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COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Helping at a Wedding and Cleansing the Temple - John 2

The Wedding at Cana (2.1-12).

The incident at the wedding in Cana of Galilee is said by the writer to be the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’. This brings out how important what happened here was seen to be. It was to be seen as a specific sign of Who He was. It is to be seen, therefore, as more than just a nature miracle. And that should cause us to look at it carefully.

John is in fact the only one who describes Jesus’ miraculous acts as ‘signs’. But we must be careful how we interpret the word ‘sign’. For the word is not used in the sense in which some would use it today as signifying ‘proofs’ (this is clearly emphasised in 2.23-25). Rather they were ‘signs’ because they revealed something of His person, His glory and His purpose. In other words they are ‘signs’ because they demonstrate something of Who and What He is. We should note in this regard that John stresses that these signs actually occurred and were witnessed by the disciples and by others. ‘Many other signs did Jesus in the presence of His disciples --- but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing might find life through His Name’ (20.30-31).

There are seven such signs described in John’s Gospel:

  • The turning of water into wine (2.1-12).
  • The healing at a distance of the son of the high official at Herod’s court (4.46-54).
  • The healing of the lame man on the Sabbath (5.1-16).
  • The feeding of the five thousand (6.1-15).
  • The walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (6.16-26).
  • The healing of the man blind from birth (9.1-41).
  • The raising of Lazarus (11.1-46).

It will be noted that each of the ‘signs’ points either to His Messiahship or His divinity. The first has in mind the promise of full flowing wine in Isaiah 25.6 which is to take place when God takes away the veil that is over men’s eyes and when death is swallowed up, and consolation and joy is given to all who are His (Isaiah 25.7-8). It also indicates that the old ritual is passing away to be replaced by the new wine of the Spirit. The second reveals Jesus’ control over nature from a distance by a word, and the healing of a dying man, and provides an example of what faith can accomplish. The third has in mind that in the coming age the lame would be healed (Isaiah 35.6; compare Matthew 11.5), and demonstrates that Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath. But note how there is no alteration to the story so as to have the lame man leaping so as to ‘fulfil Scripture’ (the writer could easily have added this touch had he been thus minded, but he stuck with the facts. The lame man in Acts 3 does leap when he is healed). So John is true to the facts. The fourth is the fulfilment of the common expectancy of ‘the Messianic feast’ as He gives them ‘bread from heaven to eat’. It also gives evidence of Jesus’ ability to feed men’s hearts (6.35). The fifth demonstrates His power to control nature and His ability to walk on the seas as described of God in the Psalms (see Psalm 77.19). The sixth is a further fulfilment of the promises in Isaiah 35.4-5 indicating that the ‘last days’ have come, and that the time has come for the opening of men’s eyes. The seventh reveals His power over death and the certainty of the future resurrection at His command (25.28-29; Isaiah 25.8).

In this first extraordinary sign we are faced up with the creative power of God through Jesus. (‘All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made’ - 1.3). By ‘creating’ wine Jesus reveals Himself therefore as the One Who has come to bring joy to the world through His creative power. It revealed that He could do it by a word, or even a thought. For He made no movement towards the jars of water. He simply determined that they should hold wine, and they did. He would later do the same in the second sign when He healed the king’s officer’s son at a distance (4.46-54). Here was the power of the ‘Word’, or even of the thought.

A further stress indicated by the account is on the fact of a change from the old ritual truths to new truths which will bring life, joy and satisfaction. The water of the old rituals (in vessels set aside for purificatory rites) is turned into the wine of the new message that Jesus has brought. And behind the new wine lies the thought of the new age, for such an ‘abundance of wine’ was a symbol of the coming age in Isaiah 25.6; Amos 9.14; Hosea 14.6-7; and Jeremiah 31.5, 12, and it was an abundance that was to be ‘without money and without price’ (Isaiah 55.1). This was therefore an important symbolic act depicting the introduction of a new era. And it will then significantly be followed by the change that He will demand in the Temple whereby it was to cease to be a marketplace and was to become truly His Father’s house, a house for all nations. The old was to be turned into something better. It also symbolises the change that He will require in Nicodemus as a teacher of Israel, indicating his need to be born from above (3.1-7), and the change that He will speak of to the Samaritan woman in the way that God is to be worshipped (4.3-24), and the change from looking to the old bread from Heaven ‘given’ by Moses, to looking to the new bread from Heaven, which is Himself (6.15-51). From now on all is to be change. The old ‘water’ is to turn into wine.

