4. Jesus' Early Ministry

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) indicate that Jesus began His ministry in Galilee. Indeed, Mark's Gospel, after telling briefly about the ministry of John the Baptist, takes us immediately into Galilee, and gives us an account of the activities of Jesus in that area. However, John's Gospel tells us of some earlier happenings connected with the time when Jesus was doing some teaching work in and around Jerusalem. This period is often referred to as "the early Judean ministry."

Three outstanding events during this early period should be carefully considered:

read the passage
John 2:1-11

1. The Wedding Feast at Cana.

At first sight it may appear somewhat strange to include a miracle performed in "Cana of Galilee" in the period designated "the early Judean ministry." Nevertheless, this miracle has a definite connection with this period; so it will be well to give the story careful consideration.

Note the following:

(1) At this time Jesus must have been engaged in His early teaching work in and around Jerusalem, as suggested above. The story tells how "Jesus also was bidden [to the wedding feast} and his disciples" (John 2:2). Jesus could scarcely have had "disciples" unless He was at that time fully established as a teacher.

(2) The story further relates that "the mother of Jesus was [already] there" (John 2:1). This seems to indicate that there were ties of friendship, or distant relationship, between the family at Cana and the family at near-by Nazareth; and for this special occasion Mary had gone to Cana to assist in the preparations for the marriage feast. At this time Jesus was engaged in His "early Judean ministry," but a special invitation was sent to Him, "requesting the honor of His company." It would be regarded as a great distinction to have this young Teacher (whose fame was already widespread) present at the wedding feast.

(3) At events of this sort, it was customary for the family to provide the "good things to eat"; but in many instances the guests brought the wine. The story tells how on this occasion, for some reason not disclosed, the wine ran short, and the entire feast was in danger of becoming a dismal failure. Moreover, there would be "loss of face" for the families involved—and this would be indeed a tragedy of tragedies!

(4) Note the use, by Jesus, of the word woman (John 2:4). To the present-day reader this word may sound somewhat disrespectful. However, rightly understood, there is no disrespect here. Rather, this is what may be termed an impersonal form of address—much the same as if we would say, "My dear Madam." And, in this connection, it is significant to note that throughout His ministry (as recorded in the Gospels) Jesus did not speak of Mary as His mother.

(5) Also, the phrase "mine hour is not yet come" should not be interpreted as an indication of the coming miracle. Rather, this should be regarded as referring to the custom of serving the wine according to the age of the providing guests—the wine given by the eldest guest being served first, and then in a similar manner right down the line. Jesus would have been regarded as a young man at that time, and consequently it would have been out of order for Him to thrust Himself forward until His "age bracket" had been reached. Later on, when the actual need was realized, and when the servants looked to Jesus for wine, He did not fail to provide what was needed.

How should we interpret this miracle?

Two possibilities present themselves: (1) We may direct our attention to the details given in the story; and in these we shall undoubtedly find many interesting and helpful suggestions. (2) However, the better plan is to look for the central, or really important, teaching in the miracle. As we give our attention to this, we shall find that the details will then fall into right relationship. All this will be further discussed in a later lesson.

For this miracle, then, let us follow the second plan suggested above, and try to see what is the really important teaching here. Note the following:

(1) Just as a marriage indicates union between two persons, so we may recognize—in a metaphysical way—union between faculties, or states of consciousness. We may think of union between wisdom and love, or intellectual ideas and spiritual ideas, and so on; and such a union is usually associated with joyous experiences. We may also recognize the wine (as mentioned in the miracle) as a symbol of life, or life forces. And again, the free flow of life forces is usually associated with happiness, joy, and similar pleasurable experiences.

(2) However, there are times when something happens—something which tends to mar all these joyous experiences. At the wedding, the supply of wine gave out. In life's experiences there are times when "the bottom drops out of things," and the outlook becomes very dismal indeed. What is to be done in such a situation? Is there any way of holding off the impending disaster? Yes, there is. Note what was done at the wedding: The persons immediately concerned looked to Jesus—and He not only held off the "impending disaster" but also furnished a new and abundant supply of wine, and the quality thereof was far superior to anything the guests had tasted before. We may also recognize in this ample supply of superior wine (symbol of life) an interesting and helpful commentary on the statement used later by Jesus: "I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly" (John 10:10). Thus, we may sum up the important teaching of this miracle in a brief sentence: If the joys of life should seem to be running low, call upon Jesus Christ, for He will always respond—and His response will be in a measure "exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Eph. 3:20).

read the passage
John 2:13-22

2. Cleansing the temple.

Following the wedding feast at Cana, and after a very brief stay at Capernaum, Jesus hastened back to Jerusalem, in order to be there for the Passover observances. However, after arriving at Jerusalem and attempting to take His former teaching-place in the Temple courts, Jesus found the entire area occupied by money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Hence, we have the story of the cleansing of the Temple, as given in the above Scripture passage.

