Temples

“Prove it, Jesus!”

Essay by: Dan Kent

A small crowd of merchants tried to remain reasonable as they watched Jesus crash around the temple in utter pandemonium. The merchants woke up that morning, ate breakfast, then came to the temple to sell animals for sacrifice and to offer currency exchanges so Jews could make their appropriate offerings. Now they watched dumbfounded as their birds and animals ran wildly away, and their coins jangled and rolled all over the tiled floors (John 2:13-20).

“What gives you the right,” they asked. Or, specifically, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus stormed the temple like he had special authority. They wanted proof that he actually had that authority he boasted.

When I hear others talk about this story, many seem to dote on Jesus’s aggressiveness in this scene. They seem to love pontificating about what Jesus’s chaos means relative to our own urges for holy mayhem and violence. The encounter, though, struck me for different reasons. This week I focused on the merchants’ demand for proof that Jesus was who he claimed (by his actions) to be. What struck me is this: Jesus acquiesced. Jesus offered them exactly what they asked for: proof:

“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (2:19).

Wires got crossed, here, and the Jews thought Jesus claimed that he could rebuild the temple building they now stood in. This struck them as entirely silly since it took many men almost five decades to build. I empathize with their dismissive response. The test Jesus offered, as they understood it, was almost hilarious in its absurdity.

“Destroy this temple…” Yeah, right. Like they would risk destroying something so great and so big on the gamble that God had incarnated into this unhinged man from Nazareth.

We know with hindsight that Jesus referred to his own body as the destroyed temple that would rise again after three days. On most days, I’d read this story and say something like, “oh, that’s what Jesus meant,” and I’d move on. Last week, though, I kept mentally circling back to the merchants’ mistaken interpretation. Don’t we have to assume that Jesus recognized their misinterpretation? And yet Jesus didn’t correct them on it. He let their misinterpretation hang there in their minds. Why?

I began wondering what would have happened if they’d followed through on the test, as they misunderstood it. What if they had aroused enough courage to take that great chance? I mean, what if they convinced enough fellow Jews to help them destroy the massive building, and then what if they went back to Jesus to hold him to his claim? Assuming Jesus really is God incarnate, of course Jesus could rebuild the massive temple in three days. Heck, he could do it a whole lot faster than that.

The merchants didn’t accepted Jesus’s challenge, though. Instead, they flittered away, back into the comfortable routine of their normal lives.

As I read the story this week I fixed my attention on those merchants, and I saw my own cowardice saliently displayed in them. Like me, the merchants want signs they can passively watch. Like me, they want Jesus to perform something amazing while they stand off to the side taking in the spectacular scene.

Jesus refuses to coddle cowardice, though. Jesus counter-offers with a test that requires their own participation. I believe he does the same for you and me. We want to know if Jesus is who he says he is. Jesus gives us what we want, but the test requires a real gamble on our part. We, too, must put some skin in the game.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus says (John 10:10), and we want very much to live that full life. But Jesus doesn’t give this life out like candy at a parade. No, if we want the life Jesus offers, we must give up our own. “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 26:25).

What a gamble! What a great risk! My spirit trembles at the proposition. Shrieks of doubt echo in my psyche. I want to take that chance, but it’s so much to ask. Perhaps I could better tolerate such a grandiose investment if I truly knew Jesus is who he says he is. If I really knew, undeniably, maybe then I could truly live in Christlike love, willing to truly sacrifice my own will for the will of God. If only I really knew for sure.

“You have no excuse,” Jesus says, “you can know.” In one of the most profound, most encouraging, most terrifying, most convicting verses in the Bible, Jesus promises us: “anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God” (John 7:17).

I cry out: “Prove it, Jesus!”

“Okay,” Jesus replies. “How badly do you want that proof?”

Jesus waits for me, eager to prove himself, but the proof can only be seen through genuine earnestness.

The proof I want about Jesus dangles there before me and the robust life Jesus promises waits for me. I reach a hand out for it while my other hand grasps tightly to a bundle of ambitions, addictions, and affectations. Only to the extent that I let go of what I’ve leaned on all my life can I gather in the treasures Jesus offers.

The encounter with the merchants fascinates me in that, when Jesus says “destroy this temple,” he simultaneously requires the merchants to destroy their own. I think this all rests on a fundamental truth: We can’t dwell in the temple of God while embodying the temples of the world’s pseudo-gods: we can’t dilute our devotion to Jesus with rampant devotion to a dozen other silly idols: we can’t deconstruct Christianity without also answering Christ’s call to work toward deconstructing ourselves.

We each dwell in our own precious temples, temples that may have taken decades to build, temples we may adore, temples that may have comforted us in the valleys of a hard life, temples that may have whispered sweet words in our ears… Jesus calls us to start tearing them down.

Will we?

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