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By Charles Hunting 

This article was originally published in the July 2000 issue of Focus on the Kingdom.  It was recently posted on the Focus on the Kingdom blog.  It is part one of a two-part series.

Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry and at the apex of his popularity Matthew records the following: “When he entered Jerusalem the whole city went wild with excitement. ‘Who is this?’ people asked, and the crowds replied, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee’” (Matt. 21:10-11; REB used throughout except where noted). John in his abbreviated account of Jesus’ startling interruption of commercial proceedings in the Temple records the Jews’ challenge: “What sign do you show us, seeing that you do these things?” Jesus’ cryptic comment was “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:19). After this encounter Jesus’ activity did not escape the eagle eye of the religious watchdogs. The Messiah had nevertheless continued his regular teaching in the Temple although “the chief priests, scribes and principal men sought to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do for all the people hung on his words” (Luke 19:47, 48).

Those who believe Jesus to be primarily a teacher of ethics with a new religious slant, and a Savior who came mainly to die for our sins, have overlooked the dynamic message with which he challenged the nation of Israel. It was about a new Kingdom freed from Roman control. The Kingdom of God would eventually gain political supremacy over the world. It was the Kingdom which Israel’s ancient prophets had repeatedly predicted (Dan. 2:44; 7:18, 22, 27; Zech. 14:9, etc.). Contemporary biblical historians have captured the real essence of Messiah Jesus’ message. It announced a spectacular turn of events for the nation of Israel and the creation “of a new world order.” Peter Jennings’ recent ABC production about the “Irresistible Story of Jesus” featured leading scholars who attested to the obvious fact that “Kingdom of God,” the heart of the Gospel, is a thoroughly political term. One of these, Professor N.T. Wright, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, had written:

“Jesus was announcing a message, a word from Israel’s covenant God….He was a herald, the bringer of an urgent message that could not wait, could not become the stuff of academic debate. He was issuing a public invitation, like someone setting up a new political party and summoning all and sundry to sign up and help create a new world order. The old picture of Jesus as the teacher of timeless truths, or even the announcer of an essentially timeless call for decision, will simply have to go. His announcement of the Kingdom was a warning of imminent catastrophe, a summons to an immediate change of heart” (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 172, 173).

Until this basic fact about the Christian Gospel is recognized the true picture of Jesus is fatally obscured. For many who are unaware of what Jesus was really about, his actions are largely consigned to irrelevance in this modern age.

“I must give the Good News of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, for that is what I was sent to do” (Luke 4:43). With this formal purpose statement Jesus provided us with a clear description of his Messianic agenda. But how could his explosive action in the Temple benefit his Kingdom mission? This man, with a not uncommon name of Jesus (Yeshua), born into a working class family who felt at ease with the less than elite, was viewed as a potent political threat to the establishment. The sheer dynamism of his personality and the politically-charged content of his message addressed to an occupied nation inevitably caught the imagination of his audience.

There can be no doubt: Jesus was perceived as a threat to the religious and political establishment. Mark 11:18 records the desire of the Temple authorities to kill him: “The Chief priests and the scribes heard of this [the Temple cleansing] and looked for a way to bring about his death; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” His miracles appeared to authenticate his mission in contrast to the failure of previous would-be Messiahs. But why, at this time, after viewing the abuse of the temple throughout his ministry, should he engage in a provocative act that could only hasten his death? His violent intrusion in the Temple must have had a meaning far beyond that of a frustrated reformer acting in an emotional frenzy. What lay behind his dramatic interference with the heart of Israel’s worship, the hub of the nation’s service to God?

This article is written to suggest answers to these questions — answers with far-reaching implications for the way we understand Christian faith today. In Jesus’ time one problem was obvious. Israel had failed dismally under the existing religious system. A new message going to both Israel and all nations was needed. That new Message involved a definite break with Moses. We invite your careful open-mindedness as you weigh the evidence (Acts 17:11).

Matthew, Mark and Luke place Jesus’ temple-cleansing near the end of the Messiah’s ministry on earth. All four gospel accounts describe his triumphal entry as Messiah as the culminating event of his career. From the complete picture we conclude that these incidents were deliberately planned. They were Jesus’ most powerfully symbolic acts, driving home the point of his royal Messianic agenda.

