Gospel of John: Paradigm Shift

The wind is swirling about the two men. A sense of calming energy coruscates all around them, alive with promise, the trees rustling, the cool of the rooftop both intimately personal and yet open to the lambent mysteries of the cosmos.

As the moon’s silver light pools around their seated forms, Nicodemus finds his heartbeat quickening, his breath catching, for he is on the cusp of understanding. His spiritual hunger is keening for the rabbi’s wisdom—his rabbi, Nicodemus suddenly realizes.

The elder ruler’s skin is weathered, his hair nearly gone white. To others, it is usually Nicodemus who imparts knowledge and insight of the scriptures. But here, before this young man who seems yet to carry eternity within him, the aged Pharisee feels like a talmidim, fresh in his youth.

What was this strange wind stirring like a hurricane within him?

Note how Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ question.

Jesus recognized Nicodemus’ longing to perceive, so he gave Nicodemus four different ways to think about this radical new concept. Here are the first two.

  1. BIRTH

“Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless one is born out of water and Spirit, one is not able to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Jesus, in John 3:5

Rabbis of Jesus’ day were actually familiar with this idea, but to them it was largely external. It meant making vows and going through a purification ritual in order to enter into a new association, like the Pharisees, or even to become a Jew. Jesus added a profound new dimension.

We, ourselves, often talk about a Christian being someone who has given their life to God.

But first, we really need to describe a Christian as someone who gets their life from God.

The same way people enter into the physical world, by being born physically, people enter into the spiritual kingdom of God by being born spiritually.

“The one being born out of the flesh, is flesh, and the one being born out of the Spirit is spirit.”

Jesus, in John 3:6

One cannot adapt to the new kingdom. You and I have to be—in a literal sense—born anew, only this time, begotten of heaven, and therefore born as heavenly stuff. Spirit.

Rebirth” in theological terms is referred to as regeneration. Regeneration takes what was once dead spiritually and causes it to be born again in newness of life. Rebirth is that act by which the Holy Spirit puts eternal life into a person who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit recreates the human heart, putting into your heart, and mine, an inclination towards God and a desire for the things of God. Just as the child inherits the natures of their parents, so does the child of God. The born-again person has God’s nature within them.

(Now, this part is me telling you what I think—there is quite a bit of conversation in theology land about what exactly Jesus meant by water and by Spirit. Since you can see I am capitalizing the word “Spirit” in those instances, I am already revealing what I think.)

Just as there are two parents for physical birth, there are two “parents” for spiritual birth:

  • Water, which in the Bible often symbolizes the Word of God, refreshes and purifies with revelation and truth.
  • The Spirit of God, Who does the divine work of regeneration, recreation, or new creation.

When put together, believing God’s words and being enlivened by the Holy Spirit, new life begins.

This news rocked Nicodemus to the core.

He was both culturally and religiously Jewish, born of Abraham, child of the covenant, circumcised and keeper of the law. But inwardly he had been spiritually dead, as the Bible describes everyone to be.

Jesus must have seen the shock on Nicodemus’ face because he basically said, “Don’t look at me like that!”

“Do not marvel because I said to you ‘You must be born from above, begotten in heaven, created anew, and brought forth from heaven.’”

Jesus, in John 3:7

To help him understand the sense of what he was teaching, Jesus gave Nicodemus a second illustration.

  1. WIND

“The wind/Spirit blows wherever [the wind/Spirit] wills and you hear [the wind/Spirit’s] sound but you do not know where [the wind/Spirit] is coming from and where [the wind/Spirit] is going to . . .”

Jesus, in John 3:8a

The word “wind” in both Hebrew and Greek is the same word for “spirit.” As Nicodemus became aware of the wind tugging on his cloak and cooling his skin, and watched the leaves fluttering in the swaying trees, Jesus explained that like the wind the Holy Spirit is invisible but powerful, and you can’t predict, explain, or control the movements of the wind, or of the Spirit.

“. . . In this way are all those who are born out of the Spirit.”

Jesus, in John 3:8b

Regeneration is partly a mystery, it is all internal, you and I cannot fully explain it, and there are no physical steps we can take to make it happen. God does it, but we can see the evidence of it.

Nicodemus could hardly take it all in. “How are these things able to be? 

But Jesus would not let Nicodemus off the hook. If Nicodemus was the teacher of Israel, then he had all he needed in the scriptures themselves to know what Jesus was talking about. He should know that

  • Ecclesiastes referred to eternity in the hearts of those who follow God.
  • Isaiah spoke of new life from God.
  • Jeremiah had prophesied of a new covenant written on their hearts.
  • Ezekiel had said God would take out the old heart of stone and replace it with a new heart and God’s own Spirit.

The teachings of the Pharisees, Nicodemus’ sect, possibly the most respected version of their faith in all Judea, had unwittingly prevented Nicodemus from understanding what the prophets had been pointing to. He had been reading the scriptures through the lens of a preconceived theology. Now, Jesus was challenging that theology.

To enter the kingdom of God, you must be born anew

Having good behavior does not make you or me a good person.

It is not that good behavior has no value. It has great value. It is just that good behavior can still be “born of the flesh.” In other words, good behavior can just as much come from someone who is not motivated by good as someone who is motivated by good.

So, Jesus was saying, one must be born from above, made of heavenly stuff, in order to have God’s goodness within, in new life.

(Next week: the other two ways Jesus gave Nicodemus to help him think about this radical new concept.)

[The Spirit is like the wind | Euan Morrison flickr, CC BY 2.0]

Gospel of John: Startling Mystery

The next three stories in John’s gospel illustrate what Jesus meant when he used the phrase “gennethe anothen.” Gennethe is typically translate “born” and anothen is typically translated “again.”

It is practically a meme in Christian lingo!

But what does it really mean? 

It made me think of phrases we often say and expect everyone to know, such as

Pull out the stops: “Make every possible effort.” | Pipe organs have “stops” to control the air flow through the pipes and “pulling them out” increases the musical volume.

By and large: “Generally speaking.” “All things considered.” | A nautical term, with “large” meaning the wind filling the sail and “by” meaning knowing which way the wind is coming from.

Break a leg: “Good luck to an actor.” | Elizabethan: “break the leg line” by kneeling to pick up the money people threw on stage if you did well.

So, to get the full impact of gennethe and anothen, here is the expanded list of possible ways to understand each word:

Gennethe: is the future tense and passive voice of the root word “gennao.” Koine Greek verbs often have what is called the “middle” or “passive” voice, making it categorically different than English, which uses a much more active, assertive voice.

A middle voice means you are doing something for yourself, almost picturing yourself as both the actor and the one being acted upon. Perhaps your will is acting upon your person.

A passive voice, as the word “passive” indicates, means something is being done to you. You are the passive recipient of the action.

Gennao: the list of possible meanings, so far understood, are beget, bring forth, born, bear, produce from oneself, create, grow, get, engender, call into existence, regenerate, procreate. You can see why this word is most often translated as born. In fact, in the story where this word first shows up, that is exactly how the person hearing Jesus say the phrase gennethe anothen took it to mean.

