The First Visit to Jerusalem. -- Nicodemus.
From Cana of Galilee, where the first miracle had been performed, in the turning of water into wine, Jesus, his mother, his brethren, and his disciples, "went to Capernaum" instead of returning to Nazareth. Capernaum was situate on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near its northern end; and from the description left us by Josephus, was a busy and thriving place, in a most pleasant and salubrious situation. Here, we are informed (Jno. ii. 12), Jesus and his company "continued not many days, but went up to the passover at Jerusalem." But why did they come to Capernaum, instead of returning to Nazareth? Probably because the time to attend the feast was too near to make it worth while to go back to the seclusion of Nazareth, from which they would so soon have to re-emerge. At Capernaum, they were on the highway of public traffic, on which so many travelling companies would soon set out to the Holy City. With these they would journey along the valley of the Jordan, reaching Jerusalem in two or three days.
Arrived there, Jesus performed an act which many have been unable to understand. Finding the approaches and outer court of the temple occupied by traders of various descriptions, he "made a scourge of small cords," and "drove them all out," overthrowing the tables of the money-changers and the seats of them that sold doves, and clearing out droves of sheep and oxen. The apparent harshness of this procedure shows in a strong light, when we recollect how such intruders came to be there. Sheep and oxen were required for the offerings of those who attended the feast; doves, likewise, for the poorer of the community, who were not able to offer an expensive animal. Many of these, coming from long distances, would be unable to bring the sacrificial animals with them, but would come provided with money (as the law of Moses prescribed) to buy, offer and eat on the spot. The provision of these animals for sale in the neighbourhood of the temple would therefore be a great public convenience. So with the money-changing. Many would come to the feast unprovided with money current in Jerusalem, and eligible for the tribute payable by every son of Abraham to the priests for the maintenance of the temple service. They would have money, but money belonging to a distant province, and not "taken" in the Holy City. How were such to obtain suitable coin without the money-changer? It would seem on the face of things as if it were not only an unobjectionable, but an indispensable and praiseworthy institution that the dealers in all these things should offer their wares to the frequenters of the temple.
The words which Jesus addressed to these dealers, as he broke into and upset their arrangements, indicate another view of the situation, and one which probably none but himself entertained. "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise." The action and the words would savour of intemperate zeal in the eyes of merely natural thinkers. Zeal there certainly was. "The disciples remembered that it was written of him, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up." Intemperate zeal there was not: zeal founded on a reasonable appreciation of things is not intemperate, however strong. Men universally recognize zeal in a good cause to be a beautiful thing They do not universally discern the cause of the zeal in this case to be good. -- "The zeal of thine house," This kind of zeal does not appeal to most men. The nature and source of it Jesus made manifest on a later occasion. When acting a similar part, he called attention to a statement in the prophets: "Is it not written, my house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves." Jesus recognised something inconsistent with the true object of the temple service in the eager turning of the supply of its physical requirements into an occasion for making money. He would have had men come with supplies in the spirit of service -- not with the object of gain. There is a time for everything. His sympathy was with the praying, not with the trading. His sympathy amounted to zeal -- a zeal so intense as to be an eating up zeal -- an executive zeal -- a zeal impelling to action. He flourished a whip of small cords about the ears of the chaffering rabble. He glanced scorching rebuke at them as he overturned their tables and scattered their money, and with imperative gesture, ordered them all out. He apostrophised them in terms that would be considered by the majority of educated men in our day, transcendent rhodomontade: but which reveal a glimpse of highest wisdom. It is a side of Christ's character entirely overlooked in popular presentments of him. It is one that has a useful place. Christ is the model for his people. "Imitators of Christ" is one of the Revised-version definitions of true disciples. The imitation ought not to be confined to one phase. He is to be imitated in his zeal for God as well as in his compassion for man: not that we have his authority or his opportunity, but that we must have his spirit, which, in a day like ours, will find scope in an earnest contention for Divine faith and appointments against the countless corruptions of a community which owns his name, but is reprobate to all his requirements.
