After His baptism, Jesus returns to His home area and displays a sign of His miraculous powers to a small number of people. This event is part of the first strand of narrative where John describes Jesus doing things only God can do.
In the next section he continues with this strand demonstrating not in a miraculous act, but rather in an act of zeal and authority, Jesus' divine nature. This next scene is described as the cleansing of the Temple.
Cleansing of the temple
Now that Jesus has taken a first step into public ministry at Cana, He will go to Jerusalem for a very public and dynamic demonstration of His zeal and authority.
Vs. 13-14 – The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
Even though Jerusalem is south of Galilee, a person was said to go "up" to Jerusalem, that was the Holy City. Jews from everywhere gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The temple's center housed the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter on a yearly basis. This building was segregated by a series of walls and courtyards that separated the priests from the people, the men from the women and the Jews from the Gentile converts.
The court of the Gentiles was symbolically the entrance court where all nations could gather and pray together to the God of all the nations. It was the largest of the courts and was separated from the courts where only the Jewish people and priests could go.
The Porticos or Great Colonnades were the location where Jesus taught when He taught at the Temple. It also became a meeting place for early Christians (Acts 3:22, Acts 5:12). The Royal Porch of Herod (south side) was where Jesus sat among the doctors of Law at age 12 (Luke 2:46).
All of the temple area was considered holy, but it increased in holiness as you approached the center area where the Holy of Holies was situated. These areas were separated according to who was permitted to enter.
There were eight entrances into the temple area, each with their significance.
For example, the Pilgrim Gate led to the court of the Gentiles for those visiting during festivals. There was a large pool of water where pilgrims washed before entering the temple area. The Pilgrim Road led from the pool of Siloam to the steps leading to the gate of Pilgrims (1/3 of a mile). It is where Peter preached his first sermon (Acts 2:38). People who were baptized then could have been baptized in this pool. Josephus, a Jewish historian, claims that one to four million pilgrims visited Jerusalem and the temple each year.
The Eastern Gate (Golden Gate) was the main entrance to the temple area. It was the approach through the Mount of Olives and facing the garden of Gethsemane across the small Kidron Valley. Through this gate Jesus entered on a donkey.
According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah was supposed to enter through this gate:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
- Zechariah 9:9
Ezekiel says that after the Messiah passes through the gate it will be shut:
Then He brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces the east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me, "This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. As for the prince, he shall sit in it as prince to eat bread before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the porch of the gate and shall go out by the same way."
- Ezekiel 44:1-3
Interestingly, when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 1530 AD, they blocked up this gate with stones and planted a cemetery in front of it as their way of preventing the Jewish Messiah from entering in (thinking that no Jew would step into a foreign cemetery). This part of Jerusalem is still controlled by Muslims; the gate is still blocked, the cemetery still there and a mosque stands where the Holy of Holies used to be.
Women's Court: Women could not mix with men in the temple area and had their own area but could go no further in. It was in this court that the court "treasury" was, having twelve trumpet shaped containers for voluntary offerings. Jesus was sitting "opposite the treasury" when He saw the widow put into the treasury her only two coins (Luke 12:41-44).
Court of Israel: This was the place where Jewish men gathered who were neither priests nor Levites. This is where Jewish laymen gathered for prayer, etc.
Court of Priests: Only priests could enter here. In this area was the altar of burnt offering where animal sacrifices were made (45' long and 22' high).
Holy Place – 3 areas
The Porch: This was an entrance way with a gold covered back wall and where a golden lamp hung. There were two tables (gold and marble) that held the showbread which was eaten only by priests. There was a veil at the entrance.
The Hall: In the hall stood the golden altar, golden table, frankincense cups, and a golden lamp stand. Priests offered incense here. (I.e. Zachariah, once in a lifetime for ordinary priest – Luke 1:8-23).
The Veil: A double veil separated the Holy of Holies from the Hall. Only the High Priest could access the Holy of Holies only once per year on the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies had no furnishings. What it originally contained were the tablets of the 10 Commandments, jar of manna and Aaron's rod, within the Ark of the Covenant which was destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed Solomon's original temple in 587 BC.
