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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Righteous Anger

Matthew 21:12-17

I must begin this lesson with a contemporary thorn in the side. Hope International University, formerly Pacific Christian College, had an interesting message on their signboard as I drove by this week. It advertised (there is no other word) a “used car sale” in their parking lot this weekend. This is not the first time such a thing has occurred. They’ve also sponsored a piano sale out of the music department.

Maybe I’m the only person who feels like this, but I think this inappropriate. It strikes me as “tacky,” to say the least. As we shall see this morning, it may be a bit more than that.

Why is God angry over that?

(Mat 21:12-17 NIV) Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all that were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves. {13} "It is written," he said to them, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.'" {14} The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. {15} But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant. {16} "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, "'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise'?" {17} And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

Plenty of other sins

The curious thing about this passage at first blush is this: there are plenty of other sins around for Jesus to condemn. Indeed, the disciples themselves are in many ways a prize collection of sinners, most especially including the man who wrote down this Gospel. One way to look at it is this:

·         When I sin against my neighbor, I often justify it by telling others how guilty he is. Right or wrong, we accept the justification that the other fellow is wicked too.

·         But that justification, however valid it might be, does not hold against God. He is innocent, indeed holy. So a sin directly against him should arouse my anger even more.

If you think not, consider this. Suppose you see a news account of a gang member who drives by and shoots a member of a rival gang. Your reaction probably is that (to put it cynically) you wish they’d all just get together, shoot each other and then we’d be done with them. Of course, the shooting is a crime. But think how much more outraged you would be if the news account then went on to state that a stray bullet hit and killed an infant in the cradle. The sin against the innocent is far more outrageous than the sin against the guilty. This is our first clue as to why Christ cleansed the Temple.

The Fourth Commandment

Blasphemy is misunderstood. Most of us think of it as casual obscenity, which is offensive. Blasphemy is the misuse of God’s name. It may be done casually, but it is much more serious when done with intent.

For instance, if I tell you that God has given me a vision for your life, and that He has commanded you to divorce your wife, then you have a serious blasphemy indeed. I am taking the authority of God in my mouth – and how would you feel if I did it so that I could marry the result? That’s an explicit misuse of God’s name (and there are many others).

But I can also misuse it implicitly. I can take the things that you feel belong to God and use them for man’s purposes. If I say I’m a Christian and then come to church largely to drum up business for my insurance bureau, that’s blasphemy. There is a sense that something sacred, something holy – the church – is being desecrated. One policeman I met was investigating graffiti painted on the side of our church. His remark was telling: “That’s not very smart. Don’t they know they’re messing with God?” He had that sense that something sacred was being desecrated, even though we might have remarked, “It’s just a building.”

Righteous Anger

The wrath of God, as portrayed in the Old Testament, is almost always directed against one thing: idolatry. Every other sin is seen as the result of a faulty relationship with God (i.e., idolatry). So when God threatens, it is the idolater who incidentally is the thief who is so threatened.

Ultimately, however, the Bible declares that God’s wrath will have its full expression on the “Day of Wrath” – i.e., on the Lord’s return. Until then, it is being held in check so that all that would might be saved. The exception seems to be those things that involve the holiness of God. So we need to understand what that means.

The Sense of the Holy

We as a society have lost the sense that anything or any place could be holy. I recall a transition point in that loss. Many years ago I helped a church youth group put on a musical presentation. This show was taken to several of our sister churches. At one of these there was a large communion table in the middle of the platform that we were to use as a stage. I drafted several husky high school boys to help me, and we proceeded to move it.

As we were picking it up, an elderly gentlemen came puffing down the aisle screaming, “Stop, Stop! That is the altar of the Lord! It must not be touched with human hands! Put it back!” (Of course, that left us the problem of how to return it to its original position without touching it.) We had not considered the possibility; he had considered none other. So then, what makes for holiness?

Holiness is an essential attribute of God. We can see it in four senses:

·         It can simply mean something that is set aside for God’s purposes. In this sense, we need to see the holy in terms of “proper use.” The Communion table should not be used as a scaffold for painting, for example. The reason for this is that, in some sense, it belongs to God. So we can see the holy as being that which is set aside, or given, to God.

·         It can also mean something that is pure, so pure that it evokes reverence. In this sense it certainly applies to God. We must also realize that it also applies to us. For example, I do not object to people swearing in my presence. I don’t have to. They either don’t do it, or apologize as they do. The interesting aspect is that I never ask for this; enough of the character of God comes through me that they understand it instinctively.

·         It can also be that which evokes awe. We recall Isaiah’s remark that “I am a man of unclean lips.” In the presence of God he was awestruck. This same sense can be applied to a place, as those who have had the privilege of worshiping on a nature retreat can attest (God builds better cathedrals than we do.)

·         It may also be that which is filled with supernatural power. Recall the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis are about to open the Ark of the Covenant. Indiana Jones tells his girl to turn away and not to look. Indeed, when the Ark is opened, the power of God destroys all those watching. It’s poor theology, but a good artistic illustration of the concept of the holy.

In God there is a tension – a thesis and antithesis, for you Marxists – between his holiness and his personhood. God is a person. He wants us to enjoy Him forever. God is holy; he cannot abide sin. The tension is resolved (synthesis is achieved) only in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

Judgment begins with the house of God

So then, we see that the holiness of God elevates the sin of turning the Temple into a den of thieves evokes this response. In part this is simple justice. Those who rule over the Temple should know better. As Jesus tells us:

(Luke 12:47-48 NIV) "That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. {48} But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

In that sense we can see that those who have desecrated the Temple in this way deserve what they got.

The purpose of Christ

There is more to it than that. Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. To those who acknowledged that they were sinners, he was merciful and forgiving. But what about those who not only said they were not lost, but thought they were the ones drawing the maps?

Sometimes you have to draw them a picture. In the artistic sense, that is what Christ has done. Remember that this scene takes place immediately after the Triumphal Entry. The King has arrived to claim his own, and in a picture of what he will do on the day of Wrath he drives out those who blaspheme the name of God in their actions. It is interesting to note that no one stops him – the power of holiness over the guilty conscience is well portrayed here.

But Christ also draws them the opposite picture, the picture of God’s love. We often forget it, but just after driving out the thieves he begins to heal the lame and the blind. The first is the picture of wrath; the second the picture of Divine Love. And the ordinary man reacts to that picture – by praising God. The Pharisees could not stop him from cleansing the Temple, nor did they try. They do try to stop the love of God.

The reaction of the Pharisees

The Pharisees are now presented with quite a problem. Their guilty consciences would not permit them to stop Jesus from clearing the Temple. They certainly don’t, however, like the spectacle. Stopping the muscular carpenter is one thing; stopping a bunch of children from praising God is another, however. After all, the children are not important. We may have to call this Jesus a rabbi but we don’t have to put up with the kids.

Jesus takes the Old Testament – the Scripture they know – and recites it back to them. In their own terms, from their own book, he makes it clear that even now repentance is possible. From his actions they can see that even now wrath is coming. The choice is theirs.

Thereby hangs the lesson for the Christian of today. We must ask ourselves a central question: am I using the things of God for my own purposes, or His?

·         Is the church primarily a place of worship, or an occasional duty? Or is it (worse yet) a place of financial opportunity?

·         Have I promised anything to God – how often we try to bargain with him – and not delivered it? Money? Prayer? Praise?

·         Have I said that I need to pray more, or read the Bible more, and then said, “My time is my own?” Is it really?

God has entrusted us with many things. We will be judged on how we use them.

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