Den of thieves

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Matthew 21:12-17

Perhaps this question seems to belong to another age, but it’s very worth asking:

Where can sinners take shelter from the wrath of God?

It might sound old fashioned and out of touch with today’s world.  But if so, perhaps it’s we who are out of touch with reality.  The word of God rouses us from our slumber.  Revelation 6 gives us a sobering picture of the final day.  Here is the reality we must all deal with:

“And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:  For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17)

Humanity is described in a seven-fold way, from kings to bondmen, everyone is included.  All seek a hiding place.  None can stand the onslaught of this wrath.

Therefore the question is far from antiquated.  It’s the issue for today, because it concerns our future eternity.  What “den” is there to shelter us from the coming wrath?

In the Bible, there is a very prominent wrong answer to that question.  The wrong answer is “religion.”

Take Jeremiah for instance.  The prophet declares the imminent judgement of Jerusalem, and nothing the people can do will avert it. Nonetheless, there are some who seek refuge in the temple and its trappings. But the LORD will disabuse them of any false security:

“Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD… Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?  Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”  (Jeremiah 7:4,9-11)

Where are these sinners seeking shelter?  In the house called by the name of the LORD.  This is what it means to turn the temple into a “den of robbers.”  They have turned religion into their hiding place.  And there they proclaim “We are delivered to do all these abominations.”

Who can deny that religious people use their religion as a cover for evil? Blaise Pascal has said:

“Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”

The LORD does not deny this for a second.  He exposes it.  And He exposes them – tearing down their den as the Babylonians sack Jerusalem.

Six hundred years later the LORD visits the re-built temple.  And He gives it the same treatment.

More than once I’ve had atheists raise Christ’s “cleansing of the temple” in Matthew 21 as a reason not to follow Jesus.  This is highly ironic since those same atheists have told me how religion is such a great source of evil.  Jesus would agree.  That is precisely why He overthrows the tables, etc!

Few secularists come anywhere close to the anti-religious fervour of Jesus of Nazareth.  This temple cleansing should be a favourite passage for the new atheists.

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”  (Matthew 21:12-13)

Just as it was in Jeremiah 7, the temple is, yet again, scheduled for demolition.  In the parable of the wedding banquet Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and now in the following chapter He visits the temple one last time.

Notice what Jesus calls the temple: “a house of prayer.”  It is no nuclear bunker, able to protect “thieves” like us from the coming judgement.  It is a place of prayer.  It is not itself a spiritual safe-house but a pointer to the One who is.

In just 5 days, the LORD Jesus would be torn down on the cross – demolished, shattered under the wrath which belongs to us.  And yet on the Sunday He would be raised up again – the true House of God and the only refuge for we sinners.

Therefore the lesson is clear: there is no shelter in religion.  There are no societies we can join, no rituals we can practice, no mysteries we can fathom, no deeds we can perform that will shield us from “Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.”  If even the Jerusalem temple – the house called by the LORD’s own name – proved a vain refuge, there is certainly no hope in any other religious edifice.  These would-be hiding places are simply “dens of thieves.”  And they are so dangerous since they make us to run in exactly the wrong direction.

The only refuge is the Lamb Himself.  The only fleeing to be done is towards Him.  For Christ alone is our refuge.  All else is sinking sand.

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