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Facebook – Neil Booth

5. The Cleansing of the Temple

John 2:13-25

‘TODAY,’ ANNOUNCES JOHN, ‘I feel stronger, I have some energy. I feel I could manage a little walk.’

‘Where do you want to go?’ asks Archippus.

‘To the rocks beyond the olive grove,’ replies John. ‘To where we can see the temple.’

‘The Temple of Artemis!’ exclaims Ezra. ‘It’s a pagan monstrosity. Why would you want to look at that?’

‘It’s not a monstrosity,’ says Archippus. ‘Be fair. Even though it’s pagan, it’s an amazingly beautiful building – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – and, as you well know, people from all over the world come to see it.’ He gets up from the floor where he has been fastening the Apostle’s sandals. ‘But I too am puzzled, John, by why you would want to waste your energy going through the olive grove this morning just so that you can see it. You once told me that the reason you chose this house was so that you didn’t have to do just that.’

‘I’ll explain when we get to the rocks,’ says John. ‘But before we go, I’d like to have some breakfast.’

It is almost an hour later. The Apostle has had his breakfast while waiting for John the Elder, Phoebe, and the others to arrive and has now been helped slowly through the trees to the large boulder on which he is now seated. The Elder is on another boulder alongside him, a flat piece of timber on his knees as a makeshift table, and pen and parchment at the ready. The sun is still quite low in the sky, but already its rays are bouncing off the 60-feet-high marble columns and roof of the massive temple down below.

‘So,’ begins the Apostle. ‘I’ve told you about the marriage in Cana and how, after that, Jesus came with us to my home town of Capernaum. Well, as Passover time approached, Jesus went up to Jerusalem and I and some of the others went with him. And the first thing he did was to go into the temple courts, which is why I’ve brought you here this morning. I want you to think about what a temple – any temple – is’ He looks at the Elder. ‘You can put your pen down for a while, my friend. This isn’t meant for my Gospel. I’ll tell you when you can start writing again. So … Archippus. You once used to visit that building down there, and not so many years ago. Why did you do that?’

Archippus looks a little discomforted. ‘Simply to pay homage to the goddess Artemis – the one the Romans call Diana – just as most Ephesians do. I mean, I’d been brought up to believe that it was because of Artemis and her patronage that Ephesus had become the wonderful and wealthy city it was; so, like most people, I would leave gifts for her to show our gratitude and to keep us all in her favour.’

‘But why that building?’ asks John.

‘Because I had been taught that that’s where she lived,’ replies Archippus. ‘Greeks believe, you see, that every temple is the local home of the god or goddess to whom it is dedicated; and that temple down there is dedicated to Artemis and believed to be her home because that is where you can go and visit her statue – the one that is said to have fallen from the planet Jupiter [Acts 19:35].’

‘What about the Jerusalem temple, Ezra?’ asks John. ‘Was that God’s home? Is that where he lived?’

‘Well,’ says Ezra, ‘it is true that the Jerusalem temple, and the tabernacle in the wilderness before it, were commonly referred to as ‘the house of the Lord.’ We Jews certainly believed that God was present there in the inner sanctuary – the Holy of Holies – in some unique way (though of course we never had a statue of God in there – that would have been idolatry and would have broken the second commandment [Exodus 20:4].) Did not King Solomon himself say [2 Chronicles 6:1] to the Lord, “I have built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.” Yet, at the temple’s dedication, even he had to acknowledge that a temple built by human hands could never actually contain God [2 Chronicles 6:18]. “But will God really dwell on earth with humans?” he asked. “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” So, yes, the temple was a kind of meeting place between heaven and earth – somewhere in which God dwelt in some meaningful way – but I don’t think anyone believed that God’s presence in this world was confined to the temple.’

‘And what about the temple’s purpose, Ezra?’ asks John. ‘Was it a place to “pay homage” to God, as Archippus put it?’

‘God was very clear about its purpose,’ replies Ezra. ‘Speaking through his prophet Isaiah, he said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” That’s why its outer court was the Court of Gentiles, so that even non-Jews could go there to worship and to intercede and to give thanks.’

‘Good,’ says John. ‘Well, I really want you to keep all that in mind as I tell you what happened when Jesus entered the temple courts that April day, some 70 years ago. Of course, there is no Jerusalem temple now. It was destroyed during the Siege of Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Titus, 30 years ago, so none of you ever visited it; but had you done so, I think you would have been appalled at what went on there. On your first visit – particularly if it were at Passover – the first thing that would have struck you would have been the sheer volume of noise, the turmoil, the commotion. By that time, you see, the temple bore more resemblance to a slaughter-house than to a house of prayer. It had become what you might call a “sin-management centre.” The inner court was a place of butchery where breaches and infringements of the “holiness code” that the Law had become in the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees were remedied by animal sacrifices; and those sacrifices coined in vast wealth for the priestly hierarchy (mainly Sadducees) which controlled the whole corrupt operation. I’ll tell you how.

