Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple Twice?
While the synoptic gospels record temple cleansing in last week of Jesus’ ministry, John records a cleansing at the beginning. I don’t believe that there are two temple cleansings: why has it been moved? First, placing the temple cleansing at this point situates the entire narrative following the first sign under the shadow of the Passion Week. While the other gospels climax in Jerusalem, John is centred upon Jerusalem throughout.
Second, it may serve to introduce a symbolic movement through the temple. John 1 presents Christ as the Ark upon which God’s presence rests, as the lamp of the world, and as the altar from which things ascend and descend between heaven and earth. John 2, in presenting Christ as the temple, introduces us to the structure itself. The next chapters focus upon the laver, with their washing and baptismal themes. In the feeding of the five thousand and manna discourse we reach the table of showbread. Chapter 8-9 bring us to the lamp within the temple. In the high priestly prayer of chapter 17 we see the rite of incense. In Christ’s death he passes through the curtain. In chapter 20 we encounter the open Ark in the Holy of Holies of Christ’s tomb (notice the angels on either side). Presenting the temple action later would disrupt this theological sequence.
Third, in the other gospels, it is in large part the temple cleansing that precipitates the plot to take Jesus’ life (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47). Note that Jesus’ words in 2:19 are also found in Matthew 26:61 in the trial leading to his death. By moving forward the cleansing of the temple, the threat to Jesus’ life hangs over the entirety of his public ministry. Also this threat reaches its theological climax, less in the temple action than in Jesus’ action in raising his friend, Lazarus (11:45-57). This allows John to frame Jesus’ death less as the consequence of a prophetic action against the institution of the temple than as the consequence of his self-giving love for his disciple and the world more generally.
‘Zeal for your house will eat me up’ (Psalm 69:9). Jesus’ identity and destiny is bound up with the temple. Jesus’ very body is the temple, God tabernacling among us.