Cleansing the Temple: A Sermon by The Rev’d Peter Jin

Peter was unwell this Sunday and was unable to preach – please enjoy reading the words he had prepared.

Jesus is strange. My daughter said to me, ‘Daddy, didn’t Jesus’s mummy teach uncle Jesus not to make a mess when you are invited to someone’s house’.

Jesus came to Jerusalem and entered the temple precincts. Taking a whip of cords, he drove the money changers out and turned over their tables, and said to them ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’. New Testament scholar, Craig Even says that the temple precincts would be like several football fields. It is a very large area. Jesus is not in the temple building, within the sanctuary. Don’t think he went inside our Cathedral and smashed the EFTPOS machine and turned over our shop tables. 

When Jesus was asked for a sign to justify this act. He said in a provocative way, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’. To perform such an act and to say such things in the Jerusalem Temple was to be extremely offensive to first-century Jews. 

The Temple was everything to an Israelite at that time. It was the center of Israelite’s political, cultural, and religious life. Even more, it was understood literally as the dwelling place of God on earth. 

What on earth was Jesus doing? In order to answer these questions we have to understand what the temple meant. 

Go back to the Genesis account of Adam and the garden. The early church Fathers and the ancient rabbis both see Adam, the first human being as the prototypical priest. They see the Garden of Eden as an archetype of future temples. Adam walked in easy fellowship with God in the cool of the evening and spoke to God as to a friend. This ordering of Adam to God meant that our first parent was effortlessly caught up in the right worship. Adam and Eve properly aligned to the divine source, breathing in God’s life. When we are in the position of right praise, the whole of our lives: mind, will, emotion, imagination becomes ordered and harmonized. 

The right praise is the key to flourishing, while incorrect worship is always leads to disfunction and disharmony. The worship of false gods and putting something other than the true God at the centre of our concern lead to the disintegration of the self, family and the society. 

In his famous book We Become What We Worship, Gregory K. Beale argues that when the true God is our ultimate concern, we conform ourselves to what we consider the highest good. We become God’s sons and daughters. The people of Israel were chosen as God’s rescue operation. They were shaped mainly according to the laws of right worship so that they could model to the nations how to praise and how to act. The hope was that all the nations of the world would be attracted to God, precisely through the right worship of the Israelites.

The Jerusalem Temple was built to be evocative of the Garden of Eden. In their temple worship, Israel saw themselves as carrying forward Adam’s priestly vocation to ‘Eden-ize’ the whole of culture and the whole of nature. Now all of this was true in principle, but throughout its history Israel fell into the worship of false gods, sometimes the gods of the surrounding nations, but other times the gods of wealth, power, nationalism, popularity, and pleasure. And this is why the great prophets, again and again, continually call the nation back to the worship of one true God.

Ok, after introducing the complex temple theology, we can understand many of Jesus’s words and actions in regard to the temple. 

When Jesus said, ‘I tell you, something greater than the temple is here’. He was designating himself as the new place of worship, as the temple where divinity and humanity meet.  

Now we can begin to understand Jesus’ ministry through this lens. People come to the temple for instruction in the Torah, for the healing of disease, and for the forgiveness of sin through sacrifice. 

If Jesus is, in his own person, the true Temple, then he should be the definitive source of teaching, healing, and forgiveness, and this is just what the Gospels tell us. Let me give you a few examples of ‘the one greater than the Temple’.

The crowds gather on a Galilean hillside and on the seashore and in the Temple precincts, they listen to Jesus’ teaching rather than to the official scholars of the law. 

The woman with the haemorage, the man born blind—all find healing from Jesus, not from the Temple priests. 

And the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, Mary Madgalene, and Matthew the tax collector all find the forgiveness through Jesus, not temple sacrifice. 

Jesus was not abolishing the temple but he was redefining it, indeed relocating it, in relation to his own person. 

Jesus was not simply a radical, protesting against the political and religious establishment. He was pronouncing the prophetic judgements of Isaiah and Ezekiel against the corruption of Israelite worship; but even more than this, he was acting in the very person of Yahweh who had come to cleanse God’s temple and to make it a place of true worship. 

Even the most visionary prophets wanted only to reform the temple, but Jesus told us that he would tear it down and then reestablish it in his own body: ‘in three days I will raise it up’. In these words he was drawing out the logical implication of his earlier statement ‘something greater than the temple is here’, telling the people that the entire purpose of the earlier temple would be transfigured in him. This outrageous claim would be confirmed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that for Jesus, the temple was a true signpost to God’s future. It was a true signpost to the reality. But when the reality has come if people insist only looking at the signpost, they have missed the point. It is rather like if I am  trying to show my daughter something, and I point at the toy. She looks at my finger instead of looking at the object. In Jesus’ day, people were looking so hard at the temple. They could not see that Jesus was offering the reality to which the temple pointed. And that is what we then find in the last supper and on the cross. Jesus is doing the reality to which all along the temple have been pointing.

The temple of Jerusalem was seen as God’s dwelling place, but Jesus is saying I am God’s dwelling place among you. I am the new temple. Through his death and resurrection Jesus becomes the mystical body.

Through our baptism, we are grafted on to Christ. The Holy Spirit dwells in us. This temple is meant to be a house of prayer. Let us take a moment and ask ourselves a question. What forces, influences, tendencies, attitudes, styles have found their way into our temples? If so, to what degree is Jesus cleansing us this Lent? What is in our hearts, what tables is Jesus overturning, what thieves is he expelling from our souls? Let the Lord Jesus, in a certain sense, invade us this Lent. Let him do the cleansing that needs to be done because we are meant to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. May we be a place of prayer and purity. Amen.