Tisha b’Av (literally the ninth day of the Jewish calendar month called Av), is a day of remembrance in the Jewish religion. While it is not one of the Holy Days commanded in the Bible, according to tradition, both the first and second Temples were destroyed on the ninth of Av. And so, my Jewish people spend the day fasting, lamenting this great loss and praying for the holy Temple to be restored. This year, Tisha b’Av falls on August 10th.
Many secular Jews disregard this day, but for those who are more religious, it remains a poignant reminder that things are not as they should be; that as long as no Temple stands in Jerusalem, all is not well in the Jewish religion. Why is this ancient edifice still so important?
The true significance of the Temple was God’s promise to Israel:
And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.…This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet you to speak with you” (Exodus 25:22; 29:42).
The two pillars of God’s promise were His presence and His provision. He would dwell in the midst of His people and speak with them. He would provide atonement for their sins, forgive them and make them holy. That atonement was secured through the blood of the animal sacrifices offered on the altar. All of this was to be accomplished in the Temple.
The sacrifices were a way to acknowledge and illustrate the consequence of disobeying God. That consequence was death. God has zero tolerance for sin. But His righteousness and judgment are tempered by His other perfections, especially His mercy and grace. The sacrifices provided a way for God to extend that mercy and grace—by allowing a substitute. The animal died in place of the transgressor. In an agrarian economy, those animals were expensive and not sacrificed lightly. The whole event was a drama of the highest order and the Temple was the stage that God provided for the enactment. Only in that holy place would God allow this most profound experience. The Temple was Israel’s heartbeat, the center of her life-giving encounter with God’s presence and provision of atoning power.
The first Temple stood for nearly 400 years. But eventually, the Jewish people began putting their confidence in the Temple itself rather than in the One who dwelt in the Temple. It was as though the people thought they had God’s power harnessed within the confines of the building—even though they had turned to worship idols. God warned that judgment would come and in 586 BC it did—in the form of the Babylonian conquerors. They destroyed the Temple of the Lord and it was truly a day of calamity for Israel.
Words cannot describe the agony of that historic experience. In a sense, Israel’s kishkes (guts) were ripped out. Her awareness of God’s calling and purpose was rooted in that Temple and in the knowledge that He was in her midst. With no Temple, the nation had no assurance of God’s presence or His provision of forgiveness.
In 538 BC, Ezra and a host of Israelites returned from their captivity to Jerusalem in accordance with the decree of King Cyrus of Persia. Ezra oversaw the building of the second Temple, which was completed 23 years later. The second Temple was approximately the same size, but not nearly as ornate as the first. And it seems there was no Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place. This left a profound emptiness, one that seemed to echo the absence of the very glory of God that had been so evident in the first Temple.
In fact, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, when the Roman general Pompey visited Jerusalem, he marched right into the Temple and into the Most Holy Place. He came back out and declared in astonishment, “It’s empty. There’s nothing there but darkness.” And of course, he was right. Later (beginning in 19 BC), Herod attempted to restore the Temple to some of its former beauty. The work continued for some 82 years. Many of Jesus’ activities and teachings took place in and around that Temple. He made some of His most controversial comments concerning it, such as: “‘…Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21).
By identifying Himself as the Temple, Jesus was claiming to fulfill God’s purpose and promise concerning the Temple. In one brief, profound statement Jesus announced that He was the very presence of God once so evident in the Temple. Jesus not only identified Himself with God’s presence in the Temple, but with God’s provision of the Temple sacrifice. Jesus’ statement would have been outlandish if the second part of Jesus’ prediction had not come true. But He did rise from the dead after three days, as promised, proving that His sacrifice for sin was acceptable once and for all. This was God’s plan all along. All the years of animal sacrifices pointed to a time when an innocent person would willingly take the punishment for the sins of the people: something that an animal could never do. The very sacrifice that God did not require Abraham to follow through with his son Isaac, God Himself made when He sent His own son Jesus to die for us.
Jesus made another prediction regarding that second Temple, an ominous prediction but one that would also serve to confirm His claims concerning His own life and work: “Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down'” (Matthew 24:1,2).
Jesus clearly predicted the destruction of the second Temple. Titus and his Roman legions fulfilled that prediction as they marched into Jerusalem and destroyed, not only the Temple, but the entire city. As awful as this national tragedy was, it did point back to the claims of Jesus of Nazareth. Thousands of Jewish people had already placed their faith in Yeshua (Jesus) and when that second Temple was destroyed in AD 70, thousands more followed. Yet most of my Jewish people did not. And so it remains to this day.
Therein lies my burden and that of Jews for Jesus. The greatest calamity of Jewish history was not the destruction of the Temple which had been made with hands, but the emptiness of so many hearts in which God wants to dwell. Until my people recognize Jesus as the Messiah, those whom God desires to have for His Temple are void of God’s presence and His provision of atonement. This should cause all those who love the God of Israel to mourn. I plan to spend August 10th fasting and praying over the greatest calamity ever to befall my Jewish people—the rejection of their Savior.
I hope some of you will join me. As we fast and as we pray together, we will share in the sorrow of God Himself who is willing that none should perish. We can be thankful for those of us He has called and pray that we will be the living sacrifices He wants us to be, with grateful hearts that invite Him to fill us with His presence. We can also be confident that the God of Israel will one day turn our mourning over the lost into joy. He will turn calamity into great celebration when my Jewish people finally embrace the One who gave His life as a sacrifice for us all. “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins'” (Romans 11:26,7).