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§ 118. The Saying of Christ, “Destroy this Temple,” &c.—Additional Exposition of it given by John.

Some of the priests asked Christ by what signs he could prove his authority to act thus. He gave them an answer, at once reproof and prophecy, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The most natural and apparent interpretation of these words, according to the circumstances under which they were uttered, laying no particular stress upon the specification of “three days,” would be the following: “When you, by your ungodliness, which desecrates all that is holy, have brought about the destruction of the Temple, then will I build it up again;” alluding (according to the mode of conception every where prevalent in the New Testament) to the relation between Christianity and Judaism. The kingdom of God had a common basis in both; the new spiritual Temple which Christ is to erect among men is, therefore, represented as the Temple at Jerusalem, rebuilt after its destruction; the latter being a symbol of the destruction of the entire Jewish worship, which was identified with the Temple itself. The Temple and the kingdom of God are identical in Judaism and in Christianity:268268   Just as the “House of God” (Heb., iii., 2-6) is made the same in both dispensations; as the later one fulfills the law of the older. I cannot see any force in Kling’s objections (Stud. u. Krit., 1836, i., 127). The καινόν is already implied in the ἐγείρειν. there, in a form particular and typical; here, in a form corresponding to its essence, and intended for all men and all ages. As Christ is conscious that the desecrated and ruined Temple will be raised up by him in greater splendour, he acts upon this consciousness, as reformer of the old Temple, in the very beginning of those labours which are to lay the foundation of the new and spiritual one.

But what a glance into futurity was required in him thus to foretell 171not only the ruin of the Temple by the guilt of the Jews—the dissolution of their worship being necessarily identified therewith—but also the erection of the spiritual Edifice that was to take its place; to predict in himself the mightiest achievement in the history of humanity, at a time when but a few apparently insignificant men had joined him, and even they had but a distant dawning idea of what he intended to accomplish! So vast a meaning was involved in those dark words—dark, as all prophecies are dark! An analogous meaning was contained in his expression on another occasion, “Here is something greater than the Temple;269269   See above, p. 89. showing, perhaps, that he was accustomed thus to point from the temporary Temple to the higher one which had already appeared, and which would still further reveal itself in the course of his labours.

Among the accusations brought against Christ by the false witnesses, at a later period, was this, that he had said, “I am able to destroy the Temple of God, and to build it in three days.”270270   Matt., xxvi., 61. Some may suppose that the editor of our Greek Matthew may have been ignorant of the occasion and the true sense on which the words were uttered by Christ, and therefore attributed them entirely to the invention of the witnesses. It is likely, however, that the testimony was called false by Matthew, because the witnesses perverted, and put a false construction on Christ’s real words; he had not said that “he would destroy the Temple,” but (what is very different) that its destruction would be brought about by the guilt of the Jews. The priests might very naturally have falsely reported the words, in order to put a sense upon them that would not bear against themselves so closely, and which, at the same time, would appear more obnoxious to the people. In Mark, xiv., 58, the words are still more perverted by the false witnesses: “I will destroy this Temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another.”271271   Mark observes (xiv., 59): “But neither so did their witness agree together.” Not that they understood Christ that he would build a spiritual temple instead of the visible one; but, probably, that he could, after destroying the latter, replace it in greater glory by magic (after the visionary representations of the Chiliasts), or cause one to descend from heaven. Even one of the thieves on the cross malevolently quoted these words against Christ. All this shows that, whatever amazement the words excited, they had made a great and general impression.272272   It is a special confirmation of John’s Gospel that he alone gives the natural occasion for the utterance of these words by Christ, and their original form. Strauss, however, thinks that the original form of the expression was that put into Stephen’s mouth by his accusers, Acts, vi., 14; and that the “three days” were added subsequently, with reference to the resurrection. But these are not Stephen’s words, nor is it even attributed to him that he quoted Christ’s, but only that he uttered a thought of his own, perhaps derived from them. At any rate, the mention of the “ three days” would have been unsuited to the thought ascribed to Stephen. The interpolation of the words “three days” is more improbable, as neither Matthew nor Mark explain them at all; on the contrary, it is much more likely that the presence of the words led to their being applied subsequently to the resurrection, than that the resurrection itself led to their interpolation.


The faithfulness of John is strikingly shown by the way in which he distinguishes his own interpretation of these words of Christ from the words themselves.273273   It may be disputed whether John’s interpretation is intended to give the exact sense in which Christ used the words [or only accommodated them to the resurrection, as is perhaps implied in the 22d verse, “when, therefore, he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them”]. An instance of such accommodation, of words uttered by Christ, in a sense different from the original one, is found in John, xviii., 9; although, in this case, John must have known that he applied them differently, and was glad to find them admit such application. John’s authority, in regard to the sense of the words of the Master whom he followed so devoutly, and whose sayings he preserved so faithfully, is necessarily of great weight; still, in the explanation of special expressions [as to their original import], the natural relations and connexions might compel us to deviate from him. Nor would this at all conflict with Inspiration, rightly understood, which would only require that the explanation given by the Evangelist should be true in itself, although the words might not be applied with Christ’s original meaning. He would none the less be the proclaimer of the whole truth made known to him by the illumination of the Holy Ghost. The mention of the “three days” (which cannot, indeed, be easily explained, except by the resurrection) might have led the author of this Gospel, who always dwelt with peculiar fondness upon every thing that concerned the person of Christ, at once to think of his resurrection. The interpretation given by the Evangelist is a further proof against the theory that this Gospel had a later Hellenistic or Alexandrian origin. It would have accorded much better with the taste of that school to apply Christ’s words, in the grand prophetic bearing, to the building of the spiritual Temple (the νυὸς πνευματικός, in place of the ναὸς ἀισθητός) than to the resurrection of his body. Christ, in uttering them (according to John’s explanation), pointed to his own body [referring to the resurrection].

Although this does not appear to bear so directly upon the aim of Christ at the time, and upon the question of the Jews, as the view given above, it yet may involve the following deeper import, viz.: “The Temple at Jerusalem is only a temporary place consecrated to God; but Christ, in his human nature, shall build up the everlasting Temple of God for man. The former shall be destroyed, and not rebuilt; but the body of Christ, the temple of the indwelling Divine Nature, shall rise triumphant out of death.”274274   I agree with Kling’s (1. c.) refutation of certain modern objections to John’s explanation, and also with his view of the impossibility of connecting the two interpretations together.

The first interpretation seems to us more simple, and to connect itself snore naturally with Christ’s intention; but the latter has the advantage in giving a more intelligible bearing to the “three days.”275275   Many passages have been quoted by others to prove that “three days” must necessarily mean a time of short duration, but I am not yet convinced of it. In general, it means “a round number,” and we must learn from the context whether a longer or shorter period is intended. In this case the contrast with the length of time taken to build the Temple justifies us in assuming that a short period is meant. The new spiritual Temple, the progressive developement of the new spiritual kingdom of God, did in fact immediately follow the overthrow of the old form of the Theocracy.

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