A Den of Thieves

road-man-lights-legs    In Jesus’ day, it was customary for every devout Jewish male over the age of 12, to make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Men traveled great distances to offer sacrifices at the temple. Because of the great distances many of the men traveled, it was inconvenient for them to bring their sacrificial animals with them. Further, the money in circulation at the time was the Roman coin, but temple worship required Jewish coinage. These logistical issues provided the occasion for opportunistic individuals to capitalize on the situation.

Tables were set up outside the temple where sacrificial animals could be purchased, often at exorbitant prices, while Roman coins could be exchanged for the proper Jewish currency for a nominal fee. With thousands upon thousands of Jewish people coming for worship each year, business was very good, and extremely profitable. And, as we all know, when large sums of money are involved, corruption is often the net result. It was no different with the “money changers”.

“For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)

The basis of true worship lies first in our recognition of who God is. We always start from the awareness that God is the Creator of all there is; He is holy, infinite, sovereign, powerful, with knowledge so vast and complete we cannot even begin to comprehend it. He is kind, compassionate, loving, slow to anger, forgiving. He is a father who guides us, teaches us, provides for us, and yes, at times, he cares enough to discipline us. God is big. Very big.

And we are small. And this is the next thing we remember in worship. This is not to say we are insignificant, quite the contrary. We are God’s special creation, made in his image, unique among all living things and each and every human life is of incomparable worth. But we have that worth because God ascribes it to us. We are valued because He first valued us. So our worship must recognize our special place as those ordained to steward God’s creation; unique among living things but, where God is perfect and holy, we are imperfect and fallible. Even rebellious.

“You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:16-17)

When we approach God in recognition of who He is, and who we are, we sense our frailty and contrition starts to enter our hearts and souls. We begin to understand our need for forgiveness because, in the knowledge of His supreme excellence, we can comprehend our imperfect, fallen nature. And it is in this context that true worship can be experienced. We feel the desire to be in His presence and the fear of our judgment commences to fade away. We stand exposed before the one, true God, and we feel the comfort of His gentle and loving forgiveness. And we begin to mirror back to Him our love and devotion.

This is true worship. Jesus saw that temple worship had become nothing more than a physical routine and money making enterprise. So he drove the money changers out in no uncertain terms. He did this twice. Once at the beginning of his ministry (see John 2:13-18) and a second time near the end of his earthly ministry (see Matthew 21:12-17). Jesus said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:13) You can imagine the stir this caused among the religious leaders of the day. But Jesus wanted to lead us into true worship.

True worship is first reflected back to God from deep in our hearts and souls as we come to understand our relationship to Him; then it becomes apparent in our actions as we begin to change how we live and how we treat others, and finally, songs of praise are offered as we strive to express our adoration and appreciation back to our Creator. A wise friend once taught me that worship isn’t something we get, but rather something we give. It took me a long time to truly understand what that meant, but it is becoming clear to me now.

Jesus drove out the money changers to turn hearts back to true worship. Today Jesus remains our path to direct communion with God.  Jesus said of himself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) If you have not yet made the decision to follow Jesus, may you do so right here and right now. And if you are following Jesus, may you experience true worship in spirit and in truth.

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