And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” —Matthew 27:39-40 ESV
Did Jesus really say he would destroy the temple and build it again in three days?
On Thursday night of Holy Week Jesus was arrested about midnight in the garden of Gethsemane and taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, for a preliminary hearing. Mark 14:56–59 goes like this:
For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” Yet not even so did their testimony agree.
Mark tells us that the witnesses against Jesus got their stories crossed and contradicted each other. Part of their false testifying was that Jesus had said, “I will destroy this temple.” They couldn’t make it stick.
But why did people all over Jerusalem think Jesus said that, if in fact he didn’t? He must have said something to start this rumor. Yes, he did. One time that we know of he had said something like this, but the people had gotten the meaning (and the wording) all wrong. According to John 2, Jesus entered the temple, found it full of commerce, made a whip, and drove out the money changers.
The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body.
So Jesus had said something about destroying the temple and building it again in three days. But from the one record we have of his own wording, he did not say he would destroy the temple, but only that he would raise it up in three days. His words were, “Destroy this temple (you destroy this temple), and I will raise it in three days.” That’s why the false witnesses at his hearing could not ruin him. He had not said he wanted to destroy any temple. He had said others would destroy it, and he would build it again in three days.
The Jews’ Demand for a Sign
The reason Jesus said this was because the Jews demanded asign to prove his right to take such authority in the temple when he drove out the money changers. “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” And Jesus’ answer is: “When you destroy this temple, I will build it again in three days.” This is essentially the same answer he gave to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 12:38, 39. It says, “Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.'” The sign of Jonah coming out alive after three days in the fish and the sign of Jesus rebuilding the temple in three days are the same—they both refer to the resurrection of Jesus. Both these sayings prove that Jesus did predict his death and resurrection. The early church did not make up such difficult sayings and put them in Jesus’ mouth in order to support their hoax. All Jerusalem knew Jesus had said something about rebuilding the temple in three days. There is no escape: Jesus foresaw and predicted not only his death (which an ordinary person could do), but also his resurrection (which no ordinary person could do).
It is a supreme irony, then, that the people at the cross should look on the dying Savior and mock him with their own misunderstanding of this saying. For them it was a boastful claim to earthly power. So they said: If you have such power, save yourself. But for Jesus it was a loving statement of his intention to accept the cross but then to overcome it with his resurrection.
When they cry, “Save yourself, if you have enough power to build this temple in three days,” Jesus could have said, “I will—in three days, after I have lost myself for your sake.” Isn’t this what makes us love Jesus? The immense power at his disposal, like an atom bomb casually carried in his back pocket, but not used on his enemies until he has given all that holy love can give.