Saturday 2 November 2013

Temple (John 2:13-22)

A friend from Hong Kong once told me that going to the temple was like going to the shops. You offered something to get something in return. So, you offered joss-sticks, prayer or money so that the temple gods would bless your exams, your health or your marriage. In other words, worship at the temple was a business transaction.

Today, Jesus turns up at the temple and what he sees is a shopping complex. In verse 14:  “In the temple courts, he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves.” And in verse 16, Jesus says, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” The ESV has “house of trade”. What he sees there makes him angry. So angy that he overturns the tables of the money changers and he clears the animals from the temple area.

The passage looks like a warning against commercialism; against the buying and selling of God in the church; against the accumulation of wealth by church leaders. But the reason Jesus came was not simply to cleanse the temple but to replace it. By the end of the passage we learn that Jesus is the true temple and that the place to go in order to meet with God is not Jerusalem but Jesus.

We see three things from today’s passage: (1) Jesus goes to the temple; (2) Jesus clears the temple; and (3) Jesus replaces the temple.

1. Jesus goes to the temple

The first point is so obvious, we tend to skip it: Jesus went to temple, that is, he observed the religious practices of the Jews. Look at it how begins in verse 13.

When it was almost time for the Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
John 2:13

The Passover was a celebration of the Exodus: when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. If you remember, God used Moses to perform the Ten Plagues - the blood, the frogs, the hail, the darkness and so on - and the last or Tenth Plague was the death of the firstborn son. God says to Moses in Exodus Chapter 12:

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn - both men and animals - and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
Exodus 12:12-13

God says that he will pass over them, that is, he will not judge them; he will not kill their firstborn son. The people of God were commanded to have a meal by sacrificing a lamb and putting its blood on the top of the door to their homes. When God sees the blood, he says in verse 12, he will “pass over” them.

My first point is this: Jesus observed the Passover. This religious celebration that was held once a year, that had been going on for over a thousand years was something that Jesus observed. In fact, like the rest of the Jews, Jesus went to the temple to celebrate the Passover. He followed the traditions of the Jews and he observed the Sabbath. Jesus was the kind of guy who went to temple.

Not as an end in itself, we will see that in a moment. For many, going to temple might a cultural thing like putting up the Christmas tree every year. But for Jesus, the Exodus was real. God was real: The events described in the bible of how God passed over his people - not killing their firstborn because he saw the blood of the sacrifice - actually happened. And Jesus would use the Passover and the temple to point to something else that was real - God’s judgement over our sins and God’s sacrifice for our salvation.

It is important to see this first point because Christmas is round the corner. It’s something that comes once a year; whether you like it or not, it’s just there. Some people make a big deal of it, others can’t wait for it to be over and done with. It is important to understand that Christians celebrate Christmas not because it’s a nice tradition. You don’t have to put up a tree. You could very well stay in and watch Doctor Who; that’s OK. But it is one thing to be fed up with Christmas because it’s commercial nonsense, it is quite another to celebrate it simply out of tradition (because you simply must cook a turkey) - and Jesus did neither of those things. Jesus spoke about Moses like he was a real guy. When he fed the five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, he talked about the manna in the desert like it really happened, because it did.

And the very last meal Jesus had with his friends at the end of John’s gospel, before he was killed, was the Passover meal. He broke the bread and said, “This is my body.” He poured into the cup and said, “This is my blood.” We did that a few moments ago at communion, didn't we? I hope it wasn’t out of tradition - “Every time we meet in combined service, we must have communion.” I hope that’s not the reason. I hope we did that was because Jesus really died on the cross and Jesus will return one day - and he told us to remember those two realities - his crucifixion and his return - by celebrating this communion meal together. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he returns." (1 Corinthians 11:26)

And I hope what we are doing here in church today isn’t verse 14...

2. Jesus clears the temple

In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
John 2:14-16

Jesus clears the temple - of the money-changers, the sheep and the cattle - because, he says in verse 16, they had turned his Father’s house into a place of business. Jesus takes the temple really seriously, as verse 17 says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Stepping back for moment, I want us to see how natural it was to the temple to evolve into this marketplace. We think, “This will never happen here in the Chinese Church,” and I hope not. But I want us to see how natural it is for church leaders to use the church as a means for business, all the while thinking they are doing it in God’s name.

