Turning the Tables on the Temple

John 2:13:25 / Lent 3B / 11 March 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

In the Gospel of John, everything tends to mean at least two things. John is chock full of double entendres, double meanings all over the place. Today’s Gospel is a prime example: the temple and Jesus’ body.

John pushes this episode from Holy Week right up to the front. That’s how important it is for John. This episode of Jesus’ clearing the temple of the money changers and sacrifice sellers sets the tone for the entire Gospel. It comes immediately after the inaugural sign of Jesus’ changing washing water into wedding wine at a feast at Cana.

The Passover was at hand, John tells us. That means that the money changers and sacrifice sellers would be busy. It was the busiest time of the year for them. Pilgrims were streaming into town from all over Israel. The common coin would have to be exchanged for temple currency. And they would have to buy lambs for the Passover. Business was brisk.

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem, heads straight for the temple and encounters an emporium of money changers and sacrifice sellers. This doesn’t sit well with Him, and He makes a whip out of a bunch of cords and starts driving sheep, oxen, together with their sellers out of the courtyard. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers, spilling out their coins on the ground. He knocks over the cages of pigeons being sold and tells their sellers, “Get these things out of here; you shall not make my Father’s house into an emporium of trade.” His disciples, including John, later recalled Psalm 69 – “Zeal for thy house will consume me” and they realized that this psalm written centuries earlier was actually about Jesus.

There is a lot going on here, in many layers. First, the temple was the place of sacrifice, and the money changers and sacrifice sellers were actually providing a useful service to the out of town pilgrims. So why was Jesus upset about this? The synoptic writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke might give us a clue. They have Jesus say that His Father’s house has been turned into a “den of thieves.” The word for “thieves” here is the word for “robber,” or even “insurrectionist.” Terrorist. Perhaps the proceeds from these sacrifice sellers and coin changers were going to finance insurrectionists and messianic wannabes. Makes sense. And so instead of being a house of prayer and the place where one went to confess his sin and offer his sacrifice, the Jerusalem temple had become a hotbed of terrorism and insurrectionists. Which is not the sort of messiah Jesus came to be.

This would also explain the last set of verses, where John tells us that many people believed in Jesus, that is, they put their trust in Him when they saw the signs He did, but Jesus Himself did not trust anyone, including those who believed in Him, for He knew all men and knew what was in man. In other words, Jesus was not about to be co-opted into becoming some sort of messianic leader who was going to lead the revolution to put Israel back on the map and establish the throne of David.

Second, the people expected that when messiah came, he would purify the priesthood and cleanse the temple. And so when Jesus does exactly that, on His own authority, when He drives out the money changers and turns over their tables and when He chases out the sacrifice sellers with their sacrifices, He’s pushing on all the messianic buttons of the people. This is precisely what messiah was supposed to do.

But as usual with John, there’s more, another layer of meaning to this story. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John has already introduced that in chapter 1. Jesus is the ultimate Sacrifice, the once for all atoning sacrifice for sin for which all the lambs, rams, bulls, goats and pigeons were a prototype and picture. And so Jesus with this action not only turns the tables of the moneychangers, but He turns the tables on the whole religious system of Israel. God’s Lamb had come to His temple. And God’s Lamb brooks no competition. He alone offers the perfect, atoning sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. The blood of bulls and goats and pigeons cannot cleanse from Sin, but the blood of this Lamb does. In driving off the sacrifice sellers, Jesus is showing that the time of sacrifice was coming to its appointed end. He was about to put the whole system out of business and turn the tables on it once and for all. And if this is actually the same incident as the one in Holy Week, then it would be a matter of days when the Lamb of God would hand on a cross for the life of the world.

The cross comes with the next sentence. “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up again.” Again, one thing means at least two. Those who heard Jesus thought He was referring to the building. “It’s taken 46 years to build this temple,” they said, referring to Herod’s reconstruction project which he undertook to curry favor with the Jews. The scaffolding was still up all over the place. It wouldn’t come down for another 30 years or so, and when it finally did, the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD. At the time Jesus spoke, the destruction of the temple was unthinkable. Though it happened once at the hands of the Babylonians, the Jews could not believe that God would let it happen again.

What Jesus says sounds like utter nonsense. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it? How on earth is He going to do that? Of course “temple” here doesn’t mean the building but Jesus’ body. And this is why John wants this episode early in his Gospel. The temple Jesus was speaking of was His body. The temple was the dwelling place of God on earth, the sacramental presence of God among His people, the place where He caused His Name to dwell. Jesus was shifting attention away from the building to His own body. He is the Word incarnate, the Word made Flesh, God dwelling among His own. His body is the temple par excellence, the place where heaven and earth meet, where divinity and humanity are united, where God and Man are reconciled and made one.

The lesser temple gives way to the greater temple. The prototype to the antitype. Most religions have temples, buildings by which men try to reach God. But only this one has a temple that’s a human body, God reaching down to us. Only Christianity claims a temple not made with hands but a Man who is the Son of God, who took on our humanity, who became bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh that He might die in our place, rise from the dead, and give us eternal life in His Name. All other temples in the world reach up to try and touch God; only Christianity has a temple that God HImself builds, build out of our human flesh and bone and blood, a temple where the Son of God reaches down from heaven to touch our humanity and forgive our Sin.

So where do you go with your sins? And you have them. You heard the litany of the ten commandments this morning. How is it going with your idolatries, with your use, misuse and non-use of God’s Name, with His Word and worship? How is it going with your repect and honor for authority, with your care and concern for the welfare of your neighbor, with your sexual purity? How is it going with thefts both grand and petty, your care and concern for your neighbors reputation, the contentment of your heart? The commandment reveals our Sin and our need for a temple. You can’t get away from that part. Sins demand sacrifice, sacrifice demands a temple. So where do you go?

You go where Christ is, where His Word is, where the Supper of His Body and Blood is. You go the body of Christ, His Church. That is His temple. Not a building, but a gathering. Not a building, but a living, breathing body, a spiritual temple fashioned out of reborn living stone knit together by the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Not a temple that is present wherever men build it, but a temple that is present wherever and whenever two or three are gathered in the Name of Jesus around the Word and the Supper. There is the new temple of the new Israel of the end times. There is the once for all time, once for all people sacrifice, the Lamb that takes away the Sin of the world.

In the first century, if you were to go to Ephesus or Antioch or Corinth and ask where the church was, people would not point you to a building. There was no dedicated building with a sign out front. Instead, they would tell you a meeting place and a meeting time. Go to this street, to this house, at sunrise or at midnight, or whenever it was that the church is gathered. There you will find the church, the body of Christ, the temple of the living God.

We may think of this building in terms of “temple,” as we do the great cathedrals of Europe, but in reality they are not temples. They house the temple but they themselves are not the temple. The true temple of God is the body of Christ, which, like everything in John means two things at the same time. It is the body born of Mary, the body that walked in our soil for some thirty three years, the body nailed to the cross and raised from the tomb. And it is the body of Christ the church. It is a temple where Jesus Himself is both High Priest and Lamb, the offerer and the offering. And it is a temple where you and I serve as priests in His priesthood, offering our bodies as living sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise in service of Him who served us.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand this until after Jesus had risen from the dead, after the temple of His body had been destroyed and in three days He raised it up again. Your body too is a temple, a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. It too will be destroyed in death. And like the body of Jesus, He will raise you too, as He Himself rose. The Sin and Death destroy this body of yours, nevertheless Jesus will raise it up again. Not in three days, but on the Day of His appearing.

In the name of Jesus,



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