2.1-2 ‘And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus also was bidden, and his disciples, to the marriage.’

Note once again the time element, ‘on the third day’ (v.1), presumably the third day after leaving the place where Nathaniel received his call. Or it may be the third day after arriving in Galilee. This series of events from 1.19 onwards was imbedded in the writer’s mind as a vivid memory of a few, glorious, never to be forgotten days. ‘On the third day’ does not necessarily indicate that three days have passed. It may simply refer to a day and a half (completing one day, then a second, and the commencement of a third), or perhaps a little longer than three days. It indicated ‘a short period’. Had the writer intended to point to the seventh day he would surely have mentioned it.

‘There was a marriage at Cana in Galilee.’ A marriage was a time when the whole town would join together. After the ceremony there would be feasting lasting seven days, and anyone known to the couple would feel free to come (and even some who weren’t). Jesus and His mother were clearly known to the organisers, as were possibly the accompanying disciples, for they too were locals. Thus they were all invited. (Although it may be that as Nathaniel actually came from Cana, the combined invitation to the disciples was due to his influence - 21.20). However, such wedding were often very much open affairs. There is no need to think that all the twelve were there. They had not yet been appointed. They would be appointed later. ‘His disciples’ simply refers to those who were following Him at the time, and may have been only two or three. Apart from Philip and Nathaniel we know neither their number or their names. The site of Cana is not yet certain, although it was presumably not far from Nazareth. If Peter and Matthew were not present at the wedding, as seems quite likely, it explains why they knew little or nothing about it.

Such weddings would be occasions of celebration and feasting which helped to make what was seen as the daily grind tolerable during the rest of the time. It was therefore a matter of honour to ensure that they went well. The marriage feast itself would usually take place in the evening, and after the marriage covenant had been signed the couple would be escorted to a specially prepared room, the ‘chuppa’. The feasting would then continue for a number of days, with much music and hilarity. It would be a welcome break from toil and labour. It was a point of honour to ensure that the guests were provided for. To fail to do so adequately would be a matter of great shame.

‘His disciples.’ This phrase suggests an early date for the narrative before ‘His disciples’ (as in Mark) crystallised into ‘the disciples’ (Matthew and Luke). It indicates that the writer still recognised the need to distinguish His disciples from the disciples of the Rabbis and the disciples of John.

2.3 ‘And when the wine failed, the mother of Jesus says to him, ‘They have no wine.’

We do not know at what point the wine failed, whether at the marriage feast or in the later festivities, but either way it was a shameful thing for the families concerned. They could have suffered reproach for many years to come. So, when the wine began to run out it would be seen as a catastrophe. It would signify that the poverty stricken families had been unable to live up to requirements. Thus when Jesus’ mother learned what had happened, she would realise immediately what it would mean for the families and her thoughts thus turned immediately to her eldest son Jesus, and she went to Him and indicated to Him that ‘they have no wine’.

The fact that the wine did run out would suggest that the family concerned were very poor and had not been able to fund the wedding fully (the ‘servants’ may well have been volunteers), but it would make their shame clear to all. If their means were very limited this could easily happen as the feasting during a wedding was not restricted to close relatives, and there would be many friends and acquaintances there, not to mention strangers taking advantage of what was on offer. Outwardly this is just Mary consulting Jesus about whether anything can be done. But to John, and possibly to Jesus at the time, the words are more poignant. John sees it as a picture of the world. The world indeed has religious ceremony galore, but it lacks that which floods the heart with joy, it lacks the wine that satisfies (Isaiah 55.1). The world too ‘has no wine’.

The lack of mention of Joseph, who would normally have attended such an affair, and the fact that Mary turned to Jesus as ‘the head of the family’, suggests that Joseph was dead.

2.4 ‘And Jesus says to her, ‘Woman, what is there to you and to me, my hour is not yet come.’

That Mary’s words are not just a quiet remark to her son comes out in the reply He made. It makes clear that He knew that she hoped that He would be able to do something remarkable, revealing some of the powers she now suspected that He had. On the other hand she knows that she cannot tell Him what to do. She can only draw His attention to the situation. Then the decision will lie with Him. It is probable that Joseph was already dead and that she had become used to leaning on her eldest son.

