The Cleansing of the Temple (Genesis 3:22-24)

After God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, he led them toward the east into the deserts of Arabia. He led them to Mount Sinai, which became known as the Mountain of God. There, he made a covenant with them. Moses made the proper animal sacrifices. He baptized the people with the sprinkled blood. And then God was officially married to his people!

After that, God called Moses up onto the mountain to give him the blueprints for the tabernacle, the tent of worship where God would live while he travelled with his people. He was gone for 40 days and 40 nights.

And while he was gone, the people decided not to wait for him to come back. So they broke the covenant. They set up a golden cow and they worshiped it in the grand old pagan style: they ate too much, they drank too much, then they got up to dance themselves into a trance and have sex with strangers. The honeymoon wasn’t even over yet and they cheated on God.

When Moses came back down and saw what was happening, he begged God not to destroy them. He begged God to still let them go into the Promised Land, even though they totally did not deserve it.

And God said, “Okay. I promised Abraham I would give the land to his children, and I will keep that promise. You guys go on. Cross the desert, take the land for yourselves. But I am going to stay here, on my mountain. I am not going with you.”

Basically, God was saying, “I want a divorce! You can keep my wedding present to you: keep the land, I don’t care. I will feed you, I will send you support cheques, whatever you need. But our marriage? This relationship? It’s over!”

And Moses said to God, “No, no no no no no don’t do that! Don’t send us away from your mountain alone! Don’t send us into the wilderness alone! We are still your people, please do not abandon us!”

So God called Moses up onto the mountain again to discuss the situation. And again Moses was gone for 40 days and 40 nights.

And when the people heard that God was seriously thinking about leaving them, they went into mourning. They stripped off all their gold, all their jewellery. They sat down at the foot of God’s mountain, and they waited for Moses to return with God’s final answer.

And as they waited there, they would have been remembering that this is not the first time something like this has happened. They would have been remembering Moses’ story about Adam and Eve, and how they also had been sent away from the mountain of God, sent away from God’s presence, sent into the wilderness alone.

And just to make sure we all remember the background to this story, here is a brief recap of what has happened so far:

In the opening scene, Moses told his people how God formed a man from the dust of the ground and gave him life — a creature specially designed and commissioned to bring life out of the ground.

Then Moses told how, in the east, in the land of Eden, in a valley on a sacred mountain, God planted a garden and filled it to overflowing with good things. And at the very centre of that garden were two particular trees: the tree of life, which the man was free to eat from; and the tree of the knowledge of what it is like to be God, which the man was not free to eat from…yet.

But the man ate the fruit dedicated to God alone. He broke the covenant. He cheated on God, and brought Judgement Day upon himself, upon his wife, and upon the earth.

And now today, as we look at the closing scene of this story, we are going to notice that Moses returns to all the themes he began with: the tree of knowledge is mentioned, and the tree of life; we are reminded of the man’s connection to the ground and to the garden of Eden; and last of all Moses reminds us that all this happened in the east.

So this epilogue to Judgement Day has a bittersweet beauty to it. It reaches back and touches all these themes again because it is supposed to make us mourn for all that has been lost.

And in fact, as Moses wrote this, he was careful to reach back even further than the opening scene of this story: he goes back all the way to Chapter 1, to that moment when God spoke to himself about himself and said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” Chapter 1 was the story of the universe from God’s perspective; Chapter 2 began the story of the earth from mankind’s perspective — but here, Moses returns to God’s perspective.

So, beginning in verse 22 here, for the second time God speaks to himself about himself, he says, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

The first time God spoke to himself, he was making plans for a creature that would be like him: a creature with God’s DNA. From the moment of mankind’s creation, the man and the woman were in the image of God, just like our children — from birth — contain our DNA and our image.

But, just our own children, the man the and woman were also supposed to grow up and become even more like God by walking with their Father and learning from their Father. They were supposed to be a family. And they were. They were bound together not just by DNA but also by a family covenant: a promise of mutual faithfulness and support. And it was through this family covenant that the man and his wife were going to grow more and more like God.

But they broke that covenant: they ate the fruit of knowledge. And, just as the serpent promised, eating the fruit made them more like God. Not by magic! This was not a magical fruit that changed their biology or something, this was an act of disobedience that changed their relationship with God. Eating the fruit broke the covenant, and breaking the covenant made them more like God by opening their eyes to the reality that they were no longer under the protection of their Father’s covenant.

