One of the greatest struggles Jesus had, as I look into Scripture, is with the leaders of the church of His day.
I know all of us, at one time or another, have had to face a disappointment with someone who, as a Christian, seemed to have acted contrariwise to that claim. We leave that church, perhaps, and then go to another fellowship, looking to restore our faith in those who walk in Jesus.
And yet...we run into another disappointment, and wonder if there is anyone we can call a role model? I left church for a year, because Covid brought out some very prideful and divisive attitudes and behaviors in my brothers and sisters.
I have recently found a fellowship, but I approach it with guarded optimism.
We look to those who lead church as role models; we are not wrong to do this. Think of the rabbinical tradition. People gather around the rabbi, looking to learn from him, not only knowledge of the Torah but how to live it out.
It was no different in Jesus' day. I find it interesting that John introduces his gospel from the eternal perspective: Jesus as the Word of God, incarnated and sent to the very earth He created to redeem us. He is the Light; the Lamb of God; and the Beloved of the Father. All of these designations are introduced to us in the first chapter, in the first 34 verses!
Then in verse 35, we see Jesus as Rabbi. He selects his disciples, His talmidim, and He calls Himself the Son of Man, and "the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth." (1:51) They agree to follow Him.
So, now the Rabbi must face the three most important institutions of His day: The family, as demonstrated by the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) and John comments that this is the first time "Jesus revealed His glory." How beautiful. It is a metaphorical return to Eden, where man and woman had been created to love with no sin. Originally, they had been partners with God, created for fellowship with Him, with each other, and to bring forth life as they came together.
Jesus came to redeem the broken family, the perversion of sex, and the stony hearts of men.
Next, He confronts the second most important institution of His day: the Temple. The Jewish people saw it as God's House, a place of worship and sacrifice, a place of meeting the One Who is sovereign over all. Yet, what does John show Jesus doing? Clearing out His Father's House of its corrupted conversion to a place of commerce. He turned over tables and the money went flying. He angrily says, "Get these things out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a marketplace!" (John 2:16) The disciples, well versed in the Torah, "remembered this prophecy form the Scriptures: 'Passion for God's house will consume me.'" (John 2:17).
The Rabbi then confronted the religious leaders, whose have financially benefited from this arrangement and who were adamantly wanting to stay in control and not attract any attention from the Roman authorities. Any disruption in the Temple courts could have brought the soldiers. The religious leaders were furious and demanded a miracle to prove Jesus had the authority to have done this.
Jesus then struck at the very heart of how far Judaism had fallen from what His Father through Moses and the prophets had revealed to the nation of Israel:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. (John 2:18-25)
Let's see how this passage illustrates the issues Jesus confronted with the church of His day, and how those same issues plague us.
1. The Demand for God to Reveal Himself: No, we are not as brazen as the leaders were in their demands, but in many churches the tacit demand for signs is there. Jesus showing up as the gentle Good Shepherd or the Spirit coming down upon us as a gentle Dove doesn't appeal to our need to have God be there, in signs and wonders, in vocal manifestations--He must prove His presence by showing up in a kind of "holy"chaos. In other words, many churches conduct their services on sight, not faith. Faith is replaced with presumption, and we are like the leaders, demanding God show Himself according to our demands, and He must fit our theology.
2. Not Using the Scriptures as the Sole Guideline for Our Conduct: Instead of saying to Jesus, "Let's see what the Word says about our conduct here in the Temple: Does it align with God's instructions? Have we failed Him or are you in the wrong for doing what you just did, Jesus?" No. They demanded a sign. They didn't use the Word to evaluate Jesus' actions; they went to their own standard to judge Him.
How many churches apologize for what they see as the uncomfortable passages in Scripture, or ignore them altogether, in their effort to be relevant, relational and real? As if God's Word is not relevant (every generation needs the Savior); relational (God commands us to love Him as well as our neighbor) and real (God's ways are not our ways, but they are a "new and living way" that meets us at our deepest need). We have lost confidence in our Savior and His Word to really transform lives, so we dress Him up in cultural gear and send Him out to do our bidding: to be our Life Coach, our Guide to our Best Life, and make His work all about me, me, me. The church is there to make us feel good about ourselves, and woe unto anyone who confronts us about our sin as outlined in His Word.
3. Jesus Came to Redeem Us: Tying back into the earlier names for Jesus in the first chapter of John, Jesus' response to leaders about being Him being the Temple are an allusion to Him being the Light (to drive away the darkness in the religion of His day); being the Lamb of God (The Sacrifice for the people's sins, the final offered Lamb for all sin, for all time) and the Beloved of God (Who will give the people the ultimate proof of Who He is: He will rise from the dead).
We have forgotten the original purpose of the Word: It reveals that we are sinners and that the Messiah will redeem us. He comes not to redo our hearts, but give us new ones. The Father then seeks to conform us to the image of His Son. We live now in the Son and by the Son: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."(Gal. 2:20)
The leaders were protecting their interests in the Temple and missed the true essence of their faith: "You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!" (John 5:39) Do our churches get lost in the marketing of Jesus and lose what His original mission truly was and is?
4. We Bloviate, Opine and Not Ask the Essential Questions, Waiting for the Essential Answers: The leaders just seem to stop in their interrogation of Jesus. He stumped them with His analogy to the Temple; no more questions. The disciples only later will realize what He was referring to; at least they got it--thank You, Holy Spirit! But in the meantime, Jesus goes out to minister to the people, with His signs underscoring His claims. His primary mission was to come and seek and save the lost, not entertain them, or appeal to their fleshly desire for spectacle.
Why didn't the leaders pursue Him with a greater hunger for answers? Because Jesus knew what was truly in their hearts, and He was not about to engage in a debate as to His authority with those with hardened hearts. He also knew how fickle people can be--to quote a Janet Jackson song: "What have you done for me lately?"
We have not because we ask not. We don't give a vigorous sincere knocking on the door, because like the leaders, we may be afraid of the truth on the other side. We'd rather talk than listen, opine rather than learn and leave rather than be confronted with the truth. Why is that? Jesus told Pilate (and us):
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
"What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him." (John 18:37-8)
Jesus tells us why His light is so disconcerting:
“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants." (John 3:18-21)
The church in Jesus' day ran from the truth, ran from Him, and ultimately put Him to death. Do we demand our churches downplay the truth of the Word (by getting angry at those pastors who preach the full counsel of God?) and do we church consumers demand a kind of shadowy mixture of dark and light that makes us feel comfortable and good about ourselves?
But Jesus meets us as individuals, wanting us to ask the hard questions, for He is the answer. Next time, we will walk with Jesus to explore the third most important institution of His day: Those who lead and influence others in the faith, with His encounter with Nicodemus in John 3.
Do we come in the dead of night, seeking Him too?