And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep rad the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; and said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, 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 2:13-21
The miracle at the marriage feast drew a marked line of distinction between Jesus, the Baptist, and the austere Essenes, those eremites who dwelt apart; shut up in a kind of monastic seclusion, and who renounced the use of wine, condemned marriage, and denounced all bodily indulgence as injurious to the purity of the spirit. By acting as He did in Cana, Jesus at the very outset of His career placed Himself in direct opposition to the strictest class of pietists then existing—in direct opposition to the spirit and practice of these in all ages who have sought, by withdrawal from the world and estrangement from all objects of sense, to cultivate communion with the unseen, to rise to a closer intercourse with and nearer resemblance to the Deity.
One effect of the first display by Jesus of His supernatural power was a strengthening of the faith of the men who had recently attached themselves to Him. “His disciples,” it is said, “believed in Him.” They had believed before, but they believed more firmly now. The ground of their first faith had been the testimony of John the Baptist. Their faith had grown during the few days of private intercourse with Jesus which ‘succeeded, and now, by manifestation of His power and glory, it was still more strengthened. It was still, as later trial too clearly proved, weak and imperfect. But their mind and hearts were in such a condition that they open to the influence of additional light as to their Master’s, additional evidence of His authority and power. But there were other spectators of the miracle upon whom it exerted no such happy influence. After the marriage feast of Cana broke up, “Jesus and His mother and His brethren, and His disciples went down to Capernaum.” This is the first mention of those brethren of Christ who appear more than once in the subsequent history, always associated with Mary, as forming part of her family, carefully distinguished from the apostles and disciples of the Lord. They are represented on one occasion as going after Him, thinking He was beside Himself; and when He was told that Mary and they stood at the outskirts of the crowd desiring to see Him, He exclaimed, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren? Whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, the same is my brother, my sister, and mother.” On another occasion, the Nazarenes referred to them when, astonished and offended, they said to one another, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not His mother called Mary, and His brethren James, and Joses, and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?” John tells that at a still later period, in the beginning of the last year of our Lord’s ministry, these relatives taunted Him, saying, “If thou do these things, show thyself to the world; for neither did His brethren believe in Him.” Had we been reading these messages for the first time, we should scarcely have understood them otherwise than as referring to those who were related to Jesus as children of the same mother. This would, of course, imply that Mary had other children than Jesus, an idea to which from the earliest period there seems to have been the strongest repugnance. Resting upon the well-known usage which allowed the term brother and sister to be extended to more distant relationships, and upon the acknowledged difficulty which arises in connection with the names of our Lord’s brothers as given by the Evangelists, both the Greek and the Latin Churches though adopting different theories as to the exact nature of the relationship, have indignantly repudiated the idea of Mary’s having any but one child and have regarded those spoken of as His brothers as being either His half brothers, sons of Joseph by another marriage, or His cousins, the children of Mary’s sister, the wife of Alphaeus or Cleophas. It would be out of place here to enter upon a discussion of the difficult question. Suffice it to say that, after weighing all the objections which have been adduced, there appears to be no sufficient reason for rejecting the first and the most natural reading of the passages referred to, for not believing that they were brothers and sisters of Jesus, who grew up along with Him in the household at Nazareth. Perhaps our readiness to admit this may partly spring from our not sharing the impression that there is anything in such a belief either derogatory to the character of Mary, or to the true dignity of her first-born Son.
Whoever they were, and however related to Him, these brethren of the Lord, his nearest relatives, who had all along been living, if not under the same roof, yet in close and intimate acquaintance with Him, sat beside His disciples at that marriage feast, and saw the wonder that was done, and they did not believe. As months rolled on, they saw and heard of still greater wonders wrought in the presence of multitudes. Residing with Mary at Capernaum, they lived in the very heart of that commotion which the teaching and acts of Jesus excited. Neither did they then believe. Their unbelief may have been in part sustained by Christ’s having ceased to make their home His home, and chosen twelve strangers as His close and constant companions and friends. Nor did any of them believe in Jesus all through the three years of His ministry. But it is pleasing to note that, though so long and so stubbornly maintained, their unbelief did at last give way; you see them in the upper room to which the apostles retired after witnessing the ascension. “And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter and James, and John and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren.” How many an apt remark on the peculiar barriers which the closer ties of domestic life often oppose to the influence of the one Christian member of a household, and on the peculiar encouragement which such a one had to persevere, might be grounded upon the fact that it was not till after His death that our Lord’s own immediate relatives believed in Him.
