Not too long ago, archaeologists uncovered a massive dump used between 37 BC and 66 AD–that is, from Herod the Great’s reign until the revolt that eventually culminated in the destruction of the Temple. A very high proportion of animal bones was found, which is unusual; while we tend to think of meat as a regular part of our diet today, back then it was eaten rarely by most common folk and usually only on special occasions.
So, the archaeologists figured that it was a dumping ground for bones from the Temple sacrifices, and decided to do some study on the bones. They found that many of the animals came from hundreds of miles away, from regions like Transjordan and Arabia–thus confirming ancient accounts of Jewish communities abroad shipping animals en masse to Jerusalem for sacrifice.
What’s more striking is the conclusion drawn about the importance of sacrifice to the city: aside from the spiritual significance of the sacrifices, what’s staggering is that in Jesus’ day, Jerusalem’s economy actually was largely dependent on the Temple operation.
That, in turn, confirms the biblical accounts about the influence of the Jewish religious establishment in what was officially a Roman jurisdiction. It wasn’t just cultural or spiritual “pull” that was exercised by the priests; they controlled the reins of the city’s economy.
Furthermore, the sheer size of the slaughtering operation (which must have been staggeringly massive to drive the economy of a city of multiple hundreds of thousands of inhabitants) suggests that the “market” that sprang up around and inside the Temple to cater to pilgrims must have been very large. No wonder Jesus, when he saw it, was horrified (Mark 11:15-19).
There’s a few lessons here for us today:
1) So many animals were slaughtered to cover human sins that the sheer scale of the bloodshed is a marvel to archaeologists two thousand years later.
And yet, despite millions of sacrificial victims, despite unending offerings around the clock, despite an atonement system so dedicated, complex, and massive that it supported the economy of a major city, it wasn’t enough. God wasn’t satisfied. Human sin still cried out for judgment. Justice was not done.
If Jerusalem’s staggering monument to human effort to placate God’s wrath couldn’t set us right with God, what makes you think you can be good enough to please him on your own?
Jerusalem’s failure to solve the problem of sin only highlights the only hope we have: a sufficient, once-for-all sacrifice that gets the job done. Praise God, we have that in Christ Jesus.
2) In the time of Jesus, the worship system God had himself appointed had become far more than a place of self-sacrificial reflection and awe. It had become an opportunity for personal enrichment and aggrandizement. When your worship system becomes an economic system, it’s time to take a step back and ask which god is the true object of your worship.
One need only look at the contemporary Christian music industry, the Christian publishing industry, and modern megachurches for examples of Christian worship being “monetized” on a grand scale. Walk into a Christian bookstore, and sadly you’ll see that the vast majority of what sits on the shelves belongs in the dungheap with the rest of what the archaeologists dug up.
While I’m not opposed to those who labor in these spiritual fields being able to live off of the fruits of their work, the overall quality of the “products” of these industries, being generally shallow at best and downright heretical at worst, suggest that the motivation behind much of it isn’t actually to contribute meaningfully to the spiritual health of the Christian community or to give glory to God.
3) It helps us understand, in part, the sheer audacity of Jesus’ demands on his own people–and therefore some of the motivations behind the ancient Jews’ rejection of Christ and Christianity.
By claiming to be the true Temple to whom Jerusalem’s edifice pointed (John 2:21), by asserting he was the true High Priest (Hebrews 5-8), by offering himself as a final and sufficient sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 3:18), Jesus was telling the Jewish people that this massive Temple operation with its hundreds of thousands of sacrificial victims and thousands of priests–and, yes, all of its attendant economic benefits!–was no longer necessary. Indeed, the Christian message, especially as it is laid out to the Jewish people in the book of Hebrews, is that this system of sacrifice not only isn’t necessary, but that it must be left behind.
In other words: Jesus wasn’t just asking that Jews stop offering animals for their sins. He was demanding that they abandon the very heart of their economy. For the Jewish people, to be told to leave behind the sacrifices and follow Jesus was to do the very thing Jesus demanded of the rich young man. Jerusalem was being asked to die, economically, in following Christ.
4) History tells us that Jerusalem and Judea rejected Jesus’ demands.
History also tells us that God will tolerate no rivals. Even if the rival is a system of worship he himself appointed.
In AD 70, the Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and flattened the Temple–just as Jesus promised would happen. Jerusalem’s sacrificial economy was no more. No longer would the Jewish community abroad send animals by the tens of thousands, and riches untold, to Zion. Jerusalem became a dusty backwater.
Thankfully, we do not need to purchase animals by the herd to be slaughtered for our sins. Christ is enough–look to him. He satisfied the Father.
Don’t try to do it yourself. Jerusalem’s garbage dump testifies against your feeble efforts. And its scorched foundations warn of the terrifying consequences if you decide you don’t need him.