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Jesus' First and His Greatest Sign -- a study of John 2

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

John gives us very good reasons to believe that Jesus is the Christ.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 2:11-23

John chapter two is the first of many explosive reveals in this Gospel. We see the first "sign" that Jesus is the Son of God -- the miracle of turning water into wine and a wedding in Cana. But we also see that Jesus revealed what would be His greatest sign -- rising from the dead the third day after the Jews would put Him to death (for confronting their hypocrisy).

“Get these things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!" (2:16)

There are so many potential topics to chase this Sunday. I don't know which questions are the most important to you, so I've tried to answer them all, however briefly.

Christmas Challenge

Each group has members who are home sick, caring for an ill family member, or have gotten out of the habit of coming on Sunday mornings. Christmas is the perfect time of year to reach out to them and pray a Christmas blessing over them. Take some time as a group to make a plan for how you will reach out to those group members this Christmas!

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Your Most Memorable Wedding Experience

The first part of our passage briefly touches on turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. That begs an obvious opening discussion -- what's something that has stuck out to you from a wedding you attended? I'm not talking "miracle"; remember that the people at this wedding in Cana didn't know Jesus performed a miracle for them. Just something fun or memorable. This is just a light, quick topic.

Distractions During Worship

The second part of our passage gets into distractions in worship. This is the kind of topic that can go off the rails quick if you're not careful -- people might disagree. First, make sure you separate "that could be helped" from "that couldn't be helped". A preschooler getting antsy can't be helped. And we want our preschoolers to begin to learn what "church" is as early as possible. A person forgetting to silence their phone, that's on the line. Just silence your phone when the service starts. Answering your phone during church? That could be helped. Don't do it.

Second, make sure you separate "a worship service" from "the place where your church usually holds worship services". I'm sure there are things you would say "don't do that during a worship service, but if there isn't a worship service going on, it's not a big deal" (like loud conversations, kids chasing one another, someone falling asleep, loud music).

With those two caveats, what are things that are a distraction to you in worship? The biggest one to me is when the "words on the screen" don't keep up with what we're singing. That happens all the time at statewide meetings, and it drives me nuts. We have an excellent computer operator at FBC. When there's an error, it's almost always because I've given incorrect instructions (which really, really distracts me).


This Week's Big Idea: Herod's Temple

I've always had a problem with this -- the Jewish leaders (and even Jesus' own disciples) are quite impressed with their temple in Jerusalem. But that's the temple that Wicked Herod (Herod the Great, then his son) was building, not Solomon, or even Zerubbabel. Why were the Jews so taken by something produced by someone they despised?

Let's start with an overview of the temple itself. We covered the dedication of Solomon's temple just a few months ago in 1 Kings:

That post gives an overview of the purpose of the temple, where Solomon put it, and what Solomon's temple looked like. Convention is to call Solomon's temple the "first temple" and the temple that was rebuilt after the exile by Zerubbabel and expanded by Herod the "second temple".

When we say "expanded", we really mean "expanded".

He built up the walls and gates surrounding the Women's Courtyard/"Court of Women", and then leveled out the 35-acre Gentile's Courtyard/"Court of Gentiles" surrounded by massive porches/porticos (although many of them were not completed in Herod's lifetime).

The temple was a marvel, and it brought Jerusalem prestige. My guess is that the Jews had been caught up in this -- "who cares how it was built; this place is amazing".

Below, I'll share what specifically upset Jesus about what the moneychangers were doing. For our purposes, it's simply necessary to realize that the temple dominated Jerusalem in every possible way -- architecturally, religiously, socially, and politically.

I think I've shared this illustration before. It's from a Mormon artist; he does a good job of capturing the scale and busy-ness of the temple, and this also demonstrates that every artist takes a different interpretation of what the temple might have looked like.


Where We Are in John

We are sneakily covering two major events in this lesson. Our passage starts with the last two verses of the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, which kind of forces us to go through the whole event.

There's probably more to talk about than you have time, so focus on what's most important to your group.

Seeing how all of this fits into John's wider purpose is not hard. Here's John's point:

  • (1:35-51) The first disciples follow Jesus. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see "greater things" that will bolster his faith.

  • (2:1-12) Jesus performs the miracle of water into wine, the first of the "greater things".

  • (2:13-25) Jesus confronts the merchants in the temple courts (immediately telling us Jesus' purpose) and some of the Jewish leaders.

