Turning Water into Wine, 1-11

2:1 Now on the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2:2 and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. 2:3 When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no wine left.” 2:4 Jesus replied, “Woman, why are you saying this to me? My time has not yet come.” 2:5 His mother told the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.”

On the third day – John completes his account of the happenings during this momentous week at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jn 1:43-51 refers to the fifth day, then there was a 6th day (presumably in travel), and then comes this seventh day. It was probably a Wednesday, for that was the usual day for a wedding.  Some commentators, however, think that the wedding occurred on the 6th day of the narrative so far.

Bearing in mind the symbolism that is so prevalent in John’s Gospel, we can agree with Barrett and others that ‘the third day’ anticipates the day of Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus’ mother was there – John nowhere refers either to himself or to Mary by name. Remember that Mary was entrusted to John’s care and became like a mother to him, Jn 19:26f. We can surmise from this passage that Mary was a friend or even a relative of the bride or groom. It is also to be noted that Joseph is not mentioned at all: the most probable explanation is that he was deceased.

Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding – The disciples are those mentioned in the previous chapter: Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and one other (probably John himself). So Jesus was present at, and took part in, a marriage feast. He is concerned about all aspects of our lives, and social relationships and family celebrations can alike be graced by his presence and blessed by his approval. There is a time to eat, to drink, to laugh, and to be joyful, notwithstanding the prevailing poverty and sadness around us. Only let these things be kept in their rightful place.

When the wine was gone – marriage feasts like the one referred to here were important and joyous occasions, and might last up to a week. It would be a serious embarrassment for the wine to run out. ‘For a Jewish feast wine was essential. “Without wine,” said the Rabbis, “there is no joy.” It was not that people were drunken, but in the East wine was an essential. Drunkenness was in fact a great disgrace, and they actually drank their wine in a mixture composed of two parts of wine to three parts of water. At any time the failure of provisions would have been a problem, for hospitality in the East is a sacred duty, but for the provisions to fail at a wedding would be a terrible shame for the bride and the bridegroom. That indeed would have been a humiliation.” (William Barclay)

Lincoln explains: ‘To run out of wine was not simply a social embarrassment but entailed a serious loss of family honour, suggested a lack of cooperative friends and had dire implications for the web of reciprocal obligations in which a person was involved.’

Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine” – Jesus’ mother is never named in this Gospel, possibly to avoid confusing her with various other women of the same name. Exactly what she hoped that Jesus would do is unclear. What is clear is that she believed that he could do something. On the one hand, it is unlikely that Mary expected her son to perform some kind of miracle, for v11 states that the present miracle was the very first (contrary to some far-fetched apocryphal stories about Jesus’ childhood). On the other hand, it is probably that Joseph had died by this time, and that Mary had learned to rely on her eldest son. See also v5.

“Woman” – NIV softens the address (“Dear woman”), which is simply ‘woman’ in the original.

Most commentators are keen to state that this would have been a perfectly normal form of address at the time.  It is clear that no impatience or discourteousness is intended, as is apparent in the parallel expression in Jn 19:26, which is obviously most tender and loving. Cf. Jn 20:15.  As Bruner remarks, ‘We would love to have heard Jesus’ tone of voice here as in so many other places in the Gospels.’

On the other hand, the fact that Jesus does not refer to Mary as ‘Mother’ does call for comment: it may be that now, at the outset of his public ministry, he is encouraging her to see him in a new way, a way that transcends the physical and social ties of parenthood and sonship.  Lincoln says that this would not have been a usual form of address between a son and his mother, and does suggest ‘distancing’.

Then again, given the significance of the contexts both here (cf. Jn 2:11) and in Jn 19:26, we may even be correct in finding an allusion to the promise concerning ‘the seed of the woman’ in Gen 2:15 (but see also Jn 4:21 and Jn 20:15, where our Lord addresses other women as ‘woman’).

“Why do you involve me?” – this is firm, but not brusque. Perhaps Barclay is right when he renders this, “Let me handle this in my own way.”

