We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, dying on the cross, spoke the last word of his earthly existence. A single word “Tetelestai” (don’t know the correct spelling so that will have to do), which changed everything. Translated into English, it becomes three words: It is finished.
But what is finished? Several things. In the weeks to come we will unpack some of these.
Today: The system is finished.
Meaning: Religious systems are finished. Anything we do, or feel we have to do, to get into or to maintain a proper relationship with God, is finished.
In ancient Egypt, God commanded an idolatrous Pharaoh to let a slave people who lived in the kingdom go. Pharaoh refused, and he and Egypt experienced a series of plagues of escalating intensity, until one night when every firstborn in all of Egypt was slain. All except for those who lived in certain houses which had the blood of an unblemished lamb smeared across the front door. This event marked the inauguration of Israel. Jews commemorate it every year by sacrificing a perfect, spotless lamb. The blood of this lamb atones for all their sins for that year. And then the next year they do it all again. And the next year. And the next. Et cetera.
Not this was a bad, defective, or deficient system which needed replacing. This system was given by God for a specific purpose, and it served that purpose very well. Through this system, the people that would give birth to Jesus the Son of God was formed and shaped.
But that system has done its work. Now it is finished.
But it is not just this system which is finished; it is any religious system that operates according to what can be described as a “temple model”. This was not just ancient Judaism; virtually every religion of the ancient world operated according to a temple model. Most of today’s world religions operate according to a temple model. Much of Christianity operates, and has operated for most of its history, according to a temple model, even though it was never designed or intended to.
The salient characteristics of the temple model are sacred places, sacred texts, sacred men (it’s almost always men), and sincere followers. (There are other words we could use in place of sincere, some of which are not suitable for a family blog.)
When Jesus came on the scene, he transformed the temple model into something completely different. The temple model is built on standards of holiness and perfection so high that only the elite can meet them. Jesus took those standards and raised them even higher, so high that not even the elite had a prayer of meeting them, thereby leveling the playing field, then offered Himself as the one in whom all the standards are met. The temple model is built on going to a specific place and offering prescribed sacrifices according to prescribed rites to make peace with God. Jesus reversed that by teaching on numerous occasions that what really matters to God is how you treat other people. The temple model is place-specific and nation-specific. Jesus proclaimed that what He was doing was for all nations and all peoples in all places.
At the heart of the temple model is a fundamental insecurity concerning your relationship with God. Yet Jesus proclaimed and Paul reiterated that what really moves the needle in your relationship with God is how you treat other people. As Paul would say (Galatians 5:6), “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”. If you believe that Jesus died on the cross for you, then you don’t need to be insecure about your relationship with God. Jesus has taken care of that.
The temple model has a certain appeal. If God came down to earth and became a human being, then it would make sense to honor as sacred the places where God was born and lived. But at the end of the day, any person you meet on the way to these sacred places is more sacred than the places themselves, because she or he is a person for whom Christ died. As noted a couple of posts back, God has staked His honor on how you treat other people. So any talk of defending the honor of God or speaking for the righteousness of the King of Israel is foolishness if it does not proceed from an unrelenting sense of love, respect and honor for those for whom the King of Israel laid down his life.