At the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century the missionary and theologian Albert Schweitzer, in a classic book on the life and ministry of Jesus, indicted the religious establishment of his time for turning Jesus into a “Jesus of its own making.”* The values and culture of nineteenth-century Europe had influenced theologians, pastors, and church members to such an extent that, knowingly and unknowingly, the “constructed Jesus” fit comfortably into the pews of churches and cathedrals. Instead of being transformed by “beholding Jesus,” Christians had transformed “Jesus” into a construct of their imagination.
Schweitzer’s indictment is equally true of the religious establishment of Jesus’ time. Religious leaders did not recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and crucified Him instead.
Even though the first-century generation was steeped in the public reading of the Old Testament, followed the law of Moses as a matter of national identity, and understood themselves at the crossroads of biblical prophecy, they failed to recognize Jesus as their Savior. Jesus did not fit their expectations. Most were unwilling to allow Jesus to reshape their view of the Messiah.
The landscape of first-century Judaism was in many ways similar to today: a fragmented and polarized Jewish nation amid a widespread end-time sentiment. Everyone waited for God to appoint some human agent as the promised “Anointed One,” who—like Cyrus— would deliver them.
Sadducees and Herodians had arranged themselves with the prevailing political and cultural system and were interested in maintaining a delicate balance of power.
The Pharisees waited for a political messiah who would deliver them from pagan Rome and usher in a Jewish nation-state. The Zealots looked for a military solution to the problem. The Essenes, frustrated with corrupted religion, retreated to isolated hills to work out their own salvation. They meticulously observed all purity rules and awaited the “Teacher of Righteousness” to confirm their holiness and righteousness. Each of these groups cited favorite proof texts for their view of the Messiah and the end time, but Jesus rejected all these perspectives.
Instead, He encouraged His listeners to be immersed in all of Scripture, not just their favorite passages.
Jesus’ first innovation was to pull together multiple Old Testament strands in His teaching and ministry. Jesus understood Himself (and in line with Jewish expectations) as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and the royal Davidic line. But He also claimed the role of the new Moses, who would deliver Jews and Gentiles through His blood; the antitypical position of Elisha, who cared for and renewed the faith of those seeking God; and the eschatological Judge as presented in Daniel’s vision of the Son of man (Dan. 7; Matt. 24).
No wonder that all efforts by Jesus’ compatriots to pigeonhole Him failed miserably. Against notions of a national messiah, Jesus cited the founding covenant with Israelites: All nations will be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 22:18; Matt. 1:1-14). Contrary to a messiah for the righteous, Jesus shared His mission to “save the sinners” (see Mark 2:17). Against the claim of earthly power, Jesus pointed to His throne at the right hand of God. Though Jesus founded His ministry on Scripture, but His compatriots were so consumed by their own view of the messiah that they could not see Jesus for who He truly was: the Savior for all humanity—not from each other, but from sin.
THE LIVING TEMPLE
Jesus’ first innovation was certainly controversial, but not worthy of a death sentence. His second innovation, though, carried the charge of blasphemy and a death sentence: Jesus claimed divinity by asserting authority over the temple, even replacing the physical structure with His own body. “Anointed” or messianic figures in the Old Testament could be kings, priests, or foreign dignitaries acting on behalf of God for His people (Isa. 45:1). In general, nobody expected the messiah to be a divine figure.
Jesus, however, claimed to be more than a human messiah. He is Messiah and Son of God (Matt. 4:17; 16:16). To convey this message to His audience, Jesus chose to compare and contrast Himself with the temple. The high priest in Jesus’ trial unwittingly acknowledged Jesus’ claim in his sentence: Jesus proclaimed His body to be the replacement for the temple (Matt. 26:61). For Jews this was sacrilegious. The temple was not only a holy place, but the most holy place. It was God’s personal dwelling place among humanity, and therefore synonymous with God and His character. Claiming authority and superiority over the temple was usurping God Himself.
Beginning at Creation, God carved out sacred time, the Sabbath, but also holy meeting space: the first “temple” was the Garden of Eden, where God walked with Adam and Eve. Then at Sinai God instructed Moses to build a sanctuary according to a divine model, adding sacrificial rituals to symbolize the restoration of the relationship between humanity and God. Solomon turned this temporary tent into a magnificent architectural marvel occupied the shekinah appearance of God Himself.
But Jesus challenged this permanent, physical housing in a variety of ways: First, He claimed authority over the temple premises by cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12, 13). Second, Jesus—by His own authority (“I say to you”)— issued commandments (Matt. 5-7) as though He was the author of the Decalogue Himself. Third, in defiance of the temple rituals (Mark 2:1-11), Jesus even forgave sins without requiring a sacrifice. Finally, Jesus, standing in the temple premises, contrasted His own body with the physical building. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
Jesus anticipated that the cross would render the physical temple meaningless. God would no longer reside in the temple. Instead Jesus would fully replace the function of the temple through His broken and raised body. In Jesus, God met humanity and through His blood delivered all from sin. From beginning to end, Matthew’s Gospel affirms that Jesus, as the Son of God, rightfully replaced the temple. In Jesus, God walked with us. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). And through the cross, God restored humanity. The temple’s significance is now fulfilled (Matt. 27:51).
Schweitzer’s assessment also indicts believers today. It’s natural to create a mental image of Jesus and to associate values, character traits, and physical characteristics with this image. Much as the people around Jesus’ first coming, Christians await the Second Coming with equal certainty about their Savior. Often these ideas are a reflection of the culture and time in which we live, of our personal desires and the struggles we endure. The real Jesus will always surprise us. He is more than our image of Him, and more than the sum of our favorite Bible passages. Of course He is, otherwise He wouldn’t be “God with us.”
* Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress From Reimarus to Wrede, trans. W. Montgomery, 2nd ed. (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911), p. 397.