In the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was the most important building in the whole of Israel. It was much more important to them that The Houses of Parliament or Buckingham Palace are to us today.
Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem was the third, the largest, the shortest lived and the last of the great Jewish Temples. If you wanted just one word to describe Herod’s Temple that word would be BIG. In fact Herod’s Temple wasn’t just big – it was very big. It was huge. It was enormous! They had been building that Temple in Jerusalem for 46 years when Jesus made his visit there. It would not be completed for another 36 years – only six years before the Roman army would invade Jerusalem and almost destroy the Temple.
The Temple stood on a site of 40 to 50 acres. The moneychangers and the market traders were located in the vast outer court of the Gentiles. That open area would fit in maybe a dozen football pitches. You could park around 2,000 cars in a space that size. From one end of the Court of the Gentiles to the other was half a kilometre, or roughly as far as from here to B and Q.
This stood within the outer walls of the Temple which were almost a mile long. In the middle of this vast Court of the Gentiles stood the Inner Courts of Herod’s Temple, 200 yards long and 3 storeys high. Purely coincidentally, the Inner Courts of the Temple were about the length of Buckingham Palace and the Gardens of the Palace are around the size of the Court of the Gentiles. Inside that, within the Priest’s Court, could be seen the Holy Place, a square building 150 feet high – that is maybe 8 storeys. Herod’s Temple was big. Huge. Enormous!
And standing in that vast Court of the Gentiles, Jesus Christ said,
John 2:19 “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
Everybody misunderstood Jesus, of course. They thought he was talking about Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem.
The Temple in Jerusalem
It was the great King David who first wanted to build a Temple to worship God on the highest point of his holy city and capital Jerusalem, almost a thousand years before Christ. And it was David’s son Solomon who made that dream come true. Solomon’s Temple stood for 400 years until Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians and the Israelites were taken away into exile. Around 537 BC they were allowed to return and the great Second Temple was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. But then in 37 B the then ruler also called Herod began the construction of an even larger temple on the same site. Through almost ten centuries the Temple at Jerusalem had been the focal point for the nation of Israel and the centre of its political life as well as its religious life. For the Jews the Temple was vitally important for at least three reasons.
The Temple was the PLACE where God was to be found. It was a sign of His presence and his blessing. The Temple was a sign of security and of peace.
The Temple was also the PLACE where all the people could meet with God. Ordinary people could meet with God through his priests and God could speak to His people through the law and the teachers of the law.
Then the Temple was also the PLACE where God dealt with sin. It was the place where the great sacrifices were offered during the Passover and on the Day of Atonement.
But by the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was failing in its 3-fold role. My house will be called a house of prayer for the nations. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market?” Jesus demanded as he drove the traders and the money changers out of the Court of the Gentiles.
John 2:18 Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
What an amazing statement! But Jesus was not merely claiming great power or authority. In fact, we miss the point if we think the Jews were worried or offended that the Temple might be destroyed. On the contrary, every Jew was actually looking forward to the day when the Temple would be destroyed so that it could be replaced by an even greater and eternal Temple.
This was the promise in the last book of the Old Testament.
Malachi 3:1 “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
The Jews were all looking forward to the day when God’s messenger would come to prepare the way, and the God Himself would come to build a new and eternal Temple. This was the Day the Jewish people were longing for – and still are today. And here is Jesus saying, “I will rebuild the Temple.” I will fulfil the prophecy. I am the one who can rebuild the Temple. In other words, “I am God.”
All this of course was immediately after Jesus had “cleansed” the Temple.
John 2 14 In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
Let’s make one thing clear here. The Court of the Gentiles was huge. And at the time of Passover there could have been 100,000 or even as many as 200,000 pilgrims in that vast area. So Jesus did not clear out every one of the hundreds of traders and thousands of animals. Apart from anything else, the Temple Guards would have arrested Jesus long before that happened. But driving some of them out was a symbolic action which was fulfilling another prophecy from the Old Testament, this time from Zechariah 14:21 that on the Day of the Lord there will no longer be any market traders in the House of the Lord.
Make no mistake, by that symbolic action of cleansing the Temple, and then by claiming to be the one who could rebuild the Temple, Jesus was claiming to be God. And it was that claim which was the greatest charge against Him when Jesus came three years later to be tried by the High Priest
Matthew 26 Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’ ”
62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent.
The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
64 “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
By saying that He could rebuild the Temple in three days, Jesus was indeed claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God, even to be God Himself. So Jesus was condemned to death for blasphemy, the ultimate injustice because his claim was true – Jesus really was God!
But the Jews did not know that yet. We have the benefit of hindsight. We can understand what Jesus was talking about in ways that not even His disciples could understand at that time. Only later did they realise that the Temple that Jesus was talking about was not Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem.
John 2 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”
21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The Temple of Christ’s Body
Jesus was talking about Himself, and comparing Himself to the Temple. He would use that comparison again later in an argument with the Jews about the Sabbath.
Matthew 12 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.
Jesus the Son of God was indeed “one greater than the Temple.” For in His Son Jesus, God was present and revealing Himself and dealing with sin, not in a building, not in a place but in a person.
Jesus Christ is the PERSON in whom God was to be found.
John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
We said before that the word “made his dwelling” literally means pitched his tent among us. In the Old Testament God was present with His people at the Tent of Meeting. In the New Testament God was present in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the PERSON in whom all the people could meet with God.
People can come to God through Jesus and God speaks to human beings through Jesus. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9) Jesus said. “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
Jesus Christ is the PERSON in whom God dealt with sin. For nearly a thousand years the Jews had been offering sacrifices for sin in the Temple at Jerusalem, not just on the great Day of Atonement once a year, but every single day. But Jesus would pay the penalty for sin once and for all by His death on the cross. As John the Baptist had said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
So Jesus Christ was indeed “one greater than the Temple.” And the proof of that is in what happened after Jesus was crucified.
John 2 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
When his body was destroyed on the cross, three days later God raised Jesus from the dead. Here was the proof that Jesus was indeed God – his literal physical historical resurrection from the dead. He is indeed “one greater than the Temple.”
But it is possible that Jesus also had in mind another sense of the Temple when He talked about His Body. Perhaps He was looking forward to the new temple which God would build, not a place, not just one person but all of God’s people.
The New Temple of the Church
1 Peter 2:4 4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
We sometimes sing song number 566.
WE ARE BEING BUILT INTO A TEMPLE,
Fit for God’s own dwelling place;
Into the house of God which is the church,
The pillar and the ground of truth,
As precious stones that Jesus owns,
Fashioned by His wondrous grace.
And as we love and trust each other
So the building grows and grows.
The Body of Jesus Christ was the real Temple, not the Temple in Jerusalem, and now the body of Christ on earth is his people, His church, in other words WE are the body of Christ.
We are the people in whom God is to be found as the church lives out God’s love and holiness in the world.
We are the people through whom others can meet with God as we speak to God in prayer and God speaks through us.
We are the people with the good news of how God has dealt with sin. The church as the body of Christ brings the light of Christ to this dark world. The church brings the life of Christ to a world doomed to death.
We are now the body of Christ on earth. The destiny of the church is to become more and more the perfect Temple of God, built out of living stones, where God lives by His Holy Spirit.
Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.