“My time has not yet come” – Jesus was not prepared to deviate from his God-given plan. Jesus’ ‘time’ was, perhaps, the time of his public manifestation. This did, indeed, reach a certain stage in v11, but was to further unfold according to the divine plan and purpose, Jn 12:23,32.

O’Day remarks: ‘His words are not an act of rudeness to his mother…but are an important assertion of Jesus’ freedom from all human control.’ (Women’s Bible Commentary)

It is curious that Jesus seems to utter a rebuttal to Mary, but then proceeds to perform the miracle anyway.  One explanation is that, since it appears from v9 that it was the bridegroom’s responsibility to provide the wine, Mary was, in effect, asking Jesus to act as bridegroom that day.  Jesus replies that the time has not come for him to assume his role of bridegroom.  Isa 24:7,8,11 (telling of lack of wine) and Isa 25:6-8 (telling of the provision of wine in abundance) suggest an eschatological background to the symbolism at work here.  See this by Ian Paul.

“Do whatever he tells you” – Mary knows that Jesus can be trusted, even when the outcome is as yet unknown. See v3.

2:6 Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 2:7 Jesus told the servants, “Fill the water jars with water.” So they filled them up to the very top. 2:8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the head steward,” and they did. 2:9 When the head steward tasted the water that had been turned to wine, not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom 2:10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk. You have kept the good wine until now!”

Six stone water jars…used by the Jews… – John explains the purpose of these large containers for the benefit of his non-Jewish readers, cf Mk 7:3-4.

Ian Paul writes:

Stone vessels were of significant interest in the first century, since the purity laws in Leviticus were interpreted to mean that pottery vessels made by a human production process could become ritually unclean, and would then have to be smashed. But stone vessels were deemed to be from the earth, and so could not themselves become unclean, and were therefore highly valued. But they could only be made on a large scale under Roman occupation, since the Romans brought with them the technology for fashioning stone vessels, since they themselves were interested in making columns and other stone parts of buildings.

The archaeological record shows an explosion of production of stone vessels, starting in the mid-first century BC, reaching its height in the first century AD, but coming to an abrupt end in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the first Jewish War. This demonstrates, for example, that the mention of large stone water vessels in John 2 proves that the account depends on someone who was familiar with life in Galilee prior to AD 70, and Richard Bauckham has demonstrated (from inscriptional evidence) that Cana was home to one of the 24 priestly families who took turns to perform their duties in the temple for two weeks each year—so that the wedding might well have taken place in a house connected with the temple where there was a particular concern for purity.

Symbol or history?

Given the extensive symbolism in John’s Gospel, Barrett thinks that ‘It is possible although by no means certain that the number six is symbolic. Six, being less by one and seven, the number of completeness and perfection, would indicate that the Jewish dispensation, typified by its ceremonial water, was partial and imperfect.’

Augustine went much further, by maintaining that the six jars symbolise the six ages from the beginning of the world until the coming of Christ.  With the coming of the age of Christ, all that the former ages stood for is done away with.  They are but water compared to wine.

As Ian Paul remarks, there are many problems with this approach.  For one thing, Christ and the apostles present OT revelation in general, and the law in particular, in a much more favourable light than this – see Mt 5:17; 1 Cor 15:3f.  Within John’s Gospel itself, a positive account is given of the Jewish heritage (Jn 4:22).  For another thing, there is no hint in the narrative itself of such symbolism.  The 6 six jars are filled with wine; a seventh is not added.  In the climax of the story, the contrast is not between the water and the wine, but the fact that the best wine has been kept until last.  In Jn 1:16, the grace of the gospel is contrasted with the grace of law, and not with legalism.

The Burnt House in Jerusalem. Note the six large stone jars!

