Cleansing the Church’s “Court of the Gentiles”?


English: Wailing Wall from the Tankizyya

English: Wailing Wall from the Tankizyya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to pull together three fairly unrelated things. Layers of Culture, the Layout of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Christian outreach.

First.  Layers of Culture.  Linwood Barney showed layers of culture. Inmost is ideology, cosmology, and worldview. The figure for this is below. These are the least visible cultural characteristics.

Levels of culture

Levels of culture

Out from that is values. Outward from that are institutions. On the outside is Material artifacts and observable behavior.

I find it a useful model. When we see a culture. We see the artifacts and observable behavior.  It takes greater digging to get to the deeper layers.

I guess, however, I would like to separate the outermost layer into two levels. The two levels would be:

  • Outside-accessible artifacts and behavior (outer skin)
  • Other artifacts and behavior (inner skin)

2.  Temple in Jerusalem. Let me take the example of the Old Testament temple. The temple mount had four courtyards:

  • Court of Gentiles
  • Court of (Jewish) Women
  • Court of Israel (Jewish Men)
  • Court of Priests

The outermost court was the court of the Gentiles. So if you were not a Jewish believer, that was as far as you could come into the temple mount. Observation of the practices of the temple was limited to that level. To an outsider the Court of the Gentiles provided the access and the limitations of access for material artifacts and observable behavior of the temple culture. That is where outsider-accessible material artifacts and observable behavior ends. Other artifacts and observable behavior exist but are not directly accessible to an outsider.

Now consider the story in Matthew 21 where Jesus “cleansed the temple.” It described His strong reaction to the moneychangers and selling stalls in the temple. There are a lot of views regarding why Jesus did this. Was it righteous anger over profiteering? Was it demonstrating His authority? Was He fulfilling Scripture?

I am not going to hazard a definitive answer. Instead let me give my own reaction. The moneychangers and the selling stalls were in the court of the Gentiles. While Isaiah 56:7 said that the house of God (in this case referring to the temple in Jerusalem) would be a house of prayer for all nations. In theory, a curious non-Jew could go the temple mount, and go as far as court of the Gentiles. What would be the accessible artifacts and behavior? Coins, animals, noisy buying and selling. It certainly was not a place of prayer for all nations. It seems doubtful that a Gentile coming to the temple mount would gain a positive view of what is going on in the temple. And that is a shame. It is as if a group puts up signs on the edge of their property telling people to go away… nothing worthwhile to see here.

I recall back in 1991 visiting Jerusalem. It was a bit like a Christian Disneyland. Take a tram/bus from one ride to the next, with little stalls selling various religious products (commonly of olive wood). Actually, the moneychangers along the Via Dolorosa were probably the least offensive, and offered rates of exchange better than the banks. The best part of that trip was the Wailing Wall. Its simplicity and its availability for all people to come and quietly pray to God was inspirational. One could imagine that was the original purpose of the Gentile Court.

3.  Christian Outreach. Okay, what about us? What is the “Court of the Gentile” for Christianity? It is where non-Christians have ready access to observing Christianity. Where is this? Typically it is on TV, billboards, church signs, bumperstickers, and the Internet. ISN’T THAT A SCARY THOUGHT? If I wasn’t raised up in a Christian home, I would have learned about Christianity by what I saw on religious programming on TV and bumperstickers. I can’t imagine myself ever choosing to become a Christian based on the inanity that Christians put on TV, on the Internet, and on the road and roadside. Sure, there is great joy and wonder and community in the church… but what outsider would ever see that? And what non-Christian would even want to find out more based on what is outsider-accessible?

We can’t force people to change what they put on the Web or anywhere else. But as Christians, I pray we will take more time recognizing that the foolish-greedy-noisy mess we put into the media is what the rest of the world really sees. If a few will clean up our own outer court, maybe this will start a trend.

Thankfully, there is something else we can do. We can live Christlike ourselves. Getting Christians to behave well as a group is like herding cats. (It is of little comfort to know that this seems to be a characteristic of humanity and all religious an ideological groups have similar problems.) As the song sung by Steve Green states,

Cause You’re the only Jesus some will ever see
You’re the only words of life, some will ever read
So let them see in you the One in whom is all they’ll ever need
You’re the only Jesus, some will ever see

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7 thoughts on “Cleansing the Church’s “Court of the Gentiles”?

  1. Since John 2:18-22 indicates that Jesus is the final manifestation of the Father and his statement is linked with his temple cleansing action, he it probably pointing to the replacement of the earthly temple and its rituals by himself and his death and resurrection. The requested sign may have indicated the Jews thought such radical action would be associated with Messiah.

    I presume our “Court” cleanup would include our speech, sacrificial living and counter-cultural demonstration of Jesus – his love, work and resurrection for all alienated from God.

    • Ptr. Felt. I certainly can’t argue with your point. My point is probably more “missionally reflective” than pure Biblical interpretation. Still, while Eli’s sons were condemned for sins against God that would only be known by the pious, Jesus condemned about the only sins that would be observable by non-Jews. I, however, can’t necessarily argue that that was the point of the event.

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