In this famous passage of Scripture, we see Jesus engaging in a number of symbolic, activist efforts. Entering the temple courts and overturning tables, He was showing at once a profound lack of respect for the powers that controlled the operations of the temple, both political and religious, as well as a profound respect for the “true religion” that Jesus’ brother James will later say is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
One of the core themes in the life and teachings of Jesus was highlighting the ways in which the Jewish religious system in Jerusalem had become a force of oppression and wickedness instead of liberation and love. He was quick to expose the unjust ways of the religious authorities and call them to a posture of sacrifice, something Jesus was quite aware very few of them would accept. In this passage, He comes at them with both guns blazing. So much for gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Jesus had walked down to Jerusalem from Capernaum in the north. He was there with everyone else for the Passover celebration. But when He got to the Temple He apparently became disgusted with what He saw. The place had become a flea-market with vendors who had set-up shop – probably in the court of the Gentiles; that is the outer portion of the temple – the only place where Gentiles were allowed to worship.
Now, these vendors had a legitimate function. They provided animals so that people could make their sacrifices. But the system had become so corrupt that people had to buy their animals in-house – so that the temple leaders got a kick-back. “No outside food!” And given the “captive market” the vendors had, their prices for sacrifice animals were exorbitant. Then there were political squabbles over which vendors could sell there. It was a total mess. And the whole situation over-shadowed the original point of the Temple – to be a place of worship – a house of prayer. So Jesus fashioned a whip and started to drive the animals out, over-turn the tables, dump the money. And He insisted: “Get these things out of here. Don’t turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!”
And what do the people do when Jesus begins His rant? Call 911? Try to arrest him for disturbing the peace? No, it’s almost as though they see this as some sort of messianic fulfillment. They knew the words of the psalmist about zeal for the house of the Lord as well as those of the prophet Zechariah who predicted that a time was coming when, according to Zechariah 14:21: “Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty.”
Tearing down the Temple marketplace was seen as a sign of the coming of the new day of salvation – a day when all of Jerusalem would be seen as completely holy. So the Jewish leaders, instead of arresting Jesus, ask Him “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” – John 2:18. Show us your badge. Let’s see your credentials. Do something to prove that you are the Messiah sent to cleanse the Temple and to set things straight.
In response, Jesus says – in so many words, “You want a sign? I’ll give you a sign.” With their gaze fixed on Him, He declares, “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days.” And, of course, it made perfect sense to them, didn’t it? (yeah right). Verse 20 – “‘What!’ they exclaimed. ‘It took forty-six years to build this Temple, and you can do it in three days?’” They’ve gone from thinking this guy’s the Messiah to thinking He’s nuts.
Remember, the Temple in Jerusalem was one of the main symbols of Jewish identity. Originally, worship centered around the portable tabernacle. But as Israel became established Solomon built a real Temple building in the middle of the 10th century BC. It was incredibly beautiful. But the armies of the Neo-Babylonian Empire destroyed it in 586 B.C. Seventy years later Zerubbabel rebuilt it on a modest scale.
Then in 20 B.C. Herod the Great started a construction project to rebuild the Temple on a scale which would exceed even that of what Solomon had built. And at the time of Jesus that reconstruction was still underway – and it wouldn’t be completed until A.D. 64. – only to be destroyed again in A.D. 70 by the Romans.
The point is that as Jesus was speaking there were construction workers all around the temple. They were in the middle of renovation. They were demolishing sections and putting new walls up. And it had been under construction for nearly 50 years at that point.
So that’s the background to the Jewish leader’s response in verse 20 – “It took forty-six years to get things rebuilt to this point and you’re going to tear it down and rebuild it in three?”
John tells us that Jesus was cryptically prophesying about what would be done to His body in His inevitable crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. This is, of course, true, but there is an even deeper meaning contained in this passage. Jesus is making a statement that is reiterated time and time again throughout the New Testament: that the Spirit of God doesn’t dwell in temples or systems or organizations, but rather in flesh-and-blood human beings. Jesus’ double meaning in this passage is that this temple isn’t important after all. It could be destroyed and it would be rebuilt in His very body, the vessel through which the Spirit of God actually dwells.
Jesus also prophecies many times about the physical destruction that would one day come to the physical temple. He was aware that this sacred place would be around for only a short period of time, and tried to help people realize that they didn’t need the temple and its trappings to be connected to God. In fact, the temple and everything that it represented had become a hindrance to people connecting with the Divine, and in fact became a force of oppression and injustice. The people of Jesus day couldn’t imagine an active faith if the temple were destroyed. There are believers today who have the same stumbling block.
Decades ago, when my home congregation joined with another Presbyterian congregation and it was decided to sell both buildings and erect a new church building, there were people from both the former congregations who walked away; if that building was gone, so were they. Now, maybe they were just looking for a convenient excuse to get out, but maybe they had missed the whole point of who we really are as followers of God; just as the people did in Jesus’ time.
When Jesus speaks of destroying the temple, as radical as it would have sounded to His listeners, He’s also hinting at a deeper reality: that institutions, religion, and hierarchies were not necessary at all, that God was available to all and through all, if we would only open our eyes and behold. And we should bring that message today.
You see, Jesus is still zealous for His temple. And, as followers of Christ, you are the temple. I am the temple. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, the very dwelling place of the King of Kings. The temple, Jesus says, is God’s house. He owns it. He’s in charge. He makes the rules, and decides what’s appropriate and inappropriate in His house.
That was true of the temple the day He cleared it and it’s true today. We’re His house. He owns this house, because He paid with it for His life, and we, as followers of Jesus, accepted that gift of salvation. He’s in charge. He makes the rules, and He decides what’s appropriate in His house.
We also noted that Jesus, in clearing the temple, was asserting His right, His authority, over the temple. Remember, no one tried to stop His actions that day. Even the religious authorities didn’t try to stop Him, the asked for some sign of His authority and did not grasp His reply – no surprise, but they didn’t try to stop Him. He acted with authority.
I think He does that today, too, with us. He doesn’t do it in anger, as He did that day, but I think it’s important for us to remember that the defiling of His temple, disregarding the holiness of the temple, the set-apart-ness, if you will, did in fact make Him angry. He absorbed all that righteous anger on the cross.
He still has authority over His temple. We belong to Him. He has a right to make us into His image, and to do what it takes to accomplish that. By accepting Jesus as Lord of our lives, we’ve accepted and granted that He has that right, too. What are we doing to turn His house, Jesus’ House, this temple of the Holy Spirit, into a house of prayer for all nations?
So, as we continue our journey through the Lenten Season, let’s ask ourselves what part of our lives needs a sacrificial cleansing. What other idols or gods, little “g” – are present in our lives – things that take a higher priority in our lives than the King of Kings?
If we’re temples of the Holy Spirit, a dwelling place for God just as the temple that Jesus cleared out the day early in His ministry and would again just after that first Palm Sunday, then we’re set apart for His use and His glory, and for no other purpose. If it’s true that we’re the temple, then we’re to be holy, and we cannot live in any sin, we cannot have any idols that take His place. Because we’re bought with a price, and this body we dwell in, is not our house, it’s His house. He owns it, we just live here for a short time.