The miracle at Cana might not have seemed an obvious first choice of sign for John to include in his Gospel, and this next episode too is surprising in its own way, showing a side of Jesus we might not have chosen to include right up front. The scene is very different: from a country wedding in a backwater of Israel we move to a very public act in the heart of the capital.
John mentions that it was Passover, so we might imagine the temple crowded with 1000s of visitors, for whom it would have made sense that they should buy their animal for sacrifice on arrival rather than bring it with them, and there would have been a need too for money changers. Why then was Jesus so enraged with righteous indignation? It may all have been a bit of a racket, but he doesn’t mention dishonesty here. He wasn’t angry at what was happening, so much as where it was happening – “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (v.16). Jesus saw an affront to God’s honour, a careless indifference to the significance of the temple. On the eve of the Passover the Jews used to remove all yeast from their homes, symbolic of removing all impurity, so there is a striking appropriateness to Jesus cleansing his Father’s house of all that pollutes it.
The quotation from Psalm 69:9 which John mentions in verse 17 points us to the significance the disciples saw in this show of righteous anger, and therefore the significance we should notice too. The Psalm is a Psalm of David, God’s Anointed One, prototype of the Messiah to come. It speaks much of the Messiah’s suffering and rejection, the reason for which is his zeal for God’s house. In seeing Jesus’ rage, the disciples’ response was not “Gosh, he’s in a grump today!” but “Isn’t this how the Messiah behaves?”
It is interesting that the Jewish authorities didn’t question the appropriateness of Jesus’ act, but rather questioned his authority to do it. They understood Jesus’ answer in verse 19 to be that his authority could be proved by some supernatural feat of construction, but John tells us the true interpretation: his resurrection from the dead would be the sign that proved his messianic authority (cf. Rom.1:4).
Notice in this story how Jesus, as well as showing he is the Messiah, makes a thinly veiled claim to be the Son of God (“my Father’s house”) and the true temple, the place where God and humanity are brought together. It is a story that shows us something of the passion in Jesus’ heart that drove him, a passionate concern for God’s honour; and the final verses mention that Jesus knows our hearts too – “he knew what was in each person” – and it is a very different thing he sees there. Though some apparently believed, the reference to Psalm 69 and the prediction of his body being destroyed pointed forward to people’s ultimate rejection of him, a rejection that revealed their rejection of God. Those final verses of the chapter warn the reader of this Gospel from too quickly making a shallow response to Jesus; the next study will remind of the miracle of the Spirit and the work of Christ necessary for a true response.