All four Gospels describe Jesus’ prophetic act of protest against the Jerusalem temple. The Synoptics place this event near the end of Jesus’ ministry; John places it near the beginning. Here is how he describes it:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father‚Äôs house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
In addition to the unique context, the Fourth Gospel provides a unique dialogue between Jesus and his opponents about his authority to behave as he did. They ask for a “sign,” and Jesus announces the sign they will receive.
In John, the word “sign” has theological significance. When Jesus turned the water into wine, the writer notes that this was “the first of his signs” (2:11) and that the disciples received it as a revelation of Jesus’ glory, leading them to believe in him. At the same time, faith in Jesus based merely on “signs” is portrayed as less than ideal. There is the demand for a sign in the very next passage, and right after that we read that
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (Jn 2:23-25)
There is a play on the word pisteuo here that is somewhat awkward to render into English. The writer says that the crowds “had faith” in Jesus because of the signs, but Jesus did not “put faith” in them because he perceived something lacking in their faith. He didn’t have faith in their faith. The implication is that their faith, based merely on outward signs, did not engender Jesus’ confidence.
What strikes me is that the story of the “temple cleansing” comes in John at roughly the same place in the narrative that the temptation in the wilderness comes in the Synoptics. Jesus has just been baptized, but seems not to have begun his public ministry in earnest. It is at this point where Matthew, Mark, and Luke, describe a struggle in the wilderness in which the devil attempts to derail Jesus’ ministry by demanding a show of signs.
We, the readers, know that Jesus is not going to be that kind of Messiah. He doesn’t come to give spectacular displays of power, thus ensuring the adulation of the crowds. In fact, he knows that such “signs” are no guarantee that faith will be genuine. (If anything, the reverse seems more often to be true!) Jesus will not allow his ministry to be defined by providing bread (6:26), ruling in royal splendor (6:15), or demonstrating God’s supernatural protection (12:27). On the contrary, the “sign” of Jesus’ authority to condemn the temple is located elsewhere: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19).
In other words, the only “sign” that matters is Jesus dying and rising again. But this is a problematic sign, to say the least. First, it is a sign the people will have to wait for‚Äîfor three full years if John’s chronology is to be accepted! There is perhaps the slightest echo of God’s word to Moses when he protested that he was not fit to lead the people of Israel:
“I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (Exod 3:12)
In other words, the sign will only come after you proceed by faith‚Äîin the absence of a sign!
Likewise, those who receive Jesus, who believe in his name (1:12), will see him raised from the dead after the temple of his body has been destroyed. Those who impatiently demand a “sign” will not get one, however. They will put Jesus to death, but they will not experience his resurrection splendor. Like Pilate, who asks “What is truth?” but then doesn’t stay around to hear the answer (18:38), the crowds demand a sign without really knowing what they are asking for or having the attention span to perceive it when it comes.