John 2:13 records the first Passover of Jesus’ personal ministry. John specifically mentions three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 11:55), and once the writer mentions “a feast of the Jews” which some ancient manuscripts translate “the feast of the Jews” (Jn. 5:1). Some commentators conclude this to be a reference to an additional Passover which, if so, would make a fourth Passover Jesus observed during His personal ministry. We are indebted to John because his references to different Passover Jesus kept define an approximate time of Jesus’ personal ministry with His disciples: 2 1/2-3 1/2 years.
At this first Passover Jesus entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. John described what Jesus did in these words: “And he found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves; and the changers of money setting and he made a scourge of cords and cast all out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen and he poured out the changers of money, and overturned their tables and to them that sold doves he said, take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandize” (Jn. 2:14-16). Jesus cleansed the temple twice: once at the beginning of His ministry and once at its conclusion (Matt. 21:12-13).
It was a grievous lack of respect that temple priests allowed merchandizing in the very precinct of the temple itself. It was a holy place where God met with and blessed His people (Exo. 20:24). Oxen, sheep, and doves all had their part in services in the temple, but there were other places for the commercial buying and selling of those things as well, as places where foreign money could be exchanged for Hebrew coins. But the selling of oxen, sheep, and doves, and exchanging foreign funds was a lucrative business and temple priests allowed the desecration of the temple’s holy precincts in order to reap material profits. Church buildings today are not the equivalent of the temple. The church and our bodies are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20). Although the church building is not “holy” in the sense that the temple was and the church and our bodies are now, our buildings are purchased with “holy money.” Money is given for a specific purpose and therefore there is a limitation as to how our buildings are used. The work of the church is threefold: preaching the gospel, edifying the saints, and providing for the needs of indigent saints. While worship of God and teaching His word does fit into that work, food, fun, and frolic does not.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple immediately raised the wrath of the “Jews” — the rulers, teachers, and authorities. Sometimes John uses the word “Jew” in his writings in a unique way: he may use the word to have specific reference to the nation’s rulers, teachers, and authorities rather than to the nation as a whole (for an illustration of this see Jn. 7:13; 9:22). But remember, John does not use the word “Jew” exclusively in this sense, so when one studies John he must look carefully at the context to understand just how John does use the word.
Thus, when Jesus cleansed the temple and the Jewish authorities were “upset” with Him, they asked, “What sign showest thou unto us seeing thou doest these things?” Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:18-19). Those who heard Him then misunderstood, saying, “Forty and six years was this temple in building and dost thou raise it up in three days?” (Jn. 2:20). Jesus predicted His resurrection in His illustration, but His hearers took Him to claim He would rebuild the physical temple again in three days. He was mocked on other occasions because of His statement, but some of the rulers understood that His words didn’t refer to the literal temple but to raising His body from the dead. They asked Pilate to post a guard at His tomb to prevent His disciples from stealing His body and then claiming He had been raised from the dead (Matt. 27:63).
Jesus’ sign to His nation was His resurrection. He predicted it in John 2. He predicted it elsewhere in the example of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, so He would be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights (Matt. 12:40). This sign that He would raise Himself from the dead (the Father working in conjunction with Him) proved He is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4), and that rightfully He has all power in heaven and earth given Him by His Father. Paul argued in his sermon in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia that Jesus’ resurrection was a subject of three Old Testament prophecies: “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” (Psa. 2:7); “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David” (Isa. 55:3); and, “Thou wilt not give thy holy one to see corruption” (Psa. 16:10). Paul connected all three with the resurrection of Christ (Acts 13:14, 28-37).
The Jews asked Jesus, “What sign showesth thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?” His response was that when they crucified Him, in three days He would raise Himself and thereby prove Himself to be God’s Son. He would have an inherent right not only to cleanse the temple but ultimately to judge the world seeing such is His sovereign right because by His hand all things were created and presently exist.