Chanukkah – Cleanse the Temple… Again!

Don’t you wish there were more things in life that could be a one-and-done proposition? Like shoveling snow, or raking leaves? In fact, there are very few things in this world, once accomplished, that you never have to think about again. Certainly not the dishes or the laundry, and, in the case of the Harris home, sweeping up dog hair tumbleweeds. It just never ends. Imagine the potential frustration of workers at the U.S. Post Office. You think you’re done, and the next morning it all starts again.

The fact is, in this fallen, sinful and satanically-controlled world, entropy is a daily reality. Pretty much everything needs maintenance; screws and bolts that hold things together loosen with wear and need retightening; electronic gauges that measure things lose accuracy over time and require periodic recalibration. Rubber washers harden and crack with time and so your faucet leaks. Gaskets that prevent oil from leaking out of car engines eventually wear down, and sometimes blow out, requiring a complete overhaul. And beyond this, everything gets dusty. Where does all this dust come from?

Aren’t you glad you came today, so you could hear such an encouraging message?

This morning, I’d like us to take a few minutes and consider the significance of the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in the Second Century BC (following the Maccabees victory), the fact that it had to be cleansed again (TWICE!) in the First Century AD, and what it means for the ‘Temple’ to be cleansed in the Twenty-First Century.

I. The Maccabean Victory and the Rededication of the Temple – 165 BC

Chanukkah celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over Antiochus IV, the Syrian-Greek tyrant who imposed his Hellenistic ideology throughout the Seleucid empire. He succeeded nearly everywhere. But Israel’s faithful remnant rejected Hellenism, with its pantheon of pagan gods, and its obsession with human physical attributes and athletic games (in which the contestants were all naked).

The historical book of 2 Maccabees records that their resistance was met with horrifying cruelty. Antiochus was determined to destroy the Jewish faith. He abolished Jewish law; he banned Sabbath observance, the study of the Torah, and circumcision. What’s more, he dispatched soldiers to set up altars across the country, demanding that Jewish leaders sacrifice to the Greek gods. He even desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing unclean animals on the altar, and installing a statue of Zeus there, and he put to death those who would not worship it. Among the many martyrs were the seven sons of Hannah, each of whom refused to bow to the idol. One by one, they were slaughtered before their mother’s eyes.

In 167 BC, the Jewish revolt began. An elderly priest named Mattathias, along with his sons, led by Judah – nicknamed Maccabee (“Hammer”), launched a guerrilla war against the powerful Syrian-Greeks. Though vastly outnumbered and outgunned, they won miraculous victories. In 165 BC, the Maccabees recaptured the desecrated Temple, which they systematically cleansed and rededicated to God. The golden menorah symbolizing God’s presence was rekindled.

It wasn’t the end of the conflict. It would be another 22 years before our people regained sovereignty in Israel. But to mark that turning point of religious renewal, the day the Temple was restored and the threat to Jewish law repelled, a new holiday was instituted. It was called ‘Chanukkah’’ – Hebrew for ‘dedication.’ And that’s what we’re celebrating today. In fact, John chapter 10 (verses 22-23) tells us that Messiah Yeshua celebrated it, too.

But on two separate occasions during the three years of His earthly ministry, Yeshua had to go in and ‘clean house’ as it were. Let’s read about the first of those now, and it is found in John 2:13-19.

II. Yeshua cleanses the Temple (twice!)

John 2:13-19

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Yeshua went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts He found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” Then the Jewish leaders demanded of Him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Yeshua answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Not even 200 years had passed since the Maccabee’s victory and the restoration of Israeli sovereignty and religious freedom, and we find out that already the Temple needed to be cleaned out again. This time, however, it wasn’t desecrated by some hostile pagan tyrant; it had become polluted by the wickedness and greed of our own corrupt religious leaders over the period of a few generations.

In the years following the Maccabee’s victory, their descendants came to power in Israel, and were known as the Hasmoneans. Their wickedness and lust for power is well-documented historically – most notably by Josephus. The Hasmonean dynasty was plagued by violence, murder and back-room deals made with the ever-growing Roman Republic. The High Priesthood eventually became an office that was sold to the highest bidder. During the time of Yeshua, it was the Sadducees – the direct descendants of the Hasmoneans, who were in control of the political life of Israel. They also had complete jurisdiction over the Temple. And the way the Sadducees administered the Temple was nothing less than atrocious.

