International Catholic University


The Gospel of John

James C. Turro


Lecture 5: St. John 2:11-25

We are at the point of bringing to a conclusion our discussion of a wedding feast at Cana. I had finished off in the last session a consideration of a wedding as a symbol for the last days or the Day of the Lord. Actually all this implies the embarrassment that you experience in trying to speak of something that is so far out of our range of thinking and imagining the greatness of it simply eludes us. So we do the best we can in those times. The highpoint of the social life is a pallid reflection of what it would be on the Day of the Lord. Wine was the symbol of the good life, the high life. And here we are seeing the replacement of water with wine that is better than the wine the guests had been drinking all along. That, remarkably, the head waiter had kept the choice wine until now could very well be a proclamation of the coming of the Messianic days. And Mary's remark they had no wine could have been kind of a poignant reflection on the barrenness of religious life up until that point. But now Christ has come and that's changed. Specifically it's abundance of wine that characterizes the high point of the human story, namely the Day of the Lord. It's actually an Old Testament symbol of the joy of the final days. It's worth tracking down a few of the Old Testament references to this.

First Amos 9:13-14.

Behold the days are coming, saith the Lord, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seeds: and the mountains shall drip new wine, and all the hills shall melt, and I will restore the fortune of my people Israel.
What a picture of abundance and success this brings to our attention. The ploughman shall overtake the reaper. The harvest has been so super abundant that before it can be brought in it's time to plant the next year's crop. The treader of grapes will overtake him who sows the seed. So here they are treading out the grapes making wine from the huge harvest that they have taken in, and before they can finish treading out the wine, it's time to plant again, plant new vines. So it's a dazzling image of prosperity and good living.

Now, Osee 14:7.

And his fragrance like that of Libanus. Those who shall again dwell beneath his shadow shall raise grain; they shall blossom like a vine whose fragrance shall be like the wine of Libanus.
In those times apparently the bouquet of Lebanese wine was something special, something that was really superb, exquisite. So that's going to be used as an image of the good times when the Day of the Lord dawns. Not only an abundance of wine, but an abundance of superior wine.

And Jeremias 31:12

They shall come and be jubilant on the height of Zion,
They shall be radiant at the goodness of the LORD --
At the grain, the wine and the oil,
At the young of the flock and the herd.
They shall be like a well watered garden,
And they shall languish no more.
(Goodspeed Bible)

The agricultural flourish is used as an image of the good times that the Day of the Lord will be.

We have from an apocryphal book, a book that is not part of the collection of inspired books, Second Baruch 29:5, an expression of superabundance of wine that will characterize the Messianic day. It reads as follows,

The earth shall yield its fruit ten-thousand fold.
So already you have a mind boggling picture here that whereas there was one particular bush here originally now they have ten-thousand.
And each vine shall have a thousand branches, each branch a thousand clusters, each cluster a thousand grapes, and each grape a hundred and twenty gallons of wine.
So that's a rather huge supply.

Through these symbols the miracle of Cana could have been understood by the disciples as a sign of Messianic times. The texts I just read from the Old Testament and from the apocryphal literature would have created the mentality of the people who were in attendance at this wedding feast. And now to see this happen, this change of water into a huge supply of wine, could have recalled to their minds just these things that we've been reading about as earmarks of a Messianic period.

The next account that we find in the order of the Gospel is the account of the cleansing of the Temple.

Read John 2:12-19.

Here we are speaking of his body as the sanctuary, so afterwards when he had risen from the dead his disciples remembered that he had said this and they believed the passage of Scripture and what Jesus had said.

The first thing that we might address is that expression, Jesus, his mother and brothers went down to Capernaum. And now there is something that ought to be looked into, since Catholics have the belief in the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mother, that she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ. Now if Jesus had blood brothers, how could that be? And possibly one has to take into account the use of that word brothers in Hebrew. Many believe that the word brother was used to cover a broader expanse of human relationships, male relationships, than is normal in our language. For us to speak of one's brother means to speak of another male child of the same father and mother. But the fact is that in other cultures, not just in the Hebrew but elsewhere, people use the word more loosely, identify someone as a brother who really is not from the same family, at least from the same family unit as I am from, my father and mother. This fellow is not another son of my father and mother, but I still refer to him as brother.

