Guest Article: Robert Cruickshank– Zechariah 14- #1- The Cleansing of the Temple

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Zechariah 14, Part 10: The Cleansing of the Temple (Zechariah 14:20-21)

Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank, Jr (October 19, 2023)
All Rights Reserved

“On that day there will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking pots in the Lord’s house will be like the bowls before the altar. Every cooking pot in Jerusalem and in Judah will be holy to the Lord of armies; and all who sacrifice will come and take of them and boil in them. And there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of armies on that day” (Zechariah 14:20-21).

These verses loop back to the theme introduced in verse 9, i.e., the exclusivity and extent of Christ’s reign. For the New Covenant believer, “old things are passed away, and all things become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). The Lord is “the only one, and His name is the only one” (Zech. 14:9).

This being the case, even the common ordinary things in our life, right down to our means of transportation and the cooking utensils in our kitchen, are to be “HOLY TO THE LORD” (Zech. 14:20-21a). Under the Old Covenant, all consecrated items had to be sanctified for their use in the holy place (Exod. 28:38). Under the New Covenant, The Lord Himself is our temple (Rev. 21:3), and we are His temple (1 Cor. 3:16). For that reason, Zechariah is telegraphing the idea that everything in our lives is to be consecrated and set apart for God’s glory.

In other words, all that we have, all that we think, and all that we do, is sacred. There is no room for anything un-sacred or profane in the New Jerusalem. More to the point, that which was unsacred and profane should become consecrated and pure. Everything, even our eating and drinking, is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). As New Covenant believers, Jesus Christ becomes the central focus of our lives and all that our lives entail.

In the final words of the chapter, Zechariah says, “there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord.” With these words, Zechariah looks forward to a specific event in Jesus’ life regarding the Old Covenant, physical temple. This event, in turn, has far-reaching implications with respect to the New Covenant, spiritual temple – of which all true believers are a part. Jesus’ actions in the physical temple were meant to inform us regarding our behavior in the spiritual temple, as we live out the fulfillment of the realities envisioned by Zechariah.

Holy to the Lord

Zechariah says that “the bells of the horses” will bear the inscription, “Holy to the Lord.” Even the most mundane items, like “cooking pots,” will be “Holy to the Lord.” The significance of this inscription being applied to animals and common everyday items would have been startling to an ancient Israelite. Under the Old Covenant, that phrase was reserved for the golden engravement fastened to the high priest’s turban (Exod. 28:36-37). Additionally, the high priest wore a “golden bell” whenever he entered and left the holy place (Exod. 28:34-35). Zechariah’s prophecy anticipates a time when access to sacred space is no longer restricted, and everything becomes sanctified in the life of the believer.

To put it another way, the inscription on the high priest’s turban now applies to us. For those who believe in Jesus, we are all kings and priests (1 Pt. 2:9; Rev. 5:9-10) and sacred space is no longer limited to the holy of holies, in the physical temple, in earthly Jerusalem. That temple, in fact, doesn’t exist anymore. It hasn’t existed for almost 2000 years now. Regarding the physical temple, Jesus said, “not one stone will be left upon another” (Matt. 24:2). According to Peter, those stones have been replaced by “living stones” being “built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 2:4).

We are those “living stones” and, unlike the high priest, we don’t enter the temple on occasion. We are always in the temple because we are the temple. This being the case, the spiritual sacrifices that we offer aren’t meant to be occasional either. The new spiritual reality in which we exist encompasses every area of life, at all times. Our entire life is to be a living sacrifice presented to God (Rom. 12:1).

The Eschatological Dwelling of God

Just as everything in the physical temple had to be sprinkled and cleansed with blood (Heb. 9:21-22), “so now,” writes Andrew M. Mutua, “the blood of Jesus purifies the believers, enabling them to establish the new connection to God. And while the OT sacrifices and sprinkling took place on the altar at the sanctuary, the sacrifice of Jesus is on the cross” (1 Pt. 1:18-19) “and the ‘sprinkling’ is on those that make up the new ‘spiritual house’” (1 Pt. 2:5), “the eschatological dwelling of God.”

