*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

John 2:18-22 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • John 2:18
  • John 2:19
  • John 2:20
  • John 2:21
  • John 2:22

After Jesus drives the money changers and salesmen out of the temple, He is confronted by the Jewish leaders, who ask Him for a sign of His authority to do such things. Jesus tells them that if they destroy this temple, He will raise it up in three days. The Jews, and likely everyone present, misunderstand Jesus to be talking about the physical temple, when in fact He is making a prediction about His eventual death and resurrection. Only after His resurrection did Jesus’s disciples understand the true meaning of His enigmatic remark.

There are no apparent parallel accounts of John 2:18-22 in the Gospels. A similar but likely different encounter can be found in Matthew 21:14-16 and Mark 11:18.

The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” (v 18). 

The Him in this verse refers to Jesus. The general term—the Jews—most often refers to the Jewish authorities. In this case, these authorities are presumably the Sadducees—the order of priests who control the temple. Naturally, they would want to question Jesus for driving out livestock merchants and money changers in “their” temple for their profits. Not only had the Sadducees’ lucrative and corrupt source of income been driven out by Jesus, their authority had been publicly undermined by Him (John 2:14-16), and they would want to reestablish order and reassert their authority quickly. 

John frequently uses the general term—the Jews—(as he first did in John 1:19 and does here) to describe the Jewish leadership. Rather than overtly distinguish between one group or class of Jews from another, John often uses a less discriminate but more subtle approach. 

John’s purpose for this approach may be because he is largely writing to a Gentile audience who cares little for distinctions between one Jew and the next. John may also be intentionally downplaying these distinctions from the Jewish people and the leadership they have chosen to submit and align themselves with when the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah (John 1:11). 

Finally, John may be trying to distance or distinguish Christianity from Judaism, because of the Jewish revolt against Roman authority which took place in 68-70 A.D. It is widely held that John’s Gospel account was the last of the four to be written, and that unlike Matthew and Mark, and possibly Luke, John was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Because of this revolt, the Jewish “brand” was probably viewed with a negative, suspicious eye by the Gentiles within the Roman Empire. John, by accurately portraying Jesus as a victim of the Jews, makes Him a more sympathetic and therefore appealing figure to his intended audience. 

After Jesus drove the money changers and animal salesmen out of the temple, the Jewish leaders confronted Him. They were asking what gave Him the authority to clear out their business. They asked Him for a sign to confirm His authority (v 18). Presumably they were asking for a miraculous demonstration. 

There are a few things wrong with the Jewish leaders’ demands. 

First, their question was disingenuous. We know they are not actually seeking the truth because throughout John, Jesus does many miracles, and yet they do not believe in Him (John 10:25). 

Second, if Jesus does what they ask, it puts the Jewish religious leaders in the position of authority and makes Jesus responsive to them, not the other way around. In demanding Jesus to perform for them, the Jews were committing the fundamental human sin—they were trying to invert the authority structure and place themselves above God (Isaiah 14:13—see also the book of Job, one of the primary themes of which is that God is not a cosmic vending machine). 

We too commit this sin whenever we demand that God perform for us the way we want Him to or become angry when He does not do what we want. Jesus, who is God in human form, demonstrated an excellent example of the proper authority structure in the Garden of Gethsemane when He expressed His personal desires to the Father, but willingly set them aside for what God told Him was best (Matthew 26:39, Luke 22:42). 

Jesus did not oblige the Jews’ request, or at least not in the way they were thinking. Instead of performing “magic” for the Jewish leadership, He gave them a cryptic response. 

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v 19). 

The Jews were puzzled by this odd and seemingly impossible challenge. The disciples, too, did not know what Jesus meant by this until much later (v 22).

The Jews immediately (and mistakenly) assume that Jesus is talking about the magnificent temple complex which Herod the Great had constructed. In other words, the Jewish leaders misunderstood Jesus to be speaking literally about the temple in which they were all standing.

The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” (v 20).

