VI. THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE.
[Lincoln's Inn, 5th Sunday in Lent, March 9, 1856.]
St. John II. 16.
Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.
The first three Gospels have been sometimes called the Galilæan Gospels; the fourth, the Jerusalem Gospel. The distinction would be a very false one, if it implied that our Lord's relation to Jerusalem was not present to the minds of the earlier Evangelists, or that St. John overlooked His relation to Galilee. In the ninth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, we are told that Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem. All the chapters which follow refer to events which took place in that journey, and contain discourses relating to the end of it, and to the city itself. In the thirteenth, we hear of His sending a message to Herod, that a prophet could not perish out of Jerusalem; in the nineteenth, of His looking down upon Jerusalem and weeping over it. The climax of the narrative, not only of St. Luke, but of St. Matthew and of St. Mark, is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, to be hailed as a king, to die as a malefactor. On the other hand, St. John presents his Master to us in the midst of Galilæan disciples. He carefully omits any allusion to the birth at Bethlehem; he records the first manifestation of His power and nature as given at Cana.
But though these observations show how easily the supposed difference between these narratives may be exaggerated and perverted, they do not prove it not to exist. We have no hint in the first three Evangelists of Christ's presence at any of the Jerusalem feasts, between that in His twelfth year and that which preceded His crucifixion. The scene of the most memorable acts and discourses recorded in St. John, is laid at Passover, Tabernacle, Dedication feasts, to which He had come up from Galilee. The three Evangelists speak of Him continually as teaching in the synagogues; only at the close of His ministry as teaching in the Temple. The second manifestation of our Lord spoken of by St. John is when He drove out of the Temple those who were selling and buying in it.
This narrative is the most signal instance of discrepancy between St. John and the other Evangelists which we shall meet with in our whole course. An act similar, in nearly every particular, to that which our Gospel appears to connect with the period immediately after Christ's baptism — before the Baptist's imprisonment — is said in the others to have been performed when He was about to keep the last passover. 'May not these reports,' it has been asked, 'refer to the same transaction? Need we suppose that St. John troubled himself about chronology? May not his recollections of events at which he was present have been united by some other thread than one of years or days? Oftentimes we may have observed how a word evokes a train of slumbering thoughts. Why may not he who had just been speaking of the first sign which Jesus did, have been led on by that name to the question of the Jews in the eighteenth verse, "What sign shewest You that You do these things?"'
Such a method of removing a grave difficulty might be reasonable enough. But is there a grave difficulty — is there any difficulty — to be removed? There is no internal improbability in the supposition that our Lord inaugurated His ministry by one act of purification, and wound it up by another. If we accept the one Evangelist as an authority for the first, the three for the second, we gain, I think, what more than compensates us for an apparent repetition. We acquire a deeper sense of the meaning of the Temple, of the relation in which it stood to the Jews, to mankind, and to Christ. We understand better what the three Evangelists mean when they say that the disciples thought that the destruction of the Temple must be the end of the age, of their world; what St. John means when he speaks of the temple which would be destroyed and raised again.
Some commentators upon the Scriptures, who really wish to understand them, but who feel entangled by the habits and notions of their own time, lament that they cannot reproduce the state of feeling which belonged to the Jew when he gazed upon his temple, or entered within its precincts. 'What help,' they say, 'lies in the descriptions of the most accurate and lively travellers? What should we gain by beholding them with our own eyes? We need to annihilate time as well as space. The mind of the people who gazed eighteen hundred years ago upon these spots will not come back to us merely because we are able to receive a tolerably correct impression of the spots themselves.'
