Jesus the Zealot

Jesus the Zealot

As the Temple housed the ark of the covenant containing the law of God so too Christ is the incarnate Word and consummate revelation of God. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1). As the temple was the meeting place between God and man where his people would come to worship, so we meet God in Christ Jesus and only through Him is our worship made acceptable.

In 1516, Johan Tetzel was dispatched by Pope Leo X to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling indulgences. According to the Roman Catholic Church, when one purchased an indulgence, the Pope would remit the punishment of their sin by applying the merit of Jesus and the saints. Tetzel told the poor peasants whom he preyed on, “When a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This blasphemous greed sparked the righteous indignation of a German monk named Martin Luther, who on Oct. 31, 1517 nailed a document to the cathedral doors of Wittenberg, listing 95 complaints, or theses, against the Roman Catholic Church. Luther insisted that God alone, not the Pope, could remit the guilt and penalty of sin; that the sale of indulgences was a crime against humanity and heaven for the merit of Christ alone, not of Mary, martyrs and saints, was able to save the soul. The Lord used Luther’s zeal to ignite the Protestant Reformation. And as the Roman Catholic Church still sells indulgences, we are still protesting Protestants.

In John 2:12-22, we read of another infinitely greater zealot, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was so incensed by the greed and corruption that had infected the church, his Father’s house, he broke out in holy fury to reform it, for Jesus is zealous for pure worship and we should be too.

First, Jesus displays his zeal. From the wedding in Cana, to Capernaum, Jesus “went up to Jerusalem because the Passover of the Jews was at hand” (John 2:13). Passover was 1 of 7 feast days instituted by God in the Old Testament, whereby the church would celebrate his past faithfulness. Passover honored the Lord’s mercy when the angel of death killed all the firstborn of Egypt but passed over Hebrew homes which bore the blood of the lamb. Since proper Passover observance required a sacrifice, the faithful journeyed to Jerusalem every year.

See the zeal in Jesus religious observance. Despite the cost, danger and difficulty of the journey, he was committed to observing the holy ordinances of God. Can you say the same? Though Christ fulfilled and abolished the feast days of old, “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), on which the Lord has commanded his people to cease from all worldly employment and recreation to rest in the finished work of Christ chiefly through corporate worship. But all too often we are not zealous in our observance of God’s holy day.  Consistent church attendance is interrupted by work, school and sports. We easily forget how desperately we need to be sanctified through the truth of God’s Word. We forget that we who are members vowed to support the church in its work and worship. We forget that God promised the one who “calls the Sabbath a delight and honors it” (Isaiah 58:13-14) will delight in the Lord, and ride on the heights of the earth, and feast upon the heritage of Jacob. Jesus was willing to travel three days, on foot, through the wilderness, uphill, because he remembered and believed God’s promise to bless the means of grace. May Christ’s zeal burning in us, joyfully drive us to the same observant faith… remembering all the while that it was Christ’s observance, not ours, that saves us!

Recently, a headline caught my eye: “Florida man banned from ocean after being arrested in human-sized hamster wheel off Tybee.” Sadly, this was Ray Baluchi’s 4th attempt to cross the Atlantic in his “Hydro Sphere.” He made it an impressive 70 miles across the 4,000-mile span between continents. We laugh because it’s absurd. How much more absurd to think that you could span the infinitely greater distance between earth and heaven in your hamster wheel of good works, spiritual discipline and church attendance. Christ’s righteousness, no ours, that has the power and perfection to saves us.

But we also see Jesus zeal in his objection to the profaning of religion: “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there” (John 2:14)

Jerusalem’s streets would have been flooded with pilgrims; her air would have been electric with anticipation. But what Jesus found when he came to the temple broke his heart. Instead of saints singing psalms he heard the lowing of cattle and bleating of sheep. Instead, the sweet aroma of burning incense, he smelled the septic stench of animal dung. Instead of a people bowed in prayer he witnessed all the commotion of commerce and trappings of trade. What may have begun as a sincere service to travelers by offering a one stop shop where they could exchange foreign currency and acquire lambs necessary to participate in the feast, had devolved into a feverish flee market. Blinded by greed, the priests and merchants were profiting from Passover! The sacred had been profaned and the temple tainted. And Jesus would not stand for it. While the other gospels record Jesus’ second cleansing of the temple two years later, John alone records this first cleansing. And John alone includes Jesus’ whip. Some commentators suggest that Jesus used it to drive animals only, but that’s not what the text says. John wrote, “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade’” (John 2:15-16). Malachi spoke of this day in Malachi 3:1; the day the Lord would “suddenly come to his temple, to purify the sons of Levi,” asking “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”

What do you do with this side of Jesus? Our sinful hearts predispose us to approach scripture like a buffet line: picking and choosing only what we like and leaving the rest. We like the thought of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, healer, teacher, servant, and friend of sinners (and he is!) But what about King Jesus, the man of war in blood-stained robes who treads the wine press of the wrath of God? What about the demon slayer who came to destroy the powers of darkness? What about the serpent-stomping Seed of the Woman? What about the all-terrible Lamb of God in whose presence the beast and his followers will burn in the lake of fire forever? What about this table flipping, whip-wielding zealot? If you’re embarrassed by Jesus, if this passage makes you feel a tinge of shame, could it be that you are not sufficiently offended by the pollution of God’s worship? Could it be that we aren’t sufficiently zealous for pure worship? Let us never be ashamed of Christ! Let us own him and praise him for his courage and zeal.

