Whether the Nazareth family returned from Cana to their own town before going down to Capernaum, John does not inform us. Neither are we told why they went to Capernaum at all at this time. It may have been in order to join one of the larger caravans going up to Jerusalem for the approaching Feast. Not only the disciples, some of whom had their homes on the lake-side, accompanied Jesus, but also His mother and His brothers. The manner in which the brothers are spoken of in connection with His mother suggests that He and they bore to her the same relation. They remained in Capernaum "not many days," because the Passover was at hand. Having come to Jerusalem, and appearing there for the first time since His baptism, He performed several miracles. These John omits, and selects as more significant and worthy of record one authoritative act.
The circumstances which occasioned this act were familiar to the Jerusalem Jew. The exigencies of Temple worship had bred a flagrant abuse. Worshippers coming from remote parts of the Holy Land, and from countries beyond, found it a convenience to be able to purchase on the spot the animals used in sacrifice, and the material for various offerings -- salt, meal, oil, frankincense. Traders were not slow to supply this demand, and vying with one another they crept nearer and nearer to the sacred precincts, until some, under pretence perhaps of driving in an animal for sacrifice, made a sale within the outer court. This court had an area of about fourteen acres, and was separated from the inner court by a wall breast high, and bearing intimations which forbade the encroachment of Gentiles on pain of death. Round this outer court ran marble colonnades, richly ornamented and supported by four rows of pillars, and roofed with cedar, affording ample shade to the traders.
There were not only cattle-dealers and sellers of pigeons, but also money-changers; for every Jew had to pay to the Temple treasury an annual tax of half a shekel, and this tax could be paid only in the sacred currency. No foreign coin, with its emblem of submission to an alien king, was allowed to pollute the Temple. Thus there came to be need of money-changers, not only for the Jew who had come up to the feast from a remote part of the empire, but even for the inhabitant of Palestine, as the Roman coinage had displaced the shekel in ordinary use.
There might seem, therefore, to be room to say much in favour of this convenient custom. At any rate, it was one of those abuses which, while they may shock a fresh and unsophisticated mind, are allowed both because they contribute to public convenience and because they have a large pecuniary interest at their back. In point of fact, however, the practice gave rise to lamentable consequences. Cattle-dealers and money-changers have always been notorious for making more than their own out of their bargains, and facts enough are on record to justify our Lord calling this particular market "a den of thieves." The poor were shamefully cheated, and the worship of God was hindered and impoverished instead of being facilitated and enriched. And even although this traffic had been carried on under careful supervision, and on unimpeachable principles, still it was unseemly that the worshipper who came to the Temple seeking quiet and fellowship with God should have to push his way through the touts of the dealers, and have his devotional temper dissipated by the wrangling and shouting of a cattle market. Yet although many must have lamented this, no one had been bold enough to rebuke and abolish the glaring profanation.
Jesus on entering the Temple finds Himself in the midst of this incongruous scene -- the sounds and movements of a market, the loud and eager exclamations of competing traders, the bustle of selecting one animal out of a flock, the loud talk and laughter of the idle groups of onlookers. Jesus cannot stand it. Zeal for the honour of His Father's house possesses Him. The Temple claims Him as its vindicator from abuse. Nowhere can He more appropriately assert His authority as Messiah. Out of the cords lying about He quickly knots together a formidable scourge, and silently, leaving the public conscience to justify His action, He proceeds single-handed to drive out cattle and traders together. A scene of violence ensued, -- the cattle rushing hither and thither, the owners trying to preserve their property, the money-changers holding their tables as Jesus went from one to another upsetting them, the scattered coin scrambled for; and over all the threatening scourge and the commanding eye of the Stranger. Never on any other occasion did our Lord use violence.
The audacity of the act has few parallels. To interfere in the very Temple with any of its recognized customs was in itself a claim to be King in Israel. Were a stranger suddenly to appear in the lobby of the House of Commons, and by sheer dignity of demeanour, and the force of integrity, to rectify an abuse of old standing involving the interests of a wealthy and privileged class, it could not create a greater sensation. The Baptist might be with Him, cowing the truculent with his commanding eye; but there was no need of the Baptist: the action of Christ awakening conscience in the men themselves was enough to quell resistance.
No doubt Jesus began His work at the house of God because He knew that the Temple was the real heart of the nation; that it was belief in God which was their strength and hope, and that the loss of that belief, and the consequent irreverence and worldliness, were the most dangerous features of Jewish society. The state of matters He found in the Temple could not have been tolerated had the people really believed God was present in the Temple.
Such an act could not pass without being criticised. It would be keenly discussed that evening in Jerusalem. At every table it would be the topic of conversation, and a most serious one wherever men in authority were meeting. Many would condemn it as a piece of pharisaic ostentation. If He is a reformer, why does He not turn His attention to the licentiousness of the people? Why show such extravagant and unseemly zeal about so innocent a custom when flagrant immoralities abound? Why not spend His zeal in clearing out from the land the polluting foreigner? Such charges are easy. No man can do everything, least of all can he do everything at once. And yet the advocate of temperance is twitted with his negligence of other causes which are perhaps as necessary; and he who pleads for foreign missions is reminded that we have heathen at home. These are the carping criticisms of habitual fault-finders, and of men who have no hearty desire for the advancement of what is good.
