“The kingdom of God will be taken from you.”
Jesus said these words to the priests and Pharisees, the men chosen to intercede for the people to the Holy One. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy explicitly spell out the requirements for the priesthood, the Law, and the sacrifices both to atone for sin and to offer thanks to the Lord. The priests were set apart for a holy purpose. But over time, that holy purpose went to their heads and instead of teaching the Word as the Lord gave it to them, they created their own rules and regulations, putting themselves higher than the people over whom they had authority. They demanded respect, instead of serving with intention. They prayed loudly in order to be heard by everyone passing by. They drew attention to themselves instead of drawing people to the Holy One.
Jesus gave them every opportunity to have a conversation with him. Instead, they continually tried to entrapment him into scriptural error. He always answered them with scripture and left them silenced again and again. They could not make him sin in word or deed, as hard as they tried. For three years, Jesus patiently endured their verbal assaults, but when the time was right, he took decisive action: He cleared the temple.
The temple was supposed to by a holy place of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. The religious leaders had installed their own form of commerce by selling the animals and other elements required by the Law for sacrifice and offering. They set up tables for money-changers (who always charged a fee), and turned a blind eye to the ways the people were overcharged as they tried to meet the sacrificial requirements of the Law. When Jesus came in during this Passover week, he had enough. He overturned the tables, sent the animals into chaos, and left the money-changers scrambling to pick up their ill-gotten coins. This is not Jesus, meek and mild. This is Jesus, righteous judge.
Jesus didn’t stop with physically emptying the temple. He restored it to its original intention. The blind and lame came to the temple and Jesus healed them. Children came in singing praise. Because this event followed the triumphal entry, the shouts of the people who had waved palm branches and laid down their coats for the donkey carrying Jesus probably echoed throughout the walls. The chaos turned from greed to gratitude, and the priests were outraged.
The priests accused Jesus of usurping their authority over the holy things, but he just asked them a question they could not answer: Where did John get his authority? At this point, John had been beheaded and he was a revered figure. The priests had to know that John’s authority was God-given, but they couldn’t admit that without explaining why they refused to listen to him. On the other hand, if they said John was a self-made prophet, they knew the people who had followed him would revolt. Instead of answering, they just shrugged, saying they didn’t know.
Jesus told two stories, opportunities for the Pharisees and priests to see themselves for what they were and repent. Knowing their hearts, Jesus made it plain that they were no longer employed in God’s holy service. He said, “Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit.” For a priest, that was condemnation.
The New Testament tells the story of how the kingdom was delivered to other nations, including the much hated gentile nations of Samarian, Syria, and all around the Aegean Sea. North Africa learned the gospel from Philip. The entire Greco-Roman Empire turned to Christianity within the first decades of Jesus’s resurrection. The Jewish leaders lost their authority as representatives of God’s Kingdom.
I wonder whether God is removing the Western Church from its role as primary evangelist/seat of God’s kingdom and putting that authority in the places where people are producing gospel transformations. Certainly the Western Church has lost both credibility and influence in the last 30 years or so. Wrong theologies (prosperity doctrines and liberation theologies) may draw people in, but they are not transforming lives with the gospel of Jesus. Larger than life personalities draw attention from Jesus, sometimes with devastating consequences. The culture, with its current fascination with Critical Theory, has infiltrated the Church, creating a human-centered, works-based version of the gospel that is from the devil himself. There’s just enough truth in it to make it sound good, and just enough reward in it to make people feel good, but it is a deadly trap.
Growth in the Church has slowed to a crawl in most of the West and in countries with Westernized ideals. In the US, Evangelical Christianity is growing by .08% annually; the population is growing by just over 1%. On the other hand, people in Iran, Afghanistan, and throughout the continents of Africa and Asia are producing the fruit of the gospel (Operation World). In some of the poorest countries with the most corrupt authoritarian leadership, Jesus is being proclaimed. Not only proclaimed, but it seems to be the young adults who are responding to God’s call, in spite of the laws against proselytizing in many countries with Islam as the State religion (Missions Box). These churches, often held in secret, take advantage of social media and internet streaming services to build their knowledge of Scripture. The youth in many countries are suffering under harsh regimes, and the gospel offers hope, something no other religion can do. The punishment for learning about Jesus can be severe, even to banishment or death, but for those who choose the gospel, hope is greater than fear (New York Times, Religious News Service). These believers form communities where the gospel is lived out daily.
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37). While there are many churches in the US that practice these two foundational commands, there are many that do not. Increasingly, the most recognizable figures of the evangelical church are turning our to be mere mortals who have built a ministry on personality and intellect instead of Jesus. Unless believers insist on the Bible as the core of church teaching and as Jesus as central to the Bible, it is likely that the US will follow Europe into secularism and worshipping the god of good works. That path leads to destruction: “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him” (Matthew 21:44).
Let us choose to be broken before the Lord in repentance rather than shattered when we stand before the righteous and holy Judge in the end.