Jesus had gathered a large following from the surrounding countryside. This crowd had earlier wanted to make him king (John 6:40). A mass of Jews were supportive of Jesus’ claim to be the long-promised Messiah, though only an inner circle understood how the Messianic program was to be worked out. Jesus’ public march to the Temple was at the season of a national Holy Day, insuring maximum exposure. He had taken with him the celebrated, resurrected Lazarus as part of his entourage. Lazarus had also been marked for assassination by the Temple authorities (John 12:9-19).

If Jesus had wanted to commit a public act by which the weakness and vulnerability of the Temple could be established, now was the time. His popular appeal showed he was no longer to be considered a harmless preacher with merely a new slant on established religious principles. Jesus was a charismatic powerhouse whose Message threatened the controlling base of the political and theological “ins.” As with any religious shrine, the Vatican of Catholicism, the Mormon Temple of the followers of Joseph Smith, or Mecca, the holy city of Islam, the Temple was the center of all that symbolized the Jewish faith. Those in charge of this shrine were threatened with a loss of control over the minds of the people.

Jesus calculated that something new and dramatic must be introduced. A change of religious heart could not be achieved by the mere sprucing up of the ancient system. Jesus’ major point was this: Restoration to personal and national freedom could not be gained in the way Israel had been directing its energies. Militant messiahs had repeatedly failed to remove the Roman boot from their neck. A free Israel would not arise through political intrigue or insurrection.

God had given Israel a brilliant set of laws — a moat of protection against the lure of rampant paganism, the treacherous pull of surrounding nations and their own self-destructive natures. Every segment of Israel’s life, agricultural practices, personal hygiene and diet were subject to divine legislation. A priesthood was in place to administer those laws, which set standards as well as penalties for misconduct. To keep them in constant remembrance of the presence of God in their midst a truly magnificent Temple had been erected and a set of annual Holy days enacted to preserve Israel’s awareness of her unique national calling to be the light of the world and model state.

Despite the divine brilliance of the system, human weakness had undermined its effectiveness to produce the desired result. With the coming of the Messiah, however, a new program was revealed. Jesus made this quite clear with his classic statement: “The Law and Prophets were until John. Since that time the Kingdom of God has been preached” (Luke 16:16). A new era had dawned with John (Matt. 3:2) and Jesus (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:14, 15). A message previously hidden from the world at large was to reveal a divine scheme for reshaping the world, “to be put into effect when the time was ripe” (Eph. 1:10). The new plan was revolutionary. It meant that both Jew and Gentile could share equally in the promises given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-4; 13:14; 15:18; 17:7, 8, etc.). But how was this to be accomplished? The Mosaic system had failed even with the chosen nation. How could the hostile Gentile world be expected to conform to the will of the God of Israel?

It was into a decaying system of flaunted laws, injustice, political intrigue, religious confusion and national captivity that Jesus was born. As the promised Messiah he was the bearer of a new political Message about saving the nation and the world from ruin. Tragically, as we now know, the Message and the warning to Israel went largely unheeded. The Jewish people as a whole disregarded or resisted the “upstart” Messiah (John 1:11). What followed was the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70 and the dispersion of the people among the nations of the world. The Temple and the ideals it stood for had been so badly misused that its symbolism was now a hindrance to what God had planned. Jesus, predicting the tragedy about to befall his people, lamented: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not let me. Look! There is your temple, forsaken by God and laid waste.” The time of the Temple’s usefulness and the Mosaic system which it promoted was at an end! (Matt. 23:37-38).

To further his message of renewal and hope Jesus built a power base away from the population centers and in the area of northern Galilee. He issued a new set of standards to be met by those invited to kingship in his coming kingdom. The old Mosaic system divinely proclaimed at Mt. Sinai, was inappropriate to the new Kingdom agenda.

Aware (like all genuine reformers) that his message would be misunderstood, Jesus reassured his audience with the words: “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law but to fulfill it…Truly I tell you, so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot will disappear from the law until all that must happen will happen. Anyone who sets aside even the least of the law’s demands and teaches others to do so will have the lowest place in the Kingdom of heaven.” Heaven and earth still endure, and the Torah, in its heightened sense as taught by Jesus — as “filled full” of new meaning — is still very much in force. But note that the “law’s demands” were of a different order from those given to Moses and interpreted by the leaders of Israel. “I tell you, unless you show yourselves far better than the scribes and Pharisees, you can never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” So Jesus warned (Matt. 5:17-20).

