"What Jesus Wants to Find in the Church"
(Delivered Sunday, March 9, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
In our study of Matthew's Gospel, we've come to an important milestone in the ministry of our Lord—that is, the great events of that last, holy week before His sacrifice on the cross for us. It's the portion of His earthly ministry that is given the most attention in all of the four Gospels. And we have only come to the beginning of it.
Last week, we looked at Matthew's story of our Lord's 'triumphal entry' into the city of Jerusalem. And now, in this morning's passage, we consider the important events that occurred as soon as He arrived. In Matthew 21:12-17, we read;
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I heard the other day about a website that has just begun to shown up on the internet. It's a website devoted to giving 'reviews' of the local churches in any specific area.
If you moved into a new city, for example, you could go to this new website and type in the name of a specific local church. It will automatically give you a "review" of that church from those who have visited it—just like for a restaurant or a movie. There's a field box in which a visitor can write comments about their visit to that church—offering their thoughts about the style of music, or about the quality of the preaching, or about whether or not it was a friendly church. A really good church gets "five stars"; or a not-so-good church gets "one star"—or maybe no stars at all. Thanks to this website, anyone can find a local church that is exactly to their liking.
Now, such a thing could, in some situations, be very helpful. But I wonder—is it really, ultimately, a good thing that people evaluate Jesus' church on the basis of whether or not it has the things in it that they want? Might this approach miss the most important standard of all—whether or not a church has the things going on in it that the Lord Jesus Himself would want to find in it?
Might this approach forget that the church belongs, not to us, but to Jesus Christ? He is the one who bought the church with His own blood. As Revelation 1:13-16 tells us, He stands in the midst of His churches as one who is "clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band"; whose "head and hair" are "white like wool, as white as snow", and whose "eyes" are "like a flame of fire". We're told that "His feet" walk in the midst of His church "like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace"; and that "His voice" is heard in the midst of His church "as the sound of many waters". We're told that "in His right hand" are "seven stars"; which are the "angles of the seven churches"; and that out of His mouth goes "a sharp two-edged sword". We're told that "His countenance" is "like the sun shining in its strength". And if all this is true of Him, and if He walks in the midst of His churches in such a display of majesty and holiness, then it doesn't matter much what you or I want to see happening in them. The only thing that matters is what He wants to see in His church—and that we faithfully give Him what He wants.
Think about our own church. The great question we ought to be asking is, "Is Jesus Christ pleased with what He finds in this church? When He reviews it, does it meet with His pleasure? As He walks in the midst of it, does He find the things that He wants to find in it? Has it gotten rid of the things that the holy Son of God wants out of it?
This morning's passage tells us the story of the Son of God's entry into the temple—into His Father's house. It tells us what He immediately drove out of it. It tells us what He immediately welcomed into it. And it tells us what He received and enjoyed in the midst of it.
And the great, practical value of this passage is that it tells us what Jesus Christ would be pleased to find in His church—His place of holy worship that He purchased for Himself with the blood of His cross.
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The first thing this passage suggests to us is that our Lord wants His church to be . . .
1. A HOLY PLACE FOR ALL WHO SEEK HIM (vv. 12-13).
We're told that, after our Lord entered the city of Jerusalem near the end of His earthly ministry, He went immediately to the temple. And once He arrived, He immediately began to cleanse it of the things that didn't belong in it.
Now certainly, what He wanted to find in it were sincere worshipers. And in those days, Jewish people from all over the Roman world were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Passover and to present offerings in the temple according to the Scriptures (see Numbers 28:16-25). This would have been appropriate; because He—the true Passover Lamb—was about to be offered.
It may have been that some of the people traveling from afar could have brought their offerings with them; but sometimes people found it more convenient to travel, and to buy their offerings once they arrived. And so, the temple area was well-stocked with animals to be purchased by these pilgrims. The very poorest of people often couldn't afford an offering from the herds. So, the law of God allowed them to make an offering of doves or young pigeons instead. And these too were provided for purchase at the temple. Specially provided, pre-approved offerings for purchase at the temple for the offerer's convenience—at 'Passover Feast' mark-up prices, of course.
Now, if you came from some part of the Roman or Greek-speaking world to the temple, you would most likely bring Roman or Greek coinage with you. This presented a problem; because those coins often bore the image of pagan kings and pagan deities—and that would make them utterly inappropriate to bring into the temple for purchases. But this problem was taken care of as well. As you came into the temple area, you'd find the tables of money-changers; and they would exchange your pagan coinage for the sort of coinage that was acceptable for the purchase of offerings in the temple—with the addition of a 'processing fee', of course.
