First came the contemptuous rejection. John was a great man. Made of the same rugged stuff as the old prophets, he was more than they in being the King's own messenger and herald. In his character he was great as the greatest, though not as great in privilege as those living in the kingdom. He preached and baptized. With glowing eyes of fire, deep-set under shaggy brows, and plain vigorous speech which, if pricked, would ooze out red life, he told of the sin that must be cleaned out as a preparation for the coming One. And to all who would, he applied the cleansing rite.
He had great drawing power. Away from cultured Jerusalem on the hilltops down to the river bottoms, and the stony barrens of the Jordan; from the Judean hill country, away from the stately temple service with its music and impressive ritual, to his simple open-air, plain, fervid preaching, he drew men. All sorts came, the proud Pharisee, the cynical Sadducee, the soldiers, the publicans, farmers, shepherds, tradespeople -- all came. His daily gatherings represented the whole people. The nation came to his call. It was the unconscious testimony of the nation to his rugged greatness and to his divine mission. They were impelled to come, and listen, and do, and questioningly wonder if this can be the promised national leader.
One day a committee came from the Jewish Senate to make official inquiry as to who he claimed to be. With critical, captious questions they demand his authority. True to his mission and his Master, he said, "I am not the One, but sent to tell you that He's coming, and so near that it's time to get ready." Then the next day, as Jesus walks quietly through the crowd, probably just back from the wilderness, he finishes his reply to the deputation. With glowing eyes intently riveted upon Jesus, and finger pointing, before the alert eyes of his hundreds of hearers -- Pharisees, Sadducees, official committee, Roman soldiers, and common folk -- he said in clear, ringing tones, "That is He: the coming One!"
No more dramatic, impressive presentation could have been made of Jesus to the nation. To their Oriental minds it would be peculiarly significant, Mark keenly the result. On the part of the leaders utter silence There could be no more cutting expression of their contempt. With eyebrows uplifted, eyes coldly questioning, their lips slightly curling, or held close together and pursed out, and shoulders shrugging, their contempt, utter disgusted contempt, could not be more loudly expressed. If they had had the least disposition to believe John's words about Jesus, even so far as to investigate patiently and thoroughly, how different would their conduct have been! But -- only silence. And silence long continued. Jesus gave them plenty of time before the next step was taken. No silence ever spoke in louder voice. That same day five thoughtful men of that same throng did investigate, and were satisfied, and gave at once loyal, loving allegiance.
A few months later, the Passover Feast drew crowds from everywhere to Jerusalem. Jesus coming into the temple areas, with the crowds, one day, is struck at once with the strange scene. Instead of reverent, holy quiet, as worshippers approached the dwelling-place of God, with their offerings of penitence and worship, the busy bustle of a market-place greets His ears. The noise of cattle and sheep being driven here and there, the pavement like an unkempt barnyard, loud, discordant voices of men handling the beasts and bargaining over exchange rates at the brokers' tables -- strange scene. Is it surprising that His ear and eye and heart, perhaps fresh from a bit of quiet morning talk with His Father, were shocked? Here, where everything should have called to devotion, everything jarred.
Quietly and quickly putting some bits of knotted string together, He started the stock out, doubtless against the protests of the keepers. With flashing light out of those keen eyes, He tipped over the tables, spilling out their precious greedy coins, and ordered the crates of pigeons removed. But all with no suggestion of any violence used toward anybody. Reluctantly, perhaps angrily, wholly against their plans and wishes, the crowd, impelled by something in this unknown Man, with no outer evidence of authority, goes. It is a remarkable tribute, both to the power of His personal presence and to His executive faculty.
Of course the thing made trouble. It was the talk of the town, and of all the foreigners for days after. The leaders were aroused and angered, deeply angered. This stranger had kicked up a pretty muss with His inconvenient earnestness and inconsiderate quoting of Scripture. It was a practical assumption of superior authority over them. It was an assumption of the truth of John's ignored claim that He was the promised King.
Was not this arrangement in the temple area a great convenience for the many strangers, who were their brothers and guests; a real kindly act of hospitality? Yes -- and was it not, too, a finely organized bit of business for profiting by these strangers, a using of their proper authority over the temple territory to transfer their brothers' foreign coins safely over to their own purses? Aye, it was a transmuting of their holy offices into gold by the alchemy of their coarse, greedy touch.
Jesus' conduct was the keenest sort of criticism of these rulers, before the eyes of the nation and of the thousands of pilgrims present. These leaders never forgave this humiliating rebuke of themselves. It made their nerves raw to His touch ever after. Here is the real reason of all their after bitter dislike. They had a sensitive pocket-nerve. It was a sort of pneumogastric nerve so close did it come to their lives. Jesus touched it roughly. It never quit aching. Scratch all their later charges against Him and under all is this sore spot. The tree of the cross began growing its wood that day. Their hot, captious demand for authority, meant as much for the ears of the crowd as for His, brought from Jesus, who read His future in their hearts, a reply which they could not understand. They asked their question for the crowd to hear, He replied for His disciples to remember in the after years. There could be no evidence of authority more significant than this temple incident.
