Episode 48 - A Look at the Temple - Opening Up the Gospels

In the last few episodes we’ve been looking at some of the first few events in this section of Jesus’ ministry I’m calling the Early Judean period. Last time we looked at the wedding at Cana up in Galilee and how Jesus had turned perhaps 150 gallons of water into exceptionally tasting wine. Though not many people would have known about what happened, Jesus not only covered the embarrassment of the family but for the first time revealed His glory in creating wine from water. What was it like for the couple who got married to reflect back and think about God in the flesh at their wedding? Did the one in charge of the feast ever tell the couple the story of what really happened? There’s so many things to mediate on with that scene. After the wedding, John 2:12 tells us that Jesus returned to Capernaum with his mother, brothers, and disciples and stayed there several days. What happened during these few days he was back among his family, friends, and acquaintances? Did questions about Jesus’ whereabouts come up over their meals? What about what happened at the wedding just a few days before? Don’t pass this verse by too quickly. Feel the nearness of God to us in the incarnation. This is the creator of all in a small lakeside village in Israel. And the God of Mount Sinai had siblings. Don’t let this get old! Today I want to continue in John 2 and start to look at an extremely important scene, the cleansing of the Temple. We’ll spend a couple of episodes here. Let’s read in John 2: “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”” (John 2:13–17 ESV) So when and where is this happening? Jesus is now in Jerusalem, in the southern part of Israel, in the region of Judea. Specifically, He’s in the Temple, which is basically the heart of everything Jewish. We’ll look closer at the temple in a second. And looking at our timeline, we can actually place this event with a lot more precision than some of the other things we’ve looked at. Jesus was baptized in early 27, followed by his 40 days in the wilderness, and then the week or so with the events around Bethany beyond the Jordan before He heads north to Galilee. Then, he spends at least a few days in Cana for the wedding before heading to Capernaum with his family and disciples. Then, John says “the Passover of the Jews was at hand”. Passover always began on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and lasted for 7 days. This roughly corresponds to the month of April on our calendars, and because of the way both our modern calendar and the Hebrew calendar cycles, the actual day on the modern calendar is different every year. So for the rest of this series I’ll be referencing Passover as happening in April. Let’s talk about the Temple for a little bit. Before I started looking at the Gospels in more of an in-depth way, I used to think that the Temple was just basically the size of a church building that would hold a few hundred people, and that it was just full of gold and animal blood and bearded men wearing robes. But I realized that the Temple we read about in the Gospels, also called Herod’s Temple, just meaning the Temple that Herod was in charge of building, was such a magnificent structure. It literally was one of the wonders of the ancient world, and nothing rivaled its beauty, not even anything in Rome or in Greece. Because of all the gold and marble used in its construction, the light would reflect off of it when the sun or moon was shining. It was like a magnificent blazing gold reflection. In Jewish tradition there was a proverb that said: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never known what beauty is.” Not only was the Temple beautiful in its appearance, but it was much larger than many people think. The Temple proper was bounded by a courtyard, which the Jewish historian Josephus said held up to 210,000 people. Think about that – two hundred and ten thousand people! Now Josephus was known for exaggeration at times, so it could be that he’s exaggerating again in this specific instance. But even if he doubled the number, that still would indicate that the courtyard could hold 100,000 people. The largest stadium in America is Michigan Stadium, where the Michigan Wolverines play football. The capacity of Michigan Stadium is one hundred and nine thousand people. Look at all those people, and now imagine that many people in the courtyards of the Temple. Everyone in the stadium is organized in nice rows and sections on the bleachers, but everyone in the Temple is just on one flat area, where everyone is just teeming and crowded in there. Josephus also said that the city of Jerusalem would swell to nearly 2 million people during the feasts of Passover and Tabernacles. But let’s just assume Josephus was exaggerating, and let’s cut that in half again. 