JOHN 2. THE CONTEXT
This chapter begins with the story of Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. On that occasion, the host ran out of wine and Jesus changed a great quantity of water into remarkably good wine. “This beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11).
There are several things to notice about that story:
• First, Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee, which will be the site of most of his ministry in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), he does not go to Jerusalem until the last days of his life. In John, he goes to Jerusalem at the very beginning of his ministry (2:13).
• Second, John labels the wine-miracle a “sign,” a word that will be important throughout this Gospel. Jesus’ signs reveal his glory and demonstrate that his works are from God. In this week’s Gospel lesson, the Jews will demand a sign (v. 18), and Jesus offers them a sign with which they are unprepared to deal (v. 19).
• Third is the mention of the word, “glory,” a word that we first encountered in this Gospel in the Prologue—”and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son” (1:14), and a word that will be important throughout this Gospel.
• Fourth, at Cana, the disciples “believed in him” (2:11), a statement similar to the one that concludes the story of the cleansing of the temple, where “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:23). Both of these stories “portray Jesus as …embodying what is new, displacing the old” (Smith, 91).
JOHN 2:13-22. THE SYNOPTICS & THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
All four Gospels tell the story of the cleansing of the temple (see Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), but the Synoptics place it near the end of Jesus’ life, and it provokes the chief priests and scribes to plot to kill him (Mark 14:10). John’s Gospel places the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the raising of Lazarus is the precipitating event for his trial and crucifixion (John 11-12). In John’s view, Jesus’ life was not taken from him, but he laid it down of his own accord (10:17-18).
There are three theories about the difference between John and the Synoptics with regard to the timing of this story:
• Most scholars believe that the cleansing of the temple took place toward the end of Jesus’ life, as reported in the Synoptics. It makes sense there as the precipitating incident for the crucifixion. This would also account for the abruptness of the transition from the Cana wedding story to the temple-cleansing story. It seems unlikely that Jesus could come from nowhere to cleanse the temple without stirring more significant opposition than John records. Also, the style of the Synoptics is quite different from the Gospel of John—the Synoptics emphasizing more the history of Jesus’ life and John emphasizing more the theology behind his life. It would be more in character for John than for the Synoptics to move the story out of sequence, and it seems likely that he did so to establish important themes at the outset of his Gospel.
• Borchert says that John wanted to introduce a Passover theme and an emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection early in his Gospel (Borchert, 161-162).
• Some scholars believe that John’s sequence is correct and that the Synoptics moved the story to the end of Jesus’ life to show why Jesus was crucified.
• Still others have suggested that there were two cleansings of the temple, but this theory has not met with widespread acceptance.
Verse 12 provides a brief transition between the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem of Judea. This transition shows Jesus, his mother, his brothers, and his disciples going to Capernaum (home base for Jesus’ ministry) and spending a few days there.
JOHN 2:13-17. MY FATHER’S HOUSE
13The Passover (Greek: pascha—the word from which we get Paschal, as in Pascal lamb) of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14He found in the temple (Greek: hiero) those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, and the changers of money sitting. 15He made a whip of cords, and threw (Greek: exebalen) all out of the temple (Greek: hierou), both the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew their tables. 16To those who sold the doves, he said, “Take these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house (Greek: ton oikon tou patros mou—the house of my Father) a marketplace!'” (Greek: oikon emporiou—a house of commerce) 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will eat me up.”
“The Passover (pascha) of the Jews was at hand” (v. 13a). Exodus 12:1 – 13:16 tells the story of the first Passover. When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, the Egyptians became subject to ten plagues, the last being the death of the firstborn in each home. God ordered all Israelite families to slay a lamb and smear the blood of the lamb on the two doorposts and the lintel of their houses so that the death angel would see the blood, pass over their homes, and spare their firstborn. God also ordered Israel to commemorate this salvation event by observing Passover each year. Israel celebrated Passover on the 14th day of Nisan and followed that by observing the Festival of Unleavened Bread on 15-22 Nisan (Carson, 176).
The phrase, “Passover of the Jews,” leads some to suggest that there might have been a corresponding Christian Passover in the early church, but there is no evidence to support that. Christians have never had any reason to observe the Passover, because Christ, our paschal lamb (the lamb sacrificed for the Passover), was sacrificed once and for all (1 Corinthians 5:7). It seems more likely that, by the time that this Gospel was written, the church included a great many Gentiles who might not understand the Jewish Passover.
“and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13b). The word “Jerusalem” carries an ominous quality, because Jerusalem is the seat of opposition to Jesus, and they will kill him in Jerusalem.
Passover is the holiest of the pilgrimage feasts to which Jews come to make sacrifices at the temple. People go “up to Jerusalem” in two senses: First, Jerusalem is on a mountain, so they literally go up to get there. Second, Jerusalem is the holy city, so a pilgrim would have a sense of going up into the presence of God.
Jeremias estimates that the population of Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 to 180,000 for Passover (Howard-Brook, 83). The strain on local resources to house and feed that number of people would be enormous. The crowding at the temple would be near gridlock.