‘In the outer court – the Court of the Gentiles that Ezra mentioned – there were what were called the Bazaars of Annas. Annas was a former high priest and the Bazaars of Annas were the private property of his family and they reaped huge profits from the sale of sacrificial animals and the exchange of currency at extortionate rates. You see, the only animals acceptable for sacrifice had to be flawless – no imperfections – and you could stake your life on the fact that if you brought your own animal to the temple, it would be deemed imperfect by the inspectors who vetted it; so, you had to buy your animal there, at an eye-watering price – as much as twenty times what it would cost just a street away. But then came the second catch: the only currency acceptable in the temple was the Tyrian shekel, not any of the normal currencies which most people had in their purses. So, you had no choice but to exchange your “impure” Gentile coins for “pure” Tyrian coins at one of the money-changers tables in the outer court at – yes, you’ve guessed it – an abysmally poor exchange rate and subject to the payment of a huge commission.’

The Apostle pauses and turns to John the Elder. ‘You may write down the story as I’m about to tell it now, my friend.’ He closes his eyes, shutting out the sight of the temple of Artemis below and seeing instead the Jerusalem temple of 70 years before.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘Jesus walked through Solomon’s Porch that morning, stood stock still for a while, just taking in what was happening, then calmly picked up some discarded lengths of rope and began to knot them together. At first, we had no idea what he was up to, but we soon cottoned on when he took the whip he’d made, marched over to the cattle pens, opened them and, before anyone had gathered their wits enough to stop him, drove the sheep and other animals out through the Porch and into the town. It took everyone by surprise. Yes, everyone hated the system, but no one had ever dared to tackle it head-on before. There was pandemonium. And in the middle of it all, Jesus strode back into the Court and across to the money-changers. He swept his hand across their tables, scattering coins everywhere, and then overturned the tables themselves. Finally, he turned on those who sold doves. “Get these out of here!” he ordered, pointing at the cages. “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”’

‘“My Father’s house,”’ echoes Barnabas. ‘Not “the house of the Lord.”’

‘Exactly so,’ says John.

‘His mother, Mary, told me that, from being just a small boy, Jesus liked to call the temple his Father’s house,’ says Phoebe.

‘Yes,’ says John, ‘it’s true. And, watching him, you could see both the pain and the fervour that was energising and driving him as he saw what his “Father’s house” had become. So much so that I heard one of our little group – I think it was Nathanael – quoting words from the Psalms as if they had been a prophesy that was now being fulfilled [Psalm 69:8]: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

There is a muttering over to John’s left and he turns his head to see a newcomer to the group saying something privately to Archippus and looking quite agitated about it. The young man is called Demetrius. He is from Corinth and is staying with Archippus, his cousin, while he transacts some business in Ephesus.

‘What is it, Archippus?’ asks John.

‘Erm … My cousin here says they had Mark’s Gospel read to them in the church at Corinth recently, and that Mark had recorded an event similar to the one you’re describing, but that, in Mark’s Gospel, it came at the end of Jesus’ ministry – just before he was arrested and crucified – and not at the beginning, where you’re putting it.’

‘Ah,’ says John. ‘Well, I can assure you that the temple incident I’m telling you about did take place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end. I am familiar with Mark’s Gospel, of course, but what you need to understand about it is that it is not – nor was ever intended to be – a strictly chronological account of the story of Jesus. Mark was never a disciple of Jesus and never saw his works or heard him, and his Gospel is, for the most part, a collection of isolated reminiscences drawn from the preaching of my fellow-apostle Peter which Mark stitched together in a sequence that gave shape to the story he wanted to tell. As Mark understood it, what Jesus did when drove out the animals and upset the tables of the money-changers was no more than an outraged protest at the commercialisation of the temple, but one which so antagonised the Jerusalem priesthood that they would then stop at nothing to bring him down; and that’s why Mark placed the story near the end. I for one don’t have a problem with that because when something happened is far less important than what happened and, above all, what it meant.’

‘But, from what you’ve just said, you see it as having meant more than Mark thought it did,’ says Leandros. ‘You’re suggesting it wasn’t just about keeping the space clear so that gentiles like me could have somewhere to pray.’

‘Indeed, I am,’ replies John. ‘Whenever Jesus did things, there was always more going on than showed on the surface. So, although Jesus appeared to be doing no more than staging a one-man-protest against the corrupt and unholy exploits of the temple authorities, there was something much more significant happening. Look a little deeper, all of you, and ask yourselves this question: What was it that Jesus manage to achieve, if only temporarily, by what he did in the Court of the Gentiles?’

