Jesus cleanses the Temple again
There are plenty of people that you’ll meet who say that they don’t like religion. And it is easy to understand why. We read of such horrible things perpetrated in the name of religion – perhaps the latest horror to hit the news is the abduction of another 100 girls by Boko Haram, an islamist group, in Nigeria. But it is not only islam that deserves a bad press. I doubt whether there is a religion anywhere in the world which has noting of which to be ashamed. In the UK the whole of Christianity is harmed when the church of England is shown to have provided a safe haven for paedophiles and others only too ready to abuse the weak and vulnerable and the CofE is not the only church to have done this.
In the light of this it is understandable that folk turn against religion – or is it? According to the Bible men and women have been created as religious beings. God made us in his image for a relationship with himself – we are not just physical beings but spiritual beings too.
Eccl.3:11 "He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."
This verse is important for us to understand. In addition to telling us that we have been created as beings who have a spiritual side to their make-up it also tells us that that we need God himself to reveal himself and his ways to us otherwise we won’t get anywhere.
The existence of so many religions in the world testifies to the fact that men refuse to believe what God has said and have devised their various schemes and systems the world over to try to placate the unknown god they know is there.
But there is a place where God has revealed himself giving us the truth we so desperately need. He has done so in the Bible and primarily in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christianity that flows from Biblical revelation can be corrupted (and in practice often is) but such corruption is not of the essence of Christianity itself. To reject the Christian faith along with all the other religions is as illogical as it is to throw the baby out with the bathwater!
As Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the final run-up to his death and resurrection he would begin the last week of his life by highlighting the difference between divinely ordained and man-made religion. The problem was not with religion per se divinely ordained religion was fine and fit for purpose, it was the man-made kind that causes all the problems.
Jesus and the Temple
What do we know about Jesus and his relationship to the Temple?
In the birth narratives Luke tells us that Jesus was presented according to the law as an infant in the Temple. He next tells us that, at the age of 12, Jesus went again to the Temple when he impressed the teachers there with the depth of his understanding. The Temple then largely disappears from Luke’s account until this point in Jesus’ life.
From this moment on however it figures very prominently for a number of days. As Jesus spent time teaching in the Temple complex – chapters 20+21 describe this activity.
Cf. Lk.19:47 "And he was teaching daily in the temple."
Lk.21:37-38 "And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him."
Later when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane towards the end of the week Jesus would also refer to the fact that he had openly and publically taught there – it was a commonly known fact:
Lk.22:53 "When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me."
You see, after his carefully organised entry into the city, the first thing that King Jesus when he arrived at Jerusalem was to visit the Temple. He did so because the Temple had up until this point occupied an important place in God’s plans.
The purpose of the Temple was as the House of God; it was the place where the God who was known to be absolutely everywhere chose to make his presence known in a special way; it was the place where his glory had shone and it was the place where he chose for his name to dwell:
1Ki.9:3 "And the LORD said to (Solomon at the dedication of the temple), "I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time."
We should not take this to be an unconditional statement. The house and the promise concerning it were designed to protect the people in their allegiance to God, neither was ever made with a view to supporting or enabling the people to safely rebel against him.
Some did come to think of the Temple as some form of talisman but they were wrong as Jeremiah made so clear:
Jer.7:4-7 "Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ "For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever."
No, the Temple would be no automatic blessing – it had to be accompanied by upright and faithful behaviour.
And that behaviour was totally absent when Jesus arrived at Jerusalem. Instead of purity and holiness Jesus found that the house of God, which was purposed to be used as a house of prayer, had been corrupted and transformed into a den of thieves.
In temple worship animal sacrifices were necessary and an unholy religious trade had been established to facilitate the so-called worship. And everyone was happy with the situation except God! There was collusion between the religious leaders who authorised the selling of sacrificial animals – but their authorisation came at a cost, licences to sell were bought for a price and the leaders were happy. The merchants had a monopoly and so their animals could be sold at a high price with a guarantee – the priests would accept these animals for sacrificial purposes. Collusion also existed between merchant and worshipper – a convenient and easy, if expensive, way of being assured of a successful offering.
Collusion – money and convenience – these are so often the hallmarks of human religion. And it effectively transformed the house of prayer into something completely different.
God was not honoured and Jesus was enraged.
But the striking thing is that this was not the first time this had happened!
