Cleansing the Temple in John


A rather oddly placed story – always a problem for those who need to harmonize the gospels (and many of the Fathers tended to desire this themselves) – is the story of the “cleansing of the temple” found in the second chapter. In other gospel accounts it is always part of the story of Holy Week. But here in John it follows immediately after the miracle at the wedding in Cana (another water miracle). What is going on?

No one can say with certainty – though my own sense is to part with whatever literal streaks may be found among some of the Fathers – a lay aside concerns for “when did this event take place.” St. John makes it quite clear in his final chapter that “these things are written so that in believing them you may have eternal life.” Salvation is literary scheme for St. John’s gospel.

This story falls amid “water stories.” It is preceded by the Wedding at Cana, where Christ turns water into wine and it is followed His conversation with Nicodemus where He speaks of “water and the Spirit.” But here, rather than water, we see the “cleansing” (though this word is not itself used) of the Temple. It is a story of repentance, the setting of things in their correct order, along with reference to Christ’s own resurrection (vs. 19).

Unlike the cleansing of the Temple in the other gospel accounts, this one does not have the Holy Week drama in which the Temple action takes on a certain “political” overtone. It occurs in the very “beginning” of Christ’s ministry (although John has little interest in historical order).

But it says much to us of our Baptism. The temple (and in this account “temple” and “body” are quite synonymous as indeed they are in the other accounts) is to be for God and not for theives and robbers. Our bodies become the Temple of the Lord, not the home of evil things.

I’m sure it is possible to make other approaches to the Temple story in this location. But I offer these thoughts for your consideration.

Baptism is a complete reorientation of our lives. We are not only born of the Spirit and Water – we are Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Destroy these temples (our bodies) and God will raise them up as well. But the body is to be for God and not for theives and robbers. We are not to lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but treasure in heaven.

For the newly illumined, there is a caution (as for all Christians): everything we are now belongs to God. We should live in such a manner that this is shown forth to the world.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






8 responses to “Cleansing the Temple in John”

  1. D. McLaughlin Avatar
    D. McLaughlin

    Concering the cleansing of the Temple in John 2 as one of our Lord’s first actions, I believe there may be a parallel with John 20 where one of the first actions of the risen Lord is to bestow the Holy Spirit for mission and the forgiveness of sins (for cleansing and rebirth). Sin must first be removed before receiving the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Apostle Peter’s reply to those asking ‘what shall we do?’: “Repent, and be baptized… for the forgiveness of your sin, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2.38) In a way, John 2.14ff foreshadows John 20.22f.

  2. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    First off, Christ is Risen!

    Earlier, Father, you wrote about the way we Orthodox read the Old Testament typologically. Maybe St. John, in ordering his account of the Gospel as he did, was reading some of the events of Christ’s life typologically. If that makes sense…

    In other words the cleansing of the Temple, apart from just being a historical fact, was imbued with a rich symbolic meaning for our relationship with God. Just as the Old Testament prefigures Christ, some of Christ’s actions in the world prefigure our own salvation. Just a thought.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Good point. For John, the cleansing of the Temple would belong to the cycle of Baptism stories – just as the feeding of the 5000 will be part of the cycle of eucharistic stories (he interestingly does not include an account of the Last Supper – the 6th chapter covers all that he needs to say on the subject). It is interesting that some modernist scholars want to see in John’s non-use of the Institution Narrative of the Last Supper the notion that he knew nothing of it – whereas chapter 6 demonstrates that he knows it full well. There is a huge lack of imagination among certain schools of thought – just as there is a lack of imagination, after a sort, within and among the literalists.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    This is indeed the case. There is iconic similarity that seems more than coincidental between the birth narratives and his burial narratives, for instance. I’m not sharing anything new here. These things have been seen for centuries.

    Even such later symbolism will be seen in the gospels that the four friends who brought the paralytic to Christ are the “four gospels.” Obviously not intended by the writers, but certainly seen by early readers. Similarly the 4 beasts around the throne in Revelation.

    It is possible to go too far with this – Origen does in his penchant for allegory – but there is still a lot of typological shaping, I believe, in the writing itself. Lest we fail to get the point that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.

  5. d.burns Avatar

    Fr. Bless,

    Why the use of the icon of Jonha and the wale in reference to the temple story?

    Christ is Risen!

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    Because of the references to the resurrection of which Jonah is a type. Creative no?

  7. Jack Avatar


    Have you read Father Farley’s exegesis of John from Conciliar Press? If so, what did you think? Also, off topic, do you have a favorite Father Sophrony book?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have not read Fr. Farley’s book. I plead lack of time. Also Archbishop Dmitri is working on a commentary on John. A must read when he is done.

    My favority Fr. Sophrony book, would either be is longer volume on St. Silouan, or his great nephew’s book I love therefore I am. I met his grand nephew (Fr. Nicholai) at the Monastery in Essex last summer. Excellent young man with a doctorate from Oxford. He, too, is a monk at the monastery.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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