The animals that are described there in verse 14 - the cattle, sheep and doves - were for sacrifice. Most of you knew that already, I’m sure. They weren’t there for buying as pets or for cooking your dinner - it wasn’t that kind of market. The cows, sheep and birds were something you had to offer to God as part of your worship. And actually, the fact that these animals were there at the temple meant it saved you the trouble of bringing your own cow or sheep all the way from home to the temple. You could just buy one at the temple. And actually, you couldn’t just bring your own goat or cow or cat or dog to sacrifice at the altar. The bible had strict instructions on the kind of animal you could use - how it needed to be absolutely without spot or blemish. These animals on display in the temple had been inspected and pre-approved by the temple.

Secondly, the money-changers: Why were they there? Again, we need to remember that the Passover was the biggest festival in the whole year and the people who came were from all parts of the country - Jesus, included, who in verse 12 had travelled from Capernaum, which was up north in Galilee. Everyone turned up with their own currency - some with Francs, Dollars, Yuan, Pounds - and it would be a hassle having to go to a money-changer on the high-street to convert your money to stick into the offering bag. Because that was another rule they had at the temple: it had to be in a special type of currency. Why were the money-changers there? They were providing a service to the worshippers at the temple.

You see, there is nothing here about fleecing the crowd. There is not a hint about church leaders sponging of their congregations to buy huge mansions. Actually, all that was happening was the temple was providing a service to the people of God in the house of God to aid the worship of God. Jesus saw that and got mad. He says they have turned the temple into something it was not meant to be: a marketplace. They had mechanised the whole process of worship: Queue here to give your offering. Go to this counter to collect your sacrifice. Worship God. They had turned the temple into an Argos store.

And what Jesus did in clearing out the temple - of the sheep and cattle and money-changers - and not simply to clear our shady business practices in the church; it was to clear out church as a form of business. He looks at what the temple had become: a machine. Just a bunch of people turning up in God’s name to a task and get it over and done with. And Jesus hates that.

You see, we might turn up at Chinese Church today thinking we’re OK because we don’t allow any pets in church (It’s kind of sad that the church cat died a few weeks ago!) or that we don’t talk about money, at least not in an overt and obvious way. So we think this is not us; we’re OK. But in our bible reading: Is it just another thing to get done and out of the way? In our prayers: Is it just something we do because it’s expected of us in church? We get anyone to preach the bible because it’s just a formality - anyone will do as long as he says the right words and finishes on time? That too, is a form of business. Not the kind that’s focussed on making money, that’s not what I mean, but a business in the sense of smooth operations. Making the church run efficiently.

Jesus calls the temple his Father’s house. Not just God’s house, notice that in verse 16, but “My Father’s house.” That means he looks at us gathered here today and Jesus is not looking for the best dressed Christian in the room. He isn’t looking to award prizes for “Best Prayer” or “Most biblical sermon”. He is revealing God as his Father; he is looking for those who are God’s children.

The amazing thing is: in order for that to happen, Jesus not only clears the temple, he tells us the temple has to be destroyed. That’s our last point: Jesus replaces the temple.

3. Jesus replaces the temple

Look at verse 18:

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

Jesus says, “Destroy this temple.” That’s radical. We know in a couple of verses, that Jesus was talking about his body, but they didn’t know that. What they heard was, “Demolish the whole thing. Tear it down.” I think if we said that of St Columba’s, a lot of people would be rightfully upset, in the same way that threatening the destruction of any religious building here in Cambridge - a mosque, a church, a synagogue - would be rightfully called a hate crime or an act of terrorism.

But notice how they respond in verse 20. They don’t react in anger, do they? They are not saying to Jesus, “Hey, this is God’s temple. Who do you think you are?” What they say is, “Do you know how long it took for us to build this huge complex? How much money needed to be raised? How many people worked on the building project?” For them, the temple was a thing. A project. A huge accomplishment in honour of God.

Jesus says, “Tear it down,” but adds, “and I will raise it again in three days.” The real temple is Jesus. It’s not a building where you go to meet with God. It’s not even this church building. There is nothing more holy about the “sanctuary” - as the main hall is called - than, say, Andi’s room in college where we have bible study each week. That’s because the temple is not a place but a person. Jesus is the true temple of God. We approach God in worship not by coming to a place but by coming to Jesus.

