This is an edited transcript of my sermon on John 2:13-22, entitled “Three Days.” In the text you’ll see the phrase “the Jews” a number of times, this reflects the voice of John’s Gospel in which “the Jews” refers specifically to the Jewish leadership which opposed Jesus during his Earthly ministry, not to the Jewish people as a whole. In other words, if you want to justify anti-semitism from this sermon or from the Gospel of John please go somewhere else, it’s not welcome here.
Here in this passage Jesus lives out an eschatological expectation. Now, if you’ve ever heard of the word “eschatology” it was probably in the context of someone speaking about “the end times” or books like the Left Behind series. This is not what I’m talking about. You see, since the time of the exile the Jews had been living in hope of seeing David’s kingdom restored. Part of this hope meant experiencing a cleansing of God’s people. The Jewish people understood the Messiah would have such a passion for the LORD’s house that even the practical necessities of selling sacrificial animals and converting money into a non-profane form wouldn’t be welcome within the Temple’s boundaries (this idea springs from passages such as Zechariah 14:21 and Psalm 69:9, which appear here in the form of a strong allusion and a direct quote).
This part of the longing hope of the Jewish people was so in-grained that when Jesus created a whip from some cords and wreaked havoc on the Temple complex it signaled to the Jewish people the time of cleansing was at hand. It was a bold move, with implications far deeper than simply chasing people out of the courtyard. This is why the Jews demanded authentication. They wanted to know what sign Jesus would do to show he was the one who was bringing this hoped-for cleansing. This wasn’t just a request for a miracle. In John, “sign” refers to a signal flare which reveals the in-breaking Kingdom of God. After all, people came to the temple from far away, and selling worshipers sacrifices and exchanging their money was how the whole thing managed to function. If Jesus wasn’t the one who was going to bring the fulfillment of all their hopes, then he had some explaining to do!
To their shock Jesus responds with a riddle. At first glance it doesn’t seem like a riddle at all, but a statement, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” During my reading this week the idea that this was actually a customary Jewish response came up, and it makes a lot of sense. Jews in that day would sometimes respond to direct questions in a way which challenged the questioners, “See if you can figure out what I’m really saying here.” John certainly sets up this entire exchange in this type of format. We see this when Jesus makes his incredible statement, only to find the Jews miss his point.
See, they’d been busy working on the Temple for 46 years (Herod the Great started a massive renovation of the Second Temple and it continued after his death). The work on the Temple was, in fact, partially paid for by the very people Jesus had just chased out. So how was Jesus going to rebuild the Temple in three days? Especially without any income to pay for it! On the surface, Jesus’ statement is absurd, but Jesus’ point didn’t reside on the surface. It was also Jewish tradition that the third day was the day in which God moved to deliver his people – we know this from commentaries on different Scripture passages called midrash (and yes, this all came up in my research, I’m not clever enough to come up with this all on my own). By the time Jesus arrived on the scene of history this tradition was fairly wide-spread, so when Jesus points out that it would take three days to rebuild the torn-down temple, he was giving the Jews the very sign they asked for! How would Jesus prove that he was the one who was going to bring about the cleansing of the people and the restoration of the Kingdom? He would show the power of God on the third day. With both Jesus’ response and the Jewish misunderstanding in his reader’s minds John makes his point.
Jesus wasn’t speaking about the building at all. He was speaking about his own body. This meant something for the early Christians, and it means something for us. Let me ask you, where is the Temple of God in the Christian faith? I know there are churches which call themselves “temples,” and our own language tends to refer to churches “God’s house,” but the reality is that idea is actually incorrect. The temple of God, for Christianity, is not a place, it is a person. Our temple is the crucified and resurrected Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord. When we wish to draw near to God we go to him. When we wish to offer the only sacrifice called for in our faith, our very lives, we bring it to him. When we want to show our zeal for the house of God, our zeal is for the person of Jesus. He is a Temple greater than any building, and more sure than any human-made structure – and he was raised by God for our salvation when? On the third day.
So, if Jesus is our Temple, what does this mean for all these institutions we call “churches?” On one level this reminds us any institution, such as Central Baptist, is not the temple of God. We must never replace Jesus with the structures we make for ourselves, helpful as they can be.
Now, does this mean coming together as a congregation isn’t especially important? Not in the slightest. On the third day Jesus’ body was raised as the Temple of God. Isn’t it fascinating that one of the images used to describe the collective group of Jesus disciples in the New Testament is the body of Christ. Folks, when Jesus’ disciples gather together we experience the all the promises which God has fulfilled in and through our savior. We experience the presence of the eternal kingdom, we are immersed in the promise of the conquest of both sin and death, and live in reality of the gift of eternal life. Yes, we look to a future where the final consummation of all these things will come about – but make no mistake, we live in them now because we are the body of Christ – the temple of God. So when we gather to worship, to learn, to enjoy one another’s company, and to serve this world in Jesus’ name we are doing more than we might know – we’re actually the sign to the entire world Jesus really is the one who fulfilled all the hopes God’s people. Let’s live, together, as a witness to this awesome truth. Amen.