It is a singular thing to contemplate that this, at this time, unknown young mechanic (for he was only 30), in the garb and dialect of a provincial Galilean, should be able to overawe and coerce a crowd of Jerusalem Jews, in the face of the temple authorities, and actually expel them from the precincts of the temple, with the loss of their money probably in many cases. Some artificial suggestions have been made about the power of moral influence over guilty consciences. We may be quite sure that this had nothing to do with Christ's ascendancy over a crowd of huckstering traders who are notoriously insensible to moral influences of any kind, and who in this case, were the lowest class in a whole nation of whom it is declared that their hearts had become gross, and their eyes closed and their ears dull of hearing. We must look higher than to human susceptibility to find the explanation of this heroic situation. We must look to the holder of the "whip of small cords" and not to the cowering crew who betook themselves, abashed, from his presence. There is no lack of explanation here. God was in him in the immeasurable abiding presence of the Spirit. This power, directed indignantly, was irresistible. It paralysed the hands of his enemies on more occasions than one. He was enabled to make a lane through their ranks on the brow of the Nazareth heights; and to arrest their stone-filled hands in Jerusalem when his cutting words had goaded them to deadly intent; and to throw a whole band of soldiers on their faces when they came to arrest him. The power of God which was often "present to heal," was always present to protect His anointed, until his hour had come. "In the shadow of His hand hath He hid me" is the prophetic description which explains all. The fire of God's indignation streamed from his eyes upon the profane multitude that were defiling His courts, and therefore they were powerless to raise a finger against a young man whom otherwise they would not only have disregarded, but overpowered; whose interference they would have resented as intolerable presumption.
When they had recovered themselves a little, they asked a token of his authority to do such things. His answered combined obscurity and pointedness in a remarkable manner -- "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The obscurity lay in his apparently referring to the literal temple whose holiness he was vindicating; the pointedness lay in the fact that his resurrection in three days after they should put him to death, would be the unanswerable demonstration of his authority to do everything. Some have asked, Why should his answer have been obscure at all? Even the disciples were impressed on this point: "Why speakest thou to them in parables?" Such was their question on a subsequent occasion. His answer may not seem much of an explanation to some: "That seeing, they may see and not perceive, and hearing, they may hear and not understand, test at any time they should be converted, &c." (Mark iv. 12). Why should the teaching of Jesus have been couched in a form calculated to obstruct the light? The answer may be learnt from the prophets. For a long season Israel had turned a deaf ear to God's expostulations. There is a limit to the Divine patience. Therefore we read, "Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouths and with their lips do honour me but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men, therefore behold I will proceed to do a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid." "The Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep and hath closed your eyes" (Is. xxix. 13, 14, 10).
When Jesus appeared in Israel, their spiritual reprobateness had reached a climax. His mission was in harmony with the time. "His fan is in his hand," said John the Baptist, "and he shall thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. iii. 12). The prophet Malachi had said (iii. 2, 3, 5) "He is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap. He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.... I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages." It was partly in execution of this mission that he expelled the traders from the Temple, and that he systematically veiled his meaning in parabolic discourse. It was a time of retribution, which culminated in 40 years in the fiery overthrow of the State, and the destruction of the people.
They imagined he meant that he could rebuild Herod's Temple in three days if it were to be destroyed. "Forty and six years," said they, "was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?" "But he spake of the temple of his body." Jesus knew his work from the beginning. No part of it was an afterthought. His death was before him as a known appointment of the Father's; and his resurrection the end, of which he never lost sight. He steadily pressed forward towards it in the midst of all the blindness and confusion and misunderstanding that prevailed around him, deflecting not in the least from the path he was called upon in his faith to follow. In this he hath "left us an example that we should follow in his steps." We are not told what rejoinder Jesus made to the incredulous enquiry of the Jews. Probably he observed silence -- often the best answer. His words -- not understood -- remained with some who heard them, for they were made the pretext of an accusation against him, when at the last he was led as a lamb to the slaughter. They were for this purpose perverted. He was accused of having said that he would destroy the temple. A slight change in words makes a wonderful difference to the meaning sometimes; and enmity never hesitates at changes that are even not slight. The words were not understood by his disciples any more than by his enemies. The words even passed from their memory. They came back afterwards: "when he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them." They remembered because they were helped to remember. Jesus had promised that when he was glorified, he would send the Holy Spirit to them, "who should bring all things to their remembrance whatsoever he had spoken unto them" (John xiv. 26), "and guide them into all truth" (xvi. 13). This promise was fulfilled, so that the Apostles were able to speak and write unerringly concerning the wonderful words and works of the Son of God.
