JOHN 2.13-22: A PROPHETIC CRITIQUE WITH INTERPRETATION: Responses to Jesus’ Actions

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January 30, 2013 by jmar198013

Responses to Jesus’ Actions (John 2.17-22)

John records first the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to his temple demonstration: they recalled Ps. 69.9: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2.17). John’s version of this passage is slightly different than the LXX, in that he has replaced the aorist katéphagen (“has consumed”) with the future kataphágetai (“will consume”). Maarten Menken suggests that this change is intentional on John’s part, an early indicator of Jesus’ death.[1]

Two factors strongly support this conclusion. The first is that v 17 constitutes a literary unit with v 22.[2] The asyndetic parenthetical concerning the disciples’ recollection of the psalm in v 17 is fully realized in v 22, after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only then do they come to recognize the significance of the passage his actions in the temple reminded them of. At the point they recall the psalm, however—i.e., when Jesus “cleanses” the temple—the event it signifies is still in the future.[3] The second factor supporting John’s use of Ps. 69.9 as an indicator of Jesus’ death is the subsequent use of Ps. 69 at the crucifixion. John 19.28-29 is formed around a motif drawn from Ps. 69.21.[4]

John 2.19-21 presents a typical Johannine misunderstanding incident: (a) Jesus makes a cryptic statement (2.19), (b) which is misinterpreted by his audience (2.20), (c) but clarified, either by Jesus or the narrator (2.21).[5] The set-up for this scenario is provided by John 2.18: “The Jews said to him, ‘What sign [sēmeîon] can you show us for doing this?’”[6] Sēmeîon, of course, has a life of its own in John’s Gospel, and indicates “something which points to a reality with even greater significance.”[7]

Jesus gives them what they ask for: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.19). The Jews misunderstand this challenge, taking Jesus to mean the Jerusalem temple (John 2.20). The Synoptics and Acts seem to indicate that this statement was taken as a threat against the temple (Mark 14.57, 15.29; Matt. 26.60, 27.40; Acts 6.14). But John is careful to present Jesus’ words in the form of a challenge: “Destroy [lýsate] this temple” is imperative, not unlike the sardonic imperatives employed by Old Testament prophets (see Isa. 8.9-10; Amos 4.4).[8]

One more matter is worthy of discussion before we proceed. When Jesus arrives at the temple in John 2.14, the word used for “temple” is hierón. Throughout the misunderstanding account of John 2.19-21, however, the term employed is naós. While it is often unprofitable to expend too much energy on Johannine synonyms (e.g., the agapâs/ philō exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21.15-17), there seems to be a motivating factor behind the choice of different terms between John 2.14, 19-22. Hierón refers to the temple at Jerusalem, including its wall and courts.[9] While naós can refer to the temple in general, several passages seem to use it for the sanctuary (e.g., Matt. 27.51; Mark 15.38; Luke 23.45).[10] However—this is important—it may also refer to the human body (so 1 Cor. 6.19).[11] As John is attempting to underscore that Jesus meant the temple of his body, the distinction in this instance seems appropriate.

Pertinent Remarks

Recent scholarship has become more sensitive to the temple motif running through John’s Gospel, wherein John is attempting to show that Jesus now functions as the temple.[12] The account of the temple incident recorded in John 2.13-22 is an important developing point for John’s temple theme. This temple motif is actually a part of one of John’s overarching strategies: for John, “the cult and the Scripture witness to Jesus because he is the ultimate revelation of this same gracious God.”[13]  Johns’ purpose was to reveal Jesus as the true embodiment of what the temple typified, namely God’s presence with his people. John presses the figures of Abraham (John 8.33ff) and Moses (John 1.17, 45; 3.14; 5.45, etc.), Jacob’s staircase vision (John 1.51), and the Jewish festivals[14] into this same service in his Gospel as well.[15] John’s Jesus hereby becomes a sustained embodiment of a tradition not unlike Jesus’ words in Matt. 5.17: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[16]


[1] Maarten J. J. Menken, Old Testament Quotations in the Fourth Gospel, 38-41.

[2] Ibid., 38, 40-41.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Ibid., 41; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 1978), 553.

[5] R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 152.

[6] For a Marcan parallel, see Mark 11.15-19, 28-29.

[7] Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, # 33.477.

[8] Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body, 87-88.

[9] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd. ed., 470.

[10] Ibid., 666.

[11] Ibid. Cf. Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body, 88-89.

[12] Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body; James McCaffrey, The House with Many Rooms; Stephen T. Um, The Theme of Temple Christology in John’s Gospel, Library of New Testament Studies 312 (London: T&T Clark, 1988); Joel R. Wohlgemut, “Where Does God Dwell? A Commentary on John 2:13-22,” Direction 22 (Fall 1993): 87-93.

[13] R. A. Whitacre, Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 67 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 58.

[14] The now-standard treatment of this subject is Gale A. Yee, Jewish Feasts and the Gospel of John, Zacchaeus Studies, New Testament (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989).

[15] Dorothy A. Lee, The Symbolic Narratives of John’s Gospel, 80.

[16]  This proposal becomes all the more attractive if one of John’s trajectories is outreach to unbelieving Jews. For this, see K. Bornhäuser, Das Johannesevangelium: eine Missionsschrift für Israel (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1928); D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 90-95.

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2 thoughts on “JOHN 2.13-22: A PROPHETIC CRITIQUE WITH INTERPRETATION: Responses to Jesus’ Actions

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    “However—this is important—it may also refer to the human body (so 1 Cor. 6.19).”
    Isn’t Paul referring to the assembly of Christians, not to the physical body of each individual Christian? Paul uses the plural pronoun to describe the Temple of the Holy Spirit, “who is in y’all.” The Holy Spirit is not in “thy body,” but in the body of y’all, taken as a whole.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Jack: when I wrote this, I was working with a source, Alan Kerr’s The Temple of Jesus’ Body (see footnote 11) and this was a point he had made, in regards to 1 Cor. 6.19’s use of the term. Looking back on it now, Paul was pretty free with how he used the body imagery–sometimes it’s difficult to pin down whether he means the body of the individual believer, or the church as Christ’s body. As I recall, the reason I accepted Kerr’s understanding here had to do with the surrounding context. In 1 Cor. 6.15, Paul says that our bodies are “members of Christ.” To my mind, this corresponds to Paul’s development of the “body of Christ” metaphor in ch. 12, esp. 12.27, where he writes: “Now you all are the body of Christ, and individually members thereof.” As far as the Holy Spirit’s temple, I don’t want to push the plural pronoun too much. Paul at various points seems to indicate that the Spirit dwells in ME and in WE. I could be wrong about 1 Cor. 6.19 particularly, I don’t know–but I do know that Paul is fairly free with his body talk.

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