So the Jews said to Him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:18-19).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When I was in high school, Hal Lindsey and his best-selling book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, were causing quite a stir. Using a method of biblical interpretation that compares supposed end time prophecies in the Bible with then-current events, Lindsey attempted to predict future scenarios resulting in the rapture of believers before the tribulation and the Second Coming of Christ.
Although Lindsey did not claim to know the dates of future events with any certainty, he suggested that Matthew 24:32-34 indicates that Jesus’ return might be within “one generation,” or forty years, of the rebirth of the nation of Israel in 1948. He even posited that the government of Israel had a pre-fab temple ready to go up once the Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock that now occupies the site of the former temple was torn down. He pointed to Jesus’ words in our text that all of this would take place in three days.
As you can tell by the fact that we’re still here this morning, Lindsey got a lot of things wrong in his prophetic biblical interpretation. That’s what happens when you read Scripture out of its context. But one of the most egregious errors, is his misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in John 2:19. He would have only had to read St. John’s note two verses later to know that “[Jesus] was speaking about the temple of His body” and His own resurrection from the dead.
But Lindsey wasn’t the first one to get the identity of the temple wrong. And, he probably won’t be the last. So, let’s make sure we have a good understanding of this passage so we might not be led astray ourselves.
It was easy to identify the temple in Jerusalem. It was the magnificent building made of stone, divided into two rooms. A wall enclosed the courtyard that contained an altar for sacrifice and a basin for washing. The place was guarded carefully as ceremonies were conducted. The furnishings were ornate and of quality craftsmanship, each detail dictated by God.
But what made it the temple? There were other big buildings made of stone. There were other courtyards surrounded by walls. Animals were slaughtered elsewhere, and guards stood in front of other places. What made this the temple?
This made it the temple. God was there. This was His house. When Solomon completed the temple, the Lord entered the Holy of Holies in a cloud of glory. He lived there, hidden behind a thick curtain, present with His people. If they wanted to find God, they went to the temple, where He promised to be.
Everything at the temple was designed to point to one of two things. First, that God lived there with His people. That’s why sacrifices were offered at the temple, not somewhere else. Second, those sacrifices proclaimed that the people would be saved from their sins by a sacrifice. They pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for the sins of the world.
The temple was a monument to the faithfulness and grace of God. But the Israelites forgot. The priests took their duties for granted. By their careless actions, they declared that the Lord’s presence didn’t matter all that much, opening the way for further trouble. Once the people decided that the Lord’s presence wasn’t all that special, it made perfect sense to worship other gods who felt more special. It seemed reasonable to expect God to share His holy space with others.
Such was not the case. As prophesied by Ezekiel, the Lord left the temple. He doesn’t force His grace and presence on anyone. He doesn’t share His glory with false gods, either. If the people didn’t want Him as their help and salvation, fine; He would simply withdraw and let their false, dead gods look after them.
So, the Lord left. But because of the blindness of idolatry, few in Israel even noticed. They still had the building, so they figured God must still be there. It came as quite a shock to them when the Babylonians came through and destroyed the temple building. “How could it happen if God was there?” they wondered. You already know the answer: He wasn’t. They didn’t want Him, so He had left.
But He’d be back, present with His people to save. The temple would be rebuilt, then rebuilt again at the time of Herod. God would still dwell with His people, hiding His glory behind stone walls and a thick curtain. Then He’d do something even better. The Temple would come to the temple.
This brings us to our Gospel lesson. Remember: the temple is where God is present with His people. Remember this, too: it’s possible to destroy the temple but keep the building, and at the time of Christ it is happening again. The temple grounds have been turned into a marketplace. Trade in your animal for a better one to be sacrificed—for a cost, of course. Change your money into the official temple coinage—with a surcharge, naturally. Subtly, the focus of the temple shifts. It is no longer on God’s gracious presence. The message to the worshiper is that God loves him if he only pays enough money.
No wonder Jesus drives the merchants from the temple. “Do not make My Father’s house a house of trade!” He declares. They are turning God’s house into a store. The focus is not on the Lord and His free grace, but on striking a deal and making a profit. Yes, God is still present there—Jesus still calls the temple His “Father’s house;” but once again, the Lord is being made to feel unwelcome.
Those in charge of the temple-market demand: “What sign do You show us for doing these things?” They are convinced that they have a good program going, one that benefits the temple; and they are also convinced that Jesus is harming the work of the Lord by condemning their program. This Jesus had better give a good reason fast as to why revenge should not be swift and violent.
Jesus’ response puzzles them: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They couldn’t believe their ears. It had taken forty-six years to build this temple, and He said He would rebuild it in three days? Nonsense! (Unless you happen to have a pre-fab temple stashed away somewhere, Jesus!)
