Some translations render the phrase as “robbers’ den” but the meaning is the same as “den of thieves.” Jesus used it when He was confronting the money changers and those who were buying and selling at the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was supposed to be God’s house. Perversely, it had become place of business instead. In judging the behavior, Jesus was borrowing this phrase from Jeremiah who had used it on behalf of the Lord hundreds of years before when a similar perversion was taking place.
There were probably lots of conventional thieves or robbers dwelling in Judea and surrounding regions in those days. We have no record of Jesus confronting any of them. Someone could say, “Why didn’t He go after the real crooks?” The reason is that everyone already knew that what the “real” crooks were doing was wrong – even the crooks themselves. When it came to business affairs in God’s temple, however, Jesus had to make it clear that such activities were not God’s will.
The religious leaders who allowed the money-making activities in the temple were doubly wrong (that is, twice as wrong as the “real” crooks): they were stealing and they were doing it in God’s name. It’s bad enough to have your money confiscated from you by a thief, but to have him say that he’s doing it in God’s name is demeaning to you and blasphemous of God.
Think of how much business takes place in the church today. I’m not just talking about the books, tapes, CD’s, etc. I’m also talking about the tithing sermons, pledge drives, and capital campaigns. There’s no meaningful difference in these two categories, for both take money and return a product or service which must please the consumer. All this money changing hands has nothing to do with serving God and everything to do with funding a way of life for man-made organizations. We justify it all, telling ourselves that God’s ministry cannot go on without the money. The reality is that our ministries as we’ve conceived them cannot go on without the money. God’s ministry is never constrained by money.
Please stop and think about how many figurative tables the Lord would have to overturn today if He were to re-enact the scene at the temple that day. In what ministry today does money not change hands?