I confess, my brethren, that I am quite unable to sympathise with these complaints. I do not think it requires any effort of imagination to realize the state of mind of an ordinary Jew, as he walked through the city of David, or stood upon the holy hill, in the days of Herod and of Pilate. If we realize the state of mind of an ordinary citizen of London, walking in our streets, or entering the Abbey which contains the sepulchres of our kings and poets, we shall not need any other aid to bridge over the chasm which divides us. Occupation with everything that is before us, with the news of the hour, with the private business which we have most in hand, indifference and torpidity about the past, — these would be our general characteristics. They may be varied by our greater or less interest in architecture — our desire to maintain or confute some architectural theory — by national pride, if we should be making our buildings known to foreigners — by a certain painful sense that we ought to put our minds into a sentimental attitude. Do you suppose the case would have been different with the Jews? Do you suppose there was any charm in the outside of the Temple, which forced a sensual money-getting race into a more elevated or more serene habit of feeling than that which we drop into? Do you suppose that their sacred traditions, their glorious history, their divine calling, must have broken the charm of custom for them, or have lifted the incubus of the world from their hearts? If you do, you adopt a notion which the Scriptures confute in every line. They never tell us that the gravitation of the Jewish soul to earth was less strong than that of other men. They never represent the Jew as wanting one bad and base tendency which belongs to you and me. The evidence which the Bible has produced of its veracity to people of all conditions, in all countries, the most unlike outwardly to those of whom it speaks, is this, that it shows us creatures in all inward respects like ourselves, as little capable of being moved by present signs or by records of the past, out of chillness and death, as we are.
Accordingly, what spectacle is it which the passage I am considering brings before us? The spectacle of no appalling crime, of none of those hideous and revolting acts which we know from the Jewish historian were perpetrated at the time, and in which the religious sect of the day had its full share. It is a spectacle which had become familiar to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, which every Pharisee had continually before his eyes when he went into the Temple to pray, — most glaringly, it is probable, during the most sacred festivals. Within, the priests offered the regular sacrifices; without, in another part of the house, there was a market for sheep and oxen; there were seats for the money-dealer. The practice was so regular, so sanctioned by prescription, that no one thought anything of it. The pious Jew was no more scandalized by it than the pious Englishman is scandalized by reading an advertisement for the sale of a living. If we have distinctions which satisfy our consciences between the disposing of an actual cure of souls and of the right to endow another with such a cure, — if a line, sometimes invisible to the naked eye, separates the sin of Simony from deeds which laymen may lawfully do, and by which clergymen may lawfully benefit, — the people of Jerusalem had distinctions just as recognised, quite as capable of being defended in argument. The holy place might not be approached by any profane feet; that was sacred indeed to the Lord. But the outer court — why might not that be left for ordinary traffic? Perhaps the separation of the priests from the mere throng of worshippers — above all, from the Gentile who might be found among them — was better marked by the concession of this privilege. At all events, it was a privilege guaranteed by usage to the trader. If it was disturbed, would he not probably become disgusted with his country's sanctuary altogether? Might he not betake himself to some Roman temple, — to a worship which was more associated with amusement, if not with business?
I do not know that this calculation was altogether a wrong one. I do not suppose that if the Sanhedrim had chosen or had been permitted by its masters to prohibit these markets, any moral benefit would have been gained for the nation. For what had made the Temple holy and dear to any Jew of that day or of former days? Not its situation, not its having been built by the wise king, not its having been restored after the captivity, not the goodly stones with which Herod had adorned it. No! but the sense of an invisible glory; the belief that God — whom no man had seen at any time — had been pleased to meet His people there. Could any Jewish laws restore this conviction when it had departed? Could regulations to protect a certain enclosure from pollution give rise to anything, except despicable subterfuges, except the vilest hypocrisy, when the only ground and warrant for these regulations was forgotten, when those who would have made them as little confessed the Divine presence as those whom they would have excluded. For this — this was the secret of the Jewish desecration of the Temple. The priests who ministered at the inner shrine did not, for the most part, believe in the Divine presence more than the people who sold sheep and oxen without. A trade was going on in both places. There it was a traffic with God; here it was a traffic among men. The awe of One who dwelt with them, who revealed Himself to them, whose righteousness was their strength, had been exchanged for the fear of One who might call them to account for their treacheries to each other if they withheld their customary and toilsome services from Him.
The preacher in the wilderness had been taught that, when a nation has reached such a condition of rottenness as this, it is not enough to lop off withered branches; the axe must be laid to the root. When the Scribes and Pharisees came to him, he told them to bring forth fruits of repentance, fruits which would show themselves in the Temple as well as the market. But he did not visit either the Temple or the market. Jesus concerned Himself with both. 'He went into the Temple, and found them 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 and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables.'