Jesus remained in Jerusalem some little time after the temple incident. We find him working miracles in the presence of the crowds who were present during the days of the Feast of the Passover (John ii. 23). We are not informed what the miracles were. They were probably of the same character as those he afterwards performed in Galilee, of which we read that "he healed all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people" (Matthew iv. 23). Whatever they were, they produced the effect they were calculated to produce and designed to produce: "Many believed in his name when they saw the miracles which he did." They were mostly the common people of whom this is testified. Had Jesus been of the character imagined by some who, wishing to get rid of his divinity, invent theories that bring him into the category of human aims and errors, he would have laid eager hold of the popular faith thus created by his miracles, and would have fanned and encouraged it. Instead of that "Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men. And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man" (John ii. 24). He knew that the newly-born faith of the "many" referred to was a mere effervesence of sensationalism -- the admiration of the marvellous and the excitement of novelty, and not the appreciation of the divine aims with which the miracles were wrought: an empty, ugly thing compared with the fear, faith, and obedience of God in righteousness, holiness, and love, which it was the aim of Jesus to induce in the people who were to be taken out for his name. He therefore stood irresponsively apart from the popular enthusiasm, aiming merely to do the work God had given him to do in the laying of the foundation of the coming glory of God on the earth.
The ruling class stood aloof altogether. But there were some among them who could not close their eyes to the extraordinary things that were being enacted before them. Though not convinced that this man, introduced by John the Baptist, was "the very Christ," they could not help thinking the hand of God was in the matter in some way. Among these was Nicodemus, "a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews." His earnest curiosity desired a closer view, but not in public. He did not wish to compromise himself with an affair of which he was in doubt, and which was odiously regarded by his class. He came to Jesus "by night." By what means he obtained an introduction, and where the interview took place, we are not informed: and it is not important. Such particulars, bulking large in human narratives, are kept in their true insignificant place in a divinely written record. We may be sure that a man of Nicodemus's position would have no difficulty in finding his way to the presence of a carpenter. Seated before him, by the light of a flickering Eastern lamp, Nicodemus, probably after some unrecorded preliminaries, unburdens the leading feeling of his mind: "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest except God be with him." It is presumable that Nicodemus imagined that this was a great concession on his part. He might even -- probably did -- think it would be acceptable to Christ as an important patronage of his cause at the hands of a ruler of the Jews, -- opening the way perhaps to that establishment of the kingly power of the Messiah which they were all looking for, and which all thought in common "would immediately appear" (Luke xix. 11). The presence of this complacent and purely human view of the situation would account for the abrupt and apparently otherwise irrelevant rejoinder of Christ: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus was hoping to see the Kingdom of God, as a Jew according to the flesh, and perhaps as a result of lending his official influence to the Messiah, if this were he. Christ's declaration was therefore of a very pointed application. But Nicodemus did not understand it. He thought he was speaking literally: "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus explains that this is not what he means, but that nevertheless there is a second birth of which a man must indispensably be the subject before he can inherit the kingdom. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." If we suppose Nicodemus here asking, "Why?" we may see the point of his next observation. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." But again, a question: Why is this fact (that that which is born of the flesh is flesh) a reason going to show the necessity for being born again? It is as if Jesus had said, "No wonder you must be born again, seeing that having only been born of the flesh, ye are only flesh, which cannot inherit the Kingdom of God." Paul, indeed, uses these latter words: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor. xv. 50). If we ask, why? he answers, "Corruption doth not inherit corruption." If we ask, Is man corruption? we do not require to wait for an answer: we know it. If we ask, "Is the Kingdom of God incorruption?" though we have to wait the answer, the answer is equally clear and certain. The prophets tell us that the Kingdom which the God of heaven will set up on earth when human kingdoms have run their course, is to be given to "the saints of the Most High" (Dan. vii. 27) -- and that it is not to be left to other people (Dan. ii. 44) -- but will last for ever; shall not pass away. "Of his kingdom, there shall be no end" (Dan. vii. 14; Luke i. 32). Consequently, a man to inherit the Kingdom must be immortal. Jesus says its inheritors will be so, in saying "They shall not die any more" (Luke xx. 36). Now, a man merely born of the flesh is mortal and corruptible, as we all know. He has no element of immortality in him. Therefore, he must be the subject of a great change before he is fit to enter the Kingdom, which requires a man to be immortal in order to inherit it.