But St. John tells us the real reason for their confusion: “[Jesus] was speaking about the temple of His body.” Remember: The temple is where God dwells graciously with His people. Throughout the Old Testament, this meant a building of stone walls and a heavy curtain. But who is Jesus? He is the Son of God become flesh. Wherever Jesus is, God is dwelling graciously with His people. Jesus is a walking, talking temple. Where He is, God is, because He is God.
And since that stone temple was meant to point to Him, Jesus tries to direct their attention from it to Him. Jesus is the temple—God dwelling among His people. He is also the Sacrifice who will atone for their sin, because His enemies take Him up on His sign. In a few years, they will destroy the temple. So much do they want God gone that they’ll kill Him when they have the chance. But Jesus fulfills the rest of the sign. He rises again three days later.
Note what happens at the temple made of stone at the moment Jesus dies. The curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom. Yes, this is in part a sign that there is no more need for sacrifices. But it is also the Lord’s declaration that He isn’t present in that temple anymore. The building will be there for another forty years or so, but the Lord will be present elsewhere.
Where? The Lord will be present wherever Jesus is, because Jesus is Lord. He is also the Word made flesh. Therefore, wherever the Word is proclaimed, Jesus is present. Add the Word to water, and Jesus is present in Holy Baptism, where He cleanses His people, now temples of the Holy Spirit. And, of course, we dare not forget His great declaration of presence in His Supper: “Take and eat, this is My body. Take and drink, this is My blood…for the forgiveness of sins.”
Rejoice! You no longer must go to the temple in Jerusalem to be in the Lord’s presence. The Lord comes to you! He is just as present in His means of grace here, today, as He was in the Holy of Holies, surrounded by a cloud of glory. That is why this room is called the sanctuary—the holy place, because God comes here to you. You also see a visual reminder of this during Holy Communion. The bread and wine are covered by a veil—a reminder of the curtain in the temple behind which the Lord lived. But just before you receive the Lord’s body and blood, the veil is removed. You are in a most holy place. You are in the presence of God! It’s why we call worship “Divine Service.” The Divine One is at your service, forgiving your sins, equipping you for service in His kingdom.
Now, here’s the thing. If God graces us with His presence here—if He kindly visits us to forgive our sins, then it only makes sense that His grace and presence should always be the focus of our worship. Nothing in this service should distract us from Him. This is why our worship always returns to His Word and Sacraments, for they are His temple. They are how He dwells among us.
Jesus is present in His means of grace, and so we cling tenaciously to them. Sadly, there are other Christians today who hold onto His Word, but declare that His Sacraments are empty symbols. While we give thanks that they still have His Word, we cannot condone their denial of the Sacraments. Where Jesus says, “Here I am with grace,” it is not for us to say, “No, you’re not.” We dare not compromise away the presence of Christ in these precious means.
We are further warned: Any church can lose its focus. There is always the danger that a church will boast of its programs and activities over the means of grace. In such a case, the focus shifts away from Jesus’ presence to what we are doing instead, and the slide down the slippery slope gains speed. A church with all sorts of programs and ministries will be deemed much more alive than one where the people focus on gathering in the presence of the living Lord.
Above all, then, here is our program and ministry: Jesus comes to forgive sins. He gathers us here to His means of grace. By His grace, we proclaim to you the forgiveness of sins. And by that Word you are forgiven. Then you go out into the world to the vocations God has given you. May we do nothing here but proclaim the truth that Jesus, who died and rose, is present here to forgive sins.
As we do, remember this message will not always be well received. Even though Jesus did the world a favor by driving out the moneychangers, He still was roundly criticized for it. As you keep focused upon the Lord’s gracious presence for the forgiveness of sins, you can expect criticism, too.
If you strive for pure preaching of Law and Gospel, you may be accused of being too obsessed with internal purification. If you wish to preserve the means of grace in order to make disciples with them, you’ll be accused of not being mission-minded. If you insist that the Church hold fast to the message of sin and grace, you’ll be labeled “mean-spirited” for wanting people to repent and be forgiven.
But if you hold fast to such things, you have this comfort: The Lord, who died on the cross for your redemption, visits you to forgive your sins. He is present by His Word and Sacraments to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Temple who was destroyed for your sin was raised three days later. He will never be destroyed again, and He visits to share this immortality with you.
The Lord is present with His people. You gather here, because He is present here to give you life. But He is not just present here; He is present wherever His Word is preached in its truth and purity, and His Sacraments are administered according to His Word. This is certain for you, because the Lord is present, here and now, to proclaim this joyous news: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.