We have an instance of that in the Old Testament where at one point Abraham has to part company from Lot's group because of some trouble among the servants of both these men, Lot's servants and Abraham's. So Abraham says to Lot, my brother, if you will go South I will go North, if you will go East I will go West. He refers to Lot as his brother. Down the line we find out the actual relationship between Lot and Abraham: Abraham's sister was Lot's mother. In other words Lot is really his nephew by our way of reckoning things, yet he is referred to as his brother. Not just in Hebrew but in other cultures of the world, in Africa, for example, there are places where this is customary.

In China one's brother-in-law is called a brother, one's cousin is referred to as brother. In certain places in the Far East your brother is the person who comes from the same village that you do. That would be understood if you were to introduce this individual as your brother; people would say oh, then he is from the same town you're from. If you mean to identify your actual physical other son of your father and mother you would have to put it in another way. So that is the way we view the reference to brothers here, male relatives of Jesus but not blood brothers.

There is an interesting comment that one might bring to your attention. This is from the work of an episcopal scholar by the name of Bernard in the International Critical Commentary, and Bernard says this:

It is difficult to understand how the doctrine of the virginity of Mary could have grown up early in second century if four of her acknowledged sons were prominent Christians and one of them Bishop of Jerusalem.
That's a very cogent observation. This devotion to Mary and her virginity starts up at a time when these so-called brothers of Jesus are still around. How could one then reconcile these two things, Mary as virgin and these other persons purporting to be her sons? They surely would have spoken out to say this can't be. But yet that belief started at that early point and has lasted up to the present. So much for the reference to the brothers of Jesus.

The Jewish Passover was approaching and Jesus went up to the temple in Jerusalem. We note that this is the first of three Passovers mentioned in this Gospel. These Passover references are used in an effort that people make to section off the time periods of the public life of Christ. It says that Jesus went up to Jerusalem. An interesting thing to note is that normally this expression to go up to Jerusalem implied going up for religious reasons. Going up in pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Going up to pray at the temple. If anyone were going to Jerusalem for other mundane reasons they would have to put it some other way, because just saying you are going up to Jerusalem would be understood generally to mean that you are going up for religious purpose.

Jesus finds within the temple precincts people doing business. The temple was sectioned off somewhat in this way. There was an outer court referred to as the court of the gentiles. Anyone could enter that, and that would be where this business was going forward. There was an inner court where Jews might enter that was more solemn, more sacred in their estimation. And there was the holy of holies, which was the most sacred spot in the whole complex. This was the place where only the high priest might enter and then only once a year on Yom Kipur.

All these sales were going on in the outer court. Originally this business was being conducted on the slopes of the hill right outside the temple complex but compromises had allowed these people to come in and do business in this inner court. You might wonder why these particular merchants were there and what was the point of all this. It was to facilitate the purchase of the sacrificial victim that the person would then take in and have offered as a sacrifice in his name. So one would buy a sheep or lamb right there and bring it in and that would be the sacrifice. The requirement was that these animals had to have been born and bred right in Judea in that sort of more sacred part of the Holy Land. If someone living North in Galilee raised sheep, it wouldn't do for him to take one of those animals, bring that down to Jerusalem and have that sacrificed. No, it had to be an animal born and bred in Judea. Hence the need for merchants who would market these animals.

The money changers were present to change the normal currency. The universally used currency in the Holy Land was the Greek or Roman. But that was unacceptable. One of the things people did upon coming down to the temple, especially when they came down for the pilgrimage, was to pay the temple tax that was levied on every family. The normal money was either Roman denarii or Greek drachmas. That was used not for paying the temple tax but for the other purchases and expenses that one had in life. But this kind of money could not be used in paying the temple tax for the good reason that imprinted on each one of these coins was either the head of the emperor for the denarius or the image of a famous philosopher that would be the drachma. The Jews felt at that time that this was a breach of the First Commandment which asks that no graven image be made of any living thing. And then it goes on to say to worship it. But the Jews construed that very strictly and felt that it would be sacrilegious to bring a graven image into the temple. So money changers were there to take your Roman and Greek coins with their images and to give you in return Tyrian coins from up in Lebanon that didn't have any image on it. And that would be acceptable for paying your tax.

