Cleansing the Temple

Any attempt to harmonize John’s version of Jesus’ demonstration in the temple in 2:13-22 with the Synoptic accounts (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46) risks missing John’s theological “take” on this important moment in the life of Jesus.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

January 19, 2014

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Commentary on John 2:13-25

Any attempt to harmonize John’s version of Jesus’ demonstration in the temple in 2:13-22 with the Synoptic accounts (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46) risks missing John’s theological “take” on this important moment in the life of Jesus.

In John, the temple scene makes a claim for Jesus’ authority at the beginning of his ministry (in the Synoptics, it occurs near the end), an authority ultimately based in his identity as God’s Son.

Verses 13-14 set the Passover context. As did thousands of Jews annually, Jesus practices his piety by going to the Jerusalem temple for Passover. In the temple, he finds what any pilgrim could expect to find during a festival: a place bustling with religious and economic activity. Jesus focuses not on the cattle, sheep, and doves that were used for sacrifices (see Leviticus 1, 3) but on the activity of selling.

Grammatically, the direct objects of the verb “find” in verse 14 are the “people selling” and the moneychangers, who are mentioned alongside the animal sellers because they assisted in commercial transactions, including the purchase of sacrificial animals. For a small fee, they exchanged money pilgrims brought from foreign lands to coinage that could be used in Jerusalem and the temple.

The effect of Jesus’ actions in verses 15-16 — his driving out the sheep and cattle (possibly the merchants too, if they are included in the “all” of verse 15, which is difficult to determine grammatically), his pouring out the coins and overturning the tables, his order for the dove-sellers to remove the doves (locked in cages, which is why he cannot drive them out with the whip) and for the temple to cease being a marketplace — is to bring the selling to a halt. By taking on the temple’s economic apparatus in this way, Jesus assumes the authority to dictate temple practice.

What grants Jesus such authority? Jesus’ calling the temple a marketplace is not the most surprising thing he says in verse 16, since commerce was a well-known aspect of the temple’s identity. What stands out is his identifying the temple as “my Father’s house.” This provides the clue for understanding the source of Jesus’ authority.

By disrupting the well-established and accepted economic practices of the temple, Jesus publicly reveals he is more than a pilgrim visiting the temple. He is Son of the God who dwells in that temple, and as such he has the authority to disrupt the temple’s usual activities.

Remembering Psalm 69:9, the disciples in verse 17 perceive Jesus as demonstrating zeal for God’s “house” (the Psalm quote shares the word “house” with Jesus’ saying in verse 16). This zeal distinguishes him from the majority of temple pilgrims who participated in the temple’s sacred economy. As God’s Son, he can disrupt the temple’s activities and in doing so demonstrate a zeal like that of the psalmist, who like other Jewish heroes said to have zeal represents God’s interests on earth (e.g., Numbers 25:11) and endures hardships as a result (Psalm 69:4, 7-12).1

This devotion “will consume” him. John 2:17 changes the tense of the Psalm quotation from past (“has consumed”) to future to hint at Jesus’ upcoming trials and eventual death.2 Though John’s temple scene begins in verses 13-14 with Jesus as a pilgrim who finds business as usual in the temple, in verses 15-17 it reveals Jesus to be God’s zealous Son willing to endure any suffering or hardship that comes as a consequence of his intense devotion to God.

The question the Jewish religious authorities (whom John refers to as “the Jews”) pose to Jesus in verse 18 shows they perceive that Jesus’ dramatic temple act is a claim for his authority to represent God. They ask Jesus to validate his authority, expecting that like Moses and Aaron did before the Israelites, he would be able to perform “signs and wonders” that authenticate him as God’s representative (Exodus 4:29-31).3

Jesus’ response in verse 19 leads to a misunderstanding on their part in verse 20. They see it as impossible for Jesus to “raise” the temple in three days, given that the temple’s expansion and renovation effort (begun by King Herod in 20 B.C.E.) still had not been completed. To clarify the misunderstanding, the narrator in verses 21-22 tells the reader that Jesus was not speaking of the temple at all, but of his body, and that this only becomes clear after the resurrection.

