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The first disciples found following Jesus to be something of a wild roller-coaster ride. The miracle at Cana took place in a pleasant domestic setting. The demonstration of their master's powers was striking, but this experience was more exciting than it was challenging. But as they move from the countryside to the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus switches from low profile to high profile and does something not only exciting but very strange.
After the wedding Jesus, along with his family and his disciples, goes to Capernaum (2:12), a distance of about 18 miles as the crow flies. During his ministry Capernaum is his home town, the family perhaps having moved there after the death of Joseph (Robinson 1985:121). After being at home a short while Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. John mentions three or four Passovers during Jesus' ministry (2:13; 6:4; 11:55; perhaps 5:1), which provides the main basis for the assumption that Jesus' ministry lasted roughly three years (see comment on 8:57). At this Passover Jesus performs a sign that points to his death and reveals his replacement of the temple, thereby implying the fulfillment of the redemption of God that Passover itself represents. In the context of Passover in chapter 6 Jesus teaches about the significance of his death at great length. And then at the third Passover (chapter 11) he accomplishes his work and dies as the true Passover lamb. Thus the whole of Jesus' ministry occurs in the framework of Passover and has the effect of replacing the Passover and all associated with it (cf. 1:16-17). Accordingly, this is a Jewish feast (2:13); that is, it is now "abandoned by the Evangelist and his readers" (Ridderbos 1997:114) because Jesus himself, rather than the temple and its feasts, has become the new focal point.
The confrontation in the temple (2:13-16) culminates in Jesus' words: Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market! (v. 16). Jesus' authority and his identity are revealed in this statement. As the Synoptics tell the story, Jesus quotes Scripture at this point, combining Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11: "It is written," he said to them, "`My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a `den of robbers'" (Mt 21:13, with slight differences in Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46). Jesus is obviously exercising some sort of authority in the Synoptics, but perhaps this sense of authority is heightened in John since Jesus speaks in his own words. This authority is based on his identity. Instead of contrasting God's house of prayer with a den of robbers, as in the Synoptics, he contrasts my Father's house with a market. Here is the first use outside the prologue of the term Father, the single most important designation for God in Johannine literature. Equally significant is the implication that Jesus is God's Son: he refers to my Father's house. Jesus' provocative act is based on his relation to God as his Son.
While John helps us see Jesus' identity revealed in this event he also indicates that the original participants did not have such insight. Indeed, the emphasis in John is as much on the response to this action as it is on Jesus' own statement (v. 16). John begins with the response of the disciples. It seems that right in the midst of the event the disciples recall a verse of Scripture (v. 17). This verse has the potential for putting this rather enigmatic action of Jesus in its proper interpretive frame. Psalm 69:9 is spoken by the Righteous One who is persecuted by those who hate God. This text connects Jesus' activity to a certain strand of Old Testament thought that plays a very important role in this Gospel, especially in relation to Jesus' death (cf. comments on 19:24, 36). As we will see, this particular text has the potential for revealing a great deal more about Jesus, but the disciples do not grasp this at the time.
In the case of the opponents, Jesus' action is met with a question (v. 18) instead of with an Old Testament text that places Jesus' action in the light of Scripture, however vaguely. Their request for a sign is not hostile; indeed they appear genuinely open to the possibility that Jesus might be able to defend his audacious activity (cf. 3:2). Presumably if a text of Scripture that placed Jesus in relation to some feature of the scriptural tradition had occurred to them, as it had to the disciples, they would not have needed to ask such a question. Furthermore, Jesus has already given them the answer to their question; it is his identity as Son that authorizes his action. But it will become increasingly clear that the opponents do not understand Scripture because they cannot see Jesus' relation to it (5:39), which is due, in turn, to their inability to grasp his identity as Son of the Father (for example, 8:19, 27, 42, 54-55).
To their request for a sign Jesus responds with another of his cryptic sayings that reveal everything and nothing (v. 19). This enigma about destroying the temple tests their hearts. There is no way anyone could have understood this saying at the outset of Jesus' ministry. They respond with an incredulous question (v. 20). Nathanael also had heard something he considered unlikely, if not impossible, but he reserved final judgment, he came and saw, and he ended by confessing Jesus (1:45-49). These Jewish leaders, on the other hand, seem able only to question. In contrast to the disciples they jump to conclusions; they cannot be silent and wait. So the opponents are left with their questions, while the disciples have a vague but substantial hint at the fact that Jesus' action can be seen in the light of Scripture.