As “the eschatological dwelling of God,” our “new connection to God” means that the space we occupy is sacred space, and the ground we stand upon is holy ground. Michael Heiser put it this way: “We are the place where God dwells—the same presence that filled the temple in the Old Testament.” As such, all that we have is to be set apart for the Lord and His purposes, and even our very thoughts are to be taken “captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). As God’s new priests in His new temple, “all things become new,” as Paul said (2 Cor. 5:17). This is the reality of a fulfilled life under the New Covenant, and this is the reality that Zechariah’s prophecy pictured. Even the most common and mundane things in our life are “Holy to the Lord.” The ordinary becomes extraordinary when God’s people realize who they are in Christ and who He is in them.

No More Canaanites in the House of the Lord

Further realities of what should characterize this life of fulfillment in God’s spiritual temple were foreshadowed through Jesus’ actions in the old, physical temple during His earthly ministry. And Jesus’ actions in the temple were foreseen by Zechariah when he said, “And there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of armies on that day” (Zechariah 14:21). The NASB uses the word “Canaanite,” while the ESV renders the verse as: “There will no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord.” So, which one is right? The answer is that both translations are correct.

The Canaanites were famous for mercantile exchange and the weighing out of precious metals (Zeph. 1:11). As such, the word “Canaanite” itself became and idiom for merchants or traders – especially the dishonest ones (Hos. 2:17). With this in mind, it’s hard to miss Zechariah’s influence upon the Gospel accounts of Jesus cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-17; Lk. 19:45-47; Jn. 2:14-16). This being the case, more than a few scholars have noted the connection. The story is familiar enough to most Christians and the tie-in with Zechariah 14:21 is all but transparent. Jesus enters the temple, overturns the tables of commerce, and drives the money changers out with force. The striking parallel of Jesus’ actions with Zechariah 14:21 carries as much force as the actions themselves.

As N.T. Wright maintains, the similarity between Jesus’ actions and Zechariah’s words cannot be chalked up to mere literary redaction on the part the Gospel writers. Jesus was self-consciously fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy. “Zechariah 14,” says Wright, “which celebrates the coming of YHWH and his kingdom, ends with the temple being cleansed of traders. There should be no doubt that Jesus knew this whole passage, and that he saw it as centrally constructive of his own vocation, at the level of not just ideas but agendas.” In intentional fulfillment of Zechariah’s text, Jesus was ridding His Father’s house of the Canaanites.

In all three synoptic versions of the story, the Olivet Discourse follows closely on the heels of this episode in Jesus’ life (Matt. 24; Mk. 13: Lk. 21). In the discourse, Jesus makes it clear that the temple He had just cleansed was going to be destroyed (Matt. 24:2; Mk. 13:2; Lk. 21:5-6). Putting two and two together, Henk Jan de Jonge succinctly summarizes what’s going on in the synoptic narrative: “…the story of Jesus’ action in the temple now became the account of a prophetic act” that “foreshadowed the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE.” Despite Jesus’ attempt to restore the earthly temple to what God intended it to be, the first-century Jews didn’t learn their lesson. The merchants and traders (Canaanites) returned to the temple, and Jesus returned on the clouds to destroy it before that generation passed away (cf. Matt. 24:2, 34).

No Room for Zealots

Apart from the word “Canaanite” being a synonym for “merchant” or “trader,” its raw definition simply means “zealous.” Mark, in particular, appears to be tracking on this Zealot theme in his version of the story. As Cecil Roth points out, Jesus makes a “seemingly irrelevant” statement in Mark’s rendition which is absent in Matthew and Luke: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mk. 11:17). Luke includes the clause about “a house of prayer,” but drops the part about “all nations” (Lk. 19:46). That phrase is totally unique to Mark in the Gospel accounts of the temple-cleansing incident. As Roth observes, Mark goes “out of his way to add this point, not mentioned by the other evangelists.” Mark’s addition means that he’s following the common synoptic thread condemning temple usage for financial gain (Mk. 11:15), while adding another layer to the thoroughness of Jesus’ purging of that temple. Mark’s extra layer underscores the root meaning of “Canaanite” (i.e., zealous), from Zechariah 14:21, when all the pieces are put in place.

This is evident in that Mark’s statement about “all nations” follows immediately after another phrase unique to Mark. In the previous verse, Mark alone mentions the prohibition about carrying items into the temple: “And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (Mk. 11:16). The word translated “anything” (skeuos) is a common term which could refer to everything from household goods, to furniture, or even instruments on a ship. But none of this makes much sense out of the context. How would commerce with common items such as these prevent people from the other “nations” from entering the house of the Lord? More to the point, what is the connection between these two phrases which Mark alone mentions? Why are they there, and what is Mark trying to tell us?

