FX is the abbreviation for special effects used in movies. Special effects make things appear to happen. In the world of special effects, nothing is what it appears to be. The Gospel of John is the FX Gospel. Nothing is what it seems. Water isn't water but wine and regeneration. Faith isn't believing; it's eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood. The one who sees Jesus doesn't just see the Son of God but the Father too. The One they call a Samaritan is really King of the Jews. Lazarus isn't dead but sleeping. The gardener isn't a gardener but the risen Jesus. Things are not what they seem in the Gospel of John and certainly not in our text.
In our text Jesus comes to the temple. This is the first time Jesus comes to the Temple after beginning His public ministry. This appears to be an ordinary event; another rabbi comes to the temple. But it's more than that. Jesus Himself is the true temple of Israel. John tells us this in his first chapter saying, "The Word became flesh and dwelled among us." The word "dwelled" is literally "tabernacled," the word for the first temple in Israel. So what we have is the true Temple coming to His shadow. The shadow temple existed to point people to the true Temple, Jesus.
This explains those Old Testament passages where God's people are told if they pray toward the temple in time of war God will hear and deliver them. If they sin and pray toward the temple, God will have mercy. If in time of drought they pray toward the temple, God will send rain. Doesn't that sound like what Islam teaches? If you expect Allah to hear your prayers, you must say them facing Mecca. But God wasn't concerned about people facing a building. He was directing them to the place where He promised to answer prayers which wasn't a physical building but Jesus. That's why John's Gospel goes on to teach that when we pray we are to ask in Jesus' name and the Father will answer.
The building called the temple taught God's people that He would dwell with them on earth. But even when Solomon dedicated the first temple, he declared, "But will God indeed dwell with mankind on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house which I have built." The temple was a sign of God's Presence with His people, but it was not the Real Presence. It pointed to that time when God would take on flesh and blood and dwell among men. Jesus is the Real Presence. That's why the Gospel of John tells us the one who has seen Jesus has seen God and no one can come to the Father but by Jesus.
The temple on earth was the place on earth where God distributed grace and every blessing. It was the place where the broken Ten Commandments were covered by the blood of sacrificed animals. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was in the holy of holies. Inside the Ark were the tablets on which the 10 Commandments were carved. On top of the Ark was the Mercy Seat. The high priest would pour the blood of animals into the mercy seat so that God dwelling in a cloud above the mercy seat could not see the broken Ten Commandments below.
However, as Hebrews teaches these were only shadows. Jesus Himself is the real Mercy Seat; John calls Him that in his first epistle. The blood of Jesus is the only blood that can really cover up sins. His flesh, not that of animals, is the real source of forgiveness. The eating of His flesh, not that of sacrificed animals, is how one gets forgiveness as John records in his 6th chapter.
So what we see in our text is not a rabbi coming to the temple. But the true Temple coming to His shadow. What we see next is something right out of the horror movies where special effects are used skillfully. In movies about haunted houses, the house quite frequently comes alive. It screams; it moves; it clutches at people. In our text the Temple comes alive. What the church was doing to the physical building was taken personally by the true Temple because what they were doing to it they were really doing to Him. In other words, if those walls could talk they would have said what Jesus did. If those walls could move, they would have done what Jesus did.
The meek and mild Jesus, the one who wouldn't quench a flickering flame or raise His voice in the streets makes a whip from cords and attacks those profaning His shadow. All along there had been places to buy clean animals to sacrifice in the temple. All along there had been places to change large coins for small and pagan coins for Jewish to pay the temple tax. But these places had moved from the lower city, to the temple gates, and now they were in the very courts of the temple set aside for gentiles, the only place on earth that non-Jewish people could come and pray to the true God.
The place on earth God had designated for all men to meet God now was a place where men met animals. The place that God had set aside for a quiet place for all to pray now was filled with the clinking of money and men hawking goods. The place on earth where God met man to bless him was now the place men met other men to buy and sell. If those walls could talk, they would have screamed in outrage. If those walls had hands, they would have thrown out those who were so casually profaning God's purposes.
The temple comes to life in the Person of Jesus Christ, and He does what the building could not do. He takes a whip and doesn't just use it on sheep and cattle as our translation has it, but on all including buyers, sellers, and money changers. And don't think Jesus did this in a calm, dignified manner. It was a as terrifying as when special effects make a haunted house come to life! That's why they all scattered like they did.
