Monday, July 20, 2015

Doing It the Hard Way

The Wailing Wall: Last vestige of Herod’s temple
How much does the church matter to the Lord?

When we look at the condition of most local churches today and compare them to Christ’s original intention as laid out in the epistles and patterned for us by believers in the first century, we might well wonder why the Lord continues to bother with the church at all.

Most of us do not really understand why we’re here and what we’re supposed to be doing. Great numbers of professing Christians atrophy in the pews, putting in an hour or two a week listening to a lecture and going home to a largely secular existence into which God is only allowed to intrude when things have gone disastrously wrong.

If the Lord’s interest in the church depended on our obedience or merit, we can be sure he would have long since tuned us out and moved on to some area of universal administration that might provide greater job satisfaction.

Happily for us, it doesn’t.

Faithfulness and Performance

We may be grateful that the Lord’s interest in his people and his faithfulness to us are unrelated to our performance. If you want evidence of that assertion, you only need to look at the gospel of Mark to see the Lord’s interest in a religious institution equally decrepit and far removed from God’s original intent.

Jesus has just come into Jerusalem on the back of a colt. Having heard from a number of eyewitnesses that Jesus has even raised the dead, the common people have cut down leafy tree branches to spread in the road before him, and many have laid their cloaks in the road for a beast of burden to pass over them, just as if the Lord were a visiting dignitary, which in fact he was.

All the time the crowds are shouting their approval and acknowledging Jesus as Messiah in fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures. It’s a big day — among the biggest.

So having arrived in the city, what does Jesus do? Sign autographs? Mount a podium and give his Messianic acceptance speech? Stage a rally and pump up the troops?

None of the above.

Priorities, Priorities

Instead, Mark tells us, Jesus goes to the temple. It’s too late in the day to do anything constructive (or destructive, as we will see when he arrives back at the temple the very next morning), so he simply looks around:
“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
It’s a non-event. Why does Mark bother to mention it at all? No other gospel does. When you consider how short Mark’s gospel is and how much else he leaves out that the others include, one might wonder why he spends even two short sentences telling us that nothing happened.

Why was the temple so important to the Lord?

Temple v1.0

It wasn’t the architecture. We can be sure of that. There was nothing of God’s original design in the architecture of this temple. Solomon’s temple the one for which God gave the design to his father David, the one for which David made all the preparations and Solomon built according to the specifications — was long gone. It may have lasted over 400 years, but the Chaldean emperor Nebuchadnezzar II had that temple razed to the ground in about 587 BC

Temple v2.0

It wasn’t even the second iteration of the temple, the one authorized by Cyrus the Mede in 538 BC and completed 23 years later in the time of the Jewish governor Zerubbabel. That temple was more than a step or two down from the original architecturally and had quite the chequered history. History records that the Greeks erected a statue of Zeus there and sacrificed pigs on the temple altar before being driven out by a Jewish mob headed by a rebel priest and his five sons.

Temple v2.1

No, the temple Jesus looked around in the gospel of Mark was Herod’s temple. (I’d call it the third temple, but the Jews don’t; they view it as a “renovation” rather than a complete rebuild, though it really was. To the Jew, the phrase “third temple” denotes the temple prophesied in Ezekiel that has never yet been constructed.) Josephus records that Herod was interested in perpetuating his name through building projects and that his masterpiece was the temple in Jerusalem. Herod had the temple designed by Greek, Roman and Egyptian architects. The Jews built it, sure, but they built it with pagan funding on the basis of a design that was entirely pagan, all to the glory of a pagan despot. It had next to nothing of God’s original intent about it. 

If the parallels to the church today do not jump out and bite you, further elaboration on my part will probably not help.

Now of course the Jews loved Herod’s temple notwithstanding its pagan origin. It was bigger and more impressive than anything they would ever have come up with on their own, even if it had nothing to do with the God they worshiped there. We don’t have to go to Josephus for that, because we find it in the New Testament. Mark records that one of the Lord’s own disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” 

The Den of Robbers

It was the home of this paganized version of Judaism that the Lord Jesus was looking at in Mark. Who knows what he was thinking? And yet, for all that, he still calls it “my house” and when he returns the next day, he clears it out singlehandedly

That’s not something you do if your inclination is to disown the whole mess and walk away, is it? So he walked through the temple and “looked around at everything” because despite all else it remained his. It was the place where he had put his name.

The “one like a son of man” is still in the “midst of the lampstands” when we come to the last book of the Bible. I have complete confidence he is still there today.

No wonder the Lord has managed to maintain interest in us, no matter how far away the church has gotten from his original design. No matter how many ideas we steal from the world and incorporate in to the church as if they are part of the original design and no matter how polluted and self-interested our motives are. If we are faithless, he remains faithful. He cannot deny himself. He has begun a work among us and he will finish it.

All the same, do we really have to make it this hard?

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