Anothen: is an adverb, so it describes the verb, and in this case describes gennethe. The list of what anothen can mean is from above, from on high, from the interior (of a country), from the beginning, from farther back, from earlier, from ancestors, by descent, higher, more universal principles, over again, anew, afresh.

Just looking through the list, it becomes a little easier to understand why the hearer of this phrase got a bit confused about what Jesus was saying. It was another mashil of sorts, but a strange one! Let’s listen in.

Conversation with Nicodemus

Today’s passage opens with a powerful man in Jerusalem society: Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Judeans. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of seventy men who ran the religious affairs of the nation and who had religious authority over every person of Jewish faith anywhere in the world, and especially those living in Judea.

The Pharisees originated in around 135 to 105 B.C. These were devout and courageous men who had stood firm against Greek idolatry and the fierce and brutal religious persecution of their day. Each man had taken a vow before three witnesses that he would devote every moment of his entire life to obeying God’s Law.

A group formed within the Pharisees, of those who were scribes, who studied the Law and worked out how to apply it to every aspect of life. They compiled their work into a book called the Mishnah, which was considered more binding than scripture, and a commentary on the Mishnah called the Talmud.

Pharisees considered themselves as spiritually and morally superior to all other people and they were right on many points of doctrine. They believed in the

  • resurrection of the dead.
  • existence of spirits.
  • existence of angels.
  • divine inspiration of all the writings now in the Hebrew Bible (Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible).
  • eternal life.
  • rewards and punishments in the future life.

But they also believed in a largely externalized religion—that if you were Jewish and adhered to a strict observance of the law and all the oral traditions, it would be enough to please God and guarantee entry to heaven. Nicodemus, though a man of high moral character and deep religious hunger, did not realize he also had profound spiritual blindness, because the teachings of his sect prevented him from seeing what he needed to see.


Remember what had just happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus burst into the temple during Passover, and had caused the biggest commotion in years by overturning tables, freeing animals, spilling all the cash money on the ground, and shouting scripture.

Afterwards, members of the temple authority came to question Jesus. He gave them a very provocative answer.

Meanwhile, the news of this outrageous and compelling new prophet spread like wildfire throughout Jerusalem. People came in droves! And Jesus performed many, many miracles, inspiring a sudden surge of belief in his name.

In the background, picture the Sanhedrin, the sect of the Pharisees, the scribes and teachers of the Law, all sort of lurking in the shadows, observing, speculating, assessing . . .

Imagine Nicodemus soon after, making his way through the Jerusalem streets after nightfall. The wind in the desert always picks up when the sun goes down, so it was blowing through the trees and between the houses. (Keep that in mind. It is important to the story.)

People typically had their living rooms up on the roofs of their houses to enjoy these cool, breezy evenings, so there was always a staircase on the outside of a house that led up to the roof. This is probably where Nicodemus came that night, to meet with Jesus.

Maybe he was being careful not to get in trouble with the Sanhedrin, but maybe he wanted a private audience, too. His approach was cautious and respectful, calling Jesus “rabbi,” even though Jesus was not an official rabbi, and had no diploma or credentials except for these miraculous signs.

“Rabbi, we discern that you [are] a teacher come from God, for no one is able to do these signs you do, if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus, in John 3:2

That is an insight. Nicodemus, and evidently some other members of the Sanhedrin, thought they saw something in Jesus. So, Jesus answered with further insight.

(This is how Jesus entrusted himself to others. When Jesus perceived someone was understanding him in a spiritually insightful way, he gave them deeper spiritual truth.)

“Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless someone is born from above, begotten in heaven, created anew, and brought forth from heaven, [that one] is not able to perceive and discern the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus, in John 3:3

As an FYI, the koine Greek word “horao,” which is most often translated as “see,” means a lot more than just seeing with your eyeballs. It means to take heed of something, to see with the mind, to understand, or to know in an experiential way, to perceive and discern.

Born again” could carry any number of meanings, depending on which definitions to each word one applied. Was Jesus literally talking about being physically begotten and born? Or was there some spiritual sense? Was Jesus referring to a time frame—being born again? Or was he talking about genetic lineage, referring to ancestors? Or, did he mean a new iteration, afresh or anew? Was he talking about some sort of regeneration? Or, if this was a spiritual creation, was he referring to heaven, or God above?

There was no easy interpretation of Jesus’ mysterious and startling comment. I imagine Jesus watching Nicodemus expectantly, for the Pharisee had already proven himself capable of great spiritual discernment. 

You can see I already did some interpretation of my own, with my translation of Jesus’ words—as have virtually every other translation I have ever read of this passage. In a way, we have sort of preempted Nicodemus, by making him sound obtuse with his response, when Jesus was so clear (seemingly!) in his statement.

But, since you and I now know how complex those words are, maybe we can be a little more generous-minded towards Nicodemus. He was employing the ancient Hebrew method of learning—asking questions!

“How is a person who is old able to be born again? One is not able to again enter their mother’s womb and be brought forth?”

Nicodemus, in John 3

(stay tuned!)

[Nicodemus with Jesus | Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain]

Gospel of John: Gauntlet Dropped

As upset as they were, the religious leaders did not try to get Jesus arrested, or even try to publicly rebuke Him.

Perhaps the recognized in him the same zeal his own disciples were seeing, as Psalm 69:9 leapt to their minds.

His disciples were reminded that it had been written, “the zeal for your house will consume me.”

John 2:17

Instead, the temple authorities—completely justifiably—questioned Jesus about what he had just done. Was there a sign, or something, he could show them to explain it?

Remember, these were the Bible experts, the religious ruling body. Right before their very eyes Malachi’s prophecy had been fulfilled. If the disciples thought of Psalm 69, you can bet many others, including the priests and Pharisees, could have thought of it too. Besides, everyone by now had heard John the Baptist’s testimony concerning Jesus.

Jesus answered with a mashal, a veiled remark in the form of a riddle, a very classical Jewish way of teaching, and a method rabbis used all the time.

“You all destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

Jesus, in John 2:19

Jesus used what is called the “imperative” voice when he said “destroy.” In other words, he was actually telling them to destroy the temple, and then informing them what he would do three days later. He would raise it up again.

Here is what Jesus’ mashal meant:

You leaders, through your unbelief, and your rebellion and wickedness, you are in the process of destroying the Messiah, the true sanctuary of God, and in that process you will also bring about the destruction of this actual temple and your entire religious system. In fact, it is God’s intent you do this. I command you.

However, in three days, I will raise up My body, and as a result I will establish a new temple, made of living people, and My church will worship Me in Spirit and in truth, and not in this complicated religious system you have devised.

The religious leaders chose to take this mashal literally in order to avoid allowing Jesus’ true meaning to come out—recall all the people crowding around them, listening in. Jesus had thrown down the gauntlet. They were pretending it was not there.

