JESUS AT THE PASSOVER.
THE stay of Jesus at Capernaum on this occasion was very short, and it is not improbable that He simply awaited there the starting of the great caravan of the pilgrims, who, at this time, were about to wend their way to the great feast at Jerusalem.
The Synoptists are silent respecting any visit of Christ to the Passover between His twelfth year till His death; and it is St. John alone who, true to the purpose and characteristics of his Gospel, mentions this earliest Passover of Christ's ministry, or gives us any particulars that took place during its progress.
The main event which distinguished it was the purification of the Templean act so ineffectual to conquer the besetting vice of the Jews, that He was obliged to repeat it, with expressions still more stern, at the close of His ministry, and only four days before His death.
We have already seen what vast crowds flocked to the Holy City at the great annual feast. Then, as now, that immense multitude, composed of pilgrims from every land, and proselytes of every nation, brought with them many needs. The traveller who now visits Jerusalem at Easter time will make his way to the gates of the Church of the Sepulchre through a crowd of vendors of relics, souvenirs, and all kinds of objects, who, squatting on the ground, fill all the vacant space before the church and overflow into the adjoining street. Far more numerous and far more noisome must have been the buyers and sellers who choked the avenues leading to the Temple, in the Passover to which Jesus now went among the other pilgrims; for what they had to sell were not only trinkets and knick-knacks, such as now are sold to Eastern pilgrims, but oxen, and sheep, and doves. On both sides of the eastern gatethe gate Shusanas far as Solomon's porch, there had long been established the shops of merchants and the banks of money-changers. The latter were almost a necessity; for, twenty days before the Passover, the priests began to collect the old sacred tribute of half a shekel paid yearly by every Israelite, whether rich or poor, as atonement money for his soul, and applied to the expenses of the Tabernacle service. Now it would not be lawful to pay this in the coinage brought from all kinds of governments, sometimes represented by wretched counters of brass and copper, and always defiled with heathen symbols and heathen inscriptions. It was lawful to send this money to the priests from a distance, but every Jew who presented himself in the Temple preferred to pay it in person. He was therefore obliged to procure the little silver coin in return for his own currency, and the money-changers charged him five per cent. as the usual kolbon or agio.
Had this trafficking been confined to the streets immediately adjacent to the holy building, it would have been excusable though not altogether seemly. Such scenes are described by heathen writers as occurring round the Temple of Venus at Mount Eryx, and of the Syrian goddess at Hierapolisnay even, to come nearer home, such scenes once occurred in our own St. Paul's. But the mischief had not stopped here. The vicinity of the Court of the Gentiles, with its broad spaces and long arcades, had been too tempting to Jewish greed. We learn from the Talmud that a certain Babha Ben Buta had been the first to introduce "3,000 sheep of the flocks of Kedar into the Mountain of the House"i.e., into the Court of the Gentiles, and therefore within the consecrated precincts. The profane example was eagerly followed. The chanujôth of the shopkeepers, the exchange booths of the usurers, gradually crept into the sacred enclosure. There, in the actual Court of the Gentiles, steaming with heat in the burning April day, and filling the Temple with stench and filth, were penned whole flocks of sheep and oxen, while the drovers and pilgrims stood bartering and bargaining around them. There were the men with their great wicker cages filled with doves, and under the shadow of the arcades, formed by quadruple rows of Corinthian columns, sat the money-changers with their tables covered with piles of various small coins, while, as they reckoned and wrangled in the most dishonest of trades, their greedy eyes twinkled with the lust of gain. And this was the entrance-court to the Temple of the Most High! The court which was a witness that that house should be a House of Prayer for all nations had been degraded into a place which, for foulness, was more like shambles, and for bustling commerce more like a densely-crowded bazaar; while the lowing of oxen, the bleating of sheep, the Babel of many languages, the huckstering and wrangling, and the clinking of money and of balances (perhaps not always just), might be heard in the adjoining courts, disturbing the chant of the Levites and the prayers of priests!
