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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : VI The Final Controversies in Jerusalem

The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

VI The Final Controversies in Jerusalem

177. The early Christians were greatly interested in the teachings of Jesus and in his deeds, but they thought oftenest of the victory which by his resurrection he won out of seeming defeat. This is proved by the fact that of the first two gospels over one third, of Luke over one fifth, and of the fourth gospel nearly one half are devoted to the story of the passion and resurrection. This preponderance is not strange in view of the shock which the death of Jesus caused his disciples, and the new life which the resurrection brought to their hearts. The resurrection was the fundamental theme of apostolic preaching, the supreme evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. Hence the cross early became the object of exultant Christian joy and boasting; and in this the church entered actually into the Lord's own thought, for through the cross he looked for his exaltation and glory (Mark viii.31; John xii.23-36). From the time of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, he had had his death avowedly in view, and had repeatedly checked the ambitious and unthinking enthusiasm of his disciples by reminding them of what he must receive at the hands of the leaders of the people. The few months preceding his final appearance in Jerusalem had been devoted to the journey to the cross. This explains the note of tragedy which appears in his teachings at this period. The people had shown that they would none of his ministry. In this they had written their national and religious death warrant, and as he approached Jerusalem for the final crisis he declared, though with almost breaking heart, |Your house is left unto you desolate| (Luke xiii.31-35). Each new effort of Jesus to turn aside the impending judgment of his people by winning their acceptance of himself and his message resulted in a new certainty of his ultimate rejection, and thus in confirmation of the early recognized necessity, that, if he continued the work God had given him to do, he should suffer many things, and die at the hands of his own people.

178. The last chapter in his public ministry began with his arrival at Bethany six days before the Passover. It is probable that the caravan with which Jesus was travelling reached Bethany not far from the sunset which marked the beginning of the Sabbath preceding the feast. Jesus had friends there who gladly gave him entertainment, and the Sabbath was doubtless spent quietly in this retreat. The holy day closed with the setting sun, and then his hosts were able to show him the special attention which they desired. The general cordiality of welcome expressed itself in a feast given in the house of one Simon, a leper who had probably experienced the power of Jesus to heal. He may have been a relative also of Lazarus, for Martha assisted in the entertainment, and Lazarus was one of the guests of honor (Mark xiv.3; John xii.2). During the feast, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, poured forth on the head and feet of Jesus a box of the rarest perfume. This act of costly adoration seemed extravagant to some, particularly to one of Jesus' disciples, who complained that the money could have been better spent. This criticism of one who had not counted cost in her service was rebuked by Jesus, who defended and commended Mary; for in the act he recognized her fear that he might not be long with her (Mark xiv.8; John xii.7). It is probable that this rebuke, with the clear reference to his approaching death, led Judas to decide to abandon the apparently waning cause of his Master, and bargain with the leaders in Jerusalem to betray him (Mark xiv.3-11).

