Rome’s army destroyed the temple in 70 AD when they wiped out most of Jerusalem. That was 37 years or so after Jesus’ death, 20 some years before the gospel of John was written.
John was written looking back at a time when the temple was still in effect, but knowing that it would be destroyed. That’s important to remember, because there’s a kind of time warp when a gospel writer talks about, or quotes Jesus talking about, the temple. Things were interpreted already knowing the end of the story.
But even so, from the time of the first temple built by Solomon, through its destruction in the Exile and consequent rebuilding by Herod the Great, the temple was understood to be God’s dwelling place, a sign of the covenantal promise of divine presence. That’s where God – or at least God’s name – was said to dwell. Although God was everywhere, God was especially present there, behind a huge curtain in the holy of holies.
God’s proximity was dangerous. Although this was ancient belief, it’s still something to think about. One cannot tame or manage God. But ancient Israel had been given a safety valve. The wellbeing of the people could be assured and inevitable transgressions covered through sacrificial rites and rituals performed in the temple. Biblical law proscribed these policies to be enacted by priests descended from priestly lineage established way back in the day of the 12 tribes and Moses. Jews scattered throughout the region by the Babylonian exile 500 years prior, continued to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. The temple was a big honkin’ deal – a powerful symbol (the most powerful symbol) binding Jewish people in their common identity as the people of God.
But it was complicated.
Temple priests were resented because of that inherited status, and because of their connection to, and complicity with, Roman authority. Alienation between temple officials and kindred who suffered under imperial and religious power drove a wedge between class and clan. And Rome ruled even the religious roost. Roman officials appointed the chief priest – and he served their interests – or he was replaced. Roman treasuries benefited from the temple marketplace, and the market was a necessary feature of temple worship. You couldn’t schlep a sheep from Syria. Buying local was the thing to do. Roman and Greek coins with the image of Caesar or Hermes were profane and had to be exchanged for temple coins.
At Passover, the population of Jerusalem exploded, bringing an increased need for services of all kinds including an increased presence of Roman troops for crowd control. Disruption in the buying and selling of sheep and doves, goats and grain would not go unnoticed. Spilling tables full of coin boxes would not fail to create a commotion – like kids scrambling for quarters and candy at Fastelavns.
In this volatile setting, Jesus makes a whip, drives out the sacrificial animals, pours coins out onto the ground and tips over tables. He’s shouting. He’s clearly angry.
But in John, it’s not what you think.
This is the second event on Jesus’ appointment calendar, coming immediately on the heals of the wedding in Cana where he had a really good time. And it’s called the second of his signs, the second manifestation of God – what’s going on? Why is he so mad?
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Jesus enters the temple courtyards and finds what one would expect to find during a pilgrimage festival. Everything is as it should be for the required sacrifices of a high holy day….. the boisterous crowds, pens of animals, vendors hawking their goods. The various trades and booths are in place for the exchange of coins, and critters, and oil and incense and grains and wine as prescribed by Levitical law. Nothing is out of order — for a moment or two.
In the other gospels, this story – where Jesus kind of goes berserk – occurs at the end of his life. It is a final straw proving him to be a dangerous, out of control rabble rouser – an insurrectionist. But here in John, Jesus’ concern is not one of justice or temple malfeasance. He doesn’t call it a “den of robbers” as he does in other accounts. It’s not an issue of exploitation of the poor. What he says, is that his Father’s house should not be made into a marketplace. But Jesus is an observant Jew. He and his disciples have made the pilgrimage from Capernaum. There is no mention of them lugging along a lamb on their shoulders. And for the temple system and religious protocols to function and survive, a noisy marketplace is exactly what the temple courtyards need to be. So….?
Sacrifices were made for thanksgiving and for the forgiveness of sin. Sacrifice was a transaction of exchange – give a goat, get God’s grace. If you are too poor to buy a lamb, two turtledoves will do.
Jesus is calling out a complete dismantling of institutional atonement. He is enacting a radical change of theology. When he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he is referring to his body, the Temple, the indwelling presence of God in he, himself. John the Baptist twice called Jesus the Lamb of God. Where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary.
Where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary.
Now, one could receive that as good news of great joy that has come to all people…. but mostly they didn’t.
Jesus is a complete outsider to the power structure of the temple, yet he challenges its authority on one of the busiest, most significant feast days of the year. Neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. It’s little wonder that the Jews asked for a sign of his authority to do this. I don’t imagine it was a very polite request. What possible right did he have to ruin the transactions of worship?
The right he claimed was a different kind of exchange.
There is an old atonement theory popularized by Anslem of Canterbury called the satisfaction theory – that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind, satisfying the demands of God’s honor. Martin Luther called it the Happy Exchange: in his innocence, Jesus takes on our sin; in exchange, we receive his purity and innocence before God. (In Luther’s colorful words, the Harlot becomes a chaste bride).
That may be the way it works, but I hope not. I hope that God does not require innocent blood for forgiveness; that punishment is not the prerequisite for grace. I hope that forgiveness has something to do with God’s abundant, passionate love for the creatures of God’s design. I have this ongoing argument with the church. And I’m not alone.
“Jesus was an ambiguous figure,” writes Marcus Borg—“you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did [in Mark 3, for example], or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat—or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.”
This story is the second of seven signs in the gospel of John – and at first it seems hard to see why it’s designated as an epiphany, a God-Sighting. Jesus is acting rather peevish and human. But if it is a sign of God’s presence then it means that God shines out of Jesus and through his actions.
Locating the temple clearing episode in the beginning of Jesus’ public life instead of at its end, may be precisely so that we don’t see it as an exchange of life for life – but rather that we see it as a release of life; a freeing from rituals and rules and exchanges and transactional theology. So that we might take what comes at the end of this gospel seriously when Jesus prays, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them in love.” 17:25, 26
Where we look for God, expect to find God, imagine God to be are all thrown into the air in the Gospel of John. We are called to think again, to see what is put before us with fresh eyes – “to see Jesus again for the first time,” as Markus Borg writes. Maintaining, sustaining the church or religion is not the goal. The stated purpose of this gospel is to witness to the presence of God out and about in the world; to see it, believe it, to follow Christ, imitate Jesus in enacting divine love through human actions of forgiveness, inclusion, dwelling with, abiding in God, being one with our neighbors and even our enemies.
Steeples may crumble, the church may fall, but where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary. It’s an unsettling word.
May we hear the gracious word of life, and see and tell, and grow and invite and go on with our daily lives with a new spirit in tow.