Filled with a righteous scorn at all this mean irreverence, burning with irresistible and noble indignation, Jesus, on entering the Temple, made a scourge of the rushes that lay on the floor; and in order to cleanse the sacred court of its worst pollutions, first drove out, indiscriminately, the sheep and oxen and the low crowd who tended them. Then going to the tables of the money-changers He overthrew them where they stood, upsetting the carefully-arranged heaps of heterogeneous coinage, and leaving the owners to grope and hunt for their scattered money on the polluted floor. Even to those who sold doves He issued the mandate to depart, less sternly indeed, because the dove was the offering of the poor, and there was less desecration and foulness in the presence there of those lovely emblems of innocence and purity; nor could He overturn the tables of the dove-sellers lest the birds should be hurt in their cages; but still, even to those who sold doves, He authoritatively exclaimed, "Take these things hence," justifying His action to the whole terrified, injured, muttering, ignoble crowd in no other words than the high rebuke, "Make not my Father's house a house of merchandise." And His disciples, seeing this transport of inspiring and glorious anger, recalled to mind what David had once written "to the chief musician upon Soshannim," for the service of that very Temple, "The zeal of thine house shall even devour me.
Why did not this multitude of ignorant pilgrims resist? Why did these greedy chafferers content themselves with dark scowls and muttered maledictions, while they suffered their oxen and sheep to be chased into the streets and themselves ejected, and their money flung rolling on the floor, by One who was then young and unknown, and in the garb of despised Galilee? Why, in the same way we might ask, did Saul suffer Samuel to beard him in the very presence of His army? Why did David abjectly obey the orders of Joab? Why did Ahab not dare to arrest Elijah at the door of Naboth's vineyard? Because sin is weakness; because there is in the world nothing so abject as a guilty conscience, nothing so invincible as the sweeping tide of a Godlike indignation against all that is base and wrong. How could these paltry sacrilegious buyers and sellers, conscious of wrongdoing, oppose that scathing rebuke, or face the lightnings of those eyes that were enkindled by an outraged holiness? When Phinehas the priest was zealous for the Lord of Hosts, and drove through the bodies of the prince of Simeon and the Midianitish woman with one glorious thrust of his indignant spear, why did not guilty Israel avenge that splendid murder? Why did not every man of the tribe of Simeon become a Goel to the dauntless assassin? Because Vice cannot stand for one moment before Virtue's uplifted arm. Base and grovelling as they were, these money-mongering Jews felt, in all that remnant of their souls which was not yet eaten away by infidelity and avarice, that the Son of Man was right.
Nay, even the Priests and Pharisees, and Scribes and Levites, devoured as they were by pride and formalism, could not condemn an act which might have been performed by a Nehemiah or a Judas Maccabaeus, and which agreed with all that was purest and best in their traditions. But when they had heard of this deed, or witnessed it, and had time to recover from the breathless mixture of admiration, disgust, and astonishment which it inspired, they came to Jesus, and though they did not dare to condemn what He had done, yet half indignantly asked Him for some sign that He had a right to act thus.
Our Lord's answer in its full meaning was far beyond their comprehension, and in what appeared to be its meaning filled them with a perfect stupor of angry amazement. "Destroy," He said, "this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
Destroy this Temple!the Temple on which a king pre-eminent for his wealth and magnificence had lavished his most splendid resources, and thereby almost reconciled the Jews to an intolerable tyranny; the Temple for the construction of which one thousand wagons had been required, and ten thousand workmen enrolled, and a thousand priests in sacerdotal vestments employed to lay the stones which the workmen had already hewn; the Temple which was a marvel to the world for its colossal substructions of marble, its costly mosaics, its fragrant woods, its glittering roofs, the golden vine with its hanging clusters sculptured over the entrance door, the embroidered vails, enwoven with flowers of purple, the profuse magnificence of its silver, gold, and precious stones. It had been already forty-six years in building, and was yet far from finished; and this unknown Galilæan youth bade them destroy it, and He would raise it in three days! Such was the literal and evidently false construction which they chose to put upon his words, though the recorded practice of their own great prophets might have shown them that a mystery lay hidden in this sign which He gave.
How ineffaceable was the impression produced by the words is best proved by the fact that more than three years afterwards it was this, more than all His other discourses, which His accusers and false witnesses tried to pervert into a constructive evidence of guilt; nay, it was even this, more than anything else, with which the miserable robber taunted Him upon the very cross. They were obliged, indeed, entirely to distort His words into "I am able to destroy the Temple of God," or "I will destroy this Temple made with hands, and in three days will build another." He had never used these expressions, and here also their false witness was so self-contradictory as to break down. But they were well aware that this attempt of theirs to infuse a political and seditious meaning into what He said, was best calculated to madden the tribunal before which He was arraigned: indeed, so well adapted was it to this purpose that the mere distant echo, as it were, of the same words was again the main cause of martyrdom to His proto-martyr Stephen.