179. The day following the supper at Bethany -- that is, the first day of the week -- witnessed the welcome of Jesus to Jerusalem by the jubilant multitudes. His mode of entering the city affords a marked contrast to his treatment of the determination to make him king after he had fed the multitudes in Galilee (John vi.15). In some respects the circumstances were similar. A multitude of the visitors to the feast, hearing that Jesus was at Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, went out to meet him with a welcome that showed their enthusiastic confidence that at last he would assume Messianic power and redeem Israel (John xii.12, 13). Jesus was now ready for a popular demonstration, for the rulers were unwilling longer to tolerate his work and his teaching. He had never hesitated to assert his superiority to official criticism, and at length the hour had come to proclaim the full significance of his independence. In fact it was for this that some months before he had set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem. When, therefore, the crowd from Jerusalem appeared, Jesus took the initiative in a genuine Messianic demonstration. He sent two of his disciples to a place near by to borrow an ass's colt, on which he might ride into the city, fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy of the |king that cometh meek, and riding upon an ass| (see Matt. xxi.4, 5). At this, the enthusiasm of his followers, and of those who had come to meet him, became unbounded, and without rebuke from Jesus they proceeded towards Jerusalem crying, |Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord| (Mark xi.9, 10). Notwithstanding the remonstrances of certain Pharisees among the multitude (Luke xix.39), Jesus accepted the hosannas, for they served to emphasize the claim which he now wished, without reserve or ambiguity, to make in Jerusalem. The time for reserve had passed. The mass of the people with their leaders had shown clearly that for his truth, and himself as bearer of it, they had no liking; while the few had become attached to him sufficiently to warrant the supreme test of their faith. He could not continue longer his efforts to win the people, for both Galilee and Judea were closed to him. Even if he had been content, without contradicting popular ideas, to work wonders and proclaim promises of coming good, he could with difficulty have continued this work, for Herod had already been regarding him with suspicion (Luke xiii.31). He had run his course and must measure strength with the hostile forces in Jerusalem. For the last encounter he assumed the aggressive, and entered the city as its promised deliverer, the Prince of Peace. The very method of his Messianic proclamation was a challenge of current Jewish ideas, for they were not looking for so meek and peaceful a leader as Zechariah had conceived; this entrance emphasized the old contradiction between Jesus and his people's expectations. He accepted the popular welcome with full knowledge of the transitoriness of the present enthusiasm. As he advanced he saw in thought the fate to which the city and people were blindly hurrying, and his day of popular triumph was a day of tears (Luke xix.41-44). The city was stirred when the prophet of Nazareth thus entered it; but he simply went into the temple, looked about with heavy heart, and, as it was late, returned to Bethany with the twelve for the night.

180. On the following day Jesus furnished to his disciples a parable in action illustrating the fate awaiting the nation; for it is only as a parable that the curse of the barren fig-tree can be understood. The idea that Jesus showed resentment at disappointment of his hunger when he found no figs on the tree out of season is too petty for consideration. He was drawn to it by the early foliage, for it was not yet the season for either fruit or leaves. One is tempted to believe, as Dr. Bruce has suggested, that he had small expectation of finding fruit, and that even before he reached the tree with its early leaves he felt a likeness between it and the nation of hypocrites whose fate was so clear in his mind. The withering of the fig-tree set his disciples thinking; and Jesus showed that it was an object lesson, promising that the disciples, by the exercise of but a little faith, could do more, even remove mountains, -- such mountains of difficulty as the opposition of the whole Jewish nation would offer to the success of their work in their Master's name.

181. The curse upon the barren fig-tree was spoken as Jesus was going from Bethany to Jerusalem on the morning after his Messianic entry, that is, on Monday, and it was Tuesday when the disciples found it withered away (Mark xi.12-14, 20-25). On Monday Jesus entered into the temple and taught and healed (Luke xix.47; Matt. xxi.14-16). It is at this point that Mark inserts the cleansing of the temple which John shows to belong rather to Jesus' first public visit to Jerusalem. The place which this incident holds in the first three gospels has already been explained by the fact that it furnished one cause for the official hostility to Jesus, and that Mark's story included no earlier visit to the holy city (sect.116; see A 39).

182. Tuesday, the last day of public activity, exhibits Jesus in four different lights, according as he had to do with his critics, with the devout widow, with the inquiring Greeks, and with his own disciples. The opposition to him expressed itself, after the general challenge of his authority, in three questions put in succession by Pharisees and Herodians, by Sadducees, and by a scribe, more earnest than most, whom the Pharisees put forward after they had seen how Jesus silenced the Sadducees. Jesus met the opening challenge by a question about John's baptism (Mark xi.29-33) which completely destroyed the complacency of his critics, putting them on the defensive. This was more than a clever stroke, they could not know what his authority was unless they had a quick sense for spiritual things. His question would have served to bring this to the surface if they had possessed it. Their reply showed them incapable of receiving a real answer to their question. It also gave him opportunity to say in three significant parables (Matt. xxi.28 to xxii.14) what their spiritual blindness signified for them and their nation, giving thus a turn to the interview not at all to their minds. As Jesus' rebuke was spoken in the hearing of the people, a determined effort was at once made to discredit him in the popular mind. The question (Mark xii.13-17) with which the Pharisees and Herodians hoped to ensnare him was most subtle, for the popular feeling was as sensitive to the mark of subserviency which the payment of tribute kept ever before them as the Roman authorities were to the slightest suspicion of revolt against their sway. In none of his words had Jesus so clearly asserted the simple other-worldliness of his doctrine of the kingdom of God as in his answer to the question about tribute. For him loyalty to the actual earthly sovereign was quite compatible with loyalty to God, the lower obligation was in fact a summons to be scrupulous also to render to God his due, -- a duty in which this nation was sadly delinquent. The reply gave no ground for an accusation before the governor; but the popular feeling against Rome was so strong that it is not unlikely that it contributed somewhat to the readiness of the multitude a few days later to prefer Barabbas to Jesus.

