January 7, 2024

Out of the Mouth of Infants

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Passage: Matthew 21:12–17

A new year has come; and with this year comes a season for which we all share mixed feelings. 2024 gives us another presidential election. With Iowa caucuses one week away, news feeds are buzzing. It’s a time when politicians of all stripes want your approval. It’s a time when we examine their leadership. Do they have the character? Are they competent? Is their platform just?

“We, the people” like that ultimate political power rests with us, the consent of the governed. But we must be careful that such a political model—while good—doesn’t produce the wrong attitude when approaching Jesus. We can’t approach Jesus by saying, “Only if we consent.” Jesus does not need or seek your approval. When the Gospels present Jesus, it’s less about us examining him and more about him examining us. Jesus is King whether you like it or not.

Matthew’s Gospel has been trying to help us recognize Jesus’ authority as King. Last Sunday, we studied the first part of Matthew 21. Deliberately, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. He fulfills the words of Zechariah 9 and shows his identity as God’s ultimate King. Today, Jesus enters Jerusalem again. Only this time he enters the temple, the religious epicenter of God’s covenant people. And there he performs several acts that further disclose his authority as the rightful King. He comes not to be examined but to examine. Read with me from verse 12…

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” 14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” 17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

I see three parts to this passage: God’s temple cleansed—that’s verses 12 and 13; the broken healed—that’s verse 14; and God’s majesty revealed—verses 15-16.

God’s Temple Cleansed

Let’s start with God’s temple cleansed. The temple played an important role in the history of God’s dealings with Israel. The temple reminded the people of God’s holiness. God is unique, set apart. Majestically and morally he’s in a category by himself. For sinners to approach God, they must do so on his terms and by his gracious provision. So, the temple was also the place of God’s provision. He made a way for sinners to approach by way of sacrifice. He sat above the seat of mercy, where he atoned for sins.

But the ultimate point of the temple was always God’s presence. God was never limited to an earthly temple. But he revealed his glory in the temple; and that was to remind the people of his presence. He is the God who dwells with his people for their benefit. Israel was to see in the temple a reminder of Eden, how this world began, when God dwelled with his people and walked with them.

But not only Israel—God had goals for the temple that extended beyond Israel. In verse 13, Jesus mentions one prophecy from Isaiah 56:6-7. “Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants…these 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 peoples.” Not just Israel, but all peoples could find their sins covered and access to God in prayer.

That’s not what Jesus finds when he enters the temple. He enters the outer courts for Gentiles/foreigners and finds a place bustling with trade. The Lord made provision for Gentile prayer, but they had replaced it with Jewish commerce. They turned his house of prayer into a marketplace. The temple grounds weren’t meant for business deals, but for meeting with God and standing amazed at his gracious provision.

Jesus doesn’t find that. So, in verse 12, Jesus enters the temple and drives out all who were selling and buying. He overturns the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. How surprising this might have seemed. The Messiah was supposed to deal with Rome. But Jesus begins with Israel. His judgment starts with those who call themselves the people of God.

Clearly Jesus is angry; and some of us might find his actions disturbing: “Isn’t this a bit harsh? Doesn’t seem very nice.” But perhaps that says more about how little we know Jesus, and how little we regard the Lord’s honor.

Still, there are a few things we must remember about this scene. One is that Jesus acts alone. The crowd surrounding him the day before—they’re not asked to participate or to follow him in this act. It’s a unique act, reserved for the one qualified for this moment. It was Jesus who said earlier in 12:6, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” Jesus stands above the temple. He’s most qualified to speak to its proper use and examine its abuse by others. He’s even going to replace it soon.

We should also remember that Jesus isn’t in a fit of rage. You might get the impression that he comes straight to the temple after riding to town on a donkey. But Mark’s Gospel tells us he only looked around initially. Then he stayed the night in Bethany and returned the following day. Jesus carefully plans his actions. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus even weeps over the city before he performs this act. What we observe in Jesus is best described by John’s Gospel as zeal for God’s house (John 2:17). Jesus has a holy jealousy that God be honored in his people.

