52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #10. Jesus as the Temple
by Travis Bookout
Last week we examined that odd scene in John 2 where Jesus visits Jerusalem for Passover and enters the temple and starts flipping tables and driving everybody out and stopping all the buying and selling that was common in the Jerusalem temple. After this dramatic demonstration, Jesus explains His actions by saying, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’” (John 2:19-20). That’s where the conversation ends. It is ambiguous and the Jews leave without understanding. The author, however, fills the reader (us) in on the hidden true meaning behind Jesus’ words. We are told, “But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:21).
It is that explanatory note that we will investigate in this post. What is meant by “the temple of His body”? In what way is Jesus’ body analogous to the Jerusalem temple? In building up to this question it is helpful to start back at the beginning of John, because there have already been a few hints leading us to this conclusion before you even get to this scene in chapter 2.
Going all the way back to the first verses of chapter 1, John begins with a creation account. The first words in the Gospel are, “In the beginning” (John 1:1). This should immediately take you back to Genesis 1, which begins with these exact same words. Genesis 1 opens by telling you about creation, and John does the same thing: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3). Genesis 1 tells you on the first day God said, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3-4). Genesis has the coming of light and the separation of light and darkness. John says, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5). These strong parallels tell us that John is writing with the Genesis creation account in mind. He is retelling the creation story Christologically, that is, reading it through the lens of Jesus.
John can’t read Genesis 1 the way He used to. He can’t read it the same way as before He met Jesus. He now sees Jesus through the entire creation event. Only, he also notes a very serious problem: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:10-11). The darkness of the world rejected the Light which came from God. This Light is also referred to as the Logos, the “Word.” In the beginning this Word and Light was One with God acting together in creation.
The story takes a very interesting turn in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” There are two words in this verse that strongly imply this is meant to be taken as a Temple description. The first is the word “Dwell.” The One who created heaven and earth has come to dwell among men. Where does God dwell among men? He did in the Garden of Eden. He did in the tabernacle/temple. And He did in the flesh of Jesus. Creation, temple, and the incarnation are all coming together in this verse. In fact the word “dwell” is not the usual Greek word for “dwell” in the New Testament. It literally means, “tabernacled” (See the same word in Revelation 7:15 and 21:3). It is the verb form of the noun “tabernacle.” When God instructs the Israelites on how to build the tabernacle, He begins by saying, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them…the tabernacle” (Exodus 25:8, 9).
Secondly, the word “tabernacled” is coupled with the word “glory.” When He tabernacled among men, we beheld His “glory.” The glory of God was seen in His temple. Remember the depressing account in Ezekiel 10:4, 18; 11:23 of the glory of God slowing departing from the Jerusalem temple? That was in preparation for the temple to be destroyed by the Babylonians. But the dwelling of God was supposed to contain God’s glory. When the temple is reconstructed in the days of Zerubbabel, God encouraged and promised, “The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9). John 1:14 pictures Jesus as the new tabernacle/temple of God who shines forth His glory.
This identification is hinted at further in John 1:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This passage clearly has references to Genesis 28:12 where Jacob rests his head on a rock and dreams of a ladder going up into heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. That ladder was the connection between heaven and earth, between God and Men. Jesus, the Son of Man, claims to be that ladder. In the Genesis story, Jacob wakes up and comes to a realization. The place he was resting is “none other than the house of God, and this the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). He then names the place Bethel, which literally means “House of God.”
The Temple is the house of God. It is God’s dwelling place and the meeting place between God and man. It is like that ladder going from earth to heaven. And Jesus has taken the role of the temple for Himself. That’s why it is not surprising when John tells us, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:21). To the careful reader, these dots have already begun to connect. Instead of going to the temple to find God, go to Jesus. Instead of going to the temple to find the Passover lamb or forgiveness, go to Jesus. Don’t go to the temple to find the glory of God, go to Jesus. Jesus, as the eternal Divine Word become flesh, has become meeting place of God and man and the dwelling place of God on earth.