Jesus Cleared the Temple, but not the Colosseum

Ok, so he didn’t get to Rome.  That was left to Paul.  But in response to my post The Bible for Losers a number of people have expressed concern that I am advocating a defeatist attitude when it comes to how we deal with the wider culture. There is a tone – explicit and implicit in the responses – that indicate I am almost throwing up my hands at the drift away from the Christian worldview and saying “Meh, what can you do?”  The names Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer have been bandied around as examples of those who did not cave in, and in fact, spoke out against the prevailing tide of opinion in their own peculiar settings.

One particular respondent reminded me that Jesus, faced with the outrage in the temple, in which the Gentiles were unable to access its outer court due to the indifference toward them of those exchanging money and selling sacrificial animals, cleansed the temple. (John 2:13-22 records this at the start of his public ministry, the Synoptics at the conclusion, though there may have been two instances). Shouldn’t we express the same outrage in our nation?  But it is the OT quote that the disciples recall later that is most striking in John’s account:

His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.

This is a direct quote from Psalm 69, which is a call for God to save the Psalmist, who is being sorely tested due to his righteousness.  It is interesting how Psalm 69 concludes:

Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and all that move in them,
35 for God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah.
Then people will settle there and possess it;
36     the children of his servants will inherit it,
and those who love his name will dwell there.

There is a direct focus on the people of God and their broken down cities.  These are a people under great oppression.  The Promised Land is threatened, but the Psalmist is confident that God’s people will be restored.  And how will the cosmos respond to the restoration of the people of God in the land of God?  They will give God the praise due his name.

So what’s my point?  What does it have to do with Jesus clearing the temple and not the Colosseum?  Exactly this:  Just as in Psalm 69 it is the restoration and wholeness of the people of God that will usher in praise from the cosmos.  God will be glorified in the world when the church, the new temple of God, is restored to its proper role and function as a people who showcase God’s grace, love and mercy to undeserving people. The Israel equivalent is the church not the nation.  Get that wrong, and you can get a lot else wrong too.  Zeal for “the house” did indeed consume Jesus, because it was primarily his open defiance of the religious leaders, centred around the temple as the place of power,  that led him to the cross.  Jesus was not defying the temple. No, he was calling for the temple to be showcased for what it was: the place that allowed the nations to access the one true God who, whilst he was Israel’s God, was their God for the sake of the nations (Genesis 12:1-3 etc).  

What do I conclude from this in the ongoing debate about whether my comments amount to me being defeatist in the culture?  I would say this:

The church’s primary problem is not that it has taken a defeatist attitude to the culture, but that it has taken a defeatist attitude to itself.

How so? Well let me provide some examples where we accept defeat in the church rather than demonstrate the zeal that Jesus died for:

1. In a culture of individualism we no longer expect the church to champion and exhibit “thick” and costly community.  Our major decisions in life are all made prior to what we do about church.  Job first, then school, then house, then whatever is our “thing”…and then, finally, way down the list, we look around and see what churches are on offer within twenty minutes drive.  Our default is that the “individual” rules, so don’t expect anything but short shrift if you call Christians to account or attempt to practice godly discipline in the community.

2. We have started to reflect the contract-oriented nature of our culture and not the covenant-oriented nature of our God within relationships, especially our marriages.  The trends in Christian marriages is probably only a decade or so behind the trends in the culture.  In all of the kerfuffle over same-sex marriage the church in the West needs to ask whether it is a good example of  covenant faithfulness and covenant-keeping in its own marriages.  Do Christian marriages in general exhibit something better than a quid-pro-quo approach to marriage?  And as for people making a “covenant with their eyes”, well, the less said about internet porn addiction in the church, the better.

3. Prayer.  Jesus called God’s house a “house of prayer”.  It’s pretty much fallen off the map in our corporate gatherings, i.e the “household of God”. Much of it has descended to the level of what we used to refer to as the “uni student prayer” – “Dear God, we just  really honestly want to say Amen.”  With such a tight schedule to get through on a Sunday morning prayer seems to be the last on the list and first off it, expendable and nowhere near as important as singing, for example.  (Stop-watch the length of singing this Sunday and then stop-watch the length of the prayers. Go on! Dare ya!)

That’s just a small, representative list, and it’s not there to say “Look how bad the church is!”, but it is there to point out that when it comes to church we probably don’t have very high expectations of what God’s community could be like. If not defeated, then certainly not winning either! Now I am aware that mis-directed zealotry can get you into all sorts of trouble, and I have belonged to a group whose zeal burned people up, and resulted in first-tier versus second-tier Christians.  But still, there was a glimpse in there, that making the gathered people of God your primary focus wasn’t actually a bad thing!  It did indeed result in a lot of good.  It also resulted in a world that looked on, not in scorn or mockery, nor indeed looked away in disinterest, but one that looked on with curiosity as it witnessed otherwise seemingly normal Westerners living such radically different lives together.

