A prelude to that final struggle

Published on 01 Mar 2018

A reflection on the gospel for the third Sunday of Lent, by Dries van den Akker SJ

John 2:13-25

1. Context

The story of the cleansing of the Temple follows immediately after the wine miracle during the wedding at Cana. John connects both stories with the words ‘went down’ and ‘went up’. At the end of the Cana narrative we hear (2:12): ‘After this he went down (kat-ebè) to Capernaum...’ And he starts the story of today with the words (2:13): ‘... and he went up (an-ebè) to Jerusalem.’

There is a second connection between both stories: ‘three days’. The Cana miracle took place ‘on the third day’ (2:1). In today’s reading, Jesus says in his answer to the Jews: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ We notice that Jesus doesn’t use the usual word for ‘temple’ here: that would be ‘hieron’, as we hear twice in the beginning verses of our text (2:14-15). He uses a different word: ‘naos’. I think that the difference between both words is decisive to understand this text. I will explain this later.

Jesus knocks the money tables over. 1130, ceiling painting. Switzerland, Zillis, St-Martin

Jesus knocks the money tables over. 1130, ceiling painting. Switzerland, Zillis, St-Martin


Today’s text is framed by the words Passover (2:13 and 23) and ‘sign’ (2:11 and 23). We will speak about Passover later. First ‘sign’.

John concludes the Cana narrative with the words (2:11): ‘This was the first of Jesus’ signs...’ John concludes the story of the cleansing of the temple with the words (2:23): ‘... many believed in his name, when they saw the signs he did.’ Immediately after that, Jesus will be visited by Nicodemus. He says to Jesus (3:2): ‘... no one could perform the signs that you do...’ ‘Sign’ is not only the framing word of today’s story, it plays a central role as well. For the Jews ask Jesus (2,18): ‘What sign can you show us that you should act like this?’ In his answer Jesus doesn’t give a sign, but he gives a mysterious answer: that he would raise up this temple in three days. John drops a little hint how to understand this reaction: Jesus spoke of ‘the temple (naos) of his body’. So, the sign Jesus speaks of will take place in the future. When he will die on the cross and ‘hand over’ his spirit, as the Greek text literally reads there (19:30).

2.  Signs

John loves the word ‘sign’. He uses it 17 times in his gospel. Significant is the fact that he uses it 16 times in the first twelve chapters. After 12:37 we don’t hear it anymore till the last verse of chapter 20, his so-called ‘first conclusion’ (20:30): ‘There were many other signs that Jesus worked...’

This is an indication that John divides his gospel book into two big parts. The first part runs from chapter 1 to chapter 12 inclusive. The second part from chapter 13 to chapter 20 inclusive, or to chapter 21 inclusive. The first 12 chapters could be called ‘the part of the signs Jesus worked.’

The meaning of the signs

Let us go back to the first sign in Cana. There Jesus changed water into wine. What does that mean? In my opinion the Cana miracle is an explanation of John’s line: ‘The law was given through Moses; grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ’ (1,17); ‘he was grace after grace’ (1:16: literally: ‘grace instead of grace’ ). In the Old Testament Moses’ law is often compared with ‘living water’ to survive the desert (of life) with. However, at the wedding at Cana there is water, but no wine (2,3). That is what his mother says to him (2,3): ‘They have no wine.’ She doesn’t say: ‘They do not have any more wine.’ No, she says: ‘They have no wine.’ That is exactly what the Greek text reads. Strange wedding: a wedding without wine. Then Jesus asks to fill the jars with water. These jars were there because of ‘the cleaning customs of the Jews’ (as reads the Greek text literally: 2,6). Jesus changes this water into wine. Is this not an explanation of John’s earlier words: ‘Moses gave the law (water); Jesus grace after grace (wine)’? When we read the Cana story in this way, we can summarize this story as follows: ‘At the wedding of God with his people, Jesus changed the water of Moses’s law into the wine of grace after grace.’

