Another “Sign”: Housecleaning the Temple—John 2:13-22

Studies in John’s Gospel, Bible study lesson 5

by Reta Halteman Finger

Detail from Hubert Robert's "Christ Expulses the Money Changers Out of the Temple"
Detail from Hubert Robert’s “Christ Expulses the Money Changers Out of the Temple” (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

In our last lesson, Jesus is a party guy. He does a favor for everybody at the Cana wedding, so the story has a happy ending. But two sentences later, everything has changed. The location is the temple in Jerusalem; the characters are animals and money-changers; and Jesus is racing around angrily kicking butt. What is going on?

Every churchgoer knows that Jesus “cleanses” the temple right after Palm Sunday. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this action brings about his execution a few days later. Just as the NSA, Congress, and some journalists insist that Edward Snowden must pay the price for “espionage,” so must Jesus pay the price for his civil disobedience. Narratively speaking, this event becomes the turning point of the Synoptics’ plots.

Strange signs and unusual meanings

But the incident in the Fourth Gospel that gets Jesus killed is very different, as we shall see later. Thus John can move the temple-cleansing story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for a different purpose.

In the first lesson in this series, I noted that John’s Gospel focuses less on “what really happened” than on “what does what-really-happened mean?” I do not believe the author makes up stories about Jesus, but rather takes known events from Jesus’ life and shapes them into a narrative whose overarching purpose is stated in John 20:31. “These are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…and through believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, all the events are signs pointing in one direction—calling the reader to an unswerving loyalty to and trust in this Son/Sophia who in turn points the way to a true understanding of God.

Reading between the lines

Although archeologists have identified most of the locations in this Gospel, the transitions from one place to another sometimes seem unrealistic. In 1:28, John the Baptist’s disciples are with him at “Bethany across the Jordan” (a name with two possible locations on the east bank of the Jordan River). By 1:43, Jesus decides to go to Galilee, a hard two- or three-day’s walk northwest, taking along disciples who leave the Baptist to follow him. Cana and Capernaum are in Galilee, but after only “a few days” (2:1-12), Jesus trudges south to Jerusalem for Passover (2:13), a 70-mile trek steadily climbing upward to this city on Mount Zion. Thus the geography of chapters 1 and 2 provide another clue that the temple account is chronologically out of place.

In all four Gospels, pigeons are for sale for ritual sacrifice at the temple, but John ups the ante to include sheep and oxen as well (2:15). Given Jewish purity concerns (see the previous lesson), one might ask where in the temple precincts were all those animals and their manure to be found? A likely place is the Court of the Gentiles, a large area on the Temple Mount beyond which non-Jews could not go for worship and sacrifice (see illustration). Here the author uses the correct term, heiron, which means the larger temple environs, whereas in 2:19-21, Jesus uses naos, meaning the sanctuary itself.

All three Synoptics cite the same reason for Jesus’ dramatic outburst:  the house of prayer has become a “den of robbers.” Money-changers filled the sacred space, since pilgrims wishing to sacrifice had to change their money into silver coins minted in Tyre—a setup for a rip-off. Economic oppression of the poor is a theme in the Synoptics, especially in Luke, so no doubt Jesus was protesting this outrage by overturning the money-changers’ tables and releasing the pigeons.

In John’s Gospel, however, Jesus’ reason for his action is changed to “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!” The very act of buying and selling on this holy site flies in the face of the free gift of grace and peace promised through the Messiah in John 1:17. The coins rolling on the floor and the fleeing animals are now free for the taking. (No doubt many people watching in the Court of the Gentiles were quite pleased with this disturbance!)

Model of Herod's Temple
A model of Herod’s temple, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The flat area outside the walls and surrounded by porches was the Court of the Gentiles, beyond which no non-Jew was allowed to go.
Juan R. Cuadra; Wikipedia.

A sign that needs interpretation

The final exchange at the end of this account is very Johannine. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” demand the shocked Jewish leaders. “Destroy this temple,” retorts Jesus, “and in three days I will raise it up” (2:18-19). This is, of course, a double entendre, a typical technique in John where Jesus makes an enigmatic statement that his dialogue partners always interpret literally when he means something more profound. Here the author explains that Jesus really meant the temple (naos) of his own body that would be raised up on the third day.

Beyond the Synoptic economic house-cleaning, the Fourth Gospel asserts that Jesus symbolically destroys the corrupted temple system, and his body would eventually replace it as God’s true Temple where all are welcome free of charge.

Questions for reflection:

1. What ties the Galilean account of water-to-wine and Jerusalem temple-cleansing event together? If both actions are signs, what do they signify?

2. If you were a poor person who found a coin or caught an animal at the temple after Jesus’ action, how would you react?

3. This Gospel was written some years after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. Is that significant? How political was Jesus?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


  1. I’ll take a stab at one and two together.

    This morning I was chatting with my Chinese teacher (we have one-on-one classes) when the subject meandered around to religion. Since she’s a Chinese girl who teaches foreigners Chinese, she’s heard lots of opinions from them. The first was that many foreigners told her Tibetan Buddhists are stupid. “They are so poor!” she said, “And yet they give so much money to the monasteries. The people in the monastery make a lot of money.”

    Another student she had was Christian and took her to one of the churches in our city. She saw the offering box and immediately concluded that, “All religions are the same. Poor people want to believe someone bigger than them can help them, so they will give so much money. But what does the money go to? A more beautiful church? More beautiful Bibles? The pastor’s high salary?”

    One of the greatest problems in today’s American church is the asking for money part. Also, the way the money is spent. So many churches look like businesses, with their members reduced to offering sources and their targets reduced from redemption for the world to flashy services.

    Boy am I glad the Bible shows Jesus literally fighting against this!

    The Wedding at Cana is a party in which people come together to celebrate love and commitment and the transformation of relationship! It’s exactly what a gathering of the recipients of the gospel should look like: a celebration of the fact that we have the love of God, and ANYONE can experience it, and also a reflection on our longing to deepen our relationship with God every day on this earth until we die. Weddings are incredibly joyful, but they also look forward to a daily lifelong transformation. And an honest wedding will think about hardship and it’s place within that transformation.

    If our churches can look more like the wedding at Cana, we might not have so many people looking at us and saying, “Sooo….how is this different from the Tibetan Buddhists? Or those guys on Wallstreet?”

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