But the coming of the Messiah was often described in connection with a Messianic Feast (compare Isaiah 25.6) and it is quite possible she saw this as an opportunity for Him to reveal Himself. Like most of the others she saw the Messiah as someone who would bring peace and plenty and as His mother she could not wait for Him to be a success. Perhaps, she possibly thought, now was the time for Him to begin His greater ministry (compare 7.3-4). She would have heard of what He had already done in Judea.

Jesus’ reply is fairly stern, but not as stern as it might appear. “Woman” is difficult to put into English because we do not have a word that means the equivalent. In Yorkshire it could be translated ‘lass’, (in Scotland ‘lassie’), which can be an affectionate term in the same way as this. It probably contains the sense of gentle chiding, but no more. It was, however, unusual for a Jew to address his mother in this way. We must therefore see in it a slight distancing of Himself, indicating that His ministry must not be interfered with.

What He says literally is, “What is there to you and to me?”. The phrase can be used (1) When one person is unjustly bothering another. The injured party may then say "What to me and to you?" meaning, "What have I done to you that you should do this to me?" (See Judges 11.12; 2 Chronicles 35.21; 1 Kings 17.18). Alternately, (2) it may be used when someone is asked to get involved in a matter he feels is no business of his, he may say to the one asking him, "What to me and to you?" meaning, "That is your business, how am I involved?" (See 2 Kings 3.13; Hosea 14.8).

Here then this probably means, ‘we have different concerns, lass’, rather than the harsher ‘what have we in common?’ or ‘why do you do this to me?’ It was not yet the time when He wished to reveal Himself, as He makes crystal clear when He says ‘my hour has not yet come’. Even Jesus must await the hour God has appointed for Him, the hour which will finally result in His death and glorification (John 7.30; 8.20; 12.23; 12.27; 13.1; 17.1). Would Mary have been so precipitate if she had known what was involved? It is hardly likely. How much more important is it for us then, not to rush into things before God and we are ready.

Jesus’ words are significant. As we have already seen, in John’s Gospel ‘His hour’ is regularly linked with His death. So Jesus may well already be feeling aware of what His hour will bring (compare Mark 2.20) and not be desirous of bringing it about too quickly. It was not an easy path He would be called on to tread, and He was fully aware of the consequences. Furthermore it indicates that even the preparation for that path was determined by His Father. He must not begin His revelation of Himself without His Father’s agreement. That fact having been made clear He apparently accepted that that particular hour had now come, the hour for showing His first sign of Who He Was.

2.5 ‘His mother says to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it.’

Mary clearly did not feel His words as a rebuke, but just as a reminder that she must not hurry Him into His work. But she knows Him well enough to know that He will do something, something which is apparent to her from His attitude. So she turns round and tells the waiting servers, (possibly unpaid volunteers), ‘Do whatever He tells you.’ The words may indicate that she is expecting Him to do something unusual which may take the servers by surprise, or may simply indicate her confidence in His ability to get the people out of the mess that they had got themselves into.

This incident illustrates the fact that, although like the disciples she accepts He is chosen for a special task, Mary is not fully in tune with her son’s purposes. Jesus will later re-emphasise this when He will not allow her to interfere with His ministry in other circumstances (Mark 3.31-35), putting her on a par, from that point of view, with all who do the will of God. Even His mother cannot be allowed to interfere in His destiny. She now has no special influence over Him.

2.6 ‘Now there were six water pots of stone set there in accordance with the Jewish custom of purifying, each containing two or three metretes.’

Nearby Jesus sees six very large jars which were there for the purpose of Jewish cleansing rituals (compare Mark 7.3). The writer remembers clearly the number of the jars. Perhaps he sees it as indicating intensified three (twice three) signifying total completeness. Interestingly five disciples have been mentioned and with Jesus Himself this would make six, which would tie in with the number of water pots, but that is to assume that they were all still with Him which may well not have been so. Peter and Andrew for example may have returned home and back to their fishing. On the other hand John, looking back, may have seen some significance in the number. From them and from Himself Jesus would produce new wine and they would take God’s wine to the world. Much of the water would have been used already as the wedding feast was well under way, so He tells the servers to refill the jars. All this detail indicates an eyewitness. It is significant that John mentions the use of the water pots and describes their significance. He wants to draw the attention of his readers to the source of the water, that it is connected with the old religious rites. Once again we recognise a genuine Jewish background.

‘Metretes’ is a measure containing about thirty nine and a half litres. Thus each jar contains on average about a hundred litres, (about 26 US gallons), making 600 litres in all, illustrating the fact that Jesus gives good measure and running over. It may, however, only have been the water that was drawn out that became wine.

