Below we have the latest installment of Bob Dunne’s book, 909 Days that Changed the World. We will post two chapters a week for the summer months. We suggest reading it quietly and putting yourself in the scenes. You might be amazed at how closer you can get to Jesus! Should you be interested in your own copy, the book ($14.95 plus sales tax) can be bought from his publisher Leonine Press, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon. It is also available in Nook and Kindle. You may also get an autographed copy directly from Bob by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chapter 5: The First Paschal Visit to Jerusalem
As the rainy season subsides and winter turns into spring, the flowers and plants begin to grow again, nourished by the winter water. The solemn feast of Passover is approaching. It is mid-March. Jesus and Mary make plans with their family members to go to Tiberias, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, which serves as a meeting place for Galileans traveling to Judea for the Paschal celebration. The path of the pilgrims will take them down the west side of the Sea of Galilee, crossing the Jordan River into Decapolis just below the point where the Sea ends. They will then travel along the eastern bank of the Jordan through the rest of Decapolis and into Perea, crossing back into Judea just south of Jericho on the east side of the river. When Jesus and his family arrive at Tiberias, they make camp, looking to add others to their caravan for safety and convenience’ sake. Although not specifically mentioned in the gospels but implied by the actions that later take place, it is likely Jesus meets up with some (maybe all) of his early disciples (John, Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathaniel). Not having seen Jesus in about three months, their joy in seeing him knows no bounds, and they jump at his suggestion to travel in his caravan to Jerusalem.
It is day 153 of the 909 days that changed the world, and as the caravan begins its journey, crossing the Jordan River into Decapolis, they are greeted by John the Baptist and his disciples. Since the time John met Jesus some five months ago, he and his disciples have moved up the Jordan River to this crossing. John the Evangelist in his gospel reports, “John was…baptizing in Aenon near Salim” (John 3:23), a place that no longer exists but that many believe was up the Jordan River at this crossing. Once again, John points out Jesus to his disciples and any others within earshot as Jesus and his caravan pass them by. John’s endorsement of Jesus stirs the interest of those traveling in Jesus’ caravan. Who is this man? Why is John acting this way towards him? As the caravan passes John and moves on down the east side of the Jordan, Jesus’ early disciples also eagerly point him out to many of their own friends. Echoing Philip’s words to Nathaniel, they tell their friends in the caravan to come and see. “This is the one we have been telling you about.” Many do come to meet him, and most are impressed with how he speaks, how he interprets things, but above all, how his eyes seem to speak an unconditional concern for each. They hear it in his voice and see it in his actions, but they are mostly taken by the concern for each of them individually, which seems so evident in his eyes.
The three days’ journey down the Perea side of the Jordan River seems to go quickly for all those who have met Jesus. The caravan is abuzz. There are no miracles, yet he speaks with such authority, and his eyes are so riveting. Then there is talk of what he did at a wedding in Cana a few months ago. By the time they are ready to cross back again into Judea, many more people are asking themselves if this man Jesus is actually more than just a carpenter from Nazareth. When the caravan gets near Jerusalem, some continue on into the city to stay with family or friends but most pitch camp in and around Mt. Olivet, which lies a short walk from the Golden Gate entrance of the city. Jesus, Mary, and other members of their extended family make their camp and, as is the custom, as soon as they are set up, leave to enter the city and visit the temple.
Making the short walk to the Golden Gate entrance, Jesus, with many others in tow, surveys the scene he has witnessed countless times before. Many follow him because they are curious to see how he is going to act when he gets into the city. His early disciples and a number of people he has met on the caravan are right behind and beside him as he goes under the arch of the Golden Gate. On immediately entering the city, there is a big, open courtyard before one gets to the temple. As always is the case during festivals, this space is disorganized, filled with festival mercantile activity. There are those who are selling all kinds of animals to be used as a sacrifice at the temple. The courtyard is filled with the bleating of goats and sheep, the groaning of oxen, the shouts of their owners driving them here and there and offering them to the newly-arrived pilgrims. Filth and noise are everywhere. Back in the corners, for those who could not afford larger animals, there are others who are offering turtle doves, rows of the birds crowded in cages. Amidst all this confusion and cacophony, sitting behind tables close to the gates, are the money changers, coldly calculating and watching the goings on. Not only are they there to change money for foreigners but also to keep an eye on all transactions to make sure the temple is getting its fair share of the profits. Today, however, they are going to see something very different.
Suddenly, as if he is on a mission, Jesus bends down and picks up one of the small whips used by oxen owners, stretches out his arms, cracks the whip to get the attention of those merchants closest to him, and with a look of authority never seen by these people before, begins to drive them back away from him towards the temple. Jesus, before pressing forward more, turns around and kicks over the tables of the money changers, spilling their coins all over the place in the muck and mud of the courtyard. Turning back towards the other merchants, eyes flashing, he presses forward. Many attempting to gather their wares and animals run into others who see the same look in Jesus’ eyes. A near-panic fills the courtyard. Jesus comes up to some of those selling turtle doves and, with his glance somewhat softened towards these people who, unlike the coldhearted money changers and other unscrupulous merchants, are not the major violators, says, “Take these things out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2:16). They rush to obey him, grabbing as many cages as they can, and rush away from him towards the temple. This is truly the most amazing scene: one man, with a small whip, by the sheer force of his presence has emptied the courtyard of all the merchants. Imagine the thoughts of those recent followers of Jesus as they stand behind him and watch this scene unfold. Indeed, we do get insight from St. John as to what they were thinking: “His disciples recalled the words of scripture; zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). We can imagine these followers looking at one another and saying once again that perhaps this man is indeed destined for great things.
