Question: What did the Savior mean when He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”?
Answer: Jesus was referring to his body, which He would raise up (resurrect) within three days after being crucified.
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57 And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying,
58 We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.
59 But neither so did their witness agree together (they contradicted each other also).
18 Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?
19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. (In other words, I am the Messiah. When you kill me, as prophesied, I will resurrect in three days.)
20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
21 But he spake of the temple of his body.
22 When therefore he was risen from the dead (resurrected), his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.
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“Though frustrated in their desire to arouse popular indignation against Jesus at this time, the Jews refused to forget or forgive His words. When afterward He stood an undefended prisoner, undergoing an illegal pretense of trial before a sin-impeached court, the blackest perjury uttered against Him was that of the false witnesses who testified: ‘We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.’
“And while He hung in mortal suffering, the scoffers who passed by the cross wagged their heads and taunted the dying Christ with ‘Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down from the cross.’ Yet His words to the Jews who had demanded the credentials of a sign had no reference to the colossal Temple of Herod, but to the sanctuary of His own body, in which, more literally than in the man-built Holy of Holies, dwelt the ever living Spirit of the Eternal God. “ ...
“He spake of the temple of His body, the real tabernacle of the Most High. This reference to the destruction of the temple of His body, and the renewal thereof after three days, is His first recorded prediction relating to His appointed death and resurrection. Even the disciples did not comprehend the profound meaning of His words until after His resurrection from the dead; then they remembered and understood.
“The priestly Jews were not as dense as they appeared to be, for we find them coming to Pilate while the body of the crucified Christ lay in the tomb, saying: ‘Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.’ Though we have many records of Christ having said that He would die and on the third day would rise again, the plainest of such declarations were made to the apostles rather than openly to the public. The Jews who waited upon Pilate almost certainly had in mind the utterance of Jesus when they had stood, nonplussed (puzzled) before Him, at the clearing of the temple courts. (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 12, “Early Incidents in our Lord’s Public Ministry.”
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Richard D. Draper:
The Savior Taught a Physical Resurrection
From the outset of his ministry, the Lord made it clear there would be a resurrection involving his physical body. When challenged by rulers demanding some sign of his authorization to clear the temple of profane vendors and money changers, Jesus declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
“Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
“But he spake of the temple of his body” (John 2:19–21).
Although during his mortal ministry the Lord often introduced to his disciples the subject of his death and resurrection, it was not until after his death that they comprehended his words (see John 2:22).
In a public discourse, Jesus taught openly the idea of his resurrection: “I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
“No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17–18).
At this many cried out, “He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?” (John 10:20.)
Even the Twelve, when Jesus attempted to prepare them for his upcoming death and resurrection, were confused by the seemingly strange doctrine that “they [the Gentiles] shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again” (Luke 18:31–33). This teaching is straightforward, yet Jesus’ disciples “understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:34).
Note Luke’s insistence on a complete lack of comprehension on the part of the disciples. His comment that the Lord’s sayings were “hid” from them does not mean that the Lord deliberately veiled his teachings on the Resurrection. He taught the idea often enough that it is evident that he was trying to make the doctrine clear. But the idea was too foreign for his disciples to readily accept.
After recording Jesus as saying “The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that … he shall rise the third day,” Mark adds, “but they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:31–32). This account suggests that the disciples heard the doctrine but chose not to inquire into it, while Matthew’s version suggests there was at least limited understanding: “Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men:
“And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry” (Matt. 17:22–23; emphasis added; see also Matt. 16:21–22).
The Gospel narratives agree that before the Lord’s resurrection, the disciples did not comprehend the doctrine. They understood that he would go to Jerusalem and there die, but they do not seem to have grasped what would happen after that. Yet after they had received an outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles were able to view the Resurrection with new eyes. In stressing the disciples’ difficulty in accepting the Resurrection, the Gospel record reinforces its authors’ integrity and credibility; for only after they had become sure believers in the Resurrection themselves would they embrace and proclaim it as verily true.
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Sources: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 90; The New Testament Made Easier, Part 1, Volume 2, by David J. Ridges, 152, 262; Excerpt from Ensign, April 1994, Richard D. Draper, “The Reality of the Resurrection.”