2.7 ‘Jesus says to them “Fill the water pots with water.” And they filled them to the brim.’

On the basis of Jesus’ instruction to ‘fill the water pots with water’ the servers enthusiastically fill them to the brim. They are probably curious as to what He will do and perhaps a little jocular. There may well have been a few humorous remarks such as ‘let’s make sure there is plenty of water there, just in case we have to drink that’. Again, however, John intends us to get the idea of overabundance.

2.8-10 ‘And he says to them, “Draw out now and carry it to the ruler of the feast”. And they carried it. And when the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from, (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the ruler of the feast called the bridegroom and says to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is worse. You have kept the good wine until now”.’

Jesus then tells them to draw out some water and carry it to the governor of the feast. The poor man was probably in quite a state. He might well have felt that the situation reflected on him. ‘Draw out now’. ‘Antlesate’. The verb was used of drawing water out of a well or the baling out of a ship, but could be used more generally to signify drawing out by means of some vessel, (thus the noun for ‘bucket’ (antlema) is etymologically similar).

It should be noted that the water was not there for drinking. It was for washing in order to remove ritual uncleanness. But now it would appear to them that Jesus was telling them that the water was to be drunk instead of wine. They probably did not at first realise that that was because it had become wine. They may well have thought that Jesus was saying, ‘here is your solution’. But Jesus’ purpose was to bring out that the emphasis was no longer to be on such things as outward ritual washing but was to be on inward sustenance and blessing. The whole symbolism of the water has been altered.

When the water was drawn and taken to the master of ceremonies, the master of ceremonies, who is not aware of what was happening, drinks it and is impressed. Indeed he calls the bridegroom and says, ‘Most people serve the best wine first, and then when people are a little merry give them cheaper wine. But you have saved the best till last’. There is not only overabundance but exquisiteness of taste. Jesus is bringing the very best. It is a true Messianic feast. Abundance of wine is a symbol of the coming age in Isaiah 25.6; Amos 9.14; Hosea 14.6-7; Jeremiah 31.5, 12, and it will be without money and without price (Isaiah 55.1). ‘The best wine’ emphasises change for the better, a new beginning.

The point is being made that in the coming of Jesus the world will be offered new and better ‘wine’, replacing the old religious ideas. This will shortly be illustrated in the cleansing of the Temple, His words to Nicodemus and His words to the woman of Samaria. Compare how elsewhere new wine symbolises Jesus’ teaching (Mark 2.22).

There may also be in mind a previous time when water had been changed into something else, when Moses had turned water into blood (Exodus 7.14-24). It may indicate that while Moses worked miracles of destruction, the new greater than Moses works miracles of joy and blessing (compare 1.17), both at the hand of God. Indeed the idea of red wine as symbolising blood would certainly have been in John’s mind when he wrote

2.11 ‘This beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and revealed openly his glory, and his disciples believed on him.’

The whole account illustrates to John that here is One Who will take the old ceremonies (the jars of purification) and replace them with a new and vibrant reality, the wine of the Kingly Rule of God. The water of the old religion will become the wine of the new, which will introduce a new and wonderful future, a time of joy and fruitfulness, a Messianic Feast of overflowing plenty. God has saved the best until last. The Messiah is seen as here at last to satisfy men’s deepest needs, and by His actions He reveals His glory as the provider of God’s richest blessing. This is why John can call it a ‘sign’, indeed the first sign, of the purpose Jesus has come to fulfil. The incident strengthens and confirms the faith of the disciples (v.11). It indicates that in one sense His hour has begun. This sense of the importance of the timing of all that He does comes out again in 7.6.

But we must not just stop at the symbolism. It was also a remarkable miracle indicating Jesus’ power over nature. It was a reminder that ‘all things were made by Him’ (1.3). It thus also indicated that He was the Son of God, God’s powerful Word. The miracle happened as a result of His words (‘whatever He says to you do it’).

2.12 ‘After this he went down to Capernaum, he and his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they remained there not many days.’

The writer now remembers vividly how, after this incident, they went to Capernaum for a few days, along with Jesus’ mother and brothers, where they all stayed together, another evidence of an eyewitness. Note that John never mentions Mary by name. She is Jesus’ mother, not someone important in her own right. So while respected she is made to fit into the scheme of things.

It will be noted that this comment has no significance for the story, and that elsewhere John has no difficulty in moving abruptly from one incident to another. Why then does he include it here? The only sensible reason is that he remembers clearly what they did after they had been at the wedding and so included it.