Others, again, who approved the act could not reconcile themselves to the manner of it. Might it not have been enough to have pointed out the abuse, and to have made a strong representation to the authorities? Was it fair to step in and usurp the authority of the Sanhedrim or Temple officials? Was it consistent with prophetic dignity to drive out the offenders with His own hand? Even those most friendly to Him may have felt a little jarred as they saw Him with uplifted scourge and flaming eyes violently driving before Him men and beasts. But they remembered that it was written, "The zeal of Thine house will consume Me." They remembered perhaps how the most popular king of Israel had danced before the ark, to the scandal indeed of dull-souled conventionalists, but with the approval of all clear-seeing and spiritually-judging men. They might also have remembered how the last of their prophecies had said, "Behold, the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple. But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth?"
This zeal at once explained and justified His action. Some abuses may be reformed by appeal to the constituted authorities; others can be abolished only by the blazing indignation of a righteous soul who cannot longer endure the sight. This zeal, conquering all consideration of consequences and regard to appearances, acts as a cleansing fire, sweeping before it what is offensive. It has always its own risks to run: the authorities at Jerusalem never forgave Jesus this first interference. By reforming an abuse they should never have allowed, He damaged them in the eyes of the people, and they could never forget it. Zeal also runs the risk of acting indiscreetly and taking too much upon it. In itself zeal is a good thing, but it does not exist "in itself." It exists in a certain character, and where the character is imperfect or dangerous the zeal is imperfect or dangerous. The zeal of the proud or selfish man is mischievous, the zeal of the ignorant fraught with disaster. Still, with all risks, give us by all means rather the man who is eaten up, possessed and carried away, by a passionate sympathy with the oppressed and neglected, or with unquenchable zeal for rectitude and honourable dealing or for the glory of God, than the man who can stand and be a spectator of wrong because it is no business of his to see that injustice be withstood, who can connive at unrighteous practices because their correction is troublesome, invidious, hazardous. He who lays a sudden hand on wrong-doing may have no legal authority to plead in his defence when challenged, but to all good men such an act justifies itself. It was a similar zeal which at all times governed Christ. He could not stand by and wash His hands of other men's sins. It was this which brought Him to the cross, this which in the first place brought Him to this world at all. He had to interfere. Zeal for His father's glory, zeal for God and man, possessed Him.
It was therefore no concern of Jesus to make Himself very intelligible to those who could not understand the action itself and demanded a sign. They did not understand His answer; and it was not intended they should. Frequently our Lord's answers are enigmatical. Men have opportunity to stumble over them, if they will. For frequently they asked foolish questions, which admitted only of such answers. The present question, "What sign showest Thou unto us, seeing that Thou doest these things?" was absurd. It was to ask for a light to see light with, a sign of a sign. His zeal for God that carried the crowd before it, and swept God's house clean of the profane, was the best proof of His authority and Messiahship. But there was one sign which He could promise them without violating His principle to do no miracle merely for the sake of convincing reluctant minds. There was one sign which formed an integral part of His work; a sign which He must work, irrespective of its effect on their opinion of Him -- the sign of His own Resurrection. And therefore, when they ask Him for a sign of His authority to reform the abuses of the Temple, He promises them this sign, that He will raise the Temple again when they destroy it. If He can give them a Temple He has authority in it. "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
What did He mean by this enigmatical saying, which not even His disciples understood till long afterwards? We cannot doubt that in their resistance to His first public act, righteous and necessary, and welcome to all right-hearted men, as it was, He plainly saw the symptom of a deep-seated hatred of all reform, which would lead them on to reject His whole work. He had meditated much on the tone of the authorities, on the religious state of His country -- what young man of thirty with anything in him has not done so? He had made up His mind that He would meet with opposition at every point, and that while a faithful few would stand by Him, the leaders of the people would certainly resist and destroy Him. Here in His very first act He is met by the spirit of hatred, and jealousy, and godlessness which was at last to compass His death. But His rejection He also knew was to be the signal for the downfall of the nation. In destroying Him He knew they were destroying themselves, their city, their Temple. As Daniel had long ago said, "The Messiah shall be cut off ... and the people of a prince who shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary."
To Himself therefore His words had a very definite meaning: Destroy this Temple, as you certainly will by disowning My authority and resisting My acts of reform, and at length crucifying Me, and in three days I will raise it. As by denying My authority and crucifying My Person you destroy this house of My Father, so by My resurrection will I put men in possession of God's true dwelling-place, and introduce a new and spiritual worship. "It is in Christ's person this great drama is enacted. The Messiah perishes: the Temple falls. The Messiah lives again: the true Temple rises on the ruins of the symbolical temple. For in the kingdom of God there is no simple restoration. Every revival is at the same time an advance" (Godet). A living Temple is better than a Temple of stone. Human nature itself, possessed and inspired by the Divine, that is the true Temple of God.
