We who are Christians should take special notice of the warnings given to the religious. Jesus’ clashes with the leaders of His day (named as the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees) offer useful insights into the pitfalls that can trap those who purport to follow God.
In this article, I want to take a look at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Mark 11. After driving out those who were buying and selling, and turning over the tables of the money changers, the Savior offers His condemnation of their activity in 11:17:
Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”
Here Jesus cites 2 OT Scriptures. The first points back to Isaiah 56:7. In that chapter Israel’s leaders are chastised for turning a building meant to be a blessing to all the nations into a place of unjust gain for themselves. They are called blind watchmen, mute dogs, and shepherds without understanding. All of us who take leadership roles in the church should take careful note of Isaiah’s charges and Jesus’ re-packaging of them.
But I want to focus more specifically on the other verse Jesus cited in His temple cleansing. By calling the temple a “robbers’ den” Jesus alludes to Jeremiah 7:11. In Jeremiah 7 the prophet delivers God’s shot at those who came to worship at the temple. Their lives were a moral wreck (7:6, 9) and would not amend their ways (7:3-7), so God promised to remove His house and His presence from among them (7:12-15).
At the center of all of it, He charges them with relying on the temple as their lucky charm for escaping any judgment. “Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these’” (7:4). Their confidence was essentially to say, “We’ve got the temple! We’re coming here to worship! Everything’s going to be fine!”
They, like the leaders Jesus was condemning in His citation of the verse, had no fruit to show for their time in the temple. Before Jesus’ cleansing of the temple He cursed a fig tree that had no fruit (Mark 11:14) and came back the next day to find it withered from the roots up (11:20). God did not care how often they were in the temple or how many rituals they were performing if their lives had no fruit to show for it.
Here’s the lesson for us in the churches of Christ.
We may not have a temple to rely on and point back to, but we can rely on ritual tokens just as easily as they did:
The label, the label, the label!
How many people in today’s world will tell you, “I’m a Christian” without it impacting their lives in any way? How many times do you see celebrities claim Christ, wear crosses, and give testimonies, only to swap out spouses more frequently than their wardrobe? That kind of hypocrisy is just as common among us average folks, too. Merely claiming to be a Christian is not protection against any form of judgment. If anything, it calls one to a higher standard of judgment. If we’re going to claim to be near to Christ, our lives had better show the fruits of it.
The building, the building, the building!
It’s great to be a dedicated, “every time the doors are open” type of member. That alone will not mean anything at the judgment, though. I’m sad to say there are likely many who will point to their attendance when Christ comes looking for the fruits of their walk with Him. Faithful attendance is where the walk with Christ begins each week. It is not the walk itself.
The doctrine, the doctrine, the doctrine!
This one is especially one we in the churches of Christ must guard ourselves against. We put so much focus on church doctrine that it can become both the end and the means of our walk with God, if we’re not careful. It’s all too easy to show up on Sunday morning to sing without instruments, take weekly Lord’s Supper, have a man in the pulpit, hear a “sound” lesson, do the “5 acts of worship,” confess baptism for remission of sins, and so on, and then go about the week without Christ being in it at all.
I’ve known people (and you probably have too) who would not be caught dead in a church building that had a woman preacher or a piano on the stage, yet also cheated people in their business dealings, or chewed out anyone who got in their way.
Many in the churches of Christ will point out that those who have their hearts in the right place but have their heads in the wrong place (incorrect doctrine) will have to answer for that. It’s just as true that those with their heads in the right place and hearts in the wrong place will have to answer as well.
When we stand before Him at the judgment, religious ritual will be an important part of our obedience. But it won’t be the only part. He’s going to be inspecting the fruit of our lives, and if we’re not careful we’ll end up condemned and withered, just like the ill-fated fig tree.