This is the last we hear of the Jewish leaders in this scene. John returns to the disciples, and something of the significance of their remembering the text of Scripture now becomes apparent. John first interprets Jesus' cryptic saying about the temple (v. 21). By associating his own body with the temple, which is his Father's house, Jesus again points to his own special relationship with God and his replacement of the revelation in Judaism (cf. comments on 1:16-17). The vision Jacob had of the house of God (Gen 28:17) is here fulfilled in Jesus (cf. 1:51; 10:7). Thus, in both his first statement (2:16) and his cryptic reply (2:19) he does give the leaders an answer to their question. Here the Son is offering revelation to these questioners, and in this offering itself we see the glory of God's gracious love. But there is really no way the opponents could have understood what he meant by destroy this temple. Even the disciples did not understand it until after the event (2:22).
The later recollection (v. 22) refers to more than what we usually mean by "remembering." In John, to remember something means to recall it and to understand it (cf. Mussner 1967). The NIV brings out this nuance in a related passage, when after the climactic entrance into Jerusalem it is said, "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize [emnesthesan, literally, "remember"] that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him (12:16). Here John is showing us how the Scripture was used after the "glorification" (John's language for Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension) to make sense out of events in Jesus' life. Later he will refer to the agent of this interpretive process, the Spirit (14:26), who is given after the glorification (7:39). What emerges, then, is that after Jesus' glorification the disciples are able, by the presence of the Spirit, to recall Jesus' actions and words and to interpret them in the light of Scripture. This insight arising from a connection between the Scripture and Jesus' words and actions seems to be what is meant by they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (2:22). The old and the new revelation function together, under the influence of the Spirit, to interpret Jesus, the fulfillment of the old.
The use of Scripture here is not a simple rational process of lining up texts to get an answer to Jesus' puzzling action. Something more subtle is involved, something requiring the aid of the Spirit. It is also more complex, for John implies a process of several stages. First there is the recall of Scripture during the event (v. 17), which indicates in some vague way the significance of this activity. Then comes the postglorification faith in the Scripture (v. 22). Psalm 69 seems related to the event in two different ways through the double meaning of consume (kataphagetai). In the midst of Jesus' action the disciples could have understood this text as referring to the extent of his zeal. But after Jesus' death they would have understood this same verse in a different way—as referring to his death itself.
Such an application of the Old Testament is typical of the way it is used in the New Testament generally as well as in the church throughout its history: Christ is the key to understanding the Old Testament. Verses that were never taken as messianic stand out now that Jesus has come on the scene. The events, institutions and characters of the Old Testament reveal patterns that are found repeated in Jesus and in the experience of believers. Such interpretation remains valid and valuable today.
Jesus' death is the central topic in this passage for it is the deeper meaning of both the Scripture (v. 17) and the saying concerning the destruction of the temple of Jesus' body (v. 19). In this one image of the temple Jesus' sonship and his death are set side by side. The center of John's thought is his theology, that is, the revelation of God, and the center of his theology is God's love. God is love, and love is the laying down of one's life (3:16; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:8). Thus, it is precisely in the incarnate Son's death that God himself is revealed. The death of the Son of God in Jerusalem at the instigation of these Jewish opponents during a later Passover is already referred to here in the opponent's first provocation at this earlier Passover in Jerusalem. By including this event at the outset of the story and bringing out the themes we have noted, John shows the glory of the cross shining through Jesus' life from the start. The divine gracious love is crucial to Jesus' life, and it is at the heart of this story, both in the reference to his death and in his gracious teaching of those who will become his opponents.
Jesus' identity as the Father's Son and the centrality of his death are revealed in this story, and we begin to see how upsetting these truths are. At this point the confrontation is all on Jesus' part. What are we to make of a Jesus who responds to honest, open questions with cryptic words and deeds? Jesus is indeed compassionate, but there is always a wildness, an otherness, about him. Perhaps most Christians have experienced the upheaval that results when he confronts elements of shallow religion in their lives. Out of love he will use extraordinary means to break through our hardness of heart so that we might realize our need and come to him for life. The disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing, but they stuck with him and were open despite their questions; the Jewish leaders had only their questions. Spiritual growth demands questions. It is evident from this story that God wants us to have questions—we see his Son here, and throughout the story, raising one question after another through his words and deeds. The answer to all of these questions is found in the heart of God himself as Jesus reveals him. All of our language is but a pointer to the reality of God himself. John is writing not so we might understand all mysteries but so we might have life in his name (20:31).