Monday, June 11, 2012

Zeal for the Father's House (John 2:12-22)


Let’s play pretend for a moment. Let’s pretend that as you pulled up to church this morning, you couldn’t find a parking place because the whole parking lot had been transformed into a livestock stable, where sheep and oxen are being kept and tended. Some of us would undoubtedly just turn the car around and head back home. Others, perhaps, determined to enter for worship might park on the back street and wade through the animal pens to the front door. Coming to the front door, there are men with sticks asking for your animal and a monetary contribution before you can enter. Some would be deterred at that point and go away. Some may say, “Well, I’ve got an animal at home, let me go get it and come back.” And when you get back with your animal, you find that it is not acceptable. You brought your dog, but only lambs and bulls are accepted. Or you brought a lamb, but it has a gimp leg, and only flawless animals are accepted. Others perhaps have no animals at home to bring, so what are we to do? Well, for your convenience, you can go purchase one from the lot outside, but please understand, there is a convenience charge and some premium fees attached, so it will be costly. But, each animal sold in the lot will come with a certificate of acceptance, ensuring that it has already been preapproved as an offering, so you need not fear being turned away at the door.

Now what about your monetary contribution? Maybe you have your offering envelope with a check or cash in side of it. But the men at the door say, “I’m sorry, you know the U.S. Dollar has taken a beating in the global economy, and we don’t accept that anymore. You must make your contribution in Euros.” Should you still be determined to enter for worship, you may wonder, “Where am I going to get Euros on a Sunday morning?” Well, the men at the door point you to the front lawn, where there’s an ATM machine that dispenses Euros, and several tables operated by Wells Fargo, American Express, and other companies who will, for a commission fee, exchange your Dollars into Euros. So, now, with your pre-certified animal and your acceptable Euros, you are able to come in and worship. Well, sort of anyway. You are frazzled and frustrated by the whole experience, and when you try to quiet yourself to pray and focus on the Lord, you keep hearing oxen grunting and sheep bleeting, and coins jangling, and everytime someone opens the door, the stench of animal dung floods the sanctuary. Mostly, all we can think of is, “I can’t wait to get out of here, and I’m never coming back!”

Now, aren’t you glad it didn’t happen that way when you arrived this morning? And it never will for a number of reasons, some of which will be clarified as we move through this text today. But for many first-century people coming to the Jerusalem temple on the days of holy festivals, their experience was not altogether different than what I have just described. In fact, I would say that their experience was worse than whatever we could pretend to imagine or describe. Jesus came to the temple finding this very sort of thing happening, and put a quick end to it with a firm and radical action.

Now, what was it that drove Jesus to take such an action on this Passover visit to the temple? Many have trouble seeing Jesus conducting Himself in such a way as we find here in the text. We don’t like the image of an angry Jesus. We prefer the Jesus Charles Wesley wrote about in his hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.” But, as G. Campbell Morgan says, “I make my protest against that weak idea of Jesus that imagines there was no lightning flashing from His eyes, no wrath manifested upon His face, and no anger in His heart. That is an anaemic Christ Who does nothing for the world.”[1] But, still, we are not dealing with merely anger, wrath, or righteous indignation here. The text indicates that Jesus was moved by His zeal.

Verse 17 tells us that as the disciples saw His actions in the temple, a passage of Scripture came to mind. The verse that is quoted is the first portion of Psalm 69:9 – “Zeal for Your House will consume Me.” In that Psalm, David cries out to God because his enemies are opposing him, not understanding his profound desire to see a temple for God constructed. As the disciples witness the zeal of the Lord Jesus in the temple, they remember what David had written, and they come to understand that what was true of David is more fully embodied in David’s Royal and Divine Descendant, the Messiah Jesus.[2] So it is zeal that moves the Lord to conduct Himself in the way that He does in the temple. We see how the zeal of the Lord compels Him to reform His Father’s House, and how that zeal consumes Him as He redefines His Father’s House.

