Tag Archives: Temple

Attacking “The Jesus Problem”

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him…
Matthew 22:15, 23, 34-35 (NIV)

Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the praises of the fickle crowd. He challenged the powerful bosses of institutional religion by creating a public disturbance amidst their religious racketeering. Jesus is on a mission. Matthew’s eye-witness account of these events does not reveal Jesus as a helpless victim of circumstance, but rather the One driving the action.

With each word and every action, Jesus is putting the powerful religious cartel into an increasingly difficult position. His popularity among the poor and marginalized has stirred public sentiment against the religious leaders. The small riot Jesus made among the money changers was not only an embarrassment and PR nightmare within the community of the Jewish commoners, but if Pilate gets wind that there’s unrest among the Jews he and the Roman occupational force might crack down hard on them, and that would be bad for business.

The Temple leadership have a good racket going. They are wealthy, and they have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves in their Temple business. Their powerful religious authority gives them an iron political grip over the Jewish people in Jerusalem and abroad. They may be living under Roman occupation, but under the Roman umbrella they are supreme rulers of their own small kingdom. From the perspective of the Temple’s religious leadership, this pesky would-be Messiah from Nazareth is bad for business. He’s listed as a “threat” in their SWOT analysis. “It’s not personal, Jesus,” you can imagine the High Priest muttering, “It’s strictly business.”

The end of yesterday’s chapter and the continuing events in today’s chapter reveal the initial strategy of the religious leaders to deal with “the Jesus problem.” These men were all well-educated lawyers and legal scholars who made an art form out of legal debate over the Law of Moses. They would leverage their expertise in legal minutiae to engage Jesus in very public debate in the Temple courts. Surely this uneducated yokel from the North country would give them a sound-byte they could tweet, print, and repeat endlessly to stem the tide of His popularity.

In today’s chapter, Matthew records wave after wave of envoys from the religious council testing Jesus with the hot political and religious topics of the day: Paying Roman taxes (politically heated issue), whether there is a resurrection (heated religious issue among factions within the temple), and which is the greatest commandment (hot religious debate among temple lawyers). Because these topics were as controversial in temple circles as abortion and gun control are in ours, whatever Jesus says can be used politically to ruin His approval ratings with one group or another.

But Jesus deftly responds to each question with answers His enemies did not expect. Then, after playing defense for several rounds of debate, Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offense. He tests the prestigious lawyers with a question of His own, and stumps them at their own game.

“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

This morning I am thinking about the contrast between Jesus and the religious cartel who were threatened by Him. Jesus was a simple man of simple means born in a backwater town to poor, blue-collar parents. He was raised in a backwater region of the country. Jesus was not well connected, had no impressive education, and owned little more than the seamless tunic on His back (which was worth just enough that a couple of Roman guards would shoot craps over it). His political enemies, on the other hand, were upstanding religious people of elite pedigree, top-notch education, and shrewd business acumen. They would be hailed as hallmarks of success according to our contemporary culture’s criteria.

The uncomfortable question I ask myself in the quiet this morning is: Between Jesus and the religious leaders, who do I, and my life, most resemble? If I were standing in the temple courts listening to the debate between this poor teacher with His provocative views and the conservative, successful leaders of the traditional status quo, who would I be inclined to side with?

I confess that my honest answer is as uncomfortable as the question.

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Priests, Protestants and Me

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron and his sons with him, the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
Leviticus 8:1-3 (NRSV)

Aaron was Moses’ right-hand man, and it was Aaron and his sons who were chosen to be the priests in the sacrificial system of the ancient Hebrews. In today’s chapter, God through Moses takes Aaron and his sons through a ritual of ordination to become priests. It is a long ritual filled with metaphor from their priestly vestments to a little dab ‘ill do ya of blood on the ear lobe.

A priest is a mediator between God and man. A priest stands in the spiritual gap. The priest represents God to humanity and represents humanity before God. A priest is spiritually elevated and ordained to handle and serve the sacrifice, to carry our prayers into the presence of the Almighty, and to bestow forgiveness and absolution to the common sinner.