Let me clarify something. The selling of animals for sacrifice was not, in and of itself, the problem. The Torah actually made provision for a person traveling from a great distance to sell his animal in his own town, bring the money to Jerusalem and there purchase a comparable animal (Deuteronomy 14). But the Temple services had been for many years monopolized by the priests and Saduccees, who alone determined what animals were deemed ‘acceptable’ for sacrifice. If you wanted to be sure no defect would be found, you could always purchase one of their ‘pre-approved’ animals – but at an grossly inflated price. Or you could take your chances with one of your own animals.

Despite people bringing their best, these wicked priests managed to find defects on animals that were not purchased by their hand-picked merchants. And the priests and Sadducees all got a kick-back on the profit from the sales. Most Israelis were poor to begin with, and this made festivals like Passover a time of grief, as families realized they couldn’t afford the going prices at the Temple.

Imagine a family having traveled far to come to Jerusalem, anticipating the joyous feast of Passover, having sold their very best lamb back at home for a fair price, only to come to the Temple and discover that the ‘pre-approved’ animals from the Temple merchants cost over twice what they had brought. Maybe they ended up having to sell some of their belongings to make up the difference. So now they had enough money… or so they thought. The man walks up to the merchant and tries to buy a lamb, only to find out that local currency isn’t accepted, and that he’ll have to exchange it for Temple currency. And in the process the money changer takes his percentage, and by the time all the transacting is over, the family may not even have a lamb after all, and all the joy of the pilgrimage is gone.

This oppressive monopoly at the Temple had been going on for quite some time.

So when Yeshua, in righteous fury, overturned their tables and drove those greedy, exploitative men out, you know the people were delighted! I can imagine them saying, “Thank You! It’s about time someone stood up to them!” Notice the Jewish leaders didn’t ask Yeshua ‘why’ He did it. They knew full well how corrupt they were. Everyone knew it. Instead, they demanded a miracle as proof that He had divine authorization to do it.

Three years later, at the end of His earthly ministry, Yeshua would do the very same thing a second time. Like bookends, parallel incidents that might otherwise seem coincidental I take to be a sign of God’s fingerprint on the Scriptures. For example, the first three chapters of Genesis and the last three chapters of The Revelation have remarkable parallels. The beginning and the end of Yeshua’s earthly ministry had striking parallels. At the beginning and at the end He was alone, with no one around, being tested and overcoming temptation. At the beginning and at the end He went into the Temple and drove out the money changers and the merchants, and each time the Jewish leaders challenged His authority to do so.

But repentance never came, and the Second Temple would be destroyed not quite 40 years later. The first Temple had been destroyed, the rabbis well understood, on account of Israel’s idolatry and unfaithfulness. When the Second Temple was destroyed, idolatry wasn’t an issue for our people. The rabbis ask why, then, it was it destroyed. And they themselves answer (Yoma 9b) that it was because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred; hatred without a cause. They don’t say who it was they hated. But Yeshua had already answered that question in John 15:24-25

“If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’”

III. The New Covenant speaks of another temple

But even in the years before the Second Temple was destroyed, Yeshua let it be known that something new was coming. No longer would true worship be based on geography, or be dependent on a great sanctuary, an altar, animal sacrifices or a group of intermediaries. In a fascinating encounter between Yeshua and a woman in Samaria, we find this exchange take place:

John 4:19-26

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Yeshua declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”

And He went on to say, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah (who is called ‘Christ’) is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.” Then Yeshua declared, “I who speak to you am He.”

So what does this mean? If true worship has so little to do with geography, is there still in some sense a location, a temple where the true and living God is to be worshiped? Yes! Will this temple also need cleansing and rededication? Yes!

The answer comes to us through the words of Rabbi Paul. He wrote these words to the believers in Corinth:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16)

And again, warning us against allowing ourselves to be polluted by immorality,

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).

Just as very few things in this fallen world are one-and-done propositions, our walk with Messiah demands that we regularly evaluate our spiritual condition, confess our sins in the name of Messiah Yeshua, and ask God to renew our minds and hearts. The great Emissary repeatedly admonishes us to examine ourselves, to confess and turn away from our sin, and to rededicate ourselves to Adonai’s service.

May these ‘temples’ of ours be thoroughly clean and dedicated, not just at this season of dedication, but at all times – every day. And not only because we need it, but because a curious, dying world is watching, wondering if there’s a way out of the hopelessness. We are His living answer. Let’s keep these houses of worship clean, and be fit ambassadors.