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Fall 1993    Vol. 22 No. 2    pp. 87–93 

Where Does God Dwell? A Commentary on John 2:13-22

Joel R. Wohlgemut

Is God found within the parameters of Jewish temple worship, or has there been a new movement of God in the world? If so, how does the new movement clarify questions about God’s locus? This essay examines the account of Jesus in the temple (John 2:13-22), first by investigating the details of the text, and then by placing it in a social-religious context.

NARRATIVE DETAILS AND THEIR NUANCES

The text opens with “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13). 1 A number of key terms immediately create an atmosphere for the entire scene. Together, references to “Passover,” “Jerusalem,” and “going up” foreshadow the suffering and death of Jesus yet to come in the Fourth Gospel. Jerusalem is the place of condemnation and crucifixion. Although the geographical elevation of this city makes talk of ascent natural, there is also symbolic allusion to the “lifting up” of the Son of humanity (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32). Finally, the Greek term for Passover (pascha), while likely not derived from paschein, “to suffer,” 2 is startlingly similar. Given the other word-plays in this text, this similarity is probably {88} not lost on the storyteller. Thus, the opening verse intimates that the death of Jesus is already in view.

The temple-cleansing story speaks of replacing the temple with Jesus and his community as the dwelling place of God.

The narrator now describes the situation in the temple: “He found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables” (v. 14). Given the Passover setting, these elements are certainly not out of place. Part of the festival worship involved the sacrifice of an unblemished animal, and the availability of animals for people travelling from a distance (who might risk sullying an animal brought with them) was important. As well, one could only pay the annual “temple tax” in Tyrian coinage, so money-changers provided an essential service.

However, Jesus’ response is swift and striking (vv. 15-16). In comparison with the Synoptic accounts,3 the Fourth Evangelist provides remarkable detail—the whip of cords, the particular reference to “sheep and cattle,” and the “pouring out” of the money-changers’ coins are all peculiar to this text. In addition, Jesus’ cry to those selling doves—“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”—is quite different from the scriptural amalgam cited by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Still, what impact do these observations have on our interpretation of this episode?

INTERPRETATION POSSIBILITIES

Interpretations of Jesus’ temple action can be classified into three general categories. First, there are those who claim that the financial transactions taking place were corrupt, and thus open to censure. 4 This position is highly tenuous, since it has no basis in the text, and is generally rejected by modern scholarship. Secondly, there are those who posit that Jesus makes a prophetic statement against trade in the temple, arguing that Jewish temple worship has been distorted by this occupation of the Court of the Gentiles. 5 Such approaches often rely heavily on the “house of prayer” reference in the Synoptic accounts, and point to Jesus’ exhortation to stop making his Father’s house “a marketplace” (v. 16). In this way, Jesus initiates an eschatological and messianic “cleansing” of the temple (cf. Zech. 14:21).

However, there is a third approach which asserts that Jesus signals the replacement, not simply the restoration, of Jewish worship and the temple system of sacrifices. 6 This perspective makes sense of the attention given to Jesus’ activity against the “things” related to sacrifice (cf. details noted above). 7 Ernst Haenchen also notes that Jesus cannot be protesting commercial activity in the temple, since there are no sacred precincts for the Johannine Jesus (cf. John 4:21). 8 Accordingly, it is possible to read the play on the word “house” (oikos) in v. 16 (lit. “stop making the house of my Father a house of a market”) as an indictment not of temple commerce, but {89} of even associating the dwelling-place of God with the sacrificial institution.

INTERPRETATIVE CLUES FOR THE DISCERNING

The scriptural recollection of the disciples which concludes this opening scene--“Zeal for your house will consume me” (Ps. 69:9--has two functions. First of all, it establishes the action of Jesus as a prophetic fulfillment. 9 In this way, Jesus’ activity is shown to be continuous with the prior revelation of God. Second, the citation returns to the theme of Jesus’ impending death. The expression that the future “will consume” (kataphagetai) can also be rendered “will destroy,” 10 a connotation which brings the crucifixion to mind. The context of Psalm 69 gives support to this view, since it details a person’s cry to God for salvation from hostile opposition. The outcome for the psalmist is ambiguous, but Jesus’ fate is certain: zeal for the “house” of God will “consume” him.

The dialogue with “the Jews” which begins in v. 18 marks a transition from the narrated action of the previous scene. The initial question is deeply ironic: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Those who claim that “sign” here (semeion) refers to a proof of authority, and is not connected to the larger pattern of “signs” in the Fourth Gospel, have missed the point. 11 As C. H. Dodd observes, a “sign” in this gospel is “something that actually happens, but carries a meaning deeper than the actual happening.” 12 Thus, a “sign” which foreshadows Jesus’ death and signifies the replacement of the temple has just been given!

