At the wedding in Cana Jesus told his mother his time had not yet come. What time was he talking about? It was the appointed time which the Herald had come to announce. John the Baptizer had been telling the people: the Kingdom of God is at hand. Now, at the first Passover of his public ministry, Jesus declares by his actions that that Kingdom has arrived. And, as all would have expected, since two kings cannot rule over the same land, that would mean war between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. But the conflict did not turn out to be for the land and freedom of Israel against the Romans. Instead it turned out to be for the heart of the people against the enemy within.
John 2:13-17 And the Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And he found in the temple the sellers of oxen and sheep and doves, and the money-changers sitting.
And, having made a scourge of cords, he cast [them] all out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the change of the money-changers, and overturned the tables, and said to the sellers of doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.
[And] his disciples remembered that it is written, The zeal of thy house devours me.
The word temple in the above passage is hierou which means the entire precinct of the Temple, or as modern translations put it, the Temple complex. This was the area of the Temple complex which Gentiles could enter.
But in addition to being a literal stumbling block to the Gentiles, these merchants were being stumbling blocks to their own people. As scholars have commented, what was going on here was that the people coming in to deliver their sacrifices at the Temple were told by these merchants that what they were bringing was not good enough. They had to buy the “approved” sacrifices that the merchants were selling them. (And if you were a traveller and had planned to buy your sacrifice there, or you were bringing what you owed for the Temple tax, the money itself that you used to do that transaction also had to be “approved” for the Temple.)
It doesn’t take much experience with the world of commerce to know that people who have a monopoly on a product, have no business incentive (not to mention moral incentive) to charge a fair price. So, were these merchants cheating the people? From Jesus’ reaction, that is a safe bet.
But it was worse than that: The authorities, the religious leaders in charge of the Temple, were allowing this, as we say, “on their shift”. That this is so, we can tell from what happens next.
John 2:18-22 The Jews therefore answered and said to him, What sign shewest thou to us, that thou doest these things?
That an ordinary man, even an itinerant preacher, would dare judge the way they were managing the Temple was a direct challenge to their authority. And, of course, in their eyes, it was God who had given them the authority to run this business as they saw fit.
We see this in other passages of the gospel where the mindset of the religious leaders of the day included the idea that prosperity in this world was proof that you “were in the right” with God. And if you think about it, they could defend their position: After all, didn’t God promise as much through Moses?
Deut. 4:40 And thou shalt keep his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may be well with thee and with thy sons after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days on the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, for ever.
There you have it: Prosperity is proof of God’s favor. Logical, isn’t it?
Or is it?
Let’s try it this way: If you obey the rules of the road then you will not get a ticket. So, does the fact that you have not gotten a ticket yet, even though you speed all the time, and you zoom at the last minute through signal lights just as they turn red, does that prove that you are obeying the rules of the road? Of course not.
The fallacy is that when you have an IF X Then Y statement, the X implies the Y, but the Y does not imply the X. It is all about cause and effect. Abiding by X causes Y. But observing that Y has happened doesn’t guarantee that X was its cause because there could be many causes for Y. I mean if you are a well-disciplined thief, well-practiced at your craft, you can certainly be prosperous… for a while… or maybe even for your entire life.
Were those religious leaders honestly confused about what Deuteronomy 4:40 meant? That would be impossible, because before that verse, Moses made clear what this was all about:
Deut. 4:5-7 See, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as Jehovah my God commanded me, that ye may do so in the land into which ye enter to possess it. And ye shall keep and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding before the eyes of the peoples that shall hear all these statutes, and say, Verily this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there that hath God near to them as Jehovah our God is in everything we call upon him for?
They had been charged with keeping all the commandments of the Lord which included not committing fraud. Why were they supposed to keep all these commandments? To prosper? Actually, No. Prosperity would be a natural consequence of God’s favor on them. But the reason for their righteous conduct was so they would become an example to all the nations around them (the word peoples in this translation).
To use their prosperity as proof of their righteousness is an instance of being disingenuous:
Disingenuous: not sincere, especially when you pretend to know less about something than you really do. (From the Oxford dictionary)
And in the presence of God, you cannot get away with that. Because He knows our hearts.
