Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Bit in Between

It has long been noticed that of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the most distinctly Jewish.

This being the case, it may surprise you to find that the Gentile Luke actually mentions the temple in Jerusalem — the very heart of Judaism — more than Matthew, a Jew. Matthew mentions the temple explicitly in only five of 28 chapters, and the majority of these references are quite incidental.

A Dim View

The story of Jesus is the same one, but each gospel writer tells it his way, with his own particular emphases. So, the apostle John has Jesus in the temple early and often (chapters 2, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11). The Son is about his Father’s business throughout John’s gospel; no surprise there. Luke, the historian, has him brought there as a baby, and returning at the age of twelve. Matthew, on the other hand, has Jesus in synagogues more often than the temple. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus doesn’t even appear at the temple until chapter 21, when he enters Jerusalem for the final time.

Hindsight is indeed 20/20, but Matthew’s gospel, most probably written almost thirty years after the events it portrays and less than a decade prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, takes a very dim view of the first century temple, what it represented to Jews of its day, and what it had become.

Examples, you say? That’s what we’re here for ...

1/ A Place of Temptation

In Matthew 4, in the second of three tests, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and invites him to prove his identity: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” The Lord refuses the temptation to do parlor tricks on demand, using scripture to rebut the devil’s misuse of God’s promise in Psalm 91. He knows who he is, and he knows what his Father has just declared to the world about him. He has no need to show off. Here the temple is used merely as a prop in a far more spiritually-significant encounter, but we can hardly avoid noticing that a house of worship has become, even for the Son of God, a place of temptation.

Sadly, the house of God is in a similar state today. Pastorates tempt men to influence and power, seminaries breed independence and overconfidence, denominations tempt us to pride and disunity, feminists tempt us to disorder, and governments tempt us to compromise.

2/ A Place of Danger

In Matthew 5, the temple is not even mentioned by name, but the Lord refers to it in his sermon on the mount as a potentially hazardous place to visit. Since everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, a man who remembers his neighbor has something against him is better off leaving his gift at the altar and going to make his earthly relationship right, rather than coming into the presence of God in an unacceptable condition. In the early years of the first century, the altar was found in only one place: Jerusalem. The house of prayer had become a place of spiritual hazard.

This too has not changed much during the church age. Those who take the name of the Lord lightly on their lips often find themselves regretting it.

3/ A Place of Fruitless Labor

In Matthew 12, the temple is mentioned only in passing as a place where priests profane the Sabbath and are held guiltless. For the priests, the good part is that working during the Sabbath rest was a legitimate fulfilment of their original purpose and calling, and therefore not displeasing to God. The bad part is that all their efforts were ultimately futile. Hebrews reminds us that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. The sacrifices served only as a reminder of man’s fallen condition and his need of lasting salvation. The house of prayer was a place of fruitless labor.

In an age of grace, you would think the house of God might finally be free of creeping, Pharisaic legalism. Sadly, the vast majority of evangelicals today are moving toward a doctrinal model in which law-keeping is front and center, obscuring the absolute sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin.

4/ and 5/ A Place of Idolatry and Destruction

Two final references in Matthew are equally unflattering to Second Temple Judaism. In the seven woes of chapter 23, the Lord condemns those who prioritize the gold of the temple over the temple itself. To the Jews, the economic activity generated by their religious observances had become of greater significance than the house of God. Greed is idol worship, and the temple had become a place of idolatry. Finally, in chapter 24, we see the temple as an object of God’s wrath, a place of destruction. “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

The book of Revelation reminds Christians that we are just as likely as Jews to lose our spiritual moorings, to think we are rich, have prospered, and need nothing, when we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. The departure of Jesus Christ from local churches today is not usually accompanied by the wrenching violence with which he finally turned his back on apostate Judaism, but the danger of the removal of the lampstand today is just as real as the historical sacking of Jerusalem.

The Bit in Between

In between these glimpses of the sorry, degraded state of Second Temple Judaism, we find one glorious moment of transformative reversal. In chapter 21 of Matthew, Jesus enters the temple, driving out the money-changers and salesmen, and he begins healing the blind and the lame. Seeing these wonders, children begin to chant one after another, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Only the children recognize that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, and that something greater than the temple has arrived; someone the temple, with all its decorations and rituals, could only ever point to from a great distance.

Are you and I prepared to imagine our churches transformed in much the same way: as his, not ours? As a living habitation for the presence of God rather than a dead institution? As a body and not a corpse?

Be sure the idea is just as offensive to today’s Pharisees as it was to those of AD30.

Temple pic courtesy Ariely [CC BY 3.0]

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