At the other side of the courtyard on the steps of the temple, the chief priests and leaders are indignant, hearing the noise of the panic and seeing the merchants fleeing. Who is this man driving these people out? On what authority is he doing this? Some become quite angry as they realize this panic will hurt the finances of the temple. But as Jesus approaches them, these leaders too see the look of authority in his eyes, so, rather than attacking him, they ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18). Jesus, lowering his hands to his side, looks at them with a combination of respect and disdain—respect because they are the religious leaders of his people whom he has come to save; disdain because he knows the hardness of their hearts. He decides to answer them in a way they will not now understand but will come to understand later. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The leaders are baffled. What could he mean? One Pharisee, voicing the thoughts of them all, mockingly replies, “This temple was under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). The sarcasm is thick in his voice. These leaders of the Jews dismiss Jesus and turn away, but, for those of good heart, the scene that has just taken place and that look of authority in Jesus’ eyes make them wonder. Indeed, some of them who have made eye contact with him feel a strange yearning in their hearts. One of those leaders is Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, is one of those rare men who, although in a position of power and authority, is not content to champion the status quo. Lover and interpreter of the law as he is, he yet feels the need to go deeper than the externals of the law. He is looking for more than rituals and customs. Nicodemus has been out to see John baptizing in the Jordan, and John’s words have captivated him. He has heard John say the kingdom of God is at hand, and he has wondered not only when, but how and through whom this would take place. Watching the goings on in the temple area this day, and having met Jesus’ eyes with his own, he has been stirred to the core. Could this be the man through whom the kingdom of God will come? He decides to make inquiries about this man among the people. He goes into the city streets, alive with the happenings of the day, and looks for someone who can tell him more about this man. Seeing a group of Galileans, he approaches them and, with a certain air of disinterest so as to not give himself away, asks what they know about Jesus. He hears nothing but gushing reports. “Never has one spoken with such authority.” “Did you see his power over all the people in the courtyard?” “His eyes shine with such intensity of interest when he is speaking with me.” “Did you hear what he did at a wedding feast in Cana a few months ago?”
‘Yes,’ Nicodemus thinks to himself, ‘never has one spoken with such authority, and yes, I did see his power today, and yes, there is something so unique about the way he looked at me.’ So when he is told about Jesus’ turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, he resolves to go meet the man himself.
Saint John makes note that Nicodemus comes to meet Jesus “at night” (John 3:1). Although stirred to know more about Jesus, Nicodemus is careful not to appear as if he is fully sold on this man, as many of these Galileans seem to be. No, better to go at night; better to be a little cautious. So having inquired as to where Jesus is camped outside of the city, Nicodemus does not dress in his formal attire but dons ordinary clothes to draw no special attention to himself and slips out of the city to make the short trip to see him.
After walking out the Golden Gate, across the bridge spanning the Kidron, and ascending up the west side of Mt. Olivet, Nicodemus finds Jesus with only a few people around his small campfire. Nicodemus is immediately taken aback as Jesus looks him in the eyes and invites him to sit down. Nicodemus can almost sense his belief in this man growing stronger at that moment. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus, acknowledging Nicodemus’ budding faith, but realizing he is dealing with a learned Pharisee and wanting to impress upon him the importance of faith in Jesus, the God/Man, and not in laws, rituals or even intelligence, decides to challenge him further. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:3). Interestingly, the word used for “again” in the ancient Greek is “anothen” which also can mean “from above.” Nicodemus has chosen to interpret Jesus’ “anothen” as meaning “again” and so, learned scholar that he is, finds himself confused. What can this man mean? What kind of nonsense is he talking about? With these questions rattling around in his head, his faith held in check for the moment, Nicodemus asks, “How can a person grown old be born again? Surely he cannot re-enter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” (John 3:4). It is a question from a man who wants to believe, but finds there are some apparent intellectual contradictions that shake his faith. Jesus responds by showing Nicodemus how he is using the word “anothen.” He is not referring to being born again of the flesh, but being born from above: “You must be born from above” (John 3:7). You must be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Although still not fully comprehending what Jesus is saying, at least now Nicodemus feels some relief, for, like many will do over the ensuing centuries down to our day, he realizes that his faith in this man and his reason are not opposed to each other. Still, he wants to know more and so asks, “How can this happen?” (John 3:9). Knowing Nicodemus has made great strides in his faith, Jesus decides to challenge his faith even more. It is he, Jesus, who gives testimony to the truth and to eternal life, with the implication being that truth and eternal life are not found in man-made rituals and laws. And in words Nicodemus will wistfully recall one day, Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). No one responds as Jesus looks to be in deep thought. For a moment all that can be heard is the normal conversational noise coming from near-by campsites. Finally though, Jesus focuses back on Nicodemus and asks him about his wife and family. Nicodemus is touched all the more by his apparent genuine concern for his family members.
After fifteen minutes or so, Nicodemus takes his leave of Jesus and slowly, in deep thought, walks back into the city. We can only imagine how this meeting has stirred his heart, his mind, and his soul—so much to ponder and think about. Nicodemus knows one thing, though: he will never be the same for having met this man. Exactly what that means, he is not yet sure, but he and his wife stay up late into the night discussing what Nicodemus feels stirring in his heart.