Unlike the other three Gospels that record only one Passover visit of Jesus to the Holy City, John reports three such visits (the others in 6:4; 11:55). Again, while the other Gospels report Jesus’ activity in the Temple as the proximate cause of his death, the Temple activity in John represents the opening salvo, as it were, in Jesus’ public activity, and he continues that ministry for another three years.
The word used in v. 14 for temple means the outer court of the temple, which was open to anyone, including gentiles. The sale of various animals for sacrifice (oxen, sheep, doves) was for the convenience of those who had come long distances to get to the temple, and could not bring their sacrifice with them. Such activity therefore represented an aid to temple worship, not a hindrance.
The same was true of the moneychangers. Since the imperial coins normally used by people throughout the empire bore the image of the emperor or other important person, and since no graven image was allowed within the temple precincts, such coins could not be used to pay the annual half-shekel temple tax. Only Tyrian coins, which bore no such images, were legal for that tax. Thus to help people, they were made available in that outer court. Again, they were a convenience to those who supported the temple.
When Jesus therefore equates this activity with ordinary merchandising (v. 16), he is not objecting to sharp business practices or unnecessary buying and selling. There is no word in the text about Jesus’ objecting to sharp business practices. Rather, what Jesus attacks is not corrupt business practices, but the whole temple cultus. Since without sacrificial animals, temple worship could not be carried on, what Jesus is doing is challenging the external basis upon which the whole Jewish national religious life rested. Such action can only be understood as Jesus’ conviction that temple worship was no longer valid. That in turn would presume a real messianic self-consciousness on Jesus’ part, something borne out in the remainder of John’s narrative, as in v. 16b, where Jesus makes it clear that he is acting as God’s son. Thus this cleansing is a messianic act, announcing that now that Jesus has come, the temple cultus has been superseded and outmoded.
Such a rejection of the temple cultus was not unprecedented, however. Amos, speaking in God’s name, announced such rejection: I hate, I despise your feasts … even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon (Amos 5:22). Similarly, the prophet Isaiah: proclaimed, What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of burnt offering of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of he-goats (Isaiah 1:11). Thus Jesus enacts, and fulfills, the prophetic word.
Interestingly, no one opposed Jesus during this activity. Only after it has been completed do “the Jews” (in John, Jews most often, as here, mean religious authorities) ask by what right it was done. They ask for an authenticating sign. Normally, Jesus refuses such requests. Here, however, he does accede to their request. He says that if they destroy “this temple” he will “raise it” in three days. But this is really no sign — it depends on the Jews’ willingness to destroy their own temple! The Jews’ answer is similarly derisive — how can Jesus build up again what has taken 46 years to build, and is still not finished?
Characteristically for John, Jesus’ answer is ambiguous, and in a special way. The word Jesus uses (in Greek egeirein) means “raise up”; it could be used either of rebuilding or of resurrection. As is typical in John, Jesus’ opponents take it in a secular way. In their answer to Jesus’ challenge, they use another word (in Greek oikodomein) that only means rebuild. Jesus, however, as vv. 21-22 makes clear, uses it in reference to the restoration of his own body at the resurrection.
This example of John’s use of ambiguous language — Jesus means it one way; opponents take it another — is repeated, for example, in the story of Nicodemus, where the word Jesus uses in relation to birth (in Greek anothen) can mean either anew or from above. Nicodemus takes it in the former sense, while Jesus means it in the latter.
The point of Jesus’ answer in v. 19 is that worship of God must now center on the crucified and risen Son of God. God’s glory, his Shekinah, is no longer to be found in the Jerusalem temple, but, as the Prologue has already indicated (1:14), it has now appeared in bodily form in Jesus. It is in him that one now finds God’s glory. That is why in John, Jesus appears already in some ways as the impersonation of God’s glory. He is to be sure human, but the radiance of the divine glory is already apparent in what he does and says.
That is point of this passage. Here we have a messianic act that aids our understanding of who Jesus truly is. Jesus is the one who has replaced the temple; he signifies the end of the temple cultus and its sacrificial aspects. When the final sacrifice appears on the scene, all provisional sacrifices lose their significance. Thus the cleansing announces the end of temple sacrificial cultus as unworthy of the God who has now become flesh in Jesus. This is the Jesus who illumines our Lenten path, and points to himself as the goal of these forty days of penitence.
Paul J. Achtemeier is professor emeritus of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary (now Union-PSCE) in Richmond, Va. He is the author or co-author of 14 books, as well as the former editor of the quarterly, “Interpretation.”