The True Temple (John 2:13-25)

What’s the value of a “temple?”  No doubt even the word “temple” conjures up images from an Indiana Jones film.  Ancient ruins.  Stone colonnades.  But for nearly every major religion, the temple serves as the focal point to their faith.  And what’s all the more interesting is that the temple has a similar function in every religion.  What is a temple?  The temple is where heaven and earth are thought to intersect.  Think of it as a cosmic crossroads, where the gods come down to interact with man.  The Jewish Temple was no different.  The Temple was built as a means for Israel to experience the presence of God.

Now I know what you must be thinking.  What is the value of a “temple” in today’s world?  Surely the concept itself is leftover from a primitive, superstitious past.  Without science to explain the world, our ancestors tried to explain their world in religious terms.  We’re past that.  Our faith doesn’t rest in the temple, but the laboratory.  We don’t need a religious system.  We need a social welfare program.

There’s just one flaw in that thinking: it never happened.  As technology increased, as science progressed, it didn’t eliminate religious belief.  Instead, religion continues to flourish worldwide.  In 1994, an article in Newsweek magazine highlighted the strange relationship between faith and science:

“A funny thing has happened on the way to science’s [replacement] of faith in the last years of the millennium.  Among researchers as well as laypeople, discoveries in physics, biology, and astronomy are inspiring a sense of cosmic piety, of serene holism and even a moral code.” (Sharon Begley, “Science of the Sacred,” Newsweek, 28 Nov. 1994, 56)

This tells us that we don’t turn to the supernatural as a way of filling in the gaps in our understanding.  Spirituality is deeper than that.  We long for connection to God not merely for cognitive enrichment, but to infuse the whole of life with meaning, purpose, and significance.  It’s no wonder that so many in today’s world find themselves searching for a spiritual experience.  Even without temples made of brick and stone, people long for a way to experience God’s presence here on earth.

We see this timeless principle at work in Jesus’ day.  If you were a devoted Jew, the Temple was the centerpiece of your entire religious life.  But this wasn’t just the Jewish temple anymore.  In the ancient world, there was no “separation of church and state.”  This was Herod’s temple.  It was King Herod who—in 19 B.C.—ordered that the temple be rebuilt.  Peace was only maintained by Herod’s agreement to remodel over time rather than tear down and start from scratch.  Jewish men were trained in architecture so that outsiders would not defile the bricks with their hands.  The end result was something of a love-hate relationship with the temple: the Jews still loved and revered its purpose, but resentment lay beneath the surface like a low-grade fever.  Maybe you know the feeling; you long for the spiritual connection that church promises, yet resent the empty hypocrisy that church delivers.  It was into this very world that Jesus now strode.

John 2:13-25   The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.  15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.  16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”  17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The time was Passover—the first of three that John records.  We’re at the beginning of Jesus’ three year ministry.  The city would have been crowded with worshippers, some of whom traveled from great distances to worship at the Temple.  Rather than drag a sacrificial animal along on the journey, these Jews often purchased their sacrifice from the salesmen in the courtyard of the Temple.  It was there that Jesus causes a riot.

Usually we assume that Jesus is simply angry.  But why?  God commanded sacrifice.  Were they charging unfair prices?  Were these sacrifices unacceptable?  The answer is actually found in the pages of Zechariah, one of the last books of the Old Testament.  Zechariah says that when the Messiah comes, “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord” (Zechariah 14:21).  Are you beginning to see the significance?  When the Messiah comes, the traders are gone.  So if Jesus chases the traders away, it is a powerful and singular message: the Messiah is here.  It’s doubtful that the religious leaders would have missed this not-so-subtle point.

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”  19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”

For leaders whose allegiances were divided between Jewish custom and Roman authority, Jesus’ actions were an act of treason.  When they ask for a “sign,” what they’re really saying is: “You better be able to back this up.”

Jesus delivers a cryptic promise about the temple.  Destroyed? Rebuilt?  Three days?  The leaders are incredulous—it had taken 46 years to build just that small section of the temple; who could be so arrogant as to suggest such supremacy?

Even Jesus’ closest followers must have been speechless.  It wouldn’t be until much later that they would realize the full weight of this experience:

21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.  22 When therefore 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.

Jesus was the true Temple.  Jesus was the place—nay, person—where Heaven and earth intersected.  You want to experience God’s presence?  Look to the Temple.  But no—it’s no longer a temple of mortar and stone.  It’s a Temple made of flesh and blood and sinew.  It’s the body of Christ.  This is why Paul would tell a divided Church that Jesus is the true cornerstone of a true temple, and in Christ, we “also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).

This changes everything.  Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion; He came to transform it.  He didn’t come to remove religion; He came to redeem it.  What’s the value of a “temple?”  It’s the same as it has always been.  We are connected—to God, to each other—and because of this deep and vital connection we gather to celebrate and to express our gratitude through worship.  “Church” can be a frustrating place.  But Jesus shows us that being part of a church has less to do with being part of an institution, and more to do with being part of a body.  Therefore, we do more than merely tolerate one another; we need one another, as an arm needs a hand.

The final verses reveal that Jesus’ presence hardly went unnoticed:

23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.  24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people  25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

These verses also serve as an important transition.  Jesus is about to meet some unusual characters.  Some of them aren’t the type you’d expect to find in a “temple.”  Others possess more knowledge than understanding.  And all of them, each in their own way, look like us.