Autumn had now arrived, and our Lord having been prevented from attending the last Passover, resolved to go to Jerusalem at the feast of tabernacles. At first He did not show this intention, and therefore his relatives remonstrated with Him and urged Him to it. They told Him that his manifest evasion of publicity scarcely consisted with his object of being publicly known; and they reminded Him that he owed something to those who had attached themselves to him in Judea, and who, by reason of his protracted absence in Galilee, had witnessed few if any of his mighty works. It is evident that these near relatives of our Lord, who had always his human circumstances in view, found it difficult to believe in Him with entire fixedness. The miracles they had seen him perform inclined them to belief, but they were ever anxious to receive yet more signal proofs of his Messianic dignity. They now wished to see Him in the great theater of the metropolis, and probably continued to expect some decisive moment, when He would reveal himself with power as the Messiah. In reply to their representation, He gave them to understand that what He did took place according to the plan of Divine wisdom, and that the period of time which that wisdom had appointed had not yet arrived. But there were no such considerations to regulate their movements. They could go when they liked.
It is clear that Jesus did not consider the present moment, when so many of the people were moving towards Jerusalem, the most suitable for One who desired not to attract attention without necessity, or to draw hatred upon himself. Such hatred the relatives could not incur, for their relation to the world was not like his—that of light to darkness. They therefore departed, not clearly understanding whether he meant to follow or not. There is every probability that if our Lord had gone with the advancing crowds, He would on many grounds have formed a center of attraction to those going from Galilee, who would have attended him to Jerusalem in immense numbers, which would have given a dangerous aspect to his approach, even if the people did not, as it was likely that they would, seeing how easily a large crowd can be led to act upon an impulse of enthusiasm, hail Him as their king and leader, and in that quality present him before Jerusalem. This was by no means what Jesus sought, it was indeed what He most earnestly shunned. This course would also have been imprudent at that time, even had his objects, to suppose for a moment a thing so impossible, been those of personal ambition; for the southern Jews, having seen and heard so much less of Him than those of the north, were by no means so well prepared as the latter to recognize Him as even a temporal Messiah, while all were equally indisposed to acknowledge Him in his true character. It is likely that the Jews in Judea would not have been over-ready to concur in a movement originating with the pilgrims from Galilee, and the nature of which they could not understand, especially when it is considered that the Galileans were rather looked down upon by their southern brethren.
We have already intimated, however, that the attendance from Galilee at this feast was much less than that at the Passover, while that of the southern Jews was very considerable. There was, therefore, a larger proportion of those who had not yet received the advantage of our Lord’s instruction and miracles, and a less proportion of those whose movements were likely to compromise his real objects. These considerations may have had some influence in drawing our Savior at this festival to Jerusalem, though He had avoided going there seven months before at the Passover.
Meanwhile there was much conversation and debate concerning Him at Jerusalem. He was generally expected there, probably because, as He had not attended either of the previous feasts of that year, it was concluded that He would not neglect the only one that remained. Even the members of the Sanhedrin were on the watch for him. They sought Him, saying, “Where is He?” They, perhaps from hatred, forbore to name Him, while yet their abstinence from any of those abusive epithets, in the use of which they were ready and expert, has been by some thought to indicate a softening of their anger towards Him. This is scarcely conveyed in the further fact, that “no man spake openly of Him,” that is, committed himself to a decided opinion about Him, “for fear of the Jews.” But among themselves the people were greatly divided. Some affirmed that he was an upright man, the honesty of whose intentions was beyond suspicion, while others maintained, on the contrary, that He was one who deceived the people.
At length Jesus made his appearance; but it was not until the fourth day of the feast (which lasted eight days) that He went up to the temple—whether from late arrival, or from desiring that the first excitement should subside. He then spoke with such force and boldness, that those of the people who were aware of the evil intentions of the rulers against Him, were astonished to find that He was left unmolested. But although the Pharisees did not wish to apprehend Him at present, they gave directions that any fit opportunity that presented itself should be taken advantage of; and when at length they heard that many of the people were becoming seriously inclined to accept Him as the Christ, they could no longer act with prudent restraint, but sent officers to apprehend Him at once, and bring Him before them, sitting there in council to receive Him. They had to sit longer than they expected, for the messengers finding Jesus speaking had waited a little to hear Him, and were then so strongly impressed by what He said, and dismayed by the aspect of the people, that they were afraid to lay hands upon Him. Returning without any prisoner, the officers excused themselves by declaring that, “Never man spake like this man!” This did not tend to allay the resentment of the rulers, which they expressed very strongly. Nicodemus, who, it will be remembered, belonged to this council, ventured to remark that the law did not authorize the condemnation of any man before his conduct had been examined, and he had been heard in his own defence. They answered with the contemptuous taunt, “Art thou also a Galilean? Search and look, for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” They thus endeavored to cover all leaning to the cause of Jesus with obloquy, by taking it for granted it could not exist but among Galileans. For the rest, they were right in concluding that the Messiah was not to come (originally) from Galilee, and they knew not, though they might have known by proper inquiry, that Jesus came from Bethlehem. They were wrong, however, in saying that no prophet could come out of Galilee; for Galilee had already produced several prophets, Jonah, Elijah, and perhaps Nahum; but a blind fury against Jesus closed their eyes for the moment to these examples.
By the next day, when Jesus again appeared in the temple, a trap had been laid for Him. A woman, taken in adultery, had been found, and they brought her to Him for judgment, saying “Master, Moses in the law commanded that such should be stoned—but what sayest Thou?” Some of them had possibly heard, and others had probably heard of, the Sermon on the Mount, in which He had seemed to place his own authority above that of Moses; and the dilemma in which they strove to place Him, was this—the law certainly denounced death against a convicted adulteress, but this law had fallen into disuse, and owing to the corrupt morals of the times, the crime seldom incurred any other penalty than divorce. If, therefore, Jesus declared for the punishment of death, He would lose ground in public opinion for insisting, contrary to the customs of the time, and to his own previous declarations, upon a rigid adherence to the letter of the law; but if He declared on the other side, they could denounce Him as one who despised the law of Moses, and sought to overturn it.
While they made their accusation, and claimed his decision, Jesus being seated on the ground, seemed to be musingly and inattentively engaged in tracing characters in the dust, as one is apt to do in a careless or absent mood. He gave no sign of attention; but when they had done, He looked up, and said quietly, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” This alludes to the custom of the witnesses, on whose evidence a criminal has been convicted, casting the first stone in punishment. He then again bent his attention downward, and resumed his musing occupation. Meanwhile all those who were present to confound Him, stole silently away—“being convicted by their own consciences” of sin; not perhaps all of the particular sin, although that was frightfully common in this age, and many of the most exalted persons, and most eminent teachers, were guilty of it. But they were convinced of sin generally. Every one felt that Jesus knew of him, that he had sinned, so that he could not dare to lift up his head, if any one demanded the same severity of judgment against him, that he asked against this guilty woman. Thus it happened that, when our Lord looked up again, the woman stood alone before Him, veiled in tears of shame and grief. He asked her what had become of her accusers, and if she already had been condemned; and hearing that she had not, He said, “Neither do I condemn thee,” declining to assume the functions of a judicial officer, which did not belong to Him. He then dismissed her, without pronouncing judgment upon her past sins. He did not wish to say directly that she was pardoned. But the whole conduct of Jesus, so serious and solemn, and yet so mild, could not have failed, in the meantime, to make a deep impression upon one who, during the whole of the preceding scene, must have stood in the presence of death. This impression must have been deepened by the serious admonition which He gave her—“Go, and sin no more!”