John 2:13-22 Cleansing the Temple

John 2:13-22: Cleansing of the Temple. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on November 12, 2006

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it has been a good week for you. We had a nice stewardship luncheon last week at Home Church. Thanksgiving is this week. Home Church is participating in the annual Winston-Salem Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, which this year will be at Knollwood Baptist Church. This event brings together Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Moravians to express gratitude for the gifts God has given us all. In our lesson for this week, we turn our attention to the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple as recorded by John.

Jesus with a Whip:     The cleansing of the Temple is one of the most important scenes in the gospels for movie makers. It is filled with action and tension. It is the only scene from the life of Jesus in which he uses violence rather than being a victim of violence. Incidentally, it is only in John’s Gospel that Jesus used a whip, and even then it was just a bunch of cords tied together, so the popular image of the violent Jesus is rather overblown. Many preachers have used this text to talk about the humanity of Jesus, or even the masculinity of Jesus. The image of Jesus with a whip Temple has been used been used to justify coercion in matters of faith.

Some preachers through the centuries have used this text to justify the use of violence and anger against those deemed unrighteous. Political operatives in Washington, D. C. sent out sermons that used this image of an avenging Jesus with a whip in one hand to support the invasion of Iraq. In the early part of the last century, evangelists and reformers called upon Jesus and his whip to cleanse the United States of alcohol. Some of these images of Jesus the crusader are more legitimate than others, but I think we must avoid the temptation of making the whip the primary image we have of Jesus. This morning, let’s take time to look at this story in John carefully and compare it to the similar accounts found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Read: 2:13-22

Uniquely John:           There are a number of interesting questions connected to this little vignette which may yield insight into the meaning of John’s gospel. In Mark’s gospel, the cleansing of the Temple is one of the last things that Jesus does in his public ministry. It is an event that leads directly to the arrest and execution of Jesus. Matthew and Luke were both based on Mark’s gospel, and so they also have the cleansing of the Temple shortly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. John, in contrast, tells this story at the beginning of the gospel narrative. It is in the second chapter, shortly after the miracle of the wine.

            This is a major difference that cannot be ignored. Those who are committed to the idea that the gospels are without any errors of fact are forced to find ingenious solutions to the problem. The most common is to assert that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, at the beginning of his ministry and at the end. The fact that John ignores the so-called “second cleansing” and that the other gospels ignore the first one is just one of those uncomfortable facts that strict literalists learn to live with.

            It is much more reasonable to assume that either Mark or John moved this event when they wrote their biographies of Jesus. Most scholars agree that it was John who relocated the cleansing of the Temple as a dramatic way to introduce the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry. In the Gospel of John, Jesus faces opposition from the religious leaders from the beginning of his ministry, and it was his raising of Lazarus from the dead that led to his arrest. In the other three gospels, the opposition grows as Jesus’ influence grows, and the disturbance in the Temple leads to his arrest. Most interpreters think that this makes more sense historically than John’s account.

            By placing this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John shows that the whole ministry of Jesus was connected the theme of right worship of God by following Jesus. It also builds John’s theme that the whole ministry of Jesus was marked by opposition and misunderstanding. The cleansing of the Temple was a metaphor for the Day of Judgment when God will remove evil and reward goodness. In John’s gospel, Jesus himself is the Day of Judgment when each person must decide whether to follow or turn back.

            Having said that though, I need to let you know that there are some scholars who argue that John is more accurate than Mark. They point to evidence that at Jesus’ trial that the prosecutors had difficulty finding witnesses who remembered just what Jesus had done and said. Had the cleansing of the Temple happened just before his arrest, there should have been no trouble finding witnesses. As it is, there appears to be a long period of time between the cleansing and the trial. Also, none of the gospels mention the disturbance in the Temple as evidence that was brought against him before Pilate. So it is conceivable that this event had taken place a couple of years before his arrest and that Mark placed it where he did in order to fit his own narrative outline.

