Sunday, 12 June 2011

Jesus Clears the Temple - John's View

So to continue where I left off yesterday....

While Mark and Matthew place this story late in Jesus ministry, John places it at the start.  It forms part of John's counterpart to Matthew and Mark's "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand", and Luke's story of Jesus preaching in Nazareth.

John has two commencement stories.  The first, the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, is not quite a public act, because although the wedding itself is a public event most of those present don't seem to know what has happened.  The story is also a deeply symbolic one.  The wine is symbolic of the life and vitality of the Kingdom of God.  Hence, when the original wine supplied for the wedding runs out, we should take this as indicating the bankruptcy of the old order, the order of priests and sacrifices which Jesus was confronting. 

Jesus' response is to ask them to fill with water, and then draw from, the jars which the household would use for washing - that is, jars for "unclean" water.  The response of the bridegroom (who perhaps represents God) is that the wine which comes from these jars is better than the original.  Thus the new life of God's kingdom, drawn from those excluded from the old order, is superior to the old.  This is the same message we saw in the passage from Isaiah 56, where the unclean - the eunuchs and "the nations" - are given a permanent place in God's temple.

By contrast, the clearing of the temple is very clearly a public act.  In outline John's version of the story is similar to that in Mark and Matthew, but it has important differences.  Firstly, the references to Isaiah and Jeremiah are replaced by a much simpler statement - "Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

Secondly, in typical Johannine fashion the action is followed by a dispute with the Jewish leaders.

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Here we see three things: the Jews' question, Jesus' response, and John's interpretation.  The Jews, in essence, ask Jesus to prove he has the right to give orders in the temple precinct, perhaps by performing a miracle.  Jesus' answer is cryptic - "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."  For the Jews this is a complete impossibility.  For a start, the first part of his challenge is absurd - they are not going to destroy the temple at his request.  The second part is equally absurd - how can anyone complete such a huge contruction project in three days?  The exchange is left incomplete - was Jesus arrested?  Was he expelled from the precinct?  What happened to the market?

These questions don't concern John, who skips years forward to report the way the disciples came to interpret this message much later - "But the temple he had spoken of was his body."  In other words, Jesus himself takes the place of the temple.  The nations, the eunuchs, the unclean, will not gather in the physical temple.  As we know the temple was soon to be destroyed.  Instead, they will gather around Jesus.  The new Kingdom of God, which is so much better, so much more lifegiving than the old, is not tied to the Jewish nation or the site on Mount Zion.  The destruction of that temple, symbolically prefigured in Jesus' action,  is just one of the events that ushers in the new Kingdom.  The pivotal event is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the animation and living presence of God among us.

At whatever point in Jesus' life this story takes place, the message is the same.  The old system of sacrifices and temple worship is irreparably damaged, because it is practiced in the face of hypocrisy and compromise.  Jesus' solution is not to reform it and purify it.  It is to build something new, something better, something that can give the kind of life the old worship could never give.

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