There are some who express surprise that Jesus should perform such a miracle when it seemed to have little purpose, but the fact is that it was an act typical of Jesus. When He wanted to impress on His disciples the bankruptcy and coming devastation of Jerusalem he cursed the fig tree, so that from it the disciples might learn a vivid message and recognise His power (Mark 11.12-25), and when He wanted to show them that their eyes were still only half open He healed the blind man in two stages (Mark 8.22-25). So here He turns water into wine in order to demonstrate that the days of spiritual prosperity and plenty are now here.

In 4.46 He will come again to Cana. In between He will reveal:

  • The true condition of the Temple and of those who seek after signs (2.14-22), who are like the old water of ritualism with nothing to warm men’s hearts.
  • The true condition of the hearts of men who seek after signs (2.23-25) as exemplified in a teacher of Israel, who was satisfied with the old waters of Judaism and was missing the water of the Spirit (3.1-21).
  • A discussion about the old waters of purifying, in contrast with the new waters of John’s baptism which pointed to the Spirit (3.25), which will be followed by the offer of living water to the Samaritans in place of the old water of Jacob (4.4-43 especially verse 13).

Then He returns to Cana to perform His second sign and find a genuine faith that does not seek after signs (4.46-54). The miracle of the water turned into wine is to be seen in its full perspective.

The Cleansing of the Temple (2.13-25).

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that this narrative is given here on close proximity to what has gone before because it illustrates the fulfilment of the turning of water into wine. Now Jesus will act to turn the Jerusalem worship into genuine ‘worship for all’ by seeking to have banned from the court of the Gentiles the trading that was going on and disturbing the worship. That is not to suggest that it is out of place chronologically. Only that its connection with the previous passage is deliberate. The suggestion that this is the same incident as that in Mark 11 and parallels really does not hold up to careful examination. The detail is different at every point. And what is described here ties in with the newness of Jesus’ ministry and with a time when He was not aware of the corruption in the Temple. It has rather, unlike the incident in the other Gospels, the flavour of someone concerned for true worship in God’s Temple, and for the purity of that Temple. It reads like the impulsive act of a ‘new prophet’ rather than like the thought through policy of Mark 11.

2.13 ‘And the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.’

John constantly tells us that Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the different Feasts of the Jews, and especially for the Passover (1.13; 5.1; 7.10; 10.22; 11.55 with 12.12). But even if we had not been told we would have assumed it. One point that is being made is that Jesus did not ignore the traditions of Israel. It is probable also that the writer saw these feasts as pointing forwards towards what the Christ had come to do as the Lamb of God Who would take away the sins of the world (1.29). This is apparently Jesus’ first Passover after taking up His calling. Perhaps John therefore intends us to link it with the final Passover, and to bring to us an awareness of the shadow that lies already over the ministry of Jesus, something that will come out in the course of the narrative. These verses emphasise that Jesus’ ministry continued over some years. All these emphases underline the Jewishness of the writer.

However, the incident he will now describe is paralleled at the end of Jesus’ life by what at a superficial first glance looks to be a similar incident before His final denunciation (Mark 11.12-19 and parallels), and this must raise the question as to whether there were two such incidents or one. It is of course always possible that John deliberately puts the incident here in order to reinforce the message that the old is passing way and the new has come (chronology was not a major factor to the Gospel writers). He does, however, put it in such a context that it suggests that it did occur early rather than late in the ministry, and on examination the incidents are in fact so dissimilar on most counts that it seems far more likely that this is a different incident altogether.

Given the fact that the trading in the Temple must always have angered Jesus this is not surprising, especially in view of Malachi 3.1-4. What is rather surprising is that He did not do something like this every time He went to Jerusalem, although we must recognise that, at least for a period after this incident, they would be on their guard, and He would perhaps realise that such repeated actions could precipitate a collision which would prematurely end His ministry. He knew, after all, that it could only be a token gesture. Having made His point He possibly felt that He had done what was necessary. But by the time of the later incident the passage of years would have convinced the guards that He was no longer a danger. They would have considered that the young hothead had matured and have relaxed their guard. After all the Temple was open to all an it would have caused great consternation among Galileans if Jesus had been excluded. Thus we might consider that two incidents, taking place years apart, might really be expected by us, the first occurring when in His new zeal He faces men up to the matter of the need for purity of worship in the Temple for the first time, the second occurring as a thought out policy in order to expose corruption before He is finally put to death. The first He gets away with as being the act of a zealous young man who may well hold promise for the future, the second is to be a seal on His death warrant.