I. Zeal compels Jesus as He reforms His Father’s House (vv13-16)

The Law says in Deuteronomy 16:16 that three times a year, every male must appear before the Lord: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which begins with the observance of Passover), the Feast of Weeks (which is Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Jesus was obedient to every point of the Law, and never missed one of these occasions. This is the first of three Passovers that John records Jesus attending during the years of His public ministry (or possibly four, since we do not know what the unnamed feast in John 5:1 was). As Jesus comes into the temple complex on this particular Passover, He finds people selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and moneychangers. For some time, it had been customary for people to purchase their sacrificial animals in Jerusalem so that they were not burdened with traveling with the animal, perhaps only to find that the animal was unfit for sacrifice. They could purchase the animal in Jerusalem, close to the place of sacrifice, and the animal would have been “pre-approved” by the priests, so that there would be no question of the fitness of the animal for sacrifice.

Additionally, the temple tax was required to be paid with Tyrian coins because of their high silver content. So, travelers could trade their currency from wherever they happened to live into the appropriate coinage for the payment of the half-shekel annual tax for the upkeep of the temple. These things were arranged as a matter of convenience and were actually a valuable service to worshipers coming from afar. At one time, business like this had been conducted on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in the Kidron Valley, just outside the temple grounds. Notice that Jesus does not object to the fact that people are buying and selling animals and trading money to prepare for the Passover. The issue is that this is taking place “in the temple” (v14). At some point, the priests and temple officials determined that it would be best to bring the commercial traffic of animals and currency closer in, where they could regulate it, and perhaps where they could profit directly from it by levying fees, commissions, and “booth rent.” But nothing is said here about their motives or profit-making schemes. That will be reserved for later when Jesus cleanses the temple the second time during the final week before His death. Here, the issue is that they have taken a space that was set apart for the worship of God and they have made it into a commodities trading floor.

The word that is translated “temple” in verse 14 is not the usual word for the sanctuary itself – the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. It refers to the entire temple complex. So where were the animal-vendors and money changers setting up shop? Most likely, they had taken over the outermost court of the complex, the area known as the “Court of the Gentiles.” This was the only portion of the temple where Gentiles were allowed to enter and worship. Things had radically devolved since the consecration of the first temple in the days of Solomon. On the day that Solomon’s temple was dedicated, Solomon prayed not only for the Lord to bless the temple as a place where Israelites would gather for worship and prayer, but also for those of all nations. He prayed:

Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name's sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43)

Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians nearly 600 years before Christ, but it was rebuilt under the leadership of men like Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Then in the decades before Christ’s birth, Herod the great had begun a renovation project intended to restore the rebuilt temple to the glory of Solomon’s temple. Yet, there was no concern for the Gentiles in the reconstruction. They must stay out in the outer area and not come any closer. A sign was posted along the wall separating the Gentile Court from the rest of the temple area stipulating that any Gentile who entered any other area could be put to death. This gets us to the heart of the matter as Jesus reforms the Temple. As Morgan writes, “The supreme iniquity to the heart of Jesus was that the Hebrew people were failing to function as God intended. His intention was always that they should bless all the nations; but they had now come to that position when they thought only of themselves, and the ease and comfort of their own worship. Gentiles! What did Gentiles matter? Certainly use their courts, and desecrate them.”[3] Thus, in the only place where Gentiles were welcome to worship in this renovated temple, they could not find the space, and if they could, they may be kneeling in animal dung, surrounded by the stench of a livestock market, and distracted from the holy acts of prayer and worship by the noise of animals and merchants and moneychangers.

The zeal of the Lord Jesus for the House of His Father compelled Him to take some of the cords that were laying about, and craft them into a scourge, or a whip, and start swinging it! He drove out the venders, their sheep and their oxen and their birds, and He overturned the tables of the money changers, dumping their coins all over the ground. As He did this, He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business!” The business of His Father’s house was prayer and worship, not livestock trading and currency exchange. With His whip Jesus is saying, “Clear this place for the purpose for which it was built! Make room for the people to enter and worship God sincerely! Make room for the Gentiles, do not drive them out! These are the very people God has intended you to reach out to with the good news of His glory and grace!”

In the later cleansing of the temple, Jesus will remind the people, “Is it not written, ‘My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all the nations?” An International House of Prayer – yes, that is right, an IHOP, but its prayer, not pancakes. But sadly, Israel had lost the focus of that vision to be a missionary people to all nations. And Jesus reminds them of their commission as He zealously reforms the house of His Father with a whip.