If the miracle of changing water into wine displayed the Lord Jesus’ power of creation by a mere spoken word, then this sign of fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy and cleansing his Father’s house displayed Jesus’ authority.

Which touches on the concept of God’s authority, power, and rule, what will often be referred to as the sovereignty of God. And it goes something like this:

God determines the outcome of all things according to our Lord’s wise purposes. Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy that had been made hundreds of years before. God intended that Messiah would be recognized by this very act.

God’s decree guides history. Our Lord does not adjust God’s plan according to the events of human history. In fact, God knew all along how the temple ministry would become corrupted, and God prepared for Messiah to cleanse the temple as a sign of what Messiah would ultimately do for each person, cleansing from all corruption, and restoration to a full and satisfying relationship with God.

God governs the universe, for there is nothing outside the scope of God’s rule. Our Lord oversees and supervises all events for God’s glory and for ultimate good.

But if God is sovereign, a person might ask, then how come

  1. God’s desires are not always realized, such as the salvation of all people, even though that would please God?
  2. God talks about being grieved over sin and death, taking no pleasure in it, yet everybody dies? Does that make Him less than sovereign?
  3. God’s Word is not always obeyed, even though God commanded it? Clearly, the religious leaders were not honoring God’s intent for the use of the temple, for the temple tax, and for the inspection of sacrifices. Even more so, they were not even obeying God’s actual Law about not burdening the poor, not stealing, and so on. Did the religious rulers not see God as sovereign over them?

There are long answers (shelves and shelves of books full of answers) to these questions, so I’m going to offer only a few thoughts, here.

Our Lord has granted human beings the power, or the ability, to transgress not only what God says, but also what God desires.

God is not surprised by evil, God does not approve of evil. But God has sovereignly decreed that people exercise their ability to make moral choices, to choose between good and evil. The fact that we choose evil—often unwittingly, often with mixed motives, often not realizing just how bad that choice was—is proof that God does not control people the way you and I would control a puppet.

But God is nevertheless all-knowing and all-powerful. Our Lord gives real choices and works out God’s will within them. Our Lord is able to work in, around, and through people to insure the outworking of God’s purposes. If our Lord were any less sovereign God would not be able to give people moral freedom because God would not be able to guarantee the Lord’s will would be done

After this, Jesus performed many miracles.

This first confrontation with the temple authorities had a huge impact on the people. Frankly, they believed in Jesus exactly because of the signs he was doing, the signs the religious ruling board had asked Jesus to perform in the first place.

But even though many people believed in Jesus as a prophet, and maybe even as Messiah, John wrote that Jesus did not entrust himself to them. I have spent a long time wondering about that, what that means.

What part of himself did Jesus not entrust with the people who seemed so swept away with him?

I am going to try to answer that question as we explore each of Jesus’ deep conversations with people, throughout John’s gospel. For now, the truth I take away from this is that

Jesus will entrust himself to me only when I entrust myself to Jesus.

Entrusting ourselves to Jesus is more than being part of a religious system.

A superficial faith reduces Christianity to a philosophy, a formula, a system of rituals. A superficial faith keeps worship on Sunday and has real life on the other six days. It says that religion is something private, a matter of opinion, a sidebar to the things of life.

Or, superficial faith says Christianity is good for business, let’s put a fish icon on it, or a cross. Superficial faith recognizes how to make good money in the Christian biz industry, how to get elected on the Christian ticket, how to build up recognition and influence.

Entrusting myself to Jesus is not about being religious, or following a formula, or subscribing to a particular philosophy of life. Entrusting myself to Jesus means believing he is Who he says he is, and receiving him into my life and my heart.

Entrusting myself to Jesus means being in a relationship with Jesus, a real relationship, an every day relationship where I listen as well as talk, I give and I receive, I go deep, I become vulnerable, and so does Jesus.

This is what following Jesus really means, and what Jesus’ disciples were beginning to understand.

[The Lumo Project | http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Gospel of John: A Deep Cleanse

After this [the wedding at Cana], he [Jesus] went down into Capernaum, also his mother and brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there not many days.

John 2:12

It seems Peter’s home was in Capernaum, and not far off was Bethsaida, where all but Nathanael lived. Perhaps Mary and Jesus’ brothers stayed for a couple of days, then returned to Nazareth, dropping Nathanael off at Cana on their way.

Then, several months went by between the wedding at Cana and the Passover, the next story in John’s Gospel.

Presumably, the disciples had gone back to their fishing business for a while, and John the Baptist continued his ministry at the Jordan’s banks. At some point during this time Jesus again called the disciples to him, and they made their way together up to Jerusalem because the Passover was near. This would be the first of four Passovers in Jesus’ ministry.

There were three feasts every year in which all those of Jewish faith were expected to—if at all possible—attend in Jerusalem, and the biggest was Passover.

Money changers would set up their booths in every outlying town a month ahead of time to collect the yearly mandatory temple tax of half a temple shekel from every grown man. Since only temple money was accepted, everyone had to exchange their money with these money changers at the rate of fifty percent to the value of the coin. Failure to pay could mean a fine or even imprisonment.

Two weeks before Passover the money changers would all take their booths up to Jerusalem because by now all the pilgrims were heading that way. Worshipers would also have to buy all their animals for the mandatory sacrifices.

They could bring their own animals, of course, but getting them inspected by the Levites would cost a certain fee, and usually the animals were deemed defective, which meant they would have to buy an animal from the temple anyway—at a big price hike, and only using temple currency.

Ancient historians record that the temple market and money changing had all started out as a ministry to help the worshipers who came from far away. But it had changed into a ruthless business venture belonging to the high priests’ extended family, who were Sadducees. Originally, the open market had been set up in the hill area surrounding the temple, but had eventually crept into the temple itself, into the Court of the Gentiles.

The outer court was the only place the Gentiles could worship God. There was a death penalty for any Gentile to cross into the inner courts reserved for those of Jewish faith only. Imagine the hawking and stench, the straw and manure, the droves of animals, cages full of birds and all the haggling over the money exchange. How could any Gentile worship in that din?

Throughout Jerusalem every household was cleaning the yeast from every room, according to God’s Law concerning Passover. Every household had to be clean. Ironically, at every Passover, only God’s house was unclean.

Jesus had been going to the temple every year since he was a boy.

He was not suddenly offended.

He had been holding in his offense until his time had come.

God had appointed this day for Messiah to be publicly announced, and we read about it in the prophet Malachi.

 “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” That was John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord.

And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

 Malachi 3:1-4 (NRSV)

There was certainly plenty of cord around, with all the animals. So, after Jesus methodically wove a whip,

He drove everyone and everything out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen, then poured out the money of the money changers and overturned the tables, and to all those who sold doves he said,

Take these away, do not make my Father’s house a trading center!

Jesus, in John 2:15-16

The money Jesus poured out was all the profit the money changers had taken in. Jesus was careful not to damage any property, hurt any animals, or cause any injury. But his wrath cleansed the temple.

