“The True Temple” (John 2:13-25)

by Jacob Gerber

If we imagined that Jesus would gently ramp into his public ministry with something non-confrontational to please the crowds and (hopefully) to start to win the favor of the authorities, we will be disappointed by the course of action Jesus takes. With the zeal of a Son who sees his Father’s house desecrated, Jesus cleanses the temple during a Passover feast, driving out the animals and the merchants who have trespassed to take up residence there for their own profit. As with the sign that Jesus performed in turning water into wine in the previous passage, the sign of cleansing the temple is filled with important symbolism that points beyond this single day at the temple. Jesus will cleanse the dwelling place of his Father, even though it will cost him his life.

What does Jesus’ zeal demonstrate about his identity and his mission? What should we learn from him as we see him drive out the merchants, the sacrificial animals for sale, and the moneychangers from the temple? How does this story fit together with the previous story of how Jesus turned the water into wine—and specifically, how does this temple purification tie in with the purification that the stone water jars at the wedding feast (John 2:6) had been intended for? Is Jesus destroying the most important institutions of God’s covenant with his people Israel, or is his work accomplishing something more than the disruption that we see here? Finally, how should we respond to reading about all this? Let’s answer these questions by studying the text together.

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
John 2:13-25, ESV

This is the word of the Lord. I don’t remember the first time that I saw this, but I feel like I’ve seen it more and more over time. What I’m talking about is maybe you’ve seen a movie or a television episode that for some reason doesn’t start the episode or the movie right at the very beginning of the story. In fact, it doesn’t even start anywhere close to the beginning. It starts all the way at the very end of the story, thrusting you right into the middle of the action of the climax of the whole thing. And you’re wondering, why are we seeing this? What’s led up to this?

Then they’ll sort of stop at that point, leave you at a cliffhanger and back up to the beginning of the movie and head all the way back through. Now, when you watch this, no one’s thinking, oh no, some little editor in the editing floor made a mistake and splice the wrong part of film into this part of the movie. That’s not what’s happening.

The filmmaker, the director, the producer is making a very concerted, conscientious, informed decision to tell the story this way. By giving you a peek, a glimpse into where everything is headed for the purpose that as you are reading, as you were reading or watching everything that leads up to that, then you know where everything’s headed. Characters that might have otherwise seemed insignificant suddenly take on pretty big significance. Little things that people say or do that you might be tempted to write off otherwise suddenly become of great importance. The filmmaker, the producer, the director of the editor of the writer, whoever wants it that way.

Now it may be that that’s what we are encountering by reading the story of the cleansing of the temple here. Because if we if we just look at this story where it is in the story of John’s Gospel of Jesus, it seems like John is telling us about something. Again, we’re just sort of reading through and we think this happened right after the wedding at Cana and right before Jesus talks to Nicodemus and in John Chapter three. Then it looks like this story of the cleansing of the temple takes place at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.

But in the Synoptic Gospels and Matthew, Mark and Luke alike, we don’t read of any kind of temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. We only read and all of them are uniform on this of a temple cleansing at the very end of Jesus’s life during passion week, in the days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Now some look at that and say, oh, that’s obviously an error. That’s a mistake. John didn’t know what he was doing. The Bible is riddled with errors. Here’s just one more of them. But if we can watch a movie and see a scene from the end pulled up front and we don’t think that the editors made a mistake, why should we think that here? It may be that there are, in fact, two cleansing stories. .Some Bible scholars think that

Or it may be that John, at the very outset of Jesus’s public ministry, wants to put this story here for a lot of reasons that will unpack a few of them here this morning. Whether or not there’s one cleansing story or two cleansing stories in history. John frankly, doesn’t care about arbitrating that dispute.

I mean, John has already read synoptic gospels, they were written before what he wrote. He expects, he assumes what’s in those. I mean, John doesn’t include the baptism of Jesus, doesn’t include the transfiguration of Jesus, doesn’t include the Lord’s Supper of Jesus. He says you can get all of that information. in the synoptic Gospels, I’m doing something different here. Which means that sometimes he plays with the chronological sequence of things. Maybe, maybe there are two stories, maybe not.

