Tearing Down the House:

Jesus’ Symbolic Destruction of the Temple in Luke’s Narrative

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

gs@wordmp3.com * www.WordMp3.com * www.AllSaintsPresbyterian.com


Presented at the Evangelical Theological Society’s Eastern Regional Meeting (4/1/2005)



This paper will examine the actions of Jesus in light of the original setting of the quotation, “My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves” (Luke 19:46). The paper will seek to demonstrate that Jesus’s actions are a recapitulation of the Jeremiah’s experience with the destruction of Shiloh and Solomon’s temple. The thesis is that the “cleansing of the temple” was an enactment of putting a “stop to sacrifice” (Dan. 9:27). It functioned as a prophetic action foreshadowing the eventuality of the complete destruction of the second temple (Herod’s Temple). The import of this reading will be brought to bear on general hermeneutics and a critique of literalism. Also, this will affect the general interpretation of the Olivet Discourse and the veracity and dating of Luke.



This Old House

If one peers just below the surface of the Third Gospel (hereafter, Luke), a vivid picture of a new (true) priesthood, a new and true high priest, and a new and true temple appear. The Gospel of Luke begins with the temple priesthood and ends with the new temple priesthood. Endnote The birth narratives of John and Jesus begin in the temple with the prophecy to Zacharias (1:9) as he is serving at the altar of incense, a priestly duty which may have only befallen for him once in his life. Endnote This section ends with Jesus in the temple (2:22-40) being circumcised and the foretaste of hopeful old covenant believers (Simeon and Anna). Simeon, “waiting for the Consolation of Israel,” “came by the Spirit into the temple.” That is how he encountered Jesus. Then, the entire first section ends with the twelve-year old Jesus “sitting in the temple” (2:46).


Then the center section of the gospel (9-19) is framed by Luke as Jesus “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Emphatically, “His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem” (9:53, see also 13:22, 33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11, 28). The intentionality of the destiny of the “journey to Jerusalem” is quite clear in Luke 17:11. “Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.” Going from Martha’s home in the south (John 12:1-2) through Sarmaria and Galilee is not part of a map-quest-shortest-distance trip to Jerusalem. This is a clue that going to Jerusalem is part of Luke’s literary-meaning structure, not mere information about the travel plans of Jesus.


When He arrives at Jerusalem, he goes to the temple to attack the money changers (Luke 19:45). The final verses of Luke 19 are interesting. Jesus essentially causes a riot with the money changers, but continues to stay in the temple.


Luke 19:45 - 20:1 - Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ “ 47 And He was teaching daily in the temple. But the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him, 48 and were unable to do anything; for all the people were very attentive to hear Him. 20:1 Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him...


Finally, then the gospel ends in the temple with a new people worshiping God. “And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen” (Luke 24:52-53). This structure suggests that the old house of the second temple is in need of repair and a new house is to be built.


Tearing Down the House

The intentionality of the destiny of the “journey to Jerusalem” as Luke reminds us for ten chapters, along with the Chiastic structure of the entire gospel focused on the temple strongly suggests that Jesus’ actions in the temple unfold Luke’s contoured narrative.


Not all commentators see the significance. For example, I. Howard Marshall (721) observes that “Luke passes straight to the comment of Jesus on the state of the temple,” but then moves to grapple with why the broader reference of the gentiles (a house of prayer for the gentiles) is not mentioned. The gentiles are left out, he thinks, “probably because he [Luke] is aware that in fact the temple did not become such, and he did not want to make Jesus the author of a false prophecy” (721). He goes on to say “It is not clear whether Luke regards the action as having any deeper significance. The cleansing of the temple was expected in the end time (Mal. 3:1ff; Zc. 14:21; cf. Ezk. 40-48) and hence could be regarded as a messianic sign, but Luke makes so little of the incident that it is hard to believe that he saw this significance in it.” His interpretation is economic: “The implication is that the legitimate sale of sacrificial victims was accompanied by money-grabbing and commercial rivalry.” Endnote Darrell Bock likewise speaks of Luke’s description as concise and implies that this event is fairly insignificant. “The custom Jesus attacks is the selling of various items necessary for sacrifice...”(316).


Having seen Luke’s emphasis on the temple (also on a new priesthood) — now we are in a better position to understand Jesus’s actions. For ten chapters we have been repeatedly reminded that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. Why does Jesus “triumphal entry” culminate in the “cleansing” of the temple? We have been told that Jesus is concerned about overpriced livestock. Or, that he is condemning the sale of sacrificial animals. Is Jesus ten-chapter journey to Jerusalem concluding with a reproof for price-fixing in the House of God? Is it for commerce on the premises of the temple? Not at all.


