A sermon preached at Winnetka Bible Church on April 30, 2017. Part of the series “Zechariah’s Joy: Trusting God in Days of Pain”
Title: Cleansed to Build God’s Temple
Text: Zechariah 5:1–11
Introduction: A Fitting Dwelling
I am a bit of a fan of a certain electronics company that shall remain nameless, because this is not a commercial. I remember the first computer I bought from them, and how even taking this thing out of the box was a beautiful experience. I had bought various electronics before, and even expensive gadgets would usually come in a cardboard box wrapped in plastic and tape and foam. But this time, I opened the box, and everything was clean, crisp, beautifully presented. There was the device, like an engagement ring in a presentation case. Something about it was very visceral and compelling, because I had waited a long time to make this purchase. I had saved money, and wanted this item for months. And this company had obviously tapped into some pretty powerful human wiring, because even the container told a story about the beauty and worth of the treasure it held.
Something similar—and far more meaningful than a laptop computer—is being communicated in our passage today. The people are rebuilding the temple, a house for God. The problem is, they are dirty, and everything they make will be dirty. God is clean, and holy, and undefiled. Is he going to dwell in a dirty house? If they are going to build a dwelling place that is fitting for God’s purity, then the builders need to be purified. How is God going to cleanse his people?
Background & Context
Let’s get into the context of where these two visions are presented. Israel and Judah have been removed from their land by the Assyrians and Chaldeans. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and the city laid waste by the power of Babylon, and the glorious presence of God has departed. Seventy years later, Cyrus, King of Persia, issued a decree to send the children of Israel back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, which at that point was a pile of rubble. The temple reconstruction is being overseen by Joshua, a priest from the line of Aaron, and Zerubbabel, a son of David, from the tribe of Judah.
But the reconstruction of the temple is presenting many different challenges. Imposters are attempting to get in on the work even though they have no true connection to the people of God; and when Joshua and Zerubbabel remove them from the construction site, they tattle to King Artaxerxes and get him to halt the project. Meanwhile, many people are staying behind in Babylon where they enjoy comfort and society, and of those who do return to Jerusalem, many have brought back foreign wives and pagan practices. This new temple doesn’t seem to compare to the glory of Solomon’s temple. And there are so many obstacles it appears this temple-building project is a lost cause.
Enter the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. They were messengers appointed by God when all hope seems lost, to bring words of encouragement in the midst of trials and discouragement. And as we have seen together over these past two months, in Zechariah, God lifts the eyes of his prophet out of the Jerusalem rubble, and dazzles him with wonderful, splendorous visions that transcend his lackluster environment. Today we direct our attention to two visions in chapter five that seem to go together as a pair, almost like two sides of a coin. In the first vision, a giant flying scroll cleanses the land by entering the houses of evil doers and consumes them. In the second vision, a woman who is called Wickedness is contained in a five gallon basket, and carried out of the midst of the people of Israel. She is placed in a house in the land of Shinar, that ancient site of the kingdom of Babylon. The thing that connects these two visions is a common theme of cleansing. What we find in these visions is that, although God has taken his people out of Babylon, he now needs to take Babylon out of his people.
The Rebellious City
Zechariah has already issued a cry to the people of Israel in chapter 2, verse 6, “Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the Lord. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the Lord. Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon” (Zech 2:6–7). Why the focus on Babylon, the broken remains of a once powerful empire? Persia is the powerful kingdom now. So why focus on Babylon, not Persia?
From Genesis to Revelation, Babylon serves as the archetype for the powerful rebellion of wicked men and women against the Lord God. From the very beginning, the land of Shinar and the people of Babylon are associated with great strength and power. When Noah and his family left the ark, it was his son Ham who sinned against his father. And according to Genesis 10, Ham’s grandson, Nimrod, “was the first on earth to be a mighty man… the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon… in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Ninevah.” Nimrod’s great-uncles, Egypt and Canaan, would go on to start empires of their own quite familiar to the history of God’s people. And so we see that this is a family tree of great cities, conquering kingdoms, a people of great power and might, and—not surprisingly—regularly antagonistic toward the true King of Heaven. And we find in the next chapter of Genesis, that this kingdom founded by Nimrod, Babylon in the land of Shinar, is the location of the first great civilized rebellion against God. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4).
