The Temple of Jerusalem was the only place where the Israelites could offer sacrifices to God. By allowing unscrupulous practices to be blatantly conducted on the premises, the Temple authorities commercialised and contaminated God’s dwelling place. The Court of Gentiles became unsuitable for worship. The merchants exploited the pilgrims in the matter of sales of sacrificial animals and money exchange. Like the leaven cleaning before Passover in the Jewish houses, Jesus cleaned his Father’s house by expelling the corrupt merchants and their merchandise. When the Jewish authorities questioned him, he predicted his resurrection as a sign of his authority over his Father’s house. “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16). Let us keep our lives as the holy dwelling place of God.
(John 2:13) As the Passover of the Jews was at hand, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. (14) In the Temple court he found merchants selling oxen, sheep and doves, and moneychangers seated at their tables. (15) Making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the Temple court, together with the oxen and the sheep. He knocked over the tables of the money-changers, scattering the coins, (16) and ordered the people selling the doves, “Take all this away and stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (17) His disciples recalled the words of Scripture: Zeal for your house consumes me like a fire (18) The Jews then questioned Jesus, “What sign can you show us, which proves your right to do this?” (19) And Jesus said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (20) The Jews then replied, “The building of this Temple has taken forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” (21) Actually, Jesus was referring to the temple of his body. (22) Only when he had risen from the dead did his disciples remember these words; then they believed both the Scripture and the words Jesus had spoken.
(Jn 2:13) As the Passover of the Jews was at hand, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Passover, one of the three Pilgrim Festivals, was a commemoration of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt and their formation as an independent nation under God’s protection and the leadership of Moses. The Israelites celebrated the feast on 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan and it lasted for a week (Lev 23:4-14;
Deut 16:1-8). After the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, they celebrated the feast there. Every adult Jew living within 15 miles around Jerusalem had to attend the Passover in the Temple. However, all Jews, regardless of how far away they lived, came to the Temple during this main feast.
Jesus had attended the Temple services several times. His mother Mary and foster father Joseph had presented him in the Temple when he was an infant (Lk 2:22-38). When he was twelve years old, his parents took him to the Temple (Lk 2:41-52). Jesus might have attended the feast of Passover and other feasts in the Temple several times during the thirty years of his private life. The evangelists have not documented them because those visits were insignificant for the readers. During the three years of his public ministry, Jesus celebrated three Passovers in Jerusalem (Jn 2:13; 6:4; and 11:55).
(14) In the Temple court he found merchants selling oxen, sheep and doves, and moneychangers seated at their tables.
The Temple had four courts: The Court of the Priests, the Court of Israel, the Court of the Women, and the Court of the Gentiles. The outer court of the Gentiles was the only space in the Temple where Gentiles could enter and pray. The Law banned them from entering the inner courts. If anyone violated it, they put him to death (Acts 21:27-32). Business activities related to Temple worship and sacrificial offerings were being transacted in an exploitative manner in the Court of Gentiles. So, the merchants and the Temple authorities made the place of worship unfit for the intended purpose. The money exchange and animal sales had formerly been taking place on the Mount of Olives. Later the merchants bribed the Temple authorities and shifted their business to the Court of Gentiles, making it unholy, stinky, noisy, and unjust.
Merchants selling oxen, sheep, and doves
The business at the Court of Gentiles was not for selling and buying of general merchandise but a necessary service for the pilgrims coming for Passover from different countries. Leviticus chapters 1 to 7 describe five kinds of sacrifices: The burnt offering, the meal-offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. The pilgrims coming from faraway places found it convenient to buy sacrificial animals or doves near the Temple. The Bible scholars believe that such business started after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. By that time, the Israelites were dispersed and came to the Temple for the main feasts from foreign countries. So, the availability of sacrificial items near the Temple was a blessing for them, provided the merchants did it with justice and without disturbance to the Temple worship.
Adult pilgrims must offer half-shekel for the service of the Temple. “Everyone subject to the census, that is to say, of twenty years and over, must pay the sum set aside for the LORD. The rich man is not to give more, nor the poor man less, than half a shekel in their contribution to the LORD to pay the forfeit for their lives” (Ex 30:14-15). The Jewish authorities prohibited coins with images for Temple offering. Pilgrims were coming from different countries with Syrian, Egyptian, or Greek coins. The pagans stamped such coins with the symbols or images of their monarchs. The pilgrims had to exchange them for acceptable coins in the Temple.
(15) Making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the Temple court, together with the oxen and the sheep. He knocked over the tables of the moneychangers, scattering the coins…
If the business at the Temple was a needed service for the pilgrims, why did Jesus become furious, attack the merchants, drive out the animals, spill the coins, and overturn the tables? There were several reasons for his action.
1. Jesus got upset that the Temple authorities allowed the shifting of shops and money changers from the Mount of Olives to the Court of Gentiles. He might have noticed the change during the past years and was waiting to act during his public ministry. The Court of Gentiles, once a place of worship, became a crowded, noisy, dirty, and stinky marketplace with animals, their food, cow dung, goat manure, bird poop, sellers, and buyers. They were dishonouring the Temple and denying the Gentiles a worship atmosphere. By his aggressive act, Jesus showed that the Gentiles also had rights in his Kingdom.
