John 2:13-22, The Cleansing of the Temple

[March 8, 2015] For the third Sunday of Lent we switch gospels from Mark to John. John’s gospel is more interpretive of the events in Jesus’ life than the others, and is the result of a far longer meditation on the meaning of those event. In today’s text Jesus cleanses the Temple. We are familiar with this story in the other gospels. They all situate it immediately after Jesus’ messianic entrance into the city on Palm Sunday, either having it immediately follow, for the moment Jesus entered the city gates he was in the outer court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles, or they situate it on the following morning. In John’s gospel, however, it occurs at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after his first sign in Cana of Galilee at the wedding feast, before Nicodemus comes to him at night. That certainly changes how we interpret the story.

John’s gospel has just as much claim to historicity as the others. Some historians see this event as provoking the reaction of the chief priests which had them collaborating with Pontus Pilate to have Jesus arrested. It took place then on Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem. However, those gospels which place it at that time do not have Jesus visiting Jerusalem at all until after his Galilean ministry is over; the story may find itself here by the conflation of events. On the other hand, there are other historians who do not see this event as leading up to Jesus’ death; it was a small protest, no more; and I think they are probably right. John’s gospel is much more familiar with Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem and less familiar with his ministry in Galilee, and in it Jesus repeatedly comes to Jerusalem during the Jewish festivals and does so over several years. For John, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple introduces rather than concludes his Jerusalem ministry. In John’s gospel, the folks in Jerusalem never much liked Jesus, which may go back to such an introduction. The incident that provoked the chief priests into their collaboration with Pilate, for John, was the raising of Lazarus, not even mentioned in the other gospels.

John also has another reason for placing the story of the cleansing here. It is in chiastic symmetry with the story of the crucifixion. In Matthew, Luke and Mark, the cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’ prophetic sign of the judgment that was coming on the city of Jerusalem. It is associated with the cursing of the fig tree and is followed by Jesus’ confrontation with the Jewish leadership of the city and his pronouncement of God’s verdict on them, on the Temple establishment, and on the city itself. In John’s gospel, however, it is a sign of Jesus’ own death, and a key to how we should look at it.

The outer frame of the passage (2:13 and 23-25) refers to both Jerusalem and the Passover. In John’s gospel the references to Jewish feasts are always significant and important clues to how we might interpret the gospel. The flesh of the passage (2:14-17 and 22), which contains the cleansing itself, refers to what is written and to the disciples’ remembering. The core of the passage is verses 18 to 21. Here Jesus speaks of the Temple of his body and of it being destroyed and raised up, and he refers to his body as “my Father’s house,” of which later he will say that in it there are many abiding places (not mansions, please) and that his death and resurrection will prepare there—in his body—an abode for us (14:1-3). This has everything to do with John’s understanding of the Holy Spirit.

In the synoptic gospels the cleansing of the Temple therefore is associated with God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple establishment, and therefore with the end of what is called, “Second Temple Judaism.” This judgment cleanses the way for the sister movements, Rabbinical Judaism and the Christian Church, to take its place. In John’s gospel, in contrast, the cleansing of the Temple is symbolic of Jesus’ passing through the “process” of death when he “goes away” to the Father. On the one hand, for John, his death fulfills the Scriptures; on the other hand, the disciples—we—remember it (and its significance) when we break and eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation.

We can leave it to others to argue which sequence is historical. That it happened does not seem to be in doubt, but it is doubtful that it took place twice. All the gospel writers arranged the events in Jesus’ life as they saw fit, and they all had interpretive reasons for placing this event where they did. For me, the important thing is to follow the witness and therefore to interpret it within the literary context in which we find it.

For all the difference, however, John’s gospel also implies the end of Second Temple Judaism. Only, in John’s gospel, the Jerusalem Temple and its system of worship is replaced by the body of Jesus and our abiding in him—on account of his resurrection and his coming to us as (in, by) the Holy Spirit. John’s gospel is the only one composed after the destruction of the Temple (though Mark’s gospel did not achieve its final form until then); at the time it was written, Judaism had been without the Temple for twenty years.

John’s gospel, interestingly, is the only gospel that mentions oxen and sheep in this story. We find the mention of doves in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and the buyers and sellers in all of them, but not the cattle. For John the Temple is not only the place of God’s abode, but it is also the slaughterhouse where sacrifices took place. And it is in John’s gospel, placed in the forefront in chapter 1, that Jesus is declared to be the Lamb of God, by John the Baptist. The epistle to the Hebrews, the theology of which prepares us for John’s gospel, tells us that Jesus’ sacrifice of his body takes the place of the incessant sacrifices of animals in the forecourt of the Temple (Hebrews 9:11-12; 10:4, 7, 10). It is only through the altar of sacrifice that an approach can be made for the worshipper to the abode of God. The body of Jesus is both sacrifice and the abode of God, and it is his death on the cross that prepares a place for us to abide in him with the Father (for John this all takes place when the crucified Jesus comes to abide in us when he breathes the Holy Spirit into us and our spirit becomes mingled with her, alive with her life, who is the hypostasis of the divine life).

Notice also, however, that even in John’s gospel, we become what Jesus is: we become not only an abode for the Holy Spirit, making us an abode for the Father and the Son (14:23), but we too must “fall into the ground and die” if we are to bear fruit (12:24-26), we too are to become living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) and offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5).