With the Law in his left and with a simple gesture of the finger of his right hand changes the water of the Law into the wine of grace. 1130, ceiling painting. Switzerland, Zillis, St-Martin

With the Law in his left and with a simple gesture of the finger of his right hand changes the water of the Law into the wine of grace. 1130, ceiling painting. Switzerland, Zillis, St-Martin. Grace after grace

In the first part of John’s gospel Jesus works ‘signs’ to illustrate that he changes Moses’s law into grace after grace. So, he heals people, where the followers of Moses’s law of his time said that sick people were unclean and not to be touched, and to be isolated. Jesus is touched (literally and metaphorically) by the unfortunate fate of these people, and the way they are judged by the representatives of the Lord. So, Jesus heals on the Sabbath day, whereas the followers of Moses’ law of his time forbade that. So, Jesus shows compassion and forgiveness whereas the followers of Moses’ law of his time had forgotten to do that. These are his ‘signs’, the visible works. And those around him had to conclude that these visible works spoke of an invisible presence of God in him. He himself will summarize that with the words (3:17): ‘God sent his son into the world not to judge, but to save’! The first part of John’s gospel is a select enumeration of anecdotes which could be considered and understood as ‘signs’ (chapters 1-12).

If we keep this in mind, then we are prepared to understand what takes place during his passion and death, the second part of John’s gospel (13-20[21]). Behind the horrible ‘outside’ of Jesus’s passion, there is a divine inside, which - so to speak - controls the situation. That he is able to take over evil and to bend it into good.

3.  Changing Evil into Good

The fact that he bends evil into good is illustrated by the word ‘handing over’ (paradidoomi). John makes this clear in the story of Jesus’ passion. There the word ‘to hand over’ is decisive. In 18:2 and 5 we hear that Judas ‘hands Jesus over’ to the high priests. The high priests ‘hand Jesus over’ to Pilate (18:30,35). He ‘hands Jesus over’ to ‘them’ to be crucified (19:16). ‘Handing over’ goes from bad to worse. However, on the cross Jesus takes over this movement. For on the cross Jesus ‘hands over’ his spirit... (19:30). John uses the word ‘hands over’ on purpose here. The word ‘handing over’, which indicates such an evil and negative movement, is restructured..., re-created by Jesus on the cross into a positive, life-giving sense. The ultimate sign!

To whom?

But John doesn’t tell to whom Jesus ‘hands over’ his spirit on the cross. That will be told in the book which follows after John’s Gospel. There we hear how the Holy Spirit  descends upon the apostles. Now we enter into the heart of the spirituality of the first Christian generation. They saw themselves as the residence of Jesus’s spirit. They compare themselves to a temple. They were the new temple of God on earth. Saint Paul gives a lot of examples (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21). And what is more interesting: Saint Paul consistently uses the word ‘naos’ there. However, the word which was used for the temple building in Jerusalem was ‘hieron’, sanctuary.

Now, let us go back to the reading of today. Jesus cleanses the ‘sanctuary’, the temple building (2:14-15). But when he answers the Jews he uses the word ‘naos’ (2:19). The Jews suppose that he is speaking of their temple and take over his word ‘naos’ in their reaction. And the storyteller John concludes (2:21): ‘But he was speaking of the ‘sanctuary’ (naos) of his body.’ John uses the words which Saint Paul uses for the faithful. They are the ‘naos’ of the Lord. They are his body (1 Corinthians 6:13-19).

If I am allowed to paraphrase Jesus’ answer to the Jews, he says: ‘Destroy the temple of my body (the residence of Gods spirit), and in three days I will raise it up into a new ‘naos’, my people, my church, the new residence of Gods spirit. In his answer Jesus points forward not only to his death and resurrection, but also to us, you and me, his faithful!

Historical background

This interpretation becomes more probable if we keep in mind the historical circumstances in which John is writing his gospel. Scholars suppose that he wrote his gospel at the end of the first century. At any rate, after the destruction of the Temple building in Jerusalem which took place in the year 70 AD. This building didn’t exist anymore. And as a result, the traditional Jewish offering rituals didn’t either. All that had disappeared about twenty years previously.

Does John suggest that Jesus anticipated that situation by cleansing the temple?

There is a second fact. In the days when John writes his gospel, the separation between the traditional Jews and the Jesus Community was already a definitive fact. That explains the hostile tone against the Jews in the whole gospel of John.

For John, the Jesus Community (the church) is the authentic consequence of God’s history with his people. Not a history of holocausts anymore, but a history of prayer. And it was the Jesus Community that had found the right way. Jesus had changed the water of Moses’s Law into the wine of grace.

Same mystery

Looking at John’s gospel in this way, we may conclude that the story of the cleansing of the temple speaks to us in the same mystery as the Cana story did. Jesus changes the traditional Jewish way of worshipping God into a new one. Not connected anymore with a temple building (hieron), though it may have been holy, but with the ‘sanctuary’ (naos) of the heart of every individual worshipper.