Ans Jesus, being the Son of God, knows the hearts of men. He knew exactly where those merchants were coming from and, so, he set out to interrupt their illicit (in the eyes of God) commerce. Now, as you see from the definition of disingenuity, when I am living that way, I know what I am up to. I just pretend I am innocent. And as long as no one calls me on it, everything is fine. But when someone calls me on it, not only am I being convicted of the sin, I am convicted of knowingly trying to hide it, of being a hypocrite.
And people don’t like being called hypocrites. So, what did the authorities do?
John 2:18-22 The Jews therefore answered and said to him, What sign shewest thou to us, that thou doest these things?
Jesus is challenging their behavior but instead of answering that charge, they turn it into an argument about authority.
At first blush it is not hard to understand their reaction: If I am convinced that God has given me the authority to manage the Temple, if I have that kind of direct line to God, how can you dare challenge my behavior?
The reaction is understandable… but I hope the logical disconnect is obvious… The same God who established the authority, established the required behavior.
I have to answer to God on both.
I cannot accept the God-given authority of a position given to me – with all the power it gives me – and then use that self-same power to set aside God’s requirements on how I am supposed to exercise that power.
I hope the logical disconnect is obvious. But the problem here, facing Jesus, is worse than people being illogical… The real problem is that they are using God as an excuse for their actions. “God gave me this authority; how can you tell me I am wrong?”
Why is this a problem? It is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the Name of your God in vain.”
When anyone claims to be acting on God’s part and yet their behavior goes against God’s express rules, the sin is compounded. They are either ignorant or they are lying or… they don’t know which God they are talking about.
(I do have to go on a tangent here because there is a phrase I have heard that seems to me to be precisely an example of this kind of nonsense. It is the phrase, “God-fearing patriot.” The way it is often used is in the sense that the person who claims to be one such is willing to fight. And by fight they mean they are willing to shed other people’s blood to protect the rights that the God they claim to revere, gave them.
Which immediately makes me wonder, what God are you talking about? Because if I read the Sermon on the Mount… blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek and humble, blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers… blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… if I really hear Jesus when He says: But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well, then I am pretty sure, the God they are talking about is not Jesus Christ.)
But that was a tangent…
I really think the religious leaders arguing with Jesus were bluffing. They lived their lives pretending God agreed with them. But in their heart of hearts, they knew otherwise. We all know when we sin. We all know when we are hypocrites.
The only way out, the only way to save face then, is to tell their accuser: “Hey, you are not God… Who are you to judge me? Look, if God is unhappy with how I’m living my life, and you claim to be speaking for Him, why don’t you get God to prove you are right? Let’s see some miracle from God. That will settle it!”
Jesus challenged their behavior but instead of answering that charge they turned it into an argument about authority… But not their authority. They actually turned around and challenged his authority to challenge them.
Hmm… What is wrong with that retort? Kind of sounds reasonable.
God has already spoken
The fallacy in that retort is what is called a strawman fallacy.
In the strawman fallacy, instead of honestly facing an argument, you change it into a different argument that you know you can win. Here, by His actions, Jesus is telling them: “You are breaking God’s Laws.” To which they can either say yes, and repent, or they can try to refute it by showing that what they are doing is not against God’s Laws.
But instead of answering the challenge, their reply is essentially: “Well, God hasn’t told us we are breaking His Laws… if you think we are breaking His Laws, why don’t you get Him to tell us directly.”
You see how the strawman fallacy works? The argument has been shifted away from whether their actions are right or wrong, to whether or not this itinerant preacher can even tell what is right or wrong, and then they set the standard by which he can prove he is right: make God intervene. (A standard that they would never apply to themselves.)
But their strawman fallacy is useless because they are mounting a defense against the wrong person.
Think about it this way. If you and I claim to believe in the same God, and you are someone I care about, and I come to you and tell you that you are making decisions that will ultimately be destructive in your life… if I tell you, plain and simple, that you are sinning… you probably won’t like it.
You may see me as your accuser. And then you might be moved to mount a defense against me, to argue with me. Now, if I were your accuser, maybe then you would have a right to respond like the religious authorities of the Temple did, and tell me to go mind my own business. But I am not your accuser.
Even If I speak the word that convicts you, the word is not mine, it is God’s Word.
