We traced through the story of the decline of Israel before Jesus appeared in terms of their loss of a place where God dwelt. If we now pick up the story of the great Temple in Jerusalem in the days of Jesus we find some fascinating things. John, in his gospel, tells the story of the cleansing of the Temple at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (the other gospel writers put it much later in his ministry which may be because Jesus cleared it twice or John was more interested in the theological meaning of the event than its timing). Mark’s account is even more interesting. He tells the story in the middle of another story, clearly relating the two. The other story is about the fig tree, which as Jesus and his disciples walk into Jerusalem they see is barren which is no surprise because it is the wrong time for figs. Jesus curses it, which seems a very odd thing to do unless it is for some other reason than its lack of fruit. Then the next time they pass it, the day after Jesus cleared the temple, they see it has completely withered away, much to the disciple’s puzzlement. Two interlocked stories like this are a fairly common device in Mark’s Gospel. The story of the fig tree is clearly saying that the Temple is now no use, like the tree with no figs, and will therefore wither away.
The extent to which the people of Jesus’ day centered life on the Temple is amazing. We read that: “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.” In a mixed family party that was probably 5 days walking each way – a considerable time not to be working and earning. John in his Gospel records Jesus going up to Jerusalem on several occasions. Life in 1st century Israel revolved around the Temple building to an astonishing extent. They clearly thought that God was there, and more accessible there, than anywhere else. It was what some people would call a ‘thin place’, that is a place where it feels much easier to get close to God than most places because heaven and earth have only a thin gap between them (which isn’t really the case but it can feel that way if we are somewhere where we have often met with the Lord).
Put those two things together – what Jesus did to the fig tree and the centrality of the Temple – and we see that he was striking at the very centre of all that they believed in. That is why the main accusation against Jesus at his trial was “this fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days” and that was the basis on which he was condemned. It was when Stephen said, “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” that he ran into serious trouble and his death. The whole Jewish system, priests, sacrifices, forgiveness of sins etc. depended on the Temple.
In fact the Temple only lasted less than 40 years after Jesus cursed it before a Roman army destroyed it in AD 70. Various groups of zealots had risen in revolt in such a disorganized way that they fought each other on the steps of the Temple while the besieging Romans watched in amazement. Eventually the Romans broke through into the city and the Temple precincts and there was a horrendous massacre. The prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled quite terribly.
What then was to replace the temple? Paul answers that question in Ephesians 2 when he says, “you are fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” A better temple built of human beings – you and me – has replaced the physical Temple, built of stone. WOW!
Elsewhere Paul says, “we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’” quoting Old Testament passages. Paul is using the plural. It is the people of God together who are the temple but, of course, it has to apply to each one of us individually as we live and walk around. So the ‘thin’ places where people can come close to the Lord now are the presence of the Lord’s people – you and me! Double WOW!
Can we live up to the challenge that presents? We could never do so by ourselves and of ourselves. This is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes in to the experience of every one of us. Fortunately Jesus made promises to his disciples, and to us through them. Linking together some of the things recorded that he said in John chapters 14 – 16 we get, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. When he comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you and when I send him to you he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”
That has been the challenge to the people of God for nearly 2000 years now. How well they have lived up to that challenge has been a mixed story down through the centuries. Sometimes the whole idea that there is a great resource for those who profess to follow Christ has been all but lost. Sometimes it has been found and used to the great enrichment and growth of the people of God both corporately and individually. We, I think, live in one of the better periods, looked at world-wide.
Are you, am I, a good temple, a thin place, where earth and heaven come close together?