While recognising the interest in symbolism shown in John’s Gospel, Ian Paul (drawing on the work of Richard Bauckham) highlights the historical aspects of this episode.  First, the jars, being made of stone, were not subject to the impurity laws outlined in Lev 11:32-35.  This suggests that the incident took place in a priestly household.  Second, the jars were difficult to make, being constructed out of a single piece of stone.  A quarry and workshop for making such articles has been found near Cana.  Their construction required the use of a Roman lathe, of the kind used to make stone columns.  This latter fact points to the period of the Roman occupation of Judea and Samaria.  Thirdly, although these jars were expensive, archaeological evidence indicates that they were used in the working parts of the house.  Fourthly, 1 Chron 24:7-18 sets out the requirements for the 24 priestly ‘courses’, each one of which was to serve for a period of two weeks.  A number of lists have been discovered in synagogues from the NT period, and these lists include the names of the towns associated with each priestly course.  Cana is listed as one of the towns in which priestly families lived.  No towns founded after AD70 are mentioned in these lists.

Paul concludes:-

‘Put together with the role of stone jars, it looks quite likely (though of course not provable) that the wedding in Cana was taking place in the house of this priestly family, which accounts for the presence of jars themselves because of the family’s concern for ritual purity. And why, then, does John record that there were six? Because, as in the picture of the Burnt House above, that is how many there happened to be!’

“Fill the jars with water” – the point is emphasised that at the time of the miracle, the jars contained nothing but water.

Undesigned coincidence.  Why were the jars not already full of water?  This probably occurred at a later stage of the meal, and as Mk 7:3 incidentally informs us, Jews washed their hands very frequently.

The master of the banquet – either the head waiter or an honoured guest.

“You have saved the best till now” – And so an acute embarrassment is transformed into a happy triumph, the bridegroom having not only sufficient wine but also being complimented on its unusually high quality.

Although a very large quantity of excellent wine was miraculously produced, no indication (apart from the tasting by the master of the banquet) is given of how much was actually consumed.  The emphasis, then, is on the copiousness of the miracle, rather than its effects on those attending the celebration.

‘John’s account of Jesus’ conversion of such a large quantity of water into wine at a wedding feast is one way of announcing that the kingdom of God, the eschatological time of salvation, had arrived in the presence of the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus shows himself to be the Son of God come down from heaven bringing the blessing of the eschatological age symbolized by abundant wine. The miracle of Cana allowed Jesus to manifest his glory* to his disciples and evoke their belief (Jn 2:11; cf. 1:14).’ (D.F. Watson, DJG, art. ‘Wine’)

Here is a representative teetotalitarian objection: ‘It is pertinent to ask, Is it not derogatory to the character of Christ and the teachings of the Bible to suppose that He exerted his miraculous power to produce…wine which inspiration had denounced as “a mocker,” as “biting like a serpent,” and “stinging like an adder,” as “the poison of dragons,” “the cruel venom of asps,” and which the Holy Ghost had selected as the emblem of the wrath of God Almighty? Is it probable that He gave that to the guests after they had used the wine provided by the host, and which, it is claimed, was intoxicating?’ (William Patton, Bible Wines)

Moderation, not abstinence

‘It seems utterly impossible, on any fair and honest interpretation, to reconcile the passage before us with the leading principles of what is commonly called “Teetotalism.” If our Lord Jesus Christ actually worked a miracle in order to supply wine at a marriage feast, it seems to me impossible, by any ingenuity, to prove that drinking wine is sinful. Temperance in all things is one of the fruits of the Spirit. An intemperate man is an unconverted man. Total abstinence from fermented liquors is in many cases most useful and desirable. But to say, as many do say, that to drink any fermented liquor at all is “a sin,” is taking up ground that cannot be maintained in the face of the passage before us, without wresting the plain meaning of Scripture, and charging Christ with abetting sin.’ (Ryle)

2:11 Jesus did this as the first of his miraculous signs, in Cana of Galilee. In this way he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

The first of his miraculous signs – ‘The summary speaks of “the signs” (with the definite article), as if the writer knows of them as a specific set of events from which a selection can be made, and the word “beginning” obviously implies that we will hear more of them (see Jn 4:54, “And this Jesus did again as a second sign when he came from Judea to Galilee”).’ (Michaels)

As for the objection that Jesus performed many miracles between the ‘first’ and the ‘second’, see comment on Jn 4:54.