The reason for His act here is described very differently from that in Mark 11 and parallels, and fits better into the beginnings of His ministry when He was probably not quite as aware, as He was later on, of the dishonesty that was going on in the Temple. The reason described is exactly the kind of reason that might well fire up a younger man without containing the thought out attitude revealed in the later incident. He enters quite innocently into the temple. But becoming aware of the commotion caused by incessant trading in the court of the Gentiles, He feels in His new awareness of His Messiahship that He has to do something, for they are treating God’s house like a market and making a mockery of the opportunity for Gentiles to truly worship! He may well have had in mind the words of Zechariah, ‘In that day there will be no more a merchant in the house of the Lord of Hosts’ (Zechariah 14.21), and the words of Malachi, ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant whom you delight in --- for he is like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap --’ (Malachi 3.1-3), and ‘zeal for your house will eat me up’ (Psalm 69.9). His concentration here was on emptying the temple of the cattle, sheep and doves, although the only way He could demonstrate His displeasure with the money-changers was by turning over the tables.

We should note that in the other incident in Mark 11 He enters the Temple with a deliberate aim (He had looked around earlier). Then His concentration will be on the misbehaviour of the people, and He ignores the cattle and the sheep. He also stops those who are taking a short cut through the Temple, whilst His words are about the total dishonesty of all involved. They have turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves. Given that they took place in the same Temple (there was no other) the two incidents could not be more different.

It is not too surprising that it is not mentioned in the other Gospels, for the other Gospels tell us little about His early ministry in Jerusalem, especially in its earlier stages, concentrating rather on His itinerant ministry, thus they tended to disregard the happenings at the trips to Jerusalem, possibly because they were not present (in John ‘His disciples’ is a vague term not necessarily always meaning the twelve), or possibly because they saw Galilee rather than Judea as the true reflection of Jesus ministry. Galilee welcomed Him. Judea put Him to death. But John, who records a number of trips to Jerusalem, perhaps did not wish to jar the account of the final visit by describing a violent visit to the Temple, and perhaps wished to finish his Gospel on a spiritual note with his concentration on the cross. He does after all leave out the physical details of the last Supper, and of Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane, and he ignores Jesus’ actual baptism and the transfiguration, while hinting at both. His later concentration is on the new coming of the Spirit. And he might well have seen the repetition of such an event as superfluous to what he wanted to say, or even as taking attention away from what he saw as important.

But he does remember this early incident and describes it because it fits in well with his purpose, to indicate that the new has come. He is well aware that the later cleansing is already well known in the Christian church, whilst an action like this helps to explain why in the other Gospels the leaders are so antagonistic to Jesus at an early stage (e.g. Mark 3.22). And this one provides an opportunity for him to hint at the coming death and resurrection of Jesus (‘Destroy this Temple and I will raise it again in three days’).

2.14 ‘And he found in the Temple those who sold oxen, and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers sitting there.’

Entering the Temple He found in the court of the Gentiles, set apart for Gentile worship, men who were selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others who were at tables exchanging currencies. This money exchanging was necessary because the Temple tax, which was required of every Jew, had to be paid in Tyrian coinage which had no idolatrous images on it, and many had come from afar bringing ‘tainted’ money. Jesus was not attacking the service provided, but the whereabouts of its taking place which was basically an insult to the Gentiles who worshipped there

Prior to Passover Jews were expected to ensure that they were ritually clean. Great efforts were made to prevent the possibility of uncleanness. Graves would be painted white in order to ensure that Jews did not come into contact with death just prior to the Passover, for if they were unclean Jews could not participate in the Passover. So there was a great emphasis on ritual purity. Thus Jesus may well have had this in mind when He saw what He considered to be a degrading of the Temple, especially when He saw ‘tainted money’ being brought into the Temple containing its idolatrous images, and the noise of cattle disturbing the peace, while their droppings also polluted the Temple. The hypocrisy of it seemingly came home to Him. Conscious of His new ministry He was thus angered at this use of His Father’s house, which He saw as a place for prayer and worship even for Gentiles.

2.15-16 ‘And he made a scourge of cords and cast them all out of the Temple, both the sheep and the oxen, and he emptied out the changers’ money and overthrew their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these things out of here. Do not make my Father’s house a house of business”.’

