In fact, this book is so “deep” and filled with Mystery that the Church only reads it during the Paschal season (there are no catechumens left, all having been baptized on Holy Saturday), as it should not be shared with the uninitiated.
It shows an absolute disregard for the sanctity of the scriptures (and a lack of understanding or historical grounding) that people would today use this particular Gospel as an “evangelization tool.” But, I digress.
One of the central themes (and it would be easy to identify dozens of “central” themes) of this Gospel is that Jesus Christ has recreated the Temple in Himself (and therefore in the Church, as the Body of Christ). There are many scholarly places where this subject has been poured over in great detail (listed at the end of this post for further reading, should you so desire). As usual, my hope is to “boil it down” for everyone to see and understand as easily as possible.
In John’s Gospel, we not only see the Temple recreated through the ministry and miracles of Christ, but also a fulfillment of the three great feasts of the Temple’s liturgical, annual cycle: Pentecost, Passover and Tabernacles (in addition, the feast of Dedication, which began in the time of the Maccabean revolt). It is during these great feasts that Christ performs the seven “signs,” and each of these signs in turn teach us about both Baptism and the Eucharist, as well.
The Temple was the center of Judean worship and life in the time of Christ. Men from all over would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to participate in the three great feasts, and these were all occasions where the men had to be baptized (a washing for ritual purity), offer sacrifice, and then feast on the meat, bread and wine of the Temple sacrifice (and all for the forgiveness of sins). To miss the connection here with Christian worship would be a grave injustice to holy scripture. Christian worship has not “done away with” the Temple worship, it has fulfilled it (or “Christened it”) in Christ. Worship comes from God alone, and is eternally binding (as the scriptures teach about these festivals and celebrations). These ceremonies were taken up by the apostles and their successors and then “baptized” into the Christian and new covenant context (not abrogated or eliminated).
These festivals are all mentioned in the Gospel at successive times, and it is during them that Christ performs his seven “signs,” with each one being a fulfillment of the teaching and liturgical/scriptural readings of the feasts themselves. The order goes as follows:
- Passover (St John 2:13-3:21)
- Passover was a national celebration, and was intimately dependent upon the Temple and its priests
- Christ begins his ministry in John’s Gospel by “cleansing the Temple” and driving away the money changers, saying that a “sign” he will show the Judeans is rebuilding the Temple in three days — John gives us a hint, adding “He spoke about the Temple of his body”
- All of Christ’s ministry is now linked with “Temple cleansing”
- Passover as a festival was a reminder of both death and God’s mercy towards His people — Christ has now linked Passover with his own death and resurrection and the recreation of both Passover and the Temple in Himself
- Passover (St John 6:1-71)
- Christ speaks of Himself as the true bread from heaven, a fulfillment of the Passover festival (which involved bread and wine), and also revealed the Eucharistic festival to his followers before the time for such a feast had come (whereby his followers were to eat his body and drink his blood if they wanted to have eternal life, a fulfillment of the mercy of God and life shown to His people in the Passover meal)
- Tabernacles (St John 7:1-10:21)
- During Tabernacles, the priests would pour many gallons of water from the Pool of Siloam upon the altar steps while also keeping the Temple courts lit all day long
- Jesus goes into the Temple and begins teaching during the festival, saying “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink. From within whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will flow rivers of living water!” (St John 7:37-38), which is connected with the water poured out upon the steps from the Pool of Siloam
- In connection with the lighting of the Temple courts, Jesus soon after teaches “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.” (St John 8:12)
- Dedication (St John 10:22-39)
- This feast was a reminder of the re-consecration of the Temple by the Maccabees while under foreign rule (cf. 1 Maccabees, chapter 4)
- During this festival, Jesus calls himself “consecrated” by the Father, as he is walking through Solomon’s porch in the Temple
- Passover (St John 11:55-20:31)
- When the sacrifice was made on the altar, the blood from the sacrifice would flow through holes in the southwestern corner of the altar, down through a water channel and into the brook of Kidron; In other words, at the time of the sacrifice, blood and water would pour out of the Temple itself
- In St John 19:34, we read: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately, blood and water came out.”
As an aside (and as someone interested in the canon of scripture), I must point out to our evangelical friends that Jesus participated in and performed miracles during the feast of Dedication, a festival that is recorded in the book of Maccabees — a series of writings that Protestants do not hold to be inspired scripture. This creates a problem for their canon, to say the least.
The clear connection between Jesus and the Temple is not limited to these festivals alone, but can be found throughout John’s Gospel as well as in other scriptures (e.g. St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews). St John writes of the Logos that “became flesh and tabernacled among us” (St John 1:14), a clear indication of Christ’s mission, as well as “you shall see angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (St John 1:51) which reminds us of both Jacob’s sanctuary and the presence of God in the Holy of Holies.
One might say that all of Christ’s life as recorded in this Gospel does the work of mystagogy; that is, the “revelation of mysteries” (or the “explanation” of the reality of things). While showing Himself to now be the true Temple, Christ has fulfilled and given true meaning behind the Temple itself. This is why the eastern churches much prefer the word “mysteries” for things like Baptism and the Eucharist, I think, rather than “sacraments.” Sacrament usually speaks of the bread, water or wine, while “mystery” speaks to the heavenly reality of such things — in other words, what bread, water and wine truly are, in eternity.
For more reading on this subject, consult the following:
- Temple, Sign, and Sacrament: Towards a New Perspective on the Gospel of John (Scott W. Hahn) — This was very helpful in the writing of this very, very brief post on the subject
- God Dwells With Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel (Mary L. Coloe)
- Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Temple in the Gospel of John (Paul M. Hoskins)
- The Temple of Jesus’ Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John (Alan Kerr)