You see from all I've said so far that this arrangement of merchants available to visitors to the temple was for the best of reasons. There was a strong sentiment among the people, and it would have been the thinking of our Lord as well, that this had gone too far. It's true that this was very convenient for people to have these merchants right there at hand, but it was within the precincts of the temple, and that seemed out of order. Hence our Lord takes the action that he does.

Some people have noted that in driving these merchants out Jesus seems to be rather harsh with respect to the dealers in cattle and sheep but a little more lenient with those who were pigeon dealers. And they go on to construe that further in this way. That would be explained in this fashion: pigeon dealers were the ones who accommodated the needs of the poor. The poor, unable to get enough money to purchase a normal sacrifice, sheep or calf or lamb, could afford a few pennies for a bird. And so the pigeon dealers were there to accommodate that need, and our Lord takes it easier on them for that reason, because they served the poor.

Now we are told that Jesus bent down and made a whip of cords to drive out these animals. One would think he would have used a stick. But there was a very strict law against introducing any weapon or anything that could serve as a weapon into the temple area. The population was so volatile even at worship that to prevent the shedding of blood, which would be sacrilegious within the temple, that regulation was enforced. So Jesus takes some of the straw from the bedding of the animals and he makes a whip out of that.

The reference in the account is this: You have made my Father's house a den of thieves. Frequently throughout the Old Testament the temple is referred to as God's house. The Jews did have a sense of God's omnipresence. God is everywhere, therefore how can you speak of God in the confines of a particular building? That's a mystery, but the fact is that it was thought that one could experience God more formally, more forcefully, more significantly within the temple than one could experience Him anywhere else. That, more or less, was their thinking, and that's why they spoke of the temple as God's house. Not the house of God's people. That explains the high reverence that these people have for this building, because within these confines God lived.

Remember early on I spoke about the special meaning that the phrase the Jews has here. In this passage in verse 18 it says: the Jews addressed him and said, "What sign have you to show us, for acting in this way?"

The Jews very obviously refers to the antagonists of Jesus, to the people who were opposing Jesus. It's not making any comment about an entire nation or an entire religion but about those people who were challenging Jesus at this moment. You remember at the very outset I spoke of a special use that this author of the Gospel makes of that word Jews. It identifies the enemies of Jesus, and we see a clear cut example of that here. Elsewhere, where this account is to be found, for instance in Mark, it sheds light on specifically who these opponents were.

Then they went into Jerusalem again. And as Jesus was walking about in the Temple, the high priest, scribes and elders came up and said to him, "What authority have you for doing as you do?" (Mark 11: 27, Goodspeed Bible)
John has the Jews asking that question, what authority have you for doing what you're doing? In John's mind the equation is, Jews equals high priests, scribes and elders -- namely the opponents, the avowed opponents of Jesus.

Let's now look back over the account and see what can be said broadly speaking about it all. First of all, this is a kind of prophetic protest against the profanation of God's house. I call it prophetic because the prophets are notorious for the strictures they make about the behavior of the people with respect to the temple and with respect to God generally. There is an inconsistency. This isn't the spirit that should go with genuine prayer. They very perfunctorily perform their sacrifices but don't act in a way that is in accord with a person who is devoted to God, and serious about doing God's bidding. This protest that Jesus makes is along those lines. This is God's house and it is inappropriate to use it the way you people are using it.

Throughout John's gospel you have a Jewish institution, a Jewish religious institution, which is supplanted by something that Christ brings on. This incident foreshadows the destruction of the temple. The temple was the place where people could have experienced God intimately. That's going to be replaced. We find throughout the New Testament that the replacement of the temple is nothing less than the person of Jesus himself. There would have been a time when if you wanted to encounter God meaningfully and up close and powerfully you would go to the temple. There, within the holy of holies, there was the special presence of God. But now the time would come when the temple would be razed. It actually historically happened in the year 70. The Romans took care of that.