There is always something important about the first in a series; and this first miracle, be it noted, was performed, not in Jerusalem, but in Galilee; not amongst the high and mighty, but in the presence of ordinary people. Various words are used in the NT of miracles: the word ‘sign’ is often used by John, and its purpose is to draw our attention away from the thing performed to the one who performs it, and to encourage us to see through the physical deed to the underlying spiritual principle. Therefore John adds,

He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him – The five disciples were led to a deeper and more settled appreciation of who he was. The light was dawning in their hearts. The day was coming when they would be able to confess, Jn 1:14, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’

This was ‘a miracle of pure abundance and grace—nothing life-threatening was at stake here, as will be the case in many of Jesus’ healing miracles. This miracle illustrates the celebration of the prologue, “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”’ (O’Day, Women’s Bible Commentary)

John, in recording this miracle, undoubtedly wants us to see something deeper in it. Hence his use of the word ‘sign’. And the deeper message surely relates to the transforming power of Jesus. ‘He changes the water of Judaism into the wine of Christianity, the water of Christlessness into the wine of the richness and the fulness of eternal life in Christ, the water of the law into the wine of the gospel’ (Morris). And the transformation is abundantly generous, both in quantity, v6 and quality, v10. Cf. Jn 1:16.

‘”Signs” are precisely what the Johannine miracles are, for in very concrete, physical ways they point to the deep and crucial truth about Jesus (and God), namely, that he is the absolutely unique Son of God who descended from heaven to reveal the Father and through whose “lifting up” on the cross, resurrection and return to the Father believers receive the Holy Spirit and thus eternal life. The signs, in other words, point to the present glory of the exclusive mediator of eschatological salvation and also portend the salvation to be enjoyed by the beneficiaries of the completion of his messianic work.’ (cf. Jn 7:37-39) (DJG)

People tend to be troubled more by the nature-miracles than the healing miracles.  But to rationalise, for example, the changing of water into wine into a practical jest (the water remaining as water all the time, and everyone knowing it) is ludicrous, and utterly inconsistent with the statement about ‘the first of signs’ manifesting Jesus’ glory.

The following reasons have been suggested for this being the first of Christ’s miracles:-

  1. To bless the first of God’s ordinances with the first of Christ’s miracles
  2. To follow with a feast Christ’s recent experience of a fast.
  3. To show that although he would not turn stones into bread to satisfy Satan, he would willingly turn water into wine to show forth his own glory.
  4. As the first miracle by man was one of transformation, Ex 7:9, so was the first miracle by the Son of man.
  5. To contrast the ministry of John the Baptist, who kept to a strict diet, with that of Christ.

‘For John the miracles are all “signs.” They point beyond themselves. This particular miracle signifies that there is a transforming power associated with Jesus. He changes the water of Judaism into the wine of Christianity, the water of Christlessness into the wine of the richness and the fulness of eternal life in Christ, the water of the law into the wine of the gospel.’ (Leon Morris)

‘The term sign is used more often by John than by the other Gospel-writers. It indicates a miracle viewed as a proof of divine authority and majesty. Hence, it leads the attention of the spectator away from the deed itself to the divine Doer. Often, too, the sign, a work of power in the physical realm, illustrates a principle that is operative in the spiritual realm; that which takes place in the sphere of creation points away from itself to the sphere of redemption.’ (Hendriksen)

Some modern scholars, of course, scorn the idea that a genuine miracle took place at all. ‘The difficulty of believing that St John intended us to take it literally is not the mere size of the miracle involved…but rather its somewhat unreasonable character. We must frankly face the difficulty that to create such a quantity of good wine “when men have drunk freely” is hardly an act of common sense, and makes a poor “beginning of miracles” for the Good Teacher of the Christian tradition.’ (Alan Richardson, The Miracle-Stories of the Gospels, 121).

