"Destroy this Temple and in Three Days I Will Raise it Up"

El Greco, Cleansing of the Temple
The Jerusalem Temple of Jesus’ time was not a single building like a Church, but a complex, set on a massive open space twice the size of the New Haven Green. This huge expanse had been built up, a kind of plateau in the midst of the city, through massive earthworks initiated by Herod the Great, the villain of the infancy stories and a real infrastructure expert - no one did infrastructure better than Herod - who had greatly expanded the Temple area from previous centuries. As Jesus’ opponents report in their encounter in the Gospel, this process had taken 46 years - and was to continue for some time after.

Close to the perimeter of the complex there were administrative and civic buildings, and a great open court area, where today’s scene is set, surrounded the actual shrine of the Temple proper, a structure more like the size of this Church perhaps or smaller. Sacrifices were offered on an altar outside it, and inside the shrine was a set of holy objects and materials - bread baked daily to place before God’s presence, and the ark of the covenant containing the tablets of the law given to Moses.

We may be used to reading this story of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple in terms that erase its particularity in favor of things we remember from the more familiar versions in the Synoptics. I invite you to pay attention to the actual text we have. John’s version does not offer any implication of corruption, greed, or dishonesty on the part of the traders. Jesus' complaint here not about theft, but merely about commerce: “stop making my Father’s house a market-place.”

The money changers exchanged the idolatrous Roman coinage for local coins without the Emperor’s head, that could be received by the Temple treasury. The sellers of animals were needed so that sacrifices, the central religious ritual of Judea, could be offered - few people could bring livestock with them to Jerusalem. So both these processes were necessary to the work of the Temple as Jesus and his contemporaries knew it. And these are the focus of Jesus’ ire.

What Jesus envisages is not a tweak, then, not the improvement of the Temple or the removal of some corrupt excesses, but a kind of fresh start; just as his striking actions imply by their sheer violence, this is bigger than just a call to reform, or to "Make the Temple Great" again.

John confirms this with the addition of a unique reflection in the story: "'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken."

Jesus in other words is not calling for a reform of the Temple. He is, like ancient prophets long before him, performing a symbolic action, an embodied parable, that demonstrates with a sort of mysterious clarity that something greater than the onlookers might be able to conceive of was going to happen. This is not some moralistic call to clean up their act or to renew the purity of the institution. This is about death and resurrection. To read this story as about Jesus as religious or political reformer (in the usual sense) is to miss the point completely.

And of course not one but two extraordinary things were going to happen. The Temple complex would be destroyed, razed to the ground by invading Roman armies about 40 years after these events. The platform of the Temple mount still stands, and Jews still pray where one of the great retaining walls built to hold up the platform remains exposed, but the only structures on it are much newer ones built by Muslim conquerors many centuries after Jesus.

And the other thing, the one that has more than historical interest for us, was that Jesus himself would be destroyed, but that as John puts its the “temple of his body” would be raised. For John, probably writing after both these momentous sets of events had taken place, the destruction of the earthly historic Temple and the resurrection of Jesus were both signs of divine purpose, which this curious and confronting action of Jesus in the Temple had foreshadowed.

John’s own community was a continuing sign of what was raised up in the third day, a new Temple with a different cultus attached. Other NT writers - even before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple - take up the notion of temples unconstrained by stones and wood. Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” In the First Letter of Peter, the author tells the readers that Jesus himself is "a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight” and "like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual structure, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Although we still put up buildings that bear witness to the memory of Jesus' cross and resurrection, these are not really our temples. Each life where the Spirit of Jesus makes its presence known, or can, is a temple. This is not, however, as simple as a mere shift of the sacred from stones to flesh, or a glib preference for the spiritual over the material - our bodies are material, after all. Jesus’ body is raised up and we are raised with him. You are a temple, then, and we collectively are a temple - but whose temple are we really? The Spirit of Jesus who inhabits us comes with the same paradoxical quality that drives Jesus’ own life - a life lived and spent completely for others, rather than for its own sake or its own preservation. He promises - or threatens - to destroy what we consider reasonable and normal, and to build something else in its place.


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