The main thing that we have to consider one way or another is what this story is telling us here. What does John want us to see and at this very early point in the Gospel? How does he want us to be incapable of reading the rest of the story, all the way up to the climax at the end, understanding this should be a lens that absolutely influences everything, that colors our reading of everything that follows.

So, in this story, John gives us three things.
1. A Sign
2. The Thing Signified
3. The Significance

A Sign

What does this Story mean for those of us living today? Well, let’s start with the sign. John doesn’t explicitly call the cleansing of the temple that Jesus does here a sign. Yet there’s no question that that’s what’s going on here. That Jesus, as he walks in and overturns tables and drives out money changers and animals from the temple, he is very deliberately performing a sign. What Jesus is doing is he’s gathering up all of the loose ends of Old Testament prophecies and laws and shadows and symbols. He’s gathering them up and saying, all of these, I’m going to act out something in front of you so that you know that I am going to be the one to fulfill every last bit of this.

Now, the disciples catch some of the meaning at this point in time. As they’re watching this and verse 17, we read, “His disciples remembered that it was written zeal for your house will consume me.” That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 69:9.

So, the disciples are remembering, they’re watching this, the scripture comes to mind and they say, Whoa, Jesus is consumed with zeal for God’s house. This is what the scriptures told us the messiah would do, what the scriptures told them as the Messiah would be like.

Now we’ll talk a little bit more about probably how the disciples are imagining what is actually happening in front of them, but let’s start there. So, some of this is direct prophecy. We see that the disciples recognize at the time, but some of this is a little bit more complex. Notice that John says that this happens during the Passover of the Jews in verse 13. That’s pretty important.

You may or may not know the subtleties of how the Passover functioned in Old Covenant Israel, but every year, year after year, the people of God, the Israelites were to celebrate the Passover feast. Now, the Bible tells us in the Old Testament that there were significant stretches where the people of God went without celebrating the Passover feast, and that was a bad thing. For centuries and millennia, with only a few breaks in the process, every year, year by year, the Jews would gather together and remember the Passover what God had done to bring his people out of the Land of Egypt.

The Passover Feast was the first day of a seven day feast. The seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread. So, the Passover is day one of the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was a time where the Jews were not allowed to eat anything with leaven in their house. It was actually more than that. It wasn’t just that they were supposed to put it away in a special cupboard and then bring it back out at the end.

In Exodus 12:15, Yahweh, who’s instituting the Passover at the very beginning of the Passover, says, seven days you shall eat unleavened bread on the first day, the Passover day, you shall remove leaven out of your houses. For if anyone eats what is leavened from that first day until the seventh day, that person should be cut off from Israel, should be excommunicated from Israel.

So, what do we see Jesus doing? Well, leaven eventually became a symbol of evil and hypocrisy, malice. So, Jesus said, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. Beware of the self-righteous, wicked teaching of the Pharisees.

Paul, in First Corinthians chapter four, says to the church at Corinth, there is a problem in your church. There is an unrepentant sin that no one has the courage to deal with and he warns them saying a little leaven will leaven the whole lump. If you do not deal with this sin in your midst, then the sin like leaven will infect everything that it touches. The problem won’t go away, it’s going to multiply.

Now, probably year after year of cleansing their houses of leaven, leaven started to seem to them like evil, and that’s why it acquired that kind of symbolism. So, it makes sense that here Jesus walks into the Passover and what does he do? He cleanses his father’s house and therefore his own house of the leaven of evil, of people who have started making money and price gouging people right inside his father’s house. Passover starts with cleansing your house. Jesus starts the Passover feast with cleansing his father’s house, saying, “Do not make my father’s house a house of trade.”

That’s one part of what Jesus is doing here. Another part of what Jesus is doing here is reminiscent of what John the Baptist had said about Jesus. You remember John 1:29? The Gospel of John is the only place where we read John the Baptist saying, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Well, we talked a little bit about what does that lamb exactly refer to? I mean, are we talking about the ram whose horns were caught in the thicket? That was a substitute sacrifice for Isaac when God told Abraham originally to sacrifice his son Isaac. Or are we talking about the lambs that were regularly offered and sacrifice his burnt offerings to the Lord? Or maybe what the Prophet Isaiah talks about is the suffering servant who would be led like a lamb to the slaughter. Is that the lamb of God that Jesus is? Or are we talking about the Passover lamb?

