Episode 26: Temple
When the Temple leaders question Jesus’ authority, they fail to realize what one hearing the Gospel of John already knows; God’s presence is walking around the temple.
In Jerusalem and the surrounding environs, the Temple dominated. Period. The Temple dominated the view of the city skyline by a visitor at the time of Jesus, towering above the city walls. According to one contemporary writer, the doors into the Temple itself were covered by so much gold that when the sun rose in the early morning, the reflected light forced anyone looking at the temple to turn their eyes away. (Josephus, Wars 5.5.6) The Temple dominated life for religious practitioners of Judaism living on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea who would make several trips each year to worship there. The Temple also dominated their thoughts, as they considered it to be the dwelling place for their LORD, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In the Old Testament
Prior to Solomon’s temple, a portable tent, called the tabernacle, served as the Israelites’ main center for worship of the LORD God. This structure could be dismantled and transported on their journey from Mount Sinai where they received the 10 Commandments into the Land of Canaan promised to their ancestor Abraham. The presence of the Lord would inhabit the Tabernacle after it was set up and depart before travel would commence. Much later, David sought to build a temple for the LORD, but that privilege fell to Solomon. At the temple’s dedication, the glory of the LORD filled that place. (1 Kings 8:10-11)
Following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 BC, the people returned from the Babylonian exile to a city with no place to worship. The Persian ruler, Cyrus, had commanded them to rebuild a temple for their worship, so in 515 BC a 2nd temple was finally completed. In the first century BC, King Herod sought to establish a place of worship comparable to those found in other Mediterranean cities. He first built an open-air platform supported by outer walls as high as 80 feet tall before finally reconstructing that Second Temple. Herod’s Temple was visible during the life of Jesus.
In the Gospel of John
As a first century practitioner of Judaism, Jesus is often located “in the Temple.” But as we noted, Herod had constructed a huge complex which was over 1500 feet long and 900 feet wide. Herod did not expand the dimensions of the building which included the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, where it was reported since the time of the earlier tabernacle that God resided. Since only priests could enter this enclosed building, the indication that Jesus was in the Temple is better translated as, “Jesus was at the Temple.”
Jesus’ action and dialogue with the Jewish leaders in John 2 emphasizes this distinction between the large Temple platform and the smaller enclosed structure. During the first Passover Festival mentioned, Jesus finds various people “at the temple” selling animals and exchanging the coins minted with images of imperial and regional officials for special coins to be used within the Temple precinct. After disrupting this business practice, those responsible for the Temple approach Jesus and question his authority to act in such a way.
Jesus replied to them, “Destroy this temple and after
three days I will raise it.” These authorities then said,
“It has taken 46 years to build this temple; Do you
really think that you can raise it after three
days?” (John 2:19-20)
The Gospel of John draws emphasis to main parts of its story by incorporating misunderstanding of Jesus’ words by others. Here, Jesus is not speaking of the hieron, that is the temple platform as a whole, i.e. “at the Temple,” but he is speaking of the naos, that is the temple building exclusively. When the Gospel of Luke speaks of the appearance by an angel to Zechariah, Luke tells us that Zechariah “was selected to burn incense after entering the naos of the LORD,” i.e. the temple building. This term for the temple, naos, is also used in the other Gospels when they describe the tearing of the veil in the temple at the time of Jesus’ death.
The authorities misunderstand Jesus and repeat his statement word for word, assuming he is making reference to the larger temple construction begun by Herod. Yet the Gospel of John clarifies for those hearing it read that Jesus was speaking about the place where God dwells, i.e. his own body. Any mention of Jesus’ body using the same Greek word waits until Jesus is dead upon the cross in John 19. When Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb on the third day she sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had once lain. The sign Jesus provides in John 2 is now completed.
Other places in the Gospel of John use temple merely to describe a location in Jerusalem, Yet, this Gospel also describes the temple of the LORD with other terms. Jesus’ tells those selling doves,
“take these birds away from here, do not make my
Father’s house a house of business.” (2:16)
Later, as Jesus speaks with his disciples he tells them, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; since I am going there to prepare a place for all of you would I not have told you if that wasn’t the case?” (John 14:2)
Under the Roman General, Titus, who later became emperor, Jerusalem was destroyed along with the Temple in the year AD 70. The temple as a physical structure no longer dominated the vision of those in the area. As a metaphor for the place where the LORD God dwells, the temple continued in the thoughts of both practitioners of Judaism and its recent offshoot later known as Christianity.
When the Gospel of John describes the Word becoming flesh, the illustration appears in language reminiscent of the original tabernacle.
The Word came in human flesh and resided among us like a
nomadic traveler, then we saw the Word’s glory, a glory
associated only with one uniquely with the father, glory
filled with grace and truth. (1:14)
While religious practitioners of Judaism previously traveled to a place in order to visit the tabernacle, now the tabernacle is traversing the land in order to visit the people. When the Temple leaders question Jesus’ authority to usher people conducting business from the temple precinct, they fail to realize what one hearing the Gospel of John already knows; God’s presence is walking around the massive temple platform. Jesus has authority in the Temple because Jesus is the Temple. This reality allows Jesus to say to Philip,
“The one who has seen me has seen the Father.” (14:9)
Far too often people wander this world seeking the Living God in a specific location or return to a place where they once encountered God. Too often you and I fail to realize that God travels the earth seeking us. As the Psalmist says in Chapter 24,
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therof,
The inhabited world and everyone who dwells therein.”
(Psalm 24:1, 23:1 LXX)
Take 5 Minutes More
The claim that God dwelt on earth in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth can be a little overwhelming. Perhaps, as an abstract event of ancient history, we can accept its reality. However, when we seek to understand this reality from the practicality of Jesus’ lifetime as encountered by his disciples, it really can be too much to grasp on most days. The teaching of the Gospel of John does not remain in ancient history. As we saw in Episode 20 on the Spirit, those who believe in Jesus are to receive the Holy Spirit. They are now a place where God’s Spirit dwells on earth. God continues to walk among humanity.
Are you overwhelmed or overjoyed at this reality? Or, as is the case for many, are you simply overscheduled and unable to set aside a few minutes each day to acknowledge this life of the ages God bestows on those who believe Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son? Take several minutes to think on the implications of this practical wreality in how you approach life. Write down at least one of your thoughts so you can share it with a friend.