Jesus has declared that those ruling the temple had profaned the temple complex because of the commerce they were conducting. Jesus challenges their authority and drives the animals, sellers, and moneychangers out of the temple courts, the Jews demand to know by what authority he does these things. The question is not a request for information but a challenge to his authority. Who do you think you are? What authority do you have to make this declaration and drive us out of the temple complex? They want Jesus to defend his actions.
This is sorrowful because the people do not display any introspection or reflection on what Jesus has said or done. They are not concerned with pure worship and having the right approach and right relationship with God. This helps cast why Jesus responds the way he does to their challenge. They are not legitimately seeking Jesus’ authority so as to turn their hearts back to God in repentance. They have missed the prophetic sign performed right before their eyes (cf. Zechariah 14:21; Malachi 3:1-3). They are challenging Jesus’ authority to justify their own actions, discredit Jesus, and get back to the “worship” they want to have in the temple courts. Therefore, Jesus says he will give them an appropriate sign for their problem.
Notice Jesus’ response: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19 ESV) This statement leads to an automatic misunderstanding. In fact, in this section of John we will notice that everyone will misunderstand Jesus’ words and actions. Previously we saw the master of the feast not know where the better wine came from. Here we see the Jews not understand what temple Jesus is talking about. Next Jesus will speak with Nicodemus, who will misunderstand Jesus declaration for the need to be “born again.” The woman at the well in chapter 4 will misunderstand what Jesus means about the living water he is offering. Later in this gospel we will read more misunderstandings in John 6 and John 11. The subtle point is that people are not grasping who Jesus is, what he is teaching, and what he is doing.
The opponents of Jesus assume that Jesus is talking about the physical temple. Interestingly, Jesus did use the destruction of the Jewish temple as a sign of his power coming in judgment (cf. Matthew 24:2; Matthew 26:64). But that is not his point here because Jesus continues that he will raise the temple up three days later. This is a staggering thoughts to the Jews. The temple complex has been under reconstruction and beautification for the past 46 years, and at that it was still incomplete. John makes it clear that Jesus was not referring to the physical temple standing on Zion, but to his own body. The misunderstanding was significant. Not only did they think that Jesus was talking about the physical temple, but they declare that Jesus said he would destroy the temple. Notice the charge made at Jesus’ trial:
Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.'” (Matthew 26:59–61 ESV)
Then notice the mockery made by the people passing by while Jesus was on the cross:
And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27:39–40 ESV)
Please look carefully at John 2 and notice that this is not at all what Jesus said. Jesus did not say that he would destroy the temple. Jesus said that they would destroy the temple. Jesus is prophetically declaring that they are going to kill him. Notice how this fits the prophecy of Psalm 69:9, which we looked at in the last lesson. Jesus’ zeal for his Father and his Father’s house is going to consume him (have him killed). Jesus has openly declared this truth. They are going to destroy the temple of God, that is, the body of Jesus. The Passover marker points to Jesus’ impending death as the lamb sacrificed for the Passover.
Why would Jesus call his body the temple? What point does Jesus want to make? The point is far more than his resurrection. Otherwise Jesus would have said something similar to what he told the Jews when they asked for a sign that the sign of Jonah would be their sign: three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. But that is not the direction Jesus intends to take this discussion, though his resurrection is in view. Why does he call his body the temple?
First, we need to understand what the temple meant to the Jewish people. The temple does not have much meaning for us 21st century Gentiles, but it had great significance to the Jews. The temple was considered the dwelling place of God (1 Chronicles 6:2; 7:2). Further, the temple contained the ark of the covenant (1 Chronicles 6:11). The ark of the covenant was the place where atonement was made for the people, as the high priest entered once a year and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat, which was the lid of the ark of the covenant. Inside the ark of the covenant were three items: the two tablets of stone upon which the commandments were written (symbolizing the law), Aaron’s rod that budded for the miracles to be performed in Egypt (symbolizing the miracles of God’s deliverance of his people), and the pot of manna from when God gave the people food each morning while in the desert (symbolizing God’s provisions and blessings toward his people). Therefore, the temple was significant in many ways.
By calling himself the temple, Jesus is making a magnificent shift in thinking by transferring the imagery of the temple, with all its significance and symbolism, and placing those things upon himself. Jesus uniquely reveals the Father and becomes the point where humans come into contact and into relationship with the Father. Jesus is the place where God meets humanity. Jesus reveals the presence, character, and nature of God. When you see Jesus, then you see the Father. When you are with Jesus, then you are with the Father. Jesus is the place where atonement is made for the people. Jesus is where mercy is found. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s law, the one who delivers God’s people, and the one who blesses and provides for his people. Jesus is the temple of the living God. Within three days of his death and burial, Jesus, the true temple would rise from the dead. Jesus is not merely cleansing the temple. He is replacing the temple, fulfilling its purposes. Jesus cleanses the physical temple and declares himself to be the true temple of God, the only center of true worship. The risen Lord is the place where God is revealed, where his forgiveness and renewal are known, and where fellowship with God is experienced and forever maintained (Beasley-Murray; Word Biblical Themes).
- The Jews want a sign to prove Jesus’ authority in cleansing the temple. The proof will be the resurrection. The resurrection will be the sign that he has the right to call people to a right relationship with God and declare their current worship as faulty and insufficient.
- When Jesus raises from the dead, then the disciples understand what Jesus was saying. The resurrection from the dead is the proof that Jesus is God and has all authority.
- The purpose of John’s gospel is for people to believe Jesus is the Son of God. This temple cleansing event fulfills this purpose. The disciples believed the scripture and the word Jesus spoke. The resurrection must cause us to believe in who Jesus is.
- Jesus is the place of worship, the place of atonement, the place of forgiveness, the place of deliverance, the place of mercy, the place of blessings and provisions. Jesus is where God comes to humanity.