Jesus has now moved from Galilee (in the north) to Jerusalem (in the south) as the Jewish Passover feast was near (2:13). This is Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem in this Gospel. Again John the author is highlighting belief (2:22), something that, as we have seen, is commonplace to the purposes of John’s Gospel.
As Jesus is in Jerusalem he goes to the Temple and finds people selling oxen, sheep, and doves and people exchanging money (v. 14). Jesus, dismayed at this, creates a whip and drives them all out, overturning tables and forcing out the animals (v. 15). His explanatory statement for his doing this is found in v. 16, “Don’t make my father’s house into a market!” The disciples present are said to remember that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me,” a quotation from Psalm 69:9.
Understandably the Jews present want to know by what authority Jesus can clear out the Temple. They ask, “What sign will you show us for your doing this?” (v. 18).
Jesus’ response is, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). Since this is said in the presence of the physical Temple it is understandable that the Jews listening would have understood him to be making a statement about that very Temple. Their response shows this and takes the cryptic nature of Jesus’ command to be about that Temple: “This Temple has taken 46 years to build, and you’re going to raise it up in 3 days?” (v. 20).
But, John tell us that he wasn’t speaking of the physical Temple in their presence, rather he was speaking about his own body (v. 21). No one properly understood it when he uttered it though. It wasn’t until after he was raised from the dead that the disciples remembered what he said “and believed the Scripture and the words which Jesus spoke” (v. 22). So in what sense is Jesus the Temple and what did it mean for the physical Temple standing in their presence at that time?
To fill in what Jesus was meaning by calling himself the Temple that would need to be destroyed and raised, it would be helpful to consider the purpose of the Temple, in very broad strokes, throughout the Old Testament period.
The Temple-proper begins with Solomon. His father, David, had in mind to build a ‘house’ for God but God advised David that his son would build it instead (2 Samuel 7). Solomon does indeed build this ‘house’ for God, what is known as the First Temple.
This so-called First Temple or Solomonic Temple didn’t come out of nowhere in Israel’s history. It was the first permanent structure but prior to this Moses was given instructions to build a Tabernacle that would move with the people in their desert wanderings. It was to be the dwelling place of God with his people. One may even move further back than this to the Garden of Eden but we’ll save that for another time (see e.g., G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission). In fact, I won’t trace it out now, but consider reading Revelation 4-5 and 20-22 for a picture of where this all eventually leads.
Back to Solomon’s Temple; it would not last. When Babylon invaded Judah in 587 B.C. the Temple was destroyed. It was subsequently rebuilt as the exiles returned to Jerusalem around 538 B.C. It was completed in 515 and known as the Temple of Zerubbabel (Wise, “Temple,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 811). This Temple would not stand in toto through its history and would need rebuilding, resulting in Herod’s building project starting in 20/19 B.C. (idem.). Herod’s ambitions were grand and while most of the Temple was built by the time of Jesus, internal adornments and continual work was being done. It so happens that 46 years had passed at the time relayed by our text in John 2. This period has come to be known as the Second Temple period (though the terminology is not completely accurate as the Temple at the time of Jesus was sort of a 4th Temple).
About this Temple, Ezekiel speaks of God’s glory leaving it (Ezek. 43:1-12), indicating that it was seen as a place where God’s glory dwelt and at a time to come (from Ezekiel’s day) would lack God’s presence. Many Jews believed in Jesus’ day that God’s presence indeed was not there as it had been in former days. But the Ezekiel text forecasts a day when God would dwell in his peoples’s midst forever.
Then Jesus shows up on the scene and declares in the Temple’s presence, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John later understands Jesus to be talking about his body declaring Jesus to be the new Temple that the Lord had envisioned. Jesus is the new meeting place with God. Jesus is the very presence of God, the one who became flesh and tabernacled (recall our study in 1:14) among us.
In making this pronouncement and then dying and rising, Jesus also made the physical Temple obsolete. And indeed the Temple would be destroyed in 70 A.D. in the Jewish-Roman war. It was no longer the meeting place with God. The new meeting place with God would be Jesus. Know Jesus and you know God.
This is the sign Jesus offers those who questioned his authority. The sign of his death and resurrection. His authority to cleanse the Temple would be the cross and the empty tomb.