‘The miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels are sober, restrained, unsensational and spiritually significant…Moreover, they are evenly distributed through the four gospels and their sources, so that they are widely attested; the time elapsing between the public ministry of Jesus and the publication of the gospels was not long enough for the development of legends; and many eyewitnesses would have been wtill alive to refute (if the stories were not true), for example, the restoration to Malchus of his right ear and the Bartimaeus of his eyesight.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 387)

Cleansing the Temple, 12-22

2:12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there a few days. 2:13 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

His mother and brothers – His ‘brothers’ would likely be his half-brothers, children of Mary and Joseph.  We learn in Jn 7:5 that they did not believe in him.

Did Mary bear other children?

Traditional Roman Catholic teaching denies that Mary had any children other than Jesus.  This is contradicted by the present verse, along with Jn 7:3-9 (see also Mt 13:55; Mk 6:33).

Perhaps surprisingly, Ryle – a staunch Protestant – thinks that ‘there is no good ground for supposing that these were our Lord’s brethren according to the flesh, and that Mary ever had any other son after our Lord’s miraculous birth.—For one thing, it is well known to every careful reader, that the word “brethren” is applied in the Bible to many relatives besides those whom we call “brethren.” Abraham says to Lot, “We be brethren,” (Gen 13:8,) though Lot was his nephew. Mishael and Elzaphan were called the “brethren” of Nadab and Abihu, though they were only cousins. (Lev 10:4.)—Jacob said “to his brethren” gather stones (Gen 31:46); yet they were his sons and servants.—For another thing, it is quite possible that Joseph might have had children by a former marriage, before he was espoused to Mary; and these children, we can well understand, would be called our Lord’s “brethren.”—In the last place, we know that the Apostle James was called our “Lord’s brother,” (Gal 1:19,) and yet we are distinctly told that he was the son of Alpheus or Cleophas, the husband of the virgin Mary’s sister. It is therefore most probable that “brethren” in the verse before us means “cousins,” some of whom believed on our Lord, though others did not. (Jn 7:5.)’

Ryle appears to be following a traditional, and unscripturally prudish approach.  So Bede: ‘We, dearly beloved brothers, without any hesitation or questioning must be aware and confess that not only the blessed Mother of God, but also Joseph, the most blessed witness and guardian of her chastity, always remained wholly aloof from the conjugal act; and further, that those who after the customary manner of the Scriptures are called our Savior’s brothers or sisters were not their children but their relatives.’ (ACCS)

Morris (cited by Bruner) summarises the three answers given by the early church:-

  1. the Helvidian answer (after the fourth-century theologian Helvidius), that Mary was not perpetually a virgin and that Jesus’ brothers were the later natural children of Joseph and Mary (citing Matt. 1:25 and Luke 2:7 in evidence; Matt. 1:25 reads, “but [Joseph] had no marital relations with her until [heōs] she had borne a son,” NRSV); Luke 2:7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son,” NRSV).
  2. the Epiphanian answer (after Epiphanius, another fourth-century theologian), that the brothers were children of Joseph by a former marriage;
  3. the Jeromian answer (after Jerome, a late-fourth- early-fifth-century Father) that the children were Jesus’ cousins.

We agree with Morris that ‘the Helvidian view is much the most probable.’

2:14  He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. 2:15 So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 2:16 To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” 2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me.”

When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?

According to John 2:12-22, Jesus cleansed the Temple near the beginning of his public ministry.  The Synoptists, however, record a cleansing during the last week of his earthly ministry (Mt 21:10–17; Mk 11:15–19; Lk 19:45–46).  Possible reasons for this have been suggested:-

(a) A few think that John’s chronology is correct.  The Synoptic writers could not include the account earlier, because they do not record Jesus’ earlier visits to Jerusalem, and only mention the Passover during which he was crucified.

(b) Many think that the Synoptic chronology is correct.  John may have brought forward his account for theological, symbolic or literary reasons.  John, it is said, is concerned with the deeper meaning of the events he records, and feels free to rearrange them.  According to this view, ‘the ministry is launched by an affirmation of Jesus’ renewal of the worship of Israel and his claim to be the new locus, as the Risen One, of all commerce between God and humanity’ (Milne who, however, appears to support view (c) below).  However, the clear indications of time suggest that John has not altered the chronology to suit his own purposes.’