Now, we have to be very careful with the application here. As we shall see in just a moment, we cannot draw parallels between the temple of Israel and the building where a Christian church gathers. They don’t serve the same function. The temple was indispensable for the Old Covenant. The religion of Israel required a place for sacrifice, and the temple was that place. But buildings are entirely optional for the church; a church is a body of believers in Jesus, living in fellowship together under His Lordship, submitted to His Word, and engaged in His mission of reaching all nations. The building has nothing to do with it. If it burns to the ground, all of the rest of those things are just as true. But sometimes we forget that, and we begin to get fixated on the building. We begin to think more about our convenience and comfort than our mission. And it is then that the Lord Jesus will again take up the scourge and start swinging! It is not that we would ever have a livestock auction in the front yard, or a currency exchange on the sidewalk. But sometimes our fundraising activities or other projects may actually interfere or hinder the spirit of worship and ministry that is to define this place. At times, the demands of upkeeping the facility may require us to minimize the resources we devote to the reaching of all peoples with the Gospel. And at times, our personal preferences and tastes may blind us to the needs of people around us who are not like us.

Nearly 50 years ago, this church took a bold stand to be defined as a church for all people. Dr. Paul Early put his own reputation and even his career on the line as he stood here and took the risk of saying that these doors would be open to anyone regardless of their skin color. I know for a fact that he was hated by some within the church as well as by other pastors in the area. I visited with him last Saturday and we talked about a lot of things. Three times in the conversation, he forgot who I was. But every time I reminded him, “I am the pastor of Immanuel, your old church in Greensboro,” he would get choked up and say, “Pastor, is Immanuel still a church for all people?” If he asked me that once, he asked a half-dozen times during that visit. He is not real sure who I am or what I am doing there, but he is completely clear about the mission of the church to be an international house of prayer, committed to this task of reaching all nations with the Gospel above all else. And friends, it isn’t easy. It isn’t convenient. It requires determination, effort, and sacrifice, and it is really easy to slide back out of that priority. We must resist every temptation to ever be anything less than a people who are committed to the priority and practice of reaching all nations with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – whether they be across the street or across an ocean.

In His zeal, Jesus was compelled to reform His Father’s House and restore it to its original function – an international house of prayer – an IHOP. Clear out every distraction, every distortion, and every deterrent that stands in the way of the nations finding hope in the good news of the glory and grace of God. And we must do the same as we seek to show others that glory and grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And Christ’s zeal for this mission will compel us to do so.

II. Zeal consumes Jesus as He redefines His Father’s House (vv18-22)

The response to Jesus’ action here in the text is surprising. “The Jews” mentioned in verse 18 almost certainly refers to the temple officials, not the common people. The absence of any comment about the common people’s reaction to Jesus’ clearing out the temple may indicate that they were relieved to see it happen. But the temple officials certainly felt differently about the matter. We notice that they were quick to speak up. Yet, they do not argue about the appropriateness of what they were doing. They don’t say, “Hey, don’t drive these vendors and moneychangers out! They belong here.” They never once complain that Jesus has done something wrong by driving them out. They knew fully well that they didn’t belong there and that Jesus was right to drive them out. But their complaint is directed at Jesus Himself. They say, “What sign do You show us as Your authority for doing these things?” In other words, “Never mind what You’ve done; who do You think You are to do it? Who said You had the right to drive them out?” And they demanded that He perform some kind of sign to prove His authority to do it. And this demand indicates that they were both deaf and blind.