The temple in the Old Testament had two functions. It was the place to meet with God. It was the place you went to worship God. These were the two main pictures of the temple: as God’s house - where he lived and his presence dwelt; and as a place of worship - where sacrifices were offered up. There was only one temple, one place to worship God in Jerusalem, because there was only one God.

In answering the temple officials, Jesus shows us how he fulfills both these functions of the temple in himself. Firstly, in terms of God’s presence. Look back to John Chapter 1, and verse 14. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” You could rightly translate that, “The Word became flesh and templed among us.” The word for dwelling is the Old Testament word, “tabernacle”, or Tent of Meeting, a synonym for the temple. It is saying, that instead of us approaching God, God approached us. He reveals himself to us. He makes his presence known to us.

Secondly, in terms of God’s sacrifice or worship. Jesus says, “You destroy this temple and I’ll raise it up,” he is talking about what it means for his to go to the cross. Jesus is equating himself with the sacrifice in the temple. He is saying, “Offer me up.” The book of Hebrews says "...It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4). The real sacrifice is not an animal. It's Jesus.

In both cases, God comes to us and God is the one who provides the sacrifice, not us. The temple leaders saw the temple as something they build for God; the sacrifices as something they offered up to God. But Jesus has come as God’s grace to us - he makes his dwelling among us and he gives his life as an offering for us. In both cases, God takes the initiative not us.

That means if you are here today in church, you are not doing a favour for God. It’s wonderful to have you with us. And yes, there are opportunities to serve God and one another here in church. But the first thing that needs to happen is for God to serve you. For Jesus to take your sin and die on the cross for you; and for God to put his Spirit in you. The question is: Has that happened?

Look at verse 21:

After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:21-22

The turning point for these disciples was the cross. It was only after Jesus died and was raised on the third day, that they went, “So, that’s what he meant!” But it is more than that. Verse 21 is saying it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that enabled them to believe the bible. It was the combination of Jesus’ death and the understanding of why he had to die on the cross that brought them to faith. In other words, it was understanding that Jesus was the true temple.

Practically, this plays out in two ways. If you claim that something else is the temple, you don’t understand the cross. If you call this building a temple, if you pour all your energies into building another temple - then what you are saying is: there is another way to approach God aside from the cross. The book of Hebrews warns us, in Hebrews 13:10, “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” That’s serious. Some people are disqualified from Jesus because they refuse to see him as the only temple and the only sacrifice acceptable to God, but instead want to make Christianity out to be what they can do for God. Hebrews says, “They have no right to eat,” from this altar.

But secondly, it means that if we do understand Jesus as the true temple and the true sacrifice - and by the way, the true Passover - it liberates us completely to serve God. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.” That’s temple language - sacrifice, holy and pleasing, worship. It is taking the picture of what is happening in the temple and applying it to everyday Christian lives. Because Jesus has offered up the once-for-all acceptable sacrifice of his own body on the cross and because we are completely made clean and acceptable through his sacrifice, not ours - that means we are free to worship God knowing that we will be accepted - not just in the big stuff in church (preaching, leading songs, praying in public) but in the daily living for Jesus kind of way. It means, to put it more clearly, you don’t come here on a Sunday to worship. You come to be reminded about Jesus and you leave to worship. Did you get that? You come here as God’s people to gather around God’s word about God’s Son, so that, you can leave to worship God 24-7, confident that his one act of worship on the cross makes your worship everyday acceptable and pleasing to God.

Today we have seen three things. Firstly, Jesus went to the temple. He saw the Old Testament regulations of worship and the Passover and the temple offerings as good. Not as an end in themselves, but purposeful in revealing God’s plan for salvation; purposeful in pointing to him. Secondly, Jesus cleanses the temple. He hates man-made religion. He exposes our attempts at turning worship into a business transaction - just to get it over and done with - as opposed to recognising God’s presence and holiness and character in his provision of worship. Sin is exchanging God's glory for our own - and it's possible to do that even with the temple, even with ministry, even here in the Chinese Church. Finally, Jesus replaces the temple. There is only one way to God - that’s Jesus. There is only one sacrifice acceptable to God - that’s Jesus.

The book of Revelation describes heaven in these terms, "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." You don't go to a place, you go to a person - to know God, to serve God and to be with God. And that person is Jesus.

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