“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: the third commandment is God’s gift to His people. Listen again to the words of our Old Testament lesson: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” God blessed the Sabbath day and gave it as a gift to His creation. Man was given the gift of rest, but not simply rest for the sake of rest. The Sabbath rest is the gift of worship. We are privileged to interact with our God, the One who created us and acted to redeem us. God bends over backward to give us His gifts. He condescends to come to us today in humble words, water, bread and wine. For God’s Old Testament people, He established an elaborate system of sacrifices, all designed to convey His grace to His people. He dwelt among them in the tabernacle, and later in the temple; He came to His people so that they could receive His great gifts and respond in prayer and praise. The Sabbath is truly a gift; the gift of a compassionate God to His beloved creation.
But humanity rejected this gift; we rebelled against the loving compassion of our Creator and Redeemer. In our text for today, Jesus goes to the temple, the place where God promised to meet with His people in mercy, the place that the Father had so graciously provided for His people to worship Him. On that day the Scripture is fulfilled, the word spoken by the prophet Malachi: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple.” God in the flesh suddenly came into His temple, and He expected to find His people reveling in the gift of the Sabbath, receiving His great gifts and giving Him thanks and praise. Instead, He found quite the opposite. “In the temple He found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, with the money-changers sitting there.” The temple was supposed to be a place of prayer, a place of sacrifice, the place where God had promised to come to His people, but now it was a shopping mall. The religious leadership would rather reap the profits of turning the temple mount into a marketplace than encourage true piety and respect for the worship of God. The Sabbath was being desecrated in the courtyards that surrounded God’s most Holy Place; that is what the Lord found when He suddenly came into the temple.
What would Jesus find if He walked into our sanctuaries? What would He find if He walked into our lives? Would He find that we too have despised the Sabbath like His people of old? Martin Luther gives us the Christian application of the Sabbath command in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” The Sabbath isn’t about a specific day, it isn’t even about not doing work; it’s about the proper worship of God. This worship has two parts: we receive God’s gifts, and then we give Him thanks and praise. Do we hold God’s Word sacred, and gladly hear and learn it, or do we despise preaching and His Word by placing other things above it? Do we hear God’s Word and receive His great gifts with thanksgiving, or grudgingly, looking for an excuse to avoid them? What takes priority in your life over prayer, devotion, and worship of God? Is it work, school, sports, recreation, your social life? So many other activities are encroaching on the time set aside for worship, and Christians have often allowed the sports tournaments and social gatherings to replace weekly worship. But I’m not just talking about Sunday mornings. The Sabbath is not restricted to one day of the week. Luther calls on us to “gladly hear and learn” the Word throughout our lives. Do we spend time in prayer, studying and meditating on God’s Word during the week? Do we take advantage of opportunities to receive God’s Word in bible class or special services? Do our Lord’s gifts receive priority, or does everything else crowd them out?
Jesus responds to violations of the Third Commandment in a way that we wouldn’t have expected. “Making a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’” The only thing to do when the things of this world encroach on the Sabbath is to drive them away. In holy anger, Jesus cast the merchants out, He drove away their animals, overturned their tables. They felt the bite of his whip, they cowered before the righteous wrath of almighty God. When the Sabbath is desecrated, it must be made clean again. This isn’t easy, it isn’t without pain; it is the work of God’s holy Law. Sin must be driven out. Our sins don’t want to leave, the Old Adam’s hold on us is tight; Satan knows that if He can keep us away from God’s gifts, we are well on our way to joining Him forever. The whip is necessary, no matter how painful it is. You and I must feel the bite of the Law, we need to have our sins attacked and driven away; the Old Adam must be put to death. This is the task of the Law: to expose sin and drive it away in repentance.
The disciples watched Jesus’s whip cleanse the temple, they observed the operation of the Law upon sin, and they remembered a phrase from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus had zeal for His Father’s house that day; He wouldn’t let it be desecrated before His very eyes. His zeal, His passion led Him to use the whip of the Law to drive out sin, to declare God’s just judgment upon it. But if that was all that Jesus had come to do, we would still be lost. The Law exposes sin, it cannot destroy it or deliver you from its penalty. Jesus came to bring sin to light and destroy it. His zeal led to the proclamation of the Law, but more importantly, it led to the accomplishment of the Gospel. His zeal for His Father’s house would lead Him into conflict with the religious leaders, conflict that would begin here at the start of His ministry. This zeal would literally consume Him, it would lead to His death. He suffers because He loves His Father; He dies as a criminal because He is passionate for the holiness of the temple. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” His crime? Love for God and His house. Jesus has zeal for the things of His Father. That is why He suffers, that is why He dies.
But while Jesus suffers innocently, He doesn’t suffer unwillingly. His zeal for His Father’s will consumes Him. The Father wills that Jesus offer up His life as the sacrifice for your sin, in answer to the Law’s sting. Jesus has zeal for the things of His Father, and so He goes boldly to the cross. His Father’s will is His desire, and that desire, that passion, that zeal, will consume Him. He will be devoured upon that cross, consumed by the righteous wrath of God over our sin. He will feel the bite of the whip, the Law’s just judgment. Jesus endures that suffering and humiliation not only because of His zeal for His Father’s house and His Father’s will; He endures the cross because of His zeal for you. His zeal for your salvation will consume Him. He will not let you die in your sin, He will not see you dwell in hell forever, and so He gave up His life in your place. His love for you was so strong that He was willing to endure hell itself for you.
This zeal leads Jesus to challenge His opponents in the temple that day. “So the Jews said to Him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” He commands His enemies to put Him to death, with the promise that He will rise again on the third day. They are tearing down the temple, the location of God’s gracious presence, by turning it into a marketplace; now Jesus dares them to tear down the true temple, the new location of God’s gracious presence: His very own body. He will show His authority as the Son of God and His identity as the new temple by raising up His body on the third day, never to be torn down again. For Jesus has come to fulfill the temple and all of its sacrifices with His own death and resurrection. In our text, He drives out all the animals for sacrifice, and the temple courtyard is left empty- except for Jesus Himself, Jesus only. Jesus alone is the sacrifice for our sin, the answer to the Law’s bite. That building He so vehemently defended will become obsolete on Good Friday with His own sacrifice. The dwelling place of God with men is now Jesus Himself, the sacrifice for our sin.
Having accomplished salvation, Christ’s zeal is turned toward distributing the fruits of salvation. His passion and desire is to bring forgiveness to you and to me. Yes, we need to feel the bite of the whip, the sting of the Law. Our sin needs to be attacked and driven away, but then we need the healing balm of the Gospel. The Third Commandment now describes the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Sabbath is now the opportunity to receive Christ Himself as He comes to us in Word, water, Body and Blood. We take time out of our lives and gather in this place because here Christ fulfills our greatest needs, the only needs that truly matter for eternity. Here Jesus gives us rest, not just the opportunity to take a break from this world, but eternal rest. Through the shed blood of Christ, we have eternal rest, the Sabbath rest of heaven. There all the distractions and other priorities will be no more; there will simply be Christ, the temple, the location of God’s presence with His people forever. We read in Revelation chapter twenty-one, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” In the Name of the new temple, the one whose zeal for His Father and for us led Him to the cross, Amen.