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.

The “Lifting Up” that is John’s Apocalyptic Gospel

The Gospel of John, in apocalyptic fashion, bends time, space, and sequence, depicting creation’s “beginning” with the Word of Christ and “it is finished” (the opening and closing of the creation week in Genesis) with the cross. The cross constructs a cosmic Temple, announced (enacted?) upon completion of Jesus’ first week of ministry (a confusing sentence that makes perfect sense in the context of John). The temple destroyed and raised is Jesus’ own body (2:21) which enacts the tabernacling presence of God (1:14) in which the wellsprings of creation (4:10; 7:37) (the water of life in Ezekiel’s temple description, 47:1-12) and light of the world (8:12) are made available in the abiding spirit incorporating the temple/household/family of God. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic, in that one world order and age is displacing another (not as in the old notion of apocalypse as focused on the second coming and literal end of the world), and the cross is the point where this new age, this new structuring of heaven and earth, and this entry of God into the temple of creation, is enacted. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic in its depiction of the unveiling of the Hebrew Scriptures, which in Paul’s description remain veiled outside of Christ: “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14-16). John’s Gospel unveils the riddle of the Old Testament in light of the work of Christ, but this recognition of Christ (as true Temple, true sacrifice, true sabbath, etc.) in light of Scripture also makes sense of his life. The riddle of Jesus’ words and actions, as they first appeared to the disciples, are unveiled in light of the Scripture (in light of Christ). The veil has been lifted on both Christ and the Scriptures, as John reads Israel’s history in light of the work of Christ but beginning from creation, he also reads the work of Christ in light of the Hebrew scriptures.

As J. Louis Martyn has described the apocalyptic perspective, or what he calls the “stereoptic vision” characterizes John. The dramas of both heaven and earth unfold simultaneously, not as two dramas but as singular events in the life of Christ. John, in Martyn’s portrayal, is changing up the definition of apocalypse with the stereoptic vision including, not a separate heaven and earth, but the perspective of the One from heaven come to earth. He joins heaven and earth, particularly as he is stretched out on the cross. Events, which in and of themselves might seem meaningless or tragic, become filled with an inexhaustible depth of meaning in light of the full meaning of the passion understood in light of the Hebrew Scriptures. [1]

 In Jewish imagery (which John depicts throughout his Gospel) the micro cosmos of the temple not only represented all of creation but also incorporated the key stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: it serves as the capstone holding back the waters of the flood (Noah’s altar sealed the waters of the abyss becoming the foundation stone of a new creation located in the Holy of Holies as support of the Ark of the Covenant), it is the place of Abraham’s sacrifice (Gen. 22:2; 2 Chr. 3:1), it is the site of Jacob’s dream of a ladder leading from earth to heaven (Gen. 28:10-17), it is from this site where God hovered over the waters of the deep and caused the four rivers to flow through Eden to bring life to the Garden (Gen. 2:6, 10-14), which was located just beyond its walls.[2] Jesus’ identification with the water of life, light of the world (on the occasion of the festival of lights, in which the temple is lit up as the representative source of cosmic light), the one upon whom angels ascend and descend (the description given to Nathanael, that Jew in whom there is no guile (John 1:47-55)), the true Passover sacrifice (first announced by John the Baptist (1:29) and thematic in John’s Gospel), incorporates a new humanity into the temple of his body (2:21). Through faith believers receive the Spirit and are reborn (3:3-5) as members of the family of God constituting a true temple a true oikos or family of God.  

This recognition is gained, not by reading from scripture to Christ (e.g., as in the reading of N. T. Wright) but the other way round; by reading from the gospel story to Scripture. In fact, according to Martyn, it is only through the gospel that Scripture is constituted as such: “In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in Scripture comes into being, by acquiring an indelible link to belief in Jesus’ words and deeds. . . . we have simply to note in the Gospel of John the absence of a linear sacred history that flows out of Scripture into the gospel story. Indeed, the redemptive-historical perspective is more than absent; it is a perspective against which John is waging a battle.” Neither John nor Paul move from Law to gospel (a “salvation history” approach), rather this characterizes the approach of Paul’s and John’s opponents.[3] For both there is a “vertical invasion” in which for Paul the gospel “came through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, rather than by being taught by a human being (Gal. 1:12), and for John, the gospel is from Christ who is “from above” (3:31;8:23). As John Behr notes, “both aspects of this ‘invasion from above’ are inseparable from the apocalyptic unveiling of Scripture, through which Scripture provides the words and images in and by which, from the beginning, the gospel is proclaimed and Christ revealed.”[4]

It is not only the Old Testament that is telescoped and unveiled but the life of Christ receives this same telescoping effect in John’s telling, with the end present in the beginning and the beginning understood through the end. In what may be a key passage in John, the singular event of the cross enfolds judgement, the casting out of the ruler of this world, glorification, the universal appeal of the gospel, and the audible voice of God:

“Jesus answered and said, ‘This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die”

(John 12:30-33).

