PMT 2014-123 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In this fifth entry in an 8-part series I am arguing that the Jewish Temple in the first-century effectively functioned as tool of emperor worship, when understood spiritually. I recommend reading the previous articles first, and in order.
Jewish Temple as Pagan Idol
In the final analysis, the Temple system has become for Israel an idol substituting for a right relationship with God. Formalism has replaced vitalism in worship, externalism has pushed out spirituality. The Lord rebukes the scribes and Pharisees for their empty traditionalism which “invalidated the word of God” (Mt 15:1-6), making them “hypocrites” (15:7), and showing that “this people honors Me with their lips, / But their heart is far away from me, / But in vain do they worship Me, / Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (15:8-9). He chastises Peter for not understanding the hypocrisy involved in Pharisaic hand washing rituals (15:15-20), for “not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” 15:11).
As Galambush (72) observes:
“The charge of hypocrisy . . . is Matthew’s leading complaint against the arbiters of righteousness of his day. They lay burdens of ritual observance on others that they themselves refuse to bear, ‘they do all their deeds to be seen by others,’ they tithe the tiniest portion of their produce while avoiding the more substantial issues of justice and mercy. They are ‘whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”
Christ’s parables of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) and the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk 18:9-17) expose the empty self-righteousness of the religious leaders. Even the rich young ruler (archōn) prefers his wealthy status over acceptance by God (Lk 18:18-25).
The Lord warns his followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (Mt 23:2-3). This dead formalism is brought into the very context of the temple when Christ curses the fig tree for showy leaves while lacking fruit (Mk 11:12-14//). He does this after surveying the temple (Mk 11:11) and just before driving out the moneychangers (Mk 11:15).
In the OT we see the same problem of devotion to the external temple rather than concern for God. There, regarding the first temple’s destruction, Israel prefers to believe false prophecies regarding its inviolability (Jer 5:31; 20:6; 27;15; 29:9, 21; Eze 13:7, 9; 22:28; cp. Rev 16:13). God warned OT Israel: “Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jer 7:4) . He threatened: “therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh” (Jer 7:14). Elsewhere Israel arrogantly declares: “Is not the Lord in our midst? / Calamity will not come upon us” (Mic 3:11). The Lord warns: “What right has My beloved in My house / When she has done many vile deeds? / Can the sacrificial flesh take away from you your disaster, / So that you can rejoice?” (Jer 11:15).
Isaiah powerfully presses this temple-as-idol problem against rebellious Israel in Isa 66:3, which “contains one of the strongest denunciations of cult in the Bible” (Oswalt 2:667). The prophet compares the sacrificial actions in the temple system to various sins, including idolatry: “But he who kills an ox is like one who slays a man; / He who sacrifices a lamb is like the one who breaks a dog’s neck; / He who offers a grain offering is like one who offers swine’s blood; / He who burns incense is like the one who blesses an idol. / As they have chosen their own ways, / And their soul delights in their abominations.”
According to several competent exegetes, Isaiah’s prophecy has an ultimate fulfillment in the Herodian temple after Jesus’ death. For instance, Young (Isa. 3:520) argues that they “continued offering the sacrifices even after the one true Sacrifice had been offered.” Alexander (Isa. 3:460) states that this passage teaches “the general doctrine that sacrifice is hateful in the sight of God if offered in a wicked spirit, but with a special reference to the old sacrifices after the great Sacrifice for sin was come, and had been offered once for all” (cp. Watts, Isa. 34-66, 356).
 Jer 7 includes the verse the Lord cites in his temple cleansing statement regarding the “den of robbers,” Jer 7:11. Walker (277) comments: “Jesus’ quoting from Jeremiah’s famous ‘Temple sermon’ . . . then gave a further clue that, as in Jeremiah’s day, the inevitable result was divine judgment — and for similar reasons. Jeremiah had spoken out against the false trust which his contemporaries were placing in the ‘Temple of the Lord’ (Jer. 7:4), seeing this gift of God as something behind which they could hide from God’s ethical concerns. Jesus’ actions and words implied that there was a similar abuse of the divine gift in his own day. The Temple was being used to service god-less agendas.”