in the temple

Jesus Cleansing the Temple (James Weston)

John 2:13-22

Today Jesus is in the temple. For those who pay attention to such things this seems out of order. Isn’t this an event for Holy Week? Isn’t the turning of the tables in the temple the last straw, the incendiary incident that leads to Jesus’ arrest? If so, what is it doing here, on the third Sunday of Lent? Good question. For, sure enough, in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s telling of the gospel Jesus turns the tables in the temple in that final, holy week. But here, in John’s gospel, things are often different. John’s gospel is kaleidoscopic, impressionistic, operatic. In John’s gospel Jesus turns the tables in the temple in chapter two. Things have just begun. Disciples have just been called. There has been a miracle wedding in Cana, with water turned to wine. And then, suddenly, we are in Jerusalem, at the temple, with Jesus. In John the cleansing of the temple comes at the beginning of the story, not at the end.

And a cleansing it is. Did you notice? In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus simply “drives out” the money changers in the temple. But John tells us that “making a whip out of chords”, he drives all of them out of the temple, “both the sheep and the cattle.” Jesus is here at once a cattle driver and a shepherd rounding up the livestock and herding it out into the street. Then he is back into the temple pouring out the coins of the moneychangers and overturning their tables. Jesus on a rampage, yelling at the dove sellers: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In the other gospels Jesus quotes Jeremiah’s protest in the temple: “You have made it a den of robbers.” Here it is not robbery that is at issue. Here Jesus rails again turning the home of God into a business opportunity, a for-profit venture, a commodity.

The sellers in the temple are providing a service. They are assisting the pilgrims. They are exchanging Roman coinage for temple currency, at great profit. They are selling animals for sacrifice, at great profit. The pilgrims come seeking the presence of God and find themselves caught up in an inflationary rip-off before they can get anywhere close to the holy of holies, the home of God. What would Jesus do when confronted by any system that turns the relationship with God into a commodity? He would drive it out, that is what he would do. He would not be a gentle Jesus, meek and mild. He would be an enraged Jesus, an in your face Jesus, a prophetic Jesus.

When his students see such rage in their rabbi’s eyes they recall a verse from the sixty-ninth psalm: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Psalm 69:9). Jesus is consumed by love for the home of God. We regularly forget that the church, like the temple, is intended to be the dwelling place of God. We easily begin to think of the church as a place belonging to us. Notice how often you hear people referring to “our church”. But it is never ours. We are always guests in God’s church, even if we have been part of the same congregation for a lifetime. It is never ours. It is always God’s. Jesus is consumed with zeal for God’s house. He rails against anything that places a barrier between the God who lives in this home and those guests and strangers who come to visit. Jesus occupies the ground where hucksters turn the gospel into commodity. He opposes turning the relationship with God into a marketable spiritual practice. That is, after all, what the sacrifices in the temple amount to - spiritual practices that can be taught and purchased, for a price. Buy the right book, meet the right practitioner, follow the right rules and - voila - get closer to God. No, says Jesus. The house of God is not a marketplace of strategies and disciplines and practices. It is the house of God. Period. No wonder the disciples remember the sixty-ninth psalm when they see the anger in Jesus’ eyes. Jesus is consumed by zeal for the house of God.

“What sign can you show us for doing this?” This is what “the Jews” want to know. It is what we want to know. In John’s gospel Jesus is confronted by “the Jews”. This is odd. Jesus, after all, is a Jew. So are his disciples. So are the crowds. In the operatic world of John’s gospel, late in the first century, the Jews have come to represent the others, those who oppose Jesus, those who do not comprehend him. They are the crowd yelling “Crucify”. “They” are regularly “we” in our misunderstanding, in our opposition to Jesus even as we bear the name of Jesus. Like them we want to know what sign Jesus can show for railing against our carefully constructed practices and strategies for getting closer to God. What sign can you show us, Jesus, for your rage against our system of religion?

