Gospel: John 2:13-22

The True Temple

Churches, synagogues and mosques have a function in American society. These are buildings in which people expect to have a religious experience. These building are holy. These are buildings in which people hope to meet God.

The notion of "sacred place" has existed throughout human history. This notion is the reason temples were built. This is especially true for the Temple in Jerusalem. In the time of Jesus, Jews believed the divine presence dwelt on Mount Zion. In John's Gospel, Jesus cleansed the courtyard adjacent to the Temple entrance because he believed business activity defiled the presence of God. When he was asked why he cleansed the Temple, he gave a strange response. "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The next verse explained the response; he was referring to his body. In other words, the body of Jesus was the house for God's presence. He was the true Temple.

Popular Translation

13 As the Passover festival approached, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the Temple courtyard at Jerusalem, he found merchants selling farm animals and doves the Jews used to offer God in worship. He also found people who would exchange foreign coins for coins used in the Temple. 15 After he made a whip out of small cords, he threw the animals out of the Temple courtyard, turned the tables of the money changers over, and spilled their coins everywhere. 16 "Take these doves out of here!" Jesus yelled at the merchants. "Do not turn my Father's house into place for you to make money!" 17 Jesus' followers remembered what was written in the Bible: "Love for your house burns inside me."

18 "What sign from God will you show us that gives you the right to do this?" the Jewish leaders demanded.

19 "Destroy this temple," Jesus answered, "and in three days I will raise it again."

20 "Workers took forty six years to rebuild the Temple!" the leaders shot back. "It will take you only three days to raise it up?"

21 But Jesus was talking about his body, God's true Temple. 22 When he was raised from the dead, his followers remembered he always said this. They believed in the scripture verse and in the words Jesus spoke.

On this feast day, we turn an incident in John's gospel that revealed Jesus as the Messiah: the cleansing of the Temple. This violent act led to a prediction of his Passion and Resurrection.

Literal Translation

13 The Passover of Jews was near and JESUS went up into Jerusalem. 14 HE found in the Temple (courtyard) those selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and money changers sitting (at their tables). 15 Having made a whip of small cords, HE expelled both the oxen and sheep out of the Temple (courtyard). HE scattered the money of changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those selling the doves, HE said, "Take these (animals) from here! "Do not make the house of MY Father a house of business!" 17 HIS disciples remembered what was written (in Scripture): "Zeal for your house will destroy me."

2:14 "HE found in the Temple (courtyard) . . . " Within the Temple compound, but not in the Temple proper, lie the so-called "Court of the Gentiles." Since non-Jews could not enter the Temple under pain of death, they worshiped in the courtyard outside the Temple building. The Temple authorities franchised merchants to sell animals for Temple worship and moneychangers in the courtyard. The money changers would exchange Roman coins (with the images of the emperor) with Jewish coins (without an image), so worshipers could remain ritually clean.

2:16 "Do not make the house of MY Father a house of business!" Jesus used a wordplay to make his point. Here, the word "house" referred to the extended family ("the house of my Father") and to a building ("house of commerce"). Jesus objected to reducing the relationship people had with God (symbolized by worship) to making money. By setting up the businesses in the courtyard, the Temple authorities denied the place of the non-Jew in the family of God.

2:17 This passage was a reference to Psalm 69:9: "For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me." (RSV) This was a psalm of sorrow placed on the lips of a pious but persecuted follower. In the context of John, however, the reference became a prophecy. Jesus' zeal would lead to his destruction.

In this one act, Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah. With centuries of infighting, corruption, and palace intrigue, the Temple priests lost the respect of average believers. (In fact, many Jewish groups boycotted Temple worship.) The person in the street awaited the coming of the Messiah who would sweep these men from power and restore a worship that pleased God.

Why, then, did Jesus object to commerce in the Temple courtyard? This courtyard, the Court of the Gentiles, represented the universal message God revealed through the Jews. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of all people. By providing non-Jews a place of worship on the Temple grounds, Judaism asserted it was a religion for everyone.

But the Temple leadership gave merchants an area for trade that should have been off-limits. While Jesus drove out animals and overturned tables, his real message was to the leadership. Give all nations a place in the Kingdom. More important, he revealed to his followers what kind of Messiah they followed. He was not a Messiah for Jews alone. He was a Messiah that would lead everyone to God!

18 Then the Jews answered, and said to HIM, "What sign do you show us that you can do these (things)?" 19 JESUS answered and said to them, "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." 20 Then the Jews said, "This Temple was built (in a span of) forty six years! And you in three days will raise it?" 21 But THAT ONE was speaking about the temple of HIS body. 22 When HE was raised from the dead, HIS disciples remembered HE was saying this, and they believed (both) the scripture (verse) and the word which JESUS spoke.

2:18 " . . . that you can do these (things)?" The verb in this clause, "to do" does not refer to ability, but to authority. In other words, the Temple authorities wanted to see a sign that Jesus truly was the Messiah and, so, could act in this way.

2:20 ""This Temple was built (in a span of) forty six years." Temple renovations began in 20 B.C. and were completed in 62 A.D., shortly before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Technically, the Jewish leaders made this statement during the renovation; they would not know how long the construction would take. But this did not matter to John's audience in 110 A.D., for whom the completed Temple and its destruction were historical facts. They were only interested in the faith message.

2:22 " . . . his disciples remembered he was saying this." The force of the verb "to say" in this clause seemed to indicated Jesus continually predicted his resurrection.

As mentioned above, the term house had two meanings: extended family (primary) and building (secondary). The term Temple also has multiple meanings: building (primary) and a group (secondary). (Paul referred to Christian community as the Temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Notice John began with the term "Temple" (2:14), changed to the term "house" (2:16-17), and returned to "Temple" in the latest passages (2:18-20) with a reference to "body." If we include Paul's notion of the "Body of Christ" (see 1 Corinthians 12) we'll see the term "body" had two meanings: a physical body and a body of people.

"Temple" to "the house of my Father" to "body." These were all titles for the dwelling place of God on earth. These were titles for Christ's body. These were all titles for the Christian community. The common thread throughout this changing set of terms was the Christian community in relation to its Master. Through the Risen Christ, God dwelt in the community.

John used the cleansing at the Temple to introduce a universal Messiah. The sign Jesus would give the Jewish leadership revealed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the world: Isaiah's Suffering Servant.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. (49:1)

I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (53:12) (Both from RSV)

The Messiah would bring justice to the nations through his death and his vindication (i.e., his resurrection).

Where do you find God present? Who brings God to you?

For Christians, the true Temple is the Body of Christ. That term refers to the body of the Risen Christ and the Church. These two meanings, however, are more semantic than real. The Risen Lord is present and active in the community, his Church. When we are with him, we become God's true Temple, for he works in us and through us.

How is God active in your life? How does God work through you?