Did Jesus Reject the Temple?

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This article is part of a series on Jesus the Jewish Messiah by Gerald McDermott. Click here to view other articles in this series.

He who swears by the temple swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. (Matthew 23:21)

It has been something of a Christian consensus that Jesus rejected the temple in Jerusalem. After all, in Matthew 23 at the end of his long denunciation of Pharisaic practice (as opposed to Pharisaic teaching) he says Your house is left desolate (v. 38). A more contextual translation, considering Jesus’ prophetic power, is Your house will be destroyed.

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Why did he say this? The answer is in his address to the chief priests and elders at the temple in Matthew 21. He told them they were like the wicked tenants who beat and killed servants of the master (representing God) and failed to produce the fruits of the kingdom (Matthew 21:33-46).

Failing to Account for Complexity

But there is a problem with this traditional consensus. It is simplistic. It fails to account for the complexity of Jesus and the New Testament in their portrayal of the temple.

For example, in the same passage denouncing the Pharisees who gathered at the temple, Jesus acknowledges that God still dwelt in the temple: He who swears by the temple swears by it and by Him who dwells in it (Matthew 23:21). Just before this Jesus said the altar makes holy the gift sacrificed on it (Matthew 23:19). NT scholar Matthew Thiessen observes that for Jesus “the altar, then, is infused with holy power. This is because the sanctuary (naos), which houses the altar, is the place where the Jewish God dwells (kataikounti, 23:21).”[1]

Perhaps that is why Jesus endorsed sacrifices performed at the temple and offerings made to it. He assumed his disciples would bring their gifts for sacrifice to the altar of burnt offering in the inner court: If you are bringing your gift to the altar and there remember . . . (Matt 5:23). He told the healed leper to be purified by offering a gift for sacrifice: Show yourself to the priest and bring the gift which Moses commanded [of two sacrificed birds] (Matthew 8:4, citing Leviticus 14:4-5). And he praised the poor widow’s offering to the temple (Mark 12:41-44).

Temple as Sacred Space

“From his birth,” Thiessen writes, “the Gospels depict Jesus and his family behaving as though the temple is truly sacred space.”[2]  Forty days after Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary undergo ritual purification in order to enter the temple and present their baby to the God of Israel. They offered a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons as the Law commands (Luke 2:22-24).

Luke adds that Jesus’ parents went up to Jerusalem and its temple every year for Passover, no doubt making their own family sacrifices of a Passover lamb. When Jesus was twelve he stayed behind to discuss Torah with teachers at the temple. When Mary rebuked her son for not letting his parents know where he was, Jesus replied, Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49 ESV). As Thiessen puts it, “Luke’s adolescent Jesus believes that the temple is the earthly dwelling of the Jewish God.”[3]

Against the Authorities, Not the Temple

We saw above that when Jesus in Matthew 21 retold the parable of the vineyard from Isaiah 5, he directed it against the tenants (the priests) rather than the vineyard itself (the temple). He was indeed angry about the administration of the temple, but precisely because they corrupted its true purpose. That’s why Jesus cleansed the Temple, and when he did, he cited Isaiah to call it my house:

It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13, citing Isaiah 56:7; see also Mark 11:15-17 and Luke 19:45-46)

Thiessen points out that it is not only Luke’s gospel that depicts Jesus as regarding the temple as holy (while denouncing the administrators of the temple). Mark says the charge that Jesus said he would destroy the temple was false witness (Mark 14:53) and Matthew also disparages this charge (Matthew 26:59-61). Luke leaves out the charge entirely, “presumably because he does not want anyone to believe it.”[4]

The Apostles in Temple Liturgies

There is another line of evidence that Jesus did not reject the temple en toto. His apostles, whom he had taught at the temple (John 18:20), continued to participate in temple liturgies after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46). Matthew Olver remarks, “Acts 3:1 casually mentions that Peter and John were on their way to the temple at the ninth hour, which the text says is ‘the hour of prayer,’  ‘implying not just that the temple was a convenient or appropriate place but that they joined in collective prayers held at that time in connection with daily sacrificial offerings.’”[5]

If their Lord had taught that God had rejected the temple and its liturgies, why would his disciples continue to participate in them after its leaders had murdered him? It makes more sense to think that Rabbi Jesus had taught the sanctity of the temple and its liturgies while at the same time warning them about its corrupted leadership.

Destroy This Temple?

Why, then, did Jesus say to the Judeans at the temple, Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up? The answer is precisely what John tells us: He was speaking to them about the temple of his body (John 2:19, 21). The temple leaders, probably because of their jealousy, misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus’ symbolic reference to his body as a temple. Unfortunately Christians have made similar mistakes for centuries, but for different reasons.

In this series, I have used passages from the gospel of Matthew to underline Jesus’ Jewishness in ways that have been ignored until recently. NT scholar Anders Runesson sums up Matthew’s surprisingly positive attitude toward the temple and its religion:

The Gospel of Matthew indicates that its author and immediate audience acknowledged the Jerusalem temple and its cult while the temple still stood, and continued to revere both Jerusalem and the temple after AD 70.[6]

Did Jesus reject the temple? Its leadership, yes. The temple and its holiness, no.

[1] Matthew Thiessen, “Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion?” in Gerald McDermott, ed., Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2021), 24.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Matthew Olver, “Missed and Misunderstood Jewish Roots of Christian Worship,” in McDermott, ed., Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity, 77.

[6] Anders Runesson, quoted by Joel Willitts, “Zionism in the Gospel of Matthew,” in Gerald McDermott, ed., The New Christian Zionism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 129.

Cover image: James Tissot, Cleansing the Temple

Published on

April 6, 2023

Author

Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott serves as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary, priest-in-residence at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Crozet, VA.

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