This article is excerpted from the Dawn to Dusk book Shadow and Reality
For a preview of the basic thrust of this book, see the free article Shadow and Reality

Jesus and
ceremonial law


For some important introductory comments, see How could I have been so blind?

JESUS STRODE RESOLUTELY INTO THE TEMPLE COURTYARD, His mien menacing and His gait authoritative and measured. Reaching the court of the Gentiles, He swiveled around and gazed back at the colonnades rimming the courtyard. He stood silent and still, His eyes locking one by one on the stalls nestled in the shade of the columns, His ears homing in on the haggling between merchants and customers. With Passover drawing near, trade was especially brisk; worshipers from great distances had come, money in hand, to pay the temple tax and purchase sacrificial animals and doves. Many had to change their foreign coinage into standard Tyrian silver before purchase could be made and the temple tax paid. Jesus watched intently as merchants rubbed their hands with glee at the handsome profits rolling in.

Jesus' thoughts cast back to His boyhood. Eighteen years earlier He had sat among those very columns discussing spiritual matters with the doctors. In those days the scene was so different. The animal traders used to set up their stalls across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Now they were filling the porticos of the court of the Gentiles. The cries of traders and bellowing and bleating of beasts created a surreal, carnival atmosphere. Jesus boiled. God's house of meditation, contrition, petition and sacrifice had been turned into an entrepreneur's paradise, replete with shady dealings and bald profiteering aggravating raw commercialism.

His thoughts turned to the momentous significance of this moment. He knew that His quickened pulse and rising indignation sprang not merely from His own righteous sensitivity but also from the pressing impulse of His indwelling Father. For now was the time for a mighty prophecy to be fulfilled:

Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming (Mal. 3:1).

Slowly, deliberately, Jesus wove a whip of cords He had brought with Him for the purpose, strode purposefully to the nearest cattle corral, flung open the gate, and drove the cattle out. He did the same at each pen until every sheep, goat, ox and dove had been released. Nobody dared challenge Him. He then turned His attention to the tables of the money-changers, wrathfully overturning them one by one as He wound His way between the pillars.

Jesus' fate was sealed. He had gone too far. The resentment the religious elite had felt towards Him turned into unbridled hatred. This exposer of hypocrisy, this meek and lowly proclaimer of impending judgment, had to die. Later, His disciples remembered that centuries earlier King David had penned words describing this event:

Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up (Ps. 69:9).

Jesus had a far greater respect for this stone edifice than its custodians had, or than Christendom has today. Ironically, in a world where weightier matters of the law were being trampled upon all around Him, Jesus drew His line in the sand around the polluting of a mere shadow, an edifice made of wood and masonry. Yes, He chafed when the poor were exploited. Miscarriages of justice made Him furious. Yet He reserved His most intense display of righteous-hot anger for the mercenary defilement of a man-made building, the stage on which Israel's shadowy ceremonial rituals were conducted.

Far from freeing believers from burdensome biblical ceremonies, Jesus zealously backed up His heavenly Father's rituals. God doesn't change.

Christendom today generally ignores every Old Testament law or institution that hints of ritual. Yet Jesus signed His own death warrant by vigorously defending the heartland of Old Testament ceremony. Are we willing to soberly reassess our thinking? Jesus knew God dwelt in the temple; to disrespect the building was to despise God himself. He understood the enormous contribution it had made, and could still make, in various ways, to the spiritual welfare of Israel and all mankind, but which was now being pushed aside by the mercenary activities of greedy men.

The notion that Jesus liberated believers from respect for the holy place has no biblical support. After all, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament come in the flesh. He was not only sovereign creator of the universe but, as the Word of God, He was also the divine philanthropist, the giver of the majestic rituals practiced in the temple.

Jesus and shadows

Jesus was moved to anger to see the earthly shadow of God's heavenly dwelling being desecrated. Though deeds speak louder than words, His words must not be ignored. After casting out the crooks, Jesus took a prominent position from which all those cowering behind columns and corrals could hear Him loud and clear. His voice reverberated around the cloisters:

Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”? But you have made it a “den of thieves” (Mark 11:17).

His reverence for God's house was so strong He even stopped merchants using it as a shortcut from the city to the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:16).

Jesus never swept into a session of the Sanhedrin to rail against its failure to defend widows and fatherless. He never entered a bordello to cast out its fornicators. Nor did He castigate thieves and villains. He spoke out against all lawlessness, particularly Pharisaic hypocrisy, but reserved His most intense anger for those who trampled on a shadow. Perhaps He was thinking of the words from Samuel: “If one man sins against another, God will judge him. But if a man sins against the Lord, who will intercede for him?”.

