Jesus has made quite a stir in the outer courts of the Temple. He made a whip of cords to drive out some livestock and turned over some moneychanger’s tables.
Some people assume that Jesus loses his temper because people are selling things in this holy site. They even take this to be a sign of Jesus’ humanity. It is much more likely that Jesus was making a very deliberate point, giving us a kind of parable in action. Here’s why.
Anyone could gather in these outer courts, even Gentiles. The inner courts were reserved for worshippers, and only a priest could enter the innermost sanctuary. But these outer courts were open to everyone.
As a result, these courts held what you might think of as the Temple bookstore. In that bookstore you could buy what you needed to offer as a sacrifice for your sins in the Temple’s rituals.
Roman coins bore the image of Caesar. Since Caesar claimed to be a god, offering a Roman coin was an insult to the one and only God. So, coins had to be exchanged.
Many people bought animals for sacrifice there instead of bringing their own the distance from home. The long trek ran the risk of injury to the livestock, and only an unblemished animal is suitable for sacrifice.
There was nothing at all wrong with this ancient bookstore. Jesus was obviously familiar with it. This was not in fact his first time at the Temple. For instance, Luke records his visit there as an adolescent. (Luke 2:41-52) He would not have been taken by surprise by what he saw, so he was unlikely to have an angry outburst.
Besides, Jesus was not a reactive person routinely given to loss of self-control. Instead, he was forever doing things as object lessons about who he is and what he came to do.
For instance, when a lame man was lowered through the roof during one of his lectures, Jesus forgave the man his sins and then healed him of his paralysis to prove that he could forgive sins. (Mark 2:1-12)
And that is just what Jesus is doing in the Temple on that day. He is saying that the time of Temple worship is coming to an end because Jesus himself will replace it. He becomes the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins. Let me explain.
The Temple was more than a worship space. It was where God would dwell and reign over his kingdom. A priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.
He entered that sanctuary precisely because God dwelled there and dispensed forgiveness of sins from his throne. The Temple is where heaven intersected earth.
Priests offered sacrifices of sheep, cattle, and doves to atone for the sins of the people. It might be tempting for some to think of these Temple rituals as primitive and superstitious.
When we look back at the practices of previous ages we often make the mistake of assuming that we are more enlightened, more sophisticated. But Jesus never criticized the Temple as such.
On the contrary, he honored the Temple as what N. T. Wright has called a kind of signpost. The sacrifices made in the Temple truly pointed to the forgiveness that God offers.
Nevertheless, Jesus acted out the destruction of the Temple when he drove out the livestock and scattered the moneychangers’ coins. He then went on to predict the literal destruction of the Temple, a prediction that came true at the hands of the Romans in 70AD.
In other words, the time of the Temple was coming to an end and it would be replaced by something new: by Jesus himself. Let’s look at why the Temple is to be destroyed and then look at how Jesus replaces it.
At one level, Jesus criticizes the Temple for being corrupt. It has strayed from its true mission. The religious leaders have made the Temple a place that serves their social status and the Roman puppet King Herod’s self-serving political purposes.
Instead of sincerely worshipping God, they secure their own comfort and status and oppress the people with increasingly difficult, merely human amplifications of God’s Law.
This might lead you to believe that Jesus was seeking a mere renewal of the Temple system. As if cleaning up its practices and replacing its leadership would restore everything to its proper order.
But Jesus is not about fixing up the old order. He has come to make all things new. He inaugurates a New Covenant between God and his people that renders Temple worship obsolete.
Just after Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he switches gears in a way that confuses the religious leaders. In response to their demand for a sign that justifies his shocking behavior, Jesus says, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)
In other words, the Temple building will be destroyed. But God’s plan is not to erect another building and to staff it with more sincere priests. The Temple building is no longer the intersection of heaven and earth.
Jesus himself is the intersection of heaven and earth. When Jesus says “this Temple” this time, he does not have the building in mind. He is referring to his very own body. Jesus has come to atone for our sins once and for all by offering himself as a sacrifice.
As hard as it is for us to imagine, Jesus was completely sinless. This is not to say that he didn’t make mistakes or learn through trial and error. Of course he did.
But he never disobeyed the Father’s will. He never transgressed the moral law. Jesus was perfectly righteous. So when he died on the Cross, there were no sins that he had to pay for. He freely chose to pay for yours and mine with his own life.
Unlike the animal sacrifices of the Temple, Jesus’ offering has infinite value. It never has to be repeated. He died for all sin once and for all. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it like this. “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sins by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26)
We don’t have to keep chasing after forgiveness, atoning for our sins over and over. When we accept the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the Cross, our sins are forever erased by the grace of God.
This is what Paul means when he says to the Corinthians, “We proclaim Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)
There is no need to make sacrifices over and over again. The perfect sacrifice has already been made. We only need to accept the sacrifice made by Christ on our behalf and commit to following him.
Did you notice that I said two things there? Accept Jesus’ sacrifice and commit to following Jesus.
It’s very common for us to make one of two mistakes when we think about following Jesus. The first mistake is to assume that law no longer applies because we are people of grace. In other words, we are forgiven no matter what, so let the good times roll.
Paul confronted this in the earliest Christian communities and said this about it: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) They assume that God is permissive and that following Jesus amounts to forsaking all moral judgments.
The second mistake is the opposite extreme. Some Christians have made themselves into the sin police. They make it their business to point out the moral failings of the people around them from a position of moral superiority. God is a kind of moral accountant and following Jesus means being moral.
Jesus is likely to take a whip of cords to both of these faulty temples. The point of the law all along was to help us to love God and to love our neighbor. When we follow Jesus, we will follow the law as a consequence.
But it is our devotion to Jesus that brings us close to God, not our adherence to the law. In fact, Jesus wants us to know that we can follow the law with near perfect precision and wind up light years from God.
If we follow the law just to get God on the side of our self-centered agenda, or if we follow the law with contempt for our spiritually struggling neighbor, we might just as well save our energy. We have utterly missed the point.
Following Jesus means developing a personal relationship with the very Son of God. He is our temple. We worship him by devoting each day, one day at a time, to his glory.
He has sacrificed himself for us so that we, in turn, can offer ourselves as a sacrifice to him.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on March 11, 2012.