The Temple They Couldn't Destroy

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 2:19-21

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body.

John 2:19-21 rsv

It’s a common complaint among people in public life: they are dismayed to find their public utterances misquoted or misunderstood. They shake their heads in amazement: “Did I ever say that? How did they manage to draw those conclusions from my speech?”

We who preach the gospel sometimes have similar experiences. People mention to us that something we said in a given message was deeply meaningful to them. As they recount what that was, we can’t remember ever having said anything of the kind!

All of that points to the mystery and the limitations of our human attempts to communicate. We tend to hear and perceive selectively. We single out certain elements of a message that either fit in with our experience or jar us by their dissonance. We hear also with a number of personal biases. I suppose you could say that we often hear what we want to hear. Then we report about it, if we do, with a certain slant.

I’ve been reflecting about that as I’ve studied the passage I’m going to speak about today. It’s from the Gospel according to John, chapter 2, beginning at verse 13. Listen.

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

That’s the picture. Jesus speaks a word and people either hear or fail to hear it in various ways.

Think about the setting. It’s Passover time and Jesus is paying a visit to the temple. There in the holy place, animals are being sold for sacrifice. Pilgrims to the feast must buy them to have something to offer. But they cannot use ordinary currency for this. They have to change money to secure the approved temple coinage. Both sellers and money-changers are taking advantage of the situation for exorbitant profits. The scene angers Jesus. He makes a whip out of cords and drives the animals from the temple. He sends the stacks of coins clattering and turns over the changing tables. There’s such a fire in His eyes, such a note of authority about what He does, that no one dares resist. To the pigeon sellers, He says, “Take these things away. You shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” They run for cover.

His disciples look on this with considerable awe. Jesus is so intense, so full of zeal for God’s house!

Others who witness the scene are disburbed. They wonder by what authority Jesus takes charge in this way. They want Him to defend His action. “What sign have you to show us for doing this?”

This was a challenge Jesus had met before. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, on another occasion, had asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Matt. 12:38). Jesus’ response to that kind of request was stern: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (v. 39). The evil here, the treachery, was not in their desire for evidence. That was a reasonable expectation. The trouble was that Jesus’ contemporaries refused to see the evidence before their eyes in His mighty works of healing and deliverance. They refused the testimony of His matchless words, His blameless life. They wanted dazzling evidence, overpowering proof, the spectacular kind of feat the devil had proposed to Jesus in His wilderness temptations. Why wouldn’t He turn stones into bread? Why not cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so that all would be astonished as God delivered Him? “Give us a sign, Jesus, something that will command belief. Give us the evidence we are looking for.”

This time Jesus responded to the request with a mysterious saying, “Destroy this temple,” He announced, “and in three days I will raise it up.” I want to think about those cryptic words with you today. Let’s ask first, What did His critics hear Him saying in that? Then, how did His disciples respond to this strange teaching? And finally, What did Jesus mean by it?

WHAT IT MEANT TO HIS QUESTIONERS

The first response of His questioners was stunned disbelief. “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” Maybe they were baffled by the prospect. Maybe they were jeering at the idea. They obviously doubted that Jesus could deliver on His promise. He didn’t convince them, and these words of His were certainly not the sign they had in mind.

It’s interesting to notice how this saying was later remembered. When Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin, two witnesses came forward and said, “This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days” (Matt. 26:61). Quite a distortion of His words! Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They heard Him say, “I will destroy this temple.” At least that’s what they wanted to hear, or found it convenient to hear. Their hearing became the pretext for branding Jesus as a destroyer, an enemy of temple, nation, law and people.

Those who mocked and scorned Jesus during His crucifixion made the same charge, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!” (Mark 15:29-30). The disciples of Jesus later heard something similar. When bold Stephen was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, this accusation was made against him, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 7:13-14). All of that on the basis of something Jesus never said and never intended to say!