Well those who had so profaned the house of God sure got there's, didn't they? And you don't think we will get ours? You don't think the church on earth today is as corrupt, as profane as the church on earth then? You don't think Jesus would come in here and take a lash to us? You don't think what we do here ever gets in the way of what God intends to do here? O, I see; He doesn't know when we're here thinking about what we want to buy or sell rather than holy things. He doesn't know when we treat His Table as if it were nothing more than a table where some bread and wine are distributed. He doesn't know when we act like church is something we do for Him rather than where He does for us. Do you think that because God never sends lightening bolts to fry us for our profane thoughts that He doesn't know or care about them?
That's the trap the Church of Jesus' day fell into. You see in the early days of the Old Testament when two priests offered strange fire to God, He smoked them. When a man who had grown up with the Ark of the Covenant in his home, tried to save the Ark from falling when the oxen hauling it stumbled, God struck him dead on the spot. When a man picked up sticks on the day of rest God provided for His church and one used His name as a curse, God saw to it that they were stoned to death. But those sort of things did not happen in the church of Jesus' day. So the church thought of the temple as just an ordinary building, just a place to do business not a place where God's glory dwells. Jesus came on the scene and taught them and us different.
But more is going on here than Jesus, the true Temple, cleansing His shadow. The Temple doesn't only come alive. It dies. Even as their profaning the temple building was a profaning of Jesus, the true Temple, so what happens to Jesus happens to the Temple. What happens when Jesus dies on the cross? The veil in the temple building is torn exposing for all to see the holy of holies that only a high priest bearing blood was allowed to see. This indicated the end of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Shadows always disappear when the "Sun" finally rises.
Yes, the Temple, both the reality and the shadow were destroyed by sinners. Jesus told them they would do it. "You must destroy this Temple," He said. When sinners destroyed His body they destroyed His shadow too. But it didn't happen how you think. God heaped, loaded, piled all their sins on the Body of Christ. "Him who knew no sin God made to be sin," says St. Paul. "The iniquity of us all was laid upon Him," says Isaiah. Their sins of temple profaning. Their sins of treating what is holy as ordinary. Their sins of treating what belonged to God as if it belonged to them were heaped on Jesus. And so were our sins. Our minds that cannot stay focused on holy things. Our hearts that doubt holy things. Our proud minds that act like this is our house and not God's were all piled on Jesus.
Where God sees sins He cannot help but punish them. He saw the sins of the two profane priests and burnt them to a crisp instantly. He saw the sin of the well-meaning Uzziah and struck Him dead. Likewise, on Jesus God saw all of our sins. There is your day dreaming heart. Their is my profane mind. There are my doubts about holy things, and your boredom with them. And God unleashed His wrath God against them. While Jesus whipped men with a cord made out of a material that couldn't hurt them, God whipped Jesus with a scourge that cut Him to the bone. While Jesus shouted for men to get their profanity out of the temple, God shouted damnation at His Son. While we are not struck by lightening bolts when we come to this altar with careless thoughts, strange thoughts, wrong thoughts, God struck His Son with lightening bolt after lightening bolt till at last all of His wrath against sinners was spent.
You know why we are not struck down when our minds wander in church or even when they churn out profane thoughts? Because Jesus was struck down in our place. More than that; His blood was poured over our sinfulness. God simply can't see it anymore. He looks and looks and there is nothing there but the blood of Jesus. He doesn't see our straying hearts or misguided minds. He sees only the blood of Jesus.
The true Temple dies, so that all men, women and children can come to God without fear. What if, dear friends, only those with pure hearts and right minds could come into this house of God? What if we had to be 100% focused every minute we were here or lightening flashed from that altar and killed us? What if only the holy could eat His flesh and drink His blood? Who among us could ever come? Who among us would not have to be in despair because we could never be holy enough to get any of the blessings of God? Church would be the place where we came always trying to be right with God rather than the place God comes to and for sinners because He has made things right through His Son.
Yes, that's the way of God. First He comes with whips and judgements of the Law to expose our sins against Him, but then He takes those sins on Himself bearing the lashes we deserve and suffering our judgement. Then He comes to us victorious over our sins declaring us forgiven and redeemed. We destroy His Body with our sins, but He raises it and comes to give us His Body for salvation. Nothing is quite what it seems in the Gospel of John. The whips are not to drive us away from Him, but to Him. His death is not His defeat but our victory. Jesus defiled by the sins of sinners is destroyed so God might come to sinners in Him. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent III (3-26-00) John 2: 13-22