Jesus’ Temple Construction as a New World Order

At the beginning of John, Jesus disrupts the Passover sacrifice in the temple with a sign which, in his explanation, points to himself as true temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The temple incident is not about cleaning up Herod’s temple nor is it about getting rid of coin exchange (it was necessary that the coins bearing Caesars image be exchanged for those with “no graven images”) or animals being sold. As Mary Coloe points out, such trade was not itself wrong; rather, “his words and actions must be seen as a prophetic critique of the entire sacrificial system.”[1] The Jewish response indicates as much, as they do not question why he did it but ask what sign he could give that he had the authority to do such a thing. They did not take his action as some sort of violent assault on the temple, but presumed it called for a legitimating sign of authority, as with Moses’ “signs and wonders” (Deut. 34:11). They knew the prophecies concerning the end of sacrifice and the limitation of the efficacy of animal sacrifice, and indeed, Jesus is declaring the end of the sacrificial system, as he is true temple and true sacrifice. As Jacob Neusner describes Jesus’ action in the temple, it “represents an act of the rejection of the most important rite of the Israelite cult and therefore, a statement that there is a means of atonement other than the daily whole-offering, which now is null.”[2]

The Gospel of John is written at the end of the first century, after the Romans had already destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, so that John might be read, not only as the story of temple replacement, but as a depiction of how all of the rites and meaning of Israel are now continuing as a first order reality through Christ. The ingathering of a new Israel, represented in the 12 apostles, resonates with the founding of a new dwelling, a new sacrifice, and a new understanding of atonement.

 As Coloe points out, this theme of fulfilling Israel’s scriptures, echoes from “the beginning” in which the true tabernacling (eskenoseri) among us has commenced in his flesh and God is among us, and we saw his glory {doxa)” (1:14).[3] The language of tabernacle and glory reverberates with the way in which God’s presence was made known to Israel in the ark, the tabernacle, and the temple. Rather than reading this opening scene as a cleansing of the temple, in the context of John, this must be read as the beginning of a new temple and new order of worship and a recentering of the world.

The theme of Jesus as temple marks each key moment in Jesus’ explanation of his identity. Seated at Jacob’s well in Samaria, Jesus indirectly alludes to himself as the temple, which was often pictured as situated above the wellsprings of creation (as in Ezekiel 47:1-12). The temple, in Jewish tradition, was thought to rest upon the spring of creative waters (Gen. 2:8) and also served as the capstone holding back the flood waters of Noah. Noah’s altar is also linked with this foundation stone located in the Holy of Holies supporting the Ark, with its temple sitting upon the wellspring of the earth at the center and source of creation, but now Jesus is this living water (John 4:6, 10). At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus describes himself in terms of this festival as the source of thirst-quenching water (7:37) and the light of the world (8:12). During the Feast of Dedication, celebrating the reconsecrated temple (in 165 BCE), Jesus describes himself as the “consecrated one” (10:36). During the final discourse Jesus speaks of his “Father’s House” with many dwellings (14:2) which indicates an ongoing extension of the household of God. In the course of the Gospel, the temple has been identified as a building whose true form is the person of Jesus, and this then is extended to a new temple community of disciples, but ultimately a new world order. [4]

If we take Jesus at his word, the key part of temple construction gets under way at the cross and the tomb, in which the echoes of the temple reverberate throughout. John makes it obvious that the cross is the point when the true Passover lamb is being sacrificed, as his Gospel climaxes with the crucifixion at the very moment the Passover lambs are being slain (John 19:14, 31). Jesus is this Passover lamb that cleanses the world of sin and death, according to John the Baptist (John 2:13, which I described last week here).

The work of the temple, representative of a cosmic removal of death, is a work completed in Christ, but maybe it is the empty tomb and resurrection which most clearly bears echoes of Jesus as true temple. For example, in John 20:12 Mary “saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.” Several commentators see here an allusion to the ark of the covenant with its two angels at either end of the mercy seat or lid on the ark of the covenant.[5] Nicholas Lunn finds ten similarities between the scene of the tomb and the ark of the covenant: the inner chamber of the temple, separated by a veil is like the burial chamber sealed with a rock and, like the ark, Jesus body was “carried” (άροϋσιν) and “put” in the tomb (τίθημι – put, place, lay is used some six times in John to describe that Jesus was laid there (John 19:42; also 19:41; 20:2, 13, 15)). A cloth covered the ark and was wrapped around Jesus for burial, and both involved spices (and specifically myrrh). Both the tomb and the ark were adjacent to a garden (with the Garden of Eden represented as surrounding the ark). Though entry into the holy of holies is restricted, Peter and John enter and believe but Mary receives a warning, similar to that given to the priests not to touch the holy things (Jesus says, “Do not touch me” (John 20:17)) and both times of entry were early morning. Finally, the risen Lord directly correlates to and surpasses the glory surrounding the ark (John 12:16; 2:22).[6]

The glory of the Lord had been attached to the ark (with the cherubic figures described as “the cherubim of glory” (Heb. 9:5)). It was here that God appeared to Moses to give him revelations: “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel” (Ex 25:22). With the loss of the ark the glory departed from Israel (I Sam. 4:21-22) and God fell silent. Now real cherubim show up to mark the spot where full access to God is realized. The presence of God had been identified as the one “who dwells between the cherubim” (cf. 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kgs 19:15; Ps 80:1; 99:1), but now the presence of the risen Lord is marked by living angelic messengers.