When Jesus releases the sheep and oxen from the confines of their stalls, perhaps we are supposed to be reminded of the animals being released from the ark after the great flood. They were released into the new creation, after the judgment of the world was accomplished. This says something about the creation being freed from its bondage, bondage that was on account of humanity’s departure from its original commission to shepherd and guard the creation (Genesis 8:15-19; are there not echoes in Isaiah 11:6-9). Doves too are released by Jesus, recalling the dove released by Noah in Genesis 8:8-12 which finally returned no more. The dove in John 1:32 symbolizes the Holy Spirit that came to abide on Jesus at his baptism. Both the release of the animals (living souls in Hebrew and symbolizing the soul) and the doves (symbolizing the Spirit) speak to us of their release from the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law. Rabbinical Judaism replaced these sacrifices with the sacrifices of repentance. In Christianity, this is not only so, but it is the body of Jesus destroyed on the cross that makes it so, and the release of the animals signifies not only the end of the old sacrificial system but the beginning of the new creation.

The sacrificial system of the Old Testament can therefore be seen as an ark that carried Israel through the judgment of God, like the Passover lamb in Exodus 12 that protected the Israelites from the angel of death that destroyed the firstborn of Egypt. Israel was not released from the necessity of this system until the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Of course it was actually the faithfulness of God that carried them through all their times of exile and judgment, and still does today, though that faithfulness always depended on the—then future and now past—accomplishment of redemption in Jesus. He was the “word” in the beginning from whence creation came into being, and, though unknown, has ever been the word of God’s faithful love to creation.

The motif of new creation as suggested by the release of the animals and the ending of their slaughter is also suggested by the garden of the resurrection. It is also already suggested as well by the water that flowed from the riven side of Jesus (19:34), his death having been accomplished. This recalls Psalm 46:4 (see also Psalm 36:8 and 64:9) and Ezekiel 47:1-12, perhaps alluding to the rivers of Eden in Genesis 2:10, and anticipates the river of Revelation 22:1. Waters speak of judgment; water also speaks of life, for by it we are daily sustained and our thirst satisfied.

Another point: Jesus drove out the money changers, accusing them of making “my Father’s house” a house of commerce or a marketplace. Before people could enter the Temple proper, they had to exchange their foreign coins for the Jewish denarii on account of the graven images imprinted on them. Money represented the divide between gentile and Jew, and between the secular world and the religious. On the eve of the crucifixion, Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of the world … and I, if I be lifted up from the earth”—on the cross—“will draw all [people] to myself,” signifying by what kind of death he was about to die (12:31-33). See Ephesians 2:11-22 in this regard. “He is the peace between us”—Jew and gentile—“and has made the two into one entity and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, by destroying in his own person the hostility … His purpose in this was, by restoring peace, to create a single New Man out of the two of them, and through the cross, to reconcile them both to God in one Body; in his own person he killed the hostility.”

Commerce is all about mediation. People (and God) are related to through the medium of exchange. Human beings are institutionalized and impersonalized. Grace, on the contrary, is immediate. Through it people enter into—or shall we say, discover their—immediate relation to God and each other; they become “persons,” by their love mirroring the persons of God in eternal communion.

Of course, the wealthy class of Jerusalem monopolized the money changing in the Temple and thus took advantage of the poor, the sheep whom they were supposed to be shepherding. This also has something to say to all people who practice religion. The chief priests and Judas are both indicted for their greed, the lynchpin of the capitalist system. In the structure of the Gospel according to John, the betrayal of Judas, who bartered Jesus away for money, and Jesus’ expulsion of the Temple businessmen are parallel. In contrast to this greediness is the gratuity of Mary and the emphasis of this gospel on the love of friends.

When we get to the trial of Jesus we will see the contrast between the power of the world, associated with commerce and military might and the greater power of Jesus disguised in weakness. These two come head-to-head, and—under Jesus’ mastery—the world is allowed to “defeat” Jesus and thereby is itself completely defeated. The Son of Man, the human one of Daniel 7:13, overcomes the beasts of the world who ravage the creatures of earth. “Destroy this Temple” and the commerce of the world will be overcome, and humanity will become again humanized, capable of reflecting the image of God to the creation instead of the image of oppression and fear.

It was the time of Passover when the Israelites purge their homes of leaven in preparation for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the week long festival that modern Jews call “Passover”). We might consider whether Jesus’ cleansing the Temple of its merchants in its foyer was not a kind of purging the House of leaven, the leaven of hypocrisy and the spirit of commercialism. Without leaven there is only authenticity, realness, honesty and the immediacy of relationship.

Where does this meditation leave us for the season of Lent? Jesus cleanses the Temple, putting an end to our commercial relationship to others, releasing the life of creation represented by animals—by the death of our soul our soul is released into new life and creativity—and setting the doves free—the dove of the Spirit can now fly. “Destroy this Temple,” he says, “and I will raise it up.” The life that is in me, he says, is greater than the death with which you—the world—think you can overcome it. In this new creation, God will abide, at peace.

When the disciples remember these words and see them in the context of the Scriptures, as we do when we worship at the Lord’s Table, perhaps we may want to clean out our courts, our foyers and entrance ways, and our inner sanctum, so that the dove of the Spirit may want to alight where we dwell. What bondage are we imposing on the creation by our own enslavement to commerce, by our enslavement to the powers of the world? Can we break free? Can we release the creation of God? Can we become an abiding place for Jesus?

For Lent, we can reflect on ourselves, a reflection that depends on the provenience of grace, and give over ourselves to God, not frantically, but trustingly and persistently. The Spirit works within us patiently, and only her activity beneath the soil of our egos, deep in our souls, can bring us to the breakthroughs that we so much need. Peace to you all.

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