Harper’s Bible Commentary: ‘In all probability John has moved an event from the passion week to the beginning of the narrative. Such a move would fit his tendency to set out at the beginning matters or events that in the other Gospels take place later (e.g., the confession of Jesus as Messiah). Jesus comes to the Temple of Jerusalem, the very heart of the Israelite nation and religion, at the outset of his ministry and there confronts its authorities. Their forthcoming hostility is adumbrated, and his own death and resurrection are revealed by the testimony of Scripture and Jesus’ own pronouncement.’

Blomberg (Historical Reliability of the New Testament) comments on the view that John has relocated this episode for thematic purposes.  He agrees that this is possible, in view of the fact that John’s earlier chronological markers (John 1: 29, 35, 43; 2: 1), and so on, are here absent.

(c) But some (e.g. Morris, Hendriksen, Carson, Blomberg) think, or at least incline to the view, that there were two temple cleansings, the second taking place two or three years after the first.  Although many scholars dismiss this as a possibility, it should be taken seriously, for a number of reasons:-

(i) Both accounts are given their own chronological markers.

(ii) Apart from the references to John the Baptist, there is no Synoptic material at all in the first five chapters of John’s Gospel.  This consideration adds to the likelihood that these are two distinct events.

(iii) Although both accounts begin similarly, there are a number of differences between the Synoptic and Johannine accounts.  Morris points out that apart from the central act, they bar little resemblance, and only have five words in common.  Blomberg: ‘Only John speaks of cattle, sheep, a whip of cords, and coins. The key sayings attributed to Jesus are entirely different- a protest against commercialism (v. 16) and a cryptic prediction of his death and resurrection (v. 19). A different Old Testament passage is cited (v. 17- Ps. 69:9) and different questions on the part of the Jewish leaders appear (vv. 18, 20). The synoptic accounts, in contrast, focus on the combination of quotations from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 (a house of prayer vs. a den of robbers).’

(iv) Milne argues that both accounts are contextually credible: ‘At the beginning, Jesus sees the worship of the nation through eyes newly kindled by the call of God and his nascent sense of mission. As the newly authorized Messiah King, he moves energetically to confront Israel’s apostasy and recall it to a new submission to God (Mal. 3:1f.). At the end of the ministry Jesus comes, in the shadow of his looming self-sacrifice, to declare the final bankruptcy of a religion which has turned its back on its high and holy destiny in the interests of self-aggrandizement and empty legalism.’  John’s account helps to explain the early hostility towards Jesus’ ministry (Jn 5:18).

(v) A further indication that the two accounts are complementary is the fact that Mt 26:61/Mk 14:58 refers to a saying of Jesus which is not recorded anywhere previously in the Synoptic Gospels, but is found in Jn 2:19.

(vi) The objection (of Keener and others) that it would be ‘unlikely’ that Jesus would cleanse the temple in such a dramatic way, and then be allowed to do it again (having re-visited the temple several times in between) must be regarded as rather conjectural.  Morris: ‘At the time indicated in John Jesus was quite unknown. His strong action would have aroused a furor in Jerusalem, but that is all. The authorities may have well been disinclined to go to extremes against him, especially if there was some public feeling against the practices he opposed [and, we might add, some public support for him, Jn 2:23]. It was quite otherwise at the time indicated by Mark.’

(vii) We should not be surprised that both occurred at the time of Passover, since Jesus would be most likely to visit Jerusalem then (Carson).

(viii) ‘An early temple cleansing helps explain historically why Jesus faced hostility early in his ministry (5:18). In addition, Jesus’ common practice of withdrawing (3:22; 6:15; 7:9-10; 8:59; 10:40) makes it historically plausible that he could have continued his ministry for two or three years after an initial temple cleansing.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

(ix) ‘Randolph Richards has analyzed the events in terms of ancient cultures of honor and shame. It is conceivable that the first incident in John 2 occurred in a comparatively small corner of the temple so that the authorities did not immediately intervene but waited to see if a sign like the one they understood Jesus to have predicted would occur. When it did not, they would assume he was sufficiently shamed, in public, not to be any further danger. But if two or three years later he performed something similar, it showed him to be without shame, unaffected by social constraint, and therefore potentially dangerous.[ 517] If Jesus spoke something like 2: 19 that long before his trial and execution, it is also easier to understand how his words could have been garbled and misconstrued as in Mark 14: 58 and parallel.’ (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament)