2. The animals and birds that the pilgrims offered for sacrifices in the Temple must be unblemished. The priests had appointed inspectors to examine these animals and birds. They used to reject animals and birds brought from outside for minor reasons. It was a secret deal between the priests and merchants in the Temple to exploit the pilgrims by charging an unjust price for the animals and birds sold in the Temple. Jesus revolted against this religious exploitation.
3. Though money exchange could be a service, the money changers charged an exorbitant conversion fee from the pilgrims. Jesus could not tolerate that abuse.
So, the Jewish leaders destroyed the genuine spirit of prayer and selfless service in the Temple. That made Jesus furious enough to go on the offensive. It has been a Jewish custom that the woman of the family would do a general cleaning of the house and remove any leaven on the eve of Passover. To make it sure, the head of the family inspected and carefully removed any last particle of leaven left unnoticed in the house. Similarly, Jesus was cleansing the Temple which was his Father’s house to prepare for his Passover sacrifice.
Since merchants sold animals in the Court of Gentiles, it was easy for Jesus to find ropes there. Collecting several cords, he could make a whip. He drove the animals and merchants from the Temple area. That was a single-person revolt. The unexpected action, the popularity of Jesus as a prophet, his fame as a miracle worker, his public support, the intensity of his facial expressions, and the guilt feelings of the merchants that they were doing wrong, might have prevented the merchants from resisting or counter-attacking Jesus then and there.
(16) … and ordered the people selling the doves, “Take all this away and stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!”
Jesus was relatively soft on the dove-merchants. He gave the reasoning for his actions. He did not like the sight of the Temple as a marketplace. Jesus revealed himself as the Son of God by expressing that the Temple was his Father’s house.
Jesus’ action was also a fulfilment of Malachi 3:1-2. “Now, I am sending my messenger ahead of me to clear the way; then suddenly the LORD for whom you long will enter the sanctuary. The messenger of the covenant whom you so greatly desire is coming, says the LORD of hosts. Who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like fire in the foundry and like the lye used for bleaching.” John the Baptist came as the messenger and Jesus came to purify the Temple.
(17) His disciples recalled the words of Scripture: Zeal for your house consumes me like a fire
When the disciples witnessed the brave action of Jesus in the Temple, they remembered King David’s Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house burns me like fire, and those who insult you insult me as well.” David was expressing his passion for the house of God that also became a prediction and fulfilment in Jesus’ life.
The house of God could mean the Tabernacle or the Assembly of God. King David was very zealous for the house of God. Though he wished to build the Temple, God did not allow him to do so during his reign. However, he expressed his zeal for the house of God:
1. King David brought the Tabernacle to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:12-19) and during the Ark’s transportation, David was jumping and dancing before the Lord (v. 16).
2. David was enthusiastic to build a permanent and splendid dwelling for the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 7:2; Ps 132:2-5).
3. David carefully collected all materials needed for building the Temple (1 Chr 29:1-5).
4. Since God did not allow David to build the Temple, he handed over all the building materials and the design to Solomon, his son and successor (1 Chr 28:11-21).
King David spent his entire life to unify the scattered Israelite tribes and to build up the Assembly of God (2 Sam 5:1-5). The enthusiastic actions of Jesus to unify all nations including the Israelites and the Gentiles in his new Temple remind David’s zeal for the unification of Israelites. David prepared every material needed for the Temple. So also, Jesus prepared everything necessary for the new Israel. Just as David did not build the Temple, Jesus let the Holy Spirit inaugurate his church on the day of Pentecost. He also allowed the apostles to build up the church.
In his attempt to purify Israel, Jesus did the dramatic action of cleansing the Temple of God by expelling the merchants and their merchandise. It conveyed the need to rectify the evils in the then Judaism.
(18) The Jews then questioned Jesus, “What sign can you show us, which proves your right to do this?”
Jesus’ revolutionary act shocked the Jews. Besides, he claimed that he was the son of God by relating the Temple as his Father’s house. So, they asked for proof of his authority. The mere performance of miracles was not enough for them to prove his authenticity as a prophet (Deut 13:2-5).
John the Baptist had testified about Jesus to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism: “The axe is already laid to the roots of the trees; any tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire… He has the winnowing fan in his hand and he will clear out his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn in everlasting fire” (Mt 3:10-12). Jesus had shown this spirit of fire in the cleansing of the Temple.
(19) And Jesus said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up”
The communication on the Temple’s destruction and restoration had distinct meanings for Jesus and the Jews. Though the Jews took the Temple in the natural sense, Jesus was talking about himself as the Temple of God. The Temple stands for the divine presence of God among the people. Jesus was the perfect temple and far better than the Temple Herod the Great rebuilt. It lacked the original ark and the shekinah cloud. For Jesus, the Temple’s destruction was his crucifixion and its restoration was his resurrection on the third day.