You can imagine what this did to the temple. It turned it into a market-place. There would be buyers and sellers dashing back and forth. There would be hand-trucks and animal carts rolling all around. There would be lines and lines of impatient people, and crowds pressing at tables to get the best deals. And there would very likely have been the kind of language filling the air that characterizes the trading of good and money even today. And of course, there would be profits being made.
In short, the temple was being used as a place for people to further their own selfish agendas, rather than a place in which to offer sincere worship to a holy God.
That's what Jesus found when He came into His Father's house. And He drove it out. The Bible tells us that He made a thorough "cleaning" of the place—driving out "all" those who bought and sold. It's important to note that He didn't do violence to people; but He did put an end to their selfish abuses of the temple. He didn't knock-out money-changers; but He did overturn their tables—and no doubt sent their coins rolling in all directions! He didn't strike those who sold doves; but He did overturn their seats—and no doubt sent the doves fluttering and the feathers flying!
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Now; did you know that our Lord also cleansed the temple at the beginning of His earthly ministry? The apostle John tells us about this first cleansing in the second chapter of his Gospel account:
Just as Jesus did early in His ministry, He now does again. Jesus' earthly ministry is marked by a cleansing of His Father's house—both at its beginning, and at its end. And this is in keeping with what God promised in the very last book of the Old Testament—the Book of Malachi. It speaks there of the ministry of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of our Savior's ministry; and in it, God says us;
This speaks, ultimately, of our Lord's second coming; and of His great purification of His Father's house at that time. But I believe it also speaks of His coming to His Father's house during His earthly ministry. Because of who He was, He had the right to come to His Father's house and cleanse it of that which didn't belong in it.
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Notice how Jesus justified His actions. He quoted Scripture. Jesus didn't act out of His own passions. He always did what He did according to the great principle, "It is written . . ."
He cited the Old Testament book of Isaiah; where God says,
That was the intention of the Father with respect to His house. It was to be a house of prayer—a holy place. It was even to be a house of prayer "for all nations"—so that the Gentiles who sought the God of Israel could freely come within its courts and pray to Him.
But that's not how Jesus found it. He cited the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, where God sends His prophet to stand at the gate of the old temple and speak to the people entering it; saying,
How horrible—to turn God's holy "house of prayer" into a market-place that amounted to nothing more than a "den of thieves"!
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Someone sent a joke to me the other day. I've wrestled with whether or not to pass it on to you. But I think it illustrates what this passage is saying to us.
Two men were shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island. There were no other human beings for hundreds of miles. "What are we going to do?" said one of the men? "We're going to starve in a matter of days!" "Don't worry," says the other. "I'm rich. I make $100,000 a month."
"What good is all your money going to do us here?", said the first? "Oh, plenty of good," said the other; "It won't take long for my pastor to find me."
Now I didn't laugh at that joke when I first read it. At first, it made me angry. Then it broke my heart. After all, just stop and think of what it is that's supposed to make that joke funny. It's the all-too-readily-embraced assumption concerning ministers and church leaders—that they are inwardly greedy, and that they habitually use the things of God in order to lay their hands on other people's money. It made me deeply shamed that that's what people think of God's servants and of God's holy house of prayer. What is it that we have allowed to enter into God's holy house, that makes that kind of a joke so easy to 'get'?
It made me think of the multitudes of times I've turned the television to a religious channel; and saw an 800 number and a credit card symbol on the bottom of the screen. It made me think of all the churches that adjust their schedules, and reshape their style, in order to reach a particular "target audience" that is from a higher economic level. It made me think of all the things of the world that churches are bringing into the holy house of God in a desperate effort to appear "relevant" and “tolerable” to the world. It made me think of how many churches and pastors are becoming increasingly hesitant to preach God's word out of a fear of turning people away, and that are preaching instead a market-driven message that the people of this world will find more acceptable.
What does Jesus find when He walks in the midst of this church? Does He walk in the midst of it and discover that it's a place we use to advance our own selfish agendas and the values of this world? Or does He find that it is protected and preserved as a genuine house of prayer for all who come into it?
What sort of things would Jesus have to "drive" out of our church today, in order to make it what He wants it to be?
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Another thing we can draw from this passage is that our Lord would want His church to be . . .
2. AN INVITING PLACE FOR THE NEEDS OF PEOPLE TO BE MET BY HIM (v. 14).
It's interesting to notice that, when Jesus came into His temple, He not only drove out what the Jewish leaders had allowed to come in. He also brought in what they sought to keep out. We read, "Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them" (v. 14).
Under the Old Testament law, members of the priestly family who had the sad misfortune to suffer a defect were not permitted to serve in the temple. "'For", as the law says, "any man who has a defect shall not approach"; and specifically, "a man blind or lame" (Leviticus 21:18). The law even forbade an offering to be made from anything that was "blind or broken or maimed" (Leviticus 22:22). What's more, a misapplication of 2 Samuel 5:8 (that "The blind and the lame [who were connected to the enemies of Israel] shall not come into the house") probably led to the unmerciful belief that the blind and the lame would defile the temple, and that they should be forbidden from coming into the temple area.