This great change Jesus describes as a being "born of water and of the Spirit." Why he should so characterise it becomes apparent only when certain first principles of the truth are understood. It is one of those first principles that men are not born children of God, but children of Adam and heirs of the death that came by him (Rom. v. 12-19; Eph. ii. 3, 12). It is another, that God purposes to generate from among this death-doomed race, a family for Himself whom He will glorify with salvation (Acts xv. 14; 1 Pet. ii. 9; 1 Thess. v. 9). It is another, that the mode He has chosen in the development of this family is to present the gospel for acceptance, and to require the assumption of the name of Christ in baptism (1 Cor. i. 21; Acts x. 48; Rom. vi. 3, 4; Gal. iii. 27). It is another, that those submitting to faith in Christ Jesus are considered as having entered the new family for the first time (2 Cor. vi. 17, 18; Gal. iii. 26; Eph. ii. 13; Peter ii. 10). Begotten by the Word brought to bear upon their mind, they have, in baptism, been "born of water," but are not yet finally incorporate in the family of God. At this stage, they may perish, as Paul recognises (1 Cor. viii. 11). At the return of Christ, they have to appear before him for judgment, to be dealt with according to the state of the account they will be called upon to render (2 Cor. v. 10; Rom. xiv. 12). -- If this is not acceptable, they are rejected and depart to death. If it be such as the Lord can approve, they become the subject of that change which Paul calls "the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body" (Rom. viii. 23). As the result of this physical change, which is effected by the Spirit "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," they become finally and unalterably sons of God. "They are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection" (Luke xx. 36). This consummation of their adoption is figuratively compared to a birth, as in the case of baptism. Baptism is not a literal birth, but as it is the act by which a man not a child of God becomes such, it is a natural figure which speaks of it as a birth of water. So the operation of the Spirit of God upon the mortal nature of the accepted saints (Rom. viii. 11; 1 Cor. xv. 51, 52; Phil. iii. 21) is not a literal birth, but as it is the act by which a son of the earth becomes a son of heaven (Cor. xv. 49), so it is natural to speak of it as a birth -- a being born of the Spirit.
Without this divine birth in two stages, it is impossible that any man can enter upon the possession of the kingdom which the Lord will establish at his coming. The administration of that kingdom will require powers that do not belong to mortal man. It will require such a knowledge of the thoughts of men as Jesus evinced, and such a capability of eluding human observation and control as he manifested after his resurrection. The rulers of the age to come must be as independent of man as the wind. As Jesus added: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (Jno. iii. 8).
With the ideas that Nicodemus had of a kingdom of God to be administered by mortal men, it is not wonderful that he was surprised at such doctrine. "How can these things be?" said he. Christ answered as if he had said "how can they not be?" "Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things?" As much as to say, that as a man in Israel whose position presumed an acquaintance with the scriptures of Moses and the Prophets, he ought to have known these things. There is much more in Moses and the prophets than people are aware of. It requires close and constant reading to become acquainted with all that they reveal. The majority of people read them scarcely at all; and those who do read them, mostly do so without discernment. Nicodemus, from his position, must have been a reader, but evidently, he was in the position of those rulers of Jerusalem described by Paul when he said that "they knew not the voices of the prophets which were read in their synagogues every Sabbath day" (Acts xiii. 27). Jesus found the resurrection proved in part of Moses where the priests could not discern it, viz., in God's declaration that he was the God of three men who were at the time dead (Luke xx. 37). By the same process of reasoning, the spiritual and immortal nature of the rulers of the future age is deducible from many parts of the prophets. Had Nicodemus been an enlightened student of them, he would have "known these things," and would have at once recognised and endorsed Christ's sayings as the truth.
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