Well, what we said a couple of weeks ago is you can’t really parse out one specific kind of lamb, because to do so would miss the point. When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and says, Behold the Lamb of God, he’s saying everything that a lamb signified, Jesus gathers together and fulfills. Here we have Jesus, the Passover Lamb going up for the Passover to give a sign.

Well, there’s just a little bit more to it than that. As he does this, notice what he says in verse 16, he says, “Take these things away.” This is the exact same verb that John the Baptist had used, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In other words, right here right now, John the Baptist’s words are coming to fruition.

Jesus, the Passover Lamb of God is right here, beginning the process of taking away the sin of the world, and it begins with the cleansing of his father’s house. It is beginning, the invasion into enemy occupied territory, has begun. The Passover Lamb of God is cleansing his father’s house. This is a sign again, gathering together all of the symbols, all of the prophecies, all of the shadows of the Old Testament and even the prophecy of John the Baptist himself. Jesus is saying, I have come to be and to do everything that was anticipated of the Messiah.

That’s the sign that Jesus performs here, because what Jesus does here isn’t complete. It’s not like Jesus does this and says, well, my work here is done. I’ve driven out some money changers from the temple. I’ve driven some animals out of the temple. No, he’s saying. This, in fact, is a sign, a symbol of what I have actually come to do. But you need to see it. You need to recognize this is who I am. You need to see my authority and begin to understand that what you are seeing here is symbolic of the larger reality that I have come to accomplish.

There’s one other prophecy that Jesus directly fulfills with this, and it’s one that we read in our confession of Sin from Malachi chapter three, “Behold, the Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come into his temple, and he will purify the sons of Levi.” The idea is that God will come all at once. It’s this idea of the Day of the Lord, which will be a day of judgment and of calamity for the sake of purifying his people.

Now here’s the thing before we move on, before we get deeper into this, what is signified by what Jesus is performing the sign. The first question we have to ask is in what ways is Jesus bringing this kind of calamity into our own lives? I mean, this is the experience of the believer, right?

You’re going along and you have these things that you’ve learned to trust and places that bring you comfort you think are profiting you in your life. What does Jesus do? The way that Jesus leads us upon is not one of comfort. It’s not one where he sort of tries to seek to preserve the things that are dear to us. Sometimes Jesus comes in like a calamitous whirlwind and turns over the temples in our lives, doesn’t he?

We encounter suffering and pain. We have to walk through seasons where we have no idea where he’s taking us. There’s one of two ways that we can respond to this. We can say, Jesus, I’m done with this. You have no authority over me, and I’m not going to follow you if this is what following you looks like, Or we like his disciples, without knowing all the answers, without having any kind of clue where we’re being led can learn to trust him. Believing that Jesus is acting out of zeal for the purity of God’s dwelling place for our purity, our cleansing.

You see, the problem is the Jews, verse 18, which becomes a common phrase, not always, but commonly used in the gospel of John for the enemies of Jesus from his own people. Jesus was a Jew. But the enemies of Jesus come to him, and they have that first attitude of I’m not going to submit or obey to your authority. And they demand from him, what sign do you show us for doing these things?

Now the problem is, if they missed what just happened, they’ve already missed the sign. Jesus just performed the sign. Jesus acted it out in their midst. Jesus came purifying the temple as the fulfillment of Malachi chapter three and Psalm, 69, and of the Passover Feast. Jesus has already performed the sign, but they still say, show us a sign to authenticate that you have the authority to do this.

At first, it sounds like this might be honest, intellectual curiosity. They just want to know; they just have doubts that they want to talk about. That may be the case, we don’t know quite yet. As we read, it’ll become clear that that’s not what’s happening here. In fact, what the enemies of Jesus are doing here, they’re trying to put Jesus in a no win situation.

So, Jesus, you have one or two options here; you’re going to say I’m not going to perform that sign, which gives us an out so that we can say, well, this guy is clearly a crackpot. We don’t have to listen to him and we can move on with our lives and business as usual. Even though, as one commentator said, what they really needed to do here was to repent from their sin and thank Jesus for the calamity that he had brought.