Jesus’ response in verse 19 is couched in resurrection language. In addition to the reference to “three days,” the word “raise” (egeirô) can refer to the raising of a building or the resurrection of a body. In verse 22, the same word for “raise” is used, but it can only refer to Jesus’ resurrection.

It appears in the passive voice with the doer of the action left unspecified, making it a “divine passive” meant to show God as the cause of Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Romans 6:4). In verse 19, the word occurs in the active voice with Jesus as its subject, which implies Jesus’ agency in his own resurrection. Just as God does, Jesus has the power to rise from the dead (see also 5:19-21; 10:17-18). He can manifest God’s activity on earth and thereby represent God to the world.

Verse 22 begins by introducing the post-Easter period as the context which grounds the disciples’ belief in what Jesus spoke in verse 19, and they grant his word the same authority they grant scripture, God’s word.4 The disciples witness Jesus’ temple act in 2:14-16 and his dialogue with the religious authorities in 2:18-20, but only after the resurrection do they fully affirm belief in Jesus as God’s authoritative representative. The resurrection is the sign “the Jews” had asked for, the sign of Jesus’ authority to speak and act for God.

Verses 23-25 provide a transition to the story of Nicodemus in John 3. While verse 22 treats the belief of the disciples in Jesus, verses 23-25 deal with the belief of “many” in Jerusalem, which during Passover could include pilgrims in addition to the city’s residents. They believe because of the “signs” (John’s word for miracles) Jesus performs.

For the Fourth Gospel, a belief based on miracles alone, and not on the true reality pointed to by those miracles, is inferior (see 4:48; 6:26), and Jesus does not entrust himself to these half-hearted believers.5 Their belief lies somewhere between the rejection of Jesus by “the Jews” and the belief of the disciples. As such, their belief anticipates the appearance of Nicodemus, who is open to Jesus but not yet ready to affirm full belief in him.

Interpretation and preaching tend to view this passage as showing Jesus taking a stand “against” something. One view holds that Jesus protests financial abuses in the temple. But John does not indicate that any financial abuses were happening at the scene Jesus witnessed. Another common view is that Jesus makes a statement against the Jewish sacrificial cult by driving out the animals. But we saw that Jesus’ focus is not on the animals but on the activity of selling. Finally, a standard interpretation is that John positions Jesus’ body as the new temple that has come to replace the old one. But why would John’s Jesus seek to replace his Father’s house for which he holds such zeal?

Better than viewing this passage as making a negative statement against the temple’s economic activity, its religious activity, or the temple institution in itself, is to see it as making a positive statement about Jesus’ identity and role in the Fourth Gospel. He appears in Jerusalem making a bold statement not so much “against” anything as much as “for” his authority to represent and reveal the God of the temple, whom he knows intimately as his Father.

Moreover, rather than denigrate the economic activity of the temple, John’s Gospel uses it to develop its Christology of Jesus as God’s authoritative Son. If John uses the economic sphere of religious activity to develop his Christology, then the implicit challenge for churches today is to follow suit and structure their own economic activity in ways that reveal the divine to the world. When others look at how Christian institutions gain and use their economic resources, what picture do they get of the God worshiped in this particular “house?”


1. On the concept of zeal in biblical literature, see David M. Rhoads, “Zealots,” in vol. 9 of The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 1044-45.

2. Many scholars see John 2:17’s appropriation of this Psalm quotation as alluding to Jesus’ death. For example, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; Anchor Bible 29-29A), 1:124; Mary L. Coloe, God Dwells with Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2001), 74-75; Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in vol. 9 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 543-44.

3. Coloe, God Dwells with Us, 76; Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina 4; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998), 81.

4. O’Day, “John,” 544.

5. On Jesus’ response in these verses to those expressing a belief in him based on signs, see Brown, John, 1:126-27; O’Day, “John,” 546.


Patient God,
Your son, Jesus, expressed his anger at abuses and injustice. Help us to show concern, not apathy, for injustice in our world, and teach us to make right all that may be wrong. Amen.


Wash, O God, our sons and daughters   ELW 445, UMH 605
In his temple now behold him   ELW 417
Built on a rock   ELW 652


My song shall be alway, Gerald Near