Kruse suggests several motives behind Jesus’ actions here:-

  1. ‘the temple, Jesus claimed, was his Father’s house. God is his Father, and the temple authorities had allowed God’s house to become a house of merchandise, thus dishonouring his Father.
  2. his Father’s house was intended to be a place of prayer, but the temple authorities, by allowing these activities to be carried out in the court of the Gentiles, had turned it into a marketplace. Jesus’ objection was not to the buying and selling or the money changing themselves, but to the fact that these things were practised in the temple [Cf. Mk 11:17]…Jesus’ anger, then, was aroused because the one place where people from other nations could pray had been turned into a noisy market.
  3. the evangelist may have intended his readers to see in Jesus’ action a fulfilment of OT prophecies. In Zechariah 14:21 the prophet speaks of a day when ‘there will no longer be a Canaanite (rsv ‘trader’) in the house of the Lord Almighty’.
  4. the whole episode demonstrates that Jesus was concerned for the purity of temple worship, not its abolition at that time.’ (Numbering added)

What is zeal? ‘Numb 25:2:’Phinehas has turned my wrath away, while he was zealous for my sake.’ Zeal is a mixed affection, a compound of love and anger; it carries forth our love to God, and our anger against sin in an intense degree. Zeal is impatient of God’s dishonour; a Christian fired with zeal, takes a dishonour done to God worse than an injury done to himself. Rev 2:2. ‘Thou canst not bear them that are evil.’ Our Saviour Christ thus glorified his Father; he, being baptized with a spirit of zeal, drove the money-changers out of the temple. Jn 2:14-17. ‘The zeal of thine house has eaten me up.’ (Thomas Watson)

2:18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 2:19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” 2:20 Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” 2:21 But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. 2:22 So after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the saying that Jesus had spoken.

See Mt 26:61.  Ramsey Michaels comments that the emphasis falls not on the destruction of the temple, but rather on its rebuilding: “If you destroy this temple, I will rebuild it in three days”.  The response recorded in the following verse confirms this.  However, the form of the verb does imply that it is those whom Jesus is speaking to who will ‘destroy’ his body.  Jesus is saying, in effect, “Do your worst, and see what happens”.

“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years” – Herod’s temple was still incomplete.  This would date the present incident to 27AD.

An alternative translation would be ‘This temple was built forty-six years ago’.

“Are you going to raise it up in three days?” – Kruse says that the singular pronoun ‘you’ is emphatic, suggesting that they intended to mock Jesus.

‘The temple in which they then were was that which was commonly called the second temple, built after the return of the Jews from Babylon. This temple Herod the Great commenced repairing, or began to rebuild, in the eighteenth year of his reign-that is, sixteen years before the birth of Christ (Jos. Ant., b. xv. 1). The main body of the temple he completed in nine years and a half (Jos. Ant., xv. 5, 6), yet the temple, with its outbuildings, was not entirely complete in the time of our Saviour. Herod continued to ornament it and to perfect it even till the time of Agrippa (Jos. Ant., b. xx. ch. viii. _ 11). As Herod began to rebuild the temple sixteen years before the birth of Jesus, and as what is here mentioned happened in the thirtieth year of the age of Jesus, so the time which had been occupied in it was forty-six years. This circumstance is one of the many in the New Testament which show the accuracy of the evangelists, and which prove that they were well acquainted with what they recorded. It demonstrates that their narration is true. Impostors do not trouble themselves to be very accurate about names and dates, and there is nothing in which they are more liable to make mistakes.’ (Barnes)

They believed the scripture – Possibly Psa 69:9 (quoted in Jn 2:17) is meant.