The Gospel according to Mark has a striking variation on the testimony brought against Jesus at His trial. At least one witness claimed, “We heard [Jesus] say, `I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’ (Mark 14:58). This represented an addition to Jesus’ words. The temple he would destroy, they said, was “a temple made with hands.” He would then build another “not made with hands.” Note the interpretation of Jesus’ words. They heard Him saying that He would destroy the existing temple and build another of a different kind, not of human construction. Jesus had not actually said this, but their interpretation had a glimmer of truth, didn’t it?

WHAT IT MEANT TO THE DISCIPLES

How did the disciples understand this saying of Jesus? As far as we know, it made no sense at all to them. It went right past them. It was only later that they remembered these words. This was one of the sayings that became clear to them only in the light of the resurrection. Then, John tells us, “they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.”

This reminds us of a very significant fact about the four Gospels we have in our New Testament. Each was written after the resurrection of Jesus, after His appearances to His disciples, after His teaching them how the Old Testament Scriptures had been fulfilled in His person and mission, after His ascension, after Pentecost and the experience of His presence among them in the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospels, along with every other book in the New Testament, were written from the standpoint of faith in the risen Christ. The disciples could now look back on events in Jesus’ life and on words He had spoken, seeing all in a new way. What once had been puzzling, obscure, now became thrillingly clear.

WHAT IT MEANT TO JESUS

What they finally came to understand about these words of Jesus was what He had intended all along. John’s gospel gives us the key: “He spoke of the temple of his body.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t talking about Herod’s temple at all. Since He had just been clearing the temple courts of mercenaries, it’s understandable that the crowds thought He was talking about the building. But Jesus was actually referring to His own life. Specifically, He was prophesying His death and resurrection.

On other occasions when people demanded a sign, Jesus had said that no sign would be given them except the sign of the prophet Jonah. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). That again was a veiled reference to His death, burial and resurrection. This, Jesus said, was the only sign that would be given to an unbelieving generation.

There at the temple He was saying the same thing in different words. His own nation, headed up by its religious leaders, would collaborate with Rome in engineering Jesus’ death. They would destroy the temple of His body. That would be their responsibility, their doing. Then would come the great sign. “In three days I will raise it up.”

Jesus seems to be a victim of forces beyond His control. He is arrested and subjected to mocking and torture. He does not lift a hand in His own defense. When falsely accused, He makes no answer. Pilate seems to have over Him the power of life and death. In agony, forsakenness and shame, He dies. And yet there are hints that He somehow remains in control. He allows Himself to be captured. Jesus reminds Pilate that He would have no power over Him at all if it had not been given him by God. He seems at the last to die by His own choice. “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit” (Luke 23:46).

He dies also with the confidence that this will not be the end. The temple once destroyed will rise again. He had said on another occasion, “I lay down my life for the sheep . . . For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:15,17-18). Then this, “I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again. This charge I have received from my Father” (v. 18). His body was the temple they couldn’t finally destroy. Death was to be swallowed up in victory. After Golgotha will come Easter. “I will raise it up in three days.” And still today, the resurrection is the central claim and chief sign of the Christian faith.

What does it signify? Jesus is shown in resurrection to be the Lord of life and death. And so He is Lord of the temple too, with a right to govern its use. He is not anti-temple, anti-nation, anti-people. Rather, He stands against the abuse of all that belongs to God. He is the Lord Himself coming to His own temple, cleansing it, making it fit to be God’s dwelling.

How was Jesus’ body a temple? It was all that had been symbolized in the tabernacle and in the temple – and much more. The whole meaning of those structures in the life and worship of God’s people was to remind Israel that the Lord was in the midst of them. Behind the curtain in the innermost part of the sanctuary was the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s special presence in the midst of His people. In the death of Jesus, that temple veil was torn in two. Here was the sign that a way had been opened into the presence of God, once and for all. Now God’s dwelling was not in a tent or a splendid building but in the human life of Jesus, crucified and risen. God comes to dwell among us personally in Christ.

Friends, what will be your reaction to this sign? Will you simply ignore it? Will you try to explain it away? Or will you be led by it to faith in this crucified and risen Jesus? He is the true temple, the One in whom we meet and know the living God.