Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why Did Jesus Clear the Temple? The First Reason: Commercialization of the Temple

Perhaps the most controversial act performed by Jesus during his earthly ministry was the clearing of the temple. This event is recorded in John’s Gospel in John 2:13–22.

John 2:13 records how Jesus traveled from Galilee to Judea to attend the Passover in Jerusalem. The Passover is the major religious feast in the Jewish calendar. It celebrates the Exodus, when God saved Israel out of Egypt, and in particular, the way in which the angel of destruction passed over the people of Israel, sparing them, during the plague against the firstborn (see Exod 12:1–30). All Jews who were physically able would endeavor to travel to Jerusalem to attend the feast each year, and it was common for Galileans Jews to travel to Jerusalem for this purpose. Following this custom, Jesus also traveled to Jerusalem, despite knowing that Judea was the heartland of Jewish opposition to his ministry.

But when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he saw that things in the temple were not as they should be. “He found in the temple those who were selling cattle and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting” down doing business (John 2:14). Jerusalem and especially the temple precincts were a hive of activity during Passover. The cattle, sheep, and doves were actually required for the people’s sacrifices in the temple; and the job of the money changers was to change any unclean foreign or Galilean coins into clean Jewish currency that could be used in the temple. So the animal sellers and money changers were in some sense providing necessary services, but Jesus saw a significant problem in what was happening.

John records that Jesus made “a whip out of cords,” and “cast everything out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle; and he poured out the money of the money changers and overturned their tables” (John 2:15). This was a controlled yet violent action on the part of Jesus. What would cause the normally gentle Jesus to react in this extreme way? The text supplies two reasons to explain Jesus’ action. These reasons are found in vv. 16–17.

The first reason concerns the purpose of the temple and the proper worship of God. By driving out the animals, and overturning the tables of the money changers, Jesus was clearly indicating that there was something wrong with this type of activity. Jesus briefly expressed his opinion through his words to those who were selling the doves: “Take these things from here! Don’t make my Father’s house a market!” (John 2:16).

According to Jesus, the people had turned the temple into a marketplace. The temple was supposed to be a place where God was worshiped. But the people had turned the proper worship of God into an opportunity for economic gain. For Israel, the worship of God was centered on the temple; but this worship had lost its focus on God, and had become a means for making money instead. Jesus’ words indicate that the worship of God in the temple at Jerusalem had become corrupted through commercialism.

Given that the temple imagery in the Bible finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and the church (see John 1:14; 2:19–21; Eph 2:21–22; 1 Pet 2:5), it is interesting to ponder to what extent Christians today could be accused of turning Jesus and his church into an opportunity for making money. To come to Jesus and his church for primarily selfish gain (whatever form that may take) rather than primarily to worship God is to abuse the Father’s house.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Confession of Faith of a True Israelite

Nathanael functions in the narrative of John 1 as an example of a true, new covenant Israelite. Nathanael was surprised that Jesus could speak about him as if knowing him, without having met him previously. In response to Nathanel’s question “from where do you know me?” Jesus answered Nathanael: “Before Philip called you, while you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48).

The detail about seeing Nathanael “under the fig tree” is enigmatic until Jewish cultural presuppositions are brought into the interpretative process. Sitting under a fig tree was a common Jewish image of the ideal location for students studying torah. This metaphor was most likely derived from the Old Testament texts that use living under one’s fig tree, or eating from one’s own fig tree, as an image of a person or people experiencing God’s blessing and peace (see 1 Kgs 4:25; 2 Kgs 18:31; Isa 36:16). The concept of sitting under a fig tree here is also significant in light of the prophecies of Mic 4:4 and Zech 3:10, where peace in the new covenant age is pictured in terms of sitting under one’s vine and fig tree. By saying that he saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, Jesus was expressing that he knew that Nathanael was a keen student of torah. Studying torah is an important part of what it means to be a true Israelite, according to the Old Testament (see Exod 19:5–6; Deut 6:5–9, 25; Josh 1:8; Ps 1:1–3; Ezra 7:10). It was only through the study of torah that obedience to torah could be achieved.