When the marriage feast at Cana was over, Jesus and His mother, and His brethren, and His disciples went down to Capernaum. One advantage of the short visit that Jesus now paid to it was, that it put Him on the route along which the already gathering bands of visitors from northern Galilee passed southward to the capital. The Passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Hitherto, though some time had passed (two or three months perhaps, but there are no materials for exactly determining) since His baptism, and the public proclamation of His Messiahship, Jesus had taken no public step, none implying any assumption on His part on the office to which He had been designated. Of the few men who attended Him, there was but one whom He had asked to follow Him; nor was it yet understood whether He and the rest were to accompany Him for more than a few days. The miracle at Cana was rather of a private and domestic than of a public character. Nothing that we know of was said or done by Jesus at Capernaum or throughout the short visit of Galilee, to indicate His entrance upon a public career.
But now He is in Jerusalem, in the place where most appropriately the first revelation of Himself in His new character is made. Let us acknowledge that it is not in the form in which we should have expected it; nor in that form in which any Jew of that age would ever have imagined that the Messiah should first show Himself. We may be able, by meditating a little upon it to see more of its suitableness than at first sight appears. But even at first glance how utterly unlike it was to the popular Jewish conception of the advent of the Messiah. One of the first things our Lord does at Jerusalem is to go up to the temple. He passes through one of the gates of its surrounding walls. He enters into the large open area which on all sides encompasses the sacred edifice. What a spectacle meets His eye. There, all around, attached to the walls, are lines of booths or shops in which money changers are plying their usurious trade. The center space is crowded with oxen and with sheep exposed for sale and between the buyers and the sellers all the turbulent traffic of a cattle market is going on. It goes on within the outer enclosure, but close upon the inner buildings of the Holy Place; so close that the loud hum of the outer court of the Gentiles must have been heard to no small disturbance by the priests and worshippers within. How comes all this? The origin of it in one sense is natural enough. At all the great festivals, but especially at the Passover, an almost inconceivable number of animals were offered up in sacrifice. Josephus tells us of more than two hundred thousand victims sacrificed in the course of a single Passover celebration. The greatest portion of these were not brought up from the country by the offerers, but were purchased upon their arrival at Jerusalem. An extensive traffic, yielding no inconsiderable gain to those engaged in it, was thus created. Some open area for conducting it was needed. The heads of the priesthood, to whom the custody of the temple was committed, saw that good rents were got for any suitable market ground which the city would supply. They were tempted to fill their coffers from this source. Jerusalem could furnish no place so suitable for the exposure of the animals as the court of the Gentiles. What more convenient than that the victims should be purchased in the very neighborhood of the place where they were offered up? The greed of gain prevailed over all care for the sanctity of the temple. The Court of the Gentiles was let out to the cattle dealers, and a large amount was thus added to the yearly revenue of the temple. Still another source of gain lay open, and was taken advantage of. Everyone who came up to the Passover, and desired to take part in the festival, had to present a half shekel of Jewish money to the priests. This kind of money was not now in general use; it was scarce even in Judea, unknown beyond that land. Nothing, however, but the half shekel of the sanctuary would be taken at the temple. To supply themselves with the needed coin, visitors had to go to the money changers. And where can he find a better place to erect his booth and set out his table than within the very area in which the larger traffic was going on? He offers so much to the priesthood to be permitted to do so; the bribe is taken and the booth and the tables are erected. And so amid a perfect Babel of tongues, and thronging, jostling crowds of men and beasts, the buying and the selling and the money changing are all going on.
