gates through which patrons passed in order to proceed to the inner courts and the sanctuary itself. By each gate there was a sign warning Gentiles not to pass any further. Archaeology has uncovered one of these warning notices, which states: “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”
Beyond the balustrade preventing gentiles from passing lay the Temple proper (or sanctuary) with its several courts. The following is a picture of the Temple and the immediate surrounding courts as reconstructed in the Temple model at the Holy Land Hotel.
The square court in the foreground was known as the Treasury or the Court of Women so named because women could pass no further than this area. The main entrance into the Court of Women was through the eastern gate, which was gold- and silver-plated. Secondary doors lay on the north and south. It was in this court that the woman found in adultery was brought before the Savior (John 8).
On the western end of the Court of Women was a flight of 15 stairs in a semicircle that led to the Gate of Nicanor (also known as the “Beautiful Gate” – Acts 3:2,10). Beyond this gate was the Court of the Israelites followed by the Court of the Priests, which immediately surrounded the Temple. Within the Court of the Priests was the Temple. In the forecourt of the Court of the Priests between the Court of Men and the Sanctuary was the massive Altar of Burnt Offerings upon which all animal sacrifices were offered. Between the altar and the sanctuary was the large laver where the priests washed their hands and feet. North of the altar was the slaughtering area for the animal sacrifices.
The most imposing feature of the Temple Mount was the sanctuary or Temple proper. It was no less than a hundred cubits high. The structure was divided into three rooms: the vestibule, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies.
On the northwest corner of the Temple Mount (seen on the left of the first picture) was the commanding four towered Antonia Fortress, the Roman garrison. This may have been the Praetorium mentioned in the gospels (Mark 15:16) where Jesus was taken before Pilate (the other location proposed by scholars was Herod’s palace on the western side of the upper city). Luke referred to this structure as the castle (Acts 21:34, 37; 22:24; 23:10). It was set higher than any other structure in Jerusalem in order for the Romans to keep a watchful eye upon all Jerusalem.
Chief Priests and Scribes
The New Testament phrase for those who directed the affairs of the Temple is “chief priests and scribes.” The chief priests consisted of (1) the high priest, who was always from the Sadducean party, (2) the captain of the Temple, (3) the director of the weekly course, (4) the director of the daily course, (5) the temple overseer, and (6) the treasurer. These were all permanent appointments. Under their direction, the rest of the priests and levites were divided into various courses that served in the temple twice a year for a week at a time.
One of the chief duties of the Temple administration was the collection tithes and offerings necessary for Temple worship. This included the annual tithe, offerings of grain and wine, wood for the sacrifices, and often a second tithe. In actuality, the economic demands of the Temple were extraordinary.
“A Den of Thieves”
It appears that by the time of Christ, the Temple had been turned into a very lucrative priestcraft by the Jewish religious leaders.
As we shall presently see, it was the Savior’s intention to attack this priestcraft, knowing full well what the consequences would be.
In the Book of Mormon, Jacob prophesied what effect the Savior’s confrontation with the Jewish leaders would have: “But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified” (2 Ne.
10:5). A brief discussion of some of what is known of this priestcraft is pertinent to the study of Matthew 21-23.
In the ancient world there was no separation between church and state. Both state and religion were controlled by the “elite,” mainly the aristocracy and priests. In Judea and Galilee, the elite made up a very small minority of the population, only 5%. The non-elite, the peasants, did not elect their leaders, rather leadership was either inherited or appointed by the Romans. The economic funding of both the Roman empire as well as local administrations came primarily from the peasantry.
The tax obligation among the Jewish peasantry was both extreme and oppressive. Besides the Roman taxes, the peasants were taxed by the Temple hierarchy-“the chief priests and scribes.” These taxes were many. There was the annual tithe that was collected by local priests for the use and upkeep of the temple. In addition to this, the peasants were to supply Temple with animals, wine, and grain for sacrifices. There were also land taxes, personal vows, the ½ shekel per year tax, and so forth. The amount of taxes the peasants paid to both Rome and Temple were at least 40% of their productivity-in many cases much more!
