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How Does John Portray Jesus as the Way of the Temple?
Throughout the Gospel of John, various images and symbols point both ancient and modern Christians to the temple. Significantly, John S. Thompson has observed that the ordering of these temple themes in John’s Gospel appear to outline a progressive path similar to the architectural and ritual program of the Israelite temple. This view can deepen our appreciation for the idea that Jesus’s ministry signals the way for each of us to follow in order to return to the presence of the Father.
As John begins his Gospel, he records that Jesus was in the presence of the Father in the beginning (see John 1:1). According to Thompson, “Early sources regarding the temple theology of the Holy of Holies equate it with the Creation, particularly the first day when Light came into the world. Consequently the Holy of Holies can also represent the pre-Creation presence of God with his heavenly hosts or council. Such themes appear in the initial verses of John’s Gospel.”1
However, Jesus did not remain in the presence of the Father in the Holy of Holies. As John records, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In other words, it could be understood that “the Son descended from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies and came out of the temple into the world.”2 The following events of Christ’s mortal ministry appear to reflect His journey back to the Holy of Holies, taking His disciples with Him and opening the way for all of God’s children to enter His presence again.
The Outer Courtyard
In the temple courtyard, preparatory ordinances were performed allowing entrance to the temple itself.3 These ordinances “focus on the laver of water used by the priests for purification prior to entering the temple and the altar of sacrifice whereon animals, flour, oil, salt, wine, and other offerings were placed.”4 The events in the first six chapters of John appear to focus on courtyard-related themes as well as identify Jesus as the “new sacrifice” of the temple.5
For example, in the Gospel of John the ordinance of baptism—both Jesus’s own baptism, and other baptisms that He and His disciples performed—is mentioned only in the first four chapters.6 At Cana, Jesus performs His first public miracle by turning water “after the manner of the purifying of the Jews” into wine (John 2:6). As Thompson notes, “This is the water customarily used by Jews to cleanse their hands and their feet before entering a house, not unlike the purpose of the laver in the temple courtyard.”7
Additional references to cleansing and healing by water are prominent in the early chapters of John. Jesus identifies the need for baptism, a washing ordinance, to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is represented by the temple precinct (John 3:5).8 In John 4, Jesus identifies Himself as a well of “living waters,” an image steeped in temple tradition.9 Then, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pools of Bethesda, a place which “may have been associated with purification of sacrificial sheep for the temple due to its proximity to the house of God.”10 By healing a man at these waters (which were thought to have healing properties), Jesus further identifies Himself as the living, healing waters of the temple.11
Passover, a prominent Jewish festival that relates to the sacrifices at the temple altar, is often noted by John as the background to the events of these initial chapters. In John 2, when Jesus cleanses the temple, it is Passover season. Jesus is noted as having “the sacrifices removed” before speaking of “the destruction of his own body, describing it as a temple as if to declare that he is the replacement or fulfilment of the temple sacrifices.”12 The Bread of Life Sermon recorded in John 6 also occurred during the Passover season (John 6:4). In this sermon Jesus identifies Himself not only as the manna that came down from heaven but also as the paschal lamb and the wine. Lamb, bread, and wine were offered daily at the temple altar (Exodus 29:38–42).13
The Holy Place
In John 7–10, John shifts from Passover to events of Jesus’s ministry that occurred during festivals that focus on the temple itself—namely the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication—thus drawing readers’ minds to the Holy Place in the ancient temple. One of the prominent symbols employed in these chapters is the divine light emanating from God in the temple, symbolized by the menorah of the Holy Place. This is especially apparent during the Feast of Tabernacles, during which time candelabras were set up in the temple courtyard to extend the light of the menorah outward.14 It is during this feast that Jesus likewise declared, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The imagery of the light of the temple is also connected with the healing of a man born blind. Jesus heals this man by anointing his eyes with mud and directing him to wash in the Pool of Siloam (see John 9:6–7). According to Thompson, “The ritual manner in which the blind man’s eyes are opened echo ancient temple-related rites of opening the mouth and eyes of priests, prophets, and others prior to their service in the temple or ascent to heaven. Consequently, the eyes are prepared to receive more than natural light; rather, they are prepared to receive a higher, divine ‘light.’”15
Later, at the Feast of Dedication, Jesus likewise refers to His own anointing by the Father. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus stated, “Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” However, the Greek word translated in the King James Version as “sanctified” in this verse “is used for those who are consecrated for important work or high office, including priests.”16 By mentioning such an anointing, Jesus would have likewise drawn His audience’s mind to the temple.