(Student's Note: In this passage, and in many other places in the New Testament, we find reference to someone being either "in the Temple," or "going to the Temple." It should be understood here, and in all similar instances, that the word Temple actually indicates the Temple courts. Only the priests entered the actual Temple building, while all other persons remained in the various courts surrounding the Temple. It is important to recognize this distinction—because nowadays, when we refer to someone "going to church," we mean actually entering the church building, and not merely waiting in the area surrounding the church.)

As we look carefully into the story of cleansing the Temple, one important feature calls for immediate attention:

From the Scripture passage given above, it would appear that this cleansing took place during what we have termed "the early Judean ministry" of Jesus. In other words, this was one of Jesus' earlier activities. However, the Synoptic Gospels place the cleansing of the Temple almost at the close of Jesus' ministry—immediately following the triumphal entry, and just prior to' the Crucifixion. (See Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48.) This suggests two possibilities:

(1) That there were two cleansings: The first, as recorded in John's Gospel, and the second as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels—and these separated by the period of Jesus' ministry.

(2) That there was only one cleansing—at the time indicated by the synoptic writers. The writer of John's Gospel, recognizing the importance of this activity, and fearing that it might be overshadowed by the events just prior to the Crucifixion, placed it at the earlier period. All this seems quite possible; but at the same time it must be recognized that what was indicated in the first suggestion is also equally possible. However, the really essential thing is to recognize the great importance of this happening—and this importance is emphasized by the fact that the cleansing story is recorded in all four Gospels.

The question now arises: Why did Jesus do this? Just what was Jesus' purpose in this cleansing of the Temple?

Let us consider several possibilities:

(1) Should we regard Jesus' action as a strong protest against what we might term "desecration of holy ground"? Was Jesus thus showing His disapproval of using the Temple courts for this sort of thing? In point of fact, this is the explanation usually given for the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus was not saying that the things mentioned might not have a rightful place somewhere; but He did emphasize that that "somewhere" was decidedly not in the vicinity of the Temple! Moreover, there are several indications that Jesus felt quite strongly on this subject. John 2:16 reads: "take these things hence; make not my Father's house a house of merchandise," while Mark 11:16 informs us that "he would not suffer that any man should carry a vessel through the temple [court]."

(2) However, looking a little deeper into the story, there seems a possibility that Jesus was here doing something more than protesting against desecration. It may be that He was protesting against the very system which brought about the conditions He was witnessing at that time. True, this sacrificial system dated back into antiquity, and many passages of the Old Testament fully supported it. But Jesus must have recognized (as we now recognize) that such a system was little more than a relic of ancient idolatry and barbarity. In earlier days several Old Testament writers had registered their protests, but apparently all to no purpose. The idea of sacrificing something was so deeply embedded in the traditional forms of worship that all suggestions of reform were frowned upon. Moreover, this sacrificial system was so profitable to the priests and all others immediately concerned that they were determined to maintain it at all costs. Perhaps it was this, more than anything else, that aroused the hostility of the Sadducees and others associated with the Temple against Jesus. They feared that Jesus was seeking to undermine their traditions, prestige, and income; and therefore they must do away with Him!

(3) Most important of all, we should recognize that Jesus was here seeking to impart to us a truly outstanding lesson. This lesson is emphasized in the latter part of the story, where we read the Gospel writer's comment: "But he spake of the temple of his body" (John 2:21). We also should recognize the need for cleansing our body temple — for

"When we throw the light of Spirit into the subconscious courts of the body temple, we find queer and often startling conditions there. One would hardly expect to see butcher stalls and money changers in a temple built for the worship of God, yet similar conditions exist in all of us" (Mysteries of John 28).