This is the first of three Passovers that John records (see also 6:4; 11:55ff). It is possible that 5:1 refers to yet another Passover, but it is more likely a different festival. The Synoptics record Jesus going to only one Passover at the end of his life. It is largely on the basis of the record of three Passovers in John’s Gospel that we believe that Jesus’ ministry extended over a period of 2-3 years.
“He found in the temple (hiero) those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves“ (v. 14a). Such commerce is necessary, because people coming from afar cannot bring their own animals. Only first-rate, unblemished animals are acceptable for sacrifice, and it would be difficult to maintain an animal in perfect condition even on a journey from nearby Galilee—impossible for those coming from Rome or Egypt or other faraway places.
“and the changers of money sitting” (v. 14b). A money exchange is also required, because travelers bring coins from many nations and the Mishnah specifies that Tyrian coins (coins from the Phoenician city Tyre) be used for the temple tax (the Romans would not allow Jews to mint their own coins). A number of scholars say that Roman coins were unsuitable because they bore images of Caesar and inscriptions regarding his deity. However, Israel Abrahams says that Tyrian coins bore similar markings and suggests that it was the exceptional quality of the Tyrian coins (exact weights and high silver content) that made them acceptable (Morris, 170).
Those responsible for merchandising in the temple can also defend it by claiming that money generated by concessions is used to fund temple activities throughout the year. We hear the same argument in the church today—”It is for God,” so it must be all right.
The hiero includes the whole temple complex, and these vendors are almost surely located in the Court of the Gentiles, the outer precincts of the temple. Earlier, they were located in the Kidron Valley, but Epstein says that the high priest, Caiaphas, permitted his supporters to move their stalls to the temple as a way of avenging himself against rivals in the Sanhedrin (Brown, 119). If this is, indeed, the case, there are surely a large number of people offended by this commerce in the temple—Caiaphas’ rivals for one, but also people offended by the unnecessary crowding and stink in the temple precincts. Palmer notes that nobody moves to stop Jesus, probably because they are pleased to see him remove the offense from the temple area (Palmer, 38). Imagine, though, how angry Caiaphas must be to have his authority so directly challenged.
“He made a whip of cords, and threw (exebalen) all out of the temple (hierou), both the sheep and the oxen“ (v. 15a). Making a whip of cords, Jesus drives out (exebalen) the large animals from the temple. We most frequently encounter this word, exebalen, in connection with exorcisms, where Jesus drives out demons.
With over a hundred thousand pilgrims in the city to make their sacrifices at the temple, it seems likely that there would be dozens, probably hundreds, of sheep and cattle—although poor people, of whom there would be many, were allowed to sacrifice doves, which were less costly.
The atmosphere would be like a street fair with dozens or hundreds of vendors, except that these vendors are feeding, grooming, and cleaning up after large animals instead of serving soda and hot dogs. The danger would always exist that a crazed animal might break loose and desecrate the holiest parts of the temple. The noise and smell would be overwhelming and could not be walled off totally from the sanctuary. In fairness, we must acknowledge that the sacrificial system as prescribed by Torah is a messy, bloody, smelly business, but the presence of these vendors in the temple adds overcrowding and a commercial emphasis.
Also, the Court of the Gentiles is the only access that Gentiles have to the temple, and these vendors render Gentile worship impossible by using their space for commercial purposes (Kosenberger, 106).
To those of us accustomed to buying our meat shrink-wrapped, using a whip to drive animals might seem cruel, but sheep and cattle have thick hides and minds of their own.
Getting dozens or hundreds of animals to move together in a particular direction would be quite a challenge. The phrase, “herding cats,” comes to mind. Cattle and sheep would be easier to deal with than cats, but the overcrowded temple precincts would make it nearly impossible to move the animals quickly. Howard-Brook calls it “a miracle of movement” that Jesus was able to clear the temple area of these animals (Howard-Brook, 83).
“and he poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew their tables “ (v. 15b). Just imagine the fury of the money changers as they scramble to recover their coins—trying to keep customers and the other money changers from grabbing them.
“To those who sold the doves, he said, “Take these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house (ton oikon tou patros mou) a marketplace!'” (oikon emporiou) (v. 16). In the Synoptics, Jesus criticizes the vendors for making the temple into a den of thieves, suggesting that the problem is their unethical business practices. In the Gospel of John, however, Jesus criticizes not their ethical behavior but their very presence in “my Father’s house.” He commands, “Don’t make my Father’s house (ton oikon tou patros mou—the house of my Father) a marketplace” (oikon emporiou—a house of commerce).
The Greek word for temple is hieron. The Greek word for house is oikos. Moloney notes that the hieron (temple) has become an oikos (house). It is the dwelling place of the Heavenly Father (Moloney, 77).
This is the first time that Jesus identifies God as his Father, but the Jews who challenge him in verse 18 fail to pick up on this.
There is an allusion here to Zechariah 14:21. In its original context, this passage from Zechariah was looking toward the Day of the Lord—a day when “every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to Yahweh of Armies; and all those who sacrifice will come and take of them, and cook in them (Zechariah 14:20). In that day, holiness will pervade all of life, so that the temple sacrifices (and the animal sellers and money changers) will no longer be necessary. Jesus, the messiah, brings that day into being.
