Commentary on John 2:13-22
At first, John 2:13-22 seems like an odd passage for the Third Sunday in Lent.
The temple clearing comes much later in the Synoptics, immediately preceding Jesus’s Passion. It is a fitting passage, however, because it describes the temple during a time of preparation. Just as the season of Lent helps Christians prepare for Easter, Jews travelled to Jerusalem early in order to purify themselves for Passover (John 11:55). Christians likewise practice meditation, prayer, and participate in worship throughout Lent. Connecting with the Jews in this way helps us avoid anti-Jewish readings and enables us to reflect on the audacity of Jesus’ actions and claims.
John 2:13-22 follows Jesus’ first sign in Cana, where he turned water into celebratory wine at his mother’s request. Jesus travels to Jerusalem because of Passover and, like other pilgrims, he comes to the temple. John 2:13-15 provides rich detail of the scene. Merchants bustle among their animals, moneychangers busily exchange coins, and pilgrims peruse the stalls, bartering with the tradespeople and seeking priests to complete sacrificial rituals. Moneychangers exchanged denarii into half-shekels so pilgrims could pay the temple-tax, while animals were offered in sacrifices for ritual purity from daily life so they could participate fully in the Passover. Although certainly different, the scene in John 2 is not entirely unlike Christian preparations for Easter. Believers gathered in a holy place, remembering God’s deliverance and seeking to honor God through rituals and repentance.
Yet, rather than praising those gathered, Jesus goes into a rage. Creating his own whip, Jesus chases out the animals, sending the merchants after them. He “pours out the coins” and turns over tables, causing the once “seated” moneychangers to scatter. He commands the dove-sellers: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house an emporium!” (verse 16). Jesus effectively turns the temple court into a tumult of frightened animals and shouting merchants, while pilgrims and priests stand aghast. Why on earth would Jesus stop purification—and why in such a dramatic way?
The answers to these questions are hinted at in verse 16 and developed in the second half of our passage, verses 17-22. In verse 16, Jesus calls the temple an “emporium,” or a marketplace. Rather than a scene of spiritual preparation, Jesus instead sees a place focused on monetary exchange. Like Old Testament prophets, he challenges the temple economy, questioning whether it was focused more on wealth than prayer. Indeed, the first of the two remembrance asides in verse 17 resonates with this critique. Rather than a maniac come to disrupt worship, Jesus’ disciples understand him to be like the righteous sufferer of Psalm 69: one whose “zeal” for God’s house and statutes made him a target for his enemies (69:9-12). These enemies greatly outnumber him, but he is steadfast in his reliance on God’s deliverance (69:13-15). Praising God in song, the psalmist concludes, is more valuable than “an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs” (69:30-31)! Like Jesus, the psalmist has a different understanding of how one is to prepare for a holy day. Rituals and sacrifices should be done out of true devotion to the Lord (see Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8). Jesus will also face explicit opposition in Jerusalem in later chapters, but he remains fixed on God’s mission for him, even though it leads him to the cross (see John 10:17-18; 12:28; 19:30). In fact, while on the cross Jesus quotes Psalm 69:21, thereby inviting the Gospel audience to remember John 2 (John 19:28). For John, then, Jesus is a righteous sufferer even when—or perhaps especially when—what he does looks outrageous.
The second remembrance in 2:21-22 clarifies Jesus’ ambiguous answer to the Jews in verse 19: “Destroy this sanctuary (naon) and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews’ response in verse 20 is more than reasonable: “This sanctuary (naos) has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?!” What our narrator informs us in verses 21-22 is, as in verse 17, something these characters could not have concluded in the confusion of the moment. According to John, Jesus’ body itself is the sanctuary of God’s presence, not the center of the temple which once held the ark of the covenant. John 2:21-22, therefore, ratchets up the characterization from Psalm 69. Jesus is not just any righteous sufferer; he is the location of God’s glory rather than the temple building in which he stands. Jesus’ disruption of the worship practices, therefore, is God’s own critique.
Jesus’ connection to the temple in John 2 is a thorough-going Christological position that begins in the Prologue. According to John 1:14-18, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Word, whose dwelling with humanity enables them to see God’s glory and who continues to show them the way to the Father (Exodus 33-34). Jesus’ words in John 1:51 and with the Samaritan woman in 4:21-24 reinforce these ideas. Thus, when Jesus tells Philip that in seeing him, the disciples have seen the Father, we shouldn’t be surprised (John 14:9). For John, when people focus too much on a physical location, they miss out on God’s glory standing right in front of them. Thus, when the Jerusalem leaders worry about the fate of the temple in 11:45-50, John again re-centers our gaze. The Romans will destroy a physical building in 70 CE, but it was their destruction of Jesus’ body, God’s true sanctuary, that was both tragic and the means of God’s greatest revelation (11:51-52; see also 3:14-18; 19:34-37).
As we walk the path to Jerusalem during Lent, we join crowds of pilgrims from millennia before preparing for festivals remembering God’s salvation. But we, too, should be careful lest we miss God’s earth-shattering Word in our midst. Rather than coming to a physical temple, or church building, we need instead to come to Jesus (John 12:9, 20). Worshipping in Spirit and truth wherever we may be, we see God’s glory by remembering God’s love made manifest in Jesus—even when he disrupts our usual plans.