"But he spake," says St. John, "of the temple of His body," and he adds that it was not until His resurrection that His disciples fully understood His words. Nor is this astonishing, for they were words of very deep significance. Hitherto there had been but one Temple of the true God, the Temple in which He then stoodthe Temple which symbolised, and had once at least, as the Jews believed, enshrined that Shechinah, or cloud of glory, which was the living witness to God's presence in the world. But now the Spirit of God abode in a Temple not made with hands, even in the sacred Body of the Son of God made flesh. He tabernacled among us; "He had a tent like ours, and of the same material." Even this was to be done away. At that great Pentecost three years later, and thenceforward for ever, the Holy Spirit of God was to prefer
"Before all temples the upright heart and pure."
Every Christian man was to be, in his mortal body, a temple of the Holy Ghost. This was to be the central truth, the sublimest privilege of the New Dispensation; this was to be the object of Christ's departure, and to make it "better for us that He should go away."
Nothing could have been more amazing to the carnal mind, that walked by sight and not by faithnothing more offensive to the Pharisaic mind that clung to the materialthan this high truth, that his sacred Temple at Jerusalem was henceforth to be no longer, with any special privilege, the place where men were to worship the Father; that, in fact, it was the truest Temple no longer. Yet they might, if they had willed it, have had some faint conception of what Christ meant. They must have known that by the voice of John, He had been proclaimed the Messiah; they might have realised what He afterwards said to them, that "in this place was one greater than the Temple;" they might have entered into the remarkable utterance of a Rabbi of their own classan utterance involved in the prophetic language of Daniel ix. 24, and which they ought therefore to have knownthat the true Holy of Holies was the Messiah Himself.
And in point of fact there is an incidental but profoundly significant indication that they had a deeper insight into Christ's real meaning than they chose to reveal. For, still brooding on these same wordsthe first official words which Christ had addressed to themwhen Jesus lay dead and buried in the rocky tomb, they came to Pilate with the remarkable story, "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while He was yet alive, After three days I will rise again." Now there is no trace that Jesus had ever used any such words distinctly to them; and unless they had heard the saying from Judas, or unless it had been repeated by common rumour derived from the Apostlesi.e., unless the "we remember" was a distinct falsehoodthey could have been referring to no other occasion than this. And that they should have heard it from any of the disciples was most unlikely; for over the slow hearts of the Apostles these words of our Lord seem to have passed like the idle wind. In spite of all that He had told them, there seems to have been nothing which they expected less than His death, unless it were His subsequent resurrection. How then came these Pharisees and Priests to understand better than His own disciples what our Lord had meant? Because they were not like the Apostles, loving, guileless, simple-hearted men; because, in spite of all their knowledge and insight, their hearts were even already full of the hatred and rejection which ended in Christ's murder, and which drew the guilt of his blood on the heads of them and of their children.
But there was yet another meaning which the words involved, not, indeed, less distasteful to their prejudices, but none the less full of warning, and more clearly within the range of their understandings. The Temple was the very heart of the whole Mosaic system, the headquarters, so to speak, of the entire Levitical ceremonial. In profaning that Temple, and suffering it to be profanedin suffering One whom they chose to regard as only a poor Galilæan teacher to achieve that purification of it which, whether from supineness or from self-interest, or from timidity, neither Caiaphas, nor Annas, nor Hillel, nor Shammai, nor Gamaliel, nor Herod had ventured to attemptwere they not, as it were, destroying that Temple, abrogating that system, bearing witness by their very actions that for them its real significance had passed away? "Finish, then," he might have implied, at once by way of prophecy and of permission, "finish without delay this your work of dissolution: in three days will I, as a risen Redeemer, restore something better and greater; not a material Temple, but a living Church." Such is the meaning which St. Stephen seems to have seen in these words. Such is the meaning which is expanded in so many passages by the matchless reasoning and passion of St. Paul. But to this and every meaning they were deaf, and dull, and blind. They seem to have gone away silent indeed, but sullen and dissatisfied; suspicious of, yet indifferent to, the true solution; ignorant, yet too haughty and too angry to inquire.
What great works Jesus did on this occasion we cannot tell. Whatever they were, they caused some to believe on Him; but it was not as yet a belief in which He could trust. Their mere intellectual witness to His claims He needed not; and their hearts, untouched as yet, were, as He knew by divine insight, cold and barren, treacherous and false.