Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 13, 2009

Luther on the Temple Cleansing in John 2

It has been a while since I shared a Luther quote with you.  I did more of that more when I started this blog, since at that time (summer ’08) I was in the midst of a formal independent study on selected theological writings by Luther.  Today’s installment comes in connection with my sermon preparation for this weekend.

I’m preaching on Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple in John 2:13-22.  Readers may or may not be aware that John records the temple cleansing at the start of Jesus’ ministry, but the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the temple cleansing during Holy Week at the end of Jesus’ ministry.  Critics of Scripture obviously like to have their way with this.  The assumption is that, at worst, the Bible writers did a sloppy job of compiling these fictitious stories together, and that’s why the account is placed at completely different times in Jesus’ life.  At best, the Bible writers supposedly knew they weren’t recording history, but were merely trying to create religious works of art describing Jesus’ transforming power in a literary — but not literal — manner.

Christian apologist, professor, and human rights attorney Dr. John Warwick Montgomery has often said that, given the condition of the temple in the first century, it’s a surprise that Jesus didn’t cleanse the temple every Saturday night!  And therein lies the solution to the problem and the problem with the critics.  Nothing in John’s account or in the synoptics suggests that this was the one and only time Jesus cleansed the temple.  At the end of John’s Gospel, he specifically makes the point that Jesus did many other things throughout his ministry that are not recorded in his book.  Should it surprise us, then, that Jesus may have said and done the same thing more than once during his ministry?  Ask parents how often they have to say the same thing to their children!  Ask any pastor how often he has to teach basic Scriptural truths before people “get it.”  We have no problem recognizing that we say and do the same things multiple times in real life.  Why shouldn’t it be the same for our Lord?

Another solution that Luther offers, though I think it’s less likely, is that John chooses not to follow a chronological order here.  As I’ve noticed while preparing and teaching my Sunday morning Bible class on Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew often groups events together thematically rather than chronologically.  There’s certainly no harm in that.  An author can write a biography following a strict chronology, or an author may choose to group similar events together in a topical way even though the events may have occurred at different times in the subject’s life.  If secular authors can do that, why not the Holy Spirit?  Again, I think the first theory is more likely (and Luther’s quote offers the first theory as well), but this second theory still acknowledges the facticity of Scripture and its inspiration by the Holy Spirit.

With those thoughts, I’ll share with you Luther’s quote on the “problem” between John 2 and the synoptics regarding the temple cleansing.  Notice Luther’s trust in the inspiration of Scripture.  He acknowledges that he may not know what the correct answer is with total certainty, but he trusts that the Holy Spirit did not lie when he inspired these New Testament words.  (And besides, it’s a good rule of thumb to believe the testimony of an eyewitness over the hearsay of a later generation).  This quote comes from Volume 22 of Luther’s works, which is a collection of sermons on the opening chapters of John’s Gospel.

Recently we heard St. John’s description of how Christ miraculously changed water into wine at a marriage at Cana in Galilee, which was the first miracle to reflect His glory; then we also heard of His and His family’s removal from Nazareth to Capernaum, where He sojourned and preached for three years. Now there follows John’s account of Christ’s visit in Jerusalem for the Passover and of the tumult He caused in the temple. This we treated in our sermon on Wednesday on the basis of the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, where this same episode is recorded. At that time we heard that Christ entered the temple right after His arrival in Jerusalem and there stirred up this commotion.

But now the question arises: How do we harmonize the accounts of the two evangelists, Matthew and John? For Matthew writes that all this happened on Palm Sunday, when the Lord made His entry into Jerusalem. And here in John we read that it occurred at the time of the Passover that followed Christ’s Baptism, the same Passover season during which the miraculous changing of water into wine also took place, and that then Christ moved to Capernaum. For Christ was baptized in the Epiphany season. And it seems possible that He tarried the short time until Passover in Capernaum, preaching there, and then cleansed the temple at the Passover of which John writes here.

These are problems and will remain problems. I shall not venture to settle them. Nor are they essential. It is only that there are so many sharp and shrewd people who are fond of bringing up all sorts of subtle questions and demanding definite and precise answers. But if we understand Scripture properly and have the genuine articles of our faith—that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, suffered and died for us—then our inability to answer all such questions will be of little consequence. The evangelists do not all observe the same chronological order. The one may place an event at an earlier, the other at a later time. Mark, too, chooses the day after Palm Sunday for this story. It may also be that the Lord did this more than once, and that John reports the first, Matthew, the second event. Be that as it may, whether it happened sooner or later, whether it happened once or twice, this will not prejudice our faith.

In our calculations we must assume, as all historians do, that Christ was baptized in His thirtieth year and that He preached for three full years after that event. But He continued to preach after the expiration of the third year, from the festival of the Circumcision of Christ, or Epiphany, until Passover, which might be roughly computed as half a year. This extends His preaching ministry over a period of approximately three and one half years. Now it is possible that the event recorded in our text happened after His Baptism, at the age of thirty, during the first Passover festival of His ministry. But when it took place is immaterial. If one account in Holy Writ is at variance with another and it is impossible to solve the difficulty, just dismiss it from your mind. The one confronting us here does not contradict the articles of the Christian faith. All the evangelists agree on this, that Christ died for our sins. But in their accounts of Christ’s deeds and miracles they do not observe a uniform order and often ignore the proper chronological sequence.

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