Often the peasants grumbled about this intolerable situation. To handle the unsatisfied majority, the minority, the Jewish elite, kept the peasantry in control through indebtedness. Hanson and Oakman have observed: “Control of peasant labor was effected in ancient agrarian societies by heavy demands for taxes, rents, and debt-repayments. Peasants did not voluntarily supply labor for elites, nor did they work willingly for wages. Most traditional peasants are as devoted to self-sufficient household economy as elites are to the welfare of their estates. Since elites need to control the labor of peasants without frequent recourse to military force, exorbitant taxation and debt contracts backed up by a judicial authority come into play.” (3)
Consequently, associated with the Temple hierarchy was the Jerusalem Sanhedrin-the ruling Jewish authority and high court of the land. They enforced the debts contracted by the “chief priests and scribes” upon the peasantry. The Sanhedrin was made up of about 70-71 men consisting of Sadducees, Pharisees, Priests, and Elders. Always, the chief priests including the High Priest were part of the Sanhedrin. In fact, the High Priest was always the head of the Sanhedrin.
Through taxation backed up by the Sanhedrin, “the powerful kept peasants and villages under a constant barrage of demands and obligations-perennially in debt, if possible. When peasants eventually got too far behind, they lost direct access to their traditionally held land.” (4)
Richard Horsely explained: “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing. Family members may already have tried to hire themselves out as wage labor to a larger landholder … Under such economic pressures, with too little produced to meet the demands both for subsistence and for surpluses, the peasants were forced to borrow. Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with a great risk of complete loss of land. One would then sink into the ranks of the rural proletariat, the landless day laborers, or one could become a sharecropping tenant, perhaps on one’ own former parcel of land.” (5)
How did the peasants feel about this? “They depended upon the temple and priests for regulating their lives with God and for ensuring the fertility of the land. On the one hand, the temple held power for them. Only if the priests satisfied God’s demands would things be well with weather, soil, and crops … When the priestly opera (rituals) are done, God supplies the goods of life … On the other hand, the temple held power over them as peasants chafed under God’s (and God’s representatives’) demands.” (6)
At least, this is how the chief priests presented the role of the Temple to the peasants. The law of Moses was used to justify this situation for the law demanded that ritual impurities or sins be rectified through sacrifices performed in religious sanctuaries. For the first several hundred years of Israelite history, legitimate sanctuaries were found throughout Israel. However, during the time of King Josiah (c. 640-608 B.C.), the place of sacrifice had been centralized to the Jerusalem temple alone. Josiah did this to control heathen worship which had spread among the Jews.
After Josiah’s death, the Temple hierarchy began to misuse the religious practices of the law of Moses (as well as practices of heathen gods!) for their own gain. It was, in part, this priestcraft that Jeremiah had reference when he declared in his great temple sermon: “Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jeremiah 7:11). Indeed, Ezekiel prophesied against these “shepherds of Israel” in these words: “Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezek. 34:2). Because of this wickedness, the Lord allowed Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians.
At the time of Christ, the Jewish leaders forgot the folly of their forefathers. Once again, the “shepherds of Israel” began to “feed themselves” at the expense of the sheep. Through the guise of religion, the shepherds-“the chief priests and scribes”-“correlated sin and debt such that a constant flow of goods to the temple center remained under the control of the high priestly families.” Further, “the elites” began “acquiring money through debt and mercantile involvements, gaining power over peasants through loans, controlling more land through debt defaults, and directing enormous agricultural products to their own advantage.” (7)
A consequence of this nefarious situation the first century A. D. saw much social unrest among the peasants. The years preceding and following the Savior’s ministry were plagued with many uprisings, particularly instigated by groups of bandits. Social banditry became an affliction in Jewish society. Because many of the peasants lost their land to the elite through indebtedness, they were forced to find other means to survive. Consequently, many turned to banditry. Similar to Robin Hood, they formed groups with leaders and lived in the desert, often in caves or dens, making raids upon both the Jewish and Roman wealthy. Most often, these were very wicked people, resembling more like Gadianton robbers than Robin Hood. They became so powerful and numerous that they were a major force behind the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 A.D. which ended in Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 A.D.
Banditry was a constant source of trouble for both the Roman and Jewish elite. Often, the military was sent out to try to round up and extinguish these robbers.
In fact, just prior to the Savior’s last week of his life, the leader of one such robber group, with two of his henchmen, was captured by the Romans.
The robber leader was named Barabbas. His two henchmen were crucified with the Savior.
But the system that perpetrated the social unrest of the first century was in itself banditry. “The temple system as it had developed in the Herodian period within agrarian social structures was oppressive and perceived by many (especially peasants, upon whom rested the primary burden of the tribute) as ‘banditry.
‘” (8) It is in this setting that the Savior called the Temple a “den of thieves.”
Cleansing of the Temple
The Savior began the last week of his life by confronting the religious leaders of the Jews choosing to attack to attack at the heart of their wicked priestcraft — the Temple.