  • (3:1-21) Jesus has a private conversation with one of those religious leaders.

The flow of events is very smooth and logical. It reinforces John's primary purposes. John even tells us that a few days pass in between these events. What happened on those days? He doesn't tell us. He doesn't have space. And that's okay. That's what makes each Gospel unique.

This Week's Passage in Video

The whole video is only 7 minutes long. Our passage begins at 3:20 (but watch the whole thing).


A Harmony of the Gospels

I said I wouldn't do this every week, but this week, the leader materials and I disagree, so I feel obligated to talk about this.

"Jesus and the Moneychangers" is a key passage for people who think that the four Gospels are at odds with one another. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus' confrontation with the moneychangers takes place after the Triumphal Entry, just a few days before the crucifixion:

  • Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19

In John's Gospel, as we are reading this week, Jesus' confrontation with the moneychangers happens at the very beginning of His ministry. Well, there are three common explanations for this:

  1. John got his story wrong because most of this stuff is just made up anyway.

  2. It's the same event; John wasn't worried about chronology.

  3. Jesus had multiple encounters with the moneychangers at different Passovers.

The only perspective without merit is the first. I have nothing more to say about it.

Your leader materials go with the second. That's fine; some people I respect a great deal promote that interpretation. Like I acknowledge above, putting this event at this point in John makes it clear that Jesus wasn't just about performing miracles -- He came with a purpose to change people's hearts. But I don't think it's the same event. I think the explanation that makes the best sense of the biblical data itself is the third: Jesus had more than one encounter with moneychangers in the temple complex.

The biggest reason scholars propose in favor of that second explanation is the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention the encounter right before the crucifixion, and John only mentions the encounter here ~3 years earlier. Surely something this important would have been addressed. I get that, but I'm not convinced by it. Let's read the other (brief) encounters:

12 Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!” (Matt 21)
15 They came to Jerusalem, and he went into the temple and began to throw out those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple. 17 He was teaching them: “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!” 18 The chief priests and the scribes heard it and started looking for a way to kill him. For they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was astonished by his teaching. (Mark 11)
45 He went into the temple and began to throw out those who were selling, 46 and he said, “It is written, my house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” 47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people were looking for a way to kill him, 48 but they could not find a way to do it, because all the people were captivated by what they heard. (Luke 19)

Matthew, Mark and Luke clearly refer to the same event. And their sequencing is identical. Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly (Palm Sunday), then He went into the temple complex, threw out the moneychangers, then taught the people.

But in John's telling, there's an encounter with the Jewish leaders -- an actual exchange of words. They aren't plotting to kill Him; they are challenging Him. What's the simplest way to explain this difference? They are two different events! If Jesus has just begun His ministry in Galilee, He would still be an unknown in Jerusalem. The exchange in John 2 makes a lot of sense under those circumstances. At the end of the encounter, the Jewish leaders think they have dismissed Jesus as a zealot, and the people are a bit noncommittal (as we will see). The exchange in Matthew 21/Mark 11/Luke 19 makes a lot of sense if Jesus has been performing miracles and challenging the authority of the Jewish leaders for a number of years with a growing public support. They're done with curiosity -- they just want to kill Him.

Would Jesus have had multiple encounters with moneychangers? Of course! Certainly you can imagine that the moneychangers wouldn't have quit their profession just because some guy showed up out of nowhere and caused a ruckus, right? They would have waited until that crazy Jesus character moved on and then immediately set up shop again. Jesus could have done His thing every year for a generation, and the moneychangers would have come right back in.

That doesn't explain why no Gospel reported more than one cleansing of the temple. There's no way to know why. My guess is that Matthew/Mark/Luke didn't think it necessary to include more than one such event. And then John, who saw the incredible meaning in what happened during the first "cleansing", didn't think it necessary to repeat the encounter that the other authors had included in their Gospels. But there's no way to know.

We have studied Matthew, Mark, and Luke in recent years. It just so happens that when we studied Mark, we covered his "Jesus and the moneychangers" encounter. Yes, I believe it's a separate event, but it's the same activity. Let me link that post and summarize a few of the key findings that help us with the background of this week's passage.

A Summary of Our Lesson from Mark 11

What Made Jesus So Upset about the Moneychangers

"I think Jesus has two main rebukes: (1) the merchants (in cooperation with the temple leaders) were profiting off of the worshipers; (2) the merchants were creating a barrier against the worshipers. ... People were coming from all over the world for the Passover. Selling them animals to sacrifice, or offering moneychanging services, was not the problem—those are reasonable and useful services. It was the where and the how that upset Jesus."


