‘…his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.’ (John 2: 22)
Eventually the disciples worked it all out! There are many occasions in the gospels when the disciples find Jesus’ teaching hard to follow or misunderstand him altogether. It is almost a favourite them for St. Mark in his account. So after Jesus rose from the dead his actions in the temple finally began to make sense. The disciples realised that they were dealing with prophetic action. It was obvious that Jesus was making a dramatic point as he drove the traders from the temple, but perhaps less obvious that he was making a statement about himself.
When we come across the prophetic in scripture there are two things going on – or perhaps there are two ways in which we are supposed to look at the matter. The first and most obvious is that events are being described in terms of the purposes of God. This may involve a foretelling or it may simply be a decisive comment on the present. Either way the Lord is making a pronouncement either in word or in deed (or by both, as here in the temple). As he cleanses the temple, Jesus expresses the divine opposition to some aspects of its work, in particular those aspects which fail to give him the glory, here the approximation of the precincts to a street market.
On other occasions in the gospels we hear Jesus speaking of his own future – of his destiny in Jerusalem and of all the things that are going to happen to him.
And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8: 31)
At other times Jesus refers to the future fulfilment of the Kingdom and time of the Messianic Woes.
For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet. (Mark 13: 6-7)
Note that this teaching is given once again in the context of a discussion about the temple and its future destruction. Jesus may speak privately to his disciples, but he is not given to armchair prophecy! The things that Jesus says are drawn out of his relationship with the Father and the way that is worked out through the proclamation of the Kingdom. There is no idle speculation here. Meaning is given to both present and future events.
Then there is the other way of seeing prophecy which we also find in our passage from St. John’s gospel.
And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. (John 2: 17)
A connection is made with passages in the Old Testament in order to illustrate what is happening in the present and to show how the purposes of God transcend each human generation. The quotation is from Psalm 69: 9 which describes how the Lord’s servant is mocked by those who oppose God’s ways. It reflects and helps to explain the reaction of the authorities to Jesus in the gospels.
A reference is also made to the prophet Zechariah,
and every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the flesh of the sacrifice in them. And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day. (Zechariah 14: 21, RSV)
Here the prophet looks forward to the day when the faithful Gentiles will come to Jerusalem and all the things in the temple will be sacred and available to those who seek to serve the Lord. For those who care to see it, Jesus is alluding to the New Jerusalem and the temple which is his body. The purposes of God are thus drawn out from the psalms and the prophets and expressed in the present through the words and actions of Jesus.
Prophecy always presents us with a challenge. We are encouraged to look back and make connections with God’s historic actions either in scripture or subsequently. We are also offered the opportunity to put the claims of faith and hope to the test by looking to the future confident that the Kingdom will come in all its fullness. Both perspectives challenge us to see ourselves afresh by examining our lives of faith (the Lenten exercise) and by renewing our hopes and expectations (the Easter exercise). By doing so we will see more clearly what God is doing in the present, both in our lives, in the Church and in the world – and then we will be able to commit ourselves more fully to it, inspired by his continual presence.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
7th March 2021