If you had a vicar who could do miracles, how long do you think it would take you to fill up your church? You wouldn’t have much problem surely getting people to come along to church and to start calling themselves Christians. But what proportion of these ‘Christians’ do you think would be the genuine article? How many of these people do you think would stop coming to church once the miracle-working vicar moved on and a new one arrived who couldn’t turn water into wine or cure diseases?
John’s Gospel records the Lord Jesus’s reaction when he found people believing in him because of his miracles. John chapter 2v23-25: ‘Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in people’ (NIV).
The Jesus John’s Gospel presents was under no illusions about human nature. He knew what a self-serving lot we are as a human race and he knew that these so-called believers in him as the Messiah were in it for the miracles. They weren’t devoted to the Lord Jesus for who he was, the glorious Son of God, the Christ from God, but for the amazing miracles he was performing.
And Jesus was proved absolutely right because, come chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, many of these believers peeled off when Jesus said something they didn’t want to hear.
The Lord Jesus was not dazzled by numbers, ‘for he knew what was in people’. And what is in people, according to John’s Gospel? Darkness – the darkness of selfishness, the darkness of self-rule in relation to God, the darkness of the human self away from the light of God’s grace and truth.
‘The light shines in the darkness.’ The Apostle John made that clear right at the start of his Gospel (1v5). The light of God’s only and one Son the Lord Jesus Christ, God come down to earth, shines in the darkness of our world, a world of humanity in rebellion against the God who made us. John’s Gospel is clear that that world, our world, is spiritually and morally dark. It’s in deep trouble. It desperately needs saving from God’s rightful judgement upon it.
Now in our passage this morning (John 2v12-25), John begins to lift the lid on the world’s darkness. In Jerusalem, at the Passover Feast, Jesus cleanses the Temple – ‘in the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip 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’ (v14-15).
We need to be clear that Jesus is not condemning commercial activity. It has its place but not here, not in the Temple. The Temple was supposed to be the place where God’s people learned his truth and received forgiveness of sins through the offering of animal sacrifices. It was, as Jesus told the salesmen in no uncertain terms, ‘my Father’s house’ (v16). It was a space reserved exclusively for the worship of Jesus’s Father God. It should not have been turned into a market.
The Messiah restores the Temple to its rightful use in line with Old Testament truth. John records in v17 Jesus’ disciples remembering Psalm 69v9, a prophecy about the Messiah: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’
As a result of Jesus’s action in cleansing the Temple, the conflict begins between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem, which intensifies as John’s Gospel progresses.
The religious leaders, who had given permission for the temple courts to be used for commercial purposes, no doubt with a nice cut for them, were indignant at Jesus: ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do this?’ they demanded (v18).
Jesus gave them an answer that thoroughly perplexed them, again another feature of the conflict between them in John’s Gospel: ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days’ (v19).
The religious leaders take Jesus literally not realising that he was speaking metaphorically: ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ (v20).
But the temple Jesus was speaking of was his body, John tells us (v21). Jesus fulfils finally and definitively the spiritual functions of the Jerusalem Temple. He reveals finally and definitively the truth about the one true God. ‘No-one has ever seen God,’ John has told us in his prologue (1v18), ‘but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’
Jesus reveals God truly and Jesus is the final sacrifice for sin. No need to offer any more sacrificial lambs to atone for sin – Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Jerusalem Temple finds its spiritual fulfilment in Jesus, whose body was destroyed by the forces of darkness but was raised to life again on the third day.
‘The light shines in the darkness.’
There is a version of the Christian gospel that has been gaining ground in recent years in this country. I’ve certainly heard it on clergy conferences. It goes something like this: ‘God loves us because we’re lovely. In fact, he thinks we’re so lovely he came down to earth and stretched out his arms to embrace us.’
Sounds great. The problem is it’s not the gospel. It’s not the good news of God. The true gospel is that God came down to earth to rescue people who aren’t lovely, people who are in fact in spiritual and moral darkness. The true gospel is that on the Cross God come down to earth, the Lord Jesus Christ, stretched out his arms to take the punishment of death we deserve for our wilful and culpable sins.
Why exchange that wonderful gospel for the candyfloss of ‘God loves you because you’re lovely’?
In fact, that false gospel panders to the self-worship that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. That message may gain traction for a while and may lead to some church growth but ultimate it will prove as spiritually nourishing as an exclusive diet of candyfloss and popcorn.
‘The light shines in the darkness’ is the true gospel and thank God for it.