One Temple Cleansing or Two?

How Jesus Cleanses for True Worship

Much debate surrounds the temple cleansing pericopes and whether or not the Gospels allude to one or two temple cleansings. John records a temple cleansing account at the beginning of his Gospel,[1] whereas the Synoptics record a temple cleansing account toward the end of their Gospels.[2] So why does it matter whether the temple was cleansed once or twice?  The temple cleansing appears to be a significant, unrepeatable event pointing towards the single, sufficient cleansing that Jesus would bring his people through his death and resurrection. Both of these cleansings are for the purpose of restoring proper worship to God.

Thesis

Jesus is the true temple and the true sacrifice by which we enter God’s presence.[3] I believe the temple cleansing foreshadows the ultimate cleansing that Jesus will bring to his new temple, the Church.[4] This deeper cleansing happens through Jesus’s death and resurrection.[5] I will argue for one temple cleansing that points towards Jesus' single, ultimate cleansing for true worship and that the temple was not cleansed until after Jesus provided the framework for his death and resurrection. 

The Temple Cleansing Points to the Ultimate Cleansing

To start, Jesus cleansed the temple because of the man-centered mockery that took place rather than true worship towards God. Jesus cleansed the temple out of zeal for true worship to happen for his Father.[6] However, the physical temple is merely a copy of the greater heavenly reality, which is Christ and his Church as the temple. Jesus cleansing of the physical temple for true worship points to his cleansing the true temple for true worship (Heb 9–10).[7] How does true worship happen? It happens in spirit and in truth,[8] no longer centralized on a physical temple or location.[9] How is true worship made possible? It cannot happen without being cleansed before God, namely through Jesus’s death and resurrection.

In fact, his death and resurrection is the sign that he uses for cleansing the temple.[10] Two things are important to notice here.  One is that of all the signs Jesus could have picked for cleansing the temple, he chose to show how his body was the true temple and that it would be destroyed and raised again. The other is that it is unlikely that this is the first time Jesus prophesied about his death and resurrection. This is because the first time Jesus mentions his death and resurrection are not until well into Jesus’s ministry, including after John’s temple cleansing account.[11]

Why did Jesus use the destruction and restoration of his body as the sign by which he cleansed the temple? As discussed already it is because Jesus cleanses (both the physical and spiritual temple) for the purpose of true worship. The ultimate cleansing only comes by his sacrificial death and resurrection to new life as the living temple. This cleansing unto true worship is why the temple cleansing and Jesus’s death and resurrection are closely linked. They are both for the purpose of worship. A single temple cleansing, coming near the end of Jesus’s ministry, foreshadows the single, ultimate cleansing that is just around the corner. This reality loses its weight if there are two cleansings.

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection as a Framework before the Temple Cleansing

The second point to address is that Jesus did not start speaking about his death and resurrection until much later than John 2. This is important to realize for two reasons. One is that it means that John’s temple cleansing could not have happened yet, meaning that it refers to the same cleansing that happens toward the end of the Synoptics. Second, a framework of Jesus’s teaching and predicting his death and resurrection were important to have already been in place before cleansing the temple for true worship.

Regarding the first observation: If you read through each of the Synoptics you won’t find Jesus begin to teach and predict these things until Matthew 16:13–20, Mark 8:27–33, and Luke 9:18–22. If he spoke about these things earlier than this, it is not made explicit in the text.[12] It doesn’t happen until after Jesus feeds the five thousand. It is not until after Jesus’s disciples, notably Peter, recognize Jesus as the Christ and the Son of the living God.[13]

Immediately after being recognized as the Christ, Jesus first reveals that he must suffer in Jerusalem, die, and be raised. “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[14] We see this same account and order of things in Mark 8:27–33 and Luke 9:18–22. Notice how it says, “from that time Jesus began to show his disciples.” This suggests that before this point Jesus had not shown these things. Before this point he had not begun to teach to them about his death and resurrection.[15] Peter’s rebuke of Jesus in each account also suggests that this is the first time Peter and the disciples have heard such things from Jesus.

So, outside of Jesus’s statement in John 2:19, these passages are the first time that Jesus’s death and resurrection are taught and predicted by him. However, from the moment Jesus first predicts his death, many passages follow concerning his suffering, death, and resurrection.[16] Jesus also taught in parables[17] and made statements concerning the Jews killing those that God sends.[18] However, these only happen after the initial teaching and prediction about his death and not before. The point for giving these examples is that John 2:19 becomes out of place since it is the lone example of Jesus mentioning his death and resurrection before his initial teachings of it.