What the Jews probably had in mind when they said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple” was that it had been forty-six years since Herod the Great (builder) began his expansion of the temple. Herod’s renovation began sometime around 19 B.C. and the main part of it lasted ten years. Apparently, there were smaller renovation projects here and there since that time. 

If the forty-six years refers to the start of Herod’s temple renovation, then this would be sometime in the late twenties A.D.—around 27 A.D. which would have been very early in Jesus’s Messianic ministry. Jesus was likely crucified during 30 A.D. 

It is also possible that when the Jews said: It took forty-six years to build this temple, that they were including the ten years of Herod’s expansion—plus the twenty-two years of Ezra’s initial reconstruction of the temple (Ezra 3:8, 6:15-18) from 538-516 B.C.—plus another fourteen years of lesser-known renovation projects. 

In any event, the Jews’ retort was intended to emphasize their disbelief and disdain for Jesus. They considered Jesus’s claim that He could raise up the temple by Himself within three days as ludicrous because it took so many years to build the temple.

In their disbelief they seemed to overlook the almost equally puzzling comment that Jesus said when He began His prophetic statement—“Destroy this temple.” The Sadducees misunderstood Him to be talking about destroying the literal temple building. 

For someone to speak of the temple’s destruction was not only unthinkable and shocking, but it could come off as sacrilegious and even blasphemous according to the Jews’ customs. The temple was thought to be where God’s presence resided on earth. The Sadducees’ outrage at Jesus was ironic because Jesus was God. The Jews’ outrage was also hypocritical because He was purifying His Father’s house from their defilement of it

Even though the Jews seemed to initially overlook Jesus’s comment about the destruction of the temple, they did not forget it. They would cite His remarks from this moment at His illegal trial in the home of Caiaphas three years later. At least two witnesses appeared to have misquoted and twisted this comment in a failed attempt to condemn Him for blaspheming the temple (Matthew 26:60-61, Mark 14:57-58).

Instead of claiming that He was able to destroy the temple (Matthew 26: 61) or that He would destroy this temple (Mark 14:58) as His false accusers would later slander Him, Jesus actually said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

Jesus was not speaking of the literal temple building when He said this, rather, He was speaking metaphorically. We know this because John plainly tells us that He was speaking metaphorically.

But He was speaking of the temple of His body (v 21).

The Jews, however, did not know that He was speaking metaphorically. It was an easy mistake for them to make because: 

A.) They were all standing in the temple when Jesus answered them.
B.) He had just cleared out all of the money changers and those selling animals.
The priests seemed to have failed to distinguish God’s holy temple from their evil and corrupt business of exploiting worshippers for their profit. 

Given these circumstances and their anger toward Jesus, it was natural for them to assume He meant the literal temple building.

In saying this, Jesus was speaking of His own body as a temple. In doing so, He makes a bold and prophetic prediction. 

In Israel’s past, the temple was regarded as the place where God’s presence resided. Prior to the temple, Israel had the tabernacle. The word translated “tabernacle” means “dwelling place,” emphasizing that it was the place where God’s presence would dwell. Later when Solomon constructed and dedicated the temple, God’s glory and presence came to fill it (2 Chronicles 7:1-3). 

That is why the temple was the epicenter of Jewish religious life, and why Jews from all over the ancient world came to visit it. So far as they knew, God was found in a specific place. But Jesus in this metaphor claims to change the entire landscape. When He refers to His physical body as the temple, He was claiming that God’s location—where you can reach Him—is no longer a specific place, but rather a person.

Believers in Jesus are in direct communion with the God who made us. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything the temple was meant to be. One does not need a specific building to access God anymore; He is found in Jesus. Amazingly, for all who believe in Jesus, their bodies become a temple as well, as the Holy Spirit takes up dwelling within them (1 Corinthians 3:16). 

Jesus also hints at another way that He is superior to the temple building. The temple building, as grand as it is, can be destroyed, while the temple of His body cannot be destroyed—it is eternal. 

The Jews were painfully aware that their temples were destructible. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. And the second temple (the one Jesus just cleared) would be destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans—only a few decades after this encounter took place. But in His metaphor—Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it upJesus was making the point that, even if His body is destroyed, He will raise it up in only three days. When properly understood, this metaphor is an overt claim to divinity, as only God has the power to resurrect. 