Among Christian institutions, the priesthood is one of the major differences between Roman Catholicism (and Greek Orthodox and Anglican) and the Protestant denominations. Protestants believe that since Jesus death and resurrection there is only one priest and mediator, and it is Jesus:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Hebrews 4:14

“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all….” 1 Timothy 2:5

Three of the four gospel writers report that when Jesus died the curtain in the Hebrew temple was torn in two. That curtain separated people from the area of the temple where God resided. Only the priest could enter. When the curtain was torn, the way was made for anyone to enter into God’s presence. Jesus was the sacrifice, the mediator, and the priest who stands in the gap.

In my Protestant circles, we think very little of the role of a priest anymore. I have, however, observed along my journey that Protestants often like to unwittingly bestow priestly powers on our pastors and spiritual leaders. It seems there is something innately human about doing so despite what we say we believe.

This morning I’m mulling over my own understanding of the role of priests, the work of Jesus and what that means. The ultimate sacrifice has been made. The curtain is torn. The way is open for me to enter into God’s presence. I need no other emissary, or representative, or priest. I need only approach.

Will I?

 

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A Radical Shift in Paradigm

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Nehemiah 10:39 (NIV)

Over my journey I’ve worshipped in many different places. Growing up, there was a lot more emphasis that people placed on the church building itself. I still remember the Methodist church where I grew up. The area of that altar in the sanctuary was considered hallowed ground along with the “eternal light” that hung above it (which was a light bulb I’m quite sure needed to be replaced on occasion).

As I grew in my understanding as a follower of Jesus, I began to recognize that the special attachment Christians placed on their particular house of worship fell into two camps. The first camp were those who considered their local church building to be some kind of holy place that was, itself, sacred because it was a church. The other camp considered their local church special because the community of believers had built it together. It was communal space for worship and they wanted to take care of it.

In the days of Nehemiah, the temple where they worshipped was a holy place. It had been designated such by God when He gave the plans to Moses and called for its eventual construction. When Jesus came, however, the paradigm changed radically. Jesus made it clear that the times they were a changing. When confronted by the Samaritan woman at the well about where you should worship, Jesus replied, “But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.”

With the pouring out of Holy Spirit into the hearts of every believer, our bodies themselves became the temple. Our worship center became wherever we happen to be at any given moment. The focus shifted from bricks and mortar to flesh and blood. We may appreciate and tend to our local church building because we want to be good stewards of the communal worship space, but the church building is not hallowed in and of itself. It’s when I and my fellow believers bring Holy Spirit in with me to worship that makes it a worship center.

Today I’m thinking once again about my body being a temple of Holy Spirit, a vessel in which God dwells. It lends a more intimate meaning to the commitment made by the folks in Nehemiah’s day: “I will not neglect the house of God.”

Guess I’m working out today.

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The Gate is Shut


israel01 121
Then the man brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, the one facing east, and it was shut. The Lord said to me, “This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it. Ezekiel 44:1-2 (NIV)

As we’ve been going through these chapters about the temple, I am finding that there is a certain depth of understanding that comes from having actually been in Jerusalem to observe and witness the politics and religious passions which are concentrated on this small plot of ground where the temple stood.

The top of the temple mount where the Hebrew temple(s) stood has been controlled by muslims since they took over the city in 637 A.D. To this day the local muslim authorities control the site on which stands the iconic gold Dome of the Rock and the Al-aqsa mosque. Being in the nation of Israel, the Jewish authorities have ultimate control of surrounding area, and the western foundation of the temple mount has become sacred ground as it is the site of the Wailing Wall. The eastern side of the temple mount falls sharply to the Kidron Valley and to the Mount of Olives on the opposite side.

When you stand on the Mount of Olives and look up at the Temple Mount you see the Eastern Gate, or “Golden Gate,” which opens onto the Temple Mount from the east. It is the gate that some Jews believe the coming Messiah will enter the temple that has yet to be built. It is the gate that some Christians believe Jesus will enter when He returns in the end times. Ironically, the muslims bricked up the gate, and the gate is shut much as described in Ezekiel’s vision.