Nathanael was impressed by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of his character. This evidence of supernatural knowledge, along with Philip’s previous testimony about Jesus (see John 1:45), led Nathanael to faith in Jesus Christ. Nathanael’s confession of faith is found in John 1:49: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” This confession stands as the paradigmatic confession of a true Israelite. This confession acknowledges that Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher; but he is more than just that. Jesus is also “the Son of God, the king of Israel.” The terms the Son of God and the king of Israel stand in parallel, and are both Messianic designations (see Ps 2:6–7 in particular).

Jesus’ testimony about Nathanael in John 1:47–48 (for a discussion of the significance of Jesus’ testimony about Nathanael in John 1:47, see “Jesus’ Description of Nathanael as a True Israelite in John 1:47”), and Nathanael’s confession about Jesus, both function in the narrative of John’s Gospel to express the idea that true torah-keeping Israelites recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. This was a controversial idea in its day. The fundamental issue that existed between Judaism and Christianity in the first century was the issue of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. This is still the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity today.

The character of Nathanael functions, therefore, in the Gospel of John to assert the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, and the idea that that all covenant-keeping Israelites in the new covenant age must necessarily acknowledge this fact. As the Apostle Paul has also argued, the true Jew is the one whose heart has been circumcised by the Holy Spirit (Rom 2:28–29), who does not stumble over the Messiah but “believes in him” (Rom 9:30–33), confessing that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9–13), which is the equivalent (in a Gentile context) of saying that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ (in a Jewish context). The character of Nathanael, and the content of his confession, therefore, exhibit a sharp polemical edge that is as relevant today as it was back in Jesus’ day.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jesus’ Description of Nathanael as a True Israelite in John 1:47

Jesus’ interaction with Nathanael in John 1:47–50 is rather enigmatic until Jewish cultural and theological concerns are considered as part of the assumed knowledge relevant to the communicative context of this incident. In John 1:47, after Nathanael had been invited by Philip to go and see Jesus for himself, Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said about him, “Behold, truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

Jesus seeing Nathanael coming and then speaking about him follows the pattern of John the Baptist in John 1:29, 36; and also Jesus himself previously in John 1:42. Seeing and saying are significant motifs in John 1 (see 1:18, 33, 34, 39, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51; and 1:15, 21, 22, 26, 29, 32, 36, 38, 39, 41, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48 respectively). This highlights the concern with testimony in John 1. People testify about Jesus’ Messianic status, and Jesus also testifies about true righteousness. That Jesus’ assessment of Nathanael commences with the word ἴδε (behold or look) recalls the use of the same word by John the Baptist in 1:29, 36.

Jesus’ testimony identifying Nathanael as being “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” is significant. According to Jesus, Nathanael is a true Israelite. In what sense he is a true Israelite is unpacked in the rest of John 1:47–49. The expression in whom there is no δόλος deceit is effectively a conceptual play on the name Jacob, which literally means heel grabber, meaning supplanter, usurper, hence deceiver. Indeed the word δόλος in used by Isaac in reference to Jacob’s deception when stealing Esau’s blessing in Gen 27:35 in the LXX, to which Esau replies, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?” (Gen 27:36). The teaching in Ps 32:2, that the person whose sin is forgiven, and in whose spirit there is no deceit, is blessed (see also Ps 10:7; 24:4; 34:13; 35:20; 36:3; 52:2) is also relevant to Jesus’ description of Nathanael.

Putting all of this together, it is clear that, through the example of Nathanael, Jesus was testifying to the nature of true covenant righteousness now that the new covenant age had dawned. Nathanael stands as a righteous or covenant-keeping Israelite in contrast to the default situation in old covenant Israel, where the majority were covenant breakers. Jesus’ identification of Nathanael as being a true Israelite is highly significant, particularly in relation to Nathanael’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah in John 1:49, and introduces what is a significant theme in the context of the Jewish argument of John’s Gospel, that the true (i.e., righteous) Jew will recognize and receive the Messiah when he comes (e.g., John 3:21; 10:3–4, 25–27), in accordance with the teaching of the law of Moses itself as per Deut 18:15–19 (see Acts 3:22–23; 7:37, 52–53). At the heart of the new covenant restoration of Israel stands the confession of faith that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.