But even more, Jesus’ act reminds us of a prophecy in Malachi 3:1-5. “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. 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.” Verse 5 says, “I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me.”

In Jesus’ actions, we witness the Lord himself coming to his temple, coming both to purify and to judge. Again, he’s not there for the people to examine him. He’s there to examine the people. Jesus takes charge and exposes their hypocrisy. They have perverted God’s intent for the temple. They have turned God’s house of prayer into “a den of robbers,” he calls it. “Den of robbers” comes from Jeremiah 7:11.

In that context, the “robber” represents a lawbreaker. The robber does his dirty deeds and then runs to find shelter in some hideout. Jeremiah then points out that Israel was like this. They’d steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, practice idolatry, oppress widows and sojourners. Then they’d run to the temple like a hiding place, saying, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord…We are delivered.”

But Jeremiah basically says, “That’s not safe. You may think you’re safe by using the temple like a hideout, but there’s no safety for lawbreakers. For those who pervert the temple’s purpose, there’s no safety in the temple.” That’s what Jesus is telling these Jews. You may think you’re safe because of this temple. But there’s no safety in God’s presence for those who pervert God’s purposes. If all you want is the temple without a life-changing nearness to God, then you’ve missed the point.

Brothers and sisters, there is no true temple in Jerusalem today. After his resurrection, Jesus replaced it with a better and permanent one, the temple of his own body. All who come to Jesus by faith, he makes them into his temple. He gives you access to God. Peter tells us that we Christians are like living stones being built into a holy temple. Paul tells us that our body is where the Holy Spirit chooses to reside. Not a building or a place to go—we are the new temple in the Lord.

But the point of the temple is still God’s presence, his dwelling with us. We were saved to walk with God. At the same time, we must never think that we’re safe if all we want are the motions of Christianity without a life-changing nearness to God. We shouldn’t want to do anything that perverts God’s purpose for his temple—whether that’s the church as temple or your physical body as temple. In everything we should want to commune with God in prayer, enjoy his presence, and help others do the same. But to pervert God’s purpose for the temple is to set ourselves against Jesus.

Jesus comes here as Lord of his temple. He comes to examine the people, and he finds them in grave error. They have defiled what is sacred; and there are times when we’ve done the same to his temple. But what I also find amazing about Jesus quoting Isaiah 56, is that it follows Isaiah 53-55; and it’s there that we learn of a special Servant in Israel. The Servant suffers as our substitute: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” By his death, we know the forgiveness of sins.

Isaiah 54 then breaks into song, celebrating the results of the Servant’s work. Multitudes pour into the heritage of God’s people. Then, in Isaiah 55, God invites more from the nations: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” That’s the call to all of us. God’s salvation is free! Come and receive it for life. Then in Isaiah 56, God mentions the foreigners. God will be their inheritance. They will find community within his walls. They will get a name that’s better than sons and daughters. These are the ones God incorporates into his house of prayer, into his temple—all because of the saving work of the Servant.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day perverted God’s purpose for the temple. Jesus comes to fulfill God’s purpose for the temple. Part of that includes Jesus exposing their evil as Lord over the temple; and part of that includes Jesus giving his life to inaugurate blessings far better than what the temple of their day could offer. That older temple was always pointing forward to Jesus. Jesus proves here that he is Lord over all—he comes to examine us and finds us lacking. Yet we also learn that he’s taking a path that will cost his life to bring us into God’s presence.

The Broken Healed

That leads to a second scene in the temple, where we also find the broken healed. Verse 14 says, “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” Matthew’s Gospel includes numerous summaries of Jesus healing. But it usually says, “he healed every disease and affliction.” Or, “he healed all who were sick.” Here Matthew gets specific: “the blind and the lame.”

Why focus on these two? I think it’s part of Matthew portraying Jesus as the Son of David, the better David. Think about it with me from 2 Samuel 5:6-10. Samuel anoints David king in Hebron. The passage then speaks of David and his men going to Jerusalem against the Jebusites. Jerusalem was not yet Israel’s city. But it would soon be known as Zion, the city of David. David has come to conquer the city.

