Behind Golgotha 3: Enemy of the State
Passage: Matthew 24:1–24:35
Christianity is a peculiar religion. Religions typically focus on the adoration of the wise, of the powerful. The Greeks had Hercules and Achilles who were the personification and epitomization of a certain type of humanity. The powerful. The warrior. The Romans worshipped their Emperors, the Caesars, for their power and their might. The Christians worshipped a man Jesus from Nazareth who was killed on a Roman cross. The central religious figure, the object of our worship is someone who was executed in a manner befitting a political enemy.
This Lent, these weeks leading up to Easter, we have been looking at the truth and history of the cross. What led to Jesus being killed in that particular way in that particular place? We are going to continue to examine what Christians have claimed happened on that cross, the meaning of this particular death. The first week we looked at Jesus’ earthly ministry and the ways in which he fulfilled the three historic offices of prophet priest and king. Last week we saw how Jesus fit into the messianic milieu of his day. Today we are going to see how Jesus went from a traveling teaching rabbi to executed political criminal.
We’ve mentioned in passing over the past few weeks that Jesus was not the only person to be crucified. Crucifixion was a common practice in Roman society for those the Empire wanted to shame kill. If they wanted to embarrass someone. And as such it was the preferred method of execution for those they deemed threats the Empire, for political enemies of the state.
So our central religious figure as Christians, the one whom we worship, was an executed criminal.
There’s a real cognitive dissonance between the facts of Jesus’ death and their historical meaning, i.e. that he was executed as a Roman political enemy, and the sense of the Jesus message we gain from popular culture. Which is itself not divorced from the Gospels. People draw near to Jesus because of his teachings about love and acceptance. People draw near to Jesus because he ate with sinners; he declared those who were without sin were the only ones fit to judge. People draw near to Jesus because they see him healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and standing on the side of the oppressed. People draw near to Jesus because they see him going to the places of hurt and pain that we so often seek to avoid. People draw near to Jesus because of his teachings on love and forgiveness.
And yet, he was crucified by the Romans. Executed as a political threat.
If I had to boil down the Christian faith into one concise statement I would use something called the Apostle’s Creed. It is a short statement that gets at the heart of Christian beliefs. Here’s what it says about Jesus: I believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. An author of a book I’m reading this Lent said its strange to distill Christ’s earthly ministry into the phrase suffered under Pontius Pilate. This author, along with the great theologian Karl Barth, argue that this is meant to signal the interpretive lens through which we view the entirety of Christ’s ministry: that God came into the world in Jesus Christ to suffer and to suffer for sinners.
But his inclusion in the creed reminds us that Jesus came in a particular time to a particular place among a particular people. And what God does in a particular time in a particular place to bring about redemption and liberation is going to involve suffering.
We have talked some about what that looks like, how Jesus spoke out against the injustices of his day. We talked about his run ins with the Pharisees as they had turned the law, which was about God’s provision and deliverance particularly to the poor and marginalized. We talked about the revolutionary fervor that hung over Jesus’ culture as the economic wheel crushed and oppressed the rural poor. But today we need to talk about what was at the center of it all: the true heart of the matter. We need to talk about the Temple.
The Temple was a massive structure built during the reign of King Solomon. After freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God’s presence was found in the tabernacle, a massive tent. The tent would move with the Israelites through the wilderness and when they stopped to make camp would be set up every night. When they made it into the Promised Land took control of the land the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant were housed in Shiloh. Later King David brought the Ark back to Jerusalem and pitched a tent within the city to house the Ark. A couple thousand years later Nazis found it and it melted their faces. Just kidding. But at one point David is praying and says God I have this amazing house and you have this tent, it’s not fair. Let’s at least get you a duplex. No, he said let me build you a grand house as well. God is angered by David’s hubris saying I don’t need you to build me a house, if I want a house I’ll make my own (incarnation foreshadowing), but oh by the way David I will take a house but you won’t build it for me, your son will. And then Solomon builds the Temple.
The Tabernacle, the Jerusalem tent with the Ark of the Covenant, and the Temple were the places that housed the presence of God. They were the places sacrifices were offered, where atonement for sin was accomplished. Large parts of the Old Testament law outline the sacrifice system: if you transgress the law here is how you atone for your sins. It usually involved an animal offering. There were other types of offerings, grain offerings, etc. But the priest took your offering, did what the book told him to do, and then bingo bango you were right with God. Until you sinned again and had to do the whole thing over again.
Now the priests had a tremendous amount of power in this system. Because they mediated this moment of atonement, because for the people they were mediators before God, because they pronounced justification and innocence, they had a tremendous amount of power. In some respects religious leaders still do, I mean think of the infinite number of things you could be doing right now that aren’t listening to me talk. I’m betting a good 90% of those things are better than listening to me talk. But we are here for that feeling of justification and atonement.
