Signs and clarity

jesus-cleanses-the-templeThe Need for A Sign. 18 At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.

This christological focus is expanded in vv. 18–22. The Jews’ demand for a sign is in reality a question about Jesus’ authority. They use “sign” (sēmeion) in the sense of a warrant, not in the Johannine sense of a revelatory act or miracle. “the Jews” here represent those who question Jesus and do not know him. Jesus responds to their request with the saying about the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple (v. 19), which is not found on Jesus’ lips in the synoptic Gospels, but is instead reported indirectly through the testimony of false witnesses at Jesus’ trial (Matt 26:61; Mark 14:58) and in the taunting of Jesus on the cross (Matt 27:40; Mark 15:29; cf. Acts 6:14).

The Jews respond to Jesus’ words about the Temple with contempt (v. 20). The rebuilding of the Temple was begun circa 19 BCE during the reign of Herod the Great. The reference to forty-six years of construction would suggest a date of 27 ce for this exchange between Jesus and the Jews. That date is historically plausible, since in John the temple incident occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ ministry lasts approximately three years.

Misunderstanding. In vv. 18–20 we seen the first example of the Johannine narrative technique of misunderstanding. The Jews respond to Jesus’ words about the destruction and raising of the Temple with a very pragmatic protest (v. 20) that reveals that they understand only the surface meaning of Jesus’ words. This interchange of misunderstanding will be repeated in the story of Nicodemus (3:3–5) as well as during the encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the well (although with a much different result than Nicodemus). recurs in this Gospel (e.g. 3:3; 4:10, 32; 6:41, 51; 11:11; 14:7.).

The verb Jesus uses to speak of the raising of the Temple (egeirō) points to a second, more symbolic level of meaning, however, because that verb is also used to speak of resurrection (John 2:22; 5:21; 12:1, 9, 17; 21:14).

Clarity. Verse 21 makes the second level of meaning of Jesus’ words is now made explicit. The Evangelist tells the reader that Jesus speaks of “the temple of his body.” Since for Judaism the Temple is the locus of God’s presence on earth, v. 21 suggests that Jesus’ body is now the locus of God. Verse 21 recalls 1:51 where the Son of Man replaces Jacob’s ladder as the locus of God’s interaction with the world.

John’s commentary in v. 21 thus interprets the dialogue between Jesus and the Jews, so that the reader can discern the full meaning of Jesus’ words and the nature of the misunderstanding between Jesus and the Jews. The Fourth Evangelist frequently interjects his own voice into the narrative of the Fourth Gospel to provide the reader with insight and information the characters in the stories do not have (e.g., 6:6; 11:13, 51–52; 12:6, 33). Verse 21 enables the reader to see the sign the “Jews” miss: Jesus has the authority to challenge the temple system because he is the locus of God’s presence on earth.

In the light of the Resurrection. Verse 22, like v. 17, focuses on the interpretive witness of the disciples; but unlike v. 17, it explicitly locates their witness after Jesus’ resurrection. It recounts what the disciples “remembered.” In John 14:26, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” In John, remembrance is active reflection on the past in the light of the resurrection with the aid of the Spirit. Such reflection leads to faith and deepened understanding (see 12:16). In 2:22, remembering the past with the aid of the Spirit reveals the truth of Scripture and Jesus’ word in new ways. The combination of Scripture and Jesus’ word in v. 22 shows that the early church began to grant Jesus’ word the same authority it had already granted Scripture.

Verse 22 makes explicit the post-resurrection perspective from which the Gospel was written. Each of the Gospels is written from a post-resurrection perspective, but in John that perspective is intentionally integrated into the Gospel narrative. The distance between the disciples of Jesus in the Gospel stories and the disciples who read the Gospel stories is bridged by v. 22, because this verse points to a time beyond the end of the Fourth Gospel narrative, to a story that gets underway as the Fourth Gospel story draws to a close. Verse 22 points to the interpretive activity of believers as they remember and claim the stories and sayings of Jesus as their own.

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