Introducing the words of the New Covenant (according to Matthew in five blocks of instruction), Jesus taught his disciples that the “law’s demands” would put one in a right relation with God and man. Under the new system mercy, justice and faith would reign. This ideal the Mosaic pattern had not been able to achieve because of human weakness. Consequently there needed to be a change in the priesthood and the law, as well as in the hearts of the people — not the abolition of all law but a change!

Five times early in his ministry in Matthew 5:21ff. Jesus makes a clear case that the Mosaic law was not the ultimate guide. Jesus was advocating a new direction in view of what was to be a charter for the whole world. He said, “You have heard (from the forefathers)….but I tell you this…” “Moses allowed you to divorce for the hardness of your hearts, but I say…” This was an explicit switching from the Mosaic prescriptions to his own pattern of grace and truth (cp. John 1:17, for the contrast between Moses and Jesus; also Matt. 19:12 for Jesus’ non-Mosaic view of eunuchs; Deut. 23:1). Jesus now takes the place of Moses: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me [not Moses]…If you love me obey my commandments”(John 14:6, 15). This is not to deny that the Mosaic system had been divinely instituted, but if God saw a need for change, He was free to do this. The change agent in this case was the new Mediator, the ultimate “Moses,” the man Messiah Jesus (I Tim. 2:5), man as he was divinely intended to be.

The changes were dramatic. Jesus bypassed the established Temple sacrificial system when he declared that he had the power to forgive sin. Not surprisingly this claim caused consternation among the Temple representatives. “This man is blaspheming,” they cried, when Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus’ reply to their charge was simply to tell the man, “Stand up and walk, take your bed, and go home.” Addressing the professional theologians, the scribes, he said, “To convince you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins I will heal this man” (Matt. 9:2-7). Recognizing this implied revolution as an intolerable threat to traditional practice, the scribes remained unconvinced and hostile.

Note another of Jesus’ changes in the law regarding purification. “On another occasion he called the people and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you and understand this: nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him; no, it is the things that come out of a person that defile him.’ His disciples didn’t understand. He chided them: ‘Are you as dull as the rest? Do you not see that nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, because it does not go into the heart but into the stomach and goes out into the drain?’ By saying this he declared all foods clean”(Mark 7:14-20).

It required a compelling vision in Acts 10 to help Peter erase life-long indoctrination. He had to come to grips with the fact that the Message was now open to the Gentile world, and laws of clean and unclean food were unsuitable for the new conditions. The Gospel message about the Kingdom would be greatly inhibited if the Gentile world were obliged to follow Mosaic food laws. Such restrictions would be impossible in some parts of the world. Paul, facing new believers’ reservations about food, wrote in his letter to the church at Rome: “All that I know of the Lord Jesus convinces me that nothing [referring to food] in itself is impure; only if anyone considers something impure, then for him it is impure…All things are clean” (Rom. 14:14, 20). Paul negates the distinction between the common (koinos) and the clean. He dismisses the impure (akarthatos — “unclean by nature”) by maintaining that “all things are now pure (katharos — “pure by nature”). It is a matter not of law but of conscience. To insist that the Apostle was a staunch promoter of Jewish food laws seems a travesty of his plain words here. Paul has taken both words used in the Old Testament to describe the “common” and the “unclean” and negated both. (Here we appeal to our friends in the various Sabbath-keeping groups to reconsider some of their bases, lest they be found muddling two incompatible covenants.)

(To be continued…)

3 Responses to ““Destroy This Temple”: The End of the Mosaic System (Pt. 1)”

  1. on 25 Oct 2010 at 4:41 amJoseph

    Let’s atleast be consistent, what does it mean in Zacharias when we are told that in the Kingdom there will be celebrating Torah traditions?

  2. on 25 Oct 2010 at 5:06 amMark C.

    Joseph,

    What specific reference in Zechariah are you speaking of?

  3. on 25 Oct 2010 at 8:26 amrobert

    All I can say is if the means to entering this promise has ended then there is no way to add to those entering this Sabbath rest promise. Which from Hebrews we know this promise is still offered to those possessing the signs of Israel.
    Salvation is something that comes after the Sabbath rest and is the promise of Grace to ALL nations which judgement will be on matters of the heart not the Law of Moses.

  

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