When did this Happen?         Incidentally, the tradition that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years is based on the chronology of John who speaks of three Passovers in Jesus’ ministry. At the first one Jesus cleanses the Temple. At the last one he is executed. If we place the cleansing of the Temple shortly before Jesus’ arrest, then we have no evidence for a three-year ministry for Jesus. It could have been much shorter or it might have been longer, but I think it is unlikely that Jesus only paid one visit to Jerusalem the way Mark portrayed it. We do not have enough evidence to give a definite answer, but it seems likely that Jesus would have come to Jerusalem for Passover several times before he cleansed the Temple.

            It is in John’s gospel that the priests tell Jesus that the building of the Temple had been going on for forty-six years. Herod began building this great Temple in his eighteenth year as ruler to prove his power and glory. That was in 20 BC. The Temple was finally completed in 63 AD, only to be destroyed by the Romans a decade later. If John’s statement that the Temple had been under construction for forty-six years was correct, then the date of the cleansing by Jesus would have been 27 or 28 AD. That fits very well with Luke’s statements about the time of Jesus’ ministry and his age, by the way.

            Another aspect of John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple that is unique is that there were sheep and oxen there. Many modern historians dispute the idea that there would have been animals in the Temple precincts. The animal markets were nearby in the Kidron valley, but John may be evidence for a specific moment in the history of the Temple. There was a dispute between the high priest and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council) around the year 30 AD. The Sanhedrin stopped meeting in the Temple and relocated to the marketplace. It is possible that Caiaphas responded by allowing rival merchants to sell animals in the Temple itself. If this is true, then Jesus’ driving the animals out of the Temple could have been a response to this new and offensive practice of allowing animals in the Temple.  We cannot know for certain.

Money Changers:      What we do know for sure is that there were money changers in the Temple precincts. They were in the outer court, which was known as the court of the Gentiles. The reason they were there was because most coins in circulation could not be used in the Temple because they had the images of kings and emperors on them. It was blasphemy to use money with graven images on it in a Temple dedicated to the God of Israel. So, merchants changed currency into the approved Tyrian coinage. This was an important part of the religious practice associated with the Temple, and there is no evidence to support the claim that they were abusing the people with high exchange rates. It is interesting that Jesus in John’s Gospel does not call the money changers “robbers” the way he does in the Synoptics.

            The simple truth is that we do not know when Jesus cleansed the Temple or just what he was thinking, but we can be confident that it is an historical fact that he did so. It is recorded in more than one original source, and the violence of the action raised question for the church later. It also provides evidence for why the religious and political authorities found Jesus to be a threat to the public order. The fact that either Mark or John altered the chronology of this story in the career of Jesus does not mean that either of them was being dishonest. They were not trying to establish the historical facts of Jesus’ life nor were they providing evidence for his trial. They were writing about the message and meaning of Jesus using the stories that had been passed down by his followers. Biographers still use creative license when constructing the story of a person’s life. We do this in telling our own life stories. The chronology of the events does effect how we tell history, but it is the meaning of the events that is important for the life of faith.

Christians and the Temple:               The first thing we need to consider in pondering the meaning of this event is the relationship of Christians to the Temple. We know that some of the earliest Christians worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus, but it is unlikely that the followers of the Beloved Disciple did so. For one thing, they were not in Judea. More important, throughout the New Testament we see that part of the significance of Jesus for the original Christians was that his death and resurrection brought to an end the sacrificial system of Judaism. This was one of the great transformations in the history of religion. Christianity and Buddhism are two religions in which the killing of animals serves no religious purpose, which should make the vegetarians happy.  

By driving the animals out of the Court of the Gentiles, Jesus was making a statement about the true worship of God. Not only did this specifically include Gentiles in the House of God, it was a rejection of the sacrificial system of the Temple. Whether John wrote his account before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD or after is impossible to determine, but one of the reasons Christianity thrived among Gentiles after 70 AD was because it was not tied to the Temple or to Jerusalem. Thus, we can see that this scene is consistent with John’s narration of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. The true worshipers of God worship in spirit and in truth, not by slaughtering animals.