In his article, “No More Zealots in the House of the Lord,” Joel Marcus unlocks the seeming mystery. As Marcus demonstrates, skeuos “can mean not only ‘pot’ or “utensil” but also ‘weapon.’” The usage of the word in the Septuagint version of Genesis 27:3 and Deuteronomy 1:41 bears this out. The question is: who would carry weapons into the house of the Lord and why? The answer is: Jewish Zealots who wanted to keep the Gentiles out. This being the case, Jesus was taking aim at early, anti-Gentile revolutionaries who would eventually rise up in the revolt against Rome and restrict Gentile access to the temple through armed force. Marcus puts it together: “The Markan Jesus, then, attacks” not only “the mercantile desecration of the temple in the early thirties of the first century, but also prophetically rebukes the Zealotic desecration of it in the late sixties, close to Mark’s own time.”

The Zealots and the Abomination of Desolation

The eventual “Zealot desecration” of the temple makes sense out of Jesus’ statement about the Abomination of Desolation “standing in the holy place” (Matt. 24:15), “where it should not be” (Mk. 13:14a). As Marcus points out, these words reflect the “series of events” culminating in “the occupation of the Temple by Eleazar son of Simon in the winter of 67-68.” This was the signal for Jesus’ followers to flee Judea and run to the mountains (Mk. 13:14b; Matt. 24:16). At this point in time, “the temple had failed to fulfill its destination: instead of becoming a religious center for all nations, it had become a garrison of Jewish insurrectionists.”

Those whom Jesus had chased out of the temple had not only returned to the temple, but they gained control of it as well. This would have certainly been considered an “abomination,” in every sense of the word. For example, Josephus lamented the fact that his own countrymen would have allowed these wicked murders to stand in the holy place with their blood-stained hands.

This abomination within the city led to the desolation that came from without. At this point in time, Vespasian had begun his campaign but had not yet “completely conquered the area around Jerusalem and thus isolated the city.” This harmonizes Luke with Matthew and Mark. For Luke, the signal was Jerusalem being surrounded by armies (Lk. 21:21-22). In short, Jesus’ prophetically precise instructions were: When the Zealots enter the temple and the Romans start closing in, get out! When all was said and done, that temple didn’t matter anymore anyway. God was building a new one (1 Pt. 2:4-5).

The Living and Active Implications

Like all that precedes it, all the key elements of Zechariah’s final verses in this chapter find their fulfillment in the first century. As with the previous verses, however, this doesn’t mean that Zechariah 14:21 doesn’t have any application for us today. It does. God’s Word is not dead and stagnant, it’s living and active (Heb. 4:12). It comes to life and speaks today, and Zechariah’s words, as well as Jesus’ actions in the temple, are still relevant.

With the earthly temple gone, we are now God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16) and He is our temple (Rev. 21:22). The reality of the New Covenant is the Lord in us and us in Him. As such, Jesus’ actions in the physical temple demonstrate how we are to conduct ourselves today in this new spiritual temple, of which we are all a part. In this regard, the Apostle Paul warned against those who would use the word of God for greed (1 Tim. 6:5-7). The implications are clear. While there is nothing wrong with commerce and financial gain, the visible expression of God’s temple on earth (i.e., His Church) is no place for such things.

Likewise, the Zealot attitude of ethnic exclusion has no place in the true temple either. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), and Jesus’ death has purchased people from every tongue, tribe and nation (Rev. 5:19-14). Trade and commerce indeed have their place, outside of God’s house, and racism has no place – inside or outside of God’s house. While the Abomination of Desolation is a thing of the past, any form of racial superiority is still an abomination in God’s eyes, and believers should flee from it just as Jesus’ followers fled to the mountains.

Every area of our life, every thought, and every action should be set apart for the glory of God. Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (1 Pt. 1:2), we should likewise strive to completely remove anything that God would consider to be abominable in our lives. From the “bells” of our “horses” to the “cooking pots” in our kitchen, all that we have, and all that we do, should be “Holy to the Lord” (Zech. 14:20-21).