Monthly Archives: August 2011

Clearing Out

(Graphic from ChristArt.com)

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous 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.”
The Jews 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.
John 2:12-22 (NIV)

Even when He was here on earth, Jesus was misunderstood by people a lot of the time.  To the religious leaders, Jesus’ clearing of the temple was a show of force; a claim to authority.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The heart of God is in clear view throughout this episode.  To understand that, you have to understand a little bit about the temple complex.  When most people think of the temple, we tend to picture the building itself – kind of like we would picture a church building.  But the temple complex was actually a nested series of areas, each one from the inside out considered more holy than the next.  In the innermost layer was the 30x30x30 foot room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place.  In Solomon’s Temple this was where the Ark of the Covenant sat.  But sometime in the midst of the Babylonian Captivity, the Ark disappeared; to this day no one knows where it went.  So in Jesus’ day, the Holy of Holies was empty.  But it was still considered the place where God Himself lived in a very tangible way.  And every year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would go alone into the Most Holy Place with the blood of a bull to make atonement for the sins of all the people.

Outside the curtain leading to the Most Holy Place was the Sanctuary, or Holy Place.  This was a glorious room, covered with gold, with a series of gold lamp stands along one wall, and a series of tables with unleavened bread on them along the opposite wall.  At the far end of the room, right outside the curtain to the Holy of Holies was a golden incense altar.  Twice each day a priest would be chosen by lot to go into the Sanctuary and burn a pinch of incense on the altar.  It was a significant moment in every priest’s life.  It was here that Zechariah, while burning the incense, was met by an angel who told him that he was going to have a son named John (the baptizer).

Outside the Sanctuary was a large courtyard containing the huge altar of burnt offerings and numerous washbasin for the priests to clean up in.  The only ones who could come into this area of the complex were the priests and Levites who were helping to make the offerings.  Outside this court was the Court of Israel.  To this court any ceremonially clean male could come and present his sacrifice to the priests and Levites to be offered up to the Lord.  Just outside of that court was the Court of the Women.  In Jewish culture back then the women were not permitted to approach the Lord directly, so they ended up standing further back.

Outside of that court was a huge courtyard called the Court of the Gentiles.  Even though it was outside of the Jewish courtyards, and so wasn’t considered holy ground, it was part of the Temple Complex.  The purpose for the Court of the Gentiles was so any gentile who wanted to seek the true God of the universe could do so.  From the Court of the Gentiles they could see the temple building, they could hear the singing (and join in, if they wanted), and they could smell the smoke of the sacrifices being lifted up to God.  It was a place designed for outreach and evangelism; a place where people could come and find God.

But in Jesus’ day the atmosphere around the Court of the Gentiles wasn’t really conducive to evangelism.  Since it was a large open space, and since it wasn’t on “holy ground,” the vendors, who sold certified sacrificial animals, and the money changers, who would change Roman money for Jewish money suitable for making offerings, set up their booths there.  It was a busy, noisy place, smelling like a barnyard, with vendors shouting out their wares, and loud discussions about exchange rates and the quality of sacrificial animals.  Not exactly conducive to worship!

When Jesus saw this atmosphere, and understood that it would actively prevent any outsider from being able to come and learn of the true God and worship Him, He just lost it.  He quickly braided a whip from cords and used it to drive the sheep and cattle (NOT the people!) out of the courtyard.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and chastised the dove sellers.  And His words to all of them were, “Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

Now a lot of people have figured that what Jesus was upset about was that there was buying and selling going on in the Temple area, and they have passed rules that no one is to sell anything in the church – no Christmas Craft Sales, no rummage sales, no fundraising.  But the main thing that got Jesus’ goat was not specifically the marketing activity, but the fact that it was specifically interfering with the evangelism efforts.  The people were ignoring God’s command that they were to be a light for the gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), and were instead caught up in their own stuff!  Jesus, using very politically incorrect and attention-grabbing means, was actually calling the people back to the main purpose for all of God’s people – outreach!  Outreach was why He had come, to bring near those who were far away; it was God’s calling for all of God’s people, and He wasn’t going to let their “standard procedures” get in the way!

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No Sweat!

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.  Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
John 2:1-11 (NIV)

I think a lot of people think that Jesus was a “miracle-a-minute” kind of guy.  That if we were to hang around Jesus he would just constantly be performing one miracle after another.  And I’m sure that there were times that that was true.  But the miracles that Jesus did always seemed to have a deeper purpose behind them.  In other words, He never really seemed to do miracles for miracles sake.  There was always an agenda behind everything He did.

John gives us the earliest pictures of Jesus’ public ministry, and up to this time the only thing that He had done that would even seem like a miracle was His insight into Nathanael’s character that He had gotten before He had even met him.  But even without the miracles, His teachings and His character were enough to convince His new followers that Jesus was at least a great prophet, and possibly even the long-awaited Messiah.

Then came the wedding.  Most people at that time wouldn’t consider a wedding feast to be a likely spot for a miracle to happen.  Usually weddings were happy times, and the sick and lame and blind and destitute usually didn’t attend them.  But as the wedding feast proceeded, the wine ran out – to many people’s mind a tragedy of the highest degree!  How could the festivities go on without wine?

