“‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’… Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.'” (John 2:18-19)
Jesus must have appeared to be a mad man when in the Temple he and his whip turn the place upside down. Tables and money lie all over the ground; doves flit here and there; sheep and oxen meander and start. The disciples, embarrassed and gawking, stand aside, and Peter beckons to his rabbi to calm down. “Do not make my Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Jesus rages. The Temple authorities rush near to investigate the commotion.
They put it to him—“By what authority do you bring reform to this Temple and its practice? Show us a sign.” It’s a dare they are certain this flake cannot produce. Miracles proved the presence and affirmation of the Almighty to the Jews and would characterize a true messiah. It is ironic that they demand a miracle from Jesus. This is the dawn of his public ministry, and these leaders will go on to despise him for the very thing they now request of him, along with his treacherous doctrine.
With razor-sharp insight, Jesus replies: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He speaks of his body—the word ‘temple’ was used interchangeably for the body—and even the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about (v. 22). The officials are dumbfounded, for it had taken 46 years to erect the edifice around them. The preacher is an utter fool. Yet Jesus’s challenge is a house-size boulder fallen right into their peaceful pond.
The Temple and Jesus
Jesus equated his own body and purpose with the Temple cultic practice, which necessarily requires us to understand the purpose of the Temple. There were three primary utilizations of the Temple: It was a…
- House for God’s presence. God designated a place to meet with his people. Even before the Temple, the Shekinah dwelt with the Hebrew people in the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting. The Temple was a permanent location, and God promised Solomon that he would affix his sacred name there.
- Sanctuary for worship and prayers. God’s name and presence were at the Temple, so the Jews made their most earnest prayers there or toward it. Further, they offered their devotional sacrifices there.
- Place to atone for sin. Certain sacrifices were required for redressing sin, reconciliation to God, and the removal of guilt.
“Fine!” Jesus says. “You want a miracle? Here’s one: destroy this temple of mine, and I will raise it up in three days!” The dare was returned. Although no one understood it, they were already part of the grandest miracle Jesus was staging.
The Significance of Jesus’s Death
We who read these accounts itch for Jesus to razzle-dazzle them and leave no doubt about his identity…you know, pull back his cloak so all could see the big “G” on his tunic. That’s the part we love in superhero cartoons and movies. But Jesus knew these leaders couldn’t handle a miracle if he offered one on a platter. They certainly didn’t believe in his preaching and were on another wavelength altogether. Jesus sought their spiritual trust; they needed a political savior with divine authority.
His overture to the leaders is stunning. It also proves something to me: that he completely understood his mission to redeem sinful humans. I had a longstanding qualm that our “sinner’s prayers” and preachments might be nothing close to Jesus’s intent. But is the gospel we pitch and the one he proclaimed similar or the same thing? I am convinced they are.
I set these words—“Destroy this temple”—beside others—“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”—and I am convinced even more, because they have a reciprocal effect on each other. If as a perfect human Jesus represents our sinfulness to God, being put to death, the Law of God is ultimately fulfilled; and to fulfill the Law of God, in God’s way, ultimately renders the Temple system obsolete, because:
- The presence of God would now dwell on and within his people, as God promised through the Prophets, not in a structure.
- Prayers and worship would now be made from the altar of the heart and not require sacrifices, except those of the heart leading to personal holiness.
- The stumbling block of sin would be forever removed and humans would no longer be dominated by their moral guilt. Atoning sacrifices would not be necessary. People could approach God freely and for his aid.
Thus, Jesus’s words underscore the centrality of his death and resurrection in Christianity. It is the cornerstone event—the seminal miracle—on which Christian faith rests. Paul does the most to explain this: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:16-17).
The laws of God and ritual practice have become our altar of worship, upheld by the perfect work of Christ. Now we serve God not out of obligation but volition.
One final thing: something that strikes me and is important to note is that although Jesus came to reform, he did not spurn the cultic practice of the Jews; he respected it, for God had instituted it. Reading these incidents or Paul’s explanation that the law of God was indeed good helps us appreciate the value of the Law of Moses, the Temple practices, etc., in inculcating personal holiness in the minds and lives of the people. They are our heritage, too.