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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

The Radical Jesus

John 2:13 - 3:21

It is rather a shame that we have an image of Jesus as a meek, mild person. We imagine that he’d make a good Orange County Republican. I suspect this is our attempt to put Jesus into our mold, since we so seldom want to fit into his. (Do I hear echoes of “out of my comfort zone?”) But, we need to read the Word and discover the real Jesus -- and that includes the firebrand radical Jesus:

(John 2:13-17 NNAS) The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. {14} And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. {15} And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; {16} and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." {17} His disciples remembered that it was written, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME."

John makes it clear that this is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. A little background will help, here. The Jew was required to bring the sacrifice to the Temple himself; it was to be from his own flock or herd. Recognizing that for some this would be almost impossible (the animal would need to be herded a long distance), he was allowed the privilege of selling the animal, taking the money and buying a like animal at the Temple.[1] This had grown over the years into a nice little business for those in Jerusalem -- particularly after the High Priest’s family took it over. The priest, you see, was to inspect the animal to be sure it was ceremonially clean. You can see the conflict of interest; the family had a monopoly on sacrificial animals.

The place was crowded; it was definitely a place to make a statement. Many commentators think that this was Jesus’ prime motive. Others see a deeper meaning: they believe this was his way of announcing that the animal sacrifices were about to come to an end, and would soon become unnecessary -- because of his sacrifice on the cross. It seems to me, however, that the verses contain all the explanation necessary: the zeal of your house.

Zeal is now a “religious” word. It was not always so; in Jesus’ time the Zealots were really a political party. We’d call them “radicals” today. Zeal is, in today’s English, radicalism. So I must begin by explaining to the tight lipped Orange County Republicans that radical does not necessarily mean “left wing.” It means extreme. Remember Barry Goldwater? “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the defense of liberty no virtue?” That is the kind of radicalism, or zeal, that his being displayed here in the theological sense.

Make no mistake about it: this attitude runs throughout the Scripture. It’s found in the Psalms, from which the quotation in our passage is taken:

(Psa 69:7-9 NNAS) Because for Your sake I have borne reproach; Dishonor has covered my face. {8} I have become estranged from my brothers And an alien to my mother's sons. {9} For zeal for Your house has consumed me, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.

You see the point, I hope. Because of this zeal, the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me, David says. It is this extreme identification with God -- what hurts him, hurts me; what helps him, blesses me -- that is the characteristic of the zealot, the radical.[2] What, then, drives a Christian to be so radical?

First, there is the absolute nature of truth. In an era which proclaims all truth relative (except this one) and all generalizations false (including this one), the Christian stands for absolute truth. You may have a right to your opinion -- but that does not necessarily make it “just as true” as mine.

We must pursue this carefully, however. There are traps in this. One is to know that I believe the inspired word -- so therefore everything I believe is inspired truth. Another, more subtle, is to mistake the basic nature of Christian warfare:

(2 Cor 10:4 NNAS) for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.

Christ drove the moneychangers out of the Temple -- but didn’t touch the local house of prostitution. Why? The struggle is not against flesh and blood; it’s in the spirit.

There is a point of self-examination here. Why are you in church? Why are you in Sunday School?

·         Is it just to “hedge your bets?” After all, it can’t hurt to pay a little attention to God now and then. But look at the radical, all or nothing nature of the cause of Christ![3]

·         Is it something you are fervent about on Sunday (and forget on Monday) only because it’s “safe?” What happens when (I did not say “if”) it gets risky? Courage is still the foundation of virtue.

·         But courage and virtue are not enough; they must combine into action. Do they so combine in your life? Do you live for him?

The authorities, naturally, challenge him:

(John 2:18-25 NNAS) The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" {19} Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." {20} The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" {21} But He was speaking of the temple of His body. {22} So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. {23} Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. {24} But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, {25} and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.

Here is another sign of the necessity of radical Christianity. The reasonable man asks for a sign, or, as we would say it today, a miracle. Something we could see and say, “Oh yes, no doubt about it, that came from God.” As we mentioned last week, this constant search to be sure undermines rather than confirms the faith. It seeks to make certain what must be trusted to work; failing, it produces disbelief.

