Lambs, doves, sacrifices, priests, temple, worshipers.
So far it sounds like a recipe for good, healthy, Old Testament style worship. And indeed all of these things were elements that God had prescribed as part of that system and were designed to help sinners better understand His plan of salvation.
But introduce a few more things and suddenly there appears to be reasons for God to be very unhappy with the situation. But I think it is very beneficial to carefully think about the real reasons why, not our first impressions upon reading these stories.
Money, chaos, arguing, anger, bitterness, pride, cheating, arrogance, deception, manipulation, taking advantage, abuse of authority, hypocrisy.
It is obvious at this point that I am thinking about the two times that Jesus “cleansed” the earthly temple, once at the beginning and again at the end of His time of ministry here on earth. Most people assume from the descriptions of what happened that Jesus was very angry when He chased the money-changers and the marketeers out of the temple, but the Bible says nothing about Him being angry at them. However, I think it is safe to say that there was very likely some quite intense emotions involved on all sides during those confrontations.
But I am pondering the much deeper meanings that I believe Jesus wanted to convey to anyone willing to think about these events carefully. I don't believe that Jesus just wanted to force people to return to a pure, rule-oriented meticulous performance of rituals as prescribed in the instructions given through Moses. I am not denying that a restoration of these services to their original design and intent would not very possibly have had a beneficial effect on the Jewish people. But Jesus was about to fulfill and supersede this whole system of symbols with His own sacrifice in just a very short time and after that all of these rituals would be obsolete.
So, what was Jesus really trying to convey? If it wasn't an insistence on maintaining a soon-to-be obsolete system of worship, then why did He become so passionate about upsetting the established routine and style of worship that nearly everyone was compelled to participate in at that time? And much more importantly, what implications does this have for me, for us, for my church, for Christians today? Is it just an interesting story from history or does it have much more far-reaching implications that many of us may be missing or ignoring?
This came to my mind this morning as I was praying with God about my own frustrations with my spiritual condition. I sometimes feel confused, distracted and conflicted about what is really the direction I should move, what is really true, what God is really all about. Many would insist that this confusion comes from believing things that are not accepted by established traditions of the church or whatever subset of conservative thinking they happen to subscribe to. I have to admit that over the past few years I have challenged one thing after another that I was taught throughout my life and have discarded many things that many consider fundamental to religion. That has put me in a very awkward stance in relation to religious authorities because I don't know of hardly anyone who views God and religion the way I have come to perceive them recently.
But it doesn't take very long for me to feel very alarmed whenever I think of simply discarding everything I have learned from the Bible, everything that has thrilled my heart and opened my eyes and immensely expanded my mind over the past 10 – 15 years. I recoil with terror at the thought of blindly following the old traditions and beliefs that I grew up with that are still promoted by many around me. It literally turns my stomach to even consider such an idea. It would be like walking away from a romance with someone who has opened their heart wide to me simply because someone else says that I have been deceived and should return to viewing that person with great suspicion, mistrust and fear. It not only doesn't make much sense but it seems downright wrong.
But at the same time I also sense the presence of absurd urges within my heart and mind that are totally out of harmony with the things I believe about God and the insights that I believe He has been sharing with me for years. I recently have noticed an increase of internal thoughts of criticism for religious leaders that is far more intense than is even reasonably warranted. It catches me by surprise and I then realize that it is likely not even me originating these impulses but false gods or spirits suggesting these into my mind and trying to pawn them off as my own. Hence the confusion that is sometimes in my life.
Something else then suggests that if I was a real Christian, if all these things I have been learning were in fact true, then this would not be the kind of fruit that should be produced. I should be seeing more submission, less pride, more harmony with spiritual leaders and less rebellion and resistance, more love and less criticism, more joyful expressions of praise, worship and gratitude and less confusion and internal uncertainty. Some have even expressed some of these things to me directly.
And yet that list of motives and emotions is not what I always experience, which in turn tends to create the conditions internally of feeling condemned, unsure, liable to feelings of deep guilt and self-condemnation not to mention plenty of reasons for others to distrust me spiritually or emotionally. I am very sensitive to what other spiritual people that I respect think about me and lately that has not been very encouraging. But then something inside says that God's true followers are often misunderstood and misjudged by nearly everyone around them, even those who ought to be the first to recognize God's leadings in those around them.
So I think about this cleansing action of Jesus in the earthly temple. And I remember also that the Bible is quite clear that I am the temple of God where He wants to dwell, both personally and even more so in bondedness with others who are honestly seeking God. And I realize that though I am validly intended to be a dwelling place for God, to be a safe sanctuary where He may freely exercise full authority and may reveal Himself to the world through my life, this part of the temple of God certainly needs regular attention and cleaning.
