Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man – John 2:23-25
I have been going through the gospel of John lately, and, as often happens with the Bible, I am seeing things I haven’t noticed before.
Look at this passage for instance. We are at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry: He has been baptised (1:29-34), gained five disciples (1:35-51) and just performed His first miracle at a wedding in Cana, where He turned water into wine (2:1-11). And now it’s the Pessah – the Passover. It’s the greatest celebration of the Jews, commemorating their deliverance from the slavery of Egypt, and especially how the Lord’s Angel of Death “passed over” the Jewish homes that had been sprinkled with the sacrificial lamb’s blood (Exodus 12:23-27). And in this atmosphere of celebration and remembrance of the Lord’s deliverance, Jesus, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, appears with His disciples in Jerusalem (John 2:13), where Jewish pilgrims are arriving in droves to worship at Solomon’s Temple.
This is not random timing – there is no such thing on God’s schedule. That ancient first Passover in Egypt was an example of how the sacrificial blood of Jesus would come to protect those who put their faith in it from the wrath of God. And now, centuries later, that New Era, the time of Grace, has begun.
But this is not the only thing that the apostle John wants us to notice. He has set out to demonstrate the deity of Christ – to show us that He is the Son of God, equal to the Father. And John is not particularly obscure or subtle about it; look at how he starts his gospel: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14). And the rest of the book is essentially evidence and testimonies to prove this statement.
But back to our story. Jesus and His disciples (perhaps not all twelve yet) are in Jerusalem. What is the first thing Jesus does? He cleanses the temple; he throws out all the merchants and traders who had set up their stalls and tables to exploit the Jewish pilgrims, many of which came from foreign lands. For example, there were the “money-changers” – an ancient “bureau de change”. Jewish pilgrims over 20 had to pay the Temple tax (Exodus 30:13-14), but the only coinage acceptable was Jewish or Tyrian coinage because of its high purity in silver. So the foreign Jews would have to exchange their money, and the money-changers would do it for a fee. You can imagine the rest.
Jesus probably cleansed the Temple twice. Did you know that? The account given to us here by John doesn’t match those given by the other three gospel writers, who describe a similar event on the last Passover just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (Mat. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46). For one, John clearly places it at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry. What does it say about Israel that the Messiah had to cleanse the Temple of the Lord twice in three years? A lot, though the idea of spiritual stubbornness comes readily to mind. It is a sad and tragic truth that Israel rejected Jesus’ message as well as His person (Mat. 23:37-39), and the result of that is no more than a dead, dry exploitable religion. Sound familiar today? It should.
So now Jesus has come into the spotlight. I doubt the cleansing of the Temple was as violent as is traditionally shown in Jesus films – simply because there would have been a city-wide riot if it had been particularly cruel. The Temple was overlooked by the Roman Fort Antonia, which, during the Passover would contain a large contingent of soldiers, all with itchy sword fingers. Any public disturbance would have been dealt with swiftly, and Roman-style. Maybe Jesus used the whip of cords (2:15) to drive off the animals that were sold for sacrifices and overturned some money-tables, but it seems that the whole thing happened without those hardcore traders putting up too much of a fight. Maybe it was Divine Grace protecting Him (like in Luke 4:28-30).
Remember that John has set out to show us Jesus as God. And here we see His passion for reverence – His passion for true religion. He cannot tolerate His Father’s House becoming a place of a million daily injustices, a place where His ordinances are trivialised into business and money-making. I’m sure that the people He kicked out had mouths to feed and were trying to make a living. But some lines cannot – should not be crossed. Nothing ever justifies taking God lightly, not only because it reflects an already unfaithful and disobedient heart, but mostly because it dishonours His name and causes others to do so. That is something that cannot, and should never, be tolerated – and Jesus, God Incarnate, did not.
However the cleansing may have happened, the event certainly would have caught peoples’s attention. That’s why the Jews – probably the Temple authorities who must have raced at the scene – asked Him to prove Himself with a miraculous sign (2:18). What they were saying was, “Okay, you obviously exert some kind of authority, so show us some credentials. Give us a miracle.” Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap – He never performed miracles to entertain, nor to feed people’s hardness of heart. So He replied “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (2:19).
Jesus did this frequently: He answered in what appeared to be a cryptic, enigmatic way. Later in His ministry, when His disciples asked Him why He taught in parables, He told them “…I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Mat. 13:10-16). In other words, because the ability to understand God’s Word, is given by God only to those who believe in Him (see 1 Cor. 2:10-16). Those who do not believe, reap the consequences.
And such were the Jewish leader who now interrogated Jesus, because they thought He was speaking about the Temple. Let me give you some history here: Herod the Great had begun reconstruction and expansion work on the Temple sometime around 20/19 BC, and there were parts still being built at this time. In fact, they were still building in AD 70, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem! So, it is no wonder the Jews thought Jesus was being ridiculous, and you can hear them chuckling when they say “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” (2:20). Preposterous! And yet, they never bother asking for further clarification – they just dismissed Him as a lunatic. If they had asked, He might have explained to them what His disciples figured out later:
But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said (2:21-22).
His disciples believed. John – one of those disciples – tells us that it was after the water-to-wine miracle at Cana that they believed in Him (2:11). Nathanael believed in Him after he witnessed Jesus’ omniscience in 1:47-50. Faith is not blind – it is a response to God’s initiative. In their case, it was seeing what Jesus did and believing that He was the Messiah and the Son of God. Today, we have God’s Word, full and completed. Do we believe it? The principles remain the same as then: God calls, shows, says, works, warns and promises. But faith is the fertile ground on which God’s seed grows and flourishes stronger and stronger. It was the same for these men that the Lord had called to train and send out.
And we finally come to our original passage (2:23-25). Jesus did more signs while He was in Jerusalem that Passover, and when they saw them, many people believed in His name (2:23). Today, I’d daresay, we’d get excited about the “many” part of the passage. Churches today go nuts over numbers as if they are some kind of measure of God’s blessing and spiritual/ministerial success. And yet, Jesus looks for quality, not quantity. He was God; He knew the heart of each man better than the man himself, and He was all too well aware of the crowds superficial enthusiasm and fickleness – that fragile bubble of excitement that can so easily and quickly burst, and yet we often confuse with faith.
There was no confusion with the Lord. It is interesting that the original Greek text uses the same verb to contrast the different attitude of the crowds and Jesus: two forms of πιστεύω (pisteuo), which means “to believe” or “to entrust”. The crowds saw miracles and believed in Jesus, but He did not trust in them because He knew whose faith was genuine and lasting, and whose was shallow enthusiasm. If we say that we believe, let Christ be the judge of our claim.
Jesus is God. We see Him here in His passion for reverence towards God as He cleanses the Temple; in His redemptive mission, as He foretells of His death and resurrection; and in His omniscience, as He knows the deep things of each and every soul. This is the Lord and God in whom we are called to place our faith wholeheartedly and genuinely, and to follow as His disciples.