Mark 14:56-59 “Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.”‘ Yet even then their testimony did not agree.”
These verses are the continued record of the trial of Jesus of Nazareth which began in a Jewish court of law over 1900 years ago. The New Testament begins with the words, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt.1:1). Our Lord was a Jew, and the first court which was trying him was the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Jewry. There he was being accused of blasphemy; they called for two witnesses who said that they had heard him say these words, “I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man” (v.58). They seized on one sentence from the millions of words Jesus had spoken during the past three years. They altered it significantly and made it the heart of their blasphemy charge. Why was it significant to them? Did our Lord actually say these words? Did the words prove that Jesus had blasphemed?
1 THE BACKGROUND TO THE ACCUSATION.
The Scriptures of the Old Testament make this extraordinary claim that in the beginning it was the Lord God who had created the heavens and the earth. This is our heavenly Father’s world, and this God went on to make himself known to Abraham, revealing himself to the patriarch and to his descendants. God sent to them his servants the prophets, men like Moses, Samuel, Elijah and so on. This God frequently spoke to his people through those men; he wouldn’t keep silent, and they wrote down what he said in the Holy Scriptures. The revelation of God they had received was too precious to be forgotten. They taught what the Scripture said to their children “to the third and fourth generations of them that feared the Lord.”
This God also set up a whole system by which this people could worship him in the way he wished to be worshipped, through sacrifices, and a priesthood, centred on what was first a tabernacle and then, more permanently, a vast temple in Jerusalem, the biggest building in the land by far. What we may refer to as the ‘proto-temple,’ the tabernacle, was a large elaborate tent which was set up in the middle of the camp as the children of Israel moved across the desert to the promised land. Whenever they stopped for a while in a certain area their camp was set out in a careful way. Three tribes were set up on each of the four points of the compass and in the centre of the camp the tabernacle was erected, the tent of meeting. That was God’s house in their midst, where Jehovah actually met with men, with an altar in front of the tabernacle. God would manifest his glory in that the tent and speak to people; “As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshipped, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex. 33:9-11).
Then, when the temple was built in Jerusalem under king Solomon, the same phenomenon is repeated, God coming near to the people and filling the temple with his glory; “When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple. Then Solomon said, ‘The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell for ever'” (I Kings 8:10-13). There were such special occasions when God manifested his glory in the temple, the place that was Jehovah’s home.
So the most potent symbol of God’s presence with his people was the Temple. It was “the beating heart of Judaism. It wasn’t just, as it were, a church on a street corner. It was the centre of worship and music, of politics and society, of national celebration and mourning. It was also the place where you would find more animals (alive and dead) than anywhere else. But, towering above all these, it was of course the place where Israel’s God had promised to live in the midst of his people. It was the focal point of the nation, and of the national way of life” (Tom Wright, “John for Everyone”. SPCK, 2002, p.25).
We are looking at the Old Testament root, planted by the grace of God, out of which the New Testament grows, but Christian claims are more staggering still. This same God who had spoken to the fathers in times past by the prophets has now spoken far more intimately and richly by his own Son the Lord Jesus Christ. If Matthew’s gospel begins by telling us of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, that he was the son of Abraham and the son of David, then the gospel of John begins like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn.1: 1,2 & 14). God’s new tabernacle in the world was the very flesh and bones of his Son Jesus Christ. God is no longer living in a static temple but in a living moving person, not in some ‘eternal consciousness,’ some ‘impersonal life-force’ or ‘cosmic energy’ (whatever those words mean), but in the God-man Jesus Christ God has appeared on earth.
Luther once said about Christ: “He ate, drank, slept, walked; was weary, sorrowful, rejoicing; he wept and he laughed; he knew hunger, thirst, tiredness, sweat and bloodshed; he talked, he toiled, he prayed … so that there was no difference between him and other men, save only this, that he was God and had no sin.” Now the God who has revealed himself like that is someone who has made himself approachable and accessible to us; this all-round person brings to us his claims and warnings and promises. The Jewish leadership clearly heard the claims of Jesus Christ; they were deeply offended and made up their minds to destroy him. His own disciples once said to Jesus, ‘Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,’ but Jesus replied, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ What a claim! To gaze on Christ was to gaze on the God of Genesis 1:1.