Having arrived at Jerusalem, the Savior entered the city riding the colt of an ass. To the amazement of the reader, the multitude who had gathered for Passover greeted him with the exultant cry of “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Those who for the first time looked upon the Savior, asked, “Who is this?” The multitude responded, “This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee” (Matt. 20:1-11).
Matthew sees in the triumphal entry, the fulfillment of two Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9): “Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.” The ass was an animal of peace and not one of war. Though the multitudes may have saw in Jesus a king who would throw off the shackles of their Roman overlords, he had in fact not come as a warrior. He had come as the Prince of Peace.
The Savior proceeded to the Temple Mount. As he came into the Court of the Gentiles, he came into the heart of the priestcraft. He saw those who sold sacrificial animals to pilgrims who had come great distances to participate in temple worship. He saw those who exchanged foreign currency into the local currency, the only currency accepted to pay the obligatory temple tax.
On the surface, these may have been considered legitimate and necessary practices. It was not practical for those traveling great distances to bring their own sacrifices. Nor would they have carried with them the local currency for the temple tax. Yet, these practices need not be done on the Temple Mount! Further, it appears that those who sold sacrifices and changed money were doing it at an exorbitant rate. That this took place is evidenced in rabbinical writings. We are told: “It once happened in Jerusalem that a pair of pigeons cost a golden denar [equal to 25 silver denars]. Rabban Simon ben Gamaliel said, ‘By this Temple! [a form of oath] I will not rest this night before a pair of pigeons are sold at a silver denar.” (9)(Mishnah Kerithoth 1:7)
The Savior found these practices repulsive. He then “cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves” declaring, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matt. 21:12-13).
Certainly, the activities in the Court of the Gentiles did not represent the whole priestcraft. But by clearing out these obvious moneymaking activities, the Savior was making a stand against the priestcraft activities of the Temple as a whole.
After sanctifying the Temple, “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them” (Matt. 21:14). Upon seeing these things, the chief priests and scribes, “who were sore displeased,” chided the Savior because the crowds had hailed him as the Son of David (Matt. 21:15-16). This scene reflects the hard heartedness of the Jewish rulers and sets the stage for climatic ending of Matthew’s gospel!
The Cursing of the Fig Tree
After the Savior spent the night in the small neighboring village of Bethany (Matt. 21:17), he returned to Jerusalem. He passed along the way a fig tree that was full of leaves but was barren of fruit (Matt. 21:18-22). This is unusual. One of the unique characteristics of a fig tree is that when it puts forth leaves, it puts forth fruit at the same time. (10) Therefore, if one saw a fig tree with leaves, he would expect to see fruit as well. But the fig tree bore no fruit. In a horrific display of his power, the Savior cursed the fig tree and it immediately “withered away.”
The tree was cursed because it did not produce fruit. Of this Spencer W. Kimball said, “The symbolism of the barren fig tree (Matt. 21:19) is eloquent. The unproductive tree was cursed for its barrenness.” (11) John the Baptist had warned the Jews, “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3:10). Likewise, the Savior said, “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 7:19).
In other words, if the Jews did not produce works acceptable to God, they would be destroyed. To this point in his ministry, the Savior had only displayed the positive nature of his power: the power to heal, give life, and do good. In cursing the barren fig tree, the Savior demonstrated his power to curse, smite, and destroy. In so doing, it foreshadowed the fate of those of the Jewish nation who would reject the ministry of Jesus.
Confrontation Between Jesus and the Rulers
Matthew’s inclusion of the cursing of the fig tree sets the stage for the confrontation between the Savior and the Jewish leaders (21:23-22:46). The Savior came to the temple where he began teaching the people. “The chief priests and the elders of the people”-i.e., the Sanhedrin-came to him and questioned him: “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” What “these things” had reference to is unstated. Certainly it must have included the clearing of the Temple but probably also included the triumphal entry, the healings, as well as teaching.
“The question, of course, is a challenge. They are not asking for information about him; they know that he has not authority (in their sense of the word) to act as he has been doing. The temple was under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin, which they represented; the merchants and the money-changers exercised their trades under concessions granted by the Sanhedrin. They knew without asking that no authority had been granted to Jesus to interfere with the existing arrangements.” (12)
They placed the Savior in a difficult situation. “It follows that were Jesus to answer, ‘I do these things by human authority’, he would contradict his own bold behavior, but that were he to answer, ‘I do these things by divine authority’, he would be laying explicit public claim to messianic status …” (13)
In response to the challenge issued by the rulers, the Savior said that if they would tell him where John the Baptist received his authority to baptize, he would tell them where he had received his authority.