Note that His emphasis here is on removing the offending animals from the Temple area. His whole emphasis is that of turning the court into a place of prayer. So He makes a small scourge (no weapon or stick was allowed in the Temple) and drives out the animals, tips over the tables of the moneychangers, and then says to those who were selling doves (for sacrificial purposes) ‘Get these out of here. Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace’. Note that even in His prophetic anger His compassion and self-control are shown for He does not act in a way that will harm the doves, and He does not attack the men. His intent is to empty the Temple of the commotion resulting from the trading.

The whole picture is one of spontaneous action as a result of the impact that the scene has made on Him, quite unlike His studied purpose in Mark, where He first goes in and surveys the Temple (Mark 11.11) and then later carries out His planned action, concentrating solely on those involved and ignoring the cattle and sheep, and being concerned especially about the dishonest practises taking place. (It is one thing to accuse people of making a noise in church, it is another to accuse them of stealing the collection).

Theoretically the activities of the traders might have been seen as justified, as they made it convenient for worshippers, but to Jesus it meant that concentration was diverted from the main purpose of the Temple, that of meeting with God, and it showed disregard for the Gentiles who came to worship, and indeed for the Temple itself. It raises for us a question that we should ask ourselves. Do some of our church activities come under the same heading?

2.17 ‘His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your House will eat into me’.’

The words cited here by John come from Psalm 69.9 and there it is also in a context where insults are being offered to God, just as they were here. We are not told when the disciples remembered the words, probably it was at the time, but it confirms to them and the readers that here is One Who fulfils the Scriptures and takes worship seriously, and is willing to be unpopular in order to purify it.

John possibly also sees in the incident a picture of rejection of the sacrificial system which Jesus has come to replace, but that is not apparent from Jesus’ words, although hinted at in what follows. But certainly it was a sign that the old waters of Judaism needed transforming and changing into something better.

2.18 ‘The Judaisers therefore answered and said to him, “What sign do you show us that you do these things?” ’

Certain fervent Judaisers (men of religious dedication among the Jews) who had observed all this now came to Him, and they sought a sign from Him to justify what He had done. Let Him justify His prophetic act by giving a sign from God. This response in itself favours an early date at a time when they were still unsure about Jesus. As a reaction of some of the Jewish authorities it is interesting and significant. Those who were not directly affected by the act because it did not eat into their profits may well have thought like this, and have grudgingly admired what Jesus had done, because they also were not too happy about what was happening in the Temple. And we must remember that among the Jews it was a time of expectation. So they do not immediately react in hostile against what Jesus has done. As they had with John they rather question Him about Who He is. (This could not have happened at the end of His ministry when they were simply out to get Him).

After all, like others they eagerly awaited a unique figure who would aid their cause, for they too were sure that one day God would act as He had promised through such a unique figure, and the incident has done little harm. Indeed it is clear that they recognised that what He had done might well be a direct claim to having some kind of authority from God, and being aware that He already had some popularity, and was associated with miraculous events, they may well have been prepared at this stage to give Him a hearing. Thus rather than seeking His arrest they come to question Him. There was no love lost between the Pharisees and the Chief Priests. So if Jesus was amenable He could be useful. ‘What sign can you show us that demonstrates your right to do this?’ They are not sure how to view Him.

2.19 ‘Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy the Temple and in three days I will raise it up”.’

Jesus’ reply is straight and simple, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ This enigmatic reply brings them up short. They had not expected Him to tell them to destroy the Temple in order that He might give them a sign. They were not, of course, aware that within forty years the Temple would actually be destroyed as a result of their activities. Nor were they aware that for multitudes the crucified and risen Jesus would by then have replaced the Temple and its sacrifices. That the statement was generally remembered comes out in the fact that Jesus would later be charged with having said such things as, ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days’ (Matthew 26.61) and ‘I will destroy this Temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another made without hands’ (Mark 14.58), both of which appear to be distorted repetitions of these words. Here is one example where the Synoptics assume material contained in John’s Gospel.

We may also see in this an indication of Jesus’ sense of humour. We can almost see Him saying it, with tongue in cheek. They had asked for a sign so He would offer them one. ‘Let them but destroy the Temple and He would rebuild it within three days.’ And then waiting to observe what their reaction would be. If they took Him literally they would then have to destroy their Temple in order to prove whether He was genuine or not. If they did not He could point to their unwillingness to cooperate with Him as removing from Him any obligation to provide a sign. But it did mean that they could not accuse Him of refusing them a sign. On the other hand it also had a deeper meaning, and He knew exactly what He meant. He was referring to His own coming death and resurrection.