"About the Temple Complex

The largest part of the temple complex was the open courtyard surrounding the actual temple, “The Court of the Gentiles”. Anyone was allowed in here. This is where the merchants would have been set up. This courtyard was some 35 acres! The merchants would have concentrated around the outer gates and around the doors in the inner fence (“soreg”) past which Gentiles could not enter. ... They were there with the permission of the temple leaders, so they would have complained up the ladder very quickly, putting an even bigger target on Jesus’ chest. Secondly, people would use the temple courts as a “shortcut” through Jerusalem (like a gas station parking lot; just look at how congested Jerusalem likely was!). Because the Jews had decided that Gentiles could only worship in this courtyard, these activities were a major distraction to their worship. So, rather than being a house of prayer for all peoples, the Jews had turned the temple into a place of profit, discrimination, and distraction."


"What Were the Moneychangers Actually Doing?

I’m sure the primary thought from the merchants and Jewish leaders was not “Jesus foiled our scheme!” but “What’s the big deal?”.

Sacrifices. We have talked about the Jewish sacrificial system at length; worshipers had to bring various kinds of animal and vegetable offerings (especially at Passover), and there were all kinds of restrictions on the type of animal acceptable. To be fair, many worshipers who traveled from great distance were not able to bring their sacrifice with them, and many did not have access to the acceptable sacrifice, and so Jewish entrepreneurs made those sacrifices available for purchase. That’s really not a problem. That’s no different than our church saying that we will get the Easter Lilies in bulk and you can pay us back for them.

Moneychanging. In New Testament times, every city (!) had its own currency. But the Temple Tax, which was to be collected from every Jewish male, was a “silver Tyrian half-shekel”. Well, someone had to determine what was the financial equivalent for this shekel, and so there would be moneychangers. (For that matter, most merchants would only accept shekels as payment, so the foreign Jews needed help with that, too—just like we do when we go on an international mission trip.) So again, what’s the big deal with providing this helpful and necessary service? Simple: loud haggling and dishonest price-gouging. I’m sure you can see how these things would be a natural tendency for any merchant, as well as how distracting they would be to happen right in the midst of earnest worshipers!

Make sure everyone catches that last point: the Court of the Gentiles (where these merchants were) was not like a narthex/atrium. It was a place of worship (the only place Gentiles were allowed to worship). Do you see the distinction? This is nothing like a visiting group setting up a merchandise table in the atrium for their Saturday concert; this is that group setting up their table on the platform during a Sunday morning service. That makes a difference."

So there you go. I believe the same issues that drove Jesus in Mark's Gospel also drove the encounter in this week's passage.


Part 1: Glory Shown (John 2:11-12)

11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. 12 After this, he went down to Capernaum, together with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples, and they stayed there only a few days.

This approach kinda demands that you cover the wedding in Cana. The video above sets the scene as well as anything. Here is a clip from the excellent tv program "The Chosen" which dramatizes the wedding. The picture is dark, but it includes subtitles, making the dialog easier to understand. In this dramatization, the people coordinating the wedding have been caught up in Jesus' orbit but are uncertain if they should commit to following Him.

There's one part of this passage that has always thrown me off:

3 When the wine ran out, Jesus’s mother told him, “They don’t have any wine.” 4 “What has this concern of yours to do with me, woman?” Jesus asked. “My hour has not yet come.” 5 “Do whatever he tells you,” his mother told the servants.

Why is Mary bringing this up to Jesus at all?

The text doesn't say, so anything we say is just conjecture. Mary is the reason Jesus was invited to the wedding, so we can assume that Mary was a family friend or relative and that she might have helped with the wedding. Weddings in that day were as much about the families as the couple, so running out of wine would have been scandalous for the responsible family. Perhaps Mary was simply going to Jesus as her first-born son, asking for advice or help in resolving this embarrassing development. Whatever Mary's reason, this problem is now in Jesus' lap (so to speak).

[Note: don't get sidetracked, but this is wine. Real wine. Wine wine. Wine was an important social drink in Israel. It could be abused, but it didn't have to be.]

