Behind that Exterior

Reading: John 2.13-25

Some people have a passion for collecting things. It may be stamps, matchboxes, coins, rocks... Or maybe teaspoons, dolls, fine china, jewellery... Or the gardening types may be gathering orchids, roses, hibiscus...

Are you a collector? Have you ever wished your grand-parents had preserved certain items which were common then but rare now? For them, of course, those things were for daily use, not for display in a cabinet!

Are you a collector? Some of us continue to be affected by our "race-memory" of the Great Depression. Bent nails are straightened and put in a box for future use. That rusty screw might be needed one day. Pieces of wire are a commodity to be valued. That off-cut of cloth may come in handy sometime. That piece of string, that rubber band… And so it goes on and on until another generation has to look at what we have stored and evaluate its worth.

Are you a collector? What lies hidden behind the beautiful exterior of your house? Treasure or trash?

The Temple

Last week we were thinking about Solomon's Temple. Solomon had a grand conception. "I am building a temple to honour the Lord my God. It will be a holy place where my people and I will worship him by burning incense of fragrant spices, where we will present offerings of sacred bread to him continuously, and where we will offer burnt offerings every morning and evening, as well as on Sabbaths, New Moon Festivals, and other holy days honouring the Lord our God. He has commanded Israel to do this for ever. I intend to build a great temple, because our God is greater than any other god. Yet no one can really build a temple for God, because even all the vastness of heaven cannot contain him" (2 Chron. 2.4-6a).

The temple was to be a place of worship and sacrifice - sacrifice because we need forgiveness of our sins if we are to truly worship God. Jesus was not only the true tabernacle - the place where God lives - but he became the perfect and final sacrifice for human sin. The writer to the Hebrews tells us we have "complete freedom to enter into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus" (10.19).

The temple Jesus entered in today's reading was the third temple to be constructed on this site. The second temple had been built around the end of the sixth century. The third temple is known as Herod's Temple. Herod the Great (37 BC to 4 AD) was the ruler at the time of Jesus' birth. Of Idumean (Edomite) descent, he wasn't popular. He may have had political motives in wanting to restore the temple.

Work began on it about 19 BC. The main structure was finished within ten years, but work continued until 64 AD. The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, gives us an idea of what Herod's Temple looked like:

The temple had doors also at the entrance, and lintels over them, of the same height with the temple itself. They were adorned with embroidered veils, with their flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven; and over these, but under the crown-work, was spread out a golden vine, with its branches hanging down from a great height, the largeness and fine workmanship of which was a surprising sight to the spectators, to see what vast materials there were, and with what great skill the workmanship was done. He also encompassed the entire temple with very large cloisters, contriving them to be in a due proportion thereto; and he laid out larger sums of money upon them than had been done before him, till it seemed that no one else had so greatly adorned the temple as he had done. (Antiquities, XV, xi, 3).

Later on Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem. The disciples were impressed by the Temple. One of them said,"Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!" But Jesus replied, "You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down." (Mk 13.1-2). For behind that exterior, something was very wrong.

Behind that Exterior...

"It was almost time for the Passover Festival, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. There in the Temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and pigeons, and also the moneychangers sitting at their tables. So he made a whip from cords and drove all the animals out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle; he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and scattered their coins; and he ordered those who sold the pigeons, 'Take them out of here! Stop making my Father's house a market place!' His disciples remembered that the scripture says, 'My devotion to your house, O God, burns in me like a fire'." (Jn 2.13-17)

Matthew, Mark and Luke record the cleansing of the Temple at the end of Jesus' ministry (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-16; Luke 19:45-46). There are good reasons for believing that these are two separate occasions. The cleansing in today's reading caught the authorities by surprise. The second, some three years later, was one of the immediate causes of his death.

The rationale for what was happening was twofold. The animals and birds sacrificed in the temple had to be without defect and ceremonially "clean". To sell them on the premises was a convenience for worshippers from near and far and guaranteed that all sacrifices were acceptable. Moneychangers were there because money offerings in the temple could only be made in the approved currency.

All this took place in the outer courts of the temple - the court of the Gentiles - the only place where non-Jews were permitted. The haggling of the market-place was mingled with the prayers of the people. The whole thing became a rather big dishonest money-making racket, netting an equivalent of millions of dollars. Behind the magnificent exterior of the temple was corruption on a large scale.

It was in this context that the Jewish authorities asked Jesus for a miracle to prove his authority to do these things, but Jesus said, "Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again" (v. 19). This saying was later used as evidence against Jesus in his trial before the Jewish Council (Mt. 26.60-61). But no, it wasn't a prediction of the destruction of the temple - carried out by the Romans in 70 AD. After the resurrection, the disciples would recall this saying as pointing to his own death.

Behind our Exterior...

But then in vv. 23-25 of our reading - "While Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover Festival, many believed in him as they saw the miracles he performed. But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew them all. There was no need for anyone to tell him about them, because he himself knew what was in their hearts."

The Jewish authorities were caught up in the corruption. Their request for a miracle was a reaction against Jesus, a sign of their unbelief. But here are the common people - impressed by his miracles - "many believed in him". Following the official hostility that would surely warm his heart! But no - corruption wasn't just a characteristic of the leadership. It was a characteristic of the human heart.

God sees beyond the masks we put on - behind our pleasant exterior. He knows what is in our hearts. It won't do to demolish the old temple and build a new one - the old problems will only re-emerge. Instead, the temple to be demolished will be Jesus Christ himself - given over to death and raised to life so that the evil within us can be destroyed and we can receive life and hope and purpose and meaning.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, "He [Christ] died for all, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but only for him who died and was raised to life for their sake. No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards. Even if at one time we judged Christ according to human standards, we no longer do so. Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5.15-17).

Are you a collector? Behind that exterior - the "you" that everyone sees - who are you really? what do you value most in life? what trash or treasure do you keep hidden away?

The greatest miracle is that God loves you so much that Jesus died for your sins and was raised on the third day to be your Lord and Saviour. Put your whole trust in him and become a new person from the inside out!

(c) Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 9 May 1999
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, (c) American Bible Society, 1992.

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