Chapter 2: Topical Index

Destroying the Temple (John 2:18-22)

Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said. (John 2:18-22)

The spectators at the temple demand to know what right Jesus has to toss the merchants. The form of the question, though, is unusual—they want visual confirmation, so to speak, that Jesus is acting properly. Christ's challenge to the temple is not an unthinkable one; they only demand that the challenger be properly qualified. They seek proof that Jesus is the appropriate challenger, seek typological proof that Jesus is the Christ.

The action of John’s gospel is structured around specific ‘signs’ which symbolize, in one way or another, the crucifixion and resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection are, in turn, typological acts representing the fall of Jerusalem and its temple (the crucifixion) and the subsequent reordering and reestablishing of a New Jerusalem (the resurrection), which is the church. The “temple of his body” refers to Jesus’ physical body, but also to “the Body of Christ;” what happens to Jesus on the cross and in the tomb signifies what is happening, concurrently, to the Israel of God, which is held high by the Romans as an example of sin when they crush its rebellion, and is resurrected by the power of God through the establishment of the Church. Sometimes the typological theology of the cross is overwhelmed by the more-familiar “atonement theology” which examines the cross in light of the sacrificial depictions of the Old Testament—while this is a valuable theological perspective, we can also discover additional meanings in the cross.

In this case, Jesus’ sacrificial act foreshadows the sacrifice of Jerusalem on the altar of God’s wrath; his resurrection foreshadows the rebuilding of a temple made of “living stone” (see 1 Peter 2.5-10); Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are prophetic acts, “signs” that his gospel is a true gospel. The Jews here ask Jesus for verifiable confirmation that his condemnation of the temple is divinely ordained; he replies that his own death and resurrection evidence God’s concurrent disapproval with the temple.

But none of this makes full sense—to anyone but John’s audience—until after the resurrection. Only then do his disciples connect the dots, between the crucifixion and the temple’s destruction, between Jesus’ resurrection and the building of a new Body. This late recognition is an answer to the unresolved statement of Mark 14.56-58. John’s gospel shows the false accusations against Christ to be accurate in content, but also to be distortions of meaning. Yes, Jesus did say he would rebuild the temple “without hands,” but he was not talking about a physical temple. Plenty of Christians, familiar with the Petrine and Pauline connections between the Body of Christ, Christ’s resurrected body, the temple in Jerusalem, and the heavenly temple built of living stone, can appreciate Mark’s statement even without John’s support, condemning the false witnesses for their misunderstanding and falsifications. But John’s support confirms the implicit, making it clear that Jesus’ vision was not of a new physical temple, but of one built of his own Body.

Why does this discussion follow on the heels of the temple incident? Just as the crucifixion and resurrection depict God’s coming action against Jerusalem, Jesus’ actions in the temple depict God’s judgment against the temple—Jesus cites the destruction of the temple and his concurrent crucifixion as a sufficient “sign” because that death and destruction is precisely what the overturned tables and empty sacrificial stalls signify—the end of the temple era, the departure of God’s Spirit from the temple built with hands, the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus may speak against the temple and drive out the money changers because he, unlike the temple, will outlast the coming wrath. Both will fall; one will endure. Therefore, Jesus is greater than the temple, and has the authority to transfer God’s approval from it to his Body.