The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After 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.
Why did Jesus do this? Why did he go into the Temple – the very heart of religion in Jerusalem – to chase out all the animals and money changers from its courts? The animals were necessary, if offerings were to be made according to the Mosaic law, after all. And if pilgrims from near and far were to pay for them in the Tyrian coinage, as required, they needed money-changers. John, moreover, does not suggest that the merchants and money-changers were dishonest (as it is hinted at in the other three Gospels, where Jesus calls the Temple ‘a den of thieves’). In John’s gospel, there is no moral question involved. Why, then, did Jesus do what he did?
The reason he gives himself is: ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market-place.’ This echoes the closing words of the prophet Zechariah, which promise that ‘there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord on that day’ (Zech 14:21). Is what Jesus does, then – a kind of messianic manifesto? Perhaps, but there is more to be said.
In their immediate attempt to understand the strange acts of their Lord, the disciples remember words from Psalm 69, a psalm that portrays the suffering of God’s righteous servant. The words ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me’ place the action of Jesus in the succession of prophetic protest – the protest against corrupt religion – , and also point forward to the passion. The cleansing of the Temple will (as the other Gospels make clear) lead on to the passion.
The real clue to Jesus’ action, however, lies in his indirect and hidden answer to the demand of the Jews for a sign. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ It is not Jesus who will destroy Herod’s temple; it will be destroyed by the Roman troops in 70 CE. But there will be a renewed temple, a place where God dwells, where sin is taken away through the offering of a sacrifice not of sheep and oxen but of Jesus himself – the one who is both priest and victim. John’s readers already know this temple. They know that they – the believers gathered in the name of Jesus – are that temple themselves (1Cor 3:16 and Eph 2:19-22). So Jesus’ ironic imperative (‘destroy this temple’) has a double meaning: it refers both to Herod’s great buildings which would in fact be destroyed, and to the body of Jesus which would be nailed to a cross. The two references are linked: The temple is the place of God’s tabernacling where his glory dwells. But in Jesus the word of God has come to tabernacle among us and we have seen his glory (John 1:14). The flesh and blood of Jesus, this man, is the temple where God dwells in the fullness of grace and truth.
The action of Jesus in the Temple is therefore more than an example of prophetic protest against corrupt religion. It is a sign that opens up the meaning of who Jesus is. Neither the Jews nor his disciples understood this at the time. Jesus points to that which is still future – to that manifestation of power and glory which will be given on the third day, after the Jews have ‘destroyed this temple’.
John comments that it was only after the resurrection the disciples understood and believed. This is important for us, too: What does it mean for us to ‘understand’ the words and acts of Jesus in the Gospel? Should we aim at ‘understanding them by meticulously reconstructing a sort of videotape record of all that Jesus said and did? The New Testament implicitly contradicts such an approach. There is hardly a single saying or action of Jesus about which we can be quite certain of the details. But this is not something to be regretted, or a defect to be overcome, but rather belongs to the proper nature of the Gospel itself. The Gospel is good news of the events which have made it possible for men and women to live in a relation of trust, love, and obedience with the Father, through participation in the life of his Son, to which we are introduced by the work of the Spirit. Jesus did not take any steps to provide a written body of teaching. He created a community which would be enabled by the Spirit, after his death and resurrection, to grow into an even fuller understanding of him and of his message, and so to live as children in the Father’s house.