Jesus answered and said unto them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews therefore said, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days?”
But he spake of the temple of his body (John 2:19-21).
The carpenter’s Son seemed to really overdo it this time.
The Temple in Jerusalem was the greatest building project of the age. The second Temple, built in the days of the Persians, was not much of a spectacle (Ezra 3:12), but Herod wanted to project his power, his “Jewishness,” and his glory, and in the eighteenth year of his reign, around 20-19 BCE, began to rebuild the Temple (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.11.1). While the Holy Place itself was done after a year and a half, work on other buildings would continue for a long time. As the text in John says, 46 years later, thus around 27 CE, it was still not entirely finished. According to Josephus, it would only be completed in the days of Agrippa and Florus, around 64 CE, 84 years after it had been started (ibid., 20.9.7). It was a marvelous piece of architecture according to all accounts (cf. Mark 13:1).
And yet here is Jesus of Nazareth saying, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
It seems so ridiculous– how could such a thing be? The Jews are quite dismissive. His disciples are more than likely confused (cf. John 2:22). Ultimately, a garbled account of this event will be used as an accusation against Jesus at His trial (Mark 14:58).
We know that if He so desired Jesus could have done what everyone around Him had imagined Him saying– through God’s power He could have destroyed Herod’s Temple and to re-establish it three days later. But this is not what Jesus meant. This is not the sign that Jesus will show to indicate His Messiahship (cf. John 2:18). As usual, Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter.
What is a temple, anyway? A temple, as Jesus knew well, is the place where people believe a divinity dwells. The original Temple in Jerusalem was most often called the “House of YHWH,” for it was where God established that His name would dwell (cf. 1 Kings 9:3). The Temple’s value had everything to do with God’s Presence. If God’s Presence was in the Temple, then the Temple served its purpose. If God’s Presence departed from the Temple, it was just another building.
Yet now something greater than the Temple was present (cf. Matthew 12:6). The Word, being with God and God Himself, became flesh and dwelt among mankind (John 1:1, 14). God’s presence was “in” Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:18, Luke 4:1, 14). He was the true Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:22). The body of His flesh contained the presence of God!
Therefore, Jesus is not speaking of Herod’s Temple when He makes His grand declaration of John 2:19. Instead, He is talking, as John says, about the “temple of His body” (John 2:21). Those very Jews would work to accomplish the sign: they would put Jesus to death, destroying that temple (cf. Matthew 26-27, John 18-19), and three days later, God raised Him up in the resurrection (Matthew 28, John 20). All had come to pass.
John indicates that the disciples remembered His saying after His resurrection and believed firmly in Jesus (John 2:22). They now understood Jesus’ powerful message, echoed in John 4:20-24. Temples were no longer about physical structures– in Jesus we return to the original idea of the temple, the location in which God’s Presence dwells. What Jesus said about His physical body now holds true for His spiritual body. The spiritual Body of Christ is His church (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18, 24), and the church is described in a figure as a temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 1 Peter 2:4-5). This is only possible because the church represents the body of Christ, the dwelling place of God.
Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, declaring that Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit Who is within them, and thus they are to glorify God in their bodies. What was true of Jesus then is now, in a sense, true of us if we are His disciples. God’s Presence is said to dwell with believers (Romans 8:9-11, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and thus we are temples ourselves. Let us be sanctified in God’s Presence and seek after His will!
Ethan R. Longhenry