There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The Catholic Church was not pioneering a new heresy with the sale of indulgences. Marketing God’s grace and favor is an ancient lie. Organized religious corruption and extortion go all the way back to Christ’s earthly ministry. In that sense, the Pharisees are the spiritual forebears of the religious racketeers we’ve discussed in this series.
First—century Judaism drifted far from God’s design. The sacrificial system, in particular, was perverted into a money-making scheme for the religious elite. By the time of Christ’s incarnation, the outer courts of the Jewish Temple had been transformed into a marketplace of corrupt commerce.
The Temple grounds were capable of accommodating thousands of worshipers. The whole complex comprised several courts layered within each other, with the Holy of Holies at the center. The outer court was known as the Court of the Gentiles, the nearest place a Gentile could be to God’s holy presence.
By the first century, the Court of the Gentiles had become a place of odious corruption. Unscrupulous money changers had set up shop there to take advantage of currency exchanges with any foreign worshipers who needed to pay the annual Temple tax (cf. Matthew 17:24). Since the Temple tax could only be paid using Jewish coinage, the money changers would cheat those who’d traveled from other countries with severely lopsided currency conversions.
Likewise, animals brought to the Temple for sacrifice were regularly deemed unsuitable by the Jewish priests. The priests would point out some minor defect in the ox, lamb, or dove to be presented—forcing the man who had brought the sacrifice to purchase one of their “approved” animals at a grossly inflated price. The religious mafia in the outer courts were trafficking God’s favor and forgiveness, and profiting handsomely from their deceit.
Nothing Christ encountered aroused His indignation more than the actions of those corrupt religious leaders. John MacArthur describes the scene.
The sound of praise and prayers had been replaced by the bawling of oxen, the bleating of sheep, the cooing of doves, and the loud haggling of merchants and their customers. [Jesus was] filled with holy anger at the crass desecration of His Father’s house. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Mark 9–16 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), 137.
We can easily forget that our Lord, who went to the cross “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7), also delivered ferocious and physical displays of His righteous indignation. On two occasions (John 2:13–16; Mark 11:15–17), Scripture records His response to the obscene commerce going on in the Temple. He abruptly brought a halt to their corrupt business, overthrowing their tables and driving them out with a whip. John 2:16 captures His condemnation for their wicked abuses: “Do not make My Father’s house a house of trade.”
Scripture explains that our Lord was consumed with zeal for His Father’s house (John 2:17). In the same way, Luther’s zeal for God was manifested in his red-hot indignation towards the pope.
But what about us? Do we have similar zeal for the purity of God’s truth? Or do we overlook blasphemous abuses for the sake of religious diplomacy? Have the protocols of twenty-first century civility quenched our passion for the supremacy and authority of God’s Word?
Today, there is no shortage of Christian leaders who abdicate their role as gatekeepers for the church, preferring an open-borders policy that invites spiritual terrorists of every stripe. They argue that “it’s not my job to judge,” forgetting that shepherds are supposed to protect the sheep from the wolves. They essentially ignore the biblical exhortations to warn God’s flock of danger, as if that responsibility falls outside their jurisdiction.
But what we learn from the Lord and from Luther is that ignorance is not an option when faced with those who extort and abuse God’s people. We cannot watch silently. We cannot respond passively. We cannot speak with ambiguity.
Like God’s great ambassadors that have gone before us, we must boldly proclaim His revealed truth—fervently resolving to “exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). We must “not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). In the words of Paul, we must “mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17, KJV).
Christ’s ministry shows us that righteous indignation is appropriate when it comes to the abuse of His Word and His people. We ought to have the same outrage for every modern peddler of indulgences. We must have no patience for people who attempt to put a price tag on God’s blessing. And we must learn to channel that righteous hostility in a way that protects God’s people, disarms the enemy, and honors the Lord.
Next time, we’ll conclude this series by considering what that response should look like today.