Jesus’ death on the cross was viewed through natural eyes as a Roman execution. But, through spiritual eyes, it is nothing less than the “once and for all” sacrifice at the heart of God’s plan to redeem and restore mankind. Our last two meditations have focused on requirements for Hebrew sacrifices. In order for Jesus’ death to be a sacrifice, four things were necessary. There had to be a spotless lamb, a presiding priest, it had to be at the temple and part of a liturgy. We have established that Jesus is the spotless “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We also determined that Jesus is a “high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Today we will take up the third requirement – that sacrifices had to be performed at the Temple.
Read 2 Chronicles 7:11-12, Ezra 6:3 – At the Temple
Though David wanted to build the Temple to replace the Tabernacle, it was Solomon who was allowed to complete the task. By erecting a permanent “House of God,” God’s Presence, strongly associated with this holy structure, would be firmly established. 2 Chronicles 7 records the completion and dedication of the Temple. God states clearly that He chose that place, “…as a temple for sacrifices.”
In 586 BC, after centuries of neglecting God, Jerusalem was sacked by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. As part of the utter destruction of the Holy City was the complete demolition of the Temple. This was devastating for many reasons. One profound effect was the cessation of sacrifices. How would God’s people renew their covenant with God? How would they fulfill the three annual feasts which required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to make sacrifice? A dark period of dispersion into foreign lands ensued. God’s Presence and favor were in question as the place so central to that relationship was in ruins.
This scenario should not have come as a surprise. After the dedication of the Temple, God appeared to Solomon with a strong warning concerning unfaithfulness to the covenant relationship. In 2 Chronicles 7:19 and following, God says, “But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. This temple will become a heap of rubble.” God’s prediction came to pass with uncanny accuracy.
In 538 BC, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Hebrews to return to Judah to rebuild the Temple. There were no sacrifices made during the intervening period. The Temple was required for proper sacrifices to be made. Ezra speaks of the return to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the sacred building and the resumption of sacrifices. “Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices…”
Far less impressive than the first Temple, the second Temple received a major reconstruction under King Herod beginning in 20 BC. At the time of Jesus, this construction project had been underway for decades. It would not be completed until 64 AD. It was at the Temple that all sacrifices were conducted. When Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, He would have witnessed the lambs being brought to the Temple to be sacrificed. The Jewish historian Josephus records in The Jewish War that in 66 AD there were 256,500 lambs sacrificed at Passover. The Temple was the place of sacrifice.
How is it possible that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice? He was crucified outside the city gates on a hill called Calvary or Golgotha. “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him…” (John 19:17-18). That Calvary is located outside Jerusalem is confirmed by the writer of Hebrews. “…And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12).
Jesus gives us the answer to our dilemma. In John 2, After Jesus “cleansed the Temple” of the money changers and merchants, the people asked, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus’ response to them is instructive. He said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The people thought Jesus was speaking of the building in which they stood. They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” Jesus was not talking about Herod’s Temple, “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
How could Jesus be talking about His body as the Temple? From the beginning, God’s Presence was mediated to the people of God through His taking up residence in their midst. At first, it was the Tabernacle, then the Temple. John 1:14 tells us that in Jesus, “The Word (God) became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us.” Through the Incarnation of Christ, God had made His dwelling among men. God’s Presence was not confined to a building, but a body! Though the crucifixion of Jesus was not at the Temple building within the city gates, Calvary became the place of the Temple because Jesus’ body was there! Having established that Jesus’ body was the Temple, the third requirement for a sacrifice is fulfilled.
Jesus would be raised from the dead after three days, just as He said. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Also, just as Jesus’ words were interpreted by the people, Herod’s Temple would be destroyed. In 70 AD, the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. What emerged from the dust and rubble of the Old Covenant was the New Covenant Church of Jesus – the Body of Christ – the Temple of the Holy Spirit!
In the crucifixion of Jesus we have a spotless lamb, a high priest, and the temple. Only one prerequisite remains. Tomorrow, we take yet another step toward Calvary on the Pathway to Passion. Our meditation will ask the question, “Was the execution of Jesus part of a liturgy?”