Clues for the Meaning of “Temple”

However, the verbal exchange which follows heightens the significance of the episode. Jesus’ statement is pregnant with meaning: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). Late in the first century CE, this sentence would have immediate impact for both Christian and Jewish communities, for the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed. Still, the author provides enough clues to indicate that another interpretation is intended. First of all, there is the reference to “three days” which is closely connected with the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34 and parallels; also 1 Cor. 15:4). As well, the term “I will raise up” (egeiro) is the word used for the resurrecting act. Finally, there is a significant shift in temple terminology from hieron (vv. 14,15) to naos (vv. 19,20,21). Hieron generally stands for the entire temple complex. 13 On the other hand, naos tends to connote a sanctuary, the very dwelling-place of God. 14 Still, the change to naos is dismissed by some as irrelevant due to a general interchangeability of these terms in the New Testament period. 15 {90} Given the frequency of hieron in the Fourth Gospel (5:14; 7:14,28; 8:2,20,59; 10:23; 11:56; 18:20) and the fact that naos is used only here, the change cannot be ignored. 16 Rather, the shift provides additional evidence for reading here a reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus--he is the temple of God.

Of course, such an inference can only be made by the “informed” reader; for an uninitiated reader of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ remark remains enigmatic. Accordingly, the question of the Jews in v. 20 (“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”) appears as a legitimate request for clarification. However, this “misunderstanding” is part of a pattern of confusion in the gospel, in which Jesus’ words, meant to communicate deep truth, are interpreted at face value. 17 As Alan Culpepper notes, the most obvious function of such misunderstandings is “to enforce a marked distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ between those who understand and those who do not.” 18 Although “the Jews” pick up Jesus’ new word for “temple,” they still refer to the physical edifice whose construction was begun in 20/19 BCE: They do not discern the deeper meaning implicit in Jesus’ statement.

In order to make the implicit explicit, the narrator includes a short explanation: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (v. 21). On the one hand, the equation temple = Jesus is now clear, and the connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus is made. On the other hand, the term “body” (soma) injects a measure of ambiguity. The word appears often in the Pauline corpus in reference to the Christian church, and we even find the juxtaposition of soma and naos: “Or do you [pl.] not know that your [pl.] body [soma] is a temple [naos] of the Holy Spirit . . .?” (1 Cor.6:19). Thus, it is possible to posit a third level of meaning for “temple.” “Temple” can refer to the community which draws its identity from the death and resurrection of Jesus. 19 However, such a position must also acknowledge the substantial scholarly protest against such a reading, 20 which generally argues on the basis of other uses of soma in the Fourth Gospel.

As in v. 17, this section concludes with the “remembrance” of the disciples. However, there are particular differences here. First of all, the disciples remember “after he [Jesus] was raised from the dead” (v. 22). The fact of the resurrection, once couched with ambiguity, is now stated boldly. As well, there is the notion that the death-resurrection of Jesus, that event to which the “signs” point, makes sense of previously enigmatic language: Misunderstanding dissipates for those who believe. Significantly, here it is the disciples who are the believing ones. The antecedents for “scripture” and “word” are unclear, but there is a sense of belief in the new logos of God as continuous with God’s covenantal Word.

HEARING THE STORY WITHIN ITS SOCIAL-RELIGIOUS CONTEXT

Having examined the text in detail, how do we interpret the episode as a whole? First, we must try to understand the significance of the Jerusalem temple for Judaism. Temple worship was deeply ensconced in Torah, and thus was part of one’s faithfulness to the covenant. Moreover, the temple had become a symbol of national identity, a sentiment reinforced by the struggle with Antiochus IV (and Hellenism) in the second century BCE. Consequently, talk of “destruction” or “replacement” had both political and religious implications.

During the period in which the Fourth Gospel was written (after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE), Jewish rabbis were busy adapting Judaism to a situation in which access to a physical temple was impossible. This loss, however, did not result in diminishing the temple’s centrality; instead, temple worship was “mythologized” and continued as part of the tradition, while hope for the eventual rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem persistently remained. Significantly, the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus in the temple arises in this time of Jewish transition and reconstitution.

In light of these observations, we must consider the implications of Jesus as “temple.” We have spoken of Jesus’ violent action in the opening scene as an indication of the replacement of the Jerusalem temple and sacrificial worship, and the dialogue which follows confirms that Jesus himself is that replacement. As Rudolf Schnackenburg asserts, the temple cleansing “is meant to portray the abrogation of the Jewish cult by Jesus, and its replacement by himself and his community.” 21 For the Johannine community late in the first century, such an understanding of Jesus would likely both stem from and contribute to the ongoing conflict with the Jews of the synagogue. 22 In one sense, this Christian perspective is a direct challenge to the Jewish approach to the temple’s destruction. At stake is the very presence of God: “So long as Jesus lives on earth, God is present in him and him alone while for the Jews the presence of God is connected with the temple on Zion.” 23 Thus, the Fourth Gospel’s insistence that the Jerusalem temple is replaced by Jesus as “temple” is a partisan claim for the presence of God in Jesus.

GOD PRESENT IN JESUS, AND MORE

To claim that God was uniquely present in Jesus is certainly important, since it is integral to the high Christology of the Johannine community. {92} However, whether or not we can identify an allusion to the community in the v. 21 reference to “body” (see outline of debate above), God’s presence within this group as followers of Jesus is central as well. This theme of the ongoing divine presence within the community is prominent in the Fourth Gospel’s “Farewell Discourses” (e.g. 14:16-27; 15:26; 16:7). The Johannine community does not simply worship a “once-for-all” entry of God into human history: it sees itself as the dwelling-place of God in the present context.

Poignantly, this transition from Jesus to the Johannine community as the “temple” of God can only take place because of the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. 12:24, 16:7). Therefore, it is significant that these events are in view throughout this scene in the temple. In the words of Robert Fortna, this episode is “a forewarning and a foretaste of what lies ahead.” 24 We also have hints of transition in the final verse: the disciples (representative of the community) remember and believe “after he [Jesus] was raised from the dead” (v. 22). Thus, we recognize that the passion-event marks the movement of God from an exclusive presence in Jesus to his presence in the wider community of Christ.

Where does God dwell? According to the community looking back through the Fourth Gospel, God is found contrary to most expectations—not in the Jerusalem temple (or, by extension, Judaism), but in Jesus. However, the self-giving death and subsequent resurrection of this Jesus create the possibility of God’s residence within the Christian community itself; the followers of Christ are the “temple” of God. This means that today’s believing community is the “place” where God dwells.

ENDNOTES

  1. All scriptural citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.
  2. Cf. Eberhard Nestle, “The Aramaic Name of the Passover,” The Expository Times 21 /11 (Aug. 1910), 521-22.
  3. Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48.
  4. Cf. Herschel H. Hobbs, An Exposition of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968), 70-71; Arthur W. Pink, Expositions of the Gospel of John, John 1 to 7. Vol. 1 (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot, 1945), 95.
  5. Cf. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 36 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 39; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 179; William Pape Wood, ”John 2:13-22,” Interpretation 45/1 (Jan. 1991), 61; F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 75.
  6. Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6, trans. by Robert W. Funk, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the {93} Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 184; Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John New Century Bible (Greenwood, SC: Attic, 1972), 137; Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. by G. R. Beasley-Murray (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), 128; Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John. Introduction and Commentary on Chapters 1-4. Vol. 1, trans. by Kevin Smyth (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 356; C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University Press, 1963), 301.
  7. This may also illuminate the debate over whether pantas (“all”) in v. 15 relates to the sheep and cattle, or to everyone. While it is realistic to picture an exodus of both people and animals, the focus falls on the sacrificial animals themselves.
  8. Haenchen, 184.
  9. Cf. Robert T. Fortna, The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor: From Narrative Source to Present Source (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 121; also Edwin D. Freed, Old Testament Quotations in the Gospel of John, Supplements to Novum Testamentum Vol. XI (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965), 9.
  10. Beasley-Murray, 39; lit. “will eat up.”
  11. E.g., Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 115; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, second ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 199; Gerard S. Sloyan, John, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 41.
  12. Dodd, 300.
  13. Cf. Brown, The Gospel According to John, 115.
  14. Cf. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids,MI: Eerdmans, 1964), ss.v. “naos,” by O. Michael.
  15. E.g., Carson, 181; Barrett, 199.
  16. This distinction is supported by R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960) 65; Bruce, 76; Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John: The Word Was Made Flesh—John 1-5, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986), 83; Fortna, 122. 47.
  17. Cf. Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 145
  18. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, New Testament Foundations and Facets Series (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 164.
  19. Cf. Dodd, 302; R. H. Lightfoot, St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary (London: Oxford, 1960), 113-14.
  20. Cf. Lindars, 144; Beasley-Murray, 41; Bultmann, 127n6; Schnackenburg, 357; Carson, 182; Barrett, 201; Morris, 84.
  21. Schnackenburg, 356.
  22. Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist, 1979), 4043,66-68.
  23. Haenchen, 185. 24 Fortna, 123.
  24. Fortna, 123.
Joel R. Wohlgemut, a graduate of Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, is currently enrolled in Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario.

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