Jesus as True and Better Religion – Purity and Sacrifice
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
And what was their world like? We’ve all heard the story: God creates the earth in six days, resting on the seventh. The language of Genesis repeats the phrase “there was morning…there was night.” But on the seventh day, the author, Moses, makes no mention of there being morning or night. The seventh day was to represent – at least partially – that great expanse of time when God’s presence could be known throughout all creation:
“This doesn’t just mean that God took a day off. It means that in the previous six days God was making a world – heaven and earth together – for his own use. Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built. Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 136)
“SUIT OF FIG LEAVES AND LIES”
But after man rebelled, they were kicked out: excluded from the worship in God’s perfect Temple in Eden. A cherub, a type of angel, guarded the way behind them. In the words of songwriter Derek Webb, they “traded naked and unashamed for a better place to hide, for a righteous mask, a suit of fig leaves and lies. Throughout the Old Testament, “nakedness” is frequently used throughout scripture as a metaphor for the nation’s sin against God (Isaiah 47:3; Lamentations 1:8; Ezekiel 16:36). Isaiah would go naked for three years to symbolize the nation’s sin (Isaiah 20:1-4).
Let’s not forget who was originally reading this: Moses was writing to the Israelites, telling these stories as they made their way through the desert, guided by God. It was as if God were saying, “You’ve lost My land. You’ve lost the perfect Temple of my garden. You worship now by carrying my Tabernacle on poles – a portable dwelling as a constant reminder of impermanence. But I have led you from slavery. I will show you a new land – a land promised to Abraham so long ago.” And in this way a wayward group of wanderers came to trust God to uniquely manifest Himself among them in a portable sanctuary called the “Tabernacle.”
THE NEW TEMPLE
Later in Israel’s history, the people find themselves once more in possession of the land. God commissions the building of a new temple under Solomon. Even after this Temple was destroyed, years later, it would be rebuilt. The Temple was where God’s glory would uniquely rest. Nearly all cultures, all religions have some version of a temple. It’s where heaven and earth are thought to intersect.
And because Eden was Israel’s original, perfect temple, the actual decorations of the Temple – from the carved gourds, palm trees, and flowers – were designed to replicate the contours of Eden (cf. 1 Kings 6:18; 7:14-35). But within the Temple was the place where God most specifically made His presence known. It was there that God’s glory took the form of a cloud (just as He had done as a guide to the Israelites) called the shekina glory (1 Kings 8:10-111). Only priests were allowed to enter this unique place within the Temple, and only to perform sacrifices. What barrier was chosen to separate this special area from the rest of the Temple? What final symbol could be chosen to symbolize the separation between man and God? A cherub – or rather the image of one, emblazoned on the heavy curtain that barred the way into God’s presence. Just as Eden had been sealed with the flaming sword of an angel, so too would this curtain remind Israel of their separation.
WHAT GOOD IS A TEMPLE?
Now I know what you’re thinking. All this sounds terribly archaic. Temple worship is the stuff of a primitive, pre-modern people. What good is a Temple? The rational worldview birthed from the enlightenment showed us that man’s problems could be solved not through divine intervention but through human empiricism. The individual flourished. In that kind of society, we don’t need a Temple. We don’t need sacrifice. What we need instead is a laboratory. What we need is a social welfare program.
But in the last century we have not seen the triumph of modernism – we have only watched its demise. Science, political theory and reason could not provide answers to the incredible suffering of the world around us – if anything there was an increase in human suffering in the last century. Human enterprise could not deliver the utopia it promised:
“According to architectural critic Carl Jencks, modernism was blown to bits in St. Louis on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m., when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was destroyed by dynamite. This was no terrorist ploy but a deliberate deed, symbolizing the failure of a grand vision. The huge housing project had been an attempt to create a functionally perfect living situation through rational planning. However, it became the target of incessant vandalism, and was eventually declared unlivable. For Jencks and others, the razing of this housing project, along with the blasting of numerous other modernist buildings in the 1970’s, served as a parable of the demise of modernism and an invitation to postmodernism, in both philosophy and architecture.” (Douglas Groothius, Truth Decay, p. 7)
In a postmodern world, there are no real fixed points of reference – all truth claims are potentially attempts at seizing power. But in such a world, people are more open than ever before to spirituality, regardless of what form it might take. The collapse of modernism shattered “the hard surface of secularity” (to use Barth’s phrase), and gave us a glimpse – or at least a yearning – to seek out God. “How far is Heaven?” we find ourselves asking – a question that means more in today’s world than ever before.
