I’ve been to weddings that took a sour turn before – the best man’s speech that tanked, the awkward waiting around for something to happen, the music that was too quiet for dancing or too loud for those who didn’t want to dance, the moment when that thing happened and everyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
I’ve been to weddings that took a sour turn. But nothing rivals the change between John 2:11 and John 2:15. From the glory and excitement of a new age dawning, we find ourselves ducking to avoid the flying tables, swooping pigeons and scared livestock. What’s going on? And can this really be the same Jesus?
A party-pooper, or righteous zealot?
It’s the Passover1, a Jewish festival which meant lots of people would be in Jerusalem – especially in the temple. Jesus, barely a few days since He manifested His glory 2, decides to go to Jerusalem seemingly to celebrate the Passover there. If we’ve correctly understood what the feast was all about, we’re probably expecting some dramatic presentation of His Kingship, standing up with arms outstretched to welcome his fellow Jews and cast out the tryannical Roman occupation.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, we get a whip of cords, money all over the floor, and tables flying this way and that. And to make sure the verdict is abundantly clear, Jesus passes judgement on those around Him:
Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade (v16)
It’s the kind of diagnosis that should give us goosebumps. The Old Testament contained similar accusations against the purveyors in the temple3, and God had promised that He wouldn’t leave things like that4. Jesus’ arrival in the temple was a day of reckoning. But more than that – as the disciples remembered – it was the fulfilment of another prophecy: king David’s inspired statement of allegiance to God, “Zeal for your house will consume me”5.
Before we get distracted by the significance of this quote (which we shall necessarily do in a moment!) the Jews start kicking up a fuss. To take on the role of judge, particularly judge of the temple, is a massive claim. What authority does Jesus claim to perform such actions?
Jesus’ answer is about as enigmatic as they come – such that no one understands at the time. His claim is that His authority comes from raising up ‘this temple’ after is has been destroyed. Of course, standing beneath the massive stone blocks of the Jerusalem temple, it’s unsurprising that the crowd interpret His words literally. But our guide, John, helps us to see that more is going on.
But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (vv21-22)
The unexpected Messiah
All of this detail probably makes up the full quota of our confusion allowance for one week. And apart from giving us a spoiler for the end of John’s account, it’s pretty clear that some of the pieces aren’t going to fall into place until the end of his book. But as we see this passage in the context of John 2:1-11, we begin to see things a bit more clearly.
Jesus had declared himself to be the one who was bringing in God’s new kingdom – a kingdom that had been promised in the Old Testament, a kingdom that had been associated with the age of God’s special king: the Messiah (or Christ). The Jews were looking forward to this king arriving – and there was good reason for them to be thrilled.
But as he arrived, he brought more than salvation. He brought judgement – a glimpse of which we had there in Jerusalem that Passover day. As he tossed the tables, it wasn’t an arbitrarily violence, but the delivery of justice to a temple priesthood who had abandoned God’s ways.
This wasn’t to deny that He was the Messiah. Rather, it was to clarify the kind of Messiah He was. Tossing the tables in the temple didn’t undermine His fulfilment of the prophecies. Rather, it enabled him to take on his lips the words of the great King David, to echo the words of Psalm 69, and so identify himself as a king like David – the very thing we were expecting of the Messiah.
A psalm is more than a song when it appears on Jesus’ lips. Especially when He takes the words of David’s psalms, He is frequently announcing Himself as the promised Messiah like David. But when it happened that fateful Passover day, Jesus was bringing a great shock to the system. He was making absolutely clear that, even though He was the Jewish Messiah, He wasn’t the kind of Messiah many were expecting. He was bringing salvation, sure; but also judgement.
It’s another passage that challenges our two-dimensional view of Jesus. Even those who are familiar with Jesus’ teaching can recognise Jesus to be the Saviour and to know that judgement is real, without seeing Jesus as simultaneously Saviour and Judge. It’s the kind of view of Jesus that we dislike.
Even as someone who knows that the good news of Christianity is spoken in the context of judgement, I’m slow to consider Jesus as the one holding the axe. And yet here John is writing about the life of Jesus, helping us to identify who He is, and placing these two aspects of His Kingship side-by-side: glimmering beside his crown we see a goblet and a gavel, salvation and a sword.
The soft edges are sharpened; the cotton wool is thrown away. Jesus is here in all of His three-dimensional glory. And He challenges us to see that the salvation he is bringing comes with judgement. Yes, He has come to save, but there are those He will judge as well.
And for the doubters, the episode gives us an HD glimpse of Jesus before the image is Photoshopped. It’s hard to deny Jesus’ role when He gave us a clear picture of it that Passover day. When I’m struggling to think of Jesus as the judge, John has given me the scattering pigeons and overturned tables as a graphic image of His role.
The unbelief of Jesus
The theme of judgement is where John lingers in the shocking close to the chapter, as he describes those who believed in Jesus.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people, and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (vv23-25)
Why didn’t Jesus entrust Himself to them? Why didn’t he believe in their belief? John says it is because ‘He Himself knew what was in man’ (v25).
Well what’s in man? What is this diagnosis that Jesus has made on the world? For that, we need to read on…