That’s one option. Either Jesus would fail to cough up a sign, or Jesus would say, well, OK, what sign would do it for you? What would meet your expectations? If he does, that then noticed that Jesus is remaining under their authority? They’re telling Jesus to jump, and Jesus is saying, OK, well, how high do you need me to go here? Then they still remain retain the power. They’re not understanding that the Lord has suddenly come into his temple. They’re not understanding that Jesus is beginning his process of purification. That Jesus will, by his zeal, his holy jealousy, bring about all that he has come to do. They want an excuse to reject it.

The Thing Signified

So, Jesus, like he does in all of his interactions with his enemies when they try to put him in a jam. Jesus blows apart what they’re trying to do. Jesus says, ok, I’m going to give you a sign, but it’s not really what you’re looking for and you’re not going to like it. In verse 19, Jesus gives us not a sign, but the thing signified. What the sign of cleansing the temple pointed toward.

He says in verse 19, “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up.” Now the Jews Jesus’ enemies say it’s taken 46 years to build this temple, and you’re going to raise it up in three days? I don’t believe him. This is what they were looking for, Jesus refuses to jump high enough to suit our standards, we can write him off as a crackpot and go on our merry way. Nobody could build a temple in three days.

What they fail to understand is Jesus is using what the rabbis called a mashaal. It’s a riddle, A saying that’s posed. It’s designed to get you to think a little bit deeper about what Jesus is saying. Well, of course, Jesus isn’t going to brick by brick rebuild a temple that took forty-six years to build in three days. That’s not what he’s talking about. John tells us that he said this about the temple of his body.

Now, no one understands this at the time, not even his disciples, we read in verse 22. It took till after that Jesus was actually raised from the dead that his disciples remembered that he had said this and then they believe the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

So, Jesus says these words, offering them a riddle. Telling them, and John lets us in on the secret at this point in the gospel, because he wants us to know this is the purpose for which Jesus came. This is the reason he’s here. The cleansing of the temple, that was just a sign. But what it all points to what all of the Old Testament shadows and prophecies and laws and all of the proclamations of even someone like John the Baptist. What all of this has been leading up to is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That Jesus Christ, through his holy zeal, his jealousy, his burning, passionate desire that will stop at nothing to make sure that this mission is brought to completion. Jesus, by his zeal, will purify his temple. First to the destruction and then the glorification of his own body. Then by calling an extended temple of us, his church, his people.

We are called to be a part of the Temple of God. You are the temple of God, is what Paul says in First Corinthians three. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that God’s spirit dwells in you? Don’t you know that Jesus then will bring this calamity of purification and cleansing to your life? Not because he wants to hurt you, not because he wants you to suffer and likes that.

Rather Jesus loves you too much to let you go to let you continue on your own path. His love is too great for you to let you remain in the broken place that you are. That out of your brokenness, out of your ashes, Jesus wants to raise up someone who will be raised up in the glory of his resurrection glory. Jesus wants all that for you so that you can live with him and his father in the new heavens and the new Earth forever and ever and ever.

But it’s going to take purification. The way of the cross, the things signified what everything is pointing toward is not just something that Jesus has to walk. Now, none of us are called to be nailed to a cross. I mean, some believers in the past have been as a part of their martyrdom. However, our union with Jesus, through faith, we’re united to him and our baptism, we are united him in our faith and through our union with the death of Jesus, we die with him. Which means that we can no longer present our bodies and our lives and our wills and our minds and our energies to the things that we formerly did.

Instead, Jesus calls us to walk the way of the cross, which leads us directly into suffering directly in the calamity, directly into pain. The process by which he purifies us.

The Significance

Now, just as there were two general ways to respond to the calamity of this cleansing that Jesus brings into the temple. There are two ways to respond when we find out that Jesus means for us to walk the way of the cross, too. And that’s what Jesus talks about in this third section. The significance, what this means for us and versus twenty three through twenty five.

We read, “Now when he was in Jerusalem, at the Passover feast. Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” Now, stop there. That sounds like excellent news. The Ministry of Jesus is off to a good start. He’s already getting around him. A band of merry men. This is wonderful, right? Not so fast.