Court of the Gentiles
Converts to Judaism as well as Gentiles could gather here, but go no further under penalty of death. Jews could not execute the death penalty under Roman law except in this case for this one violation (even Roman citizens). This is what Paul the Apostle was nearly killed over in Acts 21:27-32 when he was accused of willfully bringing a Gentile into the Court of the Israelites. This is where the money changers and merchants had set up shop and Jesus came to run them out (more later).
Named after Herod's friend (Mark Antony) it housed a garrison of 600 Roman soldiers and had an underground passageway that connected the garrison to the court of the Gentiles. The Romans had abolished the role of king in Israel and allowed the High Priests to continue by appointment and approval of Roman leadership. The robes of the High Priest were kept in the towers and permitted usage only on special holidays (to restrict the influence of High Priests).
This area is where Jesus was questioned by Pilate and tortured by Roman soldiers before being handed over to Jewish leaders.
Temple tax was collected before Passover from everyone 20 years and over. Those coming from afar had to have their money exchanged into shekels and also had to purchase animals for sacrifice at Passover.
Originally this commerce had taken place outside the temple walls, but with time the merchants had been allowed to set up in the Court of the Gentiles. This rendered the area designated for the Gentiles unclean and therefore useless as a place of worship for them; it was the only place they could worship in the temple complex.
Even though it was the Court of Gentiles, it was still part of the temple and defiling this place defiled all of it; not to mention the hypocrisy and prejudice this represented (money changers paid a portion of profits to the priests so they could do business).
Vs. 15-17 – And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house will consume me."
Jesus forces these merchants and their goods out of the temple area.
People often see Jesus as the friend of children and suffering Savior, but in this scene we see Him demonstrating not only His righteous anger in defending what is proper but also His physical power. No one stood in His way or stood up to Him. Thirty years old with a couple of decades working as a carpenter and stone mason meant that He was no physical weakling. He was not afraid of removing those elements that were spoiling the purity of the temple.
In this scene we see Jesus show His humanity as His religious zeal moved Him to a righteous indignation and anger towards those who were in the wrong. This is a very human reaction to injustice and impurity.
Vs. 18-22 – The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
The Jews had established certain customs in their religious lives with the disclaimer or epitaph that said "Until Elias Comes." They did this because they believed that when the prophet Elias/Elijah returned as a forerunner of the Messiah, he would either confirm or change the religious customs they had established. So after Jesus' cleansing of the temple area, the Jewish leaders do not arrest Jesus, instead they ask to see if He has any sign to confirm that He has a right to do this; after all He might be the prophet!
Jesus knows their hearts. They do not really want to believe. For people who do not want to believe, no amount of proof is sufficient.
So Jesus reveals (in a veiled manner) the sign that will furnish undeniable proof of His identity, however, in the end it will be the proof that will convict them for their disbelief. He will ultimately die because of their rejection and disbelief. His resurrection will become not only the proof of His legitimate claim as the Messiah, it will also be the proof that their unbelief was wrong.
Of course, the prophecy made here about the destruction of His body and its resurrection, as well as the destruction of the city and temple, were fulfilled first through His death, burial and resurrection only 3 years hence. Next, in 70 AD, the Roman army laid siege to the city and eventually killed most of the inhabitants and then took the city apart stone by stone.
If you travel by the city today, you can still see the huge stones in rubble at the base of the walls built by the crusaders; the very stones that the Romans tore apart in the 1st century. They burned what would burn; they carried off what precious metal and cloth they could; they disassembled the walls and temple of the Holy City.
They destroyed the genealogical records stored in the temple area by which the Jews could trace their original tribes. This was a deathblow because without the records there was no way to know for sure what land was yours or determine who could serve as priest.
Today a mosque called the Dome of the Rock stands on the spot where the temple and Holy of Holies once stood.
The Jews still believe that one day the temple and the Holy of Holies will be rebuilt. They pray for this at the Wailing Wall (Western wall) which is the only remaining section of wall from that time. It is 100 yards from the original spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. This is why it is considered a sacred place.
Vs. 23-25 – Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.
John mentions, but does not describe, the miracles Jesus does during this time. Many believed because of the miracles but were not ready to receive His teaching. They were convinced He was special, but Jesus did not want to become their "leader" because He knew that their hearts were not yet turned to God and ready to accept what He was sent to do.