This day is Palm Sunday throughout the Christian Church. A day for palm branches and processionals. On this day donkeys and children get more attention than usual. This is the day we hear the crowd hailing Jesus as king. On the traditional calendar it is a day of celebration, second only to Easter Sunday. And yet, the strange thing is that this is the first day of holy week which is a week filled with sadness. I suspect the burden of the Lenten season with its more somber notes became somewhat intolerable and we would rather wave palm branches than wear their ashes on our foreheads. For the Children this was a festival day. For the crowd it was a day to celebrate. But for Jesus it was day in which something very serious had to be done.
The Cleansing of the Temple (21:12-17)
For, his entry into Jerusalem was immediately followed by his entry into the temple in that city. And when he entered, he began to turn everything upside down. He drove out the vendors. Overturned tables and the cash boxes. He kicked over chairs of the hawkers of goods and drove the animals out. His words are scathing. He quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.”It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves.” That act stuck in the craw and stuck in the memory of many people that day.
Not One Stone (24:1-2)
A few days later he is back in the temple and has been in controversy with its leaders. He came out of the temple, when his disciples stopped him. They want to take on the role of tourists. “Look at the stones, look at these magnificent buildings!” And they were spectacular.
This temple had been constructed by Herod the Great and his descendants. In fact the temple that Jesus came to was so brand new that it had been finished only five to ten years before his visit there. For 46 years, more than 10,000 workers had worked on this great monument and had transposed a modest building into one of the marvels of that ancient world. It was 150 feet high. Some of the stones that were used were 40 feet long, 18 feet wide and 12 feet high. There was a bridge leading to the temple that was 350 feet long and 50 feet wide that was a wonder of engineering. The temple had 162 identical pillars, 37 feet high, and each one carved from a single piece of marble.
And the temple was beautiful. The walls were constructed of white marble that from a distance looked like rippled snow or the waves of the sea. The white and gold decor could dazzle a pilgrim when the rising sun hit it at the start of a day. Inside there were embroidered tapestries and curtains. Gold work was resplendent throughout.
No cost had been spared to make it a fabulous palace for the God of Israel. It was a tourist’s dream. The disciples, like you and I would have been, were overwhelmed by its sheer size, stability, beauty and value. They say to Jesus, “What a building!”
Jesus responds, “Do you see all this? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left upon another. Everything you see will be thrown down to the ground.” There were people who upon hearing that, would have found their anxiety level rising. They would remember his words, with a bit of distortion.
The Accusation at His trial. (26:61)
Within the week Jesus had been arrested. He is brought to trial. Witnesses line up to bring negative testimony. But their words are too weird, and they are not believed. The false witnesses are dismissed, until two men tell a similar story. “We heard him say that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.” Suddenly the drowsy Sanhedrin comes awake. They knew of his cleansing the temple five days earlier. They may have heard his words about not one stone being left on another. And here are witnesses that Jesus intends to destroy this sacred site. Because the two men do not quite agree there is still confusion at the trial, so they get him on the charge of blasphemy because of his claim to be the Son of God.
On the cross (27:40)
But it is interesting to note that on the hill of Golgotha, when he is nailed to the cross, those who taunt him yell the words, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” They are fixated on the temple. It might be one of the primary reasons for some to have wanted to kill this man before their beautiful temple is destroyed.
So, on a Friday, Jesus is crucified. He hangs on the cross through those early afternoon hours. Suddenly at three O’clock in the afternoon, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, and in that cry of triumph, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” Jesus surrenders His life. That’s the end of Him! The temple is safe. Life can now go on as usual.
The Tearing of the Veil (27:51)
But Matthew, who has told us about the cleansing and the prediction, and the trial and the mockery says, hold on. We’re not finished yet. He writes: “Then Jesus cried with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit, and at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, the earth shook and the stones were split…”
That tearing of the veil that separated the main temple sanctuary from the Holy of Holies was the first hairline fracture that marked the beginning of the collapse of the temple. Within 40 years the temple, the city, the nation would be no more. The splitting of the stones of the temple mount, the fracturing of those magnificent stones that weight tons and looked as solid as the earth itself, in the moment of his death were hit a hammer’s blow that started the whole thing rocking and cracking. For the temple was rotten from within. The hammer blow of that loud cry of triumph did not create the weakness, it simply revealed that the temple was decayed from the inside.
But why would Jesus be so critical of the temple? Because he stands in a long lineage of prophets. Almost to a man, the ancient prophets of Israel are critical of the temple. The temple too often became a surrogate God. It became the focus of attention, instead of the needs of neighbour or the glory of God. The temple, created as a means to God, becomes an end in itself. In Jeremiah’s day the leaders were sure that no harm could come to them because the temple was in Jerusalem which was the house of God. As long as the house was there, then God’s protection was guaranteed. The temple had God under house arrest. Jeremiah says, “Don’t presume that. God is about to break out of His own house, and it will come tumbling down,” and it did.
The prophet Ezekiel faces the same presumption, so through visions he shows the flame of the glory of God leaving the Ark of the covenant, and flying to the doorway, then to the outskirts of the city and then over to Babylon. Ezekiel is inferring, “God has fled from His temple, and like a house of cards it will come tumbling down around your heads.”
Prophets are critical of religion and the temple because they have this terrible tendency to lead people away from God, not towards Him. Jesus coming to save his people, has come not only to save them from their sins, but to save them from their supposed virtues. He has come to save them from their religiosity. He has come to change their focus from mere involvement with religious activity, to a relationship with God Himself.
But that was a long time ago. What word does this have for you and me?
– There is in all of us a tendency to make too much of the outward forms of religion, and too little of the inwardness of religion.
– We find it easier to relate to the church buildings and to church programs, than to relate to God.
– It is always easier to be church-men and women, than to be Christian.
– It is easier to be a tourist and a spectator in the life of the Kingdom of God, than to be in personal relationship with God and His people.
The ancient temple and the contemporary church are not ends in and of themselves. They are intended to lead us towards an encounter and a continued involvement with God Himself. When the church becomes the focal point of our affection and our attention, we are committing idolatry, just as surely as those that bow down to idols. When we fasten our attention on ways and means that God has provided, rather than on the purposes for which those means were created, we are idol worshippers.