And yet, who should be allowed to come into God's temple more than those who need His mercy most? And what characterized the merciful ministry of the promised Messiah more than the prophecies of the Old Testament, that "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped"; or that "the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing" (Isaiah35:5-6)? What summarizes the earthly ministry of Jesus better than what we find in Matthew 15:30; that "great multitudes came to Him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others; and they laid them down at Jesus' feet, and He healed them"?
Jesus excluded no one from His holy presence, or held anyone off from approaching Him, who truly sought His mercy. Those who most know their need for Him always find themselves loved and welcomed by Him. And so, here, we see that He doesn't simply walk outside the temple area in order to heal the blind and the lame. He clearly expresses His heart for needy people by permitting them to come into His Father's very house; and by healing them in the very court of the temple.
When I began ministering as a pastor, I'm afraid that—in my foolishness—I was always surprised and a little embarrassed at how many really 'messed-up' people there are in churches. I used to think, "If God wanted to really advertise Himself to the world better, wouldn't He have filled His church with people who had it a little more together?" But clearly I didn't understand back then what Jesus' own heart on the matter truly was—that, as He said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick"; and that "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:12-13).
And so, again, this passage suggests to us something of what Jesus wants to find in His church. He wants to come to it and find that its doors are open to needy, broken people. He wants to come and find the place filled with the world's 'rejected ones'; and that those who humbly need His healing touch discover that they are at home most of all in His Father's house.
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There's one more thing this passage teaches us our Lord would want. He wants to find that His church is . . .
3. A WELCOMING PLACE FOR THE LITTLE ONES WHO PRAISE HIM (vv. 15-17).
Now; by this point, you would have thought that the high priests and scribes would have readily recognized Jesus for who He is. He had ridden into the city, as the Book of Zechariah had promised; riding on a humble foal of a donkey. He had entered into the temple as had been predicted in the Book of Malachi; boldly cleansing it. He had ministered before their very eyes as the Book of Isaiah promised the Messiah would do; healing the blind and the lame.
And now, they're given one more sign. Just as it is promised in Psalm 8:2—"Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants, You have ordained strength, because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger." And yet, as Matthew tells us, "But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?" (vv. 15-16a).
These were small children; and they were probably shouting, inside the temple, the same sort of words that they heard the crowds shouted about Jesus as He approached the city (v. 9). The high priests and scribes were asking Him if He heard what these noisy, ignorant little children were saying—with, no doubt, the expectation that He would share their indignation, and would command them to be quiet. And I love Jesus' answer to their question. "Yes." It's a simply, straight-forward, bold answer; as if He was saying "Yes! I of course I hear the children. And I have no intention of stopping them. I gladly receive their praise."
In fact, when the high priests and scribes asked Him if He heard, He turned the tables and asked them if they read! Hadn't they ever read Psalm 8:2? There, in front of them, they were seeing prophecy fulfilled—if they had only had the eyes to see it. Out of the mouths of these little ones, Jesus was receiving the praise in the temple that the high priests and the scribes were refusing to give.
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Now; note carefully what Jesus says. There's a very important lesson for us in it with respect to what Jesus wants to find in His church.
He quotes Psalm 8 in this manner: "Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise" (v. 16b; emphasis added). The word that is here translated "perfected" is one that refers to the adjusting and repairing and knitting of a thing together, so that it is united and complete. In the New American Standard version, it's translated "prepared". In the New International Version, it's translated "ordained".
And the idea here—a very remarkable idea—is that it was through the praises of the little children that praise to our Lord was "perfected" and made "complete" and to His satisfaction. He has already said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14).
I believe that this teaches us that what Jesus wants to find, when He comes into His church, is that the meekest, and the smallest, and the seemingly most insignificant of us, are welcomed and respected and well-received in their praises to Him. He does not consider His praise to be complete unless it comes from little mouths.
We should never despise the idea of having little children running around in our church! They are among His most valued followers; and He loves to have them praising Him in an uninhibited way. Remember; He Himself placed a child before His disciples and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3-4).
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So then; what does the Son of God want to find in His Father's household? What does He wish to see when He walks in the midst of His church? This passage shows us three things: (1) that His church is a holy place for all who seek Him; (2) that those who most need His mercy are welcomed; and (3) that His praises from the smallest among us are encouraged and respected.
Apparently, those are the things that He did not find in His Father's house from the high priests and scribes And so, verse 17 has a tragic feel—"Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there." He didn't find what He had a right to expect in the temple in Jerusalem; and so He went out from them and left them.
As He walks in holiness in our midst, may He find what He wants from us!
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