Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy (kataluo) the temple and build it (oikodomeo) in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." (Matthew 27:39-40 NRSV)
As I was thinking about this verse some time ago my curiosity was aroused to investigate the original words to see if there might be a discrepancy between what Jesus was quoted as saying by His enemies and what He actually had said originally. It should come as little surprise that these men did in fact misquote Jesus and twisted His words to insinuate something He had never said.
I have included the Greek words used for the English translation to reveal how these religious people tried to imply that Jesus had threatened their sacred icon, their holy temple rather than His referring to something totally different. Their prejudice was so strong because of their devotion to a building that they had elevated its honor above any real devotion to God. As a result, when God in person showed up and was speaking to them they so resisted His messages of truth about Himself that they accuseed Him of blaspheming the temple which had subtly replaced Him as their current god.
To explain this, first let me share Strong's meanings for the words used in this verse and then compare that with the original statement that Jesus made which they misquoted along with its Greek words.
Kataluo = to loosen down (disintegrate), i.e. (by implication) to demolish (literally or figuratively); specially to halt for the night:--destroy, dissolve, be guest, lodge, come to nought, overthrow, throw down.
Oikodomeo = to be a house-builder, i.e. construct or (figuratively) confirm:--(be in) build(-er, -ing, up), edify, embolden.
Accepting the main definition for both of these words it is clear that these Jews were accusing Jesus of suggesting a demolition of the literal temple building about which they felt fiercely protective. Both of the words they used clearly imply that Jesus supposedly had threatened to attack their primary icon of religion and then somehow would reconstruct it within three days.
These religious leaders often reacted in violent anger whenever anyone even so much as hinted that there might be something imperfect about their rituals, their religion or their temple. Their whole system of worship had become so linked to the temple and its services that their very identity and value had become dependent on the forms and rituals revolving around this temple. Any suggestion of another option for religion, even that of having a deeper relationship with the God of heaven whom they claimed to follow, was viewed as antagonistic to their 'true religion' and clear heresy.
So, what were the actual words Jesus said that were misused as evidence of heresy against Him? Was there enough clarity in His original words to make them plain so those who were not blinded by extreme prejudice would have reasonably known what He was really trying to communicate?
The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy (luo) this temple, and in three days I will raise it (egeiro) up." (John 2:18-19)
Luo = a primary verb; to "loosen" (literally or figuratively):--break (up), destroy, dissolve, (un-)loose, melt, put off.
Egeiro = to waken (transitively or intransitively), i.e. rouse (literally, from sleep, from sitting or lying, from disease, from death; or figuratively, from obscurity, inactivity, ruins, nonexistence):--awake, lift (up), raise (again, up), rear up, (a-)rise (again, up), stand, take up.
Notice that the Greek words translated destroy are not that much different between these two references. In fact, the word Jesus used was actually a part of the word the Jews later used. There may be subtle differences that could be clear to those who are familiar with the Greek, but the second set of words help to make the intended meaning of Jesus even more clear.
It can be seen in these definitions that there is a significant contrast between reconstructing a building as implied by the word used in the Jew's accusation against Jesus on the cross, and the word Jesus actually used in His original statement. Rather than referring to a building, Jesus clearly had said that He intended to awaken whatever temple was destroyed. Waking up a temple after three days is vastly different than setting about to rebuild a demolished building and the Jews had not really missed that point. Rather, in their zeal to discredit Jesus in the minds of the people who were quickly losing trust in the established system of religion they were driven to slander Jesus and twist His words to incriminate Him as one seeking to advance rebellion and promote insurrection. In their minds as in millions of minds today, to make any threat against a holy shrine is to attack the god that is represented by that shrine and all of its followers. Indeed, without realizing it the shrine itself becomes the god.
There is another significant clue that sometimes can be overlooked in comparing these verses. In their accusation directed at Jesus while on the cross, they implied that He had threatened to Himself destroy the temple. But when one reads the words Jesus actually spoke it becomes evident that He had foretold that they would be the ones who would destroy the temple He was referring to. And ironically, while these pious men were scoffing at Jesus and misquoting Him they were in the very process of fulfilling the prophecy embedded in His words. They were actively tearing down His temple, the temple of His human body like the one God uses to dwell in each of us. Very soon the destruction would be finished when He finally died. But true to His statement on the third day He would awaken that temple and there was nothing they could do to prevent it.
I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father. (John 10:14-18)
How often do we find ourselves conveniently twisting someone's words to make it seem they meant something different than what they said to further our own agenda? How often do we jump to conclusions by construing people to be a certain way, to fit in a certain mold by labeling them, stereo-typing them or claiming they believe things only because we have put them in a box without honestly listening to them?
I know that I have been on both sides of this issue. I have been misrepresented and accused of teaching what some consider to be heresy while not being given a chance to explain what I believe. I have been lied about, slandered and misquoted in order to discredit my reputation. But I am also guilty of stereo-typing others and assuming that because they subscribe to certain ideas that they must also believe other things that people in that category often believe.
But all of this is a form of dishonesty and deception. In indulging in this kind of behavior we do not allow people the freedom to define for themselves what they actually believe. Yes, it is true that there are many who intentionally use double-talk and try to obscure their real motives or change what they say depending on who is listening. But that does not make excuse us to pass judgment on anyone or jump to conclusions and censor them without first making a serious effort with an open mind to discover their real intentions and beliefs.
Father, remind me to keep a check on my mouth and my thoughts, to refrain from misquoting others in order to discredit them. Grow me in grace and make me more gracious like You. Remind me that true freedom, the freedom that heaven values above all else, is the right by each individual to choose. Without this freedom to believe without coercion or outside condemnation, there is no possibility for true love to exist or flourish. Father, I want Your kind of love to grow in my heart so that the atmosphere that surrounded Jesus will begin to be seen in my life. Do this in me for Your glory, for Your name's sake.