One reason we seek such signs is that we are of the “rules” mentality. We want everything to fit into our tidy little universe -- with us holding complete understanding, and therefore power, over it. The real universe does not work that way.

Indeed, we must reason on the evidence given -- and our judgment will be based upon the evidence we have. As Christ put it,

(Luke 11:29-32 NNAS) As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. {30} "For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. {31} "The Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. {32} "The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

The sign, or miracle, is demanded as prove of authority. Note, not of power -- that seems to be undoubted -- but of authority. Why such a demand?

·         One simple reason is this: the wicked are always looking for a loophole. Test yourself: when a guilty man is set free, are you outraged -- or do you admire his legal team?

·         Another reason is the smoke screen. The righteousness of the act was apparent to one and all; the trade in the Temple was disgraceful. All knew it, even the moneychangers. If you think not, then ask: if they were honestly mistaken, would they not have had the courage to resist one man?

·         A third reason might be this: they asked, hoping to be denied. If there is no sign, there is no authority -- and the sleeping worms may lie.

Jesus understood them. He knew the weakness of the miracle when it hits men’s’ minds. It produces no long lasting fruit; only the Spirit does that. And to understand the radical nature of the Holy Spirit, we must look at Nicodemus:

(John 3:1-21 NNAS) Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; {2} this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." {3} Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." {4} Nicodemus said^ to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" {5} Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. {6} "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. {7} "Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' {8} "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." {9} Nicodemus said to Him, "How can these things be?" {10} Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? {11} "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. {12} "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? {13} "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. {14} "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; {15} so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. {16} "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. {17} "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. {18} "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. {19} "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. {20} "For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. {21} "But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God."

This passage, which contains the most quoted verse in the Bible, is noted for its use of the phrase, “born again.” To no one else did Jesus give this command, and yet we base our preaching on it. Repentance from known sin is not stressed; being born again is all important. It is mentioned once.

One reason, I think, is that the phrase is used in speaking to a righteous man. Nicodemus is that, at least. A Pharisee had to have the external forms of righteousness; Nicodemus also has that characteristic of internal righteousness: he is searching for the truth, wherever it may be found. When the righteous preach, it hits home to them. Sunday School lessons are first and foremost for the edification of the teacher, who then shares them with his students.

Another reason is this: the sinner knows what is wrong. The prostitute knows that if she is to get right with God she must cease to sell her body. To repent is to change your ways, to give up the evil things. For those who indeed are such sinners, this is obvious. To the outwardly righteous, and sincerely trying, it is more difficult to comprehend repentance, because we keep asking, “Well, just what it is it that you want me to do differently?”

What is it? he wants you to change from “rules” and certainty to faith and trust. He wants you to change your entire way of thinking about God. It is so radical that it can only be described as being born again. You have to get out of thinking about what you can do for God and begin to imagine what he can do with you. As Zechariah put it,

(Zec 4:6 NNAS) Then he said to me, "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel saying, 'Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the LORD of hosts.

The Spirit (verse 8 is the most untranslatable verse in the Bible) is likened to the wind. Those who like the rules because the rules have certainty will have trouble with the Spirit -- which..... well, read verse 8.

Does this mean “you never know who’s going to become a Christian?” Well, maybe. Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s son did.

Does this mean “you never know who is going to get which particular gift of the Spirit?” Well, maybe. One thing you can be certain of, and that is not to be certain of such gifts. A man’s natural heredity means nothing to God, for he can raise up prophets out of anyone. What was Moses’ complaint about public speaking?

I think it more likely that it means “things don’t work in the kingdom the way your logical mind thinks they should.”[4] We have a logical answer; God has a radical one.

At the end of this passage Jesus gives us a test. It is a very important test for most of us, for most of us are not capable of radical change. We just cannot drop everything and run off and become a monk. But given the Gospel, we must react one way or another. We either act like moths, drawn to the flame of God to eventually become consumed in it, or we act like cockroaches, scurrying away from it. God need not judge us; we do it for him. The trip to hell is self-willed.

Sometimes being radical happens in a very conservative, step by step way. The question is, which way are the steps going? Toward the light -- or away from it?

[1] Deuteronomy 14:23-26

[2] Winston Churchill described a radical as “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

[3] Matthew 10:37, for example.

[4] (1 Cor 1:25 NNAS) Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.


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