By Sam E. Stone
John’s Gospel clarifies the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Because he mentions the various Passovers celebrated by our Lord, we are able to determine that his entire ministry was a little over three years. Christ did what was expected of all Jewish men—he came to Jerusalem each year in observance of Passover (Deuteronomy 16:16).
Today’s text describes his first visit there after beginning his earthly ministry. It was true to the spirit of Malachi’s prophecy (3:1-3). Later, in his final week of ministry, he performed a second cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15, 16; Matthew 21:12). The first one likely aroused the anger of the Pharisees, causing them to launch a counterattack on him early in his ministry (Mark 3:22); the second one helped lead to his crucifixion.
The temple covered a large area. In addition to the main place of worship, there was also the Court of the Gentiles, “within the temple precinct, but not in the temple proper” (A. T. Robertson). In this area, greedy Jews had set up a market where they could sell the various animals and birds the people were required to bring and sacrifice. Many came a great distance to worship and could not have brought sacrificial animals with them. The vendors were agents working for the priests. They also had money-changing tables where they would convert Roman currency into Jewish coins, since those were the only ones acceptable. Greek and Roman coins had a human image (the emperor’s head) on them and were not permitted. The money-changing business was also set up to make a profit for the unscrupulous. At the second cleansing, Jesus referred to these men as “robbers” (Matthew 21:13).
Jesus was obviously angry! He made a whip out of cords and drove the sheep and cattle from the area. Overturning the tables, he scattered the coins of the money changers as well. In a clear Messianic claim Christ declared, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (see also Luke 2:49). John notes how this event reminded the disciples of the prophecy, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (see Psalm 69:9).
Eventually the Jewish leaders recovered from the shock of Jesus’ strong words and decisive action. “How dare you?” they said. “Who do you think you are?” They sounded quite religious too! “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” As William Hendriksen put it, “This request was stupid. The temple cleansing was itself a sign . . . a definite anticipatory fulfillment of Malachi 3:1-3 and also Psalm 69 (see v. 17).” By this attitude they demonstrated their unwillingness to acknowledge their sin and selfishness. The power demonstrated by Jesus in the temple is reminiscent of that shown in Gethsemane (John 18:6).
Jesus gave a veiled answer to their question. It could be taken in more than one way. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The human body is a temple too—not just the impressive temple building in which they stood. Like-
wise, one can tear down a building or destroy a human body. Furthermore, a building can be reconstructed, just as surely as an individual can be resuscitated. The Jews took what he said literally. “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” Matthew and Mark report the taunts at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion by some who remembered his words (Matthew 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29). John explained it was only later, after Christ’s resurrection, that the disciples understood what Jesus meant. The Old Testament Scriptures became clear. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Seth Wilson put it well: “This was a bold assertion of his authority in the affairs of the nation and in the things of God. Jesus spoke with authority on the right use of God’s temple . . . . The New Testament gives us no precedent of any special building set apart for church and worship purposes. God’s temple in the Christian age is not made with hands (Acts 17:24). It is the body of the individual Christian (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20; 2 Corinthians 6:16) and the whole congregation of believers (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; Ephesians 2:20-22).”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.