There is silence for a while as everyone tries to get to grips with John’s question; then Ezra claps his hands together. ‘Goodness me,’ he says. ‘The penny has just dropped. You are saying, I think, that by doing what he did, Jesus brought an end to temple sacrifice – at least for an hour or two, until the merchants could retrieve their livestock and the money-changers could re-organise their tables and their coinage.’

‘Yes, yes; go on,’ says John. ‘And why would Jesus want to do that?’

Ezra thinks again. ‘Because …’ he says slowly. ‘Because, now HE has arrived on the scene, sacrifice is no longer necessary. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”’ Ezra laughs delightedly. ‘Jesus’ actions are saying that the whole sin-management system that the temple represents is now on the brink of being made redundant.’

‘Exactly,’ says John. ‘Exactly. Now whether the Jewish hierarchy understood the symbolism of what was happening, I don’t know; but they certainly took his actions as being some kind of claim to Messiahship.’

‘Maybe they were remembering what the prophet Malachi had said [Malachi 3:1], remarks Ezra. ‘‘“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” John the Baptiser had said he himself was the one preparing the way, and now here was Jesus, in the temple, doing something extraordinary.’

‘You might well be right,’ says John. ‘Anyway, they asked him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” And this was Jesus’ answer: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”’

‘Er, sorry, John, but I’m not sure I caught that,’ says Leandros. ‘Or if I did, I don’t understand it.’

‘Neither did the priests and neither did we – not at the time,’ says John. ‘In fact, the priests sneered at Jesus. “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” they said.’

‘But you’re saying that now you do understand what he meant?’ asks Leandros.

‘Of course,’ replies John. ‘We understood as soon as he walked out of the tomb on third day after his crucifixion. Jesus had been talking about his body.’

‘His body?’ says Leandros. ‘How was the temple his body?’

‘Go back to our earlier discussion about what a temple is,’ says John.

‘The house of the Lord, the place where God lives,’ says Ezra.

‘The place where God lives, because “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” – tabernacle among us, templed among us, you might say,’ adds Archippus, quoting what the Apostle had dictated two days earlier.

‘Absolutely,’ says John. ‘You see, in a very real sense, Jesus had then become his Father’s house. He stood there in the temple courts as the temple of the new creation – a flesh and blood temple which the Jewish and Roman authorities would eventually crucify but which, on the third day, would rise again as the house of prayer for all nations.’ He pauses. ‘And now, of course, the flesh and blood temple here on earth is us.’ He looks over to where Demetrius is sitting. ‘Did not our beloved Apostle Paul who founded the church here in Ephesus write to you Corinthians [2 Corinthian 12:15], “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” And did he not once write to us Ephesians [Ephesians 2:21-22] telling us that we are living stones which, in being joined together, rise “to become a holy temple in the Lord … a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit?”’

As the little group surrounding John contemplate this, a goat ventures among the rocks, takes one look at the company, bleats disdainfully, and then disappears over the edge of the hill.

‘What did you do once you’d got away from the priests?’ asks Leandros. ‘Beat a hasty retreat to Capernaum?’

‘No,’ says John, ‘though that’s what those of us who’d accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem would have liked to have done. I’ll be honest – after what had happened, we were quite nervous about staying there; but Jesus was completely unperturbed. “I came for the Passover festival,” he said, “and I’m staying here until it’s over;” so we, of course, stayed with him. It wasn’t perhaps as risky as you might imagine. The festival crowd was huge, and most of the time we were swallowed up in that. For a start, every adult male Jew who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem had to attend – that was the law – and then there were the thousands of other Jews who came from all around the Mediterranean for a once-in-a-lifetime visit. So, we didn’t stand out too much – not until Jesus started healing, that is.’

‘What kind of healing?’ asks Barnabas. ‘Are you going to tell us some of the healing stories?’

‘Later,’ replies John, ‘but the important thing for me to say at this point is that many believed when they saw the signs that Jesus did.’

‘What – more people became disciples?’ asks Barnabas.

‘No,’ says John, ‘and that was always the problem. You’ll notice I used the verb theorein. They saw, but only as spectators. They enjoyed the show but didn’t understand its significance. They didn’t see who Jesus was or what he was doing. They saw and believed, but their belief was very shallow. As I said when I told you about Nathanael, Jesus could see inside people – see what was in their hearts; and because of what he saw in the hearts of those who professed belief in him there in Jerusalem, he didn’t trust himself to any of them. He didn’t want anyone to follow him just because he was a wonder-worker. That said, however, his activities in Jerusalem did lead to one significant encounter, and I’ll tell you about that later, once we get back to my house. I’m getting very stiff and uncomfortable sitting here …

4. The Wedding at Cana | 6. Nicodemus

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