Jesus has no credentials to validate his actions. The priests wouldn’t acknowledge him as a priest—nor would the scribes or Pharisees would count him as one of their own. In the next chapter, Nicodemus will call Jesus “Rabbi,” (John 3:2) but that is a generous form of address. Jesus has not studied with eminent rabbis. No authorities of note have conferred their authority on him. Nevertheless, he takes it on himself to do what is needed, and in the process turns everything upside down on one of the temple’s busiest days of the year.
“His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will eat me up” (v. 17)—after the resurrection, the disciples began to understand what had happened at the temple.
“Zeal for your house will eat me up”—the words come from Psalm 69:9, where the Psalmist is lamenting the suffering that has resulted from his faithfulness to the Lord. Later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples will finally understand that it was God’s plan that Jesus’ zeal would alienate the religious leaders and lead to his crucifixion.
Jesus is not anti-temple, but anti-exploitation. He acknowledges the temple as his Father’s house, and insists that it be treated with the reverence due the house of the Lord.
JOHN 2:18-22. IN THREE DAYS I WILL RAISE IT UP
18The Jews therefore answered him, “What sign do you show us, seeing that you do these things?” 19Jesus answered them,“Destroy this temple, (Greek: naon—sanctuary, Holy Place) and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple! (Greek: naos) Will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he spoke of the temple (Greek: naou) of his body. 22When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.
“The Jews therefore answered him” (v. 18a). In this Gospel, there are frequent references to “the Jews,” meaning the Jewish religious leaders rather than the entire Jewish populace. In many cases, the references are neutral and on rare occasions positive (12:11), but “the Jews” will increasingly be identified as Jesus adversaries.
“What sign do you show us, seeing that you do these things?” (v. 18b). Jesus has just worked the “beginning of his signs…in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory” (2:11), but these Jewish authorities either are unaware of that or choose to ignore it.
This is not the response that we would expect if the Jewish leaders are convinced that Jesus is breaking the law. It is apparent that they see the cleansing of the temple as a prophetic, possibly messianic, act, and they expect prophets to perform miracles to authenticate their authority. Their question here seems more an invitation for Jesus to bring them on board than a hostile challenge—although such an invitation can quickly turn hostile if unanswered. Later, Mark will identify these Jews as the chief priests and scribes and tell us that they are plotting to kill Jesus (11:18)—but keep in mind that the Synoptics locate the cleansing story at the end of Jesus’ ministry and see it as the precipitating act for the crucifixion.
“Destroy this temple, (naon—the temple sanctuary) and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). In previous references to the temple, the word has been hiero, which refers to the whole temple complex. Now Jesus uses the word naon, which refers to the temple sanctuary.
On the surface, it appears that Jesus is challenging these Jewish leaders to destroy the Herodian temple and offering to rebuild it in three days—which is how they understand him. In this Gospel, it is typical that Jesus’ adversaries, and even his disciples, misunderstand him in this way.
These Jews, of course, could never bring themselves to accept this challenge—to destroy the great building as a way of testing Jesus to see how he might replace it in three days. The temple is the holy place where God dwells, and they could hardly imagine anyone destroying it (although the Romans will do so in 70 A.D.). The Synoptics record that, later, Jesus’ adversaries will accuse Jesus of threatening to destroy the temple and to rebuild it in three days (Mark 15:29), but they will not agree on their testimony (Mark 14:58-59). John’s Gospel provides our only record of what he actually said.
But, of course, at the second level of meaning, Jesus is alluding to his death and resurrection. It is his body that is the temple marked for destruction. Even Jesus’ own disciples will remain clueless about this second level of meaning until after the resurrection. At that point, they will remember that he said this (v. 22).
“The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple! (naos) Will you raise it up in three days?” (v. 20). Construction began under Herod the Great in 20 or 19 B.C., which means that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple takes place in 27 or 28 A.D. The majority of the work on the temple has been completed by this time, but refinements will continue until 63 A.D., only seven years before the Romans will destroy the temple.
“But he spoke of the temple (naou) of his body” (v. 21). In this Gospel, explanations are often offered as an aside to clarify misunderstandings to the reader (see 6:64, 71; 7:5, 39; 11:13, 51-52; 12:6, 33; 20:9). It is Jesus body that will become the new temple—the place where people can come to meet with God.
In his epistles to the Corinthians, Paul says that our bodies are temples too—the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; See also 1 Peter 2:5).
“When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said” (v. 22). During his ministry, Jesus will try to prepare his disciples for his passion, but they find the idea incomprehensible. We should not judge them, because we, too, find it difficult to see a vision that is different from that which we are expecting. At this point, the disciples are still looking for a warrior-king Messiah, and intimations of death and resurrection only confuse them. Later, after the resurrection, the picture will suddenly come into focus for them. They will believe “the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” The scripture is not identified, but is presumably Psalm 69:9. It is interesting that John places “the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said” side by side, suggesting the great authority of Jesus’ word.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan