Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 2.13-22
3rd Sunday in Lent - Year B


From now until Holy Trinity, our gospel readings are primarily from John. The exceptions are Passion Sunday (Mark 14:1-15:47) and 2 Easter B (Luke 24:36b-48). For the Resurrection of Our Lord, either John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8 may be read.

A BRIEF COMMENT: "Exegesis" is asking questions and finding answers about the text. "Hermeneutic" means "interpretation," and has two applications: (1) interpreting the text based on the exegesis and (2) "being interpreted" by the text by questions that the text asks me/us. Interspersed in these exegetical notes are some QUESTIONS that this text asks me and perhaps you, too. This doesn't mean that I always can come up with answers to these questions.


For an overview of the larger context, I quote Gail O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible):

John 2:1-5:47 is the first realization of the "greater things" promised by Jesus (1:51). The events of this unit -- the two "signs" (2:1-11; 4:46-54), the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22), Jesus' conversations with Nicodemus (3:1-21) and the Samaritan woman (4:4-42), the renewed witness of John (3:22-36), the healing of the man beside the pool (5:1-9) -- all demonstrate the authority of Jesus' words and works. Jews and non-Jews, men and women all see and hear the "greater things" Jesus says and does. These chapters contain the full spectrum of responses to Jesus, from the faith of the disciples (2:11) to Jesus' rejection by the Jews (5:16-18). These chapters establish the central themes and tensions of the entire Gospel: the possibilities of new life and faith made available through the words and works of Jesus, and the decisions individuals are called to in the face of those possibilities. [p. 535]

I also note the contrasts that are presented in these opening verses:

What Jesus ushers in is something miraculously new and different from anything that has been before.

Other commentators shorten this section to 2:1-4:54, using the two miracles at Cana as "bookends", (e.g., Raymond Brown, Francis Moloney).

This temple scene is in two parts: Jesus' actions in the Temple (vv. 14-17) and Jesus' saying about the destruction of the Temple (vv. 18-22).


The cleansing of the temple is found in all four gospels (Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48). John places it very early in Jesus' ministry. The synoptics place it after Jesus' final entrance into Jerusalem. In addition, there are a number of other significant differences.

Only John tells us that the cleansing of the temple took place during the Passover Festival and only he names "cattle" and "sheep" as some of the animals, which were required for the ritual sacrifices.

We could debate whether or not "cleansing" is the proper description of Jesus' actions. "Cleansing" implies reform -- that is, a "clean" temple will remain after Jesus' actions. The other option is that "this incident represents ... a prophetic actions symbolizing the temple's destruction" (Malina & Rohrbaught, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 73). In this case the aim is not a "clean" temple, but no temple or a completely different temple.

COMMENT: A truth that M. Luther discovered (and many other since) is that it is often easier to start something new rather than to reform (or clean or transform) what is old. For example, it is usually easier for a new, mission congregation to do what is necessary to reach new people in a community than for an established congregation to change their behaviors to attract a new crowd.


John does not quote Isaiah 56:7d ("my house shall be called a house of prayer") or Jesus' addition, "but you have made it a den of robbers," which implies more illegal activities than Jesus' saying in John: "You will not make the house of my father into a house of business (emporion)."

QUESTIONS: Who does this "house" (meaning our church building) belong to?

The Greek emporion does not imply that there was anything improper or abusive about the business that was being transacted in the temple. In fact, such business was necessary to maintain the cultic system of sacrifices and tithes.

From this observation, O'Day (John, New Interpreter's Bible) writes:

Christian interpretations that see this story principally as an illustration of the extortionist practices of the Jewish temple authorities disregard these realities of temple worship in Jesus' day. There were inevitable abuses of the temple system, but in vv. 14-16 Jesus confronts the system itself, not simply its abuses. [p.543]


Jesus throws the mechanics of temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. It is no wonder that the Jews who were gathered at the Temple asked for a sign to warrant his actions. [p. 545]


Jesus challenges a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God, a temptation that exists for contemporary Christianity as well as for the Judaism of Jesus' day. [p. 545]

QUESTIONS: What would Jesus find in our churches? Although he probably wouldn't find cattle or sheep, although their may be a few doves/pigeons or bats flying around (I've had a bat visit a worship service); would he find the same attitude -- religious rituals being just a business? Is the church building simply a place where people and God take care of business? Can worship become centered on the things we do, rather than the God who is present giving to us and forgiving us in Word and Sacrament? How can we change faulty worship attitudes?

QUESTIONS: Can "church as business" be a problem for the "professionals" in the church? Can leading worship for the clergy become simply a job for which we are paid? Do the laity sometimes think that they are "paying" the minister to do the worship for them -- thinking, "We pay them to do this for us"? (I've heard that as an argument against using lay assistants in the liturgy and for having the pastor always offer prayers at potlucks and other church functions.)

QUESTION: Do we think of God more as a vending machine -- put in our sacrifices or offerings or good deeds and out comes blessings? Do we misuse our (supposed) obedience to the Ten Commandments as bargaining chips with God? (I'm reminded of the way Burt Reynolds did this in the movie "The End.")

QUESTIONS: Why the whip (only mentioned in John) and the harsh actions? Wouldn't it have been more diplomatic and have caused fewer problems to sit down with the church leaders and discuss the problem? When are swift, harsh actions needed rather than diplomacy? When should a pastor just do what s/he believes is right, or go through the council or other governing boards?


The idea of "remembering" (mimnesko and related terms) is important in John. This same verb is in 2:22 & 12:16 where the "remembering" takes place after Jesus' resurrection. In 14:26, we are told that the Holy Spirit will remind (hypomimnesko) us; and a related word (mnemoneuo) is used in 15:20 and 16:4 in reference to "remembering" Jesus words"; and in 16:21 about a mother "not remembering" the pain of child-birth because of the joy of bringing a human into the world.

In this sense, the readers of John are much like us. Neither have experienced the human Jesus directly, we can only "remember" what he said and then believe scriptures and what Jesus said (2:22).

In this first instance of remembering, the disciples recall Psalm 69:9: "The zeal of your house will consume me."

QUESTIONS: Can being consumed by zeal for God's house be a bad thing? For instance, the minister who neglects a family because of the commitment to the church, or a lay person who volunteers for everything as a way of getting away from the family. How many ministers are frustrated because there isn't much zeal or excitement for mission and outreach among the members of the congregation?

Malina & Rohrbaught (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) suggest that the hearers would have mentally added the second part of Psalm 69:9: "the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." They go on to comment: "The implication is that Jesus has taken upon himself the same that has been directed at God. Since shame must always be avenged, Jesus takes upon himself the task of restoring the honor of God" [p. 74]. This is their reason for Jesus' harsh actions with the whip.

QUESTIONS: When should we defend God's honor? Is that within our power? Is that passing a judgment on others that we have no power to pass?

I've kept the following quote from Bill McNabb ("The Last Temptation of Christians," Wittenburg Door, issue 103) for many years. It was his response to the criticisms of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, but I think that it can apply to many situations.

I had an old seminary professor who began and ended his apologetics lecture with one sentence: "You defend God like you defend a lion -- you get out of his way." God, it seems, has never had much trouble with his enemies -- it's his friends who give him fits.... The theologian Karl Rahner put it this way: "The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny Him with their lifestyles is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable." Perhaps the best defense of God would be to just keep our mouths shut and live like He told us to. The gospel would then have such power and attraction that we wouldn't have to worry about defending it.

When, if ever, should we be wielding a whip? When might we be the whippees? When do we need to get out of the way? Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) suggests that asking what we need to do to grow is the wrong question. He is certain that God wants every congregation to grow. The question he poses is what are we doing that hinders the growth God wants to give us?

QUESTIONS: What do we remember about Jesus? What more is there for us to remember? Does our remembering lead to believing?

QUESTIONS: What are we zealous about? Are there causes that should consume us? Are there causes that should not consume our time and energy? In light of last weeks texts about Jesus' impending suffering and death, I've been thinking about the ideas of having something worth living for verses something worth dying for. Which requires a greater passion and zeal and commitment?

QUESTIONS: Why the temple? Wouldn't it make more sense to have Jesus turning over the tables of the crooked and corrupt tax collectors? Wouldn't it make more sense to have Jesus driving out the people from the pagan temples? Wouldn't it make more sense to have Jesus throwing out all the smut in an adult bookstore? Why create such a scene in the Temple -- the house of God? Is God more judgmental about the activities taking place in God's house than those in other buildings? Is God harsher with us who are God's people than those outside the household of God?

QUESTIONS: Is it possible for us within the church to "clean up" our congregations -- to spur them to be zealous for what they should be zealous? Are we too close to faithfully challenge our salary-payers to question their age-old practices and to be open to fresh revelations and activities from God? How often do pastors feel like they are banging an evangelical head against a traditional brick wall?


