13 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. 15 He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, 16 and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” 17 His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. 23 While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. 24 But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, 25 and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.
Context. The temple narrative in John consists of two parts: Jesus’ actions in the Temple (vv. 14–17) and Jesus’ saying about the destruction of the Temple (vv. 18–22). The temple narrative is set at Passover (v. 13); the expression “the Passover of the Jews” would seem to either be a formal description or a subtle distancing of the Fourth Evangelist and his community from the religious observances of the Jewish community.
The Cleansing of the Temple in the Gospels. The other gospels each have an account of a cleansing of the Temple (Matt. 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46). The Markan account is the fullest, but even so it is shorter than John’s. John differs from Mark in mentioning oxen and sheep, the scourge of cords, the word for “money changers” (v. 14), the “spilling” of the money and the command, “Take these out of here.” John’s word for “overturned” is different from that in any of the Synoptic gospels, and whereas they say that Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7 followed by Jeremiah 7:11, John does not speak of him as citing any Scripture. But he does say that the disciples remembered Psalm 69:9, which none of the other gospels record. He does not mention, as Mark does, Jesus’ prohibition of carrying anything through the Temple (Mark 11:16; seemingly “don’t make the Temple a shortcut to somewhere else”). Mark says that Jesus overturned the seats of the sellers of doves, John only that he told them to take “these” things away. But the most important difference is one of time. In this Gospel the cleansing of the Temple is the first great public act of Jesus’ ministry; in the other Gospels it is among the last associated with his passion.
Many believe it is unlikely that Jesus performed this bold act twice, so the two traditions probably narrate the same event. The synoptic chronology is thought to be the more historically reliable, because it is difficult to see how the Jewish religious authorities would have tolerated such a confrontational act at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. That being said it could also be argued that the practices in question were ones that were likely to have restarted soon after Jesus’ action thus there was not a permanent end to the practices. Perhaps, the act was indeed repeated several years later.
Assuming there was only one occurrence, the later cleansing of the Temple was moved by St. John to the beginning of his Gospel because it serves a symbolic function for him.
The Meaning of the Cleansing in John. The temple cleansing in John completes the inaugural event begun with the Cana miracle. John 2:1–11 revealed the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life Jesus offers. John 2:13–22 highlights the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order (cf. John 5:1–18).
From the beginning of the Fourth Gospel there has been a theme of newness and of creation. The Prologue refers to the power and role of the Word of God in the story of Creation. Then, very subtly, it continues to recount a new creation in the Incarnation of Jesus. In John 1:29 you see the phrase, “the next day” as John the Baptist testified to Jesus. “The next day” the first apostles are called in v.34 and following. The “next day” (v.43), now day four of the new creation week, Philip and Nathanael are added as disciples.
The passage immediately before our gospel passage in the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Our gospel is followed by the account of Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). “On the third day…” (Jn 2:1) we find ourselves, according to the Johannine imagery, on the seventh day of the new creation week. The creation week reaches its climax – the unveiling of the public life of the Anointed One of God. The account of the wedding at Cana is relatively short (11 verses) and yet it is filled with a variety of images, theological and sacramental.
It may significant for St John that the wedding feast account occurs on the 3rd/7th day. In Nb 19 these are the days on which the ritually unpure were sprinkled with water so that they were (a) rejoined to the people of Israel and (b) could reenter the Temple. Without this rite of purification they were cut off from chosen people of God. This view is supported when in Jn 2:6 we are told that the six stone jars were for the Jewish rites of purification. But what purification is needed here? I believe that St John is connecting this event to the baptism of John. That baptism was a call of repentance to Israel as a means of purifying themselves for the arrival of the Consolation of Israel; for a new covenantal relationship with God.
All of these Johannine accounts speak of newness, renewal, or creation – the cleansing of the Temple is of a part of this thread. This physical purification of the temple might remind us of the type of symbolic deeds acted out by the prophets; and, indeed, Jesus’ approach to the temple on this occasion resembles that of Jeremiah (Jer 7). The action, though not a miracle, is a sign, a double sign. The temple, soon to be destroyed, stood in need of purification. And its function would be replaced by the risen body of Christ.