Jesus may have been resisting the clear opportunity to perform this first public miracle. He knows that "His hour has not yet come", meaning the sequence of events that will end with His crucifixion. He knows that this event will likely kick off that sequence (think about the imagery -- a wedding, perfect and free wine, this is as Messianic a banquet as it gets). And His mission must follow God's timing, not His own. My guess is He needed a moment to pray and confirm that this was God's plan.

His use of "Woman" might best be translated around here as something like "ma'am". It's perfectly respectful, but it clearly connotes a distance. Jesus was not responding to Mary as her son, but as the Son of God. I believe that's why she quickly backs out of the situation with a "do whatever He tells you". She senses that "something is up".

For John the author's, this event is "Jesus' first sign". Remember the purpose of John's Gospel:

But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)

He reports seven signs (really eight, when we include the Resurrection; see 2:18) that made people realize who Jesus was, which is exactly what happened here in verse 11. The use of "glory" is specific and important to John (see 1:14), where "glory" represents the very nature of God Almighty. There's no mistaking John's purpose.

This will be a pattern we see throughout this Gospel, so I won't peek ahead. My favorite definition of sign is this: John includes signs, significant displays of Jesus' power that point to Jesus' true identity, so that we will believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

  1. Changing water into wine

  2. Healing an official's son (4:43-54)

  3. Healing a disabled man (5:1-15)

  4. Feeding the 5,000 (6:1-14)

  5. Walking on water (6:16-21)

  6. Healing a man born blind (9:1-12)

  7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)

And "many other signs" (20:30). John highlighted these few, though the other Gospels make it clear that Jesus performed so many additional miracles.

Verse 12 is just a fun tidbit. It helps us remember that Jesus did have a relationship with His earthly family. It also reminds us that Jesus' earthly family knew the disciples. That will be an interesting dynamic later in the Gospel.

If you reserve time for this part of the lesson, you might ask this question: what has caused you to believe that Jesus is the Son of God? You might have to prod some answers that are deeper than "I just know in my heart". Ultimately, that's all that matters, but for many of us, we came to believe this about Jesus because of what we read in the Bible. Jesus' teachings probably had a bigger impact on me than His miracles, but there's no doubt that His rising from the dead is the true case-clincher. Read John 20, and you'll see that it also solidified His disciples' faith.


Part 2: Worship Expected (John 2:13-17)

13 The Jewish Passover was near, and so Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and he also found the money changers sitting there. 15 After making a whip out of cords, he drove everyone out of the temple with their sheep and oxen. He also poured out the money changers’ coins and overturned the tables. 16 He told those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!" 17 And his disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me.

I believe that John is being chronological, which means that this is a Passover from early in Jesus' ministry. This is not the same Passover that was the setting for the Last Supper in Matthew/Mark/Luke. Even your Leader Guide acknowledges that John mentions at least three separate Passovers:

  • This Passover in chapter 2 which Jesus attended in Jerusalem

  • A Passover in chapter 6 which was the backdrop for feeding the 5,000 which Jesus did not attend in Jerusalem (but He did go to the subsequent Feast of Tabernacles)

  • The final Passover connected with His death and resurrection

  • (Note that some people believe that festival mentioned in 5:1 is a fourth Passover)

I really don't understand the problem with believing that Jesus had separate encounters with moneychangers/merchants on separate times He went to worship at the temple.

I'll not repeat what I said above about what the merchants were doing and what Jesus' complaint was with them.

There was a primary gate to the temple from Jerusalem proper, and this is almost certainly where the merchants were set up, ready to offer their (necessary) services to the pilgrims who may have travelled a great distance to the Passover. When John says "everyone", he's talking about this group of merchants. They were doing all of this in the only space set aside for Gentiles to worship. Yes, the Court of the Gentiles was enormous, but I think that was beside the point to Jesus.

Demonstration. There's an easy way to show why Jesus was so upset. At some point right around "now", have one of your group members offer to sell his donut to someone else in the group, then have that other person haggle. As a Sunday School teacher, my nerves are grating just imagining this. That's what was going on, loudly and incessantly, for hours on end. This made Jesus upset.

This is what we call "righteous anger" and is why we believe that there is a place for anger, but it is a very specific and narrow place. Jesus believed that God wanted His temple to be a house of prayer, and not just that but

I will bring them [the foreign converts] to my holy mountain and let them rejoice in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isa 56:7)

But that's not what was happening. In Jesus' day, those foreign converts were being displaced by merchants. This is probably a reference to Zechariah 14, a prophecy of the future Zion in which God reigns over all the earth, and the people come to His temple to worship Him. The word translated in 14:21 as "Canaanite" can also mean "merchant".