183. A second assault was made by some Sadducees who put to him a crude question about the relations of a seven-times married woman in the resurrection (Mark xii.18-27). If this question was asked with the expectation of making Jesus ridiculous in the sight of the people it was a marked failure, for his reply was so simple and straightforward that he won the admiration even of some of the Pharisees. The most significant feature of it was his argument from God's reference to himself as God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for in that he taught that the fact of fellowship with God implies that God's servants share with him a life that death cannot vanquish. The skill with which Jesus met these two questions interested some of his hearers and showed to his opponents that they must put forward their ablest champions to cope with him. The next test was more purely academic in character, -- as to what class of commands is greatest in the law (Mark xii.28-34). For the pharisaic scholars this was a favorite problem. For Jesus, however, the question contained no problem, since all the law is summed up in the two commandments of love. His contemporaries were not without power to see the truth of his generalization, and their champion in this last attack was moved with admiration for the fineness and sufficiency of Jesus' answer.

184. All of the assaults served only to show freshly the clearness and profoundness of his thought; his critics were quite discomfited in their effort to entangle him. They had done with him, but he had still a word for them. The business of these scribes was the study of the scriptures. They furnished the people with authoritative statements of truth. One of the common-places of the current thought was that the Messiah should be David's son. Jesus did not deny the truth of this view, yet he showed them how partial their ideas were by quoting a word of scripture in which the Messiah is shown as David's Lord. If they had been open-minded they might have inferred from this that perhaps the man before them was not so impossible a Messiah as they thought. This last question closed the colloquy; there awaited yet, however, Jesus' calm, scathing arraignment of the hypocrisy of these religious leaders. There was no longer any need for prudence and every reason for a clear indication of the difference between himself and the scribes in motive, in teaching, and in character. The final conflict was on, and Jesus freely spoke his mind concerning their whole life of piety without godliness. Never have sharper words of reproach fallen from human lips than these which Jesus directed against the scribes and Pharisees; they are burdened with indignation for the misleading of the people, with rebuke for the misrepresentation of God's truth, and with scorn for their hollow pretence of righteousness. Through it all breathes a note of sorrow for the city whose house was now left to her desolate. The change of scene which introduces the widow offering her gift in the temple treasury heightens the significance of the controversies through which Jesus had just passed. In his comment on the worth of her two mites we hear again the preacher of the sermon on the mount, and are assured that it is indeed from him that the severe rebukes which have fallen on the scribes have come. There is again a reference to the insight of him who sees in secret, and who judges as he sees; while allusion is not lacking to the others whose larger gifts attracted a wider attention. The whole scene is like a commentary on Matt. vi.2-4.

185. Still a different side of Jesus' life appears when the Greeks seek him in the temple. They were probably proselytes from some of the Greek cities about the Mediterranean where the synagogue offered to the earnest-minded a welcome relief from the foolishness and corruption of what was left of religion in the heathen world. Having visited Jerusalem for the feast, they heard on every hand about the new teacher. They were not so bound to rabbinic traditions as the Jews themselves, they had been drawn by the finer features of Judaism, -- its high morality and its noble idea of God. What they heard of Jesus might well attract them, and they sought out Philip, a disciple with a Greek name, to request an interview with his Master. The evangelist who has preserved the incident (John xii.20-36) evidently introduced it because of what it showed of Jesus' inner life; hence we have no report of the conversation between him and his visitors. The effect of their seeking him was marked, however, for it offered sharp contrast to the rejection which he already felt in his dealings with the people who but two days before had hailed him as Messiah. This foreign interest in him did not suggest a new avenue for Messianic work, it only brought before his mind the influence which was to be his in the world which these inquirers represented, and immediately with the thought of his glorification came that of the means thereto, -- the cross whose shadow was already darkening his path. Excepting Gethsemane, no more solemn moment in Jesus' life is reported for us. A glimpse is given into the inner currents of his soul, and the storm which tossed them is seen. It is in marked contrast to the calmness of his controversy with the leaders, and to the gentleness of his commendation of the widow. The agitation passed almost at once, but it left Jesus in a mood which he had not shown before on that day; in it his own thoughts had their way, and the doctrine of the grain of wheat dying to appear in larger life, of the Son of Man lifted up to draw all men unto him, had utterance, greatly to the perplexity of his hearers. It seems to have been one of the few times when Jesus spoke for his own soul's relief.