So as God speaks to himself here for the second time, we are reminded of how God originally created mankind to be like him, and to grow safely and slowly inside a covenant family with him. And we get to see how, in a terrible, ironic twist, mankind actually has become more like God! — but only by breaking out of the covenant family. They are now exposed to the reality that they are not actually like God — and, ironically, it is this realization that makes them more like God.

So mankind has become like God — but in a mirror-image kind of way. They are like God, but now also like God’s opposite. They still contain God’s image! — but now they are no longer in God’s family. They have voted to leave. They have cheated on their Father.

So God goes on: “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

And while this sounds like a curse — and it is, this is a terrible thing! — it is also a protective blessing. Because the man and his wife are now “like opposite” to God. Now, instead of seeing how much like God they are, and how much like each other they are, now their eyes have been opened and all they can see are the differences between them.

And this realization has resulted in shame and misery. It has broken their relationship with each other, with God, and with the earth. As God told the woman, “From now on, only through painful toil will you bring forth life from your husband.” And as he told the man, “From now on, only through painful toil will you bring forth life from the earth.”

That is bad enough! But now, imagine this: what if they had to live this life of painful toil forever…!

What a hellish torment: to work and work and never die!

That would truly be a curse.

But even though the children have rejected the Father, the Father still loves these children. They have brought a cursed existence upon themselves. Now their Father wants to make sure they don’t make that cursed existence eternal by eating the fruit of life and living forever!

So he is going to protect them from that fate by physically removing them from that temptation:

[23] So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

This is the moment God hinted at last week when he told the man that, from now on, he would be eating the plants of the field instead of the fruit of the garden. For ancient people, a garden is safe behind walls, but a field is in the open, unprotected.

So there is a painful irony to this moment also: in order to protect the man and his wife from living forever outside the garden, God has to remove them from the protection of the garden. He has to remove them from the blessing of the garden so that they can experience the curse of death.

And at this point someone is going to say, “Wait a minute! There is a logical contradiction here: all God has to do in order to save mankind from the misery of existence outside the garden is let them stay inside the garden. As you just pointed out: their DNA has not changed, only their relationship has changed.

“So all God has to do is restore the relationship. Forgive them. Let them stay in the garden. Let them go back to eating freely and living forever.

“Problem solved!”

Mmmmm. But you are overlooking one thing. Sure, God could forgive the man and his wife. Sure, he could allow them to remain in the garden, and save them from death. But one thing remains that would make their eternal life in the garden an eternal torment:

Their eyes have been opened. They have seen themselves for who they are: covenant breakers. Disobedient. Unfaithful. And they have seen God for who he is: covenant keeping. Eternally loving. Eternally faithful.

But then someone might say, “Yeah, but how is that a torment?”

Well, we’ve already noticed that their instinctive response to having their eyes opened was shame. Now, for us, shame just means embarassment. We just think, “So put some clothes on and you’ll feel better! Problem solved!”

But we are not really thinking about shame deeply enough, especially the shame of a broken covenant. We’re not really thinking about what it would really be like to have your unfaithfulness exposed to a God who is eternally faithful, eternally loving.

So, let’s conduct a thought experiment and try to experience what real shame before God might feel like. Are you ready?

Start by remembering your worst act of betrayal. That time you totally backstabbed your friend who totally did not deserve it. That time you cheated on your spouse — even if only in your mind.

And now, imagine that you are going to sit down with your friend, with your spouse, with the person you betrayed, and you are going to watch a video of your betrayal together. Every word, every thought, every detail: exposed.

Now, take that feeling and multiply it by eternity in the presence of God. And here’s the strange thing: he wouldn’t even have to be angry at you for you to feel terrible. In fact, the vision of his love and faithfulness would only increase your shame, because it would prove even more how good he is and how horrible you are.

Friends, our shame is the shame of a broken covenant. Our unfaithfulness is the unfaithfulness of a cheating spouse. Our disobedience is the disobedience of children who tried to murder their parents. Can you imagine what that truth would feel like if we actually found ourselves in the presence of the God we betrayed? We would die of shame. We would beg him to let us die of shame. We would try to kill ourselves — but if we had eaten from the tree of life we would not be able to!

So, yes: God could have saved the man and the woman from the misery of existence outside the garden. He could have let them stay. He could have said, “All is forgiven!” But that would have meant condemning them to an eternal torment inside the garden, an eternal awareness of how unfaithful they have been to the Father who deserved so much more.