As Malachi had prophesied, four centuries before, “Then [and only then] the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.”

Nobody seems to have tried to stop Jesus.

Not the venders, not the money changers, not the worshipers and not the religious leaders.

In fact, most people hated the extortion and racketeering, so they were probably relieved and thankful that someone had finally done something about it. The disciples apparently just watched, probably stunned. But they learned some important lessons about holy wrath.

God’s wrath is a cleansing power that intends to rid creation of all that is corrupt.

  • It is right to be angry with what angers God.
  • Jesus did not just simmer. At the right time Jesus did something about what was wrong.
  • In this case, Jesus had a plan and he executed his plan with care, with authority, and with thoroughness.
  • Jesus spoke, making it clear what he expected and explaining what was wrong.
  • And when Jesus was done, the incident was over.

Jesus has power to cleanse

Jesus will not tolerate what is corrupt, and when it is time, Jesus will act.

In this case, corruption was found in the outward appearance of holiness, the religious leaders had turned the worship of God into a money-making business. Their corruption brought on God’s cleansing power.

The LUMO Project

Rather than a warning, though, I see this as rescue and relief. This is a promise we can count on, for that is the true love of God, to cleanse us through and through, that we might become heavenly stuff.

[Jesus Cleanses the Temple \ The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Miriam, Exodus 2

I want you to think about a vivid episode from your childhood. Could be happy or sad, good or bad, just so that it’s a vivid memory. Might even be a story about you that’s been told and retold. And, the very first thing that came to mind, that’s the one I want you to think about.


Now, with that memory, or story in mind, I want you to attach a feeling. What was your emotion in that memory, or story? And how might that have affected your life since then?

Our stories shape us.

What we experience, and how we interpret what we experience, shapes how we see the world, see ourselves, and what we’re going to do try to survive and even thrive.

Miriam’s story certainly shaped her.

In today’s talk, you will see the irony, as Pharaoh had begun a battle of wills with God Himself.

Pharaoh said throw the baby boys into the Nile.

God said so be it.

From the Nile your own daughter will bring into your home, and feed at your table, and raise at your knee, the Hebrew redeemer of the people you oppress.

Pharaoh said make the people work.

So be it, God said.

You shall pay wages to the mother of this baby, and ultimately, this people will plunder Egypt of its treasures.

Miriam, Exodus 2
Grace and Peace, Joanne

[Israel in Egypt | Edward Poynter, Public Domain]

Minor Prophets: Amos Lowers the Boom

Amos has been connected to the sheep: he was a shepherd by trade, who had a tremendous concern for the downtrodden, and was called by God to become a prophet.

In chapters 4-5, Amos reviewed God’s call to Israel to repent. Today, we will wade into chapter 4.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria

Amos 4:1 (NRSV)

Wasting no time, Amos got personal.

In our day, calling someone a “cow” is pretty strong language—it is a slur, an insult, public shaming language.

But was it 2,800 years ago?

This map, taken from my Macmillan Bible Atlas, shows where Bashan was located, in Samaria

Instead, look at it this way: Bashan, just east of the Jordan River, had rich, rolling hills and verdant, grassy plains perfect for herds and flocks. Today, Bashan would be the Golan Heights, also known for its vineyards. In Amos’ day, Bashan was famous for oak trees and cattle.

To have fat, lazy cows meant you were prosperous and secure. Not a care in the world. This is what everyone dreamed of, to be so well-cared for, so pampered and safe, that you could grow fat and happy, your wealth could be spent on pleasures and parties rather than have to be ferreted away for dark days ahead, stashed in secret caches, or spent on security systems.

To be a cow in Bashan was pretty much the epitome of awesome life.

The plains and hills of Bashan in a photo taken by my several greats grandfather Jesse Lyman Hurlbut in the late 1880s

And Amos was specific in his use of language and grammar that hearers should know he very much meant the “Cows of Bashan” to represent the women of the wealthy class, for he held them responsible for much of the evil in Israel. At the very least, he held up the image of these women as iconic for all that had gone wrong.

As a blessing from God, wealth is a good thing. In fact, I can think of several wealthy people in the scriptures who not only made no apology for their wealth, they were praised for it.

  • Think of King David, who opened his private treasury to finance the building of the future temple for God.
  • For that matter, think of Abigail, who was able to feed King David’s whole army from her own kitchen larder.
  • What about the Queen of Sheba, who lavished unimaginable riches on King Solomon in return for the godly wisdom he imparted to her?
  • Cast your mind back to Job, whom God personally blessed with great fortune both at the beginning and the end of Job’s story.
  • And the patriarch Abraham (also his descendants) was so affluent he finally had to part ways with his beloved nephew Lot, because there simply was not enough land to sustain the sum total of all their cattle and sheep.
  • Finally, there was Joseph, the second most powerful and prosperous person on the planet (at least to the known world).

Nothing wrong with being rich.

But! Valuing prosperity above people is terribly wrong.

Amos painted these women as being indifferent to the plight of the poor and needy, being self-centered and profoundly selfish, sporting a sense of entitlement, domineering and demanding of their staff and family, preoccupied with their physical pleasures.

And yet they were also very religious.

How could this happen?

How could gross injustice exist peaceably with popular religion?

Because there was no sense of personal sin, and their religion was not about seeking after God.

This is really where, as we say, the “rubber meets the road.” What is your real feeling about being responsible for the care of people living on the poverty line? (Or under it.)

I mean, thankfully, Christianity, over the course of the past two thousand years, has shifted the course of western culture towards great care for the vulnerable and downtrodden (This is a great article on that). And again, thankfully, many, many Christians are at the forefront of campaigns, organizations, volunteer groups, and charitable efforts that are doing great good the world over. What I’m really asking is, how are -you and I- doing, waaaaay down here, at the ground level?

It is a genuine question.

I think the general tenor of the whole Bible—and Amos in particular—depicts God looking for a right heart attitude first, then expecting to see faith lived out in our real lives, every day. One very clear example was Jesus’ address as recorded by Matthew’s gospel. He talked about very simple acts of kindness,

  • feeding hungry people.
  • giving thirsty people something to drink.
  • being welcoming to people who are new to the area, people who do not fit in.
  • clothing naked people.
  • taking care of those who are sick or ill in some way.
  • visiting people who are shut in, imprisoned in some way.

The way you and I think about something is going to determine what we do. Do I welcome chances to help people or do I try to get invisible when a needy person comes into view? Do I make excuses, or do I ask God if the Lord has opened the way for me to express love to the people God loves in practical ways?

Amos made it clear God’s patience with those whooppress the poor, who crush the needy,” had come to an abrupt stop. His description of what was coming was an uncanny depiction of the Assyrian’s subsequent subjugation of Israel, leading whoever was left alive into exile.