Just because there are valid and even necessary elements of true religion and worship in my life and my surroundings does not mean that all is right. All of the things in the first list above were supposed to be important parts of true worship, yet Jesus found it compelling to expel all of that from the sanctuary in order for true worship to take place the way God wanted it to. I can see in my own life that just because I have genuine elements of religion and even healthy parts of it in place and functioning does not imply that a good house-cleaning is not in order. God may not want to expel from my life my times of study in the Bible, my desires to honor His name, my many times of intimate dialog with Him or even my clumsy attempts to share what I am learning about Him with others.
But I sense that there must be other things that are causing this deeper inner confusion and uneasiness that may need to be exposed and expelled. Again, some will insist that it is some ritual that I am failing to perform or some doctrine that should be brought into harmony with that held by more traditional religion. I can't rule that out but it just doesn't seem to fit the pattern of direction that God's Spirit has been leading me for a number of years.
But there is certainly plenty of symbols involved in the temple Jesus cleansed that could signify things in my own life that need attention. The presence of money and all the deception and confusion and manipulation surrounding that could be much of what I need to have removed in my experience. Not that money itself is evil, but that my relationship to that whole false system of value and its effect on spirituality has a powerful impact on how one views reality and God. Allowing finances to instill fear or lust either one is a major source of contamination of true worship.
But there are a number of other issues involved in those temple cleansings that I need to have addressed in my own life as well. The attitudes and actions surrounding even the legitimate elements of worship were the main cause for Jesus clearing out all of them in order to make a safe place where singing, joy, praise and true worship could take place freely, without fear or inhibitions. I find it intriguing but also a little confusing to observe that Jesus removed from the temple even many of the legitimate things that were originally supposed to be part of true worship at that time. The implications that may have for me is still a bit unclear.
But one thing does seem to be more clear – Jesus did not try to come in and reason with them or admonish them or condemn them or argue with them about the problems that were so evident to Him. In fact, one of the reasons He succeeded in clearing the temple so quickly and effectively was because He took such bold and unexpected actions and more importantly, because His spirit and demeanor was totally unexpected and self-possessed. If He had been angry He would never have gotten anywhere trying to clear all those other angry people out of the temple. Anger was the most common emotion in evidence there and so introducing yet another angry person would have had very little effect to getting everyone's attention.
Jesus instead revealed a spirit that is so unusual and so uncommon that I believe we find it very difficult to comprehend. It is so much easier to project how we would feel under those circumstances into our opinions of what Jesus must have felt and then we run with the implications from that perspective. But Jesus was not operating under the influence of fallen human emotions and reactions but from a totally different perspective of reality. Jesus saw everyone through heaven's eyes and always with heaven's compassion, love and discernment. But He was also filled with a passionate jealousy for God's reputation – which is what people think and feel about God. He did not come to show us how angry God can get at us when we don't get our worship just right but came to reveal what God wants to do to prepare our hearts for Him to be able to live within us and have an intimate relationship of love with us for eternity.
If Jesus had been angry when He cleansed the temple, then the immediate influx of little children and all the other timid and weak people who flooded into the temple after all the other confusion was expelled would have never taken place. Children are not attracted to an angry man. But they are mesmerized by a person who is passionate in His love for people and is willing to be strong to protect the weak, the innocent and the hurting. So it is very clear that there was something about the attitude and disposition of Jesus during those events that was very attractive to the simple, the weak and the young but at the same time was very repulsive to those who were living in the atmosphere of power, abuse and deception.
I have longed all of my life to have that kind of attraction in my own life. And while I often enjoy watching children and observing their spontaneous ways born from a spirit of innocence and genuine joy, I have usually felt myself at a distance from really being able to connect with them at a deep heart level. Along with other things, I have assumed that part of what prevents me from being able to feel more comfortable around many young people and they around me is the lack of real joy experiences and proper bonding in my own childhood. Now I feel at a great disadvantage when trying to know how to relate to children and youth openly.
But God is in the repair business as always. I have no idea of what is in my future, but I have to trust God that it will both honor Him and will be for my best good. But right now it is hard sometimes to envision that future very clearly. I feel like I am getting very mixed messages from those around me and from those who are supposed to be in spiritual authority over me. I cannot tell if those messages are congruent with what God wants to convey to me or are in conflict with it. So I have to trust His heart and to believe that God will continue to lead me, guide me and expose my blind spots as I am ready.
I am reminded of how God has lead me in the past and the wonderful truths that have come to my attention over recent years that have brought me so much peace and a taste of joy. Although there certainly may be areas where I have made mistaken choices about what direction to take in my life, I see a thread of consistency in the ways that God has lead me over time. From this perspective I can choose to believe that God can be trusted to cleanse my temple as necessary, for I cannot take on that project successfully myself. Jesus is the only one that can bring the peace and atmosphere of love and grace into my life that is so necessary for God to safely dwell in me.