Really, the only other solution would be for God to wipe their memory. But that’s basically another way of saying that they would cease to exist. That would be a total reboot of the whole system. And that would be a violation of their personhood. That would be a violation of who God created them to be. He designed them to make decisions that matter! — so for him to suddenly change the rules and say, “Oh, wait, do-over, that one didn’t count!”…that would be like one parent saying to another, “Hey, honey, the kids misbehaved today so I killed them. We’ll have start again tomorrow.”

Now, obviously, we don’t do that with our children. So God certainly does not do that with his children. He loves them. He is not giving up on them! — but at the same time they did vote to leave the family. He is going to honour that decision. In fact, he has no choice, because if he refuses to let them leave then he is condemning them to eternal shame.

So God condemns them to temporary misery outside the garden in order to save them from eternal misery inside the garden.

And in verse 24 we are told that after he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

In the beginning, God planted a garden in the east, a direction that made ancient people think about the mountain of God. That garden was God’s temple, and the man was God’s high priest. The priest’s job was to protect the holiness of the temple. Instead, he defiled it. And so God was forced to cleanse the temple, to make it holy again.

In the beginning, the man was supposed to protect the way to the trees of life and knowledge. Here, at the end, that job has been taken away from him, and given to the cherubim, special warrior angels who normally serve as God’s personal bodyguards. And they have instructions to kill anyone who tries to enter. Their job is to protect mankind from eternal shame.

And as the people of Israel sat there at the foot of Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, waiting to find out if God would go with them or not, they would have been remembering this story: how Adam and Eve were driven out into the wilderness while God remained behind on the holy mountain. They would have been remembering how Adam and Eve were free to work the ground and inherit the earth that God had promised them — they just had to do it without God.

The people of Israel would have been wondering if they, too, would now share the same fate of going on into the wilderness without God, inheriting their homeland without God. They have broken the covenant. They have cheated on God. They have voted to leave the marriage — apparently it never occured to them that God might just say, “Okay. Go.”

So they waited. And finally Moses came back with an answer.

That answer was: the tabernacle.

And in order for us to understand just how the tabernacle answered this question, we are going to have to see it the way Moses’ people first saw it:

They saw an outer wall set up in the shape of a rectangle, a wall with one single gate in it, a gate on the east side of the enclosure, a gate facing the sunrise.

And then, when they went and stood in that gateway, looking west, with the sun at their backs, they would have seen the inner tent, the tabernacle itself, where the ark of God is kept, and where the golden lampstand is kept — a lampstand designed to look like an almond tree. And as the people stood there looking at the tabernacle with the sun rising behind them, they would have seen the images of cherubim shimmering there in the walls of the tent, massive figures four meters tall, woven in gold thread directly into the cloth: angels guarding the way to the tree of life, a tree symbolized by the golden lampstand within.

And in that moment the people would have realized that the tabernacle is actually a model of the garden of Eden, complete with a model of the tree of life. They would have realized that, as they leave the mountain of God and enter the wilderness, the garden of Eden will literally come with them. When Adam and Eve left the mountain of God, they left the garden behind. God did not go with them. But when the people of Israel leave the mountain of God, the garden will come with them. God will go with them.

So the tabernacle itself was God’s answer: he will go with them into the wilderness, and into the promised land. The tabernacle was God’s way of saying that now his people are free to take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.

But that just brings us back to the original problem, doesn’t it? Because — correct me if I’m wrong here — the reason God kicked them out of the garden in the first place was to save them from the agony of living forever in eternal shame.

Now the garden is back. Now they are free to eat from the tree of life and live forever.

What about their shame?

What about the agony of facing the perfectly beautiful loving God that you betrayed?

How can God’s people re-enter the garden and eat from the tree of life without dying of shame before they can take two steps?

Or, to put it another way: how can they put out their hands and part the curtains of the tabernacle without the cherubim striking them dead?

Well, interestingly enough, the tabernacle itself contains the solution to this problem. And, again, in order to understand just how the tabernacle solves this problem we are going to have to see it the way Moses’ people first saw it:

As they stood there, in the gateway, with the sun rising behind them, the cherubim shimmering in the tabernacle walls before them, blocking their way to the tree of life, they would have seen two other objects in the yard.

First, there was a large, bronze altar, rising up like a smoking mountain between them and the cherubim. They would have seen teams of priests working around this altar, climbing up the stairs and coming back down, feeding the flames upon it with the fat and the meat of animal sacrifice, sprinkling its sides with the blood. So the people would have seen that the only way to re-enter the garden of God was by symbolically climbing the firey bronze mountain, passing through the smoke and the blood of sacrificial death, and descending the other side.