As we might expect, the people ask for Jesus' authority for disrupting their worship rituals at a high religious festival. They want a "sign" from him. We, the readers, know that Jesus had already given a sign in 2:11. We are also told that he did signs in Jerusalem that caused many to believe in him (2:23) and Nicodemus was one who knew that Jesus had done signs that could have only come from God (3:2). The question about signs leads us to look for the signs that Jesus will give, and John doesn't disappoint us.

QUESTIONS: Would I have asked for a sign -- for proof of Jesus' authority to do what he was doing? What sign would have convinced me to believe in Jesus?

Jesus answers: "[You] Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it."

The accusation in the synoptics against Jesus was that he said that I will destroy this temple (Mt 26:61; 27:40; Mk 14:58; 15:29). John, with the emphasis on "you" destroying the temple, already points to "the Jews" killing Jesus. John's temple story is really about Jesus' fate, not the Temple's. At the time of the writing, the temple was already destroyed.

QUESTION: Do I ever "destroy" Jesus? How?

The theme of death and resurrection are also hinted at by the word "to raise" (egeiro) a word that is used of Jesus' resurrection (see 2:22). In typical Johannine fashion, the people misunderstand. They think that "raising" the temple is the same as "building" (oikodomeo) a building.

QUESTION: Do I ever misunderstand Jesus?

In v. 21, the narrator makes sure that the readers don't miss the message of Jesus' cryptic saying.

Although it is an exegetical stretch, one might explore the eucharistic symbolisms of the water being changed into wine in the previous story about purification; and Jesus' body replacing the Temple worship practices that would have dealt with sacrifice and forgiveness. This is a stretch in John because he never uses soma ("body") in his eucharistic (bread of life -- 6:35-58) discourse, but sarx ("flesh").

Also, exegetically, the fact that John never uses "three days" in reference to Jesus' resurrection, it is unlikely that he meant it as a reference to the time between Good Friday and Easter. ("Three" only occurs in John 2:6, 19, 20; 21:11.) "Three days" seems to be an idiomatic phrase meaning "a short time." However, because we have used "three days" in reference to the resurrection, it could be a preachable theme from the phrase, even though probably not exegetically accurate.


Craig Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) presents these three meanings from the literary and cultural context.

Jesus foreshadowed the permanent cessation of sacrificial worship in Jerusalem and its replacement by his own death. His action took place during the feast of Passover, when lambs were slain to commemorate Israel's deliverance from death and bondage: Jesus would be crucified at Passover two years later as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). If the transformation of the water at Cana identified Jesus' death as the new means of purification, the disruption of commerce in the temple anticipated the time when atonement and cleansing would be effected through his passion and resurrection.

Second, the temple in Jerusalem was the place where God made his name or glory to dwell. Although God's presence was not confined to the temple, it was generally understand that the sanctuary was, in some sense, God's dwelling place. . . . Jesus' promise of a new temple suggests that God's glory would be manifested, not in a building, but in a person, as it had been at Cana.

Third, the crucified and risen Jesus would be a unifying symbol for God's people, as the temple had been before. [pp. 83-84]

O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible) raises this issue:

Christian faith communities must be willing to ask where and when the status quo of religious practices and institutions has been absolutized and, therefore, closed to the possibility of reformation, change, and renewal. The great danger is that the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in the Gospel of John, will fall into the trap of equating the authority of its own institutions with the presence of God. All religious institutional embeddedness -- whether in the form of temple worship, unjust social systems, or repressive religious practices -- is challenged by the revelation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. [p. 545]

QUESTION: Is our pride in our tradition keeping us from faith in Jesus? Does it lead to misunderstanding and blindness to the new? In system theory, past successes often stay on long past their usefulness. "Wrecked by success" is a slogan I've seen used. Past actions that failed are quickly discarded. Past actions that work tend to be used over and over and over again. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is another motto. (The latest form of this that I've seen is the title of a book: "If it ain't broke, break it." The author argues that if you are not constantly improving your product, your service, etc., the company down the road will pass you by.) If worship services are declining in numbers, if Sunday school attendance is going down, shouldn't that be a sign that whatever is being done isn't working as well as it should? Something needs to be changed. "But this is how we did it when our Sunday school classes were full 20 (or 30) years ago." That sounds like a church that is wrecked by success.

QUESTION: Who am I in the story? a seller or money changer? a buyer and worshipper? a questioner? a disciple? a whippee?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901