An Unthreatening Rival
And in a moment of great biblical comedy, Moses writes down in the next verse, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” I suppose their tower didn’t quite reach up to the heavens after all! And in what I think is a moment of divine mockery, the Lord responds, in verse 6, “Behold, nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” And so, he puts an end to their construction project by confusing their words, and the great Babylonian tower turned out to be no true threat to God after all.
This is an important idea in scripture, as we see in Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves… against the Lord and against his Anointed.” The psalmist calls the plotting and raging of the nations vain. The kings of earth do not pose any real threat to the King of Heaven. The psalm continues, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Rebellion against the Lord is hilarious to the God who spoke the heavens into being. King Jesus doesn’t need a fortress to protect him against all the armies of the nations. John tells us that “from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15). He conquers the nations with the breath of his mouth.
So when we come to these visions in Zechariah 5, we realize the people might be tempted to think that the wickedness oppressing and defiling God’s people is some gargantuan, multi-headed monster. But what is the picture Zechariah receives, in verses 5–11? Zechariah sees a basket. This is a word for a household basket, a little smaller than a bushel, holding about 3-5 gallons. And when the angels takes the lead weight off the basket there’s a woman inside. The angel tells Zechariah her name is Wickedness, and he tosses her back into the basket, shutting her in with a lead weight. Can you visualize this scene? Zechariah’s vision of wickedness is a little tiny woman no larger than house cat. Those who hear the call to flee the comforts and wickedness of Babylon might be tempted to view her might as an intimidating rival. But in this vision, we see her carried away in a little basket, no more threatening than the Easter bunny. Wickedness is flown away and given a house to live in far away from God’s people, in the land of Shinar, that ancient site of Babylon’s tower of rebellion.
The Enticement of Sin
But just because God is utterly unthreatened by the powers of evil that rise against his reign, it does not mean that he is unconcerned with wickedness in his people, or that his children are not to be on guard against its enticing draw. These two visions in chapter five give us vivid descriptions of the lengths to which God will go to cleanse and purify the people who will build his dwelling place. Ever since the beginning of God’s relationship with humanity, sin has sung a sweet and enticing siren song to lure people away from dwelling with the Lord. The serpent serenaded the woman in the garden with visions of glory and prestige, and sin crouched at Cain’s door, ready to devour him when his guard was down.
In John’s vision, he is shown a woman arrayed in purple, adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a cup full of intoxicating sexual immorality. In Revelation 17:5, we read, “On her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.’” In chapter 18, verses 3–5 we read, “For all the nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living… [And now, remember the call from Zechariah two, which is repeated here.] Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues, for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”
From Genesis to Proverbs to Revelation, sin and wickedness is associated with the seduction of a prostitute. The luxury, wealth, and power represented by Babylon the prostitute has beckoned God’s people away into unfaithfulness to their God. So do not mistake her smallness in the basket as a symbol that she is no threat to God’s people. This wickedness must be carried far away if God is going to dwell in their midst in his temple. Wherever she remains, judgment is surely coming.
Two Warnings: Achan & Judas
Two vivid accounts in scripture warn us of the danger of Wickedness’ seductive powers. The first is in Joshua 7, right as the children of Israel have entered the promised land to drive out the Canaanites and take possession of their inheritance. After a shameful defeat at Ai, the Lord informs Joshua that someone in the camp of Israel has sinned and taken some of the things that were devoted to the Lord for destruction. When the people were gathered, the lots fell on Achan. Achan confessed, “Truly, I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar [(that’s Babylon)], and 200 shekels of silver, and bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent” (Joshua 7:20–21). And by the command of the Lord, Achan and his family, and his livestock, along with all the possessions that so gripped his heart, were stoned with rocks and consumed with fire, because the Lord’s anger burned against the wickedness that had taken possession of Achan.
But Achan wouldn’t be the last man to be gripped by the love of wealth, and perish as a result of its intoxication. Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve closest to Jesus, was more in love with his moneybag than with his Savior, and betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver as prophesied by Zechariah 400 years prior. Judas was utterly consumed in the field purchased with the treasure from his betrayal.
So no, my friends, we are not to take wickedness lightly. Just because she is not a threat against God’s power, she has lured hearts away from God time and time again. And if she is not taken away, she seduces men and women with her luxurious garments and shiny treasures, and brings down God’s jealous judgment on her captives. This takes us to the first vision: one way that God cleanses sin from his people is by consuming it by his word.