And then, on the other side of the altar, they would have discovered a large bronze basin called “the sea”, filled with clean water. And around this also they would have seen priests working, washing themselves, and then passing safely through the curtains of cherubim, carrying with them bread, and oil, and incense — everything they would need for a meal with God. So the people would have seen that the only way to re-enter the garden of God was by symbolically passing through the waters of the sea, the cleansing waters of death, and emerging clean on the other side.

And so, as the people stood there watching their priests conduct the worship of God, they would have seen this truth acted out: God does not save his people from shame by just wiping their memories. As they enter into God’s presence, their eyes remain open. They continue to see the covenant-breaking truth about themselves, and the covenant-keeping truth about God. But they are not consumed by covenant-breaking shame because, through the sprinkled blood of animals, the covenant they broke has been restored. They are not consumed by covenant-breaking shame because, through the sprinkled waters of the sea, they have been cleansed of all their sins.

So what the tabernacle is telling us is that it would not have been enough for God to just say, “I forgive you!” to Adam and Eve and let them stay in the garden without the kindness of a covenant to protect them from their own shame. What they needed was a new covenant. What they needed was proper cleansing.

And this project of renewing God’s covenant with Adam was a project that took thousands of years to set up. Slowly, carefully, patiently, generation by generation, God brought forth his plan to redeem his children.

The first step in this plan was actually death. The curse of death was a direct consequence for sin, but it was also a protective blessing for mankind. Death saved mankind from the eternal shame of life inside the garden, and from the eternal misery of life outside the garden.

But death was always meant to be a temporary measure. God’s goal was always to bring his children back into covenant with him. But this had to be done very carefully. God needed to restore the relationship by forgiving, but true forgiveness does not mean that God just waves his hand and changes the timeline, and pretends that nothing bad happened. True forgiveness means covering the cost of the broken covenant. That penalty must be paid before a new covenant can be written.

The penalty for breaking God’s covenant with Adam was death. And so death ruled from the time of Adam until the time of Moses, when God introduced step two in his plan of redemption: through the tabernacle, through animal sacrifice, God’s people could once again re-enter God’s covenant and eat from the tree of life.

Of course, Moses’ people never got to actually enter the tabernacle. They could only go as far as the altar. They would give their animal to the priests. The priests would sacrifice it, and the priests would carry the blood of their sacrifice into the tabernacle along with the bread and the oil and the incense. The priests ate with God. The people could only enter symbolically, because at their stage of God’s plan the sacrificial system was not yet complete.

But for us, all this has changed. The tabernacle is long gone. There is no longer any altar, there is no longer any sea, there are no more priests — except one only: Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the last step in God’s plan to redeem mankind. Jesus is the last high priest. He climbed the mountain of God. He sacrificed his own life upon the altar. He passed through the waters of death, and came out clean on the other side. And then, the New Testament tells us, he parted the curtains of the heavenly tabernacle, he passed safely between the swords of the cherubim, and he sat down in his Father’s presence. Through his own sprinkled blood he completed the covenant that Adam broke. Through his own sprinkled blood he has cleansed all his people of all their sins. Because of him God’s people are able to enter in and reach out, and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.

And the question we end up asking ourselves today is this: how does this benefit us? What does this have to do with us? We are not an ancient bronze age people struggling to survive in the deserts of Arabia. No doubt they needed a sacred tent and blood sacrifice and priests and all that because they were primitive. They were worried about things like shame, and judgement. They didn’t understand that God is a God of Love.

At least, that’s how many modern people think about these things. We’ve all had friends who say, “Oh, I don’t believe in a God of Judgement, I only believe in a God of Love,” as if judgement and love are somehow opposites. The thing is: they are not. God’s judgement and God’s love are both expressions of God’s holiness. Many people have this rather shallow idea that if they could just see God and experience his love directly, they would forget about their sins and everything would be perfect. But that’s just not what would happen. The beauty and purity of God’s perfect love for you would actually highlight the depth of your betrayal. It would be a torment to find yourself in God’s presence and suddenly have who you really are exposed for all to see. God’s love is his judgement.

So the truth is, friends: this has everything to do with us. We all know what shame is. That is why we all work so hard to suppress it! We hide from it by refusing to think deeply about it. When we are forced to think about our shame, we try to blame others for it. And when it becomes obvious that our shame is our shame, our unfaithfulness, then we try to redefine sin so we have nothing to be ashamed of. We ask to leave the garden. We would rather choose death in the wilderness than face the truth about ourselves in God’s presence.