Jesus mother approached Him with the problem, and His answer seems kind of harsh to our ears:  “Dear woman, why do you involve me?  My time has not yet come.”  But a better translation of the Greek would be, “What does this have to do with you and me?  (We’re not the caterers – the ones who have been given the job should see to this.)  It is not yet time for me to begin working miracles.”  But His mother just blows by His objections, telling the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”  And then she apparently just walks away, leaving Jesus there with the servers.

So what is Jesus to do?  He doesn’t feel that His time has yet come, but here He is, expected to do something miraculous to save the feast!  Looking ahead to John 5:19 (Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”) I can easily believe that He didn’t make a single move without asking His Father what He should do.  Having received the answer that now WAS the time for His first miracle, He sprang into action.

Now I have seen a lot of movies about Jesus, and they all depict Him doing miracles.  And when He does a miracle in these movies He really concentrates, His eyes get all wide, and He even gets all red in the face from the effort of doing the miraculous.  What a contrast to the way the Bible shows Him working.  No waving of the hands, no magic words, no “focusing” of His power.  He simply has the servers fill six jars to the brim, and then dip out glasses of freshly made wine!  Simple.  In a very real sense, it didn’t even seem like He was involved.  He never touched the water or the vases; the servers did all the work, and He simply empowered their efforts to make the miracle happen.

I think that we depict Jesus straining to make a miracle happen because, first of all, it wouldn’t make good cinema if we didn’t, but also because such amazing miracles would be so hard for us to pull off that most people imagine that, if there ever WAS a chance of us doing something like that, it would take a lot of grunting and groaning, and gesturing.  But we always have to remember that, even though He was 100% human, at the same time Jesus was also 100% God!  The same God who made the whole universe with a mere word from His lips.  No grunting or groaning or gesturing to bring every sun and every planet in the whole universe into being.  Making water into wine would be child’s play compared to that.  So would healing the sick, or raising the dead, or any other miracle that we could think of.

I think that that is vital for us to remember today.  When we ask God for even a mighty miracle, it’s never hard for Him to do “immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine…” (Ephesians 3:20)  The biggest thing we could possibly ask for won’t even make Him break a sweat.  Whatever challenge we have, whatever impossible thing we find ourselves up against, God can do by simply instructing us and letting His power flow through our efforts, producing miracles beyond our wildest dreams!

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Finding the Stairs

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee.  Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.”  He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
John 1:43-51 (NIV)

Again, we see the new disciples of Jesus spontaneously bringing their friends to Him as well.  First it was Andrew who brought his brother Simon to Jesus, and now it is Philip, who brings his friend Nathanael.  And all without a single evangelism class!  All they did was to urge those closest to them into the presence of the one who had changed them, and the encounter was life-changing for those they brought as well.

In this case, Nathanael is at first skeptical of Philip’s claim that he had actually found the Messiah (the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote), because of where He was from.  Nathanael really seems to have been a person with a very strong grasp of the Scriptures, and if that was the case, he would have known two things for sure.  First, according to the prophets, especially Daniel, it was definitely time for the Messiah to show up.  But second, the Messiah should be from Bethlehem, in the south of the country, not from Nazareth up north!  It’s not that Nazareth was a terrible place to have as your hometown; it was that it was the wrong place for the Messiah to come from, according to the Bible, which was the only real criteria that mattered.  (Jesus actually was born in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1 and Luke 2:4-6) in fulfillment of the prophecy in Micah 5:2, but He was known as Jesus of Nazareth, after the town that His family moved to after His birth.)

Philip’s answer to Nathanael’s doubts is simple and elegant:  “Come and see.”  So often people hesitate to tell people about Jesus, because they are afraid that they will be asked questions that they don’t have the answer for, or that objections will be raised that they can’t explain.  But the most satisfactory answer to them all is that, once you meet Jesus, you will find the answers in Him to the important questions, and the rest will simply fade into the background.  In a relationship with Jesus, every answer can be found; outside of that relationship, even the right answers won’t be satisfying.

When Nathanael meets Jesus, Jesus completely disarms him by telling him all about himself:  “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”  This is not just a compliment; it is a solid judgment of Nathanael and his character.  He is a man of godly character, not like Jacob the schemer and scoundrel, but like Israel, Jacob after he had become submissive to the God who had mastered him.  He was a man who was waiting for the Messiah and who was ready for His appearing.

He also described to the stunned Nathanael exactly what he had been doing before Philip had arrived – sitting and meditating under a fig tree (a favorite place for students of the Bible to study, because of the shade of its large leaves).  That was all it took for Nathanael.  Jesus hadn’t been anywhere near where he was studying, and if He knew about that, He must know everything.  He immediately declared Jesus to be the Son of God, meaning the true Messiah, as well as the King of Israel, a true descendent of David, who would be eligible to rule over the whole nation.

I can almost hear Jesus laugh as He says, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.  I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  He is reminding this “true descendent of Israel/Jacob” about Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:12) where he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway stretched between heaven and earth.  What Jesus seems to be saying is that He Himself is the one who will be a conduit between mankind and God, a veritable ladder by which God descended to mankind, and by which mankind can ascend into God’s presence.  And He promised Philip that he would be a witness to that.

Three and a half years later, Philip was among those gathered in the upper room after Jesus’ crucifixion, with the doors locked for fear of the Jesus.  Suddenly the resurrected Jesus walked right through the locked door into their midst, bringing with Him the fulfillment of this promise.  From that moment forward, the gates of heaven were thrown open to anyone who will trust in Jesus, the stairway into God’s presence.

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