I am grateful to be experiencing church that way in my current congregation.  We’re not planning on placarding Parliament about anything anytime soon, but in small grassroots ways we are living lives in such a way that those looking on are tempted to praise God.  And you know what? Rather than the foul odour of defeat, it’s started to produce the sweet bouquet of victory.

7 Comments

  1. Mate, like as far as blog posts go, that was brilliant. Before we try social justice outside how about trying it inside first. Before calling for the sanctity of marriage on the steps of parliament lets try live it out inside. (I’m sitting in the back seat of a car at the moment so forgive my short nonsensical comments. But spot on. Oh and partly doing things outside helps us avoid the more challenging thing of having to do it inside Jensen why we do it. Or something like that.

  2. “But in response to my post The Bible for Losers a number of people have expressed concern that I am advocating a defeatist attitude when it comes to how we deal with the wider culture. There is a tone – explicit and implicit in the responses – that indicate I am almost throwing up my hands at the drift away from the Christian worldview and saying “Meh, what can you do?”

    Your intro above seemed to me to introduce the post as one which would respond to those criticisms, and discuss what role Christians should have in the political sphere. But to me it seemed to duck that bit and raise separate issue. First it weaved a little, by responding to the argument that Jesus cleared the temple. Which agreed, isn’t a good argument for political reform. But just because that isn’t an argument for Christians to influence political systems doesn’t mean all other arguments are invalid – eg, the clear good done by Wilberforce. It looked like you packaged the objections together, and answered it with your exegesis on the temple story as though that invalidated the package of objections. Then feinted in another direction – shifting the discussion to another/separate issue, the necessary, continual reform of the Church.

    I say, the need for reform in the Church doesn’t trump or invalidate the need for Christians to be involved in the reform of society, in all kinds of justice and morality issues. We can’t think – first let’s sort out the Church then get onto society when our backyard is in order. Having said those things, I certainly hold that Christians must wisely keep in mind the weight of the eternal vs the temporary when exercising our energies.

    Finally, of course as the writer of your blog, you can weave your posts in any direction you want to.

    1. Dude
      As usual you leave me with lots to think about. However I have just mowed my lawn and while mowing it said to myself that whoever the next person was on my blog who mentioned Wilberforce, that I would respond to them with the following:

      Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer roll off our tongues way too easily. And it’s a relatively safe thing to do, since we don’t have to judge the response to them today in light of 18th-19th century Christianised UK or 20th century Nazi Germany. The closest example we have of a Christian politicised influence that created a big stir in the modern western democratic world is the Moral Majority in the US in the 1980s. It proved to be neither moral, nor a majority and collapsed under the weight of its own hubris and grasp for political power.

      hence I am not saying don’t try to change things outside the church I am saying that the primary way social change is going to happen is through changed hearts. The damage done to the gospel through the MM was fairly extensive and unless we can come up with a better way to do it, we need to be fairly careful. I also think there is a marked difference between the wretched experience of slaves and of those under Nazi control, and the experience of fairly well to do middle class Christians who don’t like the way the prevailing culture is turning against them.

  3. That’s good Steve. We need to get into the nitty gritty of this conversation. It’s an important one. But, what do you do with changed hearts? Isn’t the natural response of a changed heart to love and to care – to want to see good environmental policies? Fair trade policy? Human rights upheld? A government that cares about the poor in distant lands as well as it’s own? Minimum wages? Ages of consent to protect the child? Legal protections for workers in terms of safety standards? Laws against exploitation? Limits on what can be shown on free to air tv? Abortion? Experimentation on human embryos? — Who speaks into such matters? People with no conscience who’s only goal is to satisfy their lusts, or to satisfy their greed? Or should it be left to other religious systems to create or influence the laws of this country?

    There is no doubt that Christians getting involved in such things is a messy business. There’s no doubt that there will be polarisation and mistakes of judgement, and that at time Christians will offend the culture in what they stand for. Yes, it will be messy. But in the process dialogue occurs, people think, they make mistakes and they learn – but they also can and do bring positive change – or at the least prevent negative change. The principle from the Wilberforce’s is that engagement in our political system matters. And that it can bring important change. His issues were different from ours – but in him and others we see that Christians should be responsible members of society – who take responsibility for what happens in it.

  4. Having said all that, I choose to direct my life down the direction you advocate – towards changing hearts – rather than laws and policies. But I cheer on whole heatedly those who feel compelled to influence the latter.

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