The Lord in His Temple
Malachi 3:1–3 says,
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.
There is a gap of time in this prophecy, the same as you will find in almost every OT prophecy. The “messenger” that the Lord sent before him is obviously John the Baptist. But the Lord’s coming to his temple cannot be the arrival of the Lord in his passion week. Because verse 2 says no one will be able to endure his coming, and that he will purify his people like a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap. (To “full” means to whiten, by the way; it refers to an ancient way of scouring clothing in a mill.)
It is fascinating to note that the Lord, when he returns in glory, will purify the sons of Levi, the priests and temple leaders. So, in that Day, the priests will finally have the ability to carry out their priestly duties without having their own sins to deal with. From a dispensational point of view, this passage refers to the Lord’s glorious return to establish the Millennial Kingdom, when the Lord will finally purify his temple and the people worshiping in his temple. But when the Lord Jesus is in the temple during his passion week, he is dealing with the sons of Levi and other religious elites who are still in desperate need of cleansing.
The events of Matthew 21:23 through chapter 22 and even beyond, take place on Tuesday during this week. Again, Mark’s Gospel in chapter 11 gives us the chronology. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Sunday and looks around in the temple, then he cleanses the temple on Monday, then he returns again on Tuesday when he has many of the conversations with the Pharisees and temple officials.
And even though Jesus is not yet suddenly and triumphantly returning to the temple as Malachi 3 prophesies, he still takes the temple by storm. For Jesus not only teaches and performs miracles, but he also masterfully handles any challenging question that his attackers hurl at him, in their vain attempt to discredit him in the eyes of the people.
The series of conversations is almost like watching a dual, in which beginners go to combat with a master swordsman.
The religious elites advance upon Jesus to challenge his authority, and he parries with a question they dare not answer (Matt 21:23–27). Then Jesus lunges with three parables that expose their disobedient unbelief, their murderous hearts, and their lack of faith (21:28–22:14), and they are not able to ward off the blow. So they thrust again with a tricky question about paying taxes to Caesar, and Jesus cleverly cuts off their attack (22:15–22). This mental swordplay continues until Jesus finally disarms his opponents with a question about his own identity as both Lord and Son (21:41). And after a long, uncomfortable silence, Jesus’s attackers retreat, and Matthew says that after that, no one dared ask him any more questions.
But there is one conversation that Jesus has in the temple that shows just how masterful he is at theological swordplay. Matthew 22:23ff. says,
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”
Now, the Sadducees were not looking for theological insight. They were looking to trap Jesus by offering a scenario in which the idea of a resurrection from the dead looked silly. Think of all of the trouble it’s going to be one day when all of those husbands are going to be married to the same wife!
But Jesus meets this specious argument with the full thrust of his wisdom and knowledge of the Scriptures. Jesus answers them in verse 29,
“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
Jesus says, not only are you ignorant of the Scriptures, but neither do you have faith in the power of God to raise the dead.
Then he takes two lines of reasoning. First, he uses an analogy with the angels to show that the scenario they have painted for him is an impossibility. He says in verse 30,
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
In other words, their question is a moot point to begin with.
But then Jesus defends from Scripture the whole idea of the resurrection from the dead. And this shows Jesus’s brilliance and awareness. Jesus could have chosen one of several passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Jesus could have cited Psalm 16:10.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
He could have quoted Isaiah 26:19.
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
He could have cited the dead bones coming back to be living flesh in Ezekiel 37.
And we could name many other OT texts that speak of a future resurrection of the dead.
But the problem is, Jesus was being confronted by the Sadducees. And the Sadducees hold only to the Pentateuch, or the first five books of OT, as holy Scripture. So to make his argument go home, he wants to present evidence from the Pentateuch. And he insightfully draws the Sadducees’ attention to Exodus 3:6, which is part of Moses’s conversation with God at the burning bush.
“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching (Matt 22:31–33).
What has Jesus done here? He has drawn an eternal truth out of a simple, linking verb, “I am.” God did not say to Moses, “I was the God of Abraham,” but “I am the God of Abraham.” God is the God of the living. Abraham is still alive.
But Jesus’s insight gets even better than that! For he is actually drawing on Hebrew passage that has no linking verb in the text. For in the Hebrew language, the linking verb is often merely understood. The text of Exodus 3:6 may be literally translated, “I the God of Abraham ….” Thus, Jesus makes a seminal point based upon a word of Scripture that is not even written in the text, but is understood in the context. The crowd was right to be astonished at his teaching.
Now, we love to read these accounts where Jesus is approached by his detractors who think they are going to get the better of him, only to retreat in embarrassment. But we should remember that Jesus is not showing off or trying to one-up them. Jesus doesn’t need to score points. As the loving Good Shepherd, Jesus is just as concerned for the souls of these hard-hearted religious leaders as he is for any lost person. He’s trying to bring them under conviction so that they will turn to him. He desires to purify the sons of Levi.
Finally, we should not miss the unique irony of the fact that Jesus is in the temple three days before his crucifixion defending the fact of the bodily resurrection from the dead. Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus knows the Scripture. And he knows the power of God. And even now he is resting in that power for his own resurrection from the dead. The Lord in his temple anticipates that great Day when he will return to the temple again, in full resurrection power and glory, to rescue and restore and purify.