His first public work was done at this time. The great throng of pilgrims from around the world, attracted to Him by this simple daring act of leadership, witnessed a group of mighty acts during these Passover days. The angry leaders had critically asked for "signs" of His authority. He gave them in abundance, not in response to their captious demand, but doubtless, as always, in response to pressing human needs. The result was that many persons accepted Him, but the nation in its rulers, maintained their attitude of angered, contemptuous silence. But underneath that surface the pot is beginning to boil.
Of all the members of the national Senate, one, just one, comes to make personal inquiry, and sift this man's claim sincerely and candidly. And he, be it marked, chooses a darkened hour for that visit. That night hour speaks volumes of the smouldering passion under their contempt. That Jesus recognized fully their attitude and just what it meant comes out in that quiet evening talk. To that sincere inquirer, He frankly Jays, "You people won't receive the witness that John and I have brought you." He was pleading before a court that stubbornly refuses testimony of fact. And to this honest seeker, whom we must all love for his sincerity, He reveals His inner consciousness of a tragic break coming, with a pleading word for personal trust, and a saddened "men love darkness."
With the going away of the Passover crowds, Jesus leaves the national capital, and assists in the sort of work John was doing. His power to draw men, and men's eagerness for Him, stand out sharply at once. John had drawn great crowds of all classes. Jesus drew greater crowds. Multitudes eagerly accepted John's teaching and accepted baptism from him. As it turned out, greater multitudes of people, under the very eyes of these ignoring, contemptuous leaders, accepted Jesus' leadership. John baptized. Jesus baptized through His disciples. These leaders in their questioning of John had tacitly acknowledged the propriety of "the Christ" using such a rite. Jesus follows the line of least resistance, and fitted into the one phase of His work which they had recognized as proper.
The pitiable fact stands out that the only result with them is a wordy strife about the relative success of these two, Jesus and John. The most that their minds, steeped in jealousies and rivalries, ever watching with badger eyes to undercut some one else, could see, was a rivalry between these two men. John's instant open-hearted disclaimer made no impression upon them. They seemed not impressionable to such disinterested loyalty.
A little later, probably not much, John's ruggedly honest preaching against sin came too close home to suit Herod. He promptly shuts up the preacher in prison, with no protest from the nation's leaders. These leaders had developed peculiar power in influencing their civil rulers by the strenuousness of their protests. That they permitted the imprisonment of John with no word of protest, was a tacit throwing overboard of John's own claims, of John's claims for Jesus, and of Jesus' own claim.
Here is the first sharp crisis. From the first, the circle of national leaders characterized by John, the writer of the Gospel, as "the Jews," including the inner clique of chief priests and the Pharisees, ignored Jesus; with silent contempt, coldly, severely ignored. This was before the temple-cleansing affair. That intensified their attitude toward the next stage. They had to proceed cautiously, because the crowd was with Jesus. And full well these keen leaders knew the ticklishness of handling a fanatical Oriental mob, as subsequent events showed. Now John is imprisoned, with the consent of these leaders, possibly through their connivance.
Jesus keenly and quickly grasps the situation. First ignored, then made the subject of evil gossip, the temple clash, and now His closest friend subjected to violence, His own rejection is painfully evident. He makes a number of radical changes. His place of activity is changed to a neighboring province under different civil rule; His method, to preaching from place to place; His purpose, to working with individuals. There's a peculiar word used here by Matthew to tell of Jesus' departure from Judea to a province under a different civil ruler; "He withdrew." The word used implies going away because of danger threatening. We will run across it again and each time at a crisis point.
The leaders refused Jesus because He was not duly labelled. It seems to be a prevailing characteristic to want men labelled, especially a characteristic of those who make the labels. There is always an eager desire regarding a stranger to learn whom he represents, who have put their stamp upon him and accepted him. And if the label is satisfactory, he is acccepted in the degree in which the label is accepted. Others are marked with a large interrogation point. Inherent worth has a slow time. But sure? Yes, but slow. Jesus bore no label whose words they could spell out or wanted to. They were a bit rusty in the language of worth. How knoweth this man letters, having never learned! He seems to know, to know surprisingly well. He seems keenly versed in the law, able quickly to turn the tables upon their catch questions. But then it can't be the real article of learning, because He hasn't been in our established schools. He has no sheepskin in a dead language with our learned doctors' names learnedly inscribed. How indeed! An upstart!!
Yet always to the earnest, sincere inquirer there was authority enough. In His acts, an open-minded doctor of the law could read the stamp of God's approval. The ear open to learn, not waxed up by self-seeking plans, or filled with gold dust, heard the voice of divine approval out of the clouds, or in His presence and acts.