In the process, they encounter some Jebusites who mock David. Jerusalem was quite the fortress. They didn’t think David had the power to defeat them. So, they mock him saying, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off.” It was their way of saying that even the weakest of men could defeat David.

Well, pride comes before the fall. David takes the city and says, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Now, there’s questions about what David meant. Later, we find him caring well for Mephibosheth who was lame. So, even if he hated the lame literally, his desires shift over time. More likely he’s using “the lame and the blind” figuratively, to repeat how the Jebusites themselves were mocking David.

Regardless, though, the text tells us this in verse 8: “Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.’” What a contrast this becomes when set against the picture of Jesus now in God’s house, proclaimed already as Son of David. The blind and the lame come to this Son of David, and instead of finding themselves excluded, they find themselves included. Jesus heals them; and in doing so makes another statement about himself. He is the merciful King who welcomes the broken into God’s house. God shows mercy to those who come to Jesus in their need.

Note the stark contrast between the first scene and this one. Jesus chases out those buying and selling; then he welcomes those who couldn’t buy and sell. The blind and the lame wouldn’t be able to afford a sacrifice. They sense their great need and run to Jesus for answers. That’s what Jesus invites all of us to do in our brokenness, in our helplessness. Come to him for mercy. Come to find yourself incorporated into God’s house. Come to Jesus to gain access to God’s presence and kingdom.

I didn’t read this earlier, but Isaiah 56:8 also describes the Lord as the “God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Here is Jesus gathering the outcasts into God’s presence. That’s who he is. That’s what he came for. I wonder if you feel like an outcast. Do you sense your own brokenness. Friend, that doesn’t mean you have no chance for salvation; it makes you the perfect candidate for salvation. Draw near to Jesus in your brokenness and you will find yourself accepted into God’s house as well.

God’s Majesty Revealed

Finally, let’s look at one more scene, God’s majesty revealed. Verse 15, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did…” Stop there. “The wonderful things”—the word behind that English phrase appears only here in the New Testament. But that same word appears 31 times in the Psalms. Like Psalm 9:1, “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.” Psalm 72:18, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.” Psalm 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”

Jesus has just healed the lame and the blind; and this is Matthew’s way of nodding to the wonderful deeds of Yahweh in the Old Testament. What Jesus did in the temple should’ve reminded the religious leaders of Yahweh. It should’ve led them to sing psalms of praise. Instead, they’re bothered by those who sing.

Again verse 15, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” They can’t believe Jesus lets them keep praising him: “They’re going too far, Jesus. They’re praising you. Can’t you hear?!” But Jesus says, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”

What does Jesus mean by that? It first means they haven’t read their Bibles very well—“Have you never read?” But he’s saying much more than that. Turn with me to Psalm 8—that’s what Jesus’ quotes. David begins the Psalm (and ends it) with the same words: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” He says, “You’ve set your glory above the heavens.” His glory is so great that even the heavens can’t contain its fullness. God’s majesty overwhelms David.

A couple years ago, we traveled to Yellowstone. The highlight for me, though, was driving through the Teton mountain range. The highest peaks are called the Cathedral Group. They are just massive and have this imposing greatness. David is awestruck by the Lord’s imposing greatness—much like we feel at the base of towering mountains. “How majestic is your name.”

But what also informs David’s praise of God’s majesty is the willingness of this same God to condescend* to man. Verses 2-8 take an unexpected turn. We encounter two paradoxes. The second comes in verses 3-8, but we won’t get to that portion today—Hebrews 2 helps you make sense of that portion if you want some homework.

But the first paradox comes in verse 2. This majestic God chooses to humiliate his enemies with the praise of babies and infants. Not what you’d expect a mighty warrior to take into battle. Yet he says, “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you’ve established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” God uses the totally helpless to shame those who think they’re strong.

That’s happening as Jesus quotes these words. God is using helpless children, who get the praise of Jesus right, to silence the religious leaders in Israel. The religious elite think they’re protecting the kingdom of God. But Jesus is saying, “No, no, the kingdom belongs to those who come like these children.” The real enemies of God are these Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus judges the religious establishment and then raises up a new people consisting of the broken and the helpless. Do you see that, here?

