My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival. (Ps 42:2-4, NRSV)
One of the striking features of the Psalms — which may be difficult for believers today to understand — is how much the psalmists adored the temple. Yes, during these days of pandemic and virtual church, many of us long for the day when we will be able to gather safely again, face to face. But that’s not quite the same thing as the sense the Israelites had of seeing the face of God in the temple. The promise of the living, abiding presence of God in the temple went all the way back to the tabernacle of the people’s wilderness wanderings in the book of Exodus. It’s where you went to meet God, and some psalmists could imagine nothing better than spending the rest of their days there (e.g., Ps 23:6).
One might understand, then, Jesus’ outrage at what the temple system had become: a mere marketplace, or worse, a den of thieves. He therefore loudly and violently drove out the sellers and money changers. Imagine the chaos. Imagine the anger and murderous resentment of the temple authorities.
But was Jesus’ act just a critique of corruption, or something more?
. . .
As we saw in the previous post, there are differences between the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Some of the differences are slight and easily reconciled, as when one writer notes a detail that others leave out. But others are major, such as the question of whether the event happened at the beginning (John) or the end (Matthew, Mark, Luke) of Jesus’ ministry, or possibly both (as proposed by “harmonies” of the gospels).
Interpreters will probably never be in complete agreement. But it isn’t necessary to locate the event firmly in time to be able to appreciate what’s unique to John’s telling of the story. His gospel alone describes the immediate aftermath of the cleansing:
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. (John 2:17-22, NRSV)
As the disciples watched their Master in action, they thought of Psalm 69:9a: “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.” But it’s not clear that they fully understood what was happening until later, after the resurrection (and, I presume, after the resurrected Jesus sat them down and explained it to them).
The Jewish leaders asked for a sign. To them, only the Messiah had the authority to do what Jesus did; would he therefore justify his actions by proving his identity? Jesus obliged them: “You want a sign? Here’s one: destroy this temple, and I’ll raise it again in three days.” As happens so often in John’s gospel, they misunderstood (one could hardly blame them), taking Jesus’ words in a wooden, literal fashion. I imagine them scoffing at him derisively: “Crews have been working on this project for over four decades, and you could do it all by yourself in three days?”
“But,” John says, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” This is not just poetic metaphor. The temple was the place Jews went to meet God, to be in the divine presence, to behold his face. It had already been destroyed once, when the Jews were exiled to Babylon. And between the time of Jesus and the time John wrote his gospel, it had been destroyed again; no one reading John’s story could forget that fact.
“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus shouted in anger (John 2:16). The Son resented the desecration of his Father’s house by the idol of commerce; the temple should have been a place where people came to be in his Father’s presence. But more than this, Jesus identified himself with the temple, pointed to himself as the fulfillment of all that the temple signified: the living presence of God.
Where does one go to meet God? Right here, Jesus answers. That’s the part the disciples didn’t fully understand until after the resurrection.
No more temple? asks John. No problem. Jesus himself was the new temple, the embodiment of the presence of God. That’s why John, in the opening of his gospel, says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).
“Lived among us”: John’s wording is that the Word tabernacled among us.
And John, it seems, wants us to understand even more. Jesus embodied the presence of the Father; in turn, his disciples were called to be the presence of Jesus. We’ll explore that idea together on Maundy Thursday, as we look at the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.