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“Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
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).
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