And, friends, here’s the thing: if that is you, if you are here today and you are choosing death in the wilderness over facing the truth about yourself…God will honour your choice. He created us in his image to make choices that have real consequences. If you choose death over the truth, he will give it to you. At first it will be a temporary measure, an act of mercy to keep you from eating the tree of life and living forever in misery.

But, if you not repent of your choice, then one day death will become your permanent condition. You will find yourself outside the garden walls for eternity.

Now, I realize that you are probably thinking, “Good! That’s what I want! I don’t want to live in your God’s garden anyway!”

But here’s the problem for you: the time is coming when Christ’s work will be complete. The garden will have conquered the wilderness — the wilderness where you thought you would be able to hide forever from the truth about yourself.

Which means that, one way or another, you will find yourself in the presence of God’s beauty and love. You will have nowhere left to go. You will see yourself as you really are — as you already know you really are. And you will see God as he really is.

And, friends, there is a name for that level of agony: it is called Hell.

It is very interesting, what the bible tells us about hell. On the one hand, hell is described as eternal torment outside the walls, outside the life-giving presence of God. On the other hand, hell is also described as eternal torment — eternal death — inside the life-giving presence of God. Many modern people find the concept of hell barbaric, they say that they simply cannot worship a God who would deliberately torment the damned for eternity, like a child torturing animals or something. But that is a very shallow understanding of what hell is going to be like. There won’t be demons with pitchforks and pools of bubbling lava. There will only be the beauty and the love of God shining with the light of a thousand suns, exposing every hidden darkness. The bible often describes hell as eternal fire. Unfortunately, too many people have taken this to mean literal, physical fire burning literal, physical bodies. Yes, you will stand before God in your body; but the fire will be the unbearable glory of God, and the burning will be the burning of eternal shame.

Friends, on that day — and for every day after — you will wish that the fire was a literal fire. You will beg God to let you die. But the time for that will be past. You will live forever in the eternal burning death of shame: inside God’s presence but outside the walls of his covenant.

The only way for us to face the love of God without shame is for us to submit once again to the protection of God’s covenant.

Our shame is the shame of a broken covenant. Which means that the cure for our shame is a restored covenant.

So how do we enter into this restored covenant with God? The garden of Eden is long gone. So is the tabernacle, with its altar and the cleansing sea. So how?

This is how:

We start with the cross of Christ. It is no accident that in the bible the cross is called “the tree”. God drove mankind out of the garden, away from the mountain, in order to protect us from the tree of life that would actually bring us eternal living death. He condemned us to death in the wilderness in order to save us from an even greater death. In the same way, Jesus was driven out of the city gate, into the wilderness, where he was hung upon a tree of death, and transformed it with his blood into a tree of life.

And all we have to do to reach out and receive life from that tree is look, and listen, and believe. This is how it happens: we pass through the gateway with the sun rising behind us, and we find our only high priest waiting there at the altar, at the cross. But this time we do not simply watch while he performs the sacrifice, we go with him. We climb the steps of the altar, becoming one with him in his death. We pass through the smoke and the flames and come out the other side, becoming one with him in his resurrection. We approach the sea, where he sprinkles us with clean water, cleansing us from all our impurities and all our idols. And then he parts the veil and leads us safely in, between the swords of the cherubim —

— and as for what lies beyond that…we run out of words. Scripture says it is like a garden, and like a city. There is a river, and trees; there are protective walls; but the funny thing is: the gates never need to be closed. And, strangely enough, there is a table, with Jesus seated at its head. There is bread and wine, and a salad made from the leaves of the tree of life, which are for the healing of the nations. For us it will be the end of all other stories, but it will be the beginning of the one Great Story “which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

So how does this benefit us, here, now?

Brothers and sisters, friends, we were designed to live in covenant family. Our first parents gave that up, and led us all out into the wilderness. Now Christ has opened the door for our return. And for those of us who are baptized believers — well, even though we are still in the wilderness outside the walls of our promised homeland, we are already inside the garden walls of the covenant, and the mountain of God travels with us, and we are free to eat even now from the tree of life.

So if you are here today and you are not yet a baptized believer, this is our Father’s word to you: join the covenant. All you have to lose is your shame.

And if you are a baptized believer, then this is our Father’s word to you: look to the cross, our tree of life. Let us enter in and reach out our hands, and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!

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