Into the heart of the tumultuous throng Jesus enters. Of the many hundreds there, few have ever seen Him before; few know anything about Him, either about His baptism in the Jordan, or His late miracle at Cana. He appears as a stranger, a young man clad in the simple garb of a Galilean peasant, without any badge of authority in His hand. He looks around with an eye of indignant sorrow, pours out the changers’ money, overthrows their tables, forming a scourge of small cords, drives the herds of cattle before Him, and mingling consideration with zeal, says to them who sold the doves, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.” Why is it that at the touch of His slender scourge, and the bidding of the youthful stranger, buyers and sellers stop their traffic, the money changers suffer their money to be rudely handled, and their tables to be overthrown? The slightest resistance of so many against one would have been sufficient to have arrested the movement. But no such resistance is attempted, no opposition is made, by men not likely by their occupation to be remarkable for mildness of disposition or pliability of character. How are we to explain this? We can understand how, at the last Passover, at the close of His ministry, when Jesus, then so well known, so generally recognized by the people as a prophet, repeated this cleansing of the temple, there should have been a yielding to His authoritative command. But what are we to say of such an occurrence taking place at the very commencement of His ministry, His first public act at Jerusalem? It is a mysterious power which some men, in time of excitement, by look and word and tone of command, can exercise over their fellow-men. But grant that rare power in the highest degree to Jesus, it will scarcely account for this scene in the court of the Gentiles at Jerusalem. It would seem as if, in eye and voice and action, the divine power and authority that lay in Jesus broke forth into visible manifestation, and laid such a spell upon those rough cattle drivers and those cold calculators of the money tables, that all power of resistance was for the time subdued. It would seem as if it pleased Him to exert here within the temple the same influence that He did afterwards in the Garden, when He stepped forth from the darkness into the full moonlight, and said to the rough band that advanced with their lanterns and swords and staves to take Him, “I that speak unto you am He”; and when at the sight and word they reeled backward and fell to the ground, the effect in both cases was but temporary. High priests and officers were soon upon their feet again; and, wondering at their own weakness in yielding to a power which at the moment they were impotent to resist, proceeded to lay hold upon Jesus, and lead Him away to Caiaphas. So was it also, we believe, in the temple court. A sudden, mysterious, irresistible power is upon that crowd. They yield, they know not why. But by and by the spell would seem to be withdrawn. They soon recover from its effect. Nor is it long till, wondering at their having allowed a single man, and one who had no right whatever, to interfere with arrangements made by the chief authorities, and to lord it over them, they return, resume their occupations, and all goes on as before.
It was no intention or expectation of putting an end in this way to the desecration of the Holy Place that Jesus acted. What, then, was the purpose of His act? It was meant to be a public proclamation of His Sonship to God; an open assertion and exercise of His authority as sustaining this relation; a protest in the Father’s name against the conduct of the priesthood in permitting this desecration in the Holy Place. It was far more for the priesthood than for the crowd in the market place that it was meant. They were not ignorant that the chief object of the ministry of the Baptist, with which the whole country was ringing, was to announce the immediate coming of the Messiah. They had not long before sent a deputation to the banks of the Jordan to ask John whether he himself were not the Messiah, whose near advent he was foretelling. The members of that deputation heard of the baptism of Jesus; in all likelihood they had not left the place when Jesus came back from the temptation in the wilderness, and was publicly pointed to by John as the greater than himself who was to come after him, the Lamb of God, the Son of God. From the lips of the men whom they had sent, or from the lips of others, they must have known all about what had happened. And now here among them is this Jesus of Nazareth; here He is come up to the temple, speaking and acting as if it were His part and office authoritatively to interpose and cleanse the building of all its defilements. What else could the priesthood who had charge of the temple understand than that here was claimed a jurisdiction in regard to it superior to their own? What else could they understand when the words were heard, or were repeated to them, “Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise,” than that here was One Who claimed a relationship to God as His Father, and a right over the temple as His Father’s house, which none could claim? They go to Him, therefore, or they call Him before them, and entering, you will remark, into no justification of their own deed in hiring out the temple court as they had done,—entering into no argument with Him as to the rightness or wrongness of what He had done, rather admitting that if He were indeed a prophet, as His acts showed that He at least pretended to be, His act was justifiable; they proceed upon the assumption that He was bound to give some proof of His carrying a divine commission, and they say to Him, “What sign showeth thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?”