 ‘Jesus changes the suffering of the cross into the joy of the resurrection’ ca 1930, sculpture. France, Brittany, L

 ‘Jesus changes the suffering of the cross into the joy of the resurrection’ ca 1930, sculpture. France, Brittany, 

4. Passover into Easter

In this story Jesus points towards his resurrection. The word he uses makes that more than clear: ‘Destroy this ‘sanctuary’ and I will raise it up...’ The word ‘to raise up’ (egeiroo) alludes to the mystery of his resurrection as John himself explains: ‘He was speaking of the ‘sanctuary’ of his body; and when Jesus rose from the dead...’ There John uses the same word: ‘raise up’ (egeiroo). Now we remember that John began this story with the words, ‘The Jewish Passover was near...’ At the end of the story he is speaking about Christ’s resurrection. As if he explains with these words again that Jesus changes the traditional Jewish religion into a new one, his one, a Christian one.

Jesus raises up the people of Nicaragua

Jesus raises up in his people. ca 2000, Nicaragua

He completes this story with the words (2:23): ‘During his stay in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover many believed in his name...’ So the word Passover frames the story of the cleansing of the Temple building. It seems to be the same word at the beginning of this story and at the end. But in the meantime the word has got a new meaning. The water of Jewish Passover has been changed into the wine of the Christian Resurrection.  Underlined by John with the words that ‘his disciples believed what he had said’ (2:22).

These were almost the same words as at the end of the preceding story of Cana (2:11): ‘... and his disciples believed in him.’ John is not writing about the story of the Jewish belief anymore, but the belief of Jesus’s disciples.

This distinction is the content of the next story, Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus. The last verses of today’s reading(2:23-25) are part of the next story. Many Jews believed in his name, when they saw the signs Jesus did. But Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew the people. So, there was one of the Pharisees... Next, an example follows of those who were inclined to believe, but of whom Jesus knew the heart. That is the story of Nicodemus.

5. Violence

A final word about the way Jesus is behaving. His using violence doesn’t fit with the image we have of Jesus. First we notice that the Jews show up and hold Jesus to account when he whips the merchants out of the temple. Nobody will show up when Jesus will be scourged (19,1).

Furthermore, Jesus seems to make distinctions between people. He drives the sellers of sheep and cattle out of the temple building, as he does with the sheep and the cattle themselves. He knocks over the tables of the money changers. That is not what he does to the sellers of pigeons. To them he speaks: ‘Take all this out of here...’

He seems to be more gentle with the dove sellers. Some scholars suggest that Jesus did so because the doves were the offerings for the poor. We remember that Joseph and Mary bought two young pigeons when they presented the newborn Jesus in the temple building (Luke 2:24).

 Violence of Jesus. At the foreground on the right side, the illustration to John’s words, ‘Then his disciples remembered the words of scripture: “I am eaten up with zeal for your house.”’ ca 1570, El Greco. USA, Washington, National Gallery.

Violence of Jesus. At the foreground on the right side, the illustration to John’s words, ‘Then his disciples remembered the words of scripture: “I am eaten up with zeal for your house.”’ca 1570, El Greco. USA, Washington, National Gallery.

But there is more. John tries to make clear that Jesus is in line with the tradition, more than the traditional Jews themselves. So he refers to Psalm 69: ‘I am eaten up with zeal for your house...’ (2:17). Using the word ‘whip’, perhaps John (or Jesus himself?) alludes to Psalm 89:30-32:

‘Should his descendants desert my law, and not keep to my rulings,
should they violate my statutes, and not observe my commandments,
then I shall punish their offences with the rod, their guilt with the whip...’


But in the end we have to keep in mind that the struggle Jesus has to fight is not a fake one. The mystery is not mealy-mouthed. In the 8th chapter of John’s gospel Jesus has an argument with the traditional Jews. He tries to make clear to them that they are on the path of death. They intend to kill those who are not in line with their interpretation of the Law (8:37-39).

That reminds us that, in the end, Jesus has to fight the power of death. And he shall overcome. But not in a mealy-mouthed way. He will suffer. He will be killed indeed. But beyond death he will have victory over death. Once and for all.

I think that the violence Jesus uses when he cleanses the temple building is a prelude to that final struggle.