This week we begin our meditations on Jesus’s Passion predictions in the Gospel of John. These are the sayings and acts of Jesus during his lifetime ministry which foretell his Crucifixion and Resurrection. In writing his gospel, John is particularly concerned with the context of any passage or statement by Jesus. The early church recognized John as the “spiritual gospel” that moved beyond the literal/concrete meaning and into the allegorical/spiritual meaning and onto the anagogical/eternal meaning.1 Therefore, as we meditate and ruminate on these passages during Lent, we will look at the context of the statement or act and then allow John to guide us into its deeper meaning.
The first prediction we will read is found in John 2:13-22. In this passage, Jesus cleanses the Temple and predicts that he can destroy the temple and rebuilt it in three days. John will tie this event to the suffering servant of Psalm 69 and the Day of the Lord at the conclusion of Zechariah (Zech. 14:20-21). Please read these two Old Testament passages prior to reading John’s telling of the cleansing of the Temple to fully understand the depth of Jesus’ action and statement and their connection to his Passion.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) the cleansing of the Temple happens immediately after Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This happens at the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry. In John’s Gospel, the cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’s first public act of his ministry. John 1 is the prologue and the calling of the disciples, and the first half of John 2 is the Wedding in Cana where Jesus surreptitiously changes water into wine. The cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’ first real public act and his statement that he will tear down the Temple and rebuilt it in three days is his first real public teaching. Think through the importance of this event and teaching occurring in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, particularly in light of the passage from Zechariah.
The cleansing of the Temple and the teaching occur at Passover. Passover is the celebration of the Lord’s deliverance out of Egypt the Israelites being held captive there. In Jewish history, King Josiah’s cleansing of the Temple of all pagan influences occurred during the Passover. 2 Kings 23. More importantly, for our purposes, Jesus, according to John, was crucified on the Day of the Preparation of the Passover (John 19:14) when the Passover lamb would have been slaughtered. Think through the importance of this event and Jesus making his predictive statement of destroying and rebuilding on the Passover.
All of this occurs in the Temple in Jerusalem. The First Temple had been constructed by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians. Construction of the Second Temple began during the time of Ezra and had recently been significantly renovated by King Herod. (This Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD during John’s lifetime.) The Temple structure had an outside courtyard where people would trade their Roman coinage for Temple coinage and purchase the requisite animals required for the particular sacrifices. This is where Jesus makes his appearance.
The importance of the Temple cannot be overstated. It was the locus of Jewish religious life and national identity. Under Roman occupation, it was the one place that Jews could consider their own. The Temple was not simply a place where God could be found, like a church building today, but where the very corporeal presence of God on earth resided. Jews worshipped God in the Temple because that was where God was physically located.
Zechariah ends with the statement that “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day (the final victory of the Lord over the powers of this world.)”. Zech. 14:21. With the cleansing of the literal Temple, Jesus is inaugurating the Day of the Lord foretold by the prophet. The Temple has been corrupted by commerce and like King Josiah (2 Kings 23), Jesus cleanses the literal Temple of its impurities. Jesus, however, does not leave us, his audience, with simply a physical act; rather he wants to elevate our understanding beyond the physical and the literal to the spiritual and the eternal.
After forcefully cleansing the Temple, the religious leaders ask Jesus upon what authority he committed this act. Presumably, these leaders wanted to know whether Jesus considered himself a King like Josiah or a prophet like Zechariah. They intuitively understand that Jesus’ action is of divine importance. They want to know who Jesus considers himself to be.
In response to the query Jesus enigmatically responds, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus’ audience rightly points out the present Temple took 43 years to build and that what Jesus is saying is ridiculous. Taken literally, Jesus’s statement defies reason.
In 2 Corinthians 3, among other places, Paul points out that his Jewish audience has a difficult time understanding who Jesus is because they are mired in the literal understanding of Scripture and cannot move to the deeper spiritual/analogical or eternal/anagogical meaning. This is what occurs here. Although Jesus cleanses the literal Temple, his statement of destroying and rebuilding is not about the literal Temple. John makes sure that we understand Jesus’s statement by explaining to us that Jesus meant his body and by “rebuilding” he meant the resurrection.
From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is telling us that he will be destroyed by those who do not understand the spiritual nature of his ministry, but that he will overcome that destruction on Easter.
More importantly, what Jesus is telling us is that those things which are central to the Temple and give the Temple its importance will be transferred to his body. That upon his destruction and rebuilding, the worship of God will now be through his body, not the physical Temple, and that the physical manifestation of God in the world is not in the Temple, but in his body. The Old Covenant/Testament began with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and found its fulfillment at Mt. Sinai, and so the New Covenant will begin with Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross and find its fulfillment in the Resurrection. Jesus is telling us that the Old Covenant focused on Temple worship is passing away and giving way to the New Covenant focused on him (Heb. 8:13).
In John’s telling of this event, John quotes Psalm 69:9: “The zeal of thy house has consumed me.” John 2:17. This quote by John is significant. Like most quotes of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament writings, the quote is not to be taken out of context but is intended by the New Testament writer to include the fulness of its context. Psalm 69 is a psalm of a suffering servant of the Lord, not unlike Isaiah 53. It speaks of someone being overcome by his enemies and crying out to a God who appears to be slow to act on the speaker’s behalf. In verse 9, the psalmist is being “consumed” both to the point of death and in his passion for God, the Temple, and God’s people. The psalmist’s consuming zeal for God appears to play a role in his being consumed by his enemies.
In quoting this Psalm, John realizes in retrospect, that Jesus’ destruction will mirror that of the writer of Psalm 69. (In his passion narrative, John 19:29 is a quote from Psalm 69:21b.) When John tells us this story he “remembers” Psalm 69 and thereby gives us a greater understanding of Jesus’s statement.