Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Do Jesus’ actions in the temple condone the destruction of property as a legitimate form of protest?

In recent days our country has witnessed once again that racism still reigns in corrupt hearts. We have seen a recent flurry of horrific injustices being committed against law-abiding black citizens of the US. The most recent outrage was the sadistic murder of George Floyd by a dirty cop, a man wearing a uniform that is supposed to speak of protecting and serving the citizenry, not murdering them. Given the past history of the USA, these evil acts simply reinforce to many people of color the idea that they never will get fairness or justice in a country that nonetheless proclaims on the equality of all men.

All Americans should be concerned about this. All Americans should be heart-broken about injustice of any form, particularly when an entire race is on the receiving end of it. It calls for a continued struggle to enact just laws and to pray that individual hearts are changed by the Gospel of Christ.

One of the dangers when we see injustice is that our righteous outrage can easily become sinful anger—anger that provokes us to respond in a way less than Christ-honoring. I believe that the meme floating around on the web which displays Jesus cleansing the temple is an example of a reaction that does not honor Jesus. The meme implies that since Jesus destroyed property, therefore destruction of property is a valid form of protest.

Because of the gross misrepresentation of Scripture—and of Christ’s actions—such a train of thought presents, I feel it necessary to respond rather pointedly to that meme.

Like most twisted applications of Scripture, the meme ignores the biblical context and amounts to little more than a hijacking of Scripture to assert something that Scripture actually condemns as sin.

The biblical event is recorded in John 2:13-22.

Let’s begin examining the issue by asking some questions, starting with, who is Jesus as compared with who are we? Jesus is God, we are not. As God He can judge, condemn, and punish in ways we cannot. As God, all His ways are just—that is simply not true of us. One of the interesting points from the temple cleansing text in John is that the Jews asked Him by what authority He took action. Jesus answer in verse 19 is instructive: Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” This is essentially a claim of deity: Jesus was claiming to have the power of self-existence, the power of ultimate being. His disciples later understood it properly as a reference to Jesus power to raise Himself from the dead. In other words, Jesus’ claim to the authority to wreak such destruction in the temple was tied directly to the fact that He is God Himself.

Who owns the temple, the tables, the money changers, and the sheep on a thousand hills? Jesus does. It was “My Father’s house.” So Jesus was destroying property that belonged to Him, property that was located in the temple, not out in Jerusalem neighborhoods. That property was only in temporary possession of the money changers as a stewardship (one they were abusing!). It was not a random act of destruction.

Who laid down the law with respect to the proper use of the Temple? Yahweh did, and guess who Jesus is: Yahweh Himself. So in the cleansing of the temple Jesus was punishing the violators of both the sanctity of the temple and the sanctity of the Law. It is clear in the text (vv. 14-16) that Jesus was punishing the specific violators, not random individuals.

In any case, Jesus routinely did things in His earthly ministry that we are forbidden to do, such as forgiving sins (Matthew 9:1-6). While we are enjoined to forgive one another, we ourselves are not the forgivers of injustices committed against God Himself. Jesus could do what we cannot. Notice that Jesus’ action of cleansing the temple was never duplicated by the apostles—even though the temple corruption and money-changing persisted.

Not only is there a deep biblical context to the cleansing of the temple, there is also a contemporary cultural context to posting this meme, and it brings up more questions. What is our contemporary cultural context? In cities across America, random property is being destroyed as people give free reign to their anger at the horrific injustice of the murder of George Floyd. This anger is now manifesting itself in unlawful ways, and is working against justice.

So, what is someone saying when they present this meme on social media, given the current context? Are they simply stating a propositional truth, Jesus destroyed property? Or are they making the claim, Jesus destroyed property therefore it is a legitimate form of protest that aggrieved people can participate in? What is the agenda of posting the meme: the first statement, or the second?

To claim that former is all one means is possible, but what is the point in broadcasting that Jesus destroyed property if there is no larger meaning attached? It’s a little like randomly spouting facts: Jesus walked on dusty paths; Jesus drank water. Light bulbs are sold in Walmart. Uh-huh. So what? Unless you are attaching some theological significance to the statement, such as Jesus is Lord of all, therefore He may do as He pleases when He cleanses the temple, there’s not much point to such a statement.

Given the context of what is happening in America today, most people will read the meme and jump to the second agenda (regardless of what the poster actually intends): Jesus destroyed property therefore it is a legitimate form of protest that aggrieved people can participate in. If that is the subtext of the meme in most cases—and it is pretty obvious that it is—it raises more questions.

If destruction of property is a legitimate form of protest, on what grounds do you decide whose property is to be destroyed? Must the owner be personally connected with the event that caused the aggravation, or is random destruction acceptable?

If random destruction is acceptable, where is the God-honoring justice in that? On the other hand, if the owner (of the property to be destroyed) is guilty of actions that caused the riot leading to such chaos, is that a matter for the law to handle, or for mob justice? Do we really want mob justice? Does not this meme bring to mind that verse in Judges 17:6, “every man did what was right in his own eyes”? Judges was a time of perverse moral chaos. That verse is a rebuke, not a commendation.

One cannot evade these questions. Justice demands an answer. Posting this meme in our current social context at best displays a misunderstanding of Scripture, and at worst a devious twisting of Scripture. The temple text is not teaching us anything about means of legitimate human protest.

When I resort to the destruction of someone else’s property, it is sin. It is not an option for any Christ-honoring believer. Jesus did what He did in the temple because He is God and He owns it all—for Him it was not sin. We are not God, and destroying someone else’s property is the equivalent of theft. Ignoring this crucial distinction not only twists the Scripture in the worst way, the meme encourages more sin and violence from those who now think they have biblical permission to destroy things. What we need to destroy is hatred. What we need to change, are hearts.

The Bible should have the last word: Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17–21, NASB95)