Commentary on John 2:13-22
As the synoptic gospels have it, Jesus symbolically cleanses the temple in Jerusalem as he nears the end of his ministry.
In Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, and Luke 19:45-48, Jesus entered the temple, overturned tables, and quoted Isaiah 56:7, “my house shall be called a house of prayer” and Jeremiah 7:11, “you have made it a den of robbers.” This action intensifies the desire among Jewish leaders to silence Jesus, indeed to destroy him (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).
John’s gospel differs from this more familiar picture in very important ways. First, Jesus is just beginning his ministry. Right after the miracle at Cana in Galilee, he returned to Capernaum “with his mother and his brothers and his disciples” (2:12). John tells us in 2:11 that his disciples “believed in him” after the first sign of changing water to wine. Now, in this passage, we will see the disciples actively engaged in trying to understand this Jesus in whom they “believe” with the help of Scripture.
We also will see in these verses that such understanding of both Scripture and Lord is an unfolding process. In fact, the “remembering” of Scripture and Jesus’ own words is at the center of the lives of Jesus’ disciples. How useful it is to see Jesus’ own disciples coming to deeper realization of what it means to believe in Jesus. Gradually, they come more fully to understand how Jesus serves the God who has sent him out of love for the world.
Belief on the basis of Jesus’ first sign would quickly prove shallow, even untenable. That belief, important as it may have been, must be deepened and extended. The cleansing of the temple elaborates Jesus’ identity for his disciples and for John’s readers. In addition it prompts disciples then and now toward on-going engagement with Scripture as God’s reliable (if not always crystalline) word about God’s purposes in this world which God loves.
The passage is a dialogue in which Jesus and the Jews talk past one another no surprise in John’s gospel. It opens with several verses describing Jesus’ coming into the temple and making his whip of cords to drive out business people and all their paraphernalia. In verses 16 and 18-20, Jesus and the Jews speak to one another about his actions.
Woven into this dialogue (verses 17 and 22) are descriptions of his disciples’ reactions to what is going on before their eyes and what is being said about it. Verse 21, meanwhile, is a comment from the narrator for the reader’s sake.
In essence, then, there are quite a few characters in 2:13-22:
- the Jews
- the disciples
- the narrator
- the voice of the prophet Zechariah
- the voice of the psalmist (David according to Psalm 69)
- and the readers implied by the narrator’s need to interpret Jesus’ statement
Central to the passage, and even more so for its use as a Lenten text, is the act of interpretation and remembering. Both times the disciples appear, they are remembering. In verse 17, they reflect on Jesus’ quotation of Zechariah 14:20-21 in terms of Psalm 69:9. Jesus explains the temple cleansing in prophetic terms decrying the use of the temple for trade.
Yes, the “trade” in question was legitimate and necessary for pilgrims and others who did not have suitable coinage to purchase the animals needed in temple worship. That historical fact is not relevant. Rather, Jesus is declaring himself both as prophet and as one who claims that the Lord’s house is his “Father’s” house. His disciples have the first hint of the extreme conflict that will be at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and recognize it as foreboding Jesus’ death.
In spite of their dawning comprehension of perils that surround Jesus, Son of God, King of Israel (1:49), the disciples are no more able than the “Jews” to grasp fully Jesus’ statement in verse 19. (And remember, the disciples themselves, like Jesus, are also Jews). Jesus offers a sign so outrageous and so incomprehensible; it is not until after his resurrection that his disciples understand what he has just said. Jesus seems to speak of the temple, but does not. Or does he?
By the time of John’s gospel, the temple in Jerusalem has been cast down, but Jesus has been raised from the dead. Is he the temple instead, the one God has sent to take the place of the temple? Indeed it would seem so, given Jesus’ statement in John 4:20-23. The temple itself is not raised again. But when the narrator informs us that Jesus is raised in three days, we see that the old temple will no longer matter to Christians.
The disciples, of course, have all this discernment still before them. They do not hear the narrator’s explanation. In contrast, we readers are doubly reassured by the narrator.
First, we are informed that Jesus had a particular meaning in mind not understood by his contemporary audience, a meaning that makes Jesus’ prophecy abundantly true. Second, we are reassured that the disciples come to understand this when their experience catches up to that of the readers. That is, when the disciples find out what the narrator and his audience already knows, that Jesus will both die and be raised in three days, they too will look back at this prediction in verse 19 and fully understand it.
At that point, after Jesus’ resurrection when the disciples remember this moment and understand their Lord more fully, they offer an example to us. For remembering and belief come together again in verse 22. They remember what Jesus said. They have seen it come to pass. They believe anew both in Scripture (the prophetic word Jesus cites) and in Jesus’ own prophetic word.
This passage lays before us a promise that if we pay attention and remember, then Scripture and its Lord will be revealed as true and reliable. However mysterious and incomprehensible Jesus’ word or deeds may be in the present, to engage with belief and keep Scripture in mind eventually will bring disciples to the place where things come together and belief is created.
The passage reminds us of two additional things (at least!). One is that expanding, deepening, maturing belief comes in a process of engaging, experiencing, and remembering. Another is that this is possible because the same God has sent the prophets whose words are Scripture (even for Jesus) and has sent Jesus. This God continues to be among us as the Holy Spirit. The reliability is God’s reliability, God’s faithfulness.