Moses received instructions for constructing the old covenant tabernacle from God Himself (Ex. 25–31). Later, King Solomon supervised the building of the temple in Jerusalem, and the temple was based on the basic design of the tabernacle that it replaced (2 Chron. 2–7). Given these realities, first-century Jews understood that any changes made to the temple required divine authority as mediated through the king of Israel. In other words, the ancient Jews believed that only the Messiah could do something like that which Jesus did when He cleansed the temple of animal sellers and moneychangers (John 2:13–17).
That explains why the Jews responded by asking Him for a sign (v. 18). They wanted proof that Jesus had the messianic authority to remove the merchants from the temple. Christ did not give them a sign immediately; instead, He gave an enigmatic response that they would destroy “this temple” and in three days He would raise it up (v. 19). Clearly, the Jewish opposition did not understand Jesus. (In fact, even the disciples did not get our Lord’s meaning at first because John 2:22 says that they did not understand Jesus’ saying until His resurrection.) The Jews thought Jesus was talking about the physical temple in Jerusalem, which had taken forty-six years to build (v. 20). In fact, the temple was not even really finished in Jesus’ day because work on it would continue off and on until AD 63, some thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But John inserts an explanatory comment in verse 21: the temple of which Jesus spoke was His own body. Thus, we see our Lord identifying Himself as the new and true temple. The old covenant sanctuary was going to be superseded by a new temple, even Jesus Himself, in whom His people are being knit together as a true sanctuary for God (1 Peter 2:4–5). Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John, “Christ is the temple, and all men are commanded to come to Him in order to worship and serve the one true God.”
Finally, today’s passage is also important for our doctrine of the Trinity as it helps us see the principle of inseparable operations. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act inseparably; when God does something, all three persons are involved. We see this clearly in the resurrection of Jesus, which Scripture identifies as the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three acted to raise Jesus from the dead (John 2:19–21; Rom. 8:11; Eph. 1:15–23).
Many Christians are eagerly expecting the day in which the physical temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. Today’s passage, however, tells us that the only temple we should be looking forward to is the temple that is Christ’s body, which we will see in the new heaven and earth. The temple pointed to Christ and it is fulfilled in Christ and His church, so let us love Christ and His people.