Kruse comments ‘In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter cites Psalm 16:8–11 as the scripture fulfilled when Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 2:24–28), Philip uses the passage about the death of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53:7–8 (LXX) to proclaim Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30–35), and Paul cites Psalm 2:7 (Acts 13:33); Isaiah 55:3 LXX (Acts 13:34) and Psalm 16:10 LXX (Acts 13:35) as scriptures that foreshadow the resurrection of Jesus.’

‘As Jesus superseded Moses (Jn 1:17: ‘the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’) and the blessings of the kingdom supersede the ceremonial washings of the old covenant (as exemplified in the miracle at Cana), so now the temple of Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God is superseded by Christ himself. His body is the new temple, the place where God was now making himself present. (Later the church as the body of Christ assumes this role.)’ (Kruse)

As Ryle remarks, instruction that seems to fall on deaf ears is not necessarily lost for good.  ‘There is often a resurrection of sermons, and texts, and instruction, after an interval of many years. The good seed sometimes springs up after he that sowed it has been long dead and gone. Let preachers go on preaching, and teachers go on teaching, and parents go on training up children in the way they should go. Let them sow the good seed of Bible truth in faith and patience.’

Jesus at the Passover Feast

2:23 Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing. 2:24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. 2:25 He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.

Many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing… – John reminds us that Jesus did many miracles which are not specifically recorded, Jn 20:30; 21:25. Nicodemus refers to these in Jn 3:2.

…and believed in his name – Obviously an intellectual assent, a recognition that Jesus was a great prophet, rather than a heartfelt, saving belief. There is a vital difference between the two. The former is the kind of belief that Simon Magus had, Acts 8:13,18-23.

We see here both the purpose and the limitations of miraculous signs. They draw attention to the power and grace of God, but do not in themselves form a basis for saving faith.

Jesus would not entrust himself to them – A remarkable twofold use of ‘pisteuo’ here: many trusted him (v23), but he was not entrusting himself (i.e. the fulness of his self-revelation; his cause) to them. ‘Jesus of all people will not be misled by outward professions of loyalty which do not involve true repentance and heart commitment.’ (Milne)

He knew all men – he knew their hearts, and in the case of these admirers, knew that they were like the stony ground, and their faith shallow and temporary. The omniscience which is testified to here is a divine attribute, 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Chron 28:9; Jer 17:10; Mk 2:8; Jn 16:30-31.

He did not need man’s testimony about man – he did not need people’s approval. He travelled his own path, unswayed by transitory applause of men. Let us likewise learn not to set too much store by the approval or applause of men. Lk 6:26.

He knew what was in a man – The rabbis had taught that there were seven things hidden from man, including ‘what is in the heart of his neighbour.’ However, Jesus’ penetrating gaze looked right into a person’s heart. Here is a bold assertion of Christ’s divine omniscience. (cf. 1 Kings 8:39) ‘Some men of genius can read men better than others, but not in the sense meant here’ (Robertson). Our Lord did not need to be told about people, he required no references or testimonials, because he knew all about them already. ‘He knew all men, not only their names and faces, as it is possible for us to know many, but their nature, dispositions, affections, designs, as we do not know any man, scarcely ourselves. He knows all men, for his powerful hand made them all, his piercing eye sees them all, sees into them. He knows his subtle enemies, and all their secret projects; his false friends, and their true characters; what they really are, whatever they pretend to be. He knows them that are truly his, knows their integrity, and knows their infirmity too. He knows their frame.’ (Henry)

Human nature has not changed

The last 100 years have seen amazing activity and progress in the human sciences (i.e. anthropology, psychology, social psychology, sociology, self-awareness, counselling, and so on). And yet human nature remains as much an enigma and a problem as it ever has been. And so it will remain until we humbly accept Christ’s infallible insight, which asserts on the one hand a basic moral flaw (we pollute God’s temple; we refuse him his rightful worship; we cannot be trusted); and on the other hand an infinite value (his mission was motivated not only by zeal for his Father’s glory, but but a deep love for his people; this concern leads to his desire to establish true worship in anticipation of that which will be offered in the new world, Rev 21:22 22:6). (On this, see Milne, 73-74)