Some who read this story say, that it offends their notion of our Lord's dignity. Could He, with His own hand, chastise these traders? Some say, it offends their notion of His benignity. Could the All-Merciful exhibit such wrath against a tolerated, perhaps an unconscious, profaneness? Before we consider these opinions, it may be well to hear what the disciples felt, when they saw Him with the scourge by whom they had sat at the feast, whom they had hailed as the Giver of the marriage blessing, as the Inspirer of joy. 'They remembered that it was written, The zeal of your house has eaten me up.' These words came unbidden into their minds. His look, His voice, expressed all that they had ever heard of the vehement earnestness with which kings and prophets of old had felt the pollutions of God's Temple, and had sought to purge it of them. Josiah and Ezekiel revived in Him. He had forgotten Himself. He was possessed by the spirit that possessed the men of old. There was a fire burning in Him that could not be quenched, till it had consumed all the chaff from the threshing-floor.
Such was their impression at the moment. Looking back upon it after all later events had interpreted it, St. John felt that this was a manifestation of grace and truth, as much as the making the water wine, or the healing the sick. For he had learnt that a gracious Being must be intolerant of that which is ungracious, that a true Being must seek to destroy falsehood — that falsehood most which is nearest the heart of a nation, the altar of God. He felt that this wrath must have reached its highest point in the most gracious, most true Being, in Him from whom all had received their portions of grace and truth. He felt that this wrath must have been least restrained in Him by any thoughts of what would look well in the eyes of men. What were all the notions which he had formed about dignity or comeliness? The Word made flesh was making it manifest that every punishment of every wrong doer was administered by Him; that whatever agents He may employ to purify his Church, to inflict vengeance upon those who have defiled it, the rod is really in His hand, — that it is He who directs and measures every blow.
But St. John saw more in the act than this. He had said in his former chapter, not only, 'We beheld Him who was full of grace and truth, Him of whose fulness we had all received,' but 'We beheld His glory, as the glory of the only-begotten of the Father.' He teaches us to recognise a manifestation of this glory, also, in the driving the money-changers out of the Temple. 'Jesus said to them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.'
The zeal which devoured Jesus was surely a zeal for the house of that God to whom Solomon had prayed, 'Lord, will you in very deed dwell upon earth?' It was for the house of that God whom kings and prophets had worshipped between the cherubim. But which of these had dared to use the language which He used? Which of them had ever said, 'It is the house of my Father'? It was a new name, — a wonderful and awful name. And yet the whole force of the testimony which Christ bore for the old building — for the house in which their fathers worshipped — lay in this name. If that house was not to be a house of merchandise — if it was ever to be that again which holy men had believed and found it to be — this new name must remove its debasement, this new revelation must restore its greatness. No other could suffice to undo the hypocrisy of the priests, because that hypocrisy came from their thinking that the house was theirs — from not believing that there was any relation between themselves and Him to whom they offered their worship and their sacrifices. If there was a man who could call it 'my Father's house,' heaven and earth were not at the distance they thought and hoped, — their Judge was very near. On the other hand, no revelation but this could have brought the outer court once more into union with the inner court, could have made both parts of the house of God. For the reason why the people traded in that court, and felt they had no business anywhere else, was that they had no belief that God cared for them, or that there was any fellowship between them and Him, except through those priests who were the barriers to all fellowship. If Jesus of Nazareth, the poor man, one of them, could say, 'It is my Father's house,' the publican might feel then, — even the Gentile might feel afterwards, — that there was a house for him; not a place for selling sheep and oxen, and changing money, but a refuge from the weariness of merchandise, from the haggling and lying of the world, in the presence and heart of a Friend who gives to all liberally, of One who is altogether righteous and true.
In after days we shall find the Jews felt the boldness of this language, and made it their principal charge against Jesus that He dared to use it. On this occasion it seems to have fallen dead upon their ears. Their question is not, 'What sign shewest you seeing' you say this, but 'seeing you do these things?' They meant nothing more, I suppose, than, 'Why do you, a mere Galilæan stranger, take upon you to drive out these oxen? A prophet might do it — perhaps even a zealot, if he was a Levite, and claimed the honours of his ancestor Phinehas, might do it — but what sign can you produce that such an office belongs to you?' I do not find more in their demand than this; but the answer of our Lord refers to His previous words as well as to theirs. He could not give them a sign that He had a right to cleanse the Temple, which would not also be a sign that He had a right, in the strictest sense, to call the Temple 'His Father's house.' You must recollect that this was the claim He had to make good, if you would understand Him when He says, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.'