This is why Jesus on another occasion replied to them like this:
John 5:45-47 Think not that I will accuse you to the Father: there is [one] who accuses you, Moses, on whom ye trust; for if ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me. But if ye do not believe his writings, how shall ye believe my words?
The point is, God does not have to make some miracle happen in the sky for me and you to know what is right and what is wrong. We already know, because God has already spoken.
I know I repeat this verse over and over again… but its Truth never wanes:
John 6:45 It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me…
Everyone on Earth has a conscience, placed in every human heart by God. And that conscience can tell the difference between right and wrong. That is one of the reasons why David says, in Psalm 51, as he is confessing his sins to God:
Psalm 51:4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in thy sight; that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, be clear when thou judgest.
Every heart that sins, knows it has sinned… against God.
Now, there is a way to make a sin worse than it already is: To claim that God approves it. That was the religious authorities’ problem in that scene at the Temple in John 2. And that problem was endemic among the religious leaders. They kept trying to hide their stubborn sinful hearts behind God’s Word.
But it is a losing proposition to use God as the excuse for my sins because God will never contradict Himself.
That doesn’t prevent people from trying it. And, usually, they do exactly what these religious authorities did: First they act disingenuously. Pretending that they do not know that what they are saying, or doing, is inconsistent. Then, second, when exposure is imminent or when they are called to account, they will put up a strawman argument: “I know God is on my side… Can you prove God is on your side?”
But no proof is needed. God has spoken already, since the beginning of creation.
And even so, God went ahead and spoke one more time and gave all humanity the ultimate answer. And this is exactly what Jesus told the religious authorities:
John 2:19-22 Jesus answered and said to them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. The Jews therefore said, Forty and six years was this temple building, and thou wilt raise it up in three days? But *he* spoke of the temple of his body.
When therefore he was raised from among [the] dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
The word for temple, Jesus uses in his reply, is naos, that is, the inner sanctuary where the worship occurs. In the Jerusalem Temple that would mean, ultimately, the holy of holies.
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection is God’s final word. It is all the proof any of us could ever need of God’s Love and of the fact that He is the only measure of right and wrong.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal.
Romans 5:6-8 (NIV) You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The war between the kingdoms can only end one way
God wins. How could He not? He created everything and everyone. The only question that remains is, on which side of the battle am I?
It is a decision that we all get to make. And as you would expect, in the middle of a war, the consequences can be dire, and are usually permanent. But before you make that decision, I recommend you reread John 2:13-22. It is the first skirmish in that war and, as such, it contains most of the features that will characterize the whole war:
Because the battle is taking place in the kingdom of the world (where we live), the enemy often will have the power of authority. And, often, that enemy will not come alone. You see this throughout the gospels. Whenever the authorities challenged Jesus, they were authorities – plural. They seldom come alone. They believe in the power of the crowd… or the mob (as Kierkegaard would say.) In fact, they are too cowardly to come at you one on one.
But now, look at Jesus there in the Temple complex. He came to the Feast with His disciples, didn’t he? But he didn’t recruit them to come back him up as he faced those merchants. On the contrary, time and again in the gospels, Jesus faces the enemy by himself.
Why did David go alone against Goliath? For the same reason that he refused to wear King Saul’s armor. He knew that the battle is the Lord’s. The Lord is the one that will win our battles for us. And if we get used to relying on our own strength, or on the strength of our numbers, we can start thinking that the righteousness that triumphs is our own. But it never is. God’s righteousness owns the victory.
Now, you might tell me, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus send his disciples out two by two, to support each other? I would say, Yes, he did. But what were they supposed to do when the mobs of this world turned against them and persecuted them?
Matthew 10:22-23 (NIV) You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
I don’t think there’s going to be a Hollywood action-hero movie made based on those verses.
It is true that, as Christians, we need each other…
Hebrews 10:23-25 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We need each other so that we can help strengthen each other’s faith (Romans 1:17) so that we can all individually fight our good fight.
1 Timothy 6:11-12 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
You see, we will win the victory. But it will not be in this world… because there is nothing in this world worth winning. The treasure, the prize worth winning, is our Real Life in the Kingdom we were made for: The Kingdom of God.