The following indicates how this cleansing is to be accomplished:

"So the body temple must be cleansed; it is the house of God ('for we are a temple of the living God'), and it should be put in order. The first step in this cleansing process is to recognize its need. The next step is the 'scourge of small cords' (A.V.) to formulate the word or statement of denial. When we deny in general terms we cleanse the consciousness, but secret sins may yet lurk in the inner parts. The words that most easily reach these hidden errors are not great ones, such as 'I am one with Almightiness; my environment is God' but small, definite statements that cut like whipcords into the sensuous fleshly mentality.

"To get perfect results it is necessary to deal with our mind in both the absolute and the relative. In the early morning we may affirm, 'All the affairs of my life are under the law of justice, and my own comes to me in ways divine,' and before noon we find ourselves searching the papers for advertisements of bargains in the stores. Such an experience shows that we have not gone into the temple and tipped over the tables and scattered the coins" (Mysteries of John 29).

As we thus go to work on cleansing our body temple, there may be revealed to us the reason for this apparent duplication of this story in the Gospel records, as discussed earlier in this lesson. In actual experience we often find that one cleansing is not sufficient, and that the cleansing process must be repeated. We may cleanse our temple at the beginning of our daily activities, just as Jesus did at the beginning of His ministry; but some more cleansing has to be done later on, just as Jesus did at the close of His ministry.

read the passage
John 3

3. Visit of Nicodemus.

If we would really understand this third chapter of John, we should first do a little reconstruction work.

Look carefully at John 3:3, and note how the verse reads: "Jesus answered and said unto him ..." Now the word answered would seem to indicate that a question had been asked, a request made, or something similar. But as we look back at the preceding verse we find that no question had been asked. Nicodemus simply greeted Jesus in the somewhat elaborate Eastern manner—but nothing further is indicated. Yet the question (for indeed there must have been a question) is actually the key to the entire discourse that follows.

What, then, was the question? Why does it not appear in the text?

Answering the second inquiry first: There is a possibility that John deliberately omitted the question for reasons known to himself, and which we shall not attempt to discuss here. More likely, however, the question was accidentally omitted by a copyist in the early hand-written days of the Scriptures, and somehow the error was not rectified.

However, the really important point is the substance of the question itself; and fortunately, Jesus' answer gives us a most helpful clue. Note how Jesus mentions here "the kingdom of God" (John 3:3) — and in this connection we recall that in Jesus' early ministry He frequently spoke of "the kingdom." (See Mark 1:15.) Moreover, the Jewish people at that time would naturally associate this "kingdom" with the "messianic expectancy," as discussed in an earlier lesson. Thus, while it may not be possible to give the exact wording, we can reconstruct the substance of Nicodemus' question, somewhat as follows (perhaps it will be best to give the preceding and following verses, so that the actual question will fit naturally in its place):

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him." Nicodemus then went on to say: "Rabbi, we have often heard thee speak of 'the kingdom'—and this is a very vital subject with us. Tell us, therefore, more about this kingdom. When will this kingdom come? In what manner will it be established? And what must we do to obtain our rightful place in this kingdom?" "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot [even] see the kingdom of God."

With the passage thus set clearly before us, we are able to see new meaning and purpose in Jesus' statement regarding being "born anew." Jesus was here telling Nicodemus that these inquiries regarding the kingdom were all to no purpose. This was a spiritual kingdom, and could be comprehended only by those who were spiritually quickened. Thus, to be "born anew" was the only way to "see the kingdom of God."

Several points in this chapter call for special attention:

1. The New Birth.

Jesus told Nicodemus "Ye must be born anew"

(John 3:7). (Note: The Authorized Version states "again," while the marginal reading is "from above" —and this latter is perhaps the most helpful reading.) What is this "new birth"? What does it indicate in our experience?

Perhaps the simplest way is to recognize that we may think of ourselves in terms of "physical," "mental," and "spiritual." As we begin our life experience we are born physically; this is a physical birth, and we are then a physical being. Later comes the mental, or intellectual awakening; and then (in addition to the physical) we are an intellectual being. Finally, there comes the spiritual awakening, and we are "born from above"—a spiritual being. The word birth as here used should be regarded as including both the quickening and the coming forth into activity and manifestation.