In verse 4, Bethel was where Israel had erected their alternative temple, and Gilgal was located in the plains of Jericho. Here the people had performed lavish ceremonies and sacrifices to God, had in fact been punctilious in their performances, “every morning” and “every three days.” No one could say they had been ignoring God! Far from it.

They were the most publicly fastidious in their religious observances and reputation.

And yet . . . Amos informed them all their religiousity was “transgression,” as far as God was concerned.


In verse 6, “cleanness of teeth” denoted the famine God had sent, to shake people from their spiritual torpor.

“Yet you did not return to Me.”


In verses 7-8, God next sent a drought. Actually, one town would get rained out, and the other town would be dry as a cork. One field was drowned, the other field withered up (sounds weirdly like the effects of climate change, doesn’t it?).

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

Pestilence and War

In verse 9, God sent three shock waves: blight, mildew, and locust.

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

God ramped it up, in verse 10, and sent plagues “after the manner of Egypt.” What a loaded phrase, right? The ten epic plagues of Egypt—really the ten contests God had with Egypt’s pantheon of gods, and pharaoh himself, and also the ten judgements God leveled against Egypt for its cruelty and enslavement of God’s people—had to have startled these people out of their stupor!

Then God sent devastating military conflict.

“Yet you did not return to Me.”

Wholesale Destruction

Verse 11, God ratcheted up the megaphone to its highest setting: Sodom and Gomorrah.

and you were like a brand snatched from the fire;

yet you did not return to me,

says the Lord.

Amos 4:11 (NRSV)

Like one of those disaster sagas, I wonder if the people were numb at this point, hollowed of all feeling, the shock of these words landing like mallets on the taut head of a kettle drum.

Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!

For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind,

    reveals his thoughts to mortals,

makes the morning darkness,

    and treads on the heights of the earth—

    the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

Amos 4:12-13 (NRSV)

[Image courtesy Pxfuel]

Gospel of John: Faith on the Line

I think a deep understanding passed between mother and son. I think Mary humbled her inner desire to see her son exalted as the One she knew he was. At the same time, Mary quietly settled her faith on Jesus, knowing his character and his compassion. She turned and told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do, and she said this with such firm authority, they accepted her direction unquestioningly.

Whatever passed between the Father and Jesus is unknown to us, but the story makes it clear God knew it was the right hour for Jesus to both honor the wedding couple with a gift from heaven, and to let his own disciples know what sort of rabban they had pledged themselves to as talmidim.

Jesus had walked with his mother as they talked, after she had gestured to him in the banquet hall. Now, they were in the entry way, the caterers and servants busily ferrying great platters of food in, and platters of bones and detritus out. At least some of the servants hovered near them, wringing their hands in anxious worry, knowing disaster was about to befall them all.

As they spoke, Jesus’ eye fell on the six stone water jars used for rites of purification. They were enormous, capable of holding twenty or thirty gallons of water.

As Mary gravely watched Jesus’ face, his gaze grew distant and pensive. His question still hung in the air between them. “What does -this- have to do with me and with you?” His hour had not come, and yet . . .  Mary thought of the song she had so often sung to him, the song she’d written long ago, when she still carried him within her. She knew those words were deep inside him now, her beloved son, her Holy Spirit-given son.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant,” she prayed, knowing God had given her those words. “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm . . . God has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things.”

As Jesus’ eyes continued to rest on the water jars, Mary continued to think about the truth and goodness of the words God had inspired in her, and that she had taught to the Son of God when he was just a small and vulnerable boy.

Then Jesus seemed to nod, coming to a decision. In that moment, Mary called the nearest servants to her and said, “Whatever he tells to you all, carry it out.” They nodded agreement, turning expectantly to Jesus.

Jesus waved his hands over the six stone jugs as he spoke to the servants, “Fill these water jars to the brim with water.” Did they hesitate for a moment? But then several servants went to the well with jugs, and refilled the jars until water sloshed over the rims of each.

“Now, draw [some] out and carry to the master of the feast.”

The servants were completely obedient, even though it may have seemed terribly risky to them. They re-filled six large water jars that were used to wash the hands and feet of the guests, and the utensils used during the feast. Then they drew this same water back out of those great stone jugs, poured this water into fresh wine pitchers, and brought those pitchers to the master of the feast to taste.

Their apprehensive eyes watched the master taste, pause, then summon the groom. What would become of them now, as the master of the feast had tasted what was just poured into his cup?

“Everyone sets out the good wine first and when they drank heartily, the lesser wine; you held back the good wine until just now!”

Master of the Feast, in John 2:10

Imagine the groom’s confusion. Imagine the servants releasing their collective breath in a silent prayer of thanksgiving. Imagine the disciples, as they stood around Jesus, feeling their hairs prickle. Imagine Mary, beaming in the background.

The big question is when did this water turned into wine? What must they have been thinking? Really risky to bring water when wine was expected. And yet they were seemingly unquestioning, unhesitating in their obedience. Then somewhere along their walk from the water jugs to pouring into the cup of the master of feast, the water became wine.

There is a practical lesson in this miracle about serving God. The water turned into wine as the servants cooperated with Jesus, trusted him, and obeyed His commands. Trusting what God has given you and me always gets us in on the action, on the inside of what God is doing. To not do whatever the Lord gives us is to be left out of what God is doing in a particular situation.

When you and I listen to Jesus and trust him with the water of our efforts, then pour our efforts out as He directs, others find that what you and I are giving them is rich. It is, in fact, the best.

John indicated in his account this was the first of Jesus’ miracles, a sign that revealed Jesus’ glory by displaying Jesus’ power over creation. By Jesus’ word a profound alteration took place in those jars, and the result was the best wine anyone had ever tasted.

Symbolically, this sign pointed to

  • Jesus’ Resurrection: for this happened on the third day.
  • Marriage Feast in Heaven: as every marriage feast story would do, in the gospels.
  • Holy Spirit: as water that could only wash externally was transformed into wine that warmed with joy from within.
  • Eternal Life: since earthly wine, earthly joy, runs out at some point, but Jesus’ wine is better than any earthly wine, and it will never run out.

Physical miracles are signs pointing to greater spiritual truths

 How “God sized” are the problems you and I bring to Jesus?

What circumstances are we experiencing right now that seem impossible?

  • Aging parents that need more care than we can give.
  • Savings are gone, the bills are stacking up, and there is no income or job to help.
  • Someone has become an enemy and they are either spreading lies or trying to influence other people against us.
  • A medical condition that seems hopeless, for you or me, or someone we love, a diagnosis we do not have enough resources to handle.

We might have heard other people tell us to “take it to Jesus” and now we are wondering just exactly what does “taking it to Jesus” mean? Not only is Jesus invisible, we might be wondering what Jesus has been doing anyway since somehow, under his watch, we have landed in this situation in the first place.

Taking it to Jesus means doing what Mary did.

First, know Jesus’ character the way Mary knew him, without any doubt, with absolute confidence, counting on His compassion believing that He is powerful enough, and loving enough, and good enough to do the impossible thing that you and I cannot do.

