Only hours before Jesus made one of the great “I Am” declarations in John’s Gospel, He had fed five thousand hungry pilgrims and walked on the “rough seas” of the Galilee (John 6: 1-25). He had performed astonishing miracles. Yet when He came to the synagogue in Capernaum, the ostensible disciples who had followed Him demanded more, saying, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe [you are the promised Messiah]? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ [Why will you not do the same?] (John 6:31 NIV).”
At one point in our study of the four Gospels, we had been thinking about Jesus’s 40-day trial in the Judean wilderness. In only two verses, Mark tells us about those days (Mark 1:12–13). Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, make use of a time-honored literary structure to tell us of the tests put to Jesus as He prepared to begin His messianic responsibilities. All three accounts express Jesus’s perfect discipline in response to evil enticements that offended the laws of God. Matthew and Luke may clothe the testing in the elegance of traditional poetic forms, but the themes in all three accounts of Jesus’s experiences in the wilderness remain the same. Whether the accounts are cryptic or complicated, it became clear to us that the devil perverted what Alma described as the relationship between the principle of justice, our ethical responsibility to love God and each other, and the merciful application of His laws in an individual’s life.
Many may recognize that the first part of this article’s title is a line from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. We were recently reminded of it and its connection to the Sermon on the Mount when, as part of our recent pilgrimage to the Rome Temple open house in 2019, we also traveled to Venice.
Making a pilgrimage is to undertake a journey to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. Anciently, pagan pilgrims sought to consult the oracles and offer sacrifices at places now familiar to us as impressive ruins. Millions of Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus annually seek enlightenment through the very act of making a journey to sacred sites around the world—not as tourists but rather as pilgrims. The four Gospels tell us that Herod’s temple in Jerusalem was the destination for pilgrims who attended three annual pilgrimage festivals. The journeys were required for all adult Jewish men until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. The Gospels record that Jesus, His family, and His disciples made their way to Jerusalem in obedience to tradition and to express their religious devotion. The most familiar pilgrimage was, of course, the Passover Feast, a celebration meant to commemorate the release from bondage of the Children of Israel in Egypt.
As part of an essay we wrote several years ago exploring what the four Gospels have to say about Jesus and suffering, we could easily have begun with any number of historical or scriptural references—from Liberty Jail and the Prophet Joseph in the winter of 1838-39 to Job, whose friends blamed his afflictions on his supposed sins, to the multiple souls described in the Gospels who were plagued by disease, misfortune, natural disasters, or simply the consequences of bad or even impetuous decisions.
There are at least three significant details in John’s report of this particular night during the Feast of the Tabernacles or Sukkot—one of the three most important feast-days and celebrations of the Jewish calendar year—that make for enriched interpretation of Jesus’s declaration in these verses.
Professor Obery M. Hendricks Jr., a scholar specializing in the historical context for the world of Jesus, has observed that “hunger, indebtedness, disease, fear, insecurity, social alienation and seething resentment . . . took their toll upon the morale of the [poor] of Israel.” In addition, he said, these conditions contributed to overwhelming crime rates throughout the region.
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a paradox that in the four Gospels it does not appear that Jesus spoke about eternal marriage. The idea that marriage in the temple is the ultimate sacrament simply cannot be found. However, this teaching is so central to our understanding of what it means to be saved that it seems like an almost insurmountable contradiction between what Jesus did or did not teach during His earthly ministry and what was clearly revealed to Joseph Smith about eternal marriage.
In our last essay we wrote about the definition of families in the world where Jesus ministered in order to better understand what He taught about His Father’s family, what He called the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’s day families—both wealthy and those with fairly meager means—would be more accurately described as households. They were comprised of not only what we call the nuclear family—consisting of father, mother and children—but also aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, and their families. The patriarch controlled those kinship-bound members of the household as well as his slaves, bondsmen, servants, laborers, and a whole host of other “retainers” whose numbers depended on the household’s economic status.
In New Testament times, family life centered on households rather than on what we would call the nuclear family—a father, mother, and their children. Wealthy households were much larger than the vast majority of households; however, all shared some common characteristics. They included not only kinship members of the extended family but also attached servants, slaves, laborers, and in the case of those with extreme wealth, numbers of individuals considered to be “retainers”—accountants, wet nurses, gardeners, tailors, barbers, cooks, bakers, guards, and even secretaries and teachers, musicians, etc. Everyone had a place—except the outcasts, whom Jesus loved and healed. They included vast numbers of people who belonged to no household. They were those who were diseased or considered grossly sinful.
In the decade it took for us to research, pray over, write, and re-write 18 essays about the Messiah, we read works by New Testament scholars. One whose specialty was social and religious customs in His day had a formula; he said that seeing the content or plot of a scripture in the context of its time and place revealed important messages. Simply put, he said, “Content in context is meaning.”
Jesus made numerous visits to His followers—both to crowds and to individuals—after His resurrection. Examination of those visits can teach us 1) that His inner circle did not understand His teachings about His death; 2) that each appearance to the members of His inner circle was personalized; and 3) that His cautions, blessings, and instructions to those first witnesses became a handbook for leading the Kingdom of God on Earth in His absence.