“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
This was the week before Passover, and Jesus, in a flurry of zeal, had just purged all of the money changers and livestock merchants from the temple courts. Many of the local Jews were very surprised and upset by this. They wanted to know what gave him the right to come in and shut down these businesses, which several of them relied upon and did not find to be at all offensive. They demanded of him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Their response to him was scornful and dismissive, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple that Jesus had spoken of was his own body, though nobody understood what he was talking about at the time, including his own disciples. Later, after he was raised from the dead, his disciples would recall what he had said and finally understand its true meaning. (John 2:18-22)
I find a striking contrast between Jesus zealously protecting the sanctity of the temple courts at one moment and then cavalierly discussing its destruction in the next. I do realize that he was actually talking about two completely different things – one was a building which bore God’s name (but did not contain his presence) and the other was the body of God incarnate. Still, the juxtaposition of the two concepts highlights the fact that they did have one thing in common. They both bore the name of God and represented his presence on earth. It was not the temple building itself that was sacred, it was the fact that God had once established his dwelling there and it represented his covenant with Israel. But the moment that Jesus died on the cross, the temple and all of the sacrifices and rituals observed there became obsolete.
“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” – Here Jesus is clearly foretelling his own death and resurrection, but it is only clear in retrospect – at the time no one understood what he was talking about! It is important to note that he did NOT say that he would build it again, he said that he would raise it. The Greek word, “egeiró,” translated here as “raise” is typically used to describe someone awakening from sleep, or rising up from a prone or seated position.
This statement, coupled with his actions in cleansing the temple, provided the opening salvo in Jesus’s ongoing conflict with the religious establishment in Jerusalem. This seemingly outlandish declaration would continue to reverberate in their minds throughout the next three years, fueling their anger and mistrust. They would remember and ruminate upon these words, misinterpreting them and twisting them in the process. Eventually, they would attempt to use their twisted version of his statement as evidence against him at his trial. (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58) And as he hung on the cross, passersby would hurl these words back at him in ignorant mockery (Matthew 27:40; Mark 15:29) not understanding that the very thing that Jesus had predicted three years prior was actually happening before their very eyes.