First of all, Jesus already said who He thinks He is. He describes the temple in verse 16 as “My Father’s house.” If that is not a clear statement of His claim to be the Son of God, then I don’t know how much clearer He could make it! “Who am I to do this? I am the Son of Him whom this temple was constructed to honor!” And of course, the very title Son of God is a direct claim to be, in fact, God Himself in human flesh. But they are deaf to His claim. They want to see some demonstration of His authority – more than just words. That’s understandable to an extent – wouldn’t you want to know the credentials, and that they were valid if you witnessed this act? But they are demanding a sign when one has already been given. The very act of clearing out the temple was in itself a sign! The prophets had foretold that the Messiah would come and do this very thing. Zechariah 14 points to a day when the nations will come into the temple to worship the Lord (14:16), but then it says that “there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts in that day” (14:21). But if all the nations are coming to worship, why are the Canaanites expelled? The word translated Canaanite in that passage was also commonly used in Hebrew to refer to merchants. So perhaps the temple authorities had kicked the Gentiles out of the outer court on the belief that the Canaanites would be removed, but Jesus has come to clarify that they got it wrong. It is the merchants who must be kicked out, so that the Canaanites and those of all other nations can come in. His action in the temple was a sign – it was the fulfillment of that promise made by the Lord through the prophet Zechariah 500 years before. And some 400 years before, the prophet Malachi spoke of a coming day in which the Lord would come into His temple, and He would purify the sons of Levi (the priesthood) and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness, that the offerings of the people would be pleasing to the Lord as they were in the days of old (Malachi 3:1-3). These signs were plainly carried out in front of the temple authorities, but their blinded eyes did not see it and therefore they asked for something else.

And Jesus response to them is, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” There is an indignation in His remark, as if to say, “I’ve already told you who I am, and what I have done is the sign. But it is not acceptable to you, so tear this temple down and watch me raise it up again in three days!” To this, the leaders said, “It took forty six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” In fact, that was only partly true. The fact was that it had been being built for 46 years and it still wasn’t finished! It wouldn’t be finished for another 30-35 years. It was finished in 63 AD. And only seven years later, in 70 AD, the Romans came through and destroyed it, leaving no stone standing except for that portion that today is called the Wailing Wall. But three days later, after the Romans destroyed it, Jesus did not rebuild it. In fact, it has never been rebuilt at all. Today, a Muslim mosque stands on the site. So, what did Jesus mean when He said He would rebuild it? Well, in fact, He wasn’t talking about that temple after all. He was redefining the temple.

Verse 21 says that He was speaking of the temple of His body. Would you have understood that if the Bible didn’t tell you? Probably not. Therefore, it is only natural that they didn’t understand it either. In fact, the disciples did not even yet understand it. But after Jesus died and “was raised from the dead,” they “remembered that He said this.” They were aided in this by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would come to teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that He said to them (John 14:26). And as the Spirit brought this to their minds, they understood the full significance of what Jesus said and did on that day in the temple. What Jesus was saying was that the place where God dwells on earth is not a building made of bricks and stones. Though He had seen fit in the past to make that temple a place of habitation among His people, it no longer served that function. John told us in Chapter 1 that the eternal Word of God who was with God and who was God from the beginning had become flesh and dwelt, or tabernacled, among us. The place where man meets God is not in a building, but in the person of Jesus Christ. To have access to God, no longer would it be necessary to come to a temple, and bring a sacrifice, and hand it over to the priest for the offering. Christ had come to be the temple (the dwelling place of God), and the sacrifice (the offering for the sins of humanity), and the priest (offering Himself and not an animal as the substitutionary offering). So, if you want to meet God, you come to Jesus, not to a building in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the world. He redefined the temple. The temple is Himself. And His zeal consumed Him as He redefined it. His zeal to bring the presence of God to the sinful human race consumed Him, driving Him all the way to the cross. The cross of Jesus Christ became the altar on which the ultimate and final sacrifice for sin was slain. All of the sins of humanity fell upon Him there as He bore the just judgment of God for us. In His zeal to unite us to God, He bore that sin until the final drop of blood was shed. And in three days, He raised the temple of His body up.

When Jesus’ disciples remembered these things, verse 22 says that they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. What about you? Have you believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus spoke? Or are you like those temple officials who would say, “I need to see some kind of sign before I can believe!” The sign that Jesus offers you is the same sign He offered on that day. He was consumed in death as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and He arose from the dead. Who are you to say that this is not enough? Christ came as God in the flesh – the living embodiment of the temple of God. That temple was torn down and raised up in three days, and now Christ beckons all the world to come to Him to worship and serve Him. There is no other place to meet God than in the person of Jesus.

[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1992), 52.
[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 180.
[3] Morgan, 52-53. 

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