He had shown a good enough sign already, had they read it aright. He was about to show signs numerous and significant enough in the days that immediately succeeded; but to such a haughty challenge as this, coming, as He knew, from men whom no sign would convince of His Messiahship, He had but this reply: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” A truly dark saying; one that, not only they did not and could not at the time understand, but that they were almost certain to misunderstand, and, misunderstanding, to turn against the speaker, as if He meant to claim the possession of a power which He never could be called upon to exercise. Then said the Jews, interpreting, as they could scarcely fail to do, His words as applicable to the material temple: “Forty and six years has this temple been in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?”
Jesus made no attempt to rectify the error into which his questioners had fallen. He could not well have done so without a premature disclosure of His death and resurrection, a thing that He carefully avoided till the time of their accomplishment drew near. He left this mysterious saying to be interpreted against Himself. It seems to have taken a deep hold, to have been widely circulated, and to have fixed itself very deeply in the memory of the people. Three years afterwards, when they were trying to convict Him of some crime in reference to religion, this first saying of His was brought up against Him, as one uttered blasphemously against the temple, but the two witnesses could not agree about the words. And when the cross was raised, those who passed by railed on Him, saying, “Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself.” Whatever differences there were in the remembrances and reports of the people, in one thing they agreed, in the attributing the destruction of the temple that Jesus had spoken of here, to Himself. But He had not spoken of the destruction as affected by His own hands, but by those of the Jews themselves. And He had not had in His eye the material temple on Mount Moriah, but the temple of His body, which they were to destroy, and which He, three days afterwards, was to raise from the dead. All this became plain afterwards, and went, when His real meaning stood revealed in the event, mightily to confirm the faith of His followers. And in one respect it may still go to confirm ours, for does not that saying of Jesus, uttered so early,—His first word, we may say, to the leaders of the people at Jerusalem,—does it not, along with so many other like evidences, go to prove how clearly the Lord saw the end from the beginning?
The temple of Jerusalem has long been in ruins. In its stead their stands before us the Church of the body of Christ, the society of the faithful. In her corporate capacity, in her corporate acting, has the Church not acted over again what the Jews did with their temple, when she has made merchandise with her offices and her revenues, and sold them to the highest bidder, as you would sell oxen in the market or meat in the shambles? The spirit which prompts such open sacrilegious acts, such gross making gain of godliness, is the self-same spirit which the Lord rebuked; and how often does it creep into and take hold and spread like a defiling leprosy over the house of God? It does so in the pulpit, whenever self, in one or other of its insidious forms, frames the speech and animates the utterance; it does so in the pew, when in the hour hallowed to prayer and praise, the chambers of thought and imagery within are crowded with worldly guests. Know ye not, brethren, that ye are the temple of God; and that the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are? Would that have the zeal of the Savior showed in cleansing the earthly building were but shown by each of us in the purifying and the cleansing of our hearts. Truly, it is no easy task to drive out thence everything that defileth in His sight, to keep out as well as to put out; for, quick as were those buyers and sellers of old in coming back to their places in the temple, and resuming their occupations there, quicker still are those vain and sinful desires, dispositions, imaginations, which in our moments of excited zeal we have expelled from our hearts, in returning to their old and well-loved haunts. The Lord of the temple must come Himself to cleanse it; come, not once or twice, as in the case of the temple at Jerusalem; come, not as a transient visitor, but as an abiding guest; not otherwise than by His own indwelling shall those unhallowed inmates be ejected and kept without, and the house made worthy of Him who designs to occupy it.