by Jeanne Hedrick
Approaching the Temple Mount in Jerusalem today holds none of the visual splendor enjoyed by the pilgrims in Jesus’ day. We stood in line at the base of a long staircase coming out of the Jewish sector of the old city, waiting to be admitted at the entry point for non-Muslims, a dingy checkpoint near the Western Wall. After our backpacks had been screened we were waved through by gruff Arab soldiers.
As we walked towards the site of the Dome of the Rock and El Aksa Mosque we had a hard time visualizing the grandeur and beauty of the Temple that had once stood there. Everything looked unkempt; we could see trash thrown haphazardly behind rundown shacks that popped up around the perimeter of the site. When we reached the top of the mountain the Muslim structures seemed too small — and too ordinary — for the enormity of the space. The people wandering around the grounds, mostly Muslim students, soldiers, and some tourist groups, also seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. Pointing at a minaret off to the south, our guide told us the columns for the Temple were as tall as that minaret tower and so big around that three grown men could only touch hands around the base of each column.
In Jesus’ time Jerusalem was a city of 100 to 200,000 people, but when a religious festival was held, that number could swell to a million. To accommodate that many people, Herod, the appointed Roman ruler, decided to enlarge the Temple area and erect a new and more beautiful Temple. By building a box around Mount Moriah first and filling it in, he was able to double the available land to build on (to a total of 35 acres).
The retaining walls of this “box” were five meters thick and made of stones averaging 10 tons each. The walls were so massive and strong, no one ever imagined them being leveled. Yet, the only part of this retaining wall left standing is the Western (wailing) Wall where Jews still gather to pray.
In the first century pilgrims entered the Temple area via an overpass built over the main road. It was the width of a four lane highway and had an arch made of stones whose combined weight was 1,000 tons. This overpass carried worshippers into the royal portico, a stunningly beautiful portico with 162 matching columns. Each stood 27 feet high and was carved out of one white marble stone. Ten thousand workmen were used to build the Temple and its supporting structures over a period of more than twenty years. The attention to detail especially in the outer courts was staggering. Herod spared no expense in materials, and some individuals gave gifts of jewels and other extravagant decorations.
Most of the pilgrims would congregate in the outer courts (Solomon’s Porch, the court of the Gentiles, and the Women’s Court where the temple treasury was located). While there they would hear Levites playing and singing songs of Zion, including the Songs of Ascent found in Psalms. Depending on which festival they were attending they would see various activities taking place in these courtyards and be taught by the Scribes and Pharisees.
Inside the Temple itself, the place where the Holy Place and Holy of Holies was set up, only priests were allowed to enter. But no one could miss its shiny white marble and gold exterior and bronze doors. Even the roof had gold spikes placed on its roof line to keep birds from sitting on it and soiling it. Because of its brilliance and how high it stood on the pinnacle of the mountain, it could be seen miles away. Those who looked at it close up were almost blinded by its brightness.
Enter Jesus and His disciples. In Luke 21 Jesus is watching gifts being put into the Temple treasury. He commends the poor widow to His disciples, saying she’s puts in more than all of them. “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down’” (vv. 5-6).
I’m sure the disciples were astonished by His attitude. Everyone else who saw the new Temple was awed by its elegance, architectural complexity, staggering opulence, and sheer size and scale. How could Jesus not be similarly impressed?
If they’d thought about it, it wasn’t that surprising. After all, Jesus came to earth from heaven. Compared to the splendors of God’s throne, even Herod’s Temple must have seemed as dinghy and trashy as the present Temple Mount struck me. Besides, Jesus was interested in something far more important than buildings and decorations.
Just a week earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. “As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and your children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you’” (Luke 19:41-44). He was thinking about the people He’d come to save. He knew they would soon face God’s judgment, be overthrown and scattered throughout the earth, because they failed to recognize Him as their Messiah. It was an unspeakable tragedy that “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Jesus’ focus at the Temple that day was on hearts, not glittery gold or intricately carved marble. He wasn’t impressed by the glory of the Temple because He knew this material temple was only temporary. One day it would be torn down and utterly destroyed. His concern was men and women who would one day BE God’s temple through new birth. “Do you not know” Paul asked in his letter, “that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
As He headed for the cross Jesus had a clear and unwavering focus: the redemption of mankind. No matter how impressive the accomplishments of people might be, they are always and necessarily temporal. They cannot enter into eternity. Far better, He taught, that we give ourselves to things that cannot be destroyed. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).
This is an important reminder as we enter another new year. There is much in the world that can distract and dazzle us, but how important are they? As Christians it’s far better to give ourselves to what Jesus did – to give our lives to see others come to salvation. He invested in people, knowing they would last forever. If He could turn their hearts towards God, He would deliver them out of the kingdom of darkness and bring them into His marvelous light, as it says in 1 Peter 2:9. Setting our priorities towards people will keep us from storing up the wrong kind of treasures.
Jesus’ parting words to His disciples were “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
This Great Commission cannot be carried out without building relationships, both with those who know Him and those who don’t. It means investing the majority of our time and talents and money into what will last for all eternity. Redeeming mankind was what Jesus came to do and He didn’t allow anything to distract Him from that task. His task for us as His disciples is to give everyone we know the opportunity to receive Him and then to be built up into living temples that glorify God. “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18). To do that, we may have to choose to NOT BE IMPRESSED with worldly and temporal things that are sure to distract us.
The great theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “God in His wisdom has ordained that man should ally himself absolutely to the Absolute, and only relatively to the relative. But, man in his finite wisdom has rather allied himself only relatively to the Absolute, and absolutely to that which is relative.”
Often that’s true. But the good news is that we can choose to be different. Jesus set the example for us and we can choose to follow Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the coming year let’s be sure we spend ourselves in what will last and what’s most important: relationships. Spending time with God will realign our priorities and remind us to keep the main thing the main thing. And by investing in relationships with other people we can share the life of Jesus with them. Let’s not be awed or impressed by the glitter of temporal things. The souls of people are far more important and investing in them will bring eternal rewards. They are the treasure in heaven that cannot be stolen or destroyed.