Barriers to God
My youngest son, Caleb, was born on December 1, 2011 at 35 weeks, weighing in at 4 pounds 10 ounces. Caleb spent the first 16 days of his life outside of the womb in the NICU where he stopped breathing twice, struggled to eat and gain weight, missed his sister’s birthday, and nearly missed Christmas at home with his family.
Those 16 days were challenging for my family. It felt so wrong to go home without Caleb when my wife was discharged from the hospital. We didn’t want to leave him, but they wouldn’t let us stay in NICU with him. Joshua and Hannah wanted to see their little brother, but were not able to until he came home. Twice, Caleb was nearly discharged only to be kept longer at the very last minute. It was challenging to say the least.
But do you know what was probably the most difficult part of it all? Not being able to pick-up and hold Caleb at times. Between being hooked up to wires and being under a light for jaundice, there were so many times when every fiber of our beings wanted to pick up our little guy but we could not. The cables and light served as a barrier between us and him. In a way, the entire NICU was a barrier as well because it prevented our family from being together at home where we belonged. We knew that the NICU, the wires, and the light were for his good, but all of it was still so hard.
When God instructed Israel to construct the tabernacle, which was replaced later by the temple in Jerusalem, He designed it to serve three primary purposes. (1) It was the place where God connected with His people. The temple was an intersection where the divine and humanity – Creator and creation – met. (2) It was a place for God’s people to worship Him according to His instructions. (3) It was a picture of Jesus who would come. The sacrifices pointed to Jesus, the Day of Atonement pointed to Jesus, and even the layout and items of the temple itself pointed to Jesus.
The temple was a gracious gift God gave to Israel to draw His people to Himself. It was designed in God’s kindness to foster relationship.
But the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day had turned it into an obstacle – a barrier – between God and His people.
The religious and business leaders had teamed up to turn the outer court of the Temple into a marketplace including exchanging money and the selling of sacrificial animals. It doesn’t sound too bad until you peel back the layers and see what was really going on.
Imagine that you were a Jew in that day who was trying to live faithfully and obey God. As such, you knew that there were certain times when God commanded you to travel to Jerusalem – such as the Passover when the city’s population would swell considerably – to worship Him. So you pack a few meager possessions, collect the animals you will sacrifice, and travel to Jerusalem and join the crowds.
When you arrive, you realize that the city of Jerusalem is overflowing so you find lodging in a nearby village – most likely paying a high price because of supply and demand. During the day, you travel into the city to worship. Your first stop is to the temple to sacrifice the animals you had brought with you. But when the priests inspect your animals, they find an imperceptible blemish with each one.
“No worries, “they tell you. “Conveniently, you can purchase pre-approved animals right there in the temple complex!”
You make your way to the vendor selling animals and are floored by the prices which are several times higher than what they should be. Supply and demand strikes again.
You dig deep into your pockets and place money on the table for the purchase.
“Sorry my friend,” the salesman tells you. “We only accept the correct currency approved in the temple. But no worries! Conveniently, you can exchange your currency for the pre-approved currency right there in the temple complex!”
So over to the money changers you go. By this time, you are not floored by the expensive commission to exchange currency because you have caught on to what is going on. Supply and demand strikes once again.
What began as a day of worship of God has quickly disintegrated into frustration and anger for you. You are angry at the priests for what you believe were contrived blemishes in your animals. You are angry at the inflated prices of the approved animals. You are angry at the commission charged by the money changers.
And deep down, you are angry at God for making you do all of this and for allowing His priests to continue such a scam and racket.
The temple that had been designed to draw people to God was turning people away from Him.
And into this scene steps Jesus.
Three years earlier, Jesus had launched His ministry by forming a whip and turning over the tables of the money changers and sacrificial animal salesmen. That cleansing is recorded in the Gospel of John.
Now, near the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus once again steps into the fray and turns over tables in His divine anger. This second cleansing is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels. He is angry now, as He was three years ago, because of how the religious and business leaders had turned His Father’s house into a barrier – a mockery – instead of what God had intended. Instead of being a symbol of grace, hope, and relationship – a symbol of Jesus Himself – it was made into a symbol of greed, selfishness, and extortion – a symbol of sin itself.
Some question two cleansings of the temple. It seems rather far fetched to them that Jesus would do this twice and they contend that it was the same event recorded in all four Gospels. There are problems with that view. First, the details recorded are different. Second the context of John’s cleansing is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s. Third, why would it be far-fetched for business to return as usual especially after three years? Fourth, why would it be surprising for Jesus to repeat something He did? He taught similar messages (e.g. The Sermon on the Mount and The Sermon on the Plain), performed similar miracles (e.g. healing leprosy, casting out demons, feeding of the 4,000+ and feeding the 5,000+), and told similar parables (e.g. stories about faithful and unfaithful servants).