I do find the intersection of prophecy, history, and current events to be a fascinating thing to ponder. If you believe, as I do, that there is a story being told across history and that future events have been prophetically foreshadowed, then current headlines and the ebb and flow of events take on new layers of meaning. As always, I find myself seeking truth at the point of tension between the two extremes of making too much of these things and ignoring them all together.

Presence

glory templeThe glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east.
Ezekiel 43:4 (NIV)

According to the ancient writers, the “glory” of God came in the form of a cloud. It began with Moses on the mountain, continued to reveal itself this way when the Israelites fled Egypt and wandered in the wilderness. The cloud of God’s glory went before them and when they pitched their portable temple known as the Tabernacle, the cloud of glory filled it. When Solomon’s permanent temple was completed, the cloud of glory filled the temple and was so thick that the priests had a hard time seeing to do their sacrificial duties.

This morning as I ponder this descent of God’s presence in the temple, I am reminded of many contrasting weekly gatherings of my fellow Jesus followers. Some Sunday mornings can feel rather empty. It’s not that it isn’t worthwhile or that good things aren’t happening in the worship, it just feels like we’re going through the routine motions. Jesus promised that wherever two or three believers gather, He would be present. I have found, however, that much like His chronicled appearances after the resurrection He sometimes chooses not to reveal himself in quite the same way.

There are times, however, when I have physically felt the presence filling the room. It is not prescriptive and there is no formula for making it happen. I have come to observe that God cannot be tamed or placed in a box of our making. I know that may sound crazy and subjective to some. There many special moments I can recall, however, when I have felt God’s presence fall and fill the room in a special way just as Ezekiel describes.

Today, I’m thankful for the promise of Jesus’ presence whether He remains quietly present or whether He makes His presence known in powerful ways. I seek Him however He chooses to reveal Himself.

“Haves” and “Have Nots”

temple curtain tornSo he measured the area on all four sides. It had a wall around it, five hundred cubits long and five hundred cubits wide, to separate the holy from the common.
Ezekiel 42:20 (NIV)

We talk a lot in our culture about the “haves” and “have nots.” With a presidential election gearing up, we’re going to have plenty more inundation of pundits and politicos barking and bantering about social equality, racial equality, financial equality, and gender equality.  I believe the never ending struggle within to place ourselves above others, to suppress others, and to criticize and belittle those who look, think, act, and believe differently is evidence of what took place in the Garden of Eden. It is first and foremost a spiritual problem.

Religion also has its share of “haves” and “have nots.” The reality is that organized religion has proven over history to illustrate the very thing it says it’s trying to resolve. The sin problem manifests itself acutely in the very people and institutions who try to address it. We see a hint of the issue in today’s chapter.

The temple was arranged, by design, with areas for the “holy” and the “common” or “unholy.” Over time this separation of the “holy” from the “unholy” created social strata which resulted in all sorts of social issues. The Jews of Jesus’ day were notorious for taking on a mantel of holiness which publicly covered the darkness in their souls, and placing themselves above others. Jesus reserved his hottest, most righteous anger for the most religious people:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” Matthew 23:23-28 (MSG)

It was this problem that Jesus’ came to address. The parable of the Good Samaritan is core to what Jesus was about, which is to actually, tangibly love those who think, speak, look, act, and believe differently. To love even those who hate you and consider you their enemy. To place others ahead of ourselves.

In the Hebrew temple was a giant curtain that hid the “holy of holies” from the “holy place.” It was a place where only the high priest was allowed and only on certain occasions. Three of four of Jesus’ biographers (Matthew the tax collector, John Mark, and Dr. Luke) record that when Jesus died on the cross that curtain in the temple split right down the middle. No more separation. No more religious “haves” and “have nots.” Jesus came to be the sacrificial lamb, to pay the penalty for our sin, so that holiness would be available to anyone who wants it – not based on what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, think or don’t think, but based on Jesus simply making it available as an undeserved gift.

It is what we do with that gift, or rather what it does in us, that makes the difference.