In 12:23 Jesus announced that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified and the following two verses make it clear that this is a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross, which would result in many people believing in Him. Jesus compares His death to the “death” of a grain of wheat which, after falling into the ground, produces many other grains of wheat (v. 24). As Jesus declared, “it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (vv. 27–28).

It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28).  Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13).[5] Here too, in Jesus’ explanation, is the revelation of the Son of Man (as in Daniel 7:13-14) who is “given dominion” over “all peoples” in an everlasting Kingdom.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus, who seems to represent the Jew veiled from understanding the Scriptures (he has no concept of being “born again”, a theme of the Hebrew Scriptures) and in Jesus estimate he seems incapable of receiving things of the Spirit (3:6,11,12). Here too it is the being “lifted up” that unveils the truth of Moses in Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (3:14-15). According to Jesus, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (3:13).

Apparently, there is only one mode of ascent, one means of being lifted up,[6] but in John’s depiction of Jesus the spiritual effect of this lifting up is realized in the conversation with Nicodemus. According to Martyn: “The Son of Man ascends to heaven on the cross, but in some sense he returns to earth in the person of the Paraclete and can therefore enter into conversation with ‘Nicodemus’ as he who has ascended to heaven (3:13). The Paraclete makes Jesus present on earth as the Son of Man who binds together heaven and earth.”[7] And it is from this point that Jesus explains himself as the love and salvation sent from God (3:16).

This lifting up realization is a hermeneutic key applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). This is the fulness of the Word of the cross which is life and light. This is a Gospel told in light of the Spirit, who brings to “remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26).

Where the synoptics picture this insight as beginning after the resurrection (Luke 24, with the two on the road to Emmaus), John’s Gospel begins with this presumption and expands upon it. From the Prologue, in which the Logos is complete, to John the Baptist identifying him as the “Lamb of God,” (1:36) to Phillip’s informing Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).  Nathanael himself concludes, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (1:49) and John the Baptist recognizes (3:31) before Jesus explains that he is “from above.” 

Jesus’ glorification or being lifted up describes His death, resurrection, ascent, exaltation, multiplication of disciples, love of God and, in short, sums up the gospel.  As James Dunn puts it, ‘The “hard saying” finds its fulfillment, therefore, when Jesus has been lifted up in the upward sweep of the cross–resurrection–ascension, in the giving of the life-creating Spirit.”[8] As Behr describes it, “The unity of all aspects of the Passion, Pascha—the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and also Pentecost—in ‘the hour’ of a single ‘day’ is thus emphasized by John. . .”[9] Upon this event the Spirit is given and the epistemological insight of the cross is realized. “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him” (John 12:16).

Jesus is lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the Father in the singular hour of his glory, and this is the insight from which John narrates his Gospel.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here:

[1] J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 130. Quoted in John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 121. See Behr 121-123. It is not that John’s theological interpretation throws doubt on his eyewitness account, but just the opposite. In light of the fact that he is the only apostle present at the cross and the first to believe at the empty tomb, gives his reading of events, in light of Scripture, their apocalyptic tenor.

[2] See Mary Coloe, “Raising the Johannine Temple”

[3] Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, (in Martyn, Theological Issues, 209–30). 216–221. Quoted in Behr, 127.

[4] Behr, 128.

[5] In Sirach (49:11-12) the Temple and people are pictured as the interchangeable product of the one lifted up: “How are we to magnify Zorobabel? He too was like a signet on the right hand, so was Jesus, son of Iosedek, who in their days, built a house and lifted up a holy temple/people to the Lord prepared for everlasting glory.” Some manuscripts have “temple” while others have “people” but the parallels with John (“Jesus”, being “lifted up,” a “house” or “people” for “glory”) are striking.

[6] Moses, Enoch and Elijah, in John’s account have no claim on the reality realized in Jesus’ lifting up.

[7] Martyn, History and Theology, 138. Quoted in Behr, 232.

[8] James D. G. Dunn,., ‘John VI—A Eucharistic Discourse?’, (NTS 17.3 (1971), 328–38), 337. Quoted in Behr, 155.

[9] Behr, 176.