(20) The Jews then replied, “The building of this Temple has taken forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?”
The Jews, and even the disciples, could not grasp what Jesus meant when he said on the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple in three days. They were taking it in a natural sense on the Temple that King Herod the Great reconstructed.
King Solomon had built the first Temple in 950 BC (1 Kgs 6:1). Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon destroyed it in 586 BC (2 Kgs 24-25; 2 Chr 36). After the Babylonian exile, Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah constructed another Temple at the same location with the decree he received from the then Persian King Darius. Its dedication was in 515 BC (Ezra 6:15- 18). People called it Zerubbabel’s Temple or the Second Temple.
At the dedication of that Temple, the older Jews who could recollect the First Temple got disappointed. It was 90 feet less, with fewer resources, and was less majestic compared to the Solomon’s Temple. The most precious and holy items like the Ark of the Covenant and God’s glorious presence or Shekinah were missing.
King Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple, enlarging it and making it magnificent like that of Solomon’s Temple. The reconstruction started in 19 BC and continued even after Jesus’ resurrection until 63 AD without interruption to the sacrifices. Though the builders completed the major portion of the Temple before the death of King Herod the Great in 4 BC, the construction continued. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, 10,000 skilled labourers were at work. Since the holy areas were off-limits for non-priests, 1,000 Levites received training as builders and masons to do the work. Wealthy Jews in the diaspora contributed generously to beautify the Temple.
When Jesus spoke about destroying and reconstructing the Temple in three days, the last stages of the construction were still going on. The phrase Jesus used for “raise up” could mean either reconstructing a building or raising from the dead.
(21) Actually, Jesus was referring to the temple of his body
The body is the dwelling place of the soul of a person. When the soul departs, the body becomes useless and gets decayed. Jesus is God, the Word incarnate. He took human form (Jn 1:14). So, his body became the dwelling place or the temple of God. The Sanhedrin along with Pilate destroyed Jesus, the temple of God, by crucifixion. That very same ‘temple’ was resurrected on the third day, as Jesus had predicted. The disciples understood the true meaning of “raise it up” only after his resurrection. The Evangelist John gives his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ words here for his readers.
(22) Only when he had risen from the dead did his disciples remember these words; then they believed both the Scripture and the words Jesus had spoken
The disciples believed in the word Jesus had spoken, refers to his prediction on his resurrection. He had foretold his resurrection also at other times. When the Scribes and Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus, he said: “An evil and unfaithful people want a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. In the same way that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish, so will the Son of Man spend three days and three nights in the depths of the earth” (Mt 12:39- 40). While going to Jerusalem he took his apostles aside and said: “See, we are going to Jerusalem. There the Son of Man will be given over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law who will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the foreigners who will make fun of him, scourge him and crucify him. But he will be raised to life on the third day” (Mt 20:18-19; Lk 18:32-33). However, the disciples did not take these seriously until Jesus’ resurrection.
The Jewish leaders took these words of Jesus on his resurrection seriously. They asked Pilate’s permission to guard the tomb of Jesus so the disciples would not remove his body and claim resurrection (Mt 27:62-66). Since the disciples had no clue on this, they did not wait at the tomb of Jesus. When they noticed the empty tomb of Jesus and had seen Jesus with his celestial body after resurrection, they remembered the words of Jesus on the destruction and restoration of the Temple and associated them with his own resurrection.
The Evangelist John states that “they came to believe the scripture” which means the predictions on the resurrection of Jesus in the Old Testament. There are many such predictions in the Scripture. For example, Psalm 16:10 states: “For you will not abandon my soul to the Underworld; nor will you allow your holy one see decay.” Peter referred to this in his speech on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:31) and Paul in his address in the synagogue
(Acts 13:35-37). Other predictions are Psalm 30:4; 49:16, and 86:13. Hosea 6:2 says: “He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his presence.” The disciples understood that the scripture came to its fulfilment in Jesus.
1. Jesus used to attend the synagogue services and Temple sacrifices regularly. When he was a child, Joseph and Mary used to take him to the Temple, though the Holy Family was living in Nazareth which was far away from Jerusalem. Do we make sure that we and our children attend religious services regularly?
2. Jesus acted with anger when he found that the authorities in collusion with the merchants made the Temple dirty, noisy, and unjust. Are we keeping our church holy and fit for worship?
3. Even after Jesus proved his authority through his resurrection on the third day, his enemies did not believe in him. The basis of our faith is beyond reasoning and proof. We also need a close encounter with Jesus by listening to his words and imitating his actions.
4. As Saint Paul taught: “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16). Let us keep our life a holy dwelling place for God.
5. Many Christians, who once made their life holy through baptism and other sacraments, make the Holy Spirit’s dwelling place unholy by a sinful life or ignoring God. Let us pray for them.
6. Many in the world have not yet heard of Jesus. Others have lost faith and keep themselves detached from the church. Only a few become “the temple of the living God.” Let us pray for them and for all missionaries all over the world.