The temple as a place for encountering God is supplanted. It's superceded by nothing less than the person of Jesus himself. God is in Christ; Jesus is God. Now if you want to make your approach to God, you don't go to the temple in Jerusalem, you make an approach to Christ. It lines up with the rest of what we've seen thus far in John of a Jewish counterpart supplanted, replaced, substituted for by something more meaningful, more powerful, that Christ brings on.

What's interesting here, and we have to give some time to this, is the placement of this incident as the second thing we read about in the actual public life of Christ. The first thing we hear about is the miracle of Cana. Then cheek by jowl with that is this account of the cleansing of the temple. We learned that in the other Gospels this is placed differently, it's placed further on. For instance, this incident is put at the beginning of Holy Week in Mark's account. And that's probably where chronologically it should be placed, because this would have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Up until this point the Jewish authorities resented what Christ was saying and doing, but then this topped it all, taking the liberties that he did with going in and making these rearrangements in the temple. That probably is what determined them to do away with Jesus, and then the events of the Passion kick in and the Crucifixion and so on.

But in this gospel it's only the second thing we read about in the public life of Christ. Why should the author of the gospel have put it in this place? We can guess that it's this. What the author of the Gospel is trying to do at this point in the Gospel is to illustrate the various reactions to Jesus that people made. The first reaction that people had, or the reaction of some people to Jesus, was totally positive. That was the wedding feast at Cana. What was the upshot of it all? Jesus' glory was manifested, and they believed in him -- full faith in Christ, total acceptance of Christ. That's the upshot of the Cana miracle.

The next thing we read about is the purification of the temple. And what's the upshot of that? By what right have you done what you did? Total rejection. In the one instance a full embrace of Christ at the miracle at Cana, and this next instance an out-of-hand dismissal of Christ, a rejection of him. The next thing that we are going to look at will give us another reaction that people had to Christ, an in-between reaction. That's what we are going to see when we look at the account of Nicodemus' visit. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, but he comes at night. He's not ready to throw all caution to the wind and be seen going in to talk to the enemy, so to say. So he is not fully in Christ's corner, but yet he makes the effort to go and visit with him. So you have an in between, a medium. Here then is the way it lines up. Cana, full acceptance of Christ in faith. Cleansing of the temple, total rejection of Christ -- no faith at all. Nicodemus' visit, half and half, trying to make up his mind. That's what you have illustrated here just by the placement of these incidents. We are taught something by the evangelist.

And now to go back and wind up our treatment of the cleansing of the temple by reading for you some Old Testament precedent to this. In the Old Testament the prophets frequently cried out against the abuses in the temple and the insincere way some people were praying in those times. Let's look at some of these. First of all we will consider Jeremias.

Read Jeremias 7:9-12.

This is talking about the impiety of people who desecrated the temple by living a very immoral, unacceptable existence, and yet coming to the temple.

Then Zacharias 14:21.

. . . all who sacrifice shall come and take of them to boil the flesh in them. And there shall no longer be a trader [a merchant] in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day. (Goodspeed Bible)
So that's what our Lord himself is quoting in response saying my house is a house of prayer you've made it a den of thieves. It's against a background of this text that shows that no longer shall there be a merchant or a trader in the House of the Lord on that day.

Then Malachias 3:1.

Behold, I will send forth my messenger
And he shall prepare the way before me!
And suddenly to his temple shall come
the Lord whom you are seeking!
(Goodspeed Bible)
You see, some people could have seen Jesus do what He did, see the fulfillment of what's here in Malachias.

Finally I want to look at Isaias 56:7

I will bring them to my holy mountain,
And will make them joyful in my house of prayer;
Their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be welcome upon my altar,
For my house shall be called the house of prayer for all the peoples.
(Goodspeed Bible)
So there a characterization of the temple itself is given as a revered, quiet, prayerful venue and not a place for doing business as usual.

Read John 3:1-15.

We'll bring this to a conclusion at this point and take up after this with an examination of this passage just read.

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