            John portrays Jesus like Jeremiah or other Old Testament prophets whose zeal led them to make prophetic actions that pointed toward God’s coming judgment. Driving moneychangers out of the Temple was hardly an action designed to incite a revolution; it is unlikely most people even noticed in an age before satellite news. But it was a prophetic act that illustrated the corruption of the old Temple and the need for something new. By connecting the cleansing of the Temple and Jesus’ conversation with the priests about the destruction of the Temple, John directly related the death of Jesus with his opposition to the priesthood and Temple. He quotes from Psalm 69: “zeal for your house will consume me.”

The quotation becomes even more interesting if we include the verse before this one. “I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons. For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.” (Ps. 69:8-9) By quoting Psalm 69, John may have intended his readers to recognize that Jesus’ religious zeal was alienating him from his own family and his own people. We have hints of this in the gospels as well. We must remember that many people near Jesus did not believe in him. More importantly, Psalm 69 points to the vicarious nature of Jesus’ passion. All four gospels imply that Jesus was killed because he was zealous for the house of God. In other words, Jesus was killed by those who were more invested in maintaining their own status and authority than in the pursuit of righteousness. This zeal for God’s house in turn consumed Jesus and led to his death at the hands of the corrupt priests.

Destroy this Temple:             Another significant difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels is that Jesus has a conversation with the authorities in the Temple after he caused the disturbance about the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple. John candidly states that it was only after the resurrection that Jesus’ disciples believed that he was talking about the Temple of his body. This is a wonderful illustration of John’s practice of reading the resurrection into the events of Jesus’ earthly life. More than the other three Gospels, John’s gospel is a post-resurrection portrayal of Jesus. This does not mean that it does not contain genuine historical information about Jesus, but every aspect of Jesus’ story is understood from the perspective of the resurrection. So, John takes a conversation about the Temple in Jerusalem and reinterprets it as a prophecy of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

The conversation is interesting on its own, though. We know from Jewish and Roman literature that the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of much controversy. The Essenes, who we discussed a couple of weeks ago, rejected the Temple. Most Jews believed that the reason Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed was because of the sins of the people, and so there were some Jews that expected that God’s Day of Judgment would include the destruction of the Temple. The idea that God would destroy the corrupt Temple and build a purified Temple was prominent in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Jesus’ conversation over the Temple points to this messianic hope, and it is significant that witnesses at his trial remembered him threatening to destroy the Temple.

It could be that John took the reports of the witnesses and placed them in this scene, or it is possible that John has put together two different events. One event was the cleansing of the Temple; the other was a conversation over the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple. By putting the two events together, John highlights the threat Jesus posed for the authority. Of course, Jesus did not destroy the Temple or harm it in any way, so it is not surprising that John would transfer the saying about destroying and raising up from the Temple to the body of Jesus.

The historical saying of Jesus took on a new meaning after the resurrection.

For John, this is more than a prediction of the resurrection, though. Through his resurrection, Jesus himself becomes the new Temple for the people of God. Jesus himself becomes sacred and was the one in whom God dwelled. Christians may worship wherever Jesus is with them. Last week we discussed the significance of transforming water from a ritual of purification to the wine of the new covenant. This week, Jesus replaces the Jewish temple with himself. This fits well with the earlier view of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. For John, Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind. He is the Temple where God may be found.

Conclusion:                 We have come to the end of our time for this morning. Keep in mind that in John’s gospel in particular, we need to look beyond history and contemplate the symbolism of the narrative itself. There are many modern scholars, most notably John Dominic Crossan, who view Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as a revolutionary act against the oppression of the Roman Empire. John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ action primarily in religious terms. It was a symbol of the end of the old covenant and beginning of the new, with Jesus himself as the new temple.

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