Then tell Jesus what is going on, simply and honestly, the way Mary did, trusting Jesus goodness and compassion, trusting Jesus to right.

And finally, like Mary, surrender all authority to Jesus, being willing to do whatever He tells you and I to do—through God’s word in the Bible, through wise counsel, and listening for God’s word and voice in our hearts through prayer.

As you and I experience the Lord’s response to our prayers, in our circumstances, our faith will be strengthened.

It is one thing to read about God’s power in a book, and quite another to experience God’s power in our real lives.

Genuine faith is expectant and willing to take a risk on God.

That is the funny thing about faith. You and I do not really have it until we start using it.

[Wedding at Cana | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Gospel of John: A Wedding

In our day, when someone wants to become a pastor they go to seminary, take classes, earn a degree, work in a church, get ordained.

In Jesus’ day, this process was much different.

Around the age of fourteen or fifteen most kids had moved on from studying Torah and talmud, to learning the family business and starting families of their own. But there were a few who showed great promise and continued to study with the village elders and rabbis. These few would apply with a well-known rabbi to become that rabban’s talmidim, his disciple.

Being a disciple was far more than being a student. The goal of the disciple was not just to know what the rabbi knew, but to be -just like- the rabbi.

So, a student of Torah would approach a rabbi and say, “Rabbi, I want to become your disciple.”

I want to take up your yoke.

The rabbi would then put the hopeful young student through a series of interviews to discover if this fledgling teen had what it took to become like the rabbi and one day spread his yoke.

Then, the rabbi would make his decision. If no, he would send the student home to learn the family business. If yes, he would say, “Come, follow me.” After that, it was expected the student would leave his home and family, his synagogue, his friends, his village, and devote his life to learning how to become like his rabban.

These first six disciples probably did not really know what following Jesus would mean for them. For our Lord was no ordinary rabbi! Jesus was going to develop their faith by showing them Who he is, and what would be in store for them as they put their faith in him. For these young men, becoming -like- their master would not be enough. They would one day—unbeknownst to them—incarnate their Lord Jesus Christ, having his Holy Spirit actually living within them.

But I get ahead of myself.

Jesus wanted these disciples to really know him, because then they would be able to trust him, as he drew them ever deeper and farther into the mysteries he was going to reveal.

In the same way, John wrote this gospel to show you and me what it will mean for us to follow Jesus, as well.

Satellite_image_of_Israel_in_January_2003.jpg: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFCderivative work: Chaco1985 / Public domain

Very soon after Jesus had gathered together Andrew, Peter, John, James, Philip, and Nathanael together, he took them on a road trip. “On the third day,” to be exact. Looking at the map, you can see where they were headed, towards a wedding in Cana, a small village in Galilee, about a half-day’s journey from Capernaum. Since Cana was Nathanael’s hometown, it is likely he had already been invited to the wedding, and not out of the question that Philip was also invited, because of their close companionship.

Considering the involvement of Jesus’ mother Mary, managing the caterers, it is likely these were extended family on her side, putting the rest of Mary’s family, including Jesus, on the guestlist. By extension, Jesus’ new disciples would all also have been welcome.

Ancient Jewish weddings were not like our western weddings today. Virgins were married on Wednesdays, widows on Thursdays, and all the days left in the week were given over to feasting. Since Jesus left with his group on the third day—Tuesday—it stands to reason this was going to be the joyous union of two young people just embarking on their adult lives together as a bride and groom.

  1. Engagement Period: During the ancient Near East engagement period, the groom would prepare the place where he and his bride would live and it was the groom who also made all the wedding preparations. The groom and his family paid for the whole thing.
  1. Processional: When the groom’s father deemed the newlywed’s home complete, he would send family members and friends, most often at night, over to the bride’s house to escort her back to what would be their new home.

It was always a surprise when, exactly, this processional would show up. Family and friends of both the bride and groom, all carrying torches, would bring the bride to the party. The couple were crowned king and queen, and open house lasted for days.

Weddings were the most sacred of all family events, so much so that even funeral processions had to stop for wedding processions.

  1. Wedding Feast: Every wedding symbolized God’s marriage to Israel, and the wine represented the prosperity and joy of God’s blessing. It would have been disaster if the wine ran out before the wedding feast was over.
The LUMO Project

It was at the high point of these festivities that Mary came to Jesus to tell him the wine was gone. Mary was close to the family, she was familiar with the servants, and the behind-the-scenes activities. She was able to see this potentially devastating scene before it happened and wanted to rescue the situation before the family was humiliated, and the celebration spoiled.

Mary was not in a position to buy wine, or get more wine, but she went to her Son, Who had always proven so capable and faithful in taking care of her and His family.

Mary did not tell Jesus to do anything, she simply came to her eldest son with this impossible problem. Of everyone there, she knew best Who Jesus really was, and had been pondering in her heart what that meant. Now, with Jesus’ newly gathered disciples, at a symbolically rich event, she possibly saw this as the very opportunity for Jesus to come into his own.

Does human pressure or God’s will determine my actions? We know Jesus only said and did what the Father gave him to say and do, so this was not Mary’s doing, she was not in charge of Jesus, but it was of Jesus’ own volition to respond to Mary with warmth, compassion, and power. This was God sovereignly acting.

Jesus’ response to Mary reflects a turning point in their relationship that she may not have been expecting. He was preparing her to see her son as her Lord. Jesus was also deeply aware that timing was essential, so his words may sound cryptic to us who know the story.

“What is this to me, and to you, woman? My hour is not yet come.”

Jesus, in John 2:4

The word “woman” here is “gunai,” which can mean “woman” or it can mean ”wife.” I imagine, if translated in an older version of English we might have said “mistress,” which is condensed to “Mrs.” these days. We should really read this word as one of warm respect, as Jesus was talking with Mary in front of the servants and at least some of his disciples. (My guess is, considering the detail in the story, John was close to Jesus, witnessing the whole thing.)

And his question was genuine. I think Jesus was perceiving and discerning Mary’s heart. She was not asking Jesus to grab his friends and quickly run to the village vintner to buy some more wine. Jesus knew her unspoken request was that he should do something powerful and symbolic, something spiritually significant.

Jesus’ hour would come, when he would lift up a cup of wine, and invite all to drink. But that hour was not this hour.

[Ancient wine | PxHere]

Gospel of John: Stairway to Heaven

At some point, perhaps later that evening, or maybe after they had all returned home, John must have told his older brother James about his transformative experience, meeting Messiah. It seems James had remained with their father in his fishing business, perhaps because, as the eldest, he would one day inherit the boats and clients his father had built up over the years.

Nevertheless, both James and John were deeply spiritually minded, and the story John had to tell was just as transformative for James. He, too, would set aside time to hear more of this Jesus.

