“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” — John 2:19
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – that’s the way we often think of him: a baby in a manger, a precocious 12-year-old, a smiling teacher who plays with children when he’s not healing the sick or teaching people about God.
The mental image of Jesus creating havoc and chasing people with a whip leaves us feeling downright uncomfortable. Have you ever seen a stained glass window depicting Jesus in adventure-hero mode, going after bad guys with a frown on his face and a flail in his fist?
Probably not, but that’s the picture John paints in today’s text. Gentle Jesus had a temper, and was not afraid to use it.
A shocking action(vv. 13-17)
John is not the only Gospel writer to speak of what we often call “the cleansing of the temple,” but his version of the story is quite different from that of the Synoptic Gospels.
In Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, and Luke 19:45-46, the event occurs near the end of Jesus’ ministry, immediately following the “triumphal entry,” Jesus’ Palm Sunday ride into the city on the back of a donkey. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the event is followed by further exhibitions of Jesus’ power, leading the scribes and Pharisees to question by what authority Jesus dared to take such actions.
In contrast, John’s Gospel places the event near the very beginning of Jesus’ active work, immediately after Jesus called four disciples (Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael, 1:35-51) and performed the first miracle recorded by John (the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana, 2:1-12).
The story in John, as in the other Gospels, is followed by a question about Jesus’ authority, but it is a different account in which the Jews asked what “sign” Jesus could cite to justify his actions.
Some readers have accounted for the differences by proposing that Jesus rousted the temple merchants on two different occasions. That is possible, but it is more likely that the event occurred just once, during the final week of Jesus’ ministry, as described in the other three Gospels. The Fourth Evangelist apparently transposed the shocking act to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in order to set the stage for Jesus’ unfolding work and help readers understand its significance.
The story begins by saying that Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, an annual springtime celebration commemorating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. That the author calls it “the Passover of the Jews” suggests that the church no longer celebrated Passover when these words were written.
Observant Jews were expected to celebrate Passover in the Jerusalem temple when they could, and the Fourth Gospel speaks as if Jesus went up to Jerusalem at least three times for the Passover (2:13, 6:4, 11:55ff), possibly four if “the festival of the Jews” in 5:1 was also a Passover observance.
When Jesus entered the temple complex, according to the story, he found a bustling marketplace where moneychangers and livestock merchants were doing a booming business (v. 14). Jews were required to pay a half-shekel temple tax each year (Exod. 30:11-16), but doing so was not straightforward. The Romans forbade the Jews from minting their own coins, while the Jews refused to accept Roman coins for the temple tax, considering the coins’ image of the emperor a violation of the commandment against graven images.
To get around the problem, temple authorities required that taxes be paid in an alternate currency, such as coins minted in the nearby kingdom of Tyre. Most Jews would not have easy access to Tyrian coins, however. Currency exchanges allowing worshipers to exchange their Roman coins for acceptable ones could have been set up anywhere in the city, but temple officials had allowed vendors to locate their booths inside the temple complex. This would have allowed temple officials to exercise control over exchange rates and presumably to share in the profits.
Similarly, worshipers were expected to offer sacrifices during Passover, but the law made provision for people who traveled long distances to bring money rather than driving their livestock, and to purchase the needed animals in Jerusalem. Again, while one might have expected livestock sales to be on the outskirts of the city, temple officials had turned the law’s requirement to their own profit, allowing vendors to set up shop within the temple itself.
Imagine what the scene would have been like: animals ranging in size from pigeons to lambs, goats, and full-grown bulls would have been penned in stalls, bringing a cacophony of noise, smells, urine and excrement – sharply diminishing any sort of worshipful atmosphere in the temple courts.
Jesus reacted with such anger, according to John, that he fashioned a whip out of cords and used it to chase both traders and animals from the temple compound after overturning their tables and scattering coins all about (v. 15).
This was not a gentle Jesus. The word translated as “whip” is phragellion, a term that could describe a whip made from one or multiple strands, either with or without bits of metal tied to the ends to increase their force. Jesus would have been more interested in expediency than in causing bodily damage, so it’s likely that he would have simply tied several small ropes together and used the lash to drive people and animals out of the sacred grounds.
The version of the story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke says that Jesus quoted Isa. 56:7 (“my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”) and Jer. 7:11 (“Has this house which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your sight?”). John does not have Jesus quoting scripture directly, but saying “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (v. 16).
Note Jesus’ brashness in referring to the temple complex as “my Father’s house,” which is typical in the Fourth Gospel. The question about turning the temple into a market may be a reference to Zech. 14:21, where Zechariah predicted a coming age in which “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD on that day.”
If this is correct, then Jesus would not have been expressing offense at the desecration of commerce and cow patties in the temple alone, but announcing that his arrival had inaugurated the last days, when merchants in the temple would no longer be tolerated.
Expelling the merchants and their wares from the temple was a prelude to the more serious work of Jesus’ suffering and death, in which a heavy whip and worse would be used against him. The eschatological act of Christ’s death would bring to an end the need for the temple as a place of sacrifice.
Later, John says, the disciples remembered a quotation from Psalm 69:9: “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me” (v. 17). That psalm was understood as a reference to a coming righteous sufferer, and is quoted at other places in the New Testament in relation to Jesus’ death.
A preposterous prediction(vv. 18-22)
Jesus’ wrathful display left the Jewish authorities with a mess on the premises and mud on their faces, not to mention the prospect of reduced income. With some measure of displeasure, no doubt, they asked Jesus “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (v. 18).
The notion of signs is a central element in John’s Gospel, where miracles are often noted as “signs” designed to indicate Jesus’ power and authority, culminating with his crucifixion and resurrection as a final sign (see the online “Hardest Question” for more on this).
Jesus’ response would have been thoroughly confusing to his inquisitors: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (v. 19). The officials took the words at face value, scoffing at the notion that a massive temple still in its 46th year of renovation could be reassembled in three days (v. 20).
Jesus’ speech and the author’s recording of it seem designed to work on two levels. To his interrogators, Jesus’ words seemed like so much foolishness, a preposterous claim that avoided the challenge to show them a sign. To later readers, however, the relation between Jesus’ words and his later death and resurrection would have been obvious: He was not speaking of the physical temple in which the Jews sought God’s presence, but of the sacred dimension of his human body, in which the true glory of God had been revealed (v. 21). Though destroyed, it would be raised again on the third day.
In the moment, Jesus’ disciples were just as confused as the temple officials. Only after the resurrection, John says, did they remember Jesus’ comments about the temple and connect his death and resurrection with “the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (v. 22).
What kind of connections can we make with this text? Have we ever confused church attendance with personal gain or secular business as usual? Do we preserve a sacred space and time for God, or think of worship only in terms of what we get out of it?
If Jesus were to walk into our church today, would he need to clean house? BT
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