So let’s return to the story of Israel and her Temple.
PURITY AND THE TEMPLE
By the first century, the Temple system had become largely corrupted. Law-abiding Jews were ambivalent about a Temple that served its purpose even while being remodeled under the Roman authorities. By the time of the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, Jewish leaders assumed that God had in some way forsaken His people. God’s Temple had become broken and defiled long before it would ever be destroyed.
The problem, as we have already seen, was that the Pharisees were seeking to protect the established order – whether for good or for ill. They had come to use religious duty as a new form of fig leaves to mask their shame.
In the Old Testament, one of the Psalms reads: “May your priests be clothed with righteousness; may your saints sing for joy” (Psalm 132:9). The priests were the ones who were expected to be the most righteous. They were the ones who would perform the sacrifices.
But, as we saw earlier, Jesus calls men to a whole new standard of righteousness, a standard that they could not possibly attain.
BROKEN HEARTS, STAINED GARMENTS
We see this theme reflected in the image of Zechariah 3 – a passage I discovered through new eyes thanks to Tim Keller’s excellent book King’s Cross.
In the vision of Zecheriah 3, the day appears to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was the day when the High Priest, in this case Joshua, would enter into the Holy of Holies. Through a series of sacrifices, he would “atone” (a word meaning to “cover up”) for his own sins, followed by the sins of the nation.
To maintain his purity, priests like Joshua were sequestered for a week to prevent them from coming into contact with anything unclean so that they could perform the ceremony undefiled. There was even a set of ritual bathings, after which Joshua would emerge wearing pure white robes.
But in Zechariah 3:3, Joshua is wearing “filthy robes.” The original Hebrew seems to suggest that he is actually covered in excrement. He is expected to be clean, to bring purity to the nation. But in God’s eyes, all the rituals and duties do not truly cleanse the stain.
We need a true and better Joshua. A true and better high priest. Centuries later, we find our new Joshua – Jesus of Nazareth.
Zechariah 3: 4 says this:
“the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”
This is what Jesus came to do. He came to take on our filthy robes and give us His garments of purity and righteousness. He is the true and better high priest who can cover over the sins of His people with His own blood. He is the true and better sacrifice, whose once-for-all shedding of blood is sufficient to cover over the sins of many.
Which means that just as much as nakedness is a scriptural theme of sin, so too is being “clothed” a theme of Christ’s righteousness:
“I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness,” (Isaiah 61:10)
“…clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:14)
“…for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27)
TRUE AND BETTER TEMPLE
But we’re not quite done yet. Jesus’ death also accomplished something significant. When Jesus died, the Temple curtain was torn in two, top to bottom. There was no longer a barrier between God and man.
In John 2, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple. The proper lens to look through is found in Zechariah 14:21, which reads that when the Messiah comes, “there shall no longer be a Cannanite in the house of the Lord.” The Hebrew word “Canaanite” also means “trader” or “salesman.”
So let’s do the math: The Messiah comes. There are no salesmen. Jesus clears the temple. Now, there are no salesmen. Jesus’ clearing of the temple is a powerful declaration that the Messiah has arrived.
When asked, Jesus tells them, cryptically, that even if this Temple is destroyed, He can build it in three days. But, as is common in John’s writing, Jesus is referring not to brick and mortar but His own flesh and blood. Jesus’ body becomes the true and better Temple. This is why Jesus tells His disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you (John 14:2).” In John 2, Jesus’ “Father’s house” was His body – what Jesus is saying is that His death means that there is a new Temple. Jesus’ body continues on in the form of His followers, the Church (1 Corinthians 12; cf. Ephesians 2:21). Just as God’s shekina glory once filled the Temple, so God’s Spirit indwell the individual human heart (1 Corinthians 6:19). Jesus’ death does not eliminate the priesthood – it eliminates the laity. We are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), meaning we can each freely enter into God’s presence knowing the Sacrifice has been made.
Jesus as the true and better Temple redraws the boundary lines between man and God. This means that Jesus does not come to abolish religion, He comes to redeem it.
He is the true and better high priest who declares us clean. He is the true and better sacrifice that allows this declaration to take place. He is the true and better temple that invites even the outcasts to draw near. Because He is all these things, He alone possesses the authority to declare the impure things pure again.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.