Now, just to keep John’s timing in view, and because he introduces another time marker at the beginning of chapter 2, here is what has taken place so far in his narrative:

Day One,the delegation of priests and Levites who were also biblical scholars traveled from Jerusalem to Bethany to investigate John the Baptist’s credentials, intentions, and whether his (adopted or anointed) identity had any prophetic significance.

Day Two, Andrew and John, two of the Baptist’s disciples, began to follow Jesus, prompted by the Baptist’s continued proclamation that Jesus is the Lamb of God. (John is unnamed in the text but understood by inference.)

Day Three, the events of today’s passage take place.

The following day, [Jesus] wanted to go out into the Galilee and discovered Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Come with me.”

Jesus, in John 1:43

Why would Jesus want to go to the Galilee Lake area, when so far he had been going daily over to the Baptist’s ministry by the Jordan River?

Well, think about who Jesus had spent a whole afternoon and evening with. Fishermen from Galilee. That’s where these two sets of brothers, Andrew and Peter, and James and John, had their fishing businesses. As a matter of fact, you can see on the map, it was something of a walk!*

Internet Archive Book Image,
flickr, no known copyright restrictions

Once there, Jesus encountered Philip, who, it seems, was also from Andrew and Peter’s hometown of Bethsaida, a small fishing village. My guess is, they all probably knew each other, and all four of these young men had already been talking Philip’s ear off with their astonishing and exciting news. Considering Jesus’ brief invitation, I think Philip had “ask me!” written all over his face.

Because Philip had the same response as Andrew and John, he fell in love with Jesus, and there was nothing for it but that he would now hurry off to find his good friend Nathanael.

In the other gospels Nathanael is referred to as Bartholomew, “Bar” means “son of,” so he was Nathanael, son of Tolmai, and he and Philip were seemingly inseparable friends, always grouped together on later missionary expeditions.

Because Nathanael was a student of the scriptures, Philip told him about finding the one Moses and the prophets had written about. (How would Philip have known to explain Jesus in those terms? Because Philip was clearly also a seasoned studier of the scriptures.)


As soon as Philip said Jesus was from Nazareth, right away Nathanael was skeptical. And here is where we really see how interpretation can sometimes overpower and even replace what the scriptures actually say: Nazareth was considered only a grade above Samaria, full of Gentiles and the worship of pagan deities.

Did you notice how Philip did not argue? I imagine he had already known how that news would land, but he was counting on Nathanael’s curiosity, and his trust in their friendship. With beautiful simplicity, and in a poetic echo of Jesus’ own words to Andrew and John, Philip gently—and provocatively—invited his beloved and learned friend to just “Come and see.” 

To Nathanael’s credit, he did.

Jesus perceived Nathanael coming towards him and said concerning him, “Behold! A true Israelite, in him there is no deceit.”

John 1:47

The word here in Greek, eiden, does not just mean “he saw.” It means something deeper, a kind of seeing that understands a thing, discernment and perception are involved, even to experiencing something with more than one’s eyes. As Nathanael approached Jesus, the Lamb of God looked steadily into Nathanael’s soul, holding Nathanael’s eyes with his own gaze.

What Jesus discerned was Nathanael’s heart and spirit, saying “Here is the genuine article, the real deal, an authentic Israelite.”

That must have been quite humbling for Nathanael, because he had kind of implied Jesus was not genuine, simply because he was from Nazareth.

Then Jesus said, “In him is no deceit,” or “no guile,” also perceiving Nathanael was honest and up front, he had integrity. This must have made Nathanael feel even more uncomfortable! How could Jesus understand him like that? How did Jesus come to learn about his character? Jesus told him,

“Before Philip called out to you, I perceived you beneath the fig tree.”

 Jesus, in John 1:48

There is that word again, “eidon,” “I saw.” But really, I discerned your spirit and character, I experienced who you really are.

What Nathanael said next is remarkable

Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.”

Nathanael, in John 1:49

From construction worker in Nazareth, to Lamb of God, to Messiah . . . to Son of God, and true King of Israel!

How did such a skeptic turn into a believer, just like that?  What could possibly have happened in Nathanael’s heart?

The fig tree was the common place for prayer, especially for young rabbinic students. And in Nathanael’s day, the rabbis taught that every time one prayed, they were to pray for the coming of the Messiah. So, what was Nathanael doing when Philip came to find him?

Yes, as a rabbinic student, a man who seriously studied the scriptures, who had placed himself beneath a fig tree to pray, had begun to pray for the Messiah when he he heard his beloved friend call out to him, “We have found Messiah!”

Nathanael put two and two together in his mind. Only Messiah would have seen him praying for Messiah.

Nathanael’s response of faith must have pleased Jesus, because he gave further revelation—that’s what happens when you and I respond to God in believing faith, he opens our eyes to even deeper insight,

“Truly, truly I say to you all, you will perceive heaven having been opened and the messengers of God going up and coming down upon the Son of Humanity.”

 Jesus, in John 1:51

This is the first time the term “Son of Humanity[1] comes up and is a phrase rich with substance. You and I will take a closer look at what this phrase means as we get deeper in this gospel.

I do not know how well-read Andrew and Peter, and James and John were. Considering how serious they were about their lives of faith, and how Andrew and John had actually been willing to dedicate themselves as disciples to the Baptist, I think they must have been fairly familiar with the sacred writings. That said, I am confident Nathanael and Philip were tracking right along with Jesus, and knew he was talking about the patriarch Jacob’s dream.

You see, in the distant past Jacob, who had successfully swindled his slightly elder twin out of his birthright and his inheritance, was now fleeing for his life, with only the clothes he had on, running away from his brother. Finally, exhausted, he found a place to shelter, somewhat, chose a rock to lay his head on, and fell asleep alone in the wilderness.

During the night, Jacob had a vivid dream with the same evocative power of a vision, witnessing angels going up and down from earth to God. From this, Jacob knew God would be with him. In his later account, Jacob began with describing a magnificent stairway resting on the earth and reaching into heaven. How many people must have read about Jacob’s dream over the centuries and never even thought about the significance of that staircase?

Because, of course, as exceptional as such a structure might have been (perhaps reminiscent of the Babel tower builders’ failed attempt to create such a thing), the rest of Jacob’s vision seemed far more important.

Now, Jesus was revealing the true importance of the staircase.

The stairway to heaven is Jesus, Son of God and Son of Humanity, connecting God with people.

How passionately do you and I desire ascendancy to God, to share in the heavenlies with our Lord?

How deep are we willing to go with Jesus, to take his revelation and go further in with it, as Nathanael did?

I picture these six men now looking at Jesus with wonder and perhaps a little fear. If what he said were true, then who was he really? How could they, ordinary men all, be standing here with one who connects heaven and earth?

[1] The traditional way to translate this phrase from the Greek “uion tou anthropou” is “Son of Man.” This is because “Man” connoted “humankind” for a few centuries in the English language. Interestingly, in Middle English, the female version of “man” was “wimman” or “wifman,” our modern-day “woman.” The male version of “man” was “werman.” This left the word “man” as truly neutral, referring to male and female alike as humans.