Stop and think. If Jesus had come to turn the temple into a hollow, meaningless shell He would never have dreamed of purging its porticoes or preaching its potency. Jesus' attitude proves the temple's ongoing validity. More than any who has lived, Jesus fully observed the commandment to reverence God's sanctuary (Lev. 19:30).

Some readers may find this chapter shocking. But it's time we opened our eyes to some hard home truths. For Jesus not only backed up so-called moral law, but ceremonial as well. He cherished both the temple and its rituals.

Jesus and the Passover

Though Jesus Himself is the substance of the Passover ceremonial shadow (1 Cor. 5:7), He nevertheless observed the shadow enthusiastically. Proof lies close at hand. For one, if He had refrained from eating it throughout His life, His fellows would have reacted violently. No such reaction is recorded. Second, we have the explicit record that He observed it:

With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Luke 22:15).

No ifs, ands, or buts.

Jesus and sacrifice

Though we have no record of Jesus ever directly engaging in animal sacrifice, He certainly did participate in eating a sacrifice, as just noted. Additionally, His words in Matthew 5:23-24 leave no room for maneuver:

Therefore if you bring your gift [sacrifice] to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

All attempts to explain this saying away as a concession to the culture of His time fail miserably to convince. Jesus was commanding that offerers keep all the law of trespass offering, not just some of it. Please read Leviticus 6:2-6 for the backdrop to Jesus' words.

Also, in reiterating Isaiah's declaration that the temple is a place of worship for all peoples, Jesus gave His tacit seal of approval to a chief form of temple worship — sacrifice.

Jesus and purity laws

Jesus threw His full weight behind laws of purity. He underwent a purification rite Himself (baptism), though He did not need to. On at least one occasion He advised someone to perform prescribed purificatory ablutions; after healing a leper, Jesus told him,

… go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them (Mark 1:44).

This man had to travel over fifty miles, a considerable undertaking in those days, to fulfill the offering required of those recovered from such a skin condition (Lev. 14:1-32). Though one could ascribe motives other than respect for the law to Jesus here, He did support it.

Did Jesus declare all things clean?

There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man… Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods? (Mark 7:15, 18-19).

The RSV renders the phrase “thus purifying all foods” as “thus he declared all foods clean”. Many authorities believe this saying presents Jesus denouncing Levitical food taboos. They should know better. The context is plain (vs. 5): at issue was Jewish traditional additions to laws of ritual contamination. No biblical law is in question.

All the law hangs on love

Christians need to take seriously the staggering implications of Jesus' famous statement about the law:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:37-40).

The significance of this passage cannot be overstated. Weasel and squirm as we may, we cannot get around the simple meaning of these words. Every revealed jot and tittle provides a lamp for the feet and guidance for the heart in pursuing the mightiest of all spiritual powers — love. The sacrificial system — a part of the law — revolves around love of God and man. Yes, one could sacrifice at the temple with a foul heart, just as one could flee fornication with a compromising spirit. But heartfelt sacrifice shows love for God.

Why Jesus kept the law

Why did Jesus keep the law? Some say it was because He was living under the old covenant, and therefore came under old covenant burdens. Others say He did it so that His law-keeping could be vicariously imparted to believers. Jewish Christians tend to see His law-keeping as motivated by a desire to show Himself a “good Jew”. Wilson, for instance, says that, “As a first century Jew… Jesus wore tephilim and tzitzit” (Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, p. 17). Thus, if Jesus came today as an American living in America, He would not keep Old Testament law.

All these ideas have one common denominator — they miss the point entirely. Jesus kept the law because He, as the One by whom everything was made (John 1:3), including the law, was true to His own mind. Because He, the fullness of love, observed the law that defined love. He cheerfully showed Himself willing to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Should we not walk in His footsteps?

To see what others think about this article, see Jesus and ceremonial law

But what about the book of Hebrews? Doesn't it plainly explain that the shadow of sacrifice has been done away with? Perhaps we have misread this book. See Hebrews: a Fresh Look at an Old Book

For an article (.pdf) on the meaning of Jesus' famous statement in John 4 that the time was coming when people would no longer worship in Jerusalem, see Spirit and Truth

Floating Navigation Bar


© Dawn to Dusk Publications