The apostle John tells us that, three years earlier at the very outset of Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus had visited the Temple and found it to be exactly the same. Then too Jesus caused a stir. When he visited the Temple he found that it was full of market stalls, animals and money-changers. Justly angered by what he found, he drove the merchants and their animals out of the temple courts and over-turned the tables belonging to the money-changers. He did not like what he had found and spoke about it in no uncertain terms:
Jn.2:16 "do not make my Father’s house a house of trade."
Three years lay between these two events. Three years in which the religious leaders had done nothing to put things right – they were simply carrying on as they had before. They had been challenged but they liked their system – it lined their pockets well – and they didn’t want to change a thing. They had retained elements of divinely ordained religion but adulterated it with profit, ease and self-interest – and all they were left with was a man-made religion which wouldn’t satisfy God and ultimately would never fully satisfy man either.
The fact that nothing had changed, that the religious leaders remained impervious to criticism and stubbornly refused to repent and reform, indicates the failure of man-made religion and fully justifies the entire overthrow of the old system based on Jerusalem temple worship to be replaced with an entirely new order of things in Christ.
The Temple would be destroyed in AD70 just a short time after its building work had been completed.
The corrupted old system proves to be no match for the fresh and vibrant new one.
Jesus having cleansed the Temple for a second time now continued to use it as the place where his final public teaching will be given. He had a lot to say and not much time left. He set about an intensive teaching programme that would last no more than three to four days.
Everyday he went to the Temple and taught.
Everyday he saw leaders of the people who were becoming more and more frustrated with him. They longed now to deal with him once and for all – they wanted to destroy him – and they kept on and on trying to work out just how they might do that but couldn’t find a way that would enable them to do so.
The reason that their efforts were constantly being frustrated was that everyday crowds of ordinary people flocked to Jesus to hear what he had to say. They got there early too:
Lk.21:38 "And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him."
The crowds were numerous and they were enthralled with his teaching and hung upon every word that he uttered. In such circumstances the leaders just simply couldn’t see any way of having done with this troublesome man from Nazareth.
Not being able to destroy him they would try to counter him as he taught – we’ll come to this in the coming weeks – but they would fail in that attempt too.
Try what they might they were not the masters of the situation that was unfolding in Jerusalem that momentous week in human history. There was another who was in charge and he was fully in control as he continued to go about his Father’s business. He saw the cup that the Father had for him to drink and he went resolutely on towards the cross.
The alternatives are laid out before us and the difference between them is stark.
On the one hand there is the man-made religion of the religious leaders who had successfully corrupted the religion that God had originally given them. They weren’t interested in anything but the externals of religious worship and prayer wasn’t a priority among them except when it meant putting on a show to impress others with demonstrations of religious fervour. They were blind to the dishonour they brought to God by turning his house into a marketplace in the hands of dishonest men. They certainly weren’t interested in helping the nations meet with God in the house that bore his name – they were only too happy to turn the only place in the Temple where Gentiles/non-Jews were allowed into a noisy bazaar. What did they care about preserving the Temple as a place of peace and reflection where a man might draw near to the Living God?
And what was the alternative? It was the true religion of Jesus. It was he who longed to preserve the house of God for its original purpose of being a house of spiritual prayer, a place of encounter between man and his Maker. It was he who did not want trade and dubious financial gain to be the dominant factors in the house of God after all this house was never supposed to be a safe haven for thieves and robbers who were set in their ways.
So King Jesus showed his concerns: spiritual relationship and communion with God the Father was the goal. This would only be secured through his own life and ministry so having cleansed the Temple he went on and on teaching, warning. He would answer questions but he would also ask his own questions too. His efforts were to make men and women think. He wanted them to come to the realisation that the familiarity and comfortableness of man-made religion was far removed in reality from the true religion that God had revealed.
And what do you think of it all? What do you think of this man? He was fearless in doing the right thing and in doing the right thing he has secured salvation for all those who will put their trust in him. If you would have a relationship with God it is through this man and only him that you will find it. Don’t try the diy approach to religion – even when it appears to bring some benefit to those following it it will always fail to please God.
Jeremiah in his time spoke about man-made religion and its inability to satisfy. God’s people had turned from following God, and the Jews of Jesus’ day were doing the same all over again. Jeremiah, speaking for God, described them like this:
Jer.2:13 "my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water."
One of our hymn writers has picked up on this idea, this is how he put it:
I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
but, ah, the waters failed!
e’en as I stooped to drink they fled,
and mocked me as I wailed.
Don’t copy that behaviour – how pointless and how depressing it would be! Rather follow the advice contained in the chorus by the same hymn writer:
Now none but Christ can satisfy,
none other Name for me!
There’s love and life and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus, found in Thee.
And to God be the glory.