If Jesus did not begin to teach or talk about his death and resurrection until later in his ministry, then this must mean that John’s temple cleansing pericope was the same as in the Synoptics. The reason is that Jesus’s statement, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” would not have been said until Jesus already first taught the disciples about his death and resurrection. As shown, Jesus did not first teach these things until well after John 2:13–25 would have occurred. This suggests that John 2:13–25 did not actually happen where it is placed in John’s Gospel. Rather, John seems to move this account towards the front of his Gospel for theological reasons. My argument is that he does so to cue the reader for understanding that it is by Jesus' death and resurrection that ultimate cleansing happens for true worship to take place. Jesus has already been introduced as the true temple,[19] and as the true sacrifice,[20] and so it is natural for John to move the temple cleansing to the front of his Gospel to highlight how one becomes completely cleansed for proper worship.

One could object at this point and say that the disciples simply did not understand what Jesus was alluding to in John 2:19 and thus needed him to speak plainly on the matter of his death and resurrection later. However, this does not explain why Matthew would write, “from that time Jesus began to show,”[21] or Mark saying, “and he began to teach them that.”[22] These words suggest that these are the first times Jesus mentioned his death and resurrection. It also does not explain why Luke says, “he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things … be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[23] If Jesus was adamant that his disciples not discuss this matter with others yet, then why would he have openly proclaimed this reality to the Jews as a sign in John’s account? My answer is he would not. John’s temple cleansing is the same cleansing as in the Synoptics, which happened after his death and resurrection were already being taught and anticipated.

Notice the important trajectory here of Jesus teaching and predicting his death and resurrection before ever cleansing the temple. After teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus then sets his face set towards Jerusalem. Each Gospel follows Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem where he will consummate his ministry. He will fulfill the sacrificial system once and for all and bring the ultimate cleansing the world needs. Jesus is the true temple and he has been discussing along his way to Jerusalem how he will be destroyed but be raised up again in three days. This sign that Jesus provides in John 2:19 fits more naturally with Jesus’ teachings overall about this suffering, death, and resurrection if we understand that Jesus has already been discussing these points along his way to Jerusalem for the cleansing that he will bring.

Conclusion

Jesus cleanses both the physical temple and his spiritual temple, the Church, for true worship to occur. His temple cleansing points to the ultimate cleansing that he brings by his death and resurrection. This means that the framework for Jesus’ death and resurrection were important to have in place before the temple cleansing happened. This is because it points to the means by which Jesus would bring the ultimate cleansing for worship. We find this to be the case in the gospels. They reveal that Jesus began to predict his death and resurrection before he cleansed the temple. Jesus’s cleansings of both the physical temple and the spiritual temple are for restoring true worship of God.




[1] John 2:13–25 ESV.

[2] Matt 21:18–19; Mark 11:12–18; Luke 19:45–48.

[3] John introduces Jesus as the true tabernacle/temple and the true sacrifice of God in his very first chapter. Jesus “pitched a tent” or “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14), expressing the Old Testament’s understanding of the tabernacle where God’s presence resided. Jesus is called the Lamb of God (1:35–36) pointing to the sacrificial system that took place at the tabernacle. Sacrifice was required on the altar before one could enter the presence of God in the tabernacle. Jesus reveals that he is the true temple and that this is the sign for cleansing the physical temple (John 2:18–21). Jesus as the temple and sacrificial Lamb is also found in Revelation 21:22.

[4] 1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:14–20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21.

[5] Heb 9; 10:19–22.

[6] John 2:16–17

[7] I encourage the reader to take a moment and read these chapters in their entirety.

[8] John 4:23–24.

[9] John 4:19–21.

[10] John 2:18–19.

[11] Matt 16:21; Mark 8:27–33; Luke 9:18–22.

[12] Jesus mentions picking up one’s cross in Matt 10:38–39 which is also what he says in Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23. Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23 all come on the cusp of Jesus predicting his death and resurrection. Though Matt 10:38–39 mentions picking up one’s cross, it does not say anything about Jesus’s own death or resurrection.

[13] Matt 16:13–20.

[14] Matt 16:21.

[15] Mark 8:31.

[16] Matt 17:23; Mark 9:30–32; 10:32–34; Luke 18:33

[17] Matt 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–18

[18] Matt 23:29–37; Luke 11:47–51; Luke 13:34

[19] John 1:14

[20] John 1:35–36

[21] Matt 16:21

[22] Mark 8:31

[23] Luke 9:21–22