The disciples had Psalm 69:9 come to mind. John does not that say that disciples thought of that verse then, but later (see v. 22). My guess is that when they reminisced about Jesus' ministry, this event came to mind and they realized that Jesus' identity and purpose had been so clear so early, but they didn't understand. And of course, that's why I believe John put this in his Gospel. Consider the verses right around Psalm 69:9

7 For I have endured insults because of you, and shame has covered my face. 8 I have become a stranger to my brothers and a foreigner to my mother’s sons 9 because zeal for your house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. 10 I mourned and fasted, but it brought me insults. 11 I wore sackcloth as my clothing, and I was a joke to them.

Powerful! Especially when Jesus endured the opposition of the very religious leaders of God's people, He must have felt like a foreigner. (Recall John 1.)

Realizing that you have a time limit, perhaps ask your group how churches can become a "marketplace". Remember that Jesus wasn't condemning the service those merchants were providing -- He was condemning the where and when. I don't have anything specific in mind; perhaps if a pastor were to ask you to buy his book during his sermon, or if the church were to put an ATM in the sanctuary. This discussion would be about us protecting ourselves from making the kind of decision that would lead to our church worship becoming a marketplace.

There's another application that I think we should all consider: how might I be a distraction to the people around me in worship? Have a frank discussion about that, and then talk about the things we can do to not be a distraction. Paul tells us to put others first, and a very important way we do that is by paying attention to the effect we have on others!


Part 3: Sign Remembered (John 2:18-23)

18 So the Jews replied to him, “What sign will you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” 20 Therefore the Jews said, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made. 23 While he was in Jerusalem during the Passover Festival, many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.

I think John found this exchange to be the most important of all because it was the first time Jesus spoke of His death and resurrection. In other words, Jesus' resurrection was the final (and ultimate) sign of who He is.

These are not the words of Jewish leader who are trying to kill Jesus. These are the words of people who think He's a joke (cf. Psalm 69:11). They thought they ended this whole shenanigan with their "witty putdown" in verse 20. They thought that ended the matter.

Little did they know that they were speaking God's own truth.

That's what makes this exchange so powerful to John.

But we really need to go through the end of the chapter:

24 Jesus, however, would not entrust himself to them, since he knew them all 25 and because he did not need anyone to testify about man; for he himself knew what was in man.

In other words, after this event, Jesus continued to act in Jerusalem, and He performed additional signs that made people believe in Him. BUT -- their belief in Him was colored by their understanding of the political messiah. Yes, they believed in Him, but they believed in Him for their own purposes. They didn't really believe (see John 6:14-15 and 6:66); they just wanted Him to give them food and a show and to overthrow Rome.

But the disciples -- those who persevered -- remembered all of this and realized that Jesus was showing them the signs of the true Messiah, the Son of God.

As I said above, the Resurrection is to me the indisputable proof that Jesus is the Son of God, the only Savior of the world. What proof would you need to believe that Jesus is the Son of God?

[Because Christmas is on Sunday, my church isn't having an early small group Bible study time; we're just having a simple worship service. So, no notes from me for next week! Merry Christmas!]


Closing Thoughts: Signs and Saints in the Roman Catholic Church

John's use of "sign" made me think about this.

Here's the official summary from the USA bishops:

In official Church procedures there are three steps to sainthood: a candidate becomes "Venerable," then "Blessed" and then "Saint." Venerable is the title given to a deceased person recognized formally by the pope as having lived a heroically virtuous life or offered their life. To be beatified and recognized as a Blessed, one miracle acquired through the candidate's intercession is required in addition to recognition of heroic virtue or offering of life. Canonization requires a second miracle after beatification. The pope may waive these requirements. A miracle is not required prior to a martyr's beatification, but one is required before canonization.

In other words, they believe they treat "miracles" in the same way that John teats "signs" -- miracles identify saints just as miracles identified Jesus.

We're out of space, so I don't want to dwell on this (except to wonder aloud where they came up with "two miracles"; I guess I should also share their definition of a miracle:)

Miracle – something that has occurred by the grace of God through the intercession of a Venerable, or Blessed which is scientifically inexplicable.

There's a fundamental difference in the way John handles signs: signs point to Jesus. In fact, everything in John's Gospel points to Jesus. Why does anyone think that God would use miracles to point to anyone else today?

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