Commentary on John 2:13-22
All four gospels include an account of Jesus’ disruption at the temple.
The synoptic gospels are similar, with some variants, and place the incident near the end of the gospel when Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover the week he was crucified. In John, the incident occurs toward the beginning of the gospel and is distinctively different from the brief synoptic versions. Scholars agree that the gospel accounts are grounded in an historical incident.
Most concur that the synoptic placement is more plausible historically because it provides the provocation for Jesus’ arrest and execution. This scenario implicates both temple functionaries and imperial rulers in the temple institution, a historical reality in Jesus’ time. The Revised Common Lectionary includes only John’s version and assigns it to the season of Lent.
The gospel of John places the scene in the first of three pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Jesus’ angry demonstration at the temple is the second sign in the narrative. The occasion of the first sign is among family and friends at a wedding in Cana, a small town in Galilee (2:1-11). The second sign follows only few verses after the first, but the context is by contrast urban, public and politically charged. Crowds swell the population of Jerusalem at Passover, bringing an increased need for services, not least of all access to the temple’s sacrificial rites. Crowds heighten the potential for disturbance and therefore the increased presence of Roman troops for crowd control. In this volatile setting, Jesus makes a whip, drives out animals, people selling them, and moneychangers; he pours out their money and tips over their tables. The second sign pertains to the temple, but what invokes Jesus’ wrath?
Interpreting the Sign
The temple was a complex institution in the first century until its destruction in 70 CE. For Israel the Temple in Jerusalem was God’s permanent dwelling place, a sign of the covenantal promise of eternal presence. The sacrificial rites were administered here according to biblical law by priests descended from priestly lineage. Jews throughout the diaspora made pilgrimages at feast times. The temple was a potent symbol that bound Jews in a common identity. At the same time, the temple priests evoked resentment because of their inherited status, their connection to Roman authorities, and their distance from those who suffered under imperial powers. The temple priests were not in any sense religious leaders of the people.
Under Roman rule the priests were not autonomous in their authority even over religious matters. Roman officials appointed the chief priest and he served their interests. Roman coffers benefited from the marketplace that supported sacrificial rites. A disruption at the marketplace at one of the temple courts during a festival season like Passover affected Rome’s revenues. During the Roman occupation, they controlled the temple. We cannot know what Jesus had in mind by his angry demonstration, but he could not have been unaware that it would get the attention of Roman authorities. A reasonable speculation is that his anger was related to the complicity of Roman bureaucracy and temple authorities.
The gospels were written after the devastating loss of the temple in the Jewish war against Rome. These narratives reinterpret the loss in terms of victory. According to John, Jesus asserts that he himself is the temple (verses 19-21). Rome did not destroy Jesus by crucifying him; the temple endures through Jesus Christ. Though Jesus’ confrontation against the moneychangers occurs toward the beginning of the gospel of John, it foreshadows Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection.
In the lengthy trial scene, imperial titles for Jesus play a prominent role. Pilate mocks Jesus by calling him “king of the Jews” and putting this inscription on the cross, despite objections from the chief priests (19:21-22). Pilate taunts the Jews on the day of his execution: “Here is your king!”
The people reply that anyone who claims to be a king “sets himself against the emperor” (verse 12). The chief priests confirm their loyalty to the emperor claiming; “We have no king but the emperor” (verse 15). The exchange between Pilate and the people and the chief priests exposes the irony of Pilate’s taunts — he unwittingly gets it right — and the failure of those who refuse to claim Jesus as King for fear of antagonizing the imperial powers. For his first-century audience, the gospel writer insists on appropriating imperial titles for Jesus. Followers of Jesus confess that Jesus is King and the emperor is not. If the consequence of challenging the imperial powers is death, as it was for Jesus and many of his followers, so be it.
What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus?
During the weeks of Lent Christians consider what it means to follow Jesus, or to walk the way of the cross. The gospel portrays Jesus in a public act that confronts religious and government institutions. Rome holds the ultimate power. This observation is important because it is implicit and because Christians listeners tend to miss it. The traditional heading for this pericope, “Jesus Cleanses the Temple,” contributes to the perception that the problem which evokes Jesus’ ire is the corruption of Jewish rituals and Jewish leaders.
I think the account of Jesus’ demonstration at the temple invites us to consider the complex relationships between civil and religious life. When does Christian faith lead us to challenge civil authority? When do secular laws compromise Christian values? When does one interfere with the other? In America we value the separation of church and state, but in reality it is not so neatly separated.
Many American Christians have defied civil law because of their Christian beliefs concerning human rights. We recognize Martin Luther King as an exemplary American Christian who confronted civil authorities. What does it look like to follow Jesus for us in our own time and place? Who are our models of faith and why? Lent is a good time to think about difficult or unpopular decisions we make as we walk the way of the cross.