It was nearly time for the Judaean Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple he found people selling cows, sheep and doves, and the money-changers sitting there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the Temple, sheep, cows and all. He spilt the money-changers’ coins onto the ground, and knocked over their tables. ‘Take these things away!’ he said to the people selling doves. ‘You mustn’t turn my father’s house into a market!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of your house has eaten me up.’ The Judaeans had this response for him. ‘What sign are you going to show us’, they said, ‘to explain why you’re doing this?’ ‘Destroy this Temple,’ replied Jesus, ‘and I’ll raise it up in three days.’ ‘It’s taken forty-six years to build this Temple,’ responded the Judaeans, ‘and are you going to raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the ‘temple’ of his body. So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Bible and the word which Jesus had spoken.
I checked my watch once more, and looked again in my diary. Yes: this was indeed the place we had agreed to meet. And this really was the time we had set. But where was my guest?
It was only then that I noticed a man standing on the far side of the station platform, looking as though he, too, was waiting for someone. But surely . . . I had been imagining someone much older. He was, after all, a highly respected scientist, come to address a student society. I had envisaged a dark suit or coat, a discreet tie, greying hair, perhaps a briefcase. Instead, this man was wearing jeans and a sweater, and was carrying a plastic shopping bag.
He caught my eye. ‘You’re not . . . ?’ Yes; it was him. The place was right, the time was spot on. It was only my expectations that were out of line. We had a great evening.
This was the place: Jerusalem, and the Temple. This was the time: Passover. But they certainly weren’t expecting anyone like Jesus. And they certainly weren’t expecting anyone to behave like Jesus. The Temple was, after all, the Temple. It wasn’t just (as people today sometimes wrongly imagine) like a large church on a street corner. It was the centre of everything; the centre, they believed, of the whole world.
More: it was the place where heaven and earth met, joined up, did business. The ancient Jews didn’t think of heaven (God’s space) and earth (our space) in the way we often do, as two quite distinct places, completely separate and detached from one another. They thought of them as different, all right, but made to be joined together. That’s how it had been at the beginning, when ‘God made the heavens and the earth’, and seemed to be at home in either, or in both together. That’s how it had been when, at the end of the book of Exodus, Moses and his skilled workmen had finally constructed the Tabernacle as the place where God would come to meet with his people. And the Jerusalem Temple, as everyone knew, was the descendant of that Tabernacle. David had planned it, Solomon had built it . . .
. . . and the Messiah would one day come to it, great David’s greater Son. Only, it was assumed, he would come to defend it, to build it to an even greater splendour, to celebrate it as the place where God would live with his people and make them the greatest nation on earth. And when more appropriate for him to come than Passover time, when the whole nation came to Jerusalem for the great festival, came to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, the time when God had been with his people in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, protecting them, leading them home to their promised land . . .
Jesus took that picture and blew a hole in it big enough to drive cows and sheep through. In fact, that’s what he did: drove the cows and sheep, and those who were buying and selling them, out of the Temple altogether. This was, to put it mildly, a problem (as was his knocking over the money-changers’ tables, though I bet there were some bystanders who smirked to see those old swindlers scrabbling on the ground for their small change). The Temple was, after all, the place of sacrifice, and most people coming from any distance to offer sacrifice would need to buy the right sort of animals on site. To do that they would need the proper coinage. So Jesus, by driving them all away, was for a moment – but a deeply powerful, symbolic moment – denying the Temple its normal function. The steady stream of sacrifices came to a shuddering halt. The last time that had happened was when the hated Syrians had overrun the place, two hundred years before, and had turned it into a pagan shrine. Now here was someone claiming to be speaking for God and his kingdom – and stopping the Temple from functioning. What sense could that possibly make?
The only explanation Jesus gave was equally cryptic. ‘Destroy this Temple, and I’ll raise it up in three days.’
As so often in John’s gospel, this launches his hearers into a classic misunderstanding. They think, naturally enough, that he’s talking about the Temple itself, the building that Herod the Great began to rebuild and which, forty-six years later, was nearly finished. (It was finally completed in ad 63, a mere seven years before the Romans burnt it down for good.) But Jesus wasn’t speaking about the building. He was speaking, as John explains, about his body.
His body? Yes. At the heart of John’s gospel stands the claim, which blows a gaping hole not only in the old Temple but in most modern-day understandings of the very words ‘God’ and ‘human’ – the claim that Jesus was, as it were, the Temple in person. He was the place where heaven and earth met, once and for all and completely. He was the place of sacrifice, the place where God would provide the lamb to take away the sins of the world, the reality to which Passover and all that it meant was simply one of the greatest advance signposts.
Once you hold all that together in your mind, John is saying, all the old scriptures come to life in a new way. John quotes one of them, about the zeal for God’s house (verse 17, quoting Psalm 69.9, in a context of great suffering). John will introduce his readers to others in due course. But the point is that not just a few odd texts, but the whole sweep of scripture, comes rushing together at this moment, at this place. This wasn’t what anybody had expected. But the place was right, the time was spot on, and Jesus had come to do what God had promised: to judge and to save, to sort things out once and for all, to bring heaven and earth together at last.
All this is striking enough, and hard enough for many people today to get their heads around. But there is more. Later in the gospel, and in Paul as well, we are told in no uncertain terms that when the spirit comes we, too, the followers of Jesus, are to be the extension of this new Temple. And that blows a large hole in most people’s ideas of what being a Christian might be all about.
Teach us, Lord Jesus, what it meant for you, and what it means for us, to live at the place where heaven and earth meet, and to be ready for the time when you want us to act.