John’s Gospel is the most “mystical” and symbolic of all the canonical Gospels. In fact, John’s Gospel is so filled with spiritual insight that the Church almost exclusively reads from it during the Paschal (post-Easter) season. This is done because all catechumens are baptized on Great and Holy Saturday, leaving no un-initiated among the laity.
One of the central themes—and it would be easy to identify dozens of “central” themes—of John’s 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 resources where the idea of Jesus-as-Temple has been discussed, and I’ve listed a few of those at the end of this post for further reading. As usual, my goal here is to boil it down for anyone to understand this concept in a simple manner.
In John’s Gospel, we not only see the Temple being recreated through the ministry and miracles of Christ, but also a fulfillment of the three great feasts of the Temple’s liturgical, annual worship cycle: Pentecost, Passover, and Tabernacles. In addition to these, the feast of Dedication, which began in the time of the Maccabean revolt, is also included in John’s recapitulation of the Temple in Christ. It is during these liturgical festivals that Christ performs the seven “signs” of John’s Gospel, 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 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 upon 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 tragic. Christian worship has not “done away with” the Temple worship as a whole; it has fulfilled it (or “Christened” it) in the person of Jesus 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 grafted into the Christian context, not abrogated or eliminated. They were baptized and given new life in Christ, as the shadows became reality and fulfillment.
The major Jewish festivals are all mentioned in John’s Gospel at successive points. The order goes as follows:
Passover (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 (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 / Booths (John 7:1-10:21)
- During Tabernacles, the priests would pour several gallons of water from the Pool of Siloam upon the altar steps, while also keeping the Temple courts continually illuminated with candles
- Jesus goes into the Temple and begins teaching during the festival commemoration, “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!” (John 7:37-38), which is connected with the water poured out 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.” (John 8:12)
Dedication (John 10:22-39)
- This feast was a reminder of the re-consecration of the Temple by the Maccabees while under foreign rule (1 Macc. 4:56)
- During this festival, Jesus calls himself “consecrated” by the Father, as he is walking through Solomon’s porch within the Temple itself
Passover (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 from the Temple itself
- In 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 and development of Scripture—I must point out to our Protestant friends that Jesus both participated in and performed miracles during the feast of Dedication, a festival that is recorded only in the book of Maccabees—a collection of writings that Protestants do not hold to be inspired Scripture.
The connection between Jesus and the Temple is not limited to these festivals alone, and can be found throughout John’s Gospel as well as in other Scriptures (e.g. Hebrews). The apostle John writes of the Λογος that “became flesh and tabernacled among us” (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” (John 1:51), which reminds us of both Jacob’s sanctuary and the presence of God in the Holy of Holies of the Temple.
One might say that all of Christ’s life as recorded in John’s Gospel serves as mystagogy; that is, the revelation of mysteries, or the explanation of the true realities. While showing himself to be the true Temple, Christ has fulfilled and given meaning to the Temple itself. The shadow has become reality. This is why the Orthodox fathers often prefer the word Mysteries for rites like Baptism and the Eucharist, I think, rather than Sacraments. Sacrament often 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.