So when the Lord Christ walked this earth there were two houses of God. There was the great temple in Jerusalem, and there was also Jesus Christ himself. The first was merely the prototype; Jesus is the fulfilment of all those hints and promises. He is the reality of all that was prefigured in the types of the tabernacle and temple – Jesus is the altar, the candlestick, the bread, the ark and so on. After his birth the true glory of God will be seen in all its grace and truth in him. Jesus is the consummation of the symbols in the temple.
The vast building in Jerusalem looked very impressive and permanent, and yet the Jews had their traditions about the Temple being destroyed and rebuilt. It had happened before, and some thought it would happen again. In fact the Lord speaks to the woman of Samaria and tells her that a time will come when no longer will worship be focused at the Jerusalem mountain. The foundations of this temple had been laid in the year 20 B.C. under Herod the Great, and almost fifty years had gone by since then. In fact it was not going to be completed for another thirty years, and like all of Judaism the temple system was corrupt and under God’s judgment. You might walk into this great building but when you looked around you didn’t turn to your best friend and whisper, “The glory of Jehovah fills this place.” There was money making, a market-place atmosphere, hucksters were crying out for trade, offering the best prices in the exchange rate and in the sale of animals for sacrifice. God’s home had become a robbers’ den. All the activities were a rip-off, and the piety of the place was formed by proud Pharisees standing up where everyone could see and hear them. They were loudly thanking God that they weren’t like other men. They were noisily cascading their coins into the brass offertory horns. So the house of God needed reformation, and twice during the ministry of the Lord Jesus, at the beginning and near the end, he had entered the Temple and attacked the place with a whip which he’d made, turning over the tables of the money changers, scattering the animals and releasing the doves. He’d emptied the place in his holy wrath. This was God’s house and they had turned it into a Sunday car boot sale in Petticoat Lane. To my imagination the scene of Jesus cleansing the temple is as if pro-hunting vigilantes were to break into Parliament and drive the Speaker and all the Members of Parliament out of the House with hunting whips. What an uproar!
That is the background to the reference to the temple at Jerusalem which was raised at Jesus’ trial. Its symbolism as God’s house; its pointing forward to Jesus himself the incarnate temple of God; the decadence of Herod’s temple, and Jesus’ denouncing and cleansing it. The actual words of our Lord were mangled by the false witnesses in his trial. They are referred to in the second chapter of John’s gospel; they were spoken in the aftermath of Jesus cleansing the temple for the first time. An hour or so later, after the dust had settled and there was a time of peace the Jews gathered around Jesus to question him about what authority he had to do something as radical as driving everyone out of the temple. They wanted to know his credentials. “Then the Jews demanded of him, ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed that Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (Jn. 2:18-22).
2. WHAT ACTUALLY DID JESUS SAY?
The desecration of a temple or any place of worship was judged to be a capital offence in the ancient world. Graffiti painted on its walls, arson, or attacking its images all brought the death penalty on the perpetrators. Had Jesus actually threatened to destroy the temple? No, he hadn’t. Even the witnesses who made this allegation were not judged to be credible men. Then what happened? Christ had driven everyone out of the temple. He had cleared the place by himself; one man alone had done that. A tornado of divine righteousness had blown them away. The Jewish guardians of the temple had fled before him. Then an hour later those men were regaining their composure and feeling foolish for running out, and very angry with him for what he had done: “Who does he think he is to do something like that?” So they approached Christ and said something like this, “What right do you have acting in this way? Can you do some miraculous sign to show your credentials?”
What had they got from Jesus so far? Much! For example, he had in a moment in a wedding in Cana changed gallons of water into aged wine; he had healed all the sick who had been brought to him; he had preached the Sermon on the Mount; he had by his own zealous godliness put the fear of the Lord into thousands of people and emptied the temple. None of that, you understand, was enough for these men. They still didn’t trust in Christ. “Now you have to do a sign for us,” they clamoured, “Perform a miracle and we’ll bow to your authority.” An itch for miracles is no sign of mature faith.
It was in answering this request that Jesus referred to the destruction of the temple. What precisely did he say? “You destroy the temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” He never claimed that he was going to be the one who would destroy it. That was where the witnesses lied. This is where they were false witnesses. “You destroy it,” Jesus had said to them “and I’ll build it up again.” In other words Jesus is asking them to do a sign. “How sincere are you in wanting to submit to my authority? You can show it by picking up crowbars and sledgehammers and getting on the roof of the temple and starting to demolish it.” Of course he knew these dignified gentlemen, temporarily ruffled by being driven out of the temple, would never touch God’s temple. They smiled back at him, softly shaking their heads, refusing to do something which was in their ability to do, and so Jesus also refused to do something that was in his supernatural power to do.
