JOHN 2: 13-22


13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After 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.


I found this text difficult because of its literary and theological complexity.  Though an incident labeled as ‘The Cleansing of the Temple’ can be found in all four gospels, John’s story is unique.  It is placed early in Jesus’ ministry and is used to reveal who Jesus is and to enable the disciples (and us) to believe. The other three gospels place the incident at the end of Jesus’ ministry as the straw that broke the camel’s back.  In the synoptics, we read:  “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”  It is actually not clear if the story is one incident, transplanted in John’s gospel to make a different point, or,  if John is reporting a separate trip to the temple that included Jesus protesting temple practices.  


John has multiple layers of messaging in these verses.  Here are the ones that stood out for me.  


1.  Misuse of the Temple.   John is obviously pointing out Jesus’ indignation about the misuse of the Temple.   But the misuse of the temple is not just the profiteering but also upon the narrow focus upon the Temple as the place to meet God.  Temples and Cathedrals are often awe inspiring places to meet God, but God is not confined to those.  Such narrow focus upon where to meet God becomes, in itself, a misuse of the Temple. 


2.  Claim to authority.  Jesus claims and reveals a special authority by his behavior.  The incident is quite dramatic.  The temple included a large open space filled with booths selling animals for sacrifice and equally important, money changers who exchanged foreign currency into local currency.  These business transactions were important to Temple life.  Pilgrims needed animals for sacrifice and they needed the means to pay for them.  Especially near passover, this would have been a crowded place.   The temple made money off of them and the practices were quite ordinary.   But Jesus plainly felt this was a misuse of the Temple—- “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 


Jesus claimed the authority, by his actions, to confront the church of his day.  He said: “You’ve got it wrong!”  Putting all this energy into supporting yourselves and this building must stop.”  Jesus does this forcibly and depending upon who he hit with his whip, perhaps even violently.  He creates chaos—money all over the floor and animals running around the building.  What a scene.  Imagine our church hosting an auction in the parlor to raise money for a leaking roof and someone came in and disrupted the gatherings so forcibly. I am quite sure they would not be received well. 


 But notice no one interferes with Jesus.  He isn’t stopped.  He isn’t escorted off the premises.  He isn’t arrested.  All that happens is that Jesus is asked by what authority is he acting—“What sign can you show us for doing this?”  I don’t think this language is an accident.  John organizes his entire Gospel around the signs that demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God.  This question sets up Jesus’ claim to a much greater authority—“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The narrator has to tell us what he was talking about (“ he was speaking of the temple of his body”).  In the prologue to John, the Word is made flesh and dwells among us.   In the second chapter, Jesus says he is the meeting place of the divine and human.  He is the temple in human form.  


3. Intentionality—whips, prophecy fulfilled and prophecy demonstrated


When Jesus took the time to braid a whip (this detail is unique to John), it reveals intentionality.  This whole scene was part of a fulfillment of prophecy (“Zeal for your house will consume me.”)  It is one thing to start yelling at people, it is another to come in armed.  Doesn’t get much more zealous than that.  It provided a concrete demonstration that Jesus was fulfilling prophecy.  He belonged to the tradition and was the culmination of tradition.  In the same act, he became a prophecy.  His words and actions were fulfilled at his death and resurrection.  In verses 17,  we see that ‘remembering’  is a key aspect of belief. The disciples remember the scripture as they see Jesus fulfilling it.  Likewise in verse 22, the disciples can make sense of Jesus  only after they remembered this day in the temple.


4.  Coming to belief.


The disciples, like us, had to come to belief.  I am quite sure they had no idea what Jesus was talking about when Jesus started overturning tables.  They could remember the prophecy and place Jesus in the tradition but the text is clear they did not understand his self reference as the temple until after his death.  Only then could they see that Jesus’ body could be destroyed but the glory of God prevailed.  We come to belief by remembering what we have been told and discovering a congruence between what we have been told and what we experience.  




In my own upbring, this focus on this passage was largely upon the way Jesus cleansed the Temple.  It led to discussions about the undeniable fact that gentle, turn the other cheek, Jesus could become so dramatically angry.  Likewise, the incident is used to point out the legitimacy of social protest and civil disobedience.  And finally the passage evoked many discussions about  how the church’s call can lose its primacy.  Even something as basic as raising money for the building and salaries can lead us away from our primary mission to care for people and preach the good news.  This is as ordinary as it gets. Every person and every church has to determine when our need to generate income actually impedes our primary mission.  Every church has to make financial decisions about how much of the budget is spent upon the building and how much is spent on missions. 
There is nothing wrong with beautiful temples.  That isn’t the point,   The harder point is Jesus’ forceful reminder that we must be ever mindful of the intertwining of our personal needs and God’s call.  We can alway rationalize the ways we serve ourselves first. Especially when we are comfortable, Jesus’ reminder is disturbing—but necessary.  It is too easy to caricature the priests as the bad guys.  We do that at great peril.  They had their priorities wrong.  That is a much different statement. 


In our own church, we are spending Lent looking at the assumptions that have kept us comfortable racially and that is a valuable discomfort.  It calls us to continually discern God’s call in the midst of many other voices and in the face of our own resistance.  As Jesus is reminding the Temple authorities of their complicity in losing God’s call, he is challenging us in the same way.  These struggles were going on in the first century and they continue into ours.  It turns out that our call includes these struggles—every generation.                                 




John is trying to tell a story that helps his readers understand who Jesus is.  He knows that being told is different from understanding is different from experience.  In real life, our own coming to belief has to have all three elements.  Jesus, as many prophets before him, chose a dramatic, even theatrical way to make his point.  In John, it was an event the disciples remember—and finally understood three years later.  In real life our understanding is slow. 
None of us know what we are getting into in life.  We don’t know what it is to be a spouse, a parent, a teacher or a minister until we are knee deep (if not over our heads) in life.  What we thought we understood rarely matches what we discover.  This is a process repeated over and over as the disciples very slowly came to understand the man they were following. In real life, this means we have to stay focused on our priorities in the midst of competing values and our own resistance. 


We have to be patient with ourselves and with each other.  We are in it for the long game.  Discovering what it means to meet the divine is often different than anything we could expect.  We are just as vulnerable to trying to contain God in places and practices we already know as any scribe or Pharisee.  Covid, social and political unrest, are disturbing our routines and challenging our assumptions.  


We honestly do not know what it is to follow Him—any more than the disciples– but we are called to struggle and serve.  We do so in the promise of God’s presence and the promise that Love will prevail—even when the world is dark and we cannot see a way.  As we struggled with our priorities in a recent staff meeting, Matt quoted Isaiah 42:16. 


I will lead the blind by a road they do not know,
By paths they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,  
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.   


 It is something to hold on to as we try to find our way in the ambiguities of real life.  Even as the temple was destroyed, even as worship was disrupted, a new way to meet God became flesh and dwelt among us.  

Ultimately, it is that promise and that faith that Jesus wants us to live into.  Let it be so.


Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.