More than just belief (part 1)

I believe in order to understand.
— St. Augustine

Some things we both believe and understand. I believe, for example, that Jesus lived, and that he died on my behalf.

Some things we believe, even if we don’t quite understand. I believe that Jesus was both God and man. I believe in a triune God, a God who is three persons in one. But I doubt that I will ever fully understand how these things can be.

Modern western society would counsel us against believing anything that we cannot first understand with our reasoning minds. A more postmodern perspective casts doubt on the very objectivity of our understanding, blurring the distinction between belief and understanding.

And then there’s Augustine (and after him, St. Anselm), who said, “I believe in order to understand.” There are some things we must believe first, if we are to have any hope of understanding.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the first act of Jesus’ public ministry in the gospel of John is a real doozy: he walks into the crowded outer court of the Jerusalem temple and forcibly drives out the sellers and money-changers. It’s a bold statement, and the reactions are instructive. In this post, we’ll look at the response of the Jewish leaders; in the next, the response of the disciples.

According to John, the Jewish leaders watched the chaos as Jesus cleansed the temple and then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18, NRSV). I might have expected them to object more strenuously: “Hey, stop that!  What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are?”

But maybe they were just as astonished as the crowd, shocked into silence. Maybe some of them secretly objected to the fact that the temple court had become something of a bazaar, and were quietly taking delight in the spectacle.

And maybe John decided that anything else they had to say wasn’t important enough to include in his story. But from what he did include, it seems the only question that mattered was, “Who do you think you are?”

When Jesus taught the crowds, he did so with an authority that held them in thrall (e.g., Matt 7:28-29). When he did miracles, the crowds and his disciples alike were amazed at the authority such power represented (e.g., Matt 8:27; 9:8). And when he upset the temple system, people knew: only God’s Messiah could have the authority to do this.

In response, the Jewish leaders asked for a sign to authenticate his right to act so brazenly. But the question itself is brazen. They’re not simply putting in a polite request for more information. Nor are they saying, “Wow, you must be the Messiah! Praise God! But we’ve been let down so many times, we need to be sure. So could you do us this one teensy-weensy favor?” Rather, I imagine a boy saying to his father, “What right do you have to tell me what to do?” Here, the request for a sign is a mark of unbelief (see, e.g., Matt 12:39), something along the lines of, “You’re not the boss of me — unless you can do something that would really knock my socks off.”

And remarkably, Jesus agrees to give them a sign. But it’s not the kind they expect. “Destroy this temple,” he says, “and in three days I will raise it up” (vs. 19).

You can hear the scoffing in the words John records: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” (vs. 20). The reconstruction of the temple was a long-term project, begun by Herod the Great in part to curry favor with the people, and the work was still incomplete. Obviously, what Jesus claimed was impossible. Obviously.

They are blinded by unbelief. They take Jesus’ words literally, and snort derisively at him. In John’s Greek, the word “you” is emphatic: “You? You’re going to build a whole temple by yourself in three days?” Again: “Who do you think you are?”

John explains: Jesus meant the temple of his body (vs. 21). Resurrection would be the sign. But they didn’t get it. Not because they were incapable of understanding with their minds, but because they already didn’t believe.

How much better did the disciples do? We’ll tackle that in the next post.