Yesterday, Jesus drove out the money-changers and animal traders from the temple – maybe as a protest against how it excluded Gentiles or exploited pilgrims, but most probably as a general sign of judgement on how it had become all about performing outward ritual rather than having a right heart before God.
Naturally, this didn’t go down too well with the powers-that-be.
John 2:18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
In other words, why should we let you get away with this? Why should we listen to you? If you’re claiming to be a prophet bringing God’s judgement, do the prophet-thing and give us a sign from God!
John 2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
This is the first of many times in John’s Gospel where Jesus likes to mess with people’s heads – speaking on a metaphorical level, while others take him literally (like in chapter 3, where he tells Nicodemus to be “born again”). Here, the poor schmucks are the Jewish leaders:
John 2:20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”
Much like a Sydney transport project, the temple was many years in the making, and still wasn’t finished by the time of Jesus. The Jewish leaders quite naturally assume he’s talking about the temple he’s just cleansed, of course. But Jesus means something else:
John 2:21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
This is part of the theme we’ll see more frequently later in John’s Gospel, where Jesus is depicted as the replacement for the temple. (Remember last week in chapter 1, he’s already the new “Jacob’s ladder” where heaven meets earth.) Of course, the Jewish leaders have no idea. Neither do the disciples. Although later on, they get the joke – a punchline whose effect was delayed by three years:
John 2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
We saw this after-the-fact theologising yesterday, when Jesus cleansed the temple:
John 2:17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
John seems to be pointing out how the disciples reflected on Scripture and Jesus’ words after his death and resurrection, finding theological significance with hindsight. At the time, they were mostly as mystified as everyone else; but having seen the full plan, they went back and understood more clearly. Here, in John’s Gospel, we’re invited not just to wander along with the clueless disciples and others, trying to piece together who Jesus is in real-time. We’re invited to see all of the events in light of the full story.
In fact, we’re invited to see this particular event – the cleansing of the temple – as the catalyst for Jesus’ eventual arrest and crucifixion. It’s the symbolic act that set him on a collision course with the Jerusalem establishment. This may be why John plays this scene first in his drama (even though it may have occurred much closer to the end, since the other three Gospels record it in the final week of Jesus’ life). He wants us to see the rest of the Gospel – especially the numerous confrontations with the Jewish authorities – in light of this key event. He’s turned up to bring judgement upon them. By acting this way in the temple he’s tweaked their nose, and they’re not happy.
What’s more, he’s starting to win the public over – threatening the leaders’ status as God’s gatekeepers:
John 2:23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name
So throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is on trial. (Much of the narrative has legal overtones, especially chapter 5.) The leaders are constantly trying to find ways to trap him, whether it be for violating the Sabbath or blasphemously claiming to be equal with God. Every so often he says something so outrageous, they try to stone him. And in the end, they decide to put him to death to protect their own power as Rome’s deputy sheriff:
John 11:47-50 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” 49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
Ultimately, Jesus was killed because he challenged the religious establishment. He pointed out their hypocrisy, pronounced judgement on their empty religion, and offered in its place a new way to God – himself. (And his resurrection – the rebuilt “temple” after three days – is the sign of his authority to do this!)
But not all of the religious establishment was against Jesus. Tomorrow, we meet a one of them who comes to find Jesus secretly, curious to work out who Jesus is.