3rd Sunday of Lent, John 2:13-25
Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area.
We all know of the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, when he casts out those selling animals and overturns the tables of the money-changers. We all know that this happened in the final week of his life (in fact, the day after Palm Sunday), and that this was the event which set the Jewish authorities wholly against our Savior.
What we might not all know is that this is not the cleansing of the Temple which we heard about in this past Sunday’s Gospel. The sequence from the Gospel of St. John tells of the first cleansing of the Temple which occurred very early in our Savior’s public ministry – two full years before his death.
Jesus cleansed the Temple twice
That our Savior cleansed the Temple on two occasions is clear from the Scriptures themselves. John records a cleansing early on in our Lord’s ministry, only in the second chapter of his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record a cleansing which occurs in the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.
Could it be that John is simply re-arranging the material? Is it merely a literary device? No. The synoptic writers (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all record that the Jews hailed Jesus as their king, but the scene is quite different in John. The Beloved Disciple’s account of the first Temple cleansing specifies that it was only just at this moment that many began to believe in Jesus (cf. John 2:23).
In John’s Gospel, our Savior is still only just beginning his ministry, he is not being hailed with Hosanna, nor are the Jewish authorities afraid of the crowds – but this is the whole setting for the Temple cleansing recorded in the synoptics.
Further, what the Jews say and what Jesus responds is different in John from the synoptics. In John, the Jews ask him for a sign for this; and Jesus responds Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up. However, in the synoptics (especially Matthew 21:16), the Pharisees specifically challenge Jesus for allowing the crowd to hail him as a king.
Finally, Jesus’ words in cleansing the Temple are diverse in John from the synoptics. For, in John, our Savior says, Take these things hence, and make not the house of my Father a house of traffic. But, in the synoptics, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves. (Matthew 21:13)
In any case, the Church Fathers and Scholastic Doctors believed that there were two Temple cleansings. Most notably, we refer to the authority of Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cornelius a’ Lapide.
The timeline of Jesus’ public ministry
St. John records three Passover feasts during Jesus’ public ministry. From this, it is clear that our Savior’s public life (from his baptism to his Crucifixion) extended about two and a half years.
The first Passover, John 2:3ff. – Jesus cleanses the Temple.
Near the time of the second Passover, John 6:4ff. – Jesus (in Galilee) feeds the five thousand with five loaves, walks on water, gives the Bread of Life Discourse.
The third Passover, John 11:55ff. – Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and dies upon the Cross.
Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke pick up the story
The synoptic Gospels, however, only record a single Passover. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke only record the final year of Jesus’ public ministry.
After giving the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, these writers jump ahead to the period after John’s arrest – though, it is clear from the Gospel of St. John, the Baptist was not arrested until over a year after the baptism.
It is clear that significant time must have passed between our Savior’s baptism and John’s arrest because St. John the Evangelist records a number of significant events (including the wedding at Cana, the cleansing of the Temple, the discourse with Nicodemus, etc.) which occurred during this period. Further, there was a time when John and his disciples were baptizing and Jesus and his disciples were also baptizing (that is, the disciples were baptizing in his Name) – consider John 3:22-25
After these things Jesus and his disciples came into the land of Judea: and there he abode with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Ennon near Salim; because there was much water there; and they came and were baptized. For John was not yet cast into prison. And there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews concerning purification:
It was only after John the Baptist was arrested that Jesus began to call his Apostles. Hence, Peter and Andrew (as well as John) were called at least twice by Christ – once in the first year, when they were still with John the Baptist (cf. John 1:36ff.); and a second time when they were returned to Galilee and in their fishing boats (cf. Matthew 4:18ff.).