No, it is best to hold to two different temple cleansings book-ending Jesus’ ministry. The first set the tone for what Jesus would say and do for the next three years; the second would be a capstone to what He did and perhaps be used to hasten His rejection by the leaders.
In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah Alfred Edersheim explains the purpose and character of each of the two temple cleansings this way:
If, when beginning to do the ‘business’ of His Father, and for the first time publicly presenting Himself with Messianic claim, it was fitting He should take such authority, and first ‘cleanse the Temple’ of the nefarious intruders who, under the guise of being God’s chief priests, made His House one of traffic, much more was this appropriate now, at the close of His Work, when, as King, He had entered His City, and publicly claimed authority. At the first it had been for teaching and warning, not it was in symbolic judgment; what and as He then began, that and so He now finished.
So here’s the question: How about us? Do we ever create barriers preventing other people from drawing close to God? Do we do that as individuals? Together as local churches?
It’s uncomfortable to go here, but we have to because if we are placing any barriers in front of others, I cannot imagine that Jesus will refrain from turning over the tables in our hearts and behavior.
Are we ever hypocritical? Judgmental? Legalistic?
Do we abuse God’s grace? Rationalize our sin?
Do we refuse to live missionally? Refuse to work at growing in Christ’s image? Refuse the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts?
Are we selfish? Greedy? Mean?
Do we pursue joy in worldly things? Have we replaced Jesus as our greatest treasure with anything else?
Let’s never forget that people are watching. They are placing our conduct and speech under the microscope and scrutinizing it carefully.
Does that mean we have to be perfect? By no means. But it does mean we need to humbly and quickly admit and confess our flaws and sin.
As you teach this account to your kids, help them understand why Jesus was angry – that He had a right to be angry because people were being blocked from God. Remind them that our mission as followers of Jesus is to bring people to God and that God takes that seriously. Share the joy of living missionally, but balance that with the weightiness of our task. We are not making widgets! We are striving, in God’s power, to be used by Him to bring life to death!
Here’s a little bonus content for you. Because we will be spending the next several weeks studying the final week or so of Jesus’ ministry before the Resurrection, it might be helpful to share a timeline of the events surrounding Jesus’ arrival in Bethany, where He stayed during the week, through the empty tomb. The following is derived from Charts of the Gospels and the Life of Christ by Robert L. Thomas.
A. Arrival at Bethany
B. Mary’s Anointing of Jesus
A. The Triumphal Entry
A. Cursing the Fig Tree
B, Second Temple Cleansing
C. Request by Some Greeks
A. The Withered Fig Tree
B. Officials Challenge of Jesus’ Authority
C. The Widow’s Gift
D. The Olivet Discourse
A. The Sanhedrin’s Plot to Kill Jesus
B. Judas’ Agreement to Betray Jesus
A. Preparation for the Passover
B. The Passover
1. Discussion about Greatness
2. Washing the Disciples’ Feet
3. Identifying the Betrayer
4. Prediction of Peter’s Denial
5. The Lord’s Supper
C. The Upper Room Discourse
D. Gethsemane Prayer
A. Jesus Betrayed and Arrested
B. The Three Jewish Trials
1. First Trial Before Annas
2. Second Trial Before Caiaphas
3. (Peter’s Denials)
4. Third Trial Before the Sanhedrin
5. (Judas’ Suicide)
C. The Three Roman Trials
1. First Trial Before Pilate
2. Second Trial Before Herod Antipas
3. Third Trial Before Pilate
D. The Crucifixion of Jesus
1. The Journey to Golgotha
2. First Three Hours
3. Last Three Hours
E. The Burial of Jesus
A. The Women Visit the Tomb
B. Peter and John Visit the Tomb
C. Appearance to Mary Magdalene
D. Appearance to the Other Women
E. Appearance to the Emmaus Disciples
F. Appearance to Ten Disciples (without Thomas)
This is also a good time to encourage you to get your hands on a good harmony of the Gospels. If you aren’t familiar with this tool, it is a book that combines all four Gospel accounts into one chronology (make sure you get one in the translation you prefer). Usually, harmonies will divide the pages into columns for each Gospel to show what content is in each. However, you can also use a simplified harmony which just combines all the accounts into paragraph form. A harmony is a wonderful tool that will greatly help you understand and teach narratives in the life of Christ.
Here is more help for leaders preparing for the March 15, 2015 session (Unit 31, Session 3) of The Gospel Project for Kids.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay in 2014. Brian earned an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian and his wife, Tara, and their three children – Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb – live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 1-3 graders at City Church.