Cleansing the house: misunderstanding

Jesus-money-changers-giottoWhich Temple? 17 His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” In v. 17, the focus shifts to the disciples and their recollection of these events. They are interpretive witnesses (see v. 22). John, like many other NT writes sees Psalm 69:10 as pointing to Jesus’ death (e.g., Matt 27:34, 48; Mark 15:23, 36; John 19:28; Rom 15:3). Verse 17 alters Ps 69:10 slightly, however, and that alteration is theologically significant. In the Hebrew and Greek versions of Ps 69:10, the verb “consume” refers to past events, but in the disciples’ recollection of the verse, the verb is translated as a future tense (“will consume me”). Psalm 69:10 thus functions as a prophecy of the time when Jesus will be consumed—that is, his crucifixion. This use of Ps 69:10 gives the temple cleansing a christological emphasis. In the synoptic Gospels, the OT quotations draw attention to the Temple, but Ps 69:9 fixes the reader’s attention on Jesus. John’s temple story is ultimately about Jesus’ fate, not the Temple’s.

The Need for A Sign 18 At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  The cleansing of the Temple was a startling act. It had its implications not only for the condemnation of the Temple traders, but also for the Person of Jesus. It was a messianic action. The Jewish leaders demanded that Jesus authenticate his implied claim by producing a “sign” (sēmeion). Interestingly they did not dispute the rightness of his action. They were not so much defending the Temple traffic as questioning Jesus’ implied status. Their demand arose from the facts that the Jews were a very practical race and that they expected God to perform mighty miracles when the messianic age dawned. Thus their test for a messianic claimant was, “can he do the signs of the Messiah?” St. Paul thought of the Jewish people as seekers of signs just as typically as the Greeks were pursuers of wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22). In the Temple cleansing the Jews discerned a messianic claim (note again how faithfully John records anything that bears on Jesus’ messiahship), and they demanded accordingly that he authenticate himself by a sign.

Misunderstanding. 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?”

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). This dynamic recurs in this Gospel (e.g. 6:41, 51; 11:11; 14:7).

Clearly standing in the Temple precinct, the words “this temple” will naturally lead to assuming Jesus is talking about the Temple built by Herod the Great. The rebuilding of the Temple was begun roughly 19 bce. 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 that is historically plausible.

Perhaps interesting is the phrase “Destroy this temple.” The word destroy (lysate) appears in the imperative – as though a command – but also allowed to be understood as a conditional “if…then.” It raises the possibility that there is an implied “You! Destroy this temple” or “If you destroy this temple…” Perhaps the Jewish leaders are simply perplexed, “Why in the world would we ever destroy this temple?” That might be one hint there is an alternative meaning in play.

A second hint might be that Jesus does not talk about reconstruction of the Temple. In Jesus’ response, he does not say “rebuild” but rather “raise.” While the three days is perhaps vague, it was part of Jewish thinking that the spirit of a person hovered at the grave for three days before departing – so there is some basis for pausing to reconcile 46 years vs. three days. Added to that, the verb Jesus uses to speak of the raising of the Temple (egeirō) points to a second, more symbolic level of meaning. That verb is also used to speak of resurrection (John 2:22; 5:21; 12:1, 9, 17; 21:14).

There may well be a lot that pointed away from the natural assumption of pointing to the Temple edifice. Given that, the leaders of the Jews have choice (as will Nicodemus and the Samaritan women) as to how they will understand Jesus’ response. The leaders choose to respond to Jesus’ words about the physical Temple and do so with contempt (v. 20).

Notes

John 2:17 Zeal for your house will consume me: The wording from Ps 69:10 is changed to future tense to apply to Jesus.

John 2:19 Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up: This saying about the destruction of the temple occurs in various forms (Mt 24:2; 27:40; Mk 13:2; 15:29; Lk 21:6; cf. Acts 6:14). Mt 26:61 has: “I can destroy the temple of God…” In Mk 14:58, there is a metaphorical contrast with a new temple: “I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.” Here it is symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection and the resulting community (see Jn 2:21 and Rev 21:2). In three days: possibly an Old Testament expression for a short, indefinite period of time; cf. Hos 6:2. Raise…up: The verb used is egeirō basically means (transitive) waken, incite, excite, raise or intransitively awaken, be active, stand up, rise. It appears in the NT most often as a synonym for “resurrect.”

John 2:20 forty-six years: based on references in Josephus (Jewish Wars 1, 21, 1 #401; Antiquities 15, 11, 1 #380), possibly the spring of A.D. 28.

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