However, at some point the prefix “wer” fell away, so that “man” came to mean both male humans and humans in general.

Today, being more sensitive to the implications of using the male version of human as standing in for all humans, more and more people are making the intentional effort to use more accurate language when translating. In this case, “anthropos” in Greek is the neutral term denoting humankind (like “anthropology,” the study of people). If a male term is desired, the Greek uses “aner/andros.”

*I, too, am puzzled by the distances involved, and John’s telling of the story. I searched for a Bethany closer to Bethsaida, which would make the story make far more sense, and I did not find one. Does not mean there was not one to find!

If you have a solution to the puzzle, I would love to hear from you.

[Jesus with his first disciples | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Gospel of John: What Is Your Quest?

Of all the places for Jesus to begin his ministry, it makes sense to me it would be from within what the Baptist was doing by the Jordan River. Here is where spiritually hungry people would be most open to hearing and receiving Messiah.

So, the very next day John the Baptist was still preaching repentance and baptizing people, preparing them to follow Messiah. And, here Jesus came again as well.

The Baptist had already been preaching, and plunging the repentant into the Jordan’s cool waters, when Jesus made his way toward them. Out of the corner of his eye, the Baptist noticed the solitary figure whose walking kicked up whorls of dust into the hot, desert air. Even across the distance and the shimmering heat their eyes met, and John felt the same tumultuous stirring of the Spirit he had experienced each time he was near Messiah.

Andrew, nearly twenty, and young John, just a lad of fourteen, raised their heads to watch their rabban*. They both had noticed the shift in the Baptist. They, too, could feel their hearts strangely begin to pound, their faces grow flush, their breath become labored and their hands tingle. The sun seemed brighter and hotter, the river to begin pulsating, its cool water eddying and purling around them, and the air becoming less heavy with the scent of wet clothes and hair.

The sounds of the people, the burring locusts, the ever-present wind all dimmed as the Baptist lifted his voice and thrust forward his hand, to point towards Jesus.

Behold!” All heads swiveled, all mouths fell open, as they followed his pointing finger.

Jesus walked with a measured pace, almost as if to continue past the rapt crowd and their taut prophet.

The Lamb Of God.” Though the Baptist did not shout, his voice seemed to roll from heaven itself, with such power and depth their very bones felt as though to vibrate from their joints. John looked at Andrew questioningly, and Andrew looked at their rabbi with the same question.

Who do we follow? We have pledged faith to you as your talmidim . . . But, here is God’s Lamb . . . The Baptist’s gaze held steady as he continued to hold his arm out to Jesus, and it seemed all the energy of the cosmos swirled around them. The sky grew bluer, the clouds whiter, the sandy earth a brilliant ochre, olive trees and grasses turned a luscious, verdant green as the Lamb of God walked through.

Then, Andrew gestured to John, and both began to make their way to Jordan’s shore. They wrung out their undergarments, picked up their cloaks, moved their way through the crowd, and craned around those who blocked their view of Jesus’ receding form.

Just as they had broken free of the press, without warning, Jesus stopped and turned.

“Who or what are you seeking after?”

They understood the rabbi’s meaning, for he had used a well-known saying among their people: what was their quest? Was it to worship God? Who or what, indeed, did they so earnestly desire?

Surely he had seen they were talmidim of the prophet? Then, in that moment, it dawned on them both that they had been drawn, or perhaps sent, to this one whom the prophet had been speaking of, the one who baptized in God’s Holy Spirit.

Andrew could sense John anxious beside him, and spoke for them both, “Rabbi.” His throat caught, and his mouth felt suddenly dry. With a cough, he managed to ask, “Where are you staying?” Andrew hadn’t realized how tightly he had been clutching his prayer shawl, but now he felt the tense ache in his fingers. John, also unknowingly, had reached over to hold Andrew’s sleeve. Both held their breath, waiting for Jesus’ answer.

Jesus watched them, warmth and depth in his expression.

Then he smiled, and it was as though the sun’s rays shone from his face. “Come and see,” he said, with a nod towards Bethany, gesturing for them to follow him.

And they did.

Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?” were the first words Jesus said in John’s gospel, maybe the first words He spoke as He began his public ministry, and they are words meant for every person who reads and hears John’s gospel.

“What are you looking for in life? What are you looking for from Me?” Jesus invited Andrew and John to get to know him personally, just as our Lord invites you and me today. It was about 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, and they ended up spending the whole rest of the day with the Lamb of God.

And they fell in love with him.

No doubt the Lord told them something about his mission, revealed their own hearts to them and answered their questions. Evidently, they were so entranced they could hardly tear themselves away.

Yet, at some point, Andrew realized he had to go get his brother, who was also spiritually minded although, it seems, he had not chosen to become a disciple of a rabbi. Perhaps it is because Simon had already married, and was supporting his wife and son, and his mother-in-law. Presumably, Andrew knew just where to find his brother, with his boat, mending his nets in preparation for a night’s fishing trip.

In just the short time Andrew had spent with Jesus, he already knew in his heart Jesus, Lamb of God, was the promised anointed one they had been waiting for, for a thousand years and more, for in his urgent insistence, he exclaimed to his brother,

“We have found the Messiah!” (Which is translated ‘Christ’)

John 1:41

Stupendous news, there was no other way to call it. Simon evidently believed Andrew implicitly, losing no time and giving no thought to dropping everything in order to hurry back to Jesus with his brother.

And was that when the deep friendship between Jesus and John began? During that while when they were together, waiting for Andrew to come back with Simon?

And what must it have been like for Simon, to see Jesus for the first time, and feel his heart burn as Jesus looked at him intently, reading his heart?

“You are Simon, the son of John, you shall be named Cephas (which is translated Peter).”

John 1:42

Peter, a rock, solid, dependable and true. In the years to come, Peter would surely look back on this moment again and again, remembering Jesus’ prophetic voice.

*I am thankful to a friend whose scholarship I respect for asking me about calling John the Baptist “rabban.” (Small case “r”) I confessed I’d done some research, but had not done a deep dive, as she had done. In her assessment, only such recognized institutional teachers such as Gamaliel might be called “Rabban” in first century Judaism, and even at that, some scholars consider the term an anachronism from a later time.

I realized I needed to do some digging of my own and began to read both sides of this issue. I landed with Bruce Chilton in his article The Gospel according to John’s Rabbi Jesus, in which he states, “[B]eing called ‘rabbi’ did not involve an institutional qualification until a much later period, well after the destruction of the temple, although it seems clear that during the first century a Jewish teacher in Galilee whose wisdom was valued would be called ‘rabbi,’ or one of several variants with or without the possessive suffix, including rab, rabbouna, rabbouni, and rabban.”

Chilton, Bruce. “The Gospel according to John’s Rabbi Jesus.” Bulletin for Biblical Research – Vol.25(1), pp. 39-54 1 January 2015.

[Andrew finds Simon | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimaghes.org]

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