One of the difficulties with John’s Gospel is that John has a lot to say. His pre-Passion Week chapters usually contain at least two important and distinct events, and those events are also loaded with meaning.
John 2 continues this pattern. There are two important events recorded in this chapter. These do not appear to be dependent on each other, except that Jesus is involved in both. Both are, however, problematic in their own way and perhaps as important for the symbolism as they are for the actual event.
The first is the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Working backwards, John 2:11 is the key verse on this event. John identifies the transformation of water into wine as the beginning of the signs Jesus used to identify Himself, specifically as “manifesting His glory.” Now, I think the historicity of the event is necessary for the sign to have any meaning, but the meaning is large here.
Why? You have a celebration that people think is good enough. You have an inadequacy of human ability to sustain that celebration. You have the picture of ceremonial religion, which is being observed. And none of it is enough. Yet at the action of Jesus, everything is made better, and better than human eyes would have expected. The coming of the Christ is more than just a fulfillment of the ceremonial, the Advent of the Messiah is beyond all that could be planned and imagined. (More at Nerd Note 1)
The second key event is the cleansing of the Temple. John describes this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all describe a clean out of the Temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry. For the Synoptics, this is the catalytic event that brings the Crucifixion into the Passover week when the opponents of Jesus had been planning to wait.
John records this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. So, did He clean the Temple twice or once? I think twice (see Nerd Note 2). In this, Jesus attacked the commercialization of worship. He attacked the oppression of the poor in worship. He also took a whip to the spiritual superiority of Jerusalem over anywhere else. There were so many things wrong with what was happening, that there was no way to fix this politely.
Jesus cleans it up, and cleans it up quickly.
There are some situations within churches that call for a similar treatment. Not necessarily the drive someone out with a whip aspect, but the quick, no time for discussion, no break for politeness action. Examples would be those who abuse children, ministers that take advantage of their congregation’s trust, and those who teach falsehoods: all of these should be removed, without hesitation, from any position that allows them to continue to perpetrate harm.
Woe be unto us if we do not clean up messes like these immediately when they arise in our churches. Jesus did not wait until the end of His ministry to drive the trouble from the Temple, He tackled it immediately. He just had to do it again—and we likely will have to do the same.
- Nerd Note 1: How to word this? There is debate, especially in modern American circles, over whether or not the “wine” made by Jesus contained alcohol. This is based on the view that drinking alcohol is sinful and Jesus would not have enabled sin. While the second half of that statement should not be in doubt, the first portion is not so certain. It is certainly sinful to drink to intoxication. I would hold it certainly unwise to drink at all: there are many other ways to spend your money and get your calories.
However, much of our discomfort with alcohol consumption has as much to do with American tendency toward excess as it does with the actual beverage. In Israelite culture of the time, drunkenness was seen as wicked and foolish, but a small amount of alcohol due to natural fermentation was almost unavoidable. That typically the wine was mixed with water is also known, so there is no need to see Jesus as enabling drunkenness.
There is a further theory that the “wine” was actually fresh, good grape juice, the taste of which is better than wine. (I agree with that, subjectively.) This was so unknown that everyone was astounded and pleased by the taste. This is a possible view. I am inclined to hold, though, that the weight of history is for some alcohol content in the wine, though nowhere near the level of intoxicant—especially if one drank in ‘normal’ amounts. This does not abrogate the foolishness of alcohol consumption for the Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). We have nothing in John indicating the disciples or Jesus drank the wine—or that they did not. We do have ample other Scripture to support staying sober.
- Nerd Note 2: There is an argument that John’s Gospel is a spiritual biography of Jesus and that John rearranged events to make a point rather than to be historically precise. This would be acceptable in the era in which he wrote. Lending credence to this on the Cleansing of the Temple is the fact that John does not record one in the extensive time he allocates to the Passion Week.
I do not see a need to do this, though. First, the Temple complex is a massive operation. There are many ways in which old habits would have returned, especially if that Jesus fellow with His whip is gone. Second, there are no other definite moments where John moves an event in that manner. The idea that John played fast-and-loose with the chronology really hinges on this event. Third, it fits. We see the Temple come into play early in the life of Jesus in Luke, Matthew, and Mark. Why not John?