Two Pictures of Cleansing
When we hold these two visions together, we see two pictures of cleansing—two ways God purges iniquity and sin from his chosen dwelling. One is a removal, sin is taken far away, like we saw in the second vision, with the woman in a basket. Psalm 103, which we read earlier in our service, says that as far as the east is from the west, so far does the Lord remove our transgressions from us. But God does not only remove sin, he devours it. That’s what we see in the first vision of the flying scroll. The scroll is massive: 15 feet wide and 30 feet tall. If the basket and the woman were remarkable for their smallness, this scroll is remarkable for its hugeness.
This giant, flying scroll is used as a divine judgment. We see in verse 3, “Everyone who steals will be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely will be cleaned out according to what is on the other side.” This scroll is a divine judgment coming from a sovereign King, just like the scrolls the remnant of Israel would have seen in all the orders that were being issued by King Cyrus and King Artaxerxes, commanding the starting and the stopping, and the starting again of the temple reconstruction. A scroll is a symbol of a royal edict, and this one is sent out by none other than Yahweh of Hosts. Verse 4 tells us, “I will send it out, declares the Lord of hosts, and it shall enter… [and] remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.” The weapon of God’s choosing to cleanse the land of corruption is his divine Word.
Thieves and Liars
Remember the context of what the returned exiles are facing. The tribes of Israel had been carried off by Assyria and Babylon, and now as they are retuning to rebuild the temple, the land is full of squatters and drifters. When Joshua and Zerubbabel begin the temple reconstruction, people start showing up out of the woodwork to get in on the action, “Hey! We worship the Lord, too! We want to help!”
Maybe they thought it would be profitable to get in on what might have been the first economic boom this land has seen in generations. Maybe they were stirred up by all the precious and costly furniture that was starting to stream back in from the storehouses of Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem starts receiving back the gold and silver vessels, the wheat and salt and wine and oil. Thievery and dishonesty were threatening the temple construction, and must be purged.
As the people are building a house for the Lord, the Lord makes it clear that he does not come in simply as their house pet or good luck charm, but as a consuming fire. This billboard-sized scroll has the power to devour their houses. And just as we saw in Genesis 11 and Revelation 19, the weapon God uses to conquer is his sovereign word.
The consuming power of the scroll serves as a reminder that God does not intend to make his dwelling among his people on our terms, but on his. Even as the children of Israel are building a house for God, this Sovereign Word of God is not going to enter in and be contained like the woman in the basket is restrained by the lead weight. No, when this scroll enters a house, it has the authority to consume it whole. Our God is a consuming fire. This is the God for whom this dwelling place is being built.
“I Make No Promises”
My absolute favorite scene from the Chronicles of Narnia comes toward the beginning of The Silver Chair. The young Jill Pole finds herself in a strange new country, separated from her cousin, and facing a lion:
“If you are thirsty, you may drink.”
They were the first words she had heard … For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” and of course she remembered what Scrubb had said about animals talking in that other world, and realized that it was the lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the lion.
“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
Much like Jill’s encounter with Aslan at the stream, the Lord God makes no promise to leave us alone when we invite his cleansing, consuming presence in our midst. Much like Aslan warned Jill that he has swallowed up girls and boys, cities and realms, so Zechariah’s vision reminds his readers that the Lord God will swallow up the iniquity of the land where he goes to dwell. These two visions in Zechariah 5 gives us two very different pictures of how God deals with sin: He consumes it by his word, and he removes it far away. These were the same two pictures of cleansing that temple worshippers would have seen every Day of Atonement in the two goats. One goat was to be burned and consumed, along with all the priest’s bloodstained garments, and the other goat would receive the burden of sin and carry away the guilt of Israel far into the wilderness, never to return again.
So, to review what we have seen so far: in the first vision, we are shown God’s cleansing work by his all-consuming powerful, giant-scroll—his word. And in the second vision, we see the way he removes iniquity far away from his people. Even the mighty forces of wickedness, are carried away like a little woman in a basket, to be shut up in a house in Babylon. The sin which so lures and entices the children of men is but a frisbee in the hand of God.
But why is it so important for God to purge the land and remove the iniquity from Jerusalem and send it over to Babylon? We’ve asked the “what?” and the “how?” questions, but now let’s ask the “why?” Why was this important for the people rebuilding the temple, and why does it matter to us, centuries later?
