Knock the temple down?

by K.W. Leslie, 08 April

Did Jesus ever threaten to knock down the temple? Nope. He told them to do it.

John 2.18-22

First Passover we read about in John, this happened:

John 2.15 KWL
Making a whip out of ropes, Jesus threw everyone, plus sheep and cattle, out of temple.
He poured out the money-changers’ coins, and flipped over the tables.

In the other gospels, Jesus took critique for it the next morning, Mt 11.27-33, Mt 21.23-27 or days later. Lk 20.1-8 In John it appears to have happened right after. Now it could’ve happened some time later. The author wasn’t always too concerned with chronology (as you’ll notice from his brief flash-forward where the students recall this event after Jesus rose from the dead). John sticks to themes, not timeline.

Still, let’s get to the story.

John 2.18-22 KWL
18 So in reply, the Judeans told Jesus, “What sign are you showing us so you can do this?”
19 In reply Jesus told them, “Break down this shrine. In three days I’ll re-raise it.”
20 So the Judeans said, “This shrine took 46 years to build, and in three days you’ll re-raise it?”
21 Jesus was speaking about the shrine of his body.
22 So when Jesus was raised from the dead, his students remembered he said this.
They believed the scriptures, and the word Jesus said.

Jesus showed up in temple and started knocking stuff over and bossing people around. And this being the Hebrew religion and the temple of the LORD, it leaves us with two possibilities: The new guy is either a nut, or a legitimate judge, a God-sent leader authorized to command his people and sort their problems, with as much authority as a king.

In the United States, because we separate church and state, we don’t officially recognize God’s right to appoint leaders independent from our political system. If God wants you to run the country, he needs to get you elected. Otherwise you have no more power than any other citizen—which is quite a lot, but still. You can’t just storm into a public building and start driving people out. If this temple were in the U.S., Jesus would’ve been arrested quickly. This wasn’t; to the Judeans, there was a possibility Jesus had every right to do as he did. They never knew when God might send ’em judges. Or the Messiah.

But their test for whether Jesus was a judge or Messiah was a pretty stupid one. “What sign are you showing us?” They wanted a sign. Like Moses turning his staff into a snake, or spontaneously sprouting leprosy, or turning water to blood. Ex 4.1-9 God never said signs would be the usual way he’d confirm his judges, but Pharisees made it mandatory, so that’s what the Judeans insisted upon. Like I said, it’s stupid, ’cause any magician can perform these tricks too. Ex 7.10-11, 21-22 Signs, no matter how impressive, really prove nothing.

What does prove Jesus’s authority? Well, good fruit primarily, and the tests for a valid prophet secondarily. So that’s what Jesus gave as his “sign”: A prophecy. Knock down ton naón túton/“this shrine” (notice he didn’t say ton yerón túton/“this temple”) and in three days he’ll put it back up.

“Who made you boss?”

Back in college, my resident adviser caught one of the new students breaking a rule. He didn’t inform the freshman he was an RA; he simply informed the lad of his error. The freshman’s response was, “Who’re you?

Oh, it’s a common attitude in our culture. Even at Christian schools like this one. The freshman didn’t care about the rules; he only cared whether he was in trouble with an authority figure. And if this guy reprimanding him wasn’t an authority figure, to hell with him.

“I don’t understand that attitude,” my RA said, telling me the story over lunch.

“Oh, I do,” I said. “It’s the same as the guy who told Moses, ‘Who made you judge over us?’” Ex 2.14

In driving the merchants out of the Gentile Court, Jesus was totally in the right. Like I said, good fruit: If you’re correct, if you’re acting out of goodness, fairness, compassion, love, it makes no difference whether anyone deputized you to do as you’re doing: You have righteousness on your side. (Just don’t sin in the process. ’Cause there goes your righteousness.)

But righteousness didn’t matter to these Judeans: What mattered was Jesus’s authority. They didn’t care about goodness, fairness, compassion, nor love. Just power and might. If Jesus could show ’em a miracle, it meant he had the Almighty backing him, and that they could respect.

You already know why humans get that way: ’Cause we’re wrong. When we’re in the right, we defend the behavior; when we’re in the wrong, we condemn the authority figures for doing their job.

After all, when we’re in the right, our behavior is totally defensible: We’re doing good! We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re standing up for the weak, or helping the needy. We’re in the right. It’s only when we’re in the wrong we have no defense, and have to switch tactics to ad hominem: “You’re not the boss of me,” or “You have no moral authority over me.”

So there was a certain level of that attitude in these Judeans when they challenged Jesus for a sign.

Which really means there was no point in giving them any sign. They’d simply say, “Oh, the devil empowered that,” Mk 3.22 or the modern equivalent, “Impressive, but there’s gotta be something behind that trick.” Even if they can never find a rational, scientific explanation for the “trick,” that’s the unthinking belief they’ll fall back upon.

Since they never actually expected Jesus to do something, he cleverly gave ’em something which required a massive act of faith on their part first: “Break down this shrine.” Which they interpreted as meaning the temple—and would never do. They didn’t believe in him anyway.

The temple was actually still under construction at that moment. Herod 1 had ordered the remodeling of Zerubabel’s temple in 20BC. (The Judeans pointing out it’d been under construction for 46 years actually nails down when this Passover took place: The year 27.) It wouldn’t be complete for another 36 years, in the year 63. Break it down? They were still putting it up!

So Jesus wouldn’t show them a sign unless they knocked down the temple… and they weren’t about to knock it down. Stalemate. A silly stalemate, but they started it with their silly challenge.

The shrine of Jesus’s body.

Or so the sign seemed silly. After Jesus was broken down—i.e. executed—in three days he rose again. An odd coincidence? Or was this a prophecy of his death and resurrection?

John went with prophecy: “He was speaking about the shrine of his body.” Not the literal temple. So the students lumped this saying together with all their other Old Testament prophecies about Jesus. Jn 1.22

Y’see, one of John’s major themes is proof. He wrote his gospel to prove Jesus is Messiah, Jn 20.31 and this story was included ’cause it’s one of the proofs. Jesus prophesied his own death and resurrection. Here it is. His students saw him say it. So’d the Judeans. They’re all witnesses.

Years later, at Jesus’s trial, a few of the Judean witnesses managed to mangle this story to testify against Jesus.

Mark 14.55-59 KWL
55 The head priests and the whole senate questioned anti-Jesus witnesses, in order to execute him.
They were finding out nothing.
56 Many perjured themselves about Jesus, and the testimonies didn’t match.
57 Certain plaintiffs perjured themselves about Jesus, saying,
58 “We heard Jesus say this: ‘I’ll destroy this handmade shrine,
and within three days I’ll build another, non-handmade shrine.’ ”
59 (Their testimony didn’t match either.)

But as John reveals, Jesus said no such thing. He told them to destroy the temple. He never threatened to do it himself.

This event took place at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry. It shows us (if the students are right, and they likely are) Jesus knew of his coming death from the very beginning. It wasn’t a realization he came to in the middle of it, like some of the Historical Jesus scholars claim. To hear them talk, it’s like Jesus naïvely thought he’d receive a kingdom without first dying for it.

But alluding to his death here, and his resurrection three days after, is evidence Jesus foreknew everything. Again, this happens to be another one of the themes of John: Little catches Jesus by surprise. Still true.