Last week, we talked about Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem as the true king of Israel. As king, Jesus was responsible to God alone to know the law of God and follow it flawlessly. And Jesus did just that.
Even in his youth, Jesus astounded people at the depth of his knowledge of the law. When Jesus was just a boy, while in Jerusalem, Jesus separated himself from his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph. “45 When they [Mary and Joseph] did not find him [Jesus], they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him [Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:45-47).
Jesus possessed the mind of the true king because he could proclaim and teach that law and could judge wisely and righteously. Jesus still is king and Lord. He is more than able to guide us with wisdom and grace. We just need to be willing to listen and follow him.
When Jesus last entered Jerusalem as an adult, the people of the city asked, “Who is this?” and those with Jesus said, “This is Jesus, the prophet.” As a prophet, Jesus came to bring a message of repentance in the presence that there could be a future.
Jesus conveyed this message of hope from the very beginning of his ministry. The first sermon Jesus ever gave was recorded in just nine words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus carried this message everyday in words and actions.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry among the people, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day confronted him on his teaching. One such time occurred after Jesus had called Matthew, a tax collector as a disciple. “10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus was a prophet calling people to come to him in the present to be cleansed that they may have a future with God. That is still Jesus’ message today. Jesus asks us to receive that message and then share it with others.
When Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem for that final time, Jesus gave the prophetic message in deeds and words to all of Judaism. Jesus cleared the Temple of those marketing goods, changing money, and selling sacrifices.
Having made room in the Temple, Jesus then acted as a priest and invited in those who were blind and lame. Jesus invitation was an opportunity to lift these people up before God so that they could be healed. This is what Jesus meant when he said God desires mercy not sacrifice. This is what Jesus meant when he said he had come for the sinner not the righteous. This is what Jesus meant when he established his Church. The Church, in whatever form, is not to appear like a marketplace in any way. If it must appear as anything, it should more closely resemble a hospital where those who need healing can find it in and through the body of Christ.
Jesus, who had his face set on Jerusalem, had entered the city, and made know the Word of God. Jesus made known the presence of God through the healings of the sick. The people were following Jesus because of the authority of his teaching and the healing power of God that he revealed. Jesus was doing exactly what his Father wanted him to do.
But there are powerful forces in the world that do not want people to follow Jesus. Why? Because Jesus offered true freedom and a free people are a dangerous lot. People who are free in God necessarily are free to reject the control of others. People who are free in God do what is right and not what others tell them to do. People who are free in God speak the truth regardless of the consequences. People who are free in God have entered a new kingdom that is built on love, grace, mercy, and hope.
Those powerful forces of the world and worldly thinking came to the Temple not to celebrate Jesus’ arrival but to test Jesus. Those forces hoped to discredit Jesus and prevent him from doing what God had called him to do. We live in that same world. We, like Jesus, will be tested in our faith. We will be tested on our resolve to stay on track with the call upon our lives. There are powerful forces that will try to get us to deviate from the path God has in mind. Why? Because the world does not want free people will follow the will of God and not the will of the earthly powers.
In Jesus first test, these worldly forces tried to invoke the power of earthly kingdoms against Jesus. Matthew recorded for us these words.
“15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’ 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ 21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:15-22).
There are many sermons which have been derived from Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees over the payment of taxes. But I think the message for us today rests in a single word and that word is “image.” Matthew used the Greek word, “εἰκών,” (i-kone') which means image or likeness. What mattered in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees was image or likeness. When asked whether to pay taxes or not, Jesus asked the Pharisees to look at a coin and tell him whose image was upon it. The Pharisees said the image of Caesar had been struck onto the coin. Jesus said then the coin bearing Caesar’s image was Caesar’s and, therefore, should be returned to Caesar. But then Jesus added that the things of God, meaning the things made in God’s image, should be returned to God.
In making this point, Jesus reminded his interrogators that humanity was not made in the image of Caesar. In Genesis, Chapter 1, we read, “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’” (Genesis 1:26-27). Jesus wanted God’s people to be returned to God and his kingdom. Jesus original sermon echoed in the Temple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Repent, return to God, for you are created in his likeness.
How does one return to the image and the likeness of God? We do so by imitating Jesus. The Apostle Paul said, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). When we repent and turn toward God, accepting Jesus, then the image of the Son of God, into which true Christians are transformed, become our new image. It is an image, a likeness that begins with our minds, and follows through with our words and actions. We are made in God’s image and therefore should be expressing that image.
Now Jesus words were strong, and they silenced his critics, at least for a moment. Then a second challenge came to Jesus. This time the powerful forces tried to discredit Jesus using the power of God’s own words. In the Gospel of Mark we read, “28 One of the teachers of the law [some translations say “a lawyer”] came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he [the lawyer] asked him [Jesus], ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ 29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’ 32 ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ 34 When Jesus saw that he [the lawyer] had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:28-34a).
Jesus had cleared the Temple of its marketplace activities making way for healing and teaching to occur. Jesus then met the challenge of the Pharisees regarding whose image mattered more, Caesar or God’s image. The answer was clear God’s image mattered because we were made in his likeness. Then the lawyer challenged which of God’s commandment was the most important. The hope of the lawyer was that Jesus would be forced to pit God’s Word against itself and be discredited before the people. Jesus, knowing the law, said there were two commandments that were most important. Jesus said they were to love God and love one another. Jesus said all the other commandments depended upon these two.
If we keep these two commandments fully, then the other commandments fall into place. If we break either of these commandments, then other commandments fall as well. I think this is one of the clearest messages to the doubting world. Many people have said and continue to say, “I’m a good person, I don’t believe in God. But if there is a God heaven, I expect to be in heaven because I’m a good person.” That is simply, not what Jesus said.
Jesus said God desires that we come to him, now, and come to know what love is. In knowing the love God has for us, we love God, and we will then have the capacity to love one another. In love, we will bear his image in the world more fully then ever. The Apostle John said it this way:
“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).
The image of God is found in those who love God and love others. And, therefore, heaven is for those who bear the image of God. We cannot expect to be like God when we reject his existence. We cannot expect to be accorded grace when we deny there is a giver of grace.
Even the lawyer who seemed not to like Jesus very much understood Jesus message for the lawyer said, “33 To love him [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).
“34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34a). Mark then added, “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34b). The powerful forces had tested Jesus and were found lacking because Jesus never wavered from his bond with his Father.
We, like Jesus, are tested by very powerful forces of the world. Those tests will come from many sources and they will cite the power of government, science, academia, and even God’s own Words. Often times the source of those tests will be from people very close to us. The tests will come from our friends and even our own families. Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem to be tested and in his testing, he could show those who follow him what to do. That is the important part of this Jerusalem experience. We can follow Jesus lead and give answers for our faith in simple ways using God’s Word that shares love and the message of hope. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the ultimate expression of a free people. Let us be free to love as God has loved us. Amen and Amen.