The sentence was, of course, enigmatical. The Jews regarded it simply as the language of a fanatic or a madman. 'Forty and six years,' they said, 'was this Temple in building, and will you rear it up in three days?' St. John evidently indicates that it was not much more intelligible to him and to his fellow-disciples, when they first heard it, than to their countrymen. But he says a time came when they did understand it. 'He spoke of the temple of His body. When therefore He was risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the scripture, and the word that Jesus had said.'
Are we to suppose that the third day of the resurrection was the key which unlocked our Lord's meaning? No doubt that was an outward help in the discovery of it; but it would have been a most imperfect help, if they had not attached a meaning to the resurrection which had nothing to do with days or years. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared Him to be His Son. This was St. Paul's language to the Romans, — this was the very substance of his preaching. By raising Him from the dead, He declared that in Him all the building fitly framed together grew to be an holy temple in the Lord. This was his language to those Ephesians among whom the son of Zebedee was now dwelling. It was the resurrection, then, which taught the disciples that the body of Christ was that real temple of God, of which all stone temples had been the symbols, — that in this only the fulness of God dwelt, — that in this the prayer of Solomon, that God, whom the heaven of heavens could not contain, would dwell with men upon earth, could be actually fulfilled. Some critics say there is an awkwardness in supposing that our Lord pointed to His own body when He spoke of destroying the Temple; and that if He did not, the Evangelist would seem to charge Him with using words in a double sense, — so deceiving His hearers. I do not see why we should imagine Him to have pointed to His body; why His eyes may not have been fixed on the building which He had called His 'Father's house.' He did mean, that, if they destroyed that house, — if their money-worship, falsehood, hypocrisy, brought it to utter ruin, and it was at last given up to Roman soldiers, — there was a house not made with hands, which was all that Solomon's, in the very best and noblest conception of it, had tried to be. He meant certainly more than this. He meant that they might and would try to destroy the outward fabric of this more glorious temple; but that in three days the dead body would come back from the tomb, and be proclaimed to the world as God's own everlasting habitation. You may call this a double sense of words, if you like; but by such double senses deceptions are not caused or promoted — they are cleared away. The Jew was labouring under a terrible deception; he was practising a continual equivocation. The Temple of the Lord was a sacred place to him, — he gloried in possessing it; yet he did not in his heart believe that God was meeting His creatures, holding any dialogue with them, caring for them. The building itself, therefore, acquired a reverence in his mind which was apart from reverence to God, no, fatal to that reverence. God was absorbed in the Temple. The inward thought of the priest was, that if it perished God would perish. Hence arose infinite contradictions in his practice, alternations of scrupulosity and profaneness. Now the money-changer is permitted to sit within it, — now a cry is raised that a Stephen speaks evil words against the holy place, and must be stoned. There was but one way of breaking down this habit of mind: it was to affirm and prove that the Temple was not a fiction, — that the belief of the elder men respecting it was not a fiction, — that God and man were not divided, — that the prophecy of their complete fellowship was not an idle prophecy leading to nothing, — that men might draw nearly to God, as to a father, on the holy hill of Zion; because there was an only-begotten Son, whose body was filled with that Spirit which would raise it out of the grave.
No; our Lord did not deceive the Jews when He gave them the fullest, truest sense of their own Scriptures, of their own calling and history. If any words, any acts could have undeceived them, they would have been His. Alas! when money-worship has reached the vitals of a nation, when it has entered into the house of God, the very words and acts of the Son of God may not purge it of its delusions, — they may take their shape and colour from these delusions. May God avert the omen from our land, from our Church! May He enable us to believe that every building in which He permits us to worship Him, and to present before Him the finished sacrifice of Christ, is indeed the house of our Father, because of His Father! May every chastisement He sends to us, individually or nationally, be viewed by us as a scourge with which He is cleansing His temple of them that sell and them that buy in it, — of our corrupt traffickings with our own consciences and with Him! May He help us to believe in Christ's incarnation and passion, that we may attain to the full glory of His resurrection, and may find in it the proof that His body was the temple of the Holy Ghost, and that ours are to be temples holy and acceptable to Him!
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
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