Some of you are thinking that if you saw me do a miracle then you’d believe my message. If I walked on the sea from the jetty to the pier, or turned a bottle of water into wine then you say you’d believe. I cannot do that; I do not possess that power; God hasn’t given it to me. If we are laying down conditions for faith then I can ask you to do something that you are able to do; destroy the idols you are living for; rase them right to the ground, and then demolish their foundations; isn’t it total folly to be worshipping an idol? Isn’t that a wise thing to do? Read the Bible regularly, and ask God to help you to understand it; do everything that God tells us to do in the Scriptures; come to church each Sunday, morning and evening, and listen intently asking God to give you light and understanding. You do that first of all, and after you’ve done those things for a month or two I wonder will you still be asking me to perform a sign in order to believe in Jesus. In other words I am saying that it isn’t the absence of miracles that’s keeping you from the Saviour, it’s the love you have for your sins.
So Jesus says these provocative words to them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” This is a kind of Semitic riddle (the technical word is a ‘maschil’). The Jews were very fond of them. One of the judges named Samson gave a riddle to thirty of his companions at his wedding. This is it, “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet” (Judges 14:14). Samson had seen a bees’ nest in the skeleton of a dead lion, and that is what he was referring to. His companions persuaded his wife to get the answer from him and a week later they triumphantly told him, “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” (Judges 14:18), and Samson owed thirty of them new clothes. The Jews loved puzzling away at such enigmatic sayings.
So Christ says these strange words to the people who are asking for a sign, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” What is he saying? There’s something tremendously important hidden away in those words. The surface meaning of “You knock down the temple and I will rebuild it in three days,” is all too obvious. Are you thinking about it? Are you scratching your heads? This is the million pound question and you are having to answer it. You can’t phone a friend. You can’t take two options away. The congregation can’t help you. All your lifelines are gone. You have to answer this question by yourself. Much more than a million pounds hangs on this. Eternal life hangs on understanding and believing what Jesus is saying here. What does it mean? Jesus has sown a striking phrase in our minds and down and down and down into our lives the roots must go; “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Why three days? Why not instantly? They are unforgettable words. What do they mean? It is like a combination lock. Six correct numbers will open the door into everlasting life, but what is the combination?
When you get interested in any hobby or past-time, or when you make progress in your vocation you discover that there is a special vocabulary you quickly learn. Getting into the Christian orbit is exactly the same. The Bible has its own terms and phrases. Some friends of mine have been encouraged watching a new Christian growing these past months, and they have seen his praying develop as he uses more biblical language and gospel terms. He went away for a weekend and worshipped in a gospel-lite church. “How did it go on Sunday?” they asked him the next week. “Not much meat,” he replied. The preaching was thin. He’s picking up new language. When our Saviour began to preach he was uncompromising in introducing to his hearers an entirely new vocabulary, fresh concepts and thoughts. This confused the scoffers and it also provoked people into asking questions. Let me give you some illustrations of Jesus setting out a ‘maschil’ – one of his riddles – before people. For example, in chapter three of John we are introduced to Nicodemus, a man who was a ruler of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night. He began by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Jesus answered immediately with his freshly minted language, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” He was setting before Nicodemus the door to the kingdom of God on Jesus’ own terms. Will Nicodemus ever see inside? What is the combination that will open the door? We take a breath, and we can almost hear the wheels beginning to whir as Nicodemus turns over Christ’s teaching. Then Nicodemus answers, “Born again? How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Nicodemus hasn’t seen it has he? Jesus was speaking about the new life which God creates in favoured sinners in regeneration, but Nicodemus was saying to himself, “Human birth? Human birth? That means a father and a mother, conception, a womb, nine months of embryonic development, a baby’s birth, mother’s milk.” He couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. “How can I enter my mother’s womb and start all over again?” He couldn’t see the link between a birth from God and entry into God’s kingdom. The riddle defeated him.
We find the same thing repeated just one chapter later. In John 4 there is the account of Christ’s meeting with the woman of Samaria. The two of them met at a well, so Jesus referred to wells and water in order to explain that he could satisfy her spiritual thirst – the deepest longings of her soul. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4:10). The woman was unable to think on those terms. So as the wheels whirred in her mind she was thinking like this, “Water? Wells? The well is deep, water is heavy, it’s a long way up the hill, this is a hot country, buckets, water jars – wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to do this every day?” So she said, “Sir, give me this water, that I don’t get thirsty and don’t have to come here to draw.” As in the case of Nicodemus, there was a great whirring, but nothing clicked. The door to fulfilment and satisfaction remained closed. She didn’t know the meaning of his riddle.
