After His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-11), Jesus went into the temple and proceeded to cleanse it (21:12-13). A closer look at what took place on this occasion calls into question a common understanding of this account.
What Did Jesus Claim by What He Said When He Cleansed the Temple?
Entering the temple, Jesus discovered people there who were selling and buying there. He violently acted to disrupt their activities, overturning the chairs and tables of those who were defiling the temple by their corrupt mercenary practices (21:12).
As He did so, He pronounced judgment on them by declaring that these people were thieves: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (21:13). In saying the words, “My house,” was Jesus claiming to be Deity Himself by asserting that the temple was His house?
Whose House Was Jesus Claiming the Temple to Be?
At least two aspects of this account call into serious question the interpretation that Matthew 21:13 records that Jesus was claiming to be Deity. First, Jesus did not just say, “My house . . .” He said, “It is written . . .” In other words, Jesus was quoting Scripture when He said the words, “My house.”
“My house . . .” therefore, was a declaration that the house that belonged to God was being corrupted by these people. Through His actions and His words, Jesus was asserting God’s authority over the house that belonged to God.
Second, the remainder of the account shows a conspicuous absence of a response from His enemies that would be fitting with their having perceived that He had made the stupendous claim of being God Himself:
Mat 21:14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.
15 And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased,
16 And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?
17 And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there.
Had Jesus citation of the words, “My house,” been a claim to His being Deity Himself, we would expect that His enemies would have immediately exploded with charges against Him that He had blasphemed. Matthew, however, does not say anything about a hostile response from them.
The parallel account in Mark does inform us that there was a hostile response from the Jewish religious leadership on this occasion; however, it explains that their response was for a different reason: “And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine” (11:18). The religious leaders thus feared Jesus’ influence with the people.
Had Jesus plainly claimed on this occasion that He was God, the leaders would not have had to sway the people into opposing Him because they themselves would have turned against Him for making such a claim. Neither Matthew’s account nor the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, however, seem to provide any clear indication that what Jesus said on this occasion provided the Jewish leadership or the people with an occasion to charge Him specifically with blasphemy.
In light of these considerations, I conclude that Matthew 21:13 is not a record of Jesus’ claiming directly to be God. Although His words and actions on this occasion do imply that truth, the passage is not handled properly when people speak of its pointing to His Deity as the main point of the passage.
What Jesus’ Words and Actions Actually Stressed on This Occasion
What then did Jesus’ words and actions on this occasion stress? Clearly, Jesus was claiming that He was the Messiah whom God had chosen and authorized to judge all those among His people who were sinfully perverting the righteous ways of God. Jesus claim to have such God-given judicial authority over the established Jewish leadership is thus the actual main point of Jesus’ words and actions at this time.
This interpretation does not deny that the passage has implications for Jesus’ own deity, which is clearly taught in many other passages as well as plainly implied in many other passages. Rather, it stresses that the main point of the passage is about Jesus being the Christ who rendered judgment for God.
Jesus’ own words on the earlier occasion of His cleansing the temple provide strong support for this interpretation because John writes that on that occasion “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up’ (John 2:17). John thus made known that His disciples viewed Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as His acting in zeal for the glory of His Father’s house, which shows that He did what He did on that occasion as God’s agent of judgment.
As Jesus did in His first cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-22), so He rendered similar judgment on those who were perverting His Father’s house later (Matt. 21:12-17). Both accounts of Jesus’ cleansing the temple stress Jesus’ judicial authority as God’s Christ.