In the “cleansing” of the temple, Jesus is not condemning the sale of sacrificial animals. A system like what they were doing was implied as proper in Deuteronomy 14:24-26:


[speaking of a future central sanctuary] And if the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.


It seems rather anti-climactic for Jesus to make the pinnacle of His arrival on the destined approach to Jerusalem an attack on retail pricing. On the contrary, He is symbolically destroying the temple and stopping its work. The Jesus reenacts Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 26:6). Just as Jeremiah prophesied the doom of the temple as a type of the destruction of Shiloh, so Jesus prophesied the destruction of the temple and the city by reference to Jeremiah.


N.T. Wright is correct in saying, “It is in this context that Jesus’ dramatic action in the Temple makes perfect sense: it was an acted parable of judgment, of destruction” (334). Endnote Wright goes on to say, “He was claiming prophetic and messianic authority to pronounce judgment on the Temple....Jesus, then pronounced warning against the nation; warnings against his own generation in particular; and warnings focused on the disaster that would befall Jerusalem and the Temple. All of this I regard as established before we even touch Mark 13 and its parallels [the Olivet Discourse]” (335-36).


It is clear that the message of Jesus destroying the temple (though it was distorted) got through to his hearers, since this is the charge which proved instrumental in his trial (see also, Matt. 26:61; 27:40; Mk. 14:58; 15:29; Lk. 19:47; Jn. 2:19; 1 Co. 3:17). Matthew 26:61 says, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” Mark’s text is very clear, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands’” (Mark 14:58). Even in Stephen’s martyrdom, this message still reverberates, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-15). Jesus actions therefore accomplished a second temple prophecy from Daniel to “stop to sacrifice” (Dan. 9:27) by this prophetic parable-action. And it pointed to a time shortly to come when His sacrifice would be the only sacrifice acceptable and for those who pursue the blood of bulls and goats, there “no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:26).


This Older House

To understand the temple events in Luke 19, we must see how Jesus reenacts Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 7ff and 26:6). Jesus’s actions are a recapitulation of the Jeremiah’s experience with the destruction of Shiloh and the temple at the time of the exile. Moreover, Jesus symbolically tears down the house as a prophetic action foreshadowing the actual destruction of the temple.


We could call it the Shiloh Syndrome. God judged the wickedness of the first established house of God at Shiloh. The oldest house of God was the tabernacle which rested with the treasured Ark in the region an Anathoth (Josh. 21:18). Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests in the days before Samuel. Several texts remind us of this judgment:


1 Samuel 4:16-22 16 Then the man said to Eli, “I am he who came from the battle. And I fled today from the battle line.” And he said, “What happened, my son?” 17 So the messenger answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead; and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 Then it happened, when he made mention of the ark of God, that Eli fell off the seat backward by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years. 19 Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, due to be delivered; and when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and gave birth, for her labor pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, “Do not fear, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer, nor did she regard it. 21 Then she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”


Psalm 78:7-9, 60-62 ...A stubborn and rebellious generation, A generation that did not set its heart aright, And whose spirit was not faithful to God. 60 So that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, The tent He had placed among men, 61 And delivered His strength into captivity, And His glory into the enemy’s hand. 62


The text Jesus quotes is from Jeremiah 7:11. Jeremiah invokes the Shiloh Syndrome on the older house of his day (Solomon’s temple). Interestingly, Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth.


The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 2 “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah who enter in at these gates to worship the LORD!’ “ 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. 4 “Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these.’ 5 “For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, 6 “if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, 7 “then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. 8 “ Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. 9 “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, 10 “and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’? 11 “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the LORD. 12 “ But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. 13 “And now, because you have done all these works,” says the LORD, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you, but you did not answer, 14 “therefore I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. [emphasis added]


Jeremiah 26:4-9 Thus says the LORD: “If you will not listen to Me, to walk in My law which I have set before you, 5 “to heed the words of My servants the prophets whom I sent to you, both rising up early and sending them (but you have not heeded), 6 “then I will make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth.” ‘ “ 7 So the priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. 8 Now it happened, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, that the priests and the prophets and all the people seized him, saying, “You will surely die! 9 “Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without an inhabitant’?” And all the people were gathered against Jeremiah in the house of the LORD. [emphasis added]


That Jesus is not reprimanding unjust commerce or high prices is made clear from two considerations. First the Greek term, sph,laion (in Luke 19:46) is literally a “cave” — a hide out. One hardly goes to a cave to commit burglary or thievery. But more significant is the original use. Jeremiah says, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’?” (7:9-10). The prophet’s rebuke is not that they are making the temple a place of commerce but they are treating it as a robber’s cave, a thieve’s hideout. Like the magical cave of Alibaba in Arabian Nights, wherein all the treasure was concealed and safe.