1 million people in a city in antiquity? Now that’s a BIG city. The retaining walls of the Temple measured 1590 feet on the west, one thousand thirty five feet on the north, one thousand five hundred thirty six feet on the east, and 912 feet on the south. When you put that all together and calculate the area, it would be roughly equivalent to the area of thirty five American football fields. Stop and let that sink in for a second – 35 football fields. This place was huge! Inside the walls were areas that were commonly called “porticos” or “porches”, but don’t think like a porch off of an apartment building or something. Think “cloister” or “hall”. These porches were areas where people would meet, where teachers would teach, and where there could even be a little solitude when the Temple complex was relatively empty. We read about these porches – like Solomon’s porch, for instance, throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts. These porches all had a roof over them that was nearly 40 feet high. The roofs were supported by three rows of pillars, each cut from a single block of marble. Now, inside the walls and beyond the porches was the actual Temple, which I’ll just call the “Temple proper”. As you can see by the size comparison graphic, it’s still quite a bit larger than a few football fields. And look at the size of Solomon’s temple compared to the Temple in Jesus’ day. It’s so much smaller! Inside the Temple proper you can see the various courtyards and chambers. While Gentiles were permitted in the Temple courts, only Jews were allowed into the Temple proper. You can also see the Holy Place and the altar just outside of it where daily sacrifices were made. And inside the Holy Place, though it’s a little small, you can see the veil and the Holy of Holies. We looked at this a little bit back in Episode 12 when we looked at how Zechariah was chosen by lot to burn incense in the Holy Place. The Holy of Holies did not have God’s glory dwelling in it in Jesus’ day. That had left a long time ago, back when Ezekiel was prophesying. So the thick veil was just covering up an empty, dark room. If you think about it, that really is an indictment to the Jewish nation. What had set them apart for so many years of their history was that they had Yahweh dwelling with them. I’ll develop this point a little more in future episodes. So today we have so much mechanical technology to help us move large or heavy items – cranes, loaders, forklifts. But when construction began on Herod’s temple in 19BC, there was no crane to be found. The first stage of the project was to expand the temple that Zerubbabel built by constructing a massive platform. Mount Moriah is where the old Temple sat, and it was a relatively small area. So what Herod did was to fill up some of the valleys around Moriah so that a platform was created on which the new structures could be built. The building of this platform caused the whole area to be elevated by nearly 170 feet. Now some of the stones in the wall measured between twenty and forty feet in length and could weigh even hundreds of tons. So a thousand vehicles and ten thousand laborers were used to transport the stones. Imagine being a part of that workforce! Take a look at this quote about the from the Website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “From the times of King Solomon to the return from the Babylonian exile and the Hasmonean period (tenth to first centuries BCE), the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was a relatively small platform built on top of Mount Moriah and its highest point was the Stone of Foundation; this was the site of the Temple. King Herod’s greatest building project was to double the area of the Temple Mount by incorporating part of the hill to the northwest (which had to be leveled and on which he built the Antonia Fortress) and by filling up parts of the surrounding valleys. Herod transformed the Second Temple into an edifice of splendor and surrounded the Temple Mount on its four sides with massive retaining walls. The walls, founded on bedrock, were built of large ashlar stones with beautifully dressed margins. Each course was set back about 2 – 3 cm. from the course below it; the stones weigh some five tons each, the corner blocks tens of tons…..” In this scene we’re looking at in the Gospels in John 2, the Jews in Jerusalem said that work had been going on for 46 years. If the Temple began construction in 19BC, that puts us in 27AD, just as I’ve noted before. The Temple continued to be worked on throughout the time of Jesus and beyond. It wasn’t fully complete until 63AD, just seven years before its destruction by the Romans in 70AD. I hope this brief little overview of the Temple has helped you get some perspective of what the Gospel writers were talking about when they said “the Temple”. And so when we think of Jesus cleansing the Temple, we’re not talking about a structure that was the size of a 500-member church where everyone looks and sees Jesus coming in the door and hears him disrupting everything. What we need to picture is something massive, something with the area of 35 football fields and where perhaps 100,000 people could be crammed in at one time. It means that there might have been many people in the Temple that weren’t even aware of the commotion that Jesus caused. But as we’ll see in the next episode, it’s so significant that Jesus opens His ministry with this very overt, public act.