186. In all the earlier events of the day the disciples of Jesus appear but little. He is occupied with others, accepting the challenge of the leaders, and completing his testimony to the truth they refused to hear. The quieter hours of the later part of the day gave time for further words with his friends. The comment on the widow's gift was meant for them, and the uncovering of his own soul when the Greeks sought him was in their presence. After he had left the temple and the city he gave himself to them more exclusively. His disciples were perplexed by what they saw and felt, for the temper of the people toward their Master could not be mistaken. Yet they were sure of him. The leaders among them, therefore, asked him privately to tell them when the catastrophe should come, to which during the day he had made repeated reference. The conversation which followed is reported for us in the discourse on the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world (Mark xiii. and parallels), in which Jesus taught his disciples to expect trouble in their ministry, as he was meeting trouble in his; and to be ready for complete disappointment of their inherited hopes for the glory of their holy city. He also taught them to expect that his work would shortly be carried to perfection, and to live in expectancy of his coming to complete all that he was now seeming to leave undone. This lesson of patience and expectancy is enforced in a group of parables preserved for us in Matthew (chap. xxv.), closing with the remarkable picture of the end of all things when the Master should return in glory as judge of all to make final announcement of the simplicity of God's requirement of righteousness, as it had been exhibited in the life which by the despite of men was now drawing to its close.

187. The bargain made by Judas to betray his Lord has always been difficult to understand. The man must have had fine possibilities or Jesus would not have chosen him for an apostle, nor would the little company have made him its treasurer (John xii.6; xiii.29). The fact that Jesus early discovered his character (John vi.64) does not compel us to think that his selection as an apostle was not perfectly sincere; the man must have seemed to be still savable and worthy thus to be associated with the eleven others who were Jesus' nearest companions. It has often been noticed that he was probably the only Judean among the twelve, for Kerioth, his home, was a town in southern Judea. The effort has frequently been made to redeem his reputation by attributing his betrayal to some high motive -- such as a desire to force his Master to use his Messianic power, and confound his opponents by escaping from their hands and setting up the hoped-for kingdom. But the remorse of Judas, in which De Quincey finds support for this theory of the betrayal, must be more simply and sadly understood. It is more likely that the traitor illustrates Jesus' words: |No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon| (Matt. vi.24). The beginning of his fall may have been his disappointment when Jesus showed clearly that he would not establish a kingdom conformed to the popular ideas. As the enthusiasm which drew him to Jesus cooled, personal greed, with something of resentment at the cause of his disappointment, seem to have taken possession of him, and they led him on until the stinging rebuke which Jesus administered to the criticism of Mary at Bethany prompted the man to seek a bargain with the authorities which should insure him at least some profit in the general wreck of his hopes. His remorse after he saw in its bald hideousness what he had done was psychologically inevitable. Although Jesus was aware of Judas' character from the beginning (John vi.64), he that came to seek and to save that which was lost was no fatalist; and this knowledge was doubtless -- like that which he had of the fate hanging over Jerusalem -- subject to the possibility that repentance might change what was otherwise a certain destiny. As the event turned he could only say, |Good were it for that man if he had not been born| (Mark xiv.21).

188. With this the curtain falls on the public ministry of Jesus. The gospels suggest a day of quiet retirement following these controversies and warnings, with their fresh demonstration of the irreconcilable hostility of people of all classes to him and his work. After the seclusion of that day, he returned to give final proof of complete obedience to his Father's will.

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