Therefore, Jesus words in the “cleansing of the temple” make clear his prophetic judgment. These judgments, just as in Jeremiah’s day, were covenantal. The covenant is a beautiful promise of redemption enveloping all the plan of salvation and the revelation of Scripture. Yet, there are also covenant judgments for those who would break covenant.


The gospel of Luke shows covenantal judgments, especially in relation to the fate of the temple. It begins with the temple priesthood (Zacharias) and ends with believers priesthood in the temple. Then the center of Luke is Christ’s journey toward the holy place wherein He announces judgment upon the old house. He “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) which culminates in His symbolically destroying the temple and its work (Luke 19:45). Jesus says the words of Jeremiah, who foretold the covenantal judgment of Judah. Jesus foretells the covenantal judgment of A.D. 70:


Luke 19:43-47: For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, 44 “and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” 45 Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”


Note the next verse: “Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it” (Luke 19:45). The structure and emphasis of Luke on the temple makes Marshall’s comment (above) — that Luke “did not want to make Jesus the author of a false prophecy” regarding Gentiles praying in the temple—appear rather obtuse. Just a few days after that they destroy the temple of Jesus body and just three days later, a new temple was raised. The subsequent NT shows how the new temple and dwelling place of God comes down to earth. “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). The temple that Jesus erected is indeed a house of prayer for the Gentiles. It is true that “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).



Some Home Improvement Implications


1) Literary Analysis and Hermeneutics


Let me pick on the dispensationalists for an example. We could choose Presbyterians, but well. . .“That a single passage has one meaning and one meaning only has been a long-established principle of biblical interpretation. Among evangelicals, recent violations of that principle have multiplied,” writes Robert Thomas. Thomas cites Milton S. Terry’s classic, “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.” Endnote In defending grammatical-historical hermeneutics, Thomas challenges Clark Pinnock’s “future” meanings, Mikel Neumann’s contextualization, Greg Beale and Grant Osborne on Revelation 11, and Kenneth Gentry’s preterism, and last but not least the whole lot of progressive dispensationalists’ “complementary” hermeneutics. He even calls Daniel Wallace’s Greek book dangerous because Wallace acknowledges that there are “...instances of double entendre, sensus plenior (conservatively defined), puns, and word-plays in the NT.” He calls for an alarm. “A mass evangelical exodus from this time-honored principle of interpreting Scripture is jeopardizing the church’s access to the truths that are taught therein.”


The literary structure, encoded narratives, and double senses observed in Luke’s gospel and indeed most Biblical literature, do not square with the mono-literalisticalism of Dr. Thomas. Further, Luke’s teaching of the imminent destruction of the temple as the fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse do not square with dispensational eschatology on the right, and liberal-anti-predictive prophecy on the left.


The insistence on limiting the meaning of the text in a rather wooden fashion is not very appealing when one reads the way the NT writers use and interpret the OT. I am thinking here of Paul’s avllhgore,w in Galatians 4:21--5:1 with Sarah and Hagar. Or of the ark and baptism in Peter’s avnti,tupoj in 1 Peter 3:21. Or Matthew’s “out of Egypt, I called My Son” (Matt. 2:15, Hos. 11:1). I believe that for interpreters such as Dr. Thomas, the real issue is to protect certain conclusions of the interpretive process, namely, classic dispensationalism’s schemata. Endnote The process of interpretation is not made of stainless steel rules which are neutral and objective and which require a straight-jacket on dimensions of meaning.


It is easier to see this once it has been shown to you. One can easily miss the above structure of Luke without reading for structure, type, and parallels. But it is clearly no accident that the temple emphasis is so prominent. As it turns out, no Biblical writer gives us modern English prose which sets out its messages flatly without any dimensionality. From the genealogies which are crafted to the arrangement of the Psalms in the psalter, Scripture is robust literature. All Scripture has, what I am calling, multi-dimensionality. To some extent that is how all literature works, unless you put the straight-jacket on it. For example, Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, is a rich and wonderful novel because it is more than the story of Ishmael or of the hunting of the white whale. It is the story of Ahab “striking through the mask” at God. Such literature includes robust and subtle development of symbol, type, foreshadowing, and imagery, almost to the point of metaphor or allegory.


In Luke, Jesus walked to Jerusalem. That is true. But that is hardly the meaning of Luke’s refrain in chapters 9-19 that Jesus “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Despite the report-like tone we may read in the prologue to Luke, clearly he has deep structures in the shaping of the gospel. So it is that all of Scripture abounds in literary structures which are rich.