2.20 ‘The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty six years to build this Temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ ”

The Judaisers were naturally taken aback. Did He really mean that if they destroyed the Temple He would be able to rebuild it in three days? The building of Herod’s Temple had commenced around 20 BC and was still in process of being completed. Such completion would not occur until many years after, in 63 AD, just in time for its destruction. In view of the fact, therefore, that it had been in process of building most of their lives it is not surprising that they found His statement about its destruction difficult to comprehend. And especially His claim to be able to rebuild it in three days. They were stunned.

This time note is especially interesting because it would not have been known to anyone at a much later time how many years there were between the commencement of the building of the Temple and the commencement of Jesus’ ministry. And yet it is strictly accurate. Once more we have evidence that the writer is someone who was there, and who heard and remembered correctly.

2.21 ‘But he spoke of the temple of his body’.

Here Jesus’ meaning is explained to the readers. He was aware already that at some stage they would be ready to destroy Him, as they had the prophets before Him. But His further point here is that by destroying Him they will in effect destroy the Temple, even though the actual destruction may be delayed, but that then within three days of their destroying Him He will rise again, replacing the Temple and its sacrifices. This reply demonstrates that He is already aware that His acceptance among these bigoted men will not be positive.

Here we have another of John’s double meanings. On the one hand Jesus offered them a sign, a great sign. If they wanted one He would give them one. Only let them destroy the Temple, this Temple that was so corrupt, thus by their act revealing their agreement with His verdict on it, and He would rebuild it for them within three days. Let them show by their actions that they were ready to follow Him in every respect, and then they would have their sign. It was a subtle reply for they could now no longer claim that He had refused a sign, nor was there any likelihood that they would take Him up on it. It prevented them from constantly pestering Him for signs, for they knew that if they did they would receive the same reply.

But it held the deeper significance that when He was raised from the dead His disciples would realise what Temple He had meant. And it also contained within it the inference that the physical Temple itself was doomed once He had been crucified.

2.22. ‘When therefore he was raised from the dead his disciple remembered that he had spoken like this, and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.’

Although the disciples did not understand the meaning at the time, once Jesus had risen from the dead they remembered what He had said and understood, and it confirmed their faith in both Him and the Scriptures.

‘And they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken’. Note that Jesus’ words are put on a level with ‘The Scripture’. The one especially in mind may well be Psalm 16.10, ‘you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you allow your holy one to see decay’, although John may have had a number of Scriptures in mind including, among others, Isaiah 53.10, 12, where resurrection is implied.

2.23-25 ‘Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast many believed on his name when they saw the signs which he did, but Jesus did not trust himself to them because he knew all men, and because he did not need that anyone should testify to him concerning man, for he himself knew what was in man.’

Two interpretations are possible for these verses.

The first sees this as the completest rebuttal of those who think people will believe because of miracles that we could have. That is what these people did, runs this view, they believed in Him because they saw miracles. But Jesus knew how unreliable such faith was, and that the only faith worth having is that which is based on an inner certainty of Who Jesus is and a full response to Him based on that certainty. That is what the ‘signs’ mentioned by John are meant to accomplish, the giving of understanding (20.31). These people did not understand.

‘Jesus did not trust himself to them.’ This would then mean that He would not encourage them to become disciples until He had more evidence of their genuineness. He was never concerned about numbers and popularity, and was quite happy to limit their number (compare 6.66).

The second possibility is that their faith was genuine, but that there was a danger of them seeking, in their enthusiasm, to press Him into Messianic activity outside His purposes. Compare how later He withdraws from the crowd who would make Him a king (6.15). Thus He does not take them under His wing, and does not wish to be too closely involved with them.

But the fact that this comes before the incident of Nicodemus whose faith also was lacking must be seen as supporting the first suggestion, for Nicodemus at this stage illustrates one whose understanding is lacking. He too came because he had seen signs (3.2), but did not understand their significance.

It is interesting that John does not mention any specific miracles here. He just assumes them. They were an important evidence of Jesus’ compassion, and of His status, but they were not seen by John as relevant to his purpose. He is not citing them as ‘evidence’. He is making clear that Jesus knew men and women through and through. ‘He knew what was in man’. For Jesus does not want those who merely respond to miracles. He wants only those who are genuine in seeking Him with all their hearts.

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