Then He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”
Most people, when they read these verses, think that Jesus was referring to those who sold merchandise in the temple precinct, and the fact that they were charging exorbitant prices and generally dealing unfairly. However, His reference to “a den of thieves” goes way beyond the specifics of these merchants.
In the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 7, God speaks through the prophet to the people of Judah. They are taking great pride in the temple, boasting wherever they go that the house of the Lord – the place of His dwelling on earth – is located in their city of Jerusalem. They are also very proud of their covenant relationship with YHWH. When they come to the temple they are very religious, making sure that all the offerings are just right, and that they “look the part” of true worshipers of YHWH.
Outside the walls of the temple, things are very different. They practice extortion and oppress the poor and needy, they manipulate justice to suit their own ends and even join freely in the worship of the false gods of the nations around them.
Jeremiah likens them to a bunch of outlaws, who spend their time looting and plundering, then return to their den, their safe place where no-one can find or touch them. The temple, he says, has become like that robbers’ den, a place where they retreat after their evil deeds in the belief that there they will be protected. It was this reference that Jesus’ picked up in His second cleansing of the temple. (He had done a similar thing, with a different emphasis, at the beginning of His ministry in John 2:14)
How many today turn God’s house into a “den of thieves?” As Christians, our standards should be higher than those of the world around us. Yet many today seem to think that their Christianity is a kind of cloak behind which they can hide all kinds of unacceptable behavior. They go to church on Sunday morning and look like the greatest saint on earth, but for the other six and a half days of the week they behave like the devil incarnate. Like God’s people of old, they worship all the false gods of the world, they are greedy and cruel, unjust and immoral.
The time is coming when God will no longer tolerate this kind of deception. As Jesus entered the temple with a whip and drove out those who were there from insincere motives, the time is coming when God will enter His house, the Church, with a whip. Those who are sincere, who truly love Him, walk in His ways and seek to serve Him faithfully, will have nothing to fear, but those who use a Christian veneer to cover up lives that are far from Christ will feel the sting of the lash as they are exposed and driven out.