This is how God works his saving purposes to generate praise for his name. It’s just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

Brothers and sisters, do you feel your weakness? Are there circumstances you’re walking through that expose your weaknesses? Maybe you have a health issue, or a relational struggle outside your control. Maybe it’s a financial burden, or a situation at work that is over your head. Maybe it’s depression, or the weight of the responsibility in raising children. Maybe you’re serving someone, and the needs are so great that you feel overwhelmed. Maybe someone has called you weak or foolish for being a Christian. There are many ways this life can expose you as weak and helpless; and you may feel in those moments, “How in the world is God’s kingdom going to advance through me today? I’m no stronger than a helpless baby right now.”

That’s the kind of people God uses to silence his enemies. I know what some of you are going through right now; and yet you’re still singing with these children in the temple. I heard you this morning. I see the worship guides cut out and taped over your sinks or on the fridge at home. God stills the enemy and the avenger when you sing praises to Jesus in your weakness and help others to do the same.

But what else is Jesus doing by quoting this Psalm? What claim is he making? Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise to Yahweh; and Jesus’ quotes it about himself. The praise that belongs solely to the one God of the universe—Jesus accepts for himself. This would be the height of blasphemy and insane…unless Jesus is truly God. Earlier Jesus drove people from the temple for false worship; now he accepts true worship from children.

Jesus is the God whose majesty fills the earth. But here he is in human form. Why? Anselm of Canterbury was once known for a similar question: cur Deus homo? Latin for Why the God-man? The question is important, because the answer strikes at the heart of who Jesus is and what God has done in Jesus to save us.

We need a Savior who is God. Our sin offends the God of infinite worth. God’s justice demands that we pay a penalty fitting to that crime against his infinite worth. To satisfy the demands of God’s justice, a payment of infinite value was necessary. But only God is of infinite value. So, only God can satisfy God. In order to save us, God had to provide a Savior who was truly God.

But we also need a Savior who is man. It is humanity that stands guilty and cursed with death, because the first man, Adam, disobeyed God. We too have sinned in our flesh and are accountable to God’s punishment as humans. In order to save us, God had to provide a Savior who was truly man—a new Adam to obey where the first one failed; a true man who’s tempted in every way yet without sin; a human substitute to die for human sinners since the blood of bulls and goats doesn’t forgive.

In the person of Jesus, we find this very Savior. Jesus is not merely man. Nor is he merely God. He is the God-man, and he is the world’s only hope for salvation. Have you surrendered all loyalties to Jesus and worship him like these children? Or will you be like the religious authorities who try in vain to silence the worship of Jesus?

This is a distinguishing mark of Christianity: we worship Jesus as God. If you asked pagans of the second and third centuries, “What distinguished Christianity from all other religions?” the pagans would answer, “The exclusive worship of Jesus.” It’s in their writings. They mocked Christians for it. Maybe you’ve seen the Roman graffiti before that dates back to about AD 200. There’s a man bowing before a cross, and on the cross is a man with a donkey’s head. Then the picture says, “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” Pagans knew what distinguished Christians: the worship of Jesus. They thought it was ridiculous, but they knew. Even more, they knew it was subversive.

Because here’s the thing: the true worship of Jesus can’t be privatized. When you surrender all loyalties to Jesus, by necessity that will affect your public discourse and engagement. An inward allegiance to Jesus will proactively resist whatever compromises the worship of Jesus and publicly testify to whatever supports the worship of Jesus.

Jesus is Lord. When that’s your confession, the world will hate you. The world will hate you, because Jesus’ way is no longer a religious suggestion or therapeutic pick-me-up. If Jesus is God, then Jesus’ way is the only way to live, period. If you’re out of sync with Jesus, you’re out of sync with God.

When Jesus came to town, he didn’t come to be examined, to win people’s approval. He came to examine and to reveal his authority as God and King and Savior. We can’t pick and choose what we like and dislike about Jesus. Everybody owes him everything. Let us then join these little children in singing the praises that rightly belong to him and let us submit our wills to his in everything.

other sermons in this series