However, there is a difference between the earlier processes mentioned—physical and intellectual—and the spiritual awakening. The physical and intellectual processes happen, as we say, naturally; but the spiritual awakening—in accord with our freedom of choice—comes only as the result of our earnest desire. The spiritual birth is not forced upon us, but must be sought and gained. True, there is always the spiritual potentiality within us; but for the actual awakening and coming forth into manifestation, we ourselves must take the initiative.

The following quotation will also help toward an understanding of the subject:

"New Birth—The realization by man of his identity, with the fullness of power and glory that follows.

"A birth is a coming into a state of being. Man first is born, or comes into a state of physical being; he thinks of himself as flesh, material. The 'new birth' is the coming into a higher state of being that is alive to the fact that man is like God, one with God" (The Revealing Word 140).

In John 3:5 Jesus speaks of being "born of water and the Spirit." This may be explained as follows:

"To be 'born of water' is to be cleansed of all impurity, sin, and materiality, through denial. To be 'born of the Spirit' is to come into the consciousness of divine law and to lift the whole man into a new life of harmony and order by affirmative prayer" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 482-3 entry for Nicodemus).

2. Nicodemus.

Thinking in terms of Nicodemus himself, the following should be carefully noted:

(1) John's Gospel states that Nicodemus came to Jesus "by night." Undoubtedly, Nicodemus had listened to the teaching of Jesus in the Temple courts during the day, and could have asked questions then. Apparently he did not. Could it be, therefore, that Nicodemus hesitated to identify himself openly with this new teaching because he feared public opinion? It should be remembered here that Nicodemus was a well-known public official, wealthy, and a member of the Sanhedrin. The coming "by night" seems to indicate that Nicodemus was afraid of something. Also, it would seem that the writer of John's Gospel was not favorably impressed with Nicodemus' behavior; for not only does he mention this coming "by night" here, but also in a later story he mentions "Nicodemus, he who at the first came to him [Jesus] by night" (John 19:39).

What does all this mean to us? The following passages contain some very important teaching:

"Nicodemus' coming to Jesus (spiritual I AM) 'by night' (spiritual darkness) shows that intellectual learning counts for naught in the regeneration. Man must be born of Spirit in order to be redeemed. ... The ruling tendency of our surface religion is spiritual darkness; so it is represented as coming to Jesus (spiritual I AM) by night. But there is that in it which is pure (pure blood), is single in its desire to know Truth, and is seeking the light; when we begin to ask the cause of the works of healing that are being done on every hand by people who believe in Truth, we are acknowledging that there is evidence of divine power" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 482).

Perhaps Jesus was giving emphasis to ideas similar to those indicated above, when He said to Nicodemus:

"And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God" (John 3:19-21).

(2) Yet, notwithstanding all the fears and shortcomings of Nicodemus, Jesus must have seen in him something really worthwhile. Note the length of the discourse, and the many important statements contained therein. Note also how Jesus at that time gave to Nicodemus the priceless statement which has since come to be regarded as representing the very heart of Christian teaching:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Questions for Lesson 4

Historical Questions:
  1. Why did Jesus go to Cana in Galilee? (John 2:1-11) Explain briefly, in your own words, what happened at Cana.
  2. What was taking place in the Temple courts when Jesus returned there at Passover time? (John 2:13-22) Explain briefly what action Jesus took at that time.
  3. What attitude did the Temple officials take toward Jesus, following the above action? What was the basic cause of their hostility?
  4. Who came to Jesus "by night"? Explain briefly the purpose of this visit, and tell how Jesus responded.
  5. What very important teaching was given to Nicodemus at the close of the above interview? (John 3:16) Explain briefly what this teaching means to us today. Is this "eternal life" for some future time? or may we experience it now?
Metaphysical Questions:
  1. Explain briefly the important metaphysical teaching given in Jesus' first miracle at Cana. (John 2:1-11) How does this apply to us today?
  2. How would you interpret the story of the cleansing of the Temple? (John 2:13-22) How does this apply to us today?
  3. Is there any special significance in the fact that this Temple cleansing is recorded in the Gospels as happening at different times? What would this mean in terms of present-day experience?
  4. What does Nicodemus signify metaphysically? Explain fully. Also, what is indicated by the term "by night"?
  5. What is the new birth? Discuss fully, and mention some steps we must take in order to enter into this experience.