But Jesus, on his part, did not entrust himself to them. That verb there is the same as many believed in his name. Jesus did not believe in them as what it essentially says, literally in verse 24,

Because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man. for he himself knew what was in man. Jesus, in other words, recognizes that not all of these disciples are true disciples. Not all of these disciples are going to make it. Some of these disciples look upon Jesus and they say, wow, a revolutionary wow, the long awaited Messiah who’s going to kick out the Romans from our land? Wow, the long awaited messiah who’s going to clean up Israel from all the scum that’s been plaguing us. Wow, and fill in the blank with what they expected from Jesus to be useful for them.

When the rubber hits the road, when things get difficult, when Jesus starts talking about the way of the cross for them, especially, this comes to a head in John chapter six, when Jesus says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you. You have no part of me.”

When Jesus starts saying those things, all of these thousands of people who have begun to follow him. This follows right after Jesus feeding of the 5000, these thousands of people begin to walk away. They’re in it for the perks. They’re in it to be riding the wave. They’re in it because they want to be on the ground level of something special and exciting and world shaking. Jesus says, Oh, it will be all that, but you don’t understand. We have to pass under the shadow of the cross. I’m going to go there for you. You don’t have to go there for yourself but understand that to follow me means that I will conform your life to that image, so that I can also conform you to the glory of my resurrection. What I go through, you must go through too.

When Jesus has many disciples, true and false, start to hear this dangerous, frightening message. We read that many thousands turned around and never followed Jesus again. In John Chapter six Jesus poses the questions to his own disciples. You’ve heard all of the stuff I’ve said. You’ve seen all of the stuff that I’ve done. You’ve watched my signs. You know, my intentions, even if you don’t understand them. Will you too fall away, will you too turn back?

Peter says words that I’ve personally clung to many times and some of the dark moments of my own journey. In John 6:68, Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of God.”

Some of you are in the middle of this calamity. you don’t know why it’s there. You don’t know why it’s lasted as long as it is. You don’t know where the light at the end of the tunnel is. You just see Jesus turning over table after table after table in your life and you don’t know why.

Jesus isn’t going to come out and tell you, well, it’s because of this, that and the other, he tells you instead. Understand this is the purpose for which I came, to make this broken world new. To make this broken world whole. It’s going to require pain. Understand, I have come so that you don’t have to endure the worst of it, because if you went through the cross on your own by yourself, you wouldn’t come out the other side. You’re not innocent. You deserve to undergo that for yourself. I will walk that path alone. All of you will abandon me, but I will go there for you, to purify you and to cleanse you.

Understand that to follow me is more than a bandwagon kind of thing. I’m calling you to follow me not only in good times, but in bad. Not only when things are working well, it seems, but through the places of suffering, through the valley of the shadow of death.

This isn’t an easy thing. There are times where you wonder, why am I doing this? But the question you have to come back to the same question that the disciples, the true disciples, had to come back to. In John, Chapter six is this, do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is? Do you believe that Jesus actually is the one who’s gathering up everything promised in the old covenant to fulfill it, to bring it to completion and to offer it as a gift to all those who believe? Or is he just a fun guy to be around for a little while until it’s inconvenient to keep going?

Brothers and sisters, let me plead with you, press on, not from your strength. You don’t have to walk out of here with answers to every one of your questions about the suffering you’re undergoing. If Jesus is worth it. If Jesus is who he says he is, if Jesus is making all things new, if Jesus is the one who has alone passed under the cross so that you could go free. Press on. Where else would you go? Who else has died for you? Who else brings you through suffering for your good and promises that nothing will be put to waste?

Pray with me. Heavenly Father, we ask, oh, God, be mindful of us that we are frail, we are but dust. We don’t know where you’re taking us. We don’t know what this journey is going to look like. We just know that Jesus is on the other end of it and that he’s promised to send his spirit to walk with us every step of the way. To unite us to what Jesus has already done that we don’t have to replicate it. But we also know that you’ve called us to be conformed to it. That’s frightening, God. I pray for those especially who are under the heavy shadow of that and are wondering if they’re up to the task. God, not by girding up our own strength, but by looking to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. I pray God give us grace and hope. Give us faith to walk the journey that you’ve called us to. We pray this in the strong name of your son, our savior. Amen.


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