Now here’s the thing: the means of atonement called for in the Law are things like a lamb without blemish, or a calf without blemish, or a specific type of bird. And as Israel moved from a primarily nomadic and agrarian society to an urban society not everyone had lambs and calves and birds. So you’d have to buy them. But how do you know that the birds you’re buying are the right ones and are without blemish? So there were people who would sit in the Temple courtyard and sell animals and other items worthy of sacrifice.
So there was this whole economy that developed around the Temple sacrifice system. You’d come to the Temple to make your sacrifice; you’d go and get the items you needed for your sacrifice and go into the Temple to get it done.
During Jesus’ the Romans controlled Israel. Which meant that the main currency used was that of the Empire. When they were independent Israel had their own currency but when Rome controls the market they control what money needs to be used to purchase goods and services. But Rome also extended religious authority to local context. So the Temple could self-govern.
A couple of the 10 commandments deal with Israel not practicing idolatry. With not confusing God with pieces of God’s creation. Each Roman coin had a picture of the emperor and inscriptions that talked about the Emperor as high priest and Son of God. The Roman coins were symbols of the Emperor cult and were themselves idolatrous. And as such they were unsuitable for use within the Temple. You couldn’t bring symbols of idolatry into the Temple. But there was no real use for Israelite currency outside of the Temple economy. So in order to procure the needed items for your sacrifice you’d first have to convert your Roman money into Israelite money then buy your item and then make a sacrifice.
On the surface there’s nothing nefarious here. But in reality everything about this system was corrupt. Part of the reason Rome let the Temple use their own currency was because the Temple authorities and Roman authorities were in cahoots. The Temple authorities required currency exchange and then the currency exchange could be taxed. Moneychangers could charge insane rates for currency exchange. The people who were allowed to sell at the Temple upcharged the people and gave some of their profits to the Temple authorities.
And if you were poor, could you afford any of this? No. At least not without going into debt. And guess who was really eager to lend you money so you could make your sacrifices? The wealthy Jerusalem elites who were tied in by family with the Temple authorities. So there’s this whole economic system that functions to make a few wealthy families in Jerusalem even richer and to enrich the Roman Empire.
And oh by the way, during Jesus’ life King Herod made major renovations to the Temple. Anyone remember how building projects like that were financed?
This has been considerable preamble. But it’s necessary context to hear the words of Jesus. Words Jesus says in Jerusalem. Right outside the Temple. Where there were vendors and moneychangers who are tied into the Temple economy.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. 15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. 22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time. 26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. 29 “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
Jesus proclaimed the destruction of the Temple. And then Jesus speaks in apocalyptic terms. He mentions Daniel. Daniel who proclaimed the downfall of the major ruling Empires of the time. Jesus says the Temple will be torn down, wars will come, tribulation will come, and the things and systems of this world will be torn down. Nothing will remain permanent. Nothing will last.
This message is threatening. Jesus is saying that God will break the wheel. And you know whom this is threatening to? Those in power. The Roman authorities. The Temple authorities. The wealthy elites. This is a direct threat to the systems and way of life they had built. And so what do we see happen in Jerusalem as Jesus goes about preaching this message? The Temple authorities, the priests, conspire with the Roman rulers to arrest Jesus. Because he threatened that which they had built. He said it didn’t matter. He said it would pass away. He said God would break it.
Jesus made enemies. He made enemies of the ruling class. He made enemies of the wealthy. He made enemies of the overseer of unjust systems that kept the vast majority of people economically oppressed. Because he said God was bringing about another way. God would do new things. God would make the old things pass away. And people responded. People followed. People believed.
And the ruling authorities, those empowered by Rome and those in the Temple, said that this man needs to be silenced. And they worked to find a way to silence him. So they could get back to business.
Jesus’ death was deeply theological. We are going to talk about that the next three weeks. But Jesus was also a real person who lived at a real time. In a real culture. And his message spoke to the people of that time in that culture. And he was killed by people in that time of that culture that found his message threatening to their way of life. This isn’t a fairy tale. This isn’t Harry Potter walking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort and yes we can talk about how we build meaning from stories like that but they’re ultimately stories. Ultimately fiction. Jesus isn’t fiction. Jesus is reality. Jesus is history. Jesus happened. His death was real. His death happened for theological reasons and for verifiable historical reasons. Jesus was a real person who lived in a real place with real history and died a real death. As we approach Holy Week, as we approach the cross this year and the tomb, May we experience this death really and fully. And may we experience the empty tomb and the resurrection as really and fully. Let us pray.