In one of the iconic scenes of C.S. Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver was telling the children about Aslan, the king of Narnia, and Lucy asked, “Is he a man?” Mr. Beaver replied, “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond- the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion…” Susan asked, “Is he – quite safe?” “Safe?” asked Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” So too, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah isn’t safe. But he’s good. So, may we be gripped by the ferocious goodness of Christ who was willing to stand alone to defend the honor of God.

As the disciples watched Jesus clean house, they didn’t withdraw from him or make apologies for him. Instead, they remembered the words of Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” In Greek, to be zealous is to be jealous over something that belongs to you but is being threatened… like the loving wife who is jealous for the eyes and desires of her husband. So, you see, this was no sinful outburst. Jesus was consumed with zeal because pure worship in the splendor of holiness was being withheld from the Lord to whom it was due. So, like Josiah and Hezekiah, King Jesus purged the temple of its idols; in this case the idol of money.

Paul warned Timothy, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). So, you elders and deacons must vigilantly guard your own hearts and the hearts of our people from the love of money. Should the church be engaged in commerce of any kind? Pew taxes, book tables, gift shops, or fund raisers? Is it safe to say that if you need a cash register at church, you’re doing it wrong? Shouldn’t the needs of the church be met by the Lord himself through the faithful tithing of his people?

But this passage speaks more deeply to the spiritual mission of the church. The tragic error of the church growth movement is that it looks to Starbucks instead of Scripture to determine it priorities and strategies. Today, many churches are built to look and feel like a coffee shop or a concert hall instead of a traditional meeting house, built for preaching and singing. Everything from the music to the message is geared towards the comfort of the consumer. While all Christians should long to see the church filled, we must remember that the mission of church is not firstly our comfort but the glory of God. Richard Phillips said, “Our success in worship is measured not in the amount of money we take in, not in the number of people we attract, but in the purity and truth with which we worship God and cause his name to receive glory.” So let us burn with Christ-like zeal for pure, holy, and biblical worship that pleases God, the true consumer of our worship, the true seeker, seeking those who would worship him in Spirit and truth.

Having displayed his zeal in observance and objection, Jesus defends his zeal. Why do you think nobody tried to stop Jesus? Where was temple security? I mean, he was throwing furniture! I suspect it’s because the righteousness of his cause was so undeniable, and the hand of God was so evident in his work none could object. Instead of attacking his actions the Jews attacked his credentials, demanding a sign: “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:18-22). Jesus defended his zeal by appealing to his future resurrection. And his cryptic language did exactly what he intended: it veiled the truth to those outside the kingdom while revealing it to those inside.

Jesus was speaking figuratively, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t saying something spectacular that we must hear. Why does he refer to himself as the temple? Because he is! As the Shekinah glory cloud of God rested upon and filled the temple, so too the Spirit of God descended and remained upon Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews marveled, “He is radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3).

As the Temple housed the ark of the covenant containing the law of God so too Christ is the incarnate Word and consummate revelation of God. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1). As the temple was the meeting place between God and man where his people would come to worship, so we meet God in Christ Jesus and only through Him is our worship made acceptable. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). As the temple was the place where priests made atoning sacrifices to expiate the sins of God’s people and propitiate the just wrath of God, so too Jesus, our great high priest offered himself as our substitute upon the cross to satisfy the demand of divine justice, put away the guilt and shame of our sin forever, and reconcile us to God.

As the Passover pilgrims had to enter into the temple so too you must enter into the Lord Jesus Christ. Have you done that? Or are you still on the outside looking in, thinking to yourself, “Oh I would! I would enter into Christ if only I knew how! Where is the door by which I may enter into Christ and be saved?”

There is an ancient church in Bethlehem which some claim was be built upon the sight of Jesus’ birth. Though the church is grand and its walls are made of great stones, the door is small, just four feet high. It is called “the door of humility,” because to enter in you must bow down. So must we to enter into Christ… we must bow down in humble adoration, repenting of our sins, and putting our trust in him.

This you must do, for one day the Lord Jesus will come again, like a thief in the night he will suddenly appear riding on the clouds of glory, to sift the wheat from the chaff. Even now, he stands at the door, his winnowing fork in hand! Those who have rejected him and his overtures of love and forgiveness will hear the most dreadful words: “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). And they will be cast into the furnace of the fury of God. But those who have entered into Christ through faith as their soul’s refuge, hiding place, high tower and temple can rest secure behind the stone walls of his steadfast love and unassailable righteousness, beneath the waving banner of God’s favor, which bears these words, written in the blood of Christ, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). So warns, and so promises the sweet psalmist of Israel: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12). Won’t you come and take refuge in Christ!

Jim McCarthy is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Trinity PCA in Statesboro, Ga.

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