5. “Destroy This Temple and in Three Days ...”
When Jesus saw that the Jews were transforming the Temple (the great place of worship where God's glory was in the centre of Jerusalem, known in Islam as the Bait-ul-Muqaddas) from a house of prayer into a place of trade, he drove out the moneychangers and those who sold sheep, oxen and pigeons. The Jews then said to him:
In other words, by what authority do you, a man, enter the Temple of the living God and act as if you are the Lord of it? Once again they requested a sign and again the same sign was promised by Jesus:
Once again Jesus gave them the Sign of Jonah. Again there came the period of three days but now something more is added. He challenges the Jews to destroy the temple and whereas he earlier spoke of being himself in the heart of the earth for three days, now he speaks of the temple of God being destroyed for three days and thereafter being restored. So the Jews said to him:
Now that was a silly question. They asked for a sign of supernatural source to validate the action Jesus had taken. If he had said “Destroy this temple and in forty-six years I will build another”, what sort of sign would that be? But he said he would do it in only three days. That would assuredly be a sign for them to see and behold, proving that he was indeed all that he claimed to be.
This was one of the most momentous statements Jesus ever made and if ever there was a remark of his that made an indelible impression on the minds of the Jews, it was this one.
When Jesus was brought to trial years later, the two witnesses brought to testify against him both mentioned this remarkable claim. One said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days’.” (Matthew 26:61) Another said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another not made with hands’.” (Mark 14:58) Both of these men twisted his statement primarily through a total misunderstanding and inability to perceive the meaning of it. But that it was a claim of great import they realized!
Indeed even when Jesus was nailed to the cross some of the Jewish priests mocked him, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!” (Matthew 27:40) Even some time after Jesus had ascended to heaven the Jews were still talking about his challenge and imagined that it was Christian belief that Jesus would yet come to destroy their holy place (Acts 6:14).
The tremendous attention paid by the Jews to this statement, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” shows how important it was. Even as these Jews mocked him, however, they were unaware that they themselves were doing just that, they were destroying it by putting Jesus on the cross; and on the third day thereafter they would know that he had risen again. When Jesus said “Destroy this temple” he was not referring to the great building in the city but to his own body. In his Gospel John comments on the reply of the Jews about the number of years it took to build the Temple, “But he spoke of the temple of his body.” (John 2:21)
Jesus said that it was he, the Son of man, who was to be in the heart of the earth for three days and when he addressed the Jews he spoke obviously not of the Temple in Jerusalem, which he had just purified, but of himself. But why did he refer to himself as the temple? It requires only a little perspective on his ministry and identity to obtain the answer. The Jews wanted him to prove that he was the Messiah and to do this they expected him to show by signs that he was greater than all the other prophets. In his answer Jesus set out to show them that he was no ordinary prophet. The Temple in Jerusalem contained only the presence of a manifestation of the glory of God, but of Jesus we are told:
What Jesus was saying then was this: Destroy me, in whom the whole fullness of God dwells bodily, put me to death, and by raising myself from the dead three days later I will give you all the proof you will ever require that I am the Lord of this Temple, the house of God.