Jesus further indicated His special relationship with the temple in John 8 and 10. In John 8:35, Jesus declares that “the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.” Jesus’s declaration in the temple courtyard would “make sense in the context of the feast of tabernacles wherein the Messiah, a son of God, is celebrated as the king in his temple.”17 Further, in John 10, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd,18 who is said to dwell “between the cherubims” in Psalm 80:1, a clear reference to the Lord’s enthroned status in His temple. It is only fitting, then, that the next portion of John’s Gospel involves preparations to enter the Holy of Holies to behold the enthroned Shepherd of Israel.
Entering the Holy of Holies
John ends His Gospel with a focus on the Resurrection and entering again the presence of God. While baptism may have been the prerequisite to enter the temple (see John 3:5), “resurrection can arguably be situated at the inner threshold or veil of the temple where one is ‘born’ into the Holy of Holies.”19 Jesus not only teaches about His own impending death and Resurrection but also declares Himself to be “the resurrection, and the life” whereby we can enter the presence of God (John 11:25).20
In John 12, Jesus is anointed by Mary of Bethany preparatory for His death and Resurrection (see John 12:7).21 This is shortly followed by His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in which Jesus is said to come in the name of the Lord and at which the Father’s voice declares that His name is glorified (see John 12:12–15, 23–28).
In these last events of Jesus’s life, John returns his readers to the Passover (John 11:55). Likewise, after the events that took place on Mount Sinai, the house of Israel began its final journey to the promised land with a second Passover (see Numbers 9). Repetition appears to be a hallmark of many of Jesus’s teachings in these later chapters (as it is in the temple), but these later repetitions appear to be of a higher order. For example, during the last private moments Jesus spent teaching His Apostles, He alludes to a previous washing but again washes the feet of His disciples, which ordinance He links to being able to follow Him into the Holy of Holies.22 Finally, Jesus offers the great intercessory prayer, in the which He declares that He has revealed the name of the Father to His disciples and prays for them to be able to follow Him into the presence of the Father (see John 17).23
Standing in the Presence of God
Finally, the veil is parted, as it were, and the disciples at long last see the resurrected Son of God. Jesus’s Resurrection is linked not only with His ascent to the Father’s presence (see John 20:17) but also with the Apostles’ entering the Holy of Holies and going out as high priestly representatives of the Father and the Son capable of remitting sins: “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. … Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John 20:21, 23).24
Because Jesus is the way of temple, His life offers the world the greatest example for how to obtain life eternal. Indeed, Jesus points His disciples to His temple through all aspects of His life and ministry. By following His example, we all can find ourselves once again on a path toward the presence of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
King Benjamin taught the Nephites, “There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17). As faithful sons and daughters of God follow Jesus’s example and make covenants with Him in baptism, in partaking of the sacrament, and in embracing the ordinances of the Holy Temple, they are able to take upon themselves His sacred name, permitting and enabling them to follow Him in the covenant path toward our heavenly home and partaking of all the blessings promised to His faithful disciples.
John S. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus as the Way of the Temple,” in The Temple: Ancient and Restored, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and Donald W. Parry (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation; Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2016), 309–335.
Jackson Abhau, New Testament Minute: John, ed. John W. Welch (Springville, UT: Scripture Central, 2022).
- 1. John S. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus as the Way of the Temple,” in The Temple: Ancient and Restored, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and Donald W. Parry (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation; Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2016), 310.
- 2. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 310–311.
- 3. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 311–313.
- 4. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 313, citing Exodus 30:17–21; Leviticus 1:2; 2:1, 13; 23:13.
- 5. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 313.
- 6. See John 1:29–34; 3:22, 26; 4:1–2.
- 7. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 313.
- 8. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 314.
- 9. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 314. See also Book of Mormon Central, “How Can Jesus Provide to All People the Waters of Life? (John 4:14),” KnoWhy 658 (February 14, 2023).
- 10. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 314.
- 11. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 314.
- 12. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 313.
- 13. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 315. See also Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Jesus Use Passover Imagery in His Bread of Life Sermon? (John 6:35),” KnoWhy 664 (March 28, 2023).
- 14. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 317.
- 15. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 317–318.
- 16. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 319.
- 17. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 318.
- 18. See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Jesus Say That There Were “Other Sheep” Who Would Hear His Voice? (3 Nephi 15:21; cf. John 10:16),” KnoWhy 207 (October 12, 2016).
- 19. Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 320.
- 20. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 320.
- 21. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 321. Thompson sees an allusion in the house being filled with the oil’s perfume and Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple wherein the house of the Lord was filled with the smoke from the incense altar (see John 12:3; Isaiah 6:1–4).
- 22. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 322–323.
- 23. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 324–326.
- 24. See Thompson, “How John’s Gospel Portrays Jesus,” 326–327.
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