Lunn draws parallels between the Levites and Jesus’ high priestly prayer (for the disciples) in terms of the relationship between the high priest, God’s representative, and the Levites. It is stressed several times, that they belong to God: “They are mine [έμοι έσονται],” he says (Num 3:13; cf. 12, 45; 8:14). Jesus repeatedly describes his disciples as those who were God’s which are now mine. “I have manifested your name to the men you gave me out of the world; they were yours and you gave them to me” (John 17:6). “I do not pray for the world but for those you have given me” (John 17:9). “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, that they may see my glory” (John 17:24). Just as God designates the tribe of Levi as Aaron’s brothers (Numbers 18:2) Jesus calls his disciples his brothers (John 20:17). On the other hand, the prohibitions against touching or looking improperly are clearly abrogated in Christ, whom they could freely see and touch without fear of being struck dead. “No longer is God concealed and unapproachable, but revealed and accessible. No longer is there any threat of death in drawing near, but rather through the incarnate Son’s own atoning death there is an offer of life.”[7]

Besides the obvious implications, that here God and his people meet and that here true revelation is given and divine access is opened through Christ, the explicit linking of cross and lamb, and tomb and ark, bear a striking theological lesson. There is no negotiation with the powers, with evil, with death, or with the necessity of violence. While great violence is unleashed on Christ, this is not something he negotiates but it is what he overcomes. The true high priest has applied his own life blood to the “mercy seat” so that where death previously occupied the center of the world, life now appears so as to displace death. Death or the devil do not demand or require a ransom for Jesus, as he simply defeats both. He is lifted up and the prince of this world who has kept the world enslaved through death is defeated (John 12:30-32).

There is no deep discord, original violence, or dialectic difference to mediate the work of Christ. He is the light that dispels the darkness, the life that overcomes death, and the “I am” which exposes all false metaphysical presuppositions. It is not, as Karl Barth depicts it, that the antithesis to creation – nothingness – is somehow lent a reality in competition with God’s being. He maintains, “That which God renounces and abandons in virtue of his decision is not merely nothing. It is nothingness, and has as such its own being, albeit malignant and perverse. . . . It lives only by the fact that it is that which God does not will. But it does live by this fact.”[8] In Barth’s Calvinist depiction, God must negotiate with this malignant order as if it is in competition with the reality of God. While some may not be so bold as Barth and Calvin to assign evil to God, there is a long tradition imagining God must somehow stoop to the level of death, darkness, and violence to overcome it.

The tomb as ark and the cross as means of establishing this relation, not only connects Christ to the atoning sacrifice, it also bears the full meaning of that sacrifice. We find the life of Christ in the place of death and the love of Christ in the place of violence. Christ’s life puts paid to the notion that violence is inevitable and that even God must struggle against the powers, pay the penalty, and work within the law or the laws of the universe. This inevitable violence and death dealing struggle describe every human order, every institution, every means which cannot imagine a resource that transcends the violence of the world. But this is precisely why Christ is the singular atoning sacrifice, the sole foundation of a new peaceable kingdom. We should not look to the shadows to determine the substance of the reality.

However atonement might have been construed prior to Christ, it now must be understood in light of his work as, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV). In John’s depiction in both the Gospel and the Epistles, love is definitive of God but this is a love that comes to full expression and fruition in the work of Christ: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). The love of God as the defeat of sin and death is the meaning of atonement and this is the meaning of the world.

The Lamb is at the center of the throne, the place described as between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22). (As in Numbers, it is from here that Moses “heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim” (Numbers 7:89).) The center of the world has become the throne room of heaven in John’s vision: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (Revelation 5:6). All peoples and all of heaven are now centered on this reality: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13). Here the world is brought into relation with its Creator and Redeemer through the true Temple and True sacrifice of reconciliation.

[1] Mary Coloe, “Temple Imagery in John,” Interpretation (2009, 368-381)

[2] Jacob Neusner, “Money Changers in the Temple: The Mishna Explanation,” NTS 35 (1989) 290. Quoted in Coloe, ibid.

[3] Coloe, Ibid.

[4] Coloe, “Raising the Johannine Temple (JOHN 19: 19-37),” Australian Biblical Review (48/2000) 47-58.

[5] Nicholas P. Lunn, “Jesus, The Ark, and The Day of Atonement: Intertextual Echoes in John 19:38-20:18”

JETS 52/4 (December 2009) 731-46, provides the following references. John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859) 443-44; Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 5: Matthew to John (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991) 979; Β. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (London: John Murray, 1892) 291; Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994) 73. More recently the same comparison has been made by Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1966) 989; Rowan Williams, in an “ssay entitled, “Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne,” in his volume On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) 183-96, esp. 186- 87; Johannine scholar Mark Stibbe in his popular work The Resurrection Code: Mary Magdalene and the Easter Enigma (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2008) 61, 71; also Jim Cassidy, “The Mercy Seat” (a sermon preached August 2008) at John20b.mp3.

[6] Lunn, Ibid.

[7] Lunn, Ibid.

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation. Volume III, Part 3 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 352.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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