The same thing happens with the disciples. During the time that Jesus had been talking to the woman, the twelve had been in the city buying food to eat. They returned and urged Christ to take some food, “Master, eat,” but Jesus was full of his previous conversation with the woman, and he answered, “I have food to eat that you know nothing of.” What did the disciples do? They looked at one another and asked, “Could someone have brought him food?” (Jn. 4:33).
That’s what happens when men and women confront spiritual truths superficially. They don’t want to understand. It is hard to think seriously; it is humiliating to confess you don’t know. It is very convenient to say that you “don’t understand” when you are being asked to do things that are irksome, things that will require you to give up things you like doing, and ideas you have held for years. This is exactly what happened when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” and they assumed he was talking about the temple of Herod. Jesus said things like that to hide his message and person at that early time from scorners and haters. He said it to make people think. He did it to teach truths which would stay in the public domain for years but couldn’t be grasped until after his resurrection and after Pentecost. When the apostles returned after the Spirit had been poured out, preaching powerfully throughout Galilee, the way for the harvest they reaped had been prepared for them by the three years of Jesus’ teaching. The people hadn’t understood much of what Jesus had said, but they never forgot his words.
That is our whole conviction about raising children. We teach them verses from Scripture, and expose them to great hymns. We teach them the catechism and bring them to church with us and to special meetings. They don’t understand everything but the words and concepts and sayings are there in their minds so that when the Holy Spirit begins to work he has all those truths to take and apply to their lives. He can fan a smoking flax into a flame. He can illuminate all those shadowy figures that have been there for years. He shines his light on them and they see it! That is the new birth.
3. WHAT ACTUALLY DID JESUS MEAN?
We do not need to play a guessing game. There is this door to eternal life before us with its combination lock, and Jesus doesn’t play around; he gives the combination. He explains it very simply through his apostle John; “the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed that Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (Jn. 2:21&22). He was speaking of his own body. As Klaas Schilder says, “Just as the Jewish temple was a house in which God dwelt, even so Christ’s human nature is filled with the presence of God. The stone temple is stationary; it is the immobile property of God; it is the dwelling place, the domain of the great King. But Christ is the wandering temple. In him God begins to move, comes to the world, makes his approach to the people and the powers here below. Therefore Christ also bears the name, ‘the temple of the Lord.'”
He was the Word made flesh tabernacling, or ‘templing’ among us. That was the source of his authority – to enter Herod’s temple and make a whip of cords and drive out the dealers and overturn the tables of the money-changers. This is the God of Genesis 1:1 who has chosen to tabernacle among men. He arises in his anger and suddenly comes to his temple. He is greater than that stone temple; its days are done, and he has the right to proclaim to the people making money there, “Get out! This is not a den of robbers but my Father’s house.” The Jews were not about to demolish their beloved Jerusalem temple that had taken the last 46 years to erect. The Romans had taken so much from them, but they said to one another, “We’ve got the temple!” Then this mere son of a carpenter turns up from Nazareth, that one donkey cluster of houses on a barren hillside, and he shows his contempt for the Jerusalem temple. They could destroy him without any trouble; they broke him on a cross. But Jesus would have the last word. He, the wandering dwelling place of God, would restore that temple of his own broken body once again, making it more glorious that it ever had been. Men would see the glory that he had known in all eternity with his Father. This he would do by means of his resurrection from the dead.
Of course all of the Godhead was involved in Christ’s resurrection. The Spirit of holiness raised him; God the Father raised him, but there is this incessant refrain on the lips of Jesus that he himself had power to lay down his life and power to raise it again. He resurrects himself because he is God the Son. “I will raise it again in three days” (Jn.2:19). It is the issue I constantly pose to you, as to who or what is ultimate authority, death of Christ. Which has the greater power, the grave or the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount? The rotting corpse or the one who raised Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter and the widow of Nain’s son from the grave? Who is more powerful, the one who this year is continuing to change the lives of all his own people, or death? Who has ultimate power Christ or death? Can you tell me that you still don’t know? Then let me remind you of these facts (helpfully put together by David Watson).
1. How do you account for the birth and growth of the Christian church? It is historically and psychologically impossible that the followers of Jesus, utterly despondent after the crucifixion, could have been filled with such power, joy and assurance that they turned the world of their day upside down, as their critics had to admit with tears of rage in their eyes! Impossible, that is, unless Jesus had been raised from the dead.