But “they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.” So they replied, “We cannot tell.
” To which the Savior said, ” Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things” (21:23-27). “These were men who had been asked a question to which they knew the answer, but who refused to give it because they were afraid of the consequences. Why should a teacher like Jesus answer the loaded questions of men like these?” (14)
Though the Savior did not answer the question the rulers asked, He did respond to their challenge by delivering three parables. The meaning of these parables is clear: the rejection of Jesus by the Jews would eventually lead to their destruction and the destruction of Jerusalem!
Parable of the Two Sons
In the first of the three parables (Matt. 21:28-32), the hard hearts of the rulers were contrasted to the open hearts of the “publicans and harlots” who had come to believe on him. The Savior began the parable by asking the rulers a question: “But what think ye?” Then followed the parable: A farmer asked his two sons to go work in the fields. The first said, “I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.” Then the second said, “I go, sir: and went not.”
The Savior then continued the question he had started the parable with, “Whether of them twain did the will of his father?” The answer was obvious, the first son! After the Jewish leaders gave the right answer, the Savior gave this stunning rebuke: “Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”
The interpretation of the parable is simple. The first son represented the publicans and harlots who had lead sinful lives. However, upon hearing the gospel taught by Christ, they repented of their past actions. The second son represented the Pharisees and scribes. They would not repent upon hearing the message of the gospel.
Parable of the Wicked Husbandman
Following upon the heel of the Savior’s reprimand, the Savior told them the parable of the householder (21:33-44). “A certain householder” who owned a vineyard rented his land to “husbandmen.” They would take care of the vineyard and reap the rewards. Often, in circumstances such as presented in the parable, rent payment was a certain percentage of the harvest.
As harvest time drew near, the householder sent his servants to collect the percentage of the harvest that belonged to him. But “the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.” The householder sent other servants but the same fate befell them. Finally, he sent his own son hoping that “They will reverence my son.” However, when the son came, the husbandmen “said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.” They carried out their foul plan. The Savior then asked the rulers what the householder would do to the husbandmen. Properly, they responded, “He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.”
The meaning of the parable is obvious. Throughout their history, Jewish rulers had rejected the prophets of the Lord. But God had now sent is own Son. Nonetheless, the rulers would reject him as well. The parable suggests the motive for their rejection. The husbandman said: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.” As explained previously, Jacob, in the Book of Mormon, explained that the rejection of Christ by the Jews was “because of priestcrafts and iniquities” (2 Ne. 10:5). The rulers were using the Lord’s kingdom administered through the Law of Moses, whom Christ was the legal heir, as a priestcraft. The coming of Christ was seen by these rulers as an interruption of their priestcraft.
Not only did the Savior prophesy his own demise in this parable, but warned that because of the Jewish rejection of Christ the Jewish nation including their capital, Jerusalem, would suffer destruction. Further, he prophesied that the gentiles would be given the opportunity to have the gospel.
The Stone Rejected
Before proceeding to the third parable, the Savior continued his warning of the impending destruction of the Jewish nation. “Did ye never read in the scriptures,” he said, “The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?” (Matt. 21:42). This quotation from Psalms 118:22, speaks of the rejection of the Messiah, the stone of Israel. He warned them that because they would reject him, the stone of Israel, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matt. 21:43).
The “nation” spoken of was an illusion to the gentiles. He then said, perhaps pointing to himself, “And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder” (Mat. 21:44).
The JST adds: “And they said among themselves, Shall this man think that he alone can spoil this great kingdom? And they were angry with him” (JST Matt. 21:48). Though they wanted to “lay hands on him” they thought better “because they learned that the multitude took him for a prophet” (JST Matt. 21:49).
The JST continues the story adding further insight. “And now his disciples came to him, and Jesus said unto them, Marvel ye at the words of the parable which I spake unto them? Verily, I say unto you, I am the stone, and those wicked ones reject me. I am the head of the corner. These Jews shall fall upon me, and shall be broken. And the kingdom of God shall be taken from them, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof; (meaning the Gentiles.) Wherefore, on whomsoever this stone shall fall, it shall grind him to powder. And when the Lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, he will destroy those miserable, wicked men, and will let again his vineyard unto other husbandmen, even in the last days, who shall render him the fruits in their seasons. And then understood they the parable which he spake unto them, that the Gentiles should be destroyed also, when the Lord should descend out of heaven to reign in his vineyard, which is the earth and the inhabitants thereof” (JST Matt. 21:50-56)
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