When the Jews asked Jesus for a sign of authorityJesus did not give them one immediately, but with this metaphor, He promised that He would give them a sign that would demonstrate His divine authority—His bodily resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus’s metaphor response was similar to the answer He would later give to the Pharisees when they asked for a sign– the sign of Jonah,

“But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.’”
(Matthew 12:39-41)

In other words, the sign Jesus promised would prove His authority to both the Sadducees in the temple and to the Pharisees later, was that He would come back to life. This is the greatest and most powerful sign of all, and it is the cornerstone of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:17). Jesus’s resurrection is His sign or proof of ultimate authority

When Jesus responded: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it upHe was prophesying two things. 

First, He was predicting that the Jews, and Sadducees in particular, would destroy Him and put His body to death when He said: Destroy this temple

This prophecy was fulfilled when the Jews condemned Jesus to death and relentlessly call upon the Roman governor to crucify Him until Pilate gives into their demands (John 19:6-16). Prior to that, the Sadducees plotted to destroy Jesus (John 11:47-53) and they had Him illegally arrested and quickly colluded to try and condemn Him in the homes of their own high priests in the middle of the night (John 18:12-14, 19-24). Jesus died on the cross—His body was destroyed by them—because of their evil wishes and actions (John 19:30).

Second, Jesus was predicting that He would come back to life from the dead three days after they destroyed Him when He said: and in three days I will raise it up. This is exactly what happened. Jesus was crucified on the sixth day of the week but His grave was empty three days later on the first day of the week (John 20:1, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

However, upon hearing Jesus’s bold declaration, both the Jewish leaders and His own disciples were clueless about what He really meant. 

The Jewish leaders mistook Jesus to be literally speaking about the temple in which they were standing. And the disciples did not understand His metaphor properly until after His resurrection.

So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken (v 20-22). 

With the knowledge of hindsight and the Holy Spirit, however, John puts it together for the reader. 

John does not specifically tell us which scriptures the disciples believed after Jesus was raised from the dead. He simply says the Scripture as if to suggest that the entire Old Testament predicts the Messiah’s death and resurrection. 

This is similar to what Jesus told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus when He told them:

“O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”
(Luke 24:25-26)

After saying this Luke explained: 

“Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
(Luke 24:27)

John may have been one of those two disciples to whom Jesus explained these things on the walk to Emmaus. 

Moreover, we know John was present on the shore of Galilee when Jesus reiterated to His disciples after His resurrection,

“and He said to them all ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’”
(Luke 23:44)

The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms are the three major sections (or subdivisions) of the Old Testament, and stated together like this can be taken to mean all the Scripture of the Old Testament,

“Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day…’”
(Luke 24:45-46a)

It seems that John was recalling these post resurrection encounters as he wrote about the disciples’ enlightened remembrance of what Jesus prophetically told the Jews in the temple near the beginning of His ministry in v 22.

That Jesus, knowing the Scripture, was predicting His own murder and resurrection was a claim even more presumptuous than the Jewish leaders thought He was making! Jesus’s remarkable prophecy shows that even from this early point in His ministry, Jesus has no uncertainty about what He is ultimately on earth to accomplish. He knows that His life on earth will be defined by His death. Paul tells us that Jesus chose this mindset from the very beginning, even while in heaven (Philippians 2:5-10). 

Jesus corrected sin when He saw it during His earthly ministry, as He did in the temple on this occasion. But ultimately, He understood that sin is a universal problem with deeper consequences that only His death and resurrection can ultimately resolve. 

Sin kills the sinner, separating them from God (Romans 6:23). Jesus came to endure death on behalf of sinful people, to make eternal life possible, and to restore relationship between God and humanity (Romans 5:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

When Jesus rises from the dead, He becomes a new everlasting and living temple. Through receiving the free gift of being accepted by God through Christ, each person can become a temple of His Spirit as well (John 3:14-15, 1 Corinthians 3:16). 

Biblical Text

18 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

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