jesus-cleanses-the-templeReflection by Gail R. O’Day [545]

John 2:13–22 is popularly interpreted as an example of Jesus’ anger and hence his humanity. Jesus’ actions of taking the whip, herding out the animals, and overturning the tables are pointed to as evidence that Jesus could get angry. Such attempts to amass evidence to prove Jesus’ humanity actually undercut the power of the incarnation, however. To focus on isolated attributes or emotions as proof of Jesus’ humanity is in effect to seek after signs, to base one’s faith on the surface evidence without perceiving the deeper reality. The underlying reality of the Fourth Gospel narrative is that “the Word became flesh” (1:14). Jesus’ humanity thus pervades everything he says and does in his ministry. The scandal of John 2:13–22 is not Jesus’ anger as proof of his humanity, but the authority this human being claims for himself through his words and actions.

Jesus, a complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, issues a challenge to the authority of the Temple that quite literally shakes its foundations. Jesus throws the mechanics of temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. It is no wonder that the Jews who were gathered at the Temple asked for a sign to warrant his actions (2:18). Jesus was a human being just as they were; who was he to derail their worship?

Jesus explains his actions in the Temple by pointing to his death and resurrection (2:19–21). Jesus has the authority to challenge the authority of the Temple because his whole life bears testimony to the power of God in the world. John 2:13–22 is not about how Jesus’ anger makes him like other people; instead, Jesus’ bold, prophetic act in the Temple reinforces what 1:19–51 and 2:1–11 have already shown: There will be nothing hidden about Jesus’ identity in John. Jesus is the locus of God’s presence on earth, and God as known in Jesus, not the Temple, should be the focal point of cultic activity.

The far-reaching implications of Jesus’ complaint and his actions in the Temple should caution the interpreter against advocating a one-dimensional theory of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism when expositing this text. Jesus is not against Judaism per se. John presents Jesus as an observant Jewish male who travels to Jerusalem at the pilgrimage feasts (2:13; 5:1; 7:10; 12:2). Jesus’ challenge to the authority of the dominant religious institution in Judaism is not anti-Jewish, because it is in line with the institutional challenges of prophets like Amos and Jeremiah. Jesus challenges a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God, a temptation that exists for contemporary Christianity as well as for the Judaism of Jesus’ day.

Jesus’ dramatic actions in 2:13–16, through which he issued a radical challenge to the authority of the religious institutions of his day, issue a similar challenge to the institutionalism of the contemporary church. Christian faith communities must be willing to ask where and when the status quo of religious practices and institutions has been absolutized and, therefore, closed to the possibility of reformation, change, and renewal. The great danger is that the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in the Gospel of John, will fall into the trap of equating the authority of its own institutions with the presence of God. All religious institutional embeddedness—whether in the form of temple worship, unjust social systems, or repressive religious practices—is challenged by the revelation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


John 2:13 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem: Jesus goes up to Jerusalem at Passover time at the beginning of his ministry. This stands in contrast to the other Gospels, in which Jesus goes to Jerusalem but once, and then at the very end of his ministry. With regard to multiple visits, John is probably more correct historically. Our author has considerably more interest in Jerusalem than the other evangelists, an indication that his roots are more oriented in Jerusalem than in Galilee. The temple purification, however, probably occurred toward the end of Jesus’ life, as the Synoptists (Matthew, Mark, Luke) indicate, serving as a final straw leading to Jesus’ condemnation. John may well have transferred the story to this initial phase in Jesus’ life because it fits so well into his “newness” theme and because he intends that Lazarus’ resurrection (ch. 11) be the incident leading to the crucifixion. Passover: this is the first Passover mentioned in John; a second is mentioned in Jn 6:4 a third in Jn 13:1. Taken literally, they point to a ministry of at least two years.

John 2:14 oxen, sheep, and doves: intended for sacrifice. The doves were the offerings of the poor (Lv 5:7). Money-changers: for a temple tax paid by every male Jew more than nineteen years of age, with a half-shekel coin (Ex 30:11–16), in Syrian currency. The festivals were times for “remembering”—that is, to liturgically recall and relive past events—as well as for feasting and celebrating. During all the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles), huge crowds of pilgrims would congregate in Jerusalem (Josephus estimates as many as 2,700,000). Large numbers of animals were required, especially at Passover.

John 2:17 Zeal for your house will consume me: The wording from Ps 69:10 is changed to future tense to apply to Jesus.

John 2:19 Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up: This saying about the destruction of the temple occurs in various forms (Mt 24:2; 27:40; Mk 13:2; 15:29; Lk 21:6; cf. Acts 6:14). Mt 26:61 has: “I can destroy the temple of God…” In Mk 14:58, there is a metaphorical contrast with a new temple: “I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.” Here it is symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection and the resulting community (see Jn 2:21 and Rev 21:2). In three days: possibly an Old Testament expression for a short, indefinite period of time; cf. Hos 6:2. Raise…up: The verb used is egeirō basically means (transitive) waken, incite, excite, raise or intransitively awaken, be active, stand up, rise. It appears in the NT most often as a synonym for “resurrect.”

John 2:20 forty-six years: based on references in Josephus (Jewish Wars 1, 21, 1 #401; Antiquities 15, 11, 1 #380), possibly the spring of A.D. 28.


  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
  • Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
  • Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
  • John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989)
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
  • Harold Remus, Miracle (NT), 4:856-70

Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at

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