Cleansed to Build God’s Temple
Speaking into this same context as Zechariah, the Prophet Haggai addresses many of the same realities but with more direct questions (rather than with visions and symbols). In chapter 2, the word of the Lord comes through the prophet Haggai:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?'” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. – Haggai 2:11–14
Here we see a crucial dynamic at play: uncleanness is contagious, and it defiles and pollutes the holy things it touches. The holy meat in the fold of the priest’s garment does not have the power to make something it touches holy. But on the contrary, if someone is unclean, whatever they touch will be come unclean as well. This presents a massive problem for temple reconstruction, even more overwhelming than adversaries and political fighting. The biggest obstacle to providing a dwelling place for the Lord is not someone outside Israel, but sin within. These people cannot possibly build a holy dwelling with their dirty hands. If God is going to dwell with his people and not consume them, they must be cleansed.
The Temple God is Building
But already, the leaves of the prophetic pages are rustling with the rumor that God has a plan to cleanse his people and dwell in their midst. We see glimpses in Zechariah 2, that Jerusalem shall be inhabited as “villages without walls,” and “I will be to her a wall of fire all around… and the glory in her midst.” The plans God has for his temple and his city are going to explode far beyond anything bricks and mortar could handle. Zechariah tells us that “many nations shall join themselves to the Lord,” not just the Jews only.
The Lord cleanses the priest Joshua in chapter three, and empowers the governor Zerubbabel in chapter four. In chapter six, we see this Joshua, or Jeshua, as he is called by Ezra, will wear a crown and be called “the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord… and shall bear royal honor… and there shall be a priest on the throne.” Zechariah tells us to wait for a priest-king who is righteous, bearing salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey. He is going to respond to the powerful horns of the nations not with might, but with craftsmen: he is going to build something. He will build a temple.
In chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, we see the reversal of the contagious contamination Haggai spoke of. “A leper came to Jesus,” Mark tells us, “imploring him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately, the leprosy left him, and he was made clean” (Mark 1:40–42). The greater Jeshua came to rebuild God’s temple and dwell among a people who were dirty and unclean. But unlike the first rebuilding in in Zechariah’s day, this time it is Jesus’s cleanness that is more catching. The purity of Jesus can cleanse the leper and stop a flow of blood, it can open the eyes of the blind and raise grown men and little girls from the dead.
This Jesus is the one who took our wickedness and carried it far away. He took it even further than Babylon, but as far as the east is from the west. This priest-king named Jeshua bore all our sins on the cross as our propitiation, and absorbed the burning, jealous wrath of God’s fury until all our sin and all our shame was utterly consumed by the Word made flesh.
A Spiritual Dwelling
The temple he is building is made of living stones, who are being built up as a spiritual house… to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God (1 Peter 2:5). You and I, as members of the church of Christ, are part of a greater temple, built on the cornerstone of Jesus himself. The cleansing touch of Jesus is strong enough to make us holy, and because we are hidden in Christ, we do not need to fear the consuming fire of God’s Word any longer. The righteousness of Christ has been reckoned to our account, and so the word of God’s judgment that Zechariah saw in the flying scroll only serves to consume the dross and refine us more into his image. By God’s spirit, the vestiges of our captivity to the mighty kingdoms of sin and darkness can be tossed into a basket and swifted far away. That enticing song which promises you power and luxury, and seems to be stronger than your will is no match for the cleansing touch of King Jesus.
Conclusion: He Will Dwell With Them
God gives Zechariah a promise in these two visions. Just as God has cleansed and equipped the leaders of Israel, Joshua and Zerubbabel, he will cleanse the people as well. They will be purified to build him a dwelling place, because what’s the point of having their land back if not to have God’s presence among them? He is not safe, he is not tame, but he is God and he is good. God cleanses his people so he can dwell with them.
All of these shadows point us to the substance of the real temple building project, led by the real Joshua, Jesus our Priest-King. He is building a house for God, stone by stone, new life by new life. But he is no more safe nor tame now. He will cleanse and purify his dwelling place with his soul-piercing word. He will still remove the seductions of Babylon from our midst, and enter our houses with all-consuming authority. Why? Why should we invite this consuming, cleansing work in our midst? What is to be gained by this invasion of holiness? Jesus is purifying a people for his own possession until the day when, behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.