2. The New Testament could never have been written without the resurrection of Christ. Who would have written about someone who made staggering claims for himself if, in the end, his life was terminated by an utterly shameful death reserved for the very worst of criminals? Yet throughout the New Testament there is the total conviction that Jesus was and is alive.
3. How do you explain the evidence of the empty tomb? The message of the risen Christ could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a plain undeniable fact. No one could produce the dead body, and no one had ever found a satisfactory explanation for this, apart from the resurrection of Christ.
4. There were many resurrection appearances as the risen Christ was seen by at least 550 people on at least eleven different occasions, over a period of six weeks. One or two of these could be passed over as hallucinations, but not all those appearances over such a space of time.
5. From the evidence in the New Testament and other ancient Christian writings, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, was undoubtedly a time of tremendous celebration. Christians have always remembered the death of Jesus with joy and praise, which is inexplicable if the death of Jesus had not been followed by the resurrection. Who holds a joyful celebration in the memory of the death of someone whom they have loved?
6. Throughout two thousand years countless millions of men and women all over the world have found the risen Christ in their own experience. This includes rich and poor, illiterate and highly educated, young and old, those from different creeds and cultures – yet all with the same total conviction that Jesus is alive and real in their personal experience. (David Watson, “Is Anyone There?” Hodder & Stoughton, 1979, pp.70&71).
The temple of the body and soul of Jesus Christ was destroyed by men, but the Saviour raised himself to new and glorious life on the third day. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Were his words true? Yes. Exactly what he said took place. They destroyed him but he raised himself up from the grave in three days. That is what he claimed would happen and it did. Remember that refrain in his preaching, “the third day . . . the third day I will rise again.” It was from the beginning of his ministry. He would rise again, he prophesied, but they didn’t believe him, and they still don’t. Rather they took these words of Jesus, and twisted them and used them against him. Words which were about triumph over death and hell became for them proof that Jesus was an infidel and a blasphemer, that he was worthy of being crucified to death. He was no Son of God at all. He was a threat to the stability and peace of the nation. His words would bring about war; he would stir up revolution and the Romans would invade the land. Better for one to die than the whole nation perish. You know how people want to blame religion for all the troubles in the world.
So they twisted the words of Jesus to make him guilty of blasphemy, and when he was hanging on the cross they threw his words at him again. We are told, “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!'” (Mk. 15:29&30). It was even turned against Jesus’ disciples, because when Stephen was arrested men brought him before the Sanhedrin and we are told, “They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13&14). It is the same accusation that had been brought against the Master that is now thrown in the face of the servant. What could have been resurrection life for them became a word of condemnation of Christ and Christians.
So they kept their precious temple and rejected the living Christ? No. They temple was completed in the year 63 A.D. in thirty years’ time, and then how long did it stand, this magnificent building? For seven more years until the 70. Then Jerusalem fell and the Roman army was allowed to destroy the whole temple edifice with their crowbars, one stone went crashing down on top of another. The high beautiful building went down and the pile of rubble went up. The Roman general encouraged them to do it telling them that any hidden gold they found they could keep. So the Jews failed to keep the temple, and did they reject Christ? Many did but one of those involved in the condemnation and stoning of Stephen was a brilliant Pharisee named Saul, from Tarsus. He kicked against all he heard Stephen say, and impaled his own conscience on those goads. The living Christ met with him on the road to Damascus. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians and listed all Christ’s resurrection appearances he concluded like this, that last of all Jesus had appeared to him also as to one abnormally born. The Christ who raised himself from the dead came and appointed Paul to become his apostle and preacher to the Gentiles. He fell at his feet and worshipped the living Christ.
Here is the Christ of the colossal claims. Was there one he made greater than this? He said that he would raise himself from the dead on the third day. He claimed, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Those are the words of a mad man, or a blasphemer, or they are the words of the living God. The one who taught and spoke like no other man, the one who healed all the sick and raised the dead said them. The one who lived a transparently pure and perfect life made those claims. You can judge Jesus to be a fake and the world’s worst blasphemer because he has led millions astray with his lies. Then you judge he deserved all he got on Golgotha. Jesus the liar. Or you can fall before the living Saviour and say, “My Lord and my God,” and spend your days better knowing him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering, being made conformable to his death.
10th July 2005 GEOFF THOMAS