This sign was in two years given to them. As Jesus drew His last breath on the cross the veil of the Temple was rent. There was no longer anything to veil; the unapproachable glory was for ever gone. The Temple in which God had so long dwelt was now but a shell, mocking and pathetic in the extreme, as the clothes of a departed friend, or as the familiar dwelling that remains itself the same but changed to us for ever. The Jews in crucifying the Messiah had effectually destroyed their Temple. A few years more and it was in ruins, and has been so ever since. That building which had once the singular, wonderful dignity of being the spot where God was specially to be found and to be worshipped, and where He dwelt upon earth in a way apprehensible by men, was from the hour of Christ's death doomed to vacuity and destruction.
But in three days a new and better Temple was raised in Christ's body, glorified by the presence of the indwelling God. Forty and six years had the Jews spent in rearing the magnificent pile that astonished and awed their conquerors. They had thus themselves rebuilt more splendidly the Temple of Solomon. But to rebuild the Temple they destroyed in crucifying the Lord was beyond them. The sign of rebuilding their Temple of marble, which they scouted as a ridiculous extravagance, was really a far less stupendous and infinitely less significant sign than that which He actually gave them in rising from the dead. If it was impossible to rear that magnificent fabric in three days, yet something might be done towards it: but towards the raising of the dead body of Christ nothing could be done by human skill, diligence, or power.
But it is not the stupendous difficulty of this sign which should chiefly engage our attention. It is rather its significance. Christ rose from the dead, not to startle godless and truth-hating men into faith, but to furnish all mankind with a new and better Temple, with the means of spiritual worship and constant fellowship with God. There was a necessity for the resurrection. Those who became intimately acquainted with Christ slowly but surely became aware that they found more of God in Him than ever they had found in the Temple. Gradually they acquired new thoughts about God; and instead of thinking of Him as a Sovereign veiled from the popular gaze in the hidden Holy of holies, and receiving through consecrated hands the gifts and offering of the people, they learned to think of Him as a Father, to whom no condescension was too deep, no familiarity with men too close. Unconsciously to themselves, apparently, they began to think of Christ as the true Revealer of God, as the living Temple who at all hours gave them access to the living God. But not till the Resurrection was this transference complete -- nay, so fixed had their hearts been, in common with all Jewish hearts, upon the Temple, that not until the Temple was destroyed did they wholly grasp what was given them in the Resurrection of Jesus. It was the Resurrection which confirmed their wavering belief in Him as the Son of God. As Paul says, it was the resurrection which "declared Him to be the Son of God with power." Being the Son of God, it was impossible He should be held by death. He had come to the Temple calling it by an unheard-of name, "My Father's house." Not Moses, not Solomon, not Ezra, not the holiest of high priests, would have dreamt of so identifying himself with God as to speak of the Temple, not even as "our Father's house" or "your Father's house," but "my Father's house." And it was the Resurrection which finally justified His doing so, declaring Him to be, in a sense no other was, the Son of God.
But it was not in the body of Christ that God found His permanent dwelling among men. This sacred presence was withdrawn in order to facilitate the end God has from the first had in view, the full indwelling and possession of each and all men by His Spirit. This intimate fellowship with all men, this free communication of Himself to all, this inhabitation of all souls by the ever-living God, was the end aimed at by all that God has done among men. His dwelling among men in the Temple at Jerusalem, His dwelling among men in the living Person of Christ, were preliminary and preparatory to His dwelling in men individually. "Ye," says Paul, "are built up a spiritual house." "Ye are builded together for a habitation of God." "Ye are the temple of the living God." This is the great reality towards which men have been led by symbol -- the complete pervasion of all intelligence and of all moral beings by the Spirit of God.
For us this cleansing of the Temple is a sign. It is a sign that Christ really means to do thoroughly the great work He has taken in hand. Long ago had it been said, "Behold the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His Temple; and He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." He was to come where holiness was professed, and to sift the true from the false, the worldly and greedy religious from the devoted and spiritual. He was not to make pretence of doing so, but actually to accomplish the separation. To reform abuses such as this marketing in the Temple was no pleasant task. He had to meet the gaze and defy the vindictiveness of an exasperated mob; He had to make enemies of a powerful class in the community. But He does what is called for by the circumstances: and this is but a part and a sample of the work He does always. Always He makes thorough, real work. He does not blink the requirements of the case. We shrug our shoulders and pass by where matters are difficult to mend; we let the flood take its course rather than risk being carried away in attempting to stem it. Not so Christ. The Temple was shortly to be destroyed, and it might seem to matter little what practices were allowed in it; but the sounds of bargaining and the greedy eye of trade could not be suffered by Him in His Father's house: how much more shall He burn as a consuming fire when He cleanses that Church for which He gave Himself that it might be without spot or blemish. He will cleanse it. We may yield ourselves with gladness to His sanctifying power, or we may rebelliously question His authority; but cleansed the house of God must be.