John 2:12–25 | The True Temple

by Lindsay Kennedy

Posted on: October 6, 2019

When we think of Jesus, is he domesticated? While Jesus is indeed gentle and kind, Scripture also presents him as a righteous judge. One who truly loves good will also hate evil. The story of Jesus cleansing the temple illustrates this fact well: there are some things for which Jesus has no tolerance. Sometimes he will surprise us and do things we do not expect. Like Aslan, Jesus isn’t “safe,” but he is good.

This is not to say that Jesus is out of control. In fact, there is nothing in this text indicating that he was reckless in his actions. Rather, his actions are deeply calculated and intentional.

How Many Times Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple?

Before we look at the meaning of Jesus’ actions, a problem presents itself. This story, at the beginning of John’s Gospel, is very similar to one that appears at the end of Jesus’ story in the other Gospels (Matt 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46). This can trouble some readers. There are two main options for resolving this apparent problem:

  1. Jesus cleansed the temple on two occasions. This one in John’s Gospel was early in his ministry, while the Synoptic Gospels (Matt-Luke) record the second time towards the end of his ministry.
  2. The Gospels are not trying to present a chronology in the way we may expect. While Luke presents itself as a careful and orderly report of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1), John tells us that his Gospel is written that we may believe. His focus is on provoking faith, and so this affects his telling of Jesus’ story.

Many unbelieving scholars prefer the second option because they already believe the Gospel writers had no concern for accuracy and that the true events are lost to us. Some conservative scholars respond by trying to harmonize these events historically; there is no reason Jesus could not have performed two temple cleansings in his life. 

However, when it comes to the meaning of the passage, this question doesn’t really help. For example, if there were two cleansings in history, the Synoptics didn’t tell this story at the beginning of his ministry. And if there was one event, John chose to tell it here at the beginning of his Gospel. The question to ask then, is why did John tell this story, and why did he tell is here? I believe that the way forward is by 1) being concerned about what is included by the Gospel writers rather than what is excluded, and 2) giving our attention to the text rather than attempts at historical reconstruction. While the question of history is important for apologetics, it is less important for understanding the story’s meaning. As disciples of Jesus, meaning should be our foremost concern.

The Temple Sign

In our previous post we suggested that Jesus performed seven “signs” and that these were not simply miracles to show Jesus’ power but actions that speak of Jesus’ glory with deep symbolic meaning. While it’s debated whether this event should be considered one of the Signs, I believe it is. This would affect our total count, making Lazarus’ raising the seventh sign. 

While there are several similarities with the temple cleansing in the Synoptic Gospels, John’s emphasis  is slightly different. The Synoptics use the cleansing as part of Jesus’ reaction to Jerusalem and his actions serve as a foreboding judgment on the city. However, John’s attention is more on Jesus than Jerusalem. Remember that John begins his Gospel by “spoiling the ending.” He tells us that Jesus is one with God. He tells us that his people will reject him. He also tells us that Jesus “tabernacled” with us. Jesus already told Nathaniel that he was the true temple in John 1 (the bridge between heaven and earth). By having this story here, the emphasis is on the person of Jesus and his glory. John focuses on Jesus’ superiority:

  • Jesus, the Lamb, casts out the animals from the temple on Passover.
  • Jesus’ zeal for the temple is highlighted.
  • Jesus redirects the Jews away from the temple and towards himself.
  • Jesus’ concern is less with the temple’s destruction but his own death and resurrection.

Instead of the Synoptics, where Jesus’ identity is gradually developed until the “big reveal” where Peter confesses him as Messiah, John is regularly “spoiling the ending” so that we can see something of Jesus’ glory every step of the way.

It is striking that in this story Jesus shows that, due to the corruption of sin, the only way one can worship God rightly is through Jesus himself. The temple has failed because God’s people have failed. However, by being the true temple in himself, all can worship God in purity by being in the temple of Jesus.