In chapter 2, John is setting us up nicely for the rest of the book. A critical eye trained on the Gospels leads us to the conclusion that John has relocated the “cleansing of the Temple” from the end of Jesus’s ministry to the beginning. If we can reconcile ourselves to the evidence (I’ll let you check out some good commentaries for yourselves), it should loosen our view of John a bit and let him speak to us in broader terms than just historical retelling. Indeed, the most important question is one that we can only ask once we have come to terms with the fact that John (like the other Evangelists, only more obviously) has a theological agenda. That question is “Why?” Why has John given such prominence—and I do take it as prominence—to this story?
After all, he has told the Cana story in relatively historical terms. It is told as the first of Jesus’s signs because, well, it was. I don’t see an incredible amount of significance in the miracle itself, though many have made an effort at finding one. Rather, I see John, who was there, remembering the beginning of it all and recalling the significance of sign even then: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). It reveals his glory (remember, revelation is key), and it is the foundation of faith. So, John will go on to make much of sign in the rest of his Gospel . . . that we may believe (20:30–31).
So what’s with the Temple scene? In many ways it sets the tone for the story. Jesus is sort of contrary all along, but more on that later. In another sense, it highlights a saying that I have often underestimated. The more I stare at the Gospels, though, the more Jesus’s little sayings stand out, and John has gone to some trouble to give this one a special place. Naturally, it is the response to no other question but “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus said much more, I’m guessing, but the heart of it was apparently this: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
If you read that and think, “I’ve heard better,” then we’re on the same page. It doesn’t go on my Top Ten Pithy Sayings list. And if you read that and think, “Neat, he’s gone and predicted the resurrection,” then you’re in the mainstream—fine company, I’m sure. While that prophetic aspect is undoubtedly an important part of it, there is something anticlimactic about God incarnate knowing the future. We were all expecting it, right? We shrug and read on. But there is much more to the claim, something that John thinks we just have to get, something that jives beautifully with the prologue. To get it, though, we have to know just a bit about the expectations of the day. While they were a mixed bag, and oft in need of correction, there were some key elements to the Messianic faith of Israel. One of those was the real restoration of the Temple—that which made Israel Israel. While the second temple was mostly finished—forty-six years in the building, the Pharisees inform us—the sense among some (maybe many) was that things weren’t set right yet. The temple was about the presence of Yahweh, and everything else followed. Whatever other expectations were in that mixed bag, any Jewish theologian worth his salt knew that you could forget about all of it if Yahweh didn’t return to Jerusalem. Presence was critical, and you can read all about it in the Prophets. The promises Israel clung to through destruction, exile, and return, were essentially about the return of Yahweh.
Jesus is making an astounding claim, you see. Against the backdrop of his own judgement on the temple farce—and his own zeal for the sanctity a place that even claims to be the house of his Father—the upstart from Nazareth claims to be the place were the Glory resides. It’s not just about the resurrection. It’s about the claim to be the true Temple, to be the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for full redemption. Yahweh has returned to the Temple Mount (with a whip and an attitude)! How’s that for a theological statement?