John’s Gospel: 2:12 – 25 (the cleansing of the Temple)

(John 2:12 ESV)  12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.

It’s hard to see the relevance of this verse to John’s narrative at first glance. Evidently, Jesus was not traveling with  his family until he ran into them at Cana. V. 13 tells us that Jesus traveled from Capernaum to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

Capernaum is north of Cana (which is near Nazareth), and so to go to Jerusalem from there, which is to the south, means that Capernaum was not at all on the way.

However, we know from Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic Gospels”) that Jesus’ early ministry centered on Capernaum, which was essential his home as an adult.

My guess is that the verse is included to demonstrate Jesus’ healthy relationship with his family, particularly his brothers (Matt 13:35). His brother James (Jacob in Hebrew) was a leader of the Jerusalem congregation early on. His brother Jude (Judah in Hebrew) wrote Jude.

What does the fact that Jesus traveled along with his family, as well as his disciples — in the wrong direction — tell us about Jesus’ personality?

(John 2:13 ESV)  13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

John’s Gospel is built around the Passover — surely a subtle lesson about Jesus being God’s Passover lamb — as may also be reflected in John the Baptist’s earlier introduction of Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Chapter 6 also speaks of a Passover, and of course, the passion narratives regarding the crucifixion are centered on the Passover.

An observant Jew was not required to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, although many Jews did make that trip.

(John 2:14-16 ESV)  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.”

By Jesus’ time, Jews had been scattered across the Roman Empire, and likely beyond. Those who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover on Mt. Zion could not bring their own animals to sacrifice. The trip was too long. Therefore, the priests arranged to make these animals available for sale as an accommodation for pilgrims.

Moreover, the Jews figured that because man is made in God’s image, it’s wrong to make an image of a man. Their coins had images of animals, fruit, and such like, but no human faces, as was typical of Roman coinage. A pilgrim would likely only have Roman coins with him, and these were too unclean to offer as a contribution to the Temple. Therefore, the priests provided a service to exchange Roman currency for Jewish currency.

These were not in any sense sinful — until the priests started charging high prices to take advantage of pilgrims a very long way from home.

“House of trade” is literally emporion, that is, a marketplace. The priests were making a profit when they should have offered the service on a breakeven basis, as a service to God. The Temple was never meant to be a place of profit. The Temple tax and other charges should have been quite enough to support the work of the priests, but they had become greedy.

(John 2:17 ESV) His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

This is a quotation from Psalm 69:9, which is filled with passages that have Messianic echoes.

I don’t think John quotes the Psalm to say this is a prophecy fulfilled. Rather, his point is that Jesus had great zeal for the Temple — just as you’d expect if he were God in the flesh. This is his own special place. It’s the place God chose to be his dwelling.

Therefore, he was infuriated by the abuse by the priests of their service. They were called by God to serve his people, and they’d chosen to profiteer rather than serve. They were not content with the compensation God had provided for them in the Law of Moses.

The Synoptics record Jesus declaring the Temple is to be a house of prayer, based on Isaiah 56:7 —

(Isa 56:6-8 ESV) 6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  8 The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”

We often miss the point that the money changers had set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles, the area set aside for Gentiles to come and pray to God — and yet the priests had rudely filled that area with animal stalls and coin boxes. It was a loud and smelly area, filled with people haggling over the prices of animals and coins.

Isaiah’s point is not merely that the Temple would be a house of prayer, but a house of prayer for the Gentiles. The priests were standing in the way of the Gentiles’ entering the Temple, insulting the very God-fearing Gentiles that Gospel would soon be extended to. They were standing in the way of God’s plans for the Kingdom!

So what do Jesus’ actions tell us about his character and personality?

(John 2:18-22 ESV) 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?”  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.

The Jews asked for a sign, and Jesus was fully capable of giving them a sign at that moment. Why not? It wouldn’t have cost him anything? Why not do a miracle?

What’s the point of referring to Jesus’ body as a “temple”?

It’s a subtle point, which we’ll not pursue, but there’s considerable evidence in the New Testament that Jesus’ person is to replace the Temple. He becomes the new place where God dwells on earth and where God speaks and is worshiped.

(John 2:23 ESV)  23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.

Apparently, Jesus did other signs, just not on that particular occasion.

(John 2:24-25 ESV)  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.

Ominous words, right? Why would Jesus not entrust himself to the people? What was he afraid of?

One final note. It’s often been noted that the Synoptics place the cleansing of the Temple near the end of Jesus’ ministry, and yet John has it near the beginning. Some consider this an obvious contradiction. Most scholars do not, for either of two reasons.

First, it’s entirely possible that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. There are differences in the two accounts that would justify such a conclusion.

Second, Jewish First Century literature was not very concerned with literal time order. It’s a cultural difference, but it’s clear that license was granted to authors to re-order events to facilitate the purpose of the writer. This was not considered dishonest because the reader wasn’t expected to place much weight on the order of events.

If that’s so, then why do you suppose John places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. What point is he trying to make that is best made early on?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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