“Destroy this temple, and in three days”, says Jesus, “I will raise it up.” Well, the Jews know about the temple being destroyed. They have seen the beloved home of God smashed to smithereens. They have wept in its ruins. They are now forty-six years into a great temple rebuild. They are like a family that has moved back into an unfinished home, worshiping in the partially reconstructed temple amidst the scaffolding and work crews. They know that rebuilding the temple is a long term project. So do we. We know that after you sell your church building it is no easy thing to rebuild a congregation. We know that the church of the 1950's with its baby-boom Sunday Schools is not reconstructed over-night. We know what it is like to worship in a church that is under construction. It means settling in for the long haul. Yet, Jesus claims it will only take three days to raise up this new temple. He confounds his audience. It will not be the only time in John’s gospel that Jesus is confounding. In the next chapter Nicodemus will wonder how he can possibly be born a second time from his mother’s womb. And in the chapter after that a Samaritan woman at the well will wonder where Jesus will get life giving water for her, since he has no bucket and the well is deep. In John’s gospel Jesus speaks on a different level, one that regularly confounds.

We are confounded by it all. And so John steps in. Suddenly the narrator speaks, offering an explanation: “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.” Here we are in only the second chapter of John’s gospel and he is already giving away the ending: “After he was raised from the dead.” John has no trouble letting us in on the ending as soon as he can. John knows that it will take the entire operatic, kaleidoscopic, impressionistic story for us to begin to grasp what has happened in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It begins earlier in this same chapter, a chapter that opens with the words “On the third day.” On the third day, what? On the third day a wedding in Cana with water turned to wine. On the third day, resurrection. “Destroy this temple,” says Jesus, “and in three days I will raise it up.” On the third day, the temple of the Lord, the home of God alive, present, real, open, here.

We are becoming accustomed to this talk of three days. We have been recovering our gospel mother tongue of the three day pilgrim journey to the temple of God. It begins in the ending of Good Friday, the day when the temple is destroyed, the day when the connection with God is broken, the day of abandonment and grief and loss. It moves to Holy Saturday, the day when hope is the air we breathe in order to live, the day when waiting lingers between despair and expectancy, the day of trusting in God to make new when we cannot make it otherwise. And then comes Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection, the day of life beyond death, life overcoming death in Jesus who approaches us from tomorrow. He, not the building, not the program, not the practice, not the ritual, not the creed, is the home of God, the temple of the Lord.

But, you say, it is still Lent. It is not Easter yet. What are we doing at the resurrection so soon? Well, it is John’s gospel today. And John sees that life is no longer chronological. The resurrection has changed all of that. Time has changed. And not just by jumping ahead one hour. Chronos time is the regular, chronological ticking of the clock. But with the resurrection we have entered kairos time, the moment in time, the opportune time, the decisive time when God draws near. This time is not restricted to a season on a calendar or a day of the year or to a church or a chapel or a cathedral. The temple of the Lord is alive in the risen body of Jesus, who welcomes in those who are far from home, from their home in the house of God.

Homelessness. Homesickness. Homecoming. This is what the gospel is about. It is about people longing to be at home. It is about orphans and lost sheep and lost sons and lost daughters. It is about outcasts and scapegoats, about sinners and gentiles and jews who are not at all sure that they belong. It is about adoption, reception, reunion. It is about a wedding banquet where the water turns to wine. It is about a welcome table where the lost are found and the last are first in line. It is about seeking God in a place and, instead, discovering God in a body broken and given. Or, maybe more to the point, it is about being discovered by God in Jesus Christ’s life blood poured out in forgiveness. Do you see? The new world of the gospel is spread before you here, now. The table is set. The feast is ready. Come from your homeless wandering. Come home to the table of Jesus Christ which crosses the barriers of time past and future. Come to live your life with the one who overcomes death with life. Come with your Good Friday trouble. Bring your Holy Saturday longing. Come and live in the wonder of Easter Sunday’s impossible newness. Come and live in Jesus Christ - the temple, the dwelling place, the home of God.

* Image from Journey with Jesus


  1. Was quite struck reading all the edition army readings leading up to this Sunday. Multiple revenues to the temple, multiple readings about the precise mere nets of the temple of the numbers of workers required to harvest the materials and erect it, of the care and deep intention that goes into this place.

    And then Jesus comes along and says, I am the temple, let's go!

    What those who built it, who maintained it, who revered it, must have thought!

  2. Chris - nice. Yes, what do we think when Jesus wipes out our precious sacred projects and invites us to live within his death and resurrection. It is at once devastating and, yet, at the same time the invitation we have long awaited. Ed