The major battles of those who believe the Bible tend to be reductionistic and rationalistic. Taking another example, we try to prove that it is scientifically possible for a man to survive inside of a sperm whale for three days, or that it is not a whale, but a fish. Jonah is a story about a man swallowed up. But has more than that one sense. There are literary conventions in Jonah. There are undercurrents such as the chiasm in verse 1:3. It stresses how Jonah’s action is a fleeing from the Lord that takes him:


    ...to Tarshish, away from the face of the Lord


                ...to Tarshish


    ...to Tarshish, away from the face of the Lord.


And the chiasm communicates the rebellious nature of Jonah’s flight in a very vivid sense. And likewise it sets up the more subtle point of Jonah’s real repentance when he is spat upon the land and is chucked “up” (Jon. 2:10).


We know that Jonah was swallowed by a lAdêG” gD”ä, “a great fish.” But that is clearly only one dimension of the meaning. Jonah has extra-dimensionality, literarily speaking, and we are told as much by our Lord, the shmei/on Viwna/ — the sign of Jonah. “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39-40). Even more Jonah is the story of the nation (Hos. 6:2). Israel is disobedient and will be cast into the sea of the Gentiles. But she will be saved by the unclean thing of deliverance (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) and finally delivered/vomited back into the Land. This will result in the increasing knowledge of God (in Assyria, Babylon, Persia) and Israel will still be downcast at mercy to the Gentile world.


Am I then denying what the Westminster Confession says in 1:9? “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” I believe my points above are indeed reinforcing that, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” And seeking to understand the “true and full sense” of texts such as Luke 19 and Jonah. Moreover, our hermeneutics are to be deductively stamped upon Scripture as an objective rational principle, such as the one Dr. Thomas imposes. Rather, we are to take all of God’s Word as instructive and inductively search out our principles of interpretation from the way Scripture uses Scripture. This will not lead to impose a “four-decker” allegorical bus (as some medievals drove through the text) and neither will it lead us to believe that the new Jerusalem is a literal 1500 mile tall city extending into outer space (per Dr. Thomas’s reading of Rev. 21).


2) The Olivet Discourse, the Veracity of the New Testament, and the Dating of Luke and Acts

If the above interpretation is correct then an early date is confirmed for Luke and implied for the rest of the New Testament. Wallace points out the most important issues for dating Luke are: (1) authorship; (2) the solution to the synoptic problem; (3) whether the Olivet Discourse was truly prophetic or a vaticinium ex eventu; and especially (4) the date of Acts. “Though most scholars date the book c. 80-90, our conclusion is that it should be dated substantially earlier.” Endnote There are good reasons to believe that Luke must have completed writing Acts around 62 A.D. First, the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) which would have been a huge event in relation to Luke-Acts is not reported. It is only predicted. Christ predicted this in Luke 11:49-52, among other passages:


Therefore the wisdom of God also said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation.


Luke write on the same theme, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation (h` genea. au[th) will by no means pass away till all things take place” (21:32). What does Luke mean by the genea houtos (“this generation”)? One text is illuminating: “But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (17:25). In his other uses (Lk. 7:31; 11:29ff, 50f; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32) it quite clearly means the people to whom Jesus was speaking, give or take 40 years. The same is said in the other synoptics (see Matt. 23:36, 24:34; and Mark 13:30). S


With the strong themes of Jewish persecution of Christians and specifically of Paul, it is incredible to think that Luke completed Luke-Acts after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, yet did not reference it. Thinking along these lines has led many scholars to conclude that all of the New Testament books were complete prior to 70 A.D. Endnote It would be like writing about Islamic terrorism in American and not referencing the terrorist actions of September 11, 2001. The silence is very loud.


Given the teaching of Christ as the true temple (as in the whole structure of Luke, see also John 2:21, Matt. 12:6) and the Body of Christ as the temple (Eph. 2:21), it is incredible to think that some New Testament writers overlooked the recent destruction of the false temple and priesthood in Jerusalem (which had rejected Christ) which was destroyed according to Christ’s word.


Moreover, Acts ends with Paul in Rome under house arrest. It is believed that Paul was martyred under Nero in about A.D. 65. It is difficult to imagine why Luke would not have included Paul’s death as a martyr if that took place prior to his completion of Acts.


Moreover, the date of Luke is important for an early dating of other books in the New Testament. Many scholars believe that Luke used the gospel of Mark as a source. That places Mark prior to 62 A.D. Most of the other New Testament texts, such as the Pauline epistles fit within the travels of Paul as narrated by Luke.


All of this puts the us on solid footing. This gives the Biblical believer a deeper glimpse hermeneutically and more importantly, another testimony to the accuracy of Luke’s gospel, confidence in the truth of Scripture, and in the power of the kingdom.