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Jeremiah, the Temple, and Political History

Twenty-six centuries or so ago, the prophet Jeremiah walked into the temple in Jerusalem with a message from the Lord. That message was ignored then, just as it is being ignored today. This is evidenced by the fact many evangelical Christians in the USA have in recent decades focused their attention on the democratic political process and partisan agendas in an effort to “restore a Christian America,” or some similar goal. Those who would seek to protect their religious liberty, however, defend family values, or affect moral change in America through the political process would do well to listen to the prophet.

Jeremiah’s basic message centered on the coming judgment, an invasion by the Babylonians, because the people of Judah had broken the Covenant established centuries before by God with Israel through Moses. The curses of the Covenant (see Deuteronomy 28-29) were coming because the people of the Lord were unfaithful to Him as they lusted after idols. At one point in his prophetic ministry, the Lord gave Jeremiah a specific message about the Temple, the center-point of Judah’s culture.

In the opening verses of Jeremiah 7 we read:
The message that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Stand at the gate of the Lord’s Temple and proclaim this message there. Say, ‘Listen to this message from the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord.’” This is what the Lord of the Heavenly Armies, the God of Israel, says: "Change your ways and your deed, and I’ll let you live in this place. Don’t trust deceptive words like these and say, 'The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 7:1-4, ISV)
The people adored the Temple. It was central to their society, both religious and political. Nearly 100 years previously, when the Assyrians invaded Judah and surrounded Jerusalem, the Lord spared the temple and the Assyrians failed to conquer Jerusalem. So when Jeremiah declared that trust in the Temple was “deceptive,” we understand that the people had begun to believe the temple was inviolable and no harm would ever come to them because it stood in their midst.

This was a positivist view of history. And by that, I mean the people maintained an unjustifiable certitude in the ability of the presence of the Temple to deliver them. The Lord viewed that as infidelity. The Lord and He alone must be the object of our trust.

Jeremiah gave a promise of a new covenant, a time when the Law would be written on the heart (Jer. 31:33). Centuries before Jeremiah, however, Moses spoke of the need for a circumcised heart as the path to keeping the covenant (Deut. 30:6). God’s people were, and still are, called to love the Lord with all their heart, trusting in him alone. Trusting in anything less, even something as wonderful as the temple, was false hope and idolatrous.

Whom do we trust?

Today, the evangelical world has fallen into a similar trap by replacing the true Gospel with civil religion. This civil religion may have the appearance of a good and mighty thing, like the temple, but it too falls short of deserving our trust.

We may pay lip service to a “Christian” or “Biblical” Worldview, but scratch deep enough below the surface of evangelical philosophy and we too often find the idol of Reason. We may use biblical terminology to describe our worldview, but our faith in reason is the same faith as any other secular or enlightenment worldview. We look to reason to prove the existence of God, or to establish the veracity of God’s Word, or even to establish public policy that will make America great again. That puts reason ahead of the Lord in terms of the one in whom we trust. It is all a positivist view of history, which at its core is the same view of history to which both liberal and conservative politicians cling. Go beyond the lip service to a Christian Worldview and one discovers that in the center of our being, we grip tightly the worship of reason. That is a modern positivist view of history.

Which brings us back to civil religion. Too many Christian believers in America have constructed a false view of our history. America, it is believed, is special in the eyes of God because God played a role in its founding and because a Christian morality served as a foundation stone in the ordering of its society. Since the 1960’s these same believing Christians have witnessed a decay in the ethics and fabric of that society, a turning away from God, with a subsequent moral decline.

The Church in America, therefore, has focused on reclaiming the moral standard that, according to its worldview, once made America great. The plan is to stand up for God by defending what is perceived as a biblical view of everything from taxes to morality. This, it is believed, will restore America again as a Christian nation.

The problem is this is all a false construct. Solomon’s temple was constructed out of stone and the people grew to trust that stone edifice instead of trusting the one true Lord of all. Israel trusted its temple in the same way the nations around them built and trusted their temples. There was no difference in their view of history.

America has never been a truly Christian nation. We have never even been a moral nation. Certainly religious language was used in to establish the shape of society. Also, at points in our history, America has stood up for what is right. But evil still persisted within our borders throughout history. Evil is inevitable because all have sinned. That is a more biblical view of history, the prevalence of evil.

More importantly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not the cornerstone of society. Instead, the nation was founded on a construct of ideas with more connection to the enlightenment than to the Old or New Testament. This construct of ideas, like the temple, may have been built to honor God. The idea of a Christian America, however, owes more to civil religion than to the Gospel. This civil religion drew its ethics from Christian ideals, and used language that honored God with its lips. Like the system of worship in the temple, however, this civil religion was all outward and superficial, without power to truly change the heart of sinful men. This civil religion was not the Gospel.

Certainly, Christians should be involved in the political process. I am not arguing for a withdrawal from culture. But we should not put our trust into any political agenda, neither from the right or the left, to bring redemption to the hearts of the citizens of this nation. Certainly, laws can and do regulate morality. All laws affect morality. But like the Old Testament law, which was good and revealed the heart of God, any law in itself is powerless to transform the heart. Evil will persist apart from the preaching of the cross of Christ.

So believers, stop trusting in a man-made construct of legislative oversight and political agendas. No politician can ever make America great again. America was never great in any real God-honoring way. Stop playing games with banal phrases that offer only false hope to those who trust in them. The church should be known for preaching the Gospel, and calling on the power of God’s only Son to heal the human heart, to bring light into darkness, and to bind up the spiritual wounds of the nation. No nation has ever been Christian, no nation has ever been God honoring, because every nation is filled with sinful human hearts. The solution is the Cross, not politics. So stop trying to redeem America through the something as superficial and powerless as a political agenda. It's a temple that cannot save.