Spring 2000

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 2

From Water to Wine

David Hulme

Where did Jesus spend His youth and early adult life? It’s a matter of intelligent guesswork, since none of the Gospel writers mentions anything about Jesus between the ages of 12 and about 30.

As we noted at the close of Part One in this series, Joseph, a young carpenter, took his wife, Mary, and their young son to Egypt to escape the murderous plot of a jealous Herod. Nothing is known of their refuge in Egypt—neither place nor exact length of time—except that they returned from Egypt to Nazareth after Herod’s death.

During the subsequent years in Galilee, Jesus apparently grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. Luke tells us that He developed well under His parents’ care.

The only recorded account of His boyhood years was an unusual event in Jerusalem. It’s His famous interaction with the teachers of the law in the courts of the temple, as recounted in Luke 2:41-47. At the Passover season, when He was 12 years old, Jesus became separated from His parents. For three days, unbeknown to Mary and Joseph, He held His scholarly listeners spellbound with questions of great depth and understanding.

Naturally His parents expressed anxiety and concern for their missing son and no doubt some irritation at His apparent lack of concern for them. But this was a defining moment and one Mary would later ponder. When His parents eventually found Him, Jesus answered them with the questions “Why did you seek Me?” and “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (verse 49, New King James Version).

In fact, Joseph and Mary didn’t know, and what’s more, they didn’t understand. They were just thankful to find their precious and unique son.

Laying the Foundation

Luke records in verse 51 that Jesus returned to Nazareth from Jerusalem and was obedient to His parents. That relationship no doubt allowed Jesus to learn from Joseph the craft of a carpenter.

The carpenter’s role must have taken Joseph around the environs of Nazareth. A discovery near Jesus’ boyhood home allows us to speculate reasonably about Jesus’ youth and what He might have learned as a carpenter’s apprentice.

Though the Gospel accounts don’t mention Sepphoris, archaeological excavations indicate that it was an important city four miles north of Nazareth. It served as the provincial capital of Galilee during Jesus’ time. In this case, what the Gospels do not mention forms the basis of an informed opinion. We know that Jesus grew up with a carpenter for a father, that He was obedient to His parents’ wishes, and that Nazareth was His family home. We also know that after Herod the Great’s death, Herod’s kingdom was divided among his three sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip.

Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and began an extensive rebuilding program in the gateway city of Sepphoris. The construction continued throughout Jesus’ youth at Nazareth. It is therefore possible that Joseph and Jesus worked on the project. Carpenters in those days were also stonemasons, and the scale and grandeur of Sepphoris would have kept local artisans busy for years.

Herod Antipas had been educated with his brother Archelaus in Rome. His experiences immediately before his return to Palestine were entirely in a Roman imperial context. It’s no surprise, then, that Sepphoris was a city built in the Roman architectural style, with an amphitheater, baths, government buildings and so on.

If Jesus did experience urban life at Sepphoris, it would have taught significant lessons about trade and business, and about politics and human government.

If Jesus did experience urban life at Sepphoris, it would have taught significant lessons about trade and business, and about politics and human government. What is often missed in explaining the Gospels is the political atmosphere of Christ’s time.

Also overlooked is the political milieu of John the Baptist’s ministry.

An Unusual Message

John the Baptist was almost as controversial as Jesus Himself. Giving the historical and geographical context, the Gospel writer Luke says: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (Luke 3:1-2).

The result was that John the Baptist began preaching that repentance of sin before God was essential and that baptism by immersion in the River Jordan would begin the renewal process.

It was an unusual message at the time, in that baptism was not a common ritual. Certainly the prophets of old had spoken of repentance and forgiveness of sin. The Jewish people were familiar with ritual purification baths, but washing sins away was new.

The Baptist’s life had paralleled Jesus’ own in several ways. John and Jesus were kinsmen—their mothers were related.

Both John’s mother, Elizabeth, and Mary had conceived miraculously within a few months of each other. Elizabeth knew that her pregnancy was as much a remarkable sign of divine intervention as Mary’s. Elizabeth had been unable to bear children until her old age. When Mary and Elizabeth met in the early days of Mary’s pregnancy,
Elizabeth’s child had moved suddenly in the womb. Elizabeth took this as a meaningful sign.

Qumran Connection

It is likely that John’s parents, old as they were, died before he became an adult. It’s also possible that as an orphan he was brought up in a religious desert community.

Such a community might have existed at the well-known Qumran, overlooking the Dead Sea. The inhabitants were possibly Essenes, a reclusive and strict sect of the Jews. If they lived in the desolate surroundings on the edge of the Judean wilderness, they certainly lived an ascetic life. The Essenes were awaiting a Messiah who would deliver them politically—a warrior king. Then, they believed, a priestly Messiah would come to Jerusalem and purify temple worship and the sacrifices.

John the Baptist had little in common with such views, but as we’ve noted, he did practice the ritual of baptism by immersion. At the ruins of Qumran, there are what look like ritual baths or miqva’ot, where immersions could have taken place as acts of purification.

Apparently the members of the Qumran community spent a lot of their time copying out the Hebrew Scriptures and writing their own commentaries on them. Perhaps that explains why a lot of inkwells have been found there—certainly an unusual item to discover in large quantities.

Of course, the caves in the area are most famous for the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In three of the caves, fragments of a manuscript known as the Cairo Damascus Document were discovered. The fragments mention a diet including locusts, something the Gospels tell us John ate. This was not necessarily unusual, since the Jews considered locusts fit for food.

A further indication of John the Baptist’s possible Qumran connection is the fact that, like John, the community used a verse from Isaiah to describe their purpose. That verse reads, in part, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord’”(Isaiah 40:3). It must be said, however, that John and the Qumran community used the verse to different ends. If John did have anything to do with the community, he soon moved away from them once his public work began in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar.

The Hebrew Scriptures are often used by the Gospel writers as supporting evidence for the subject at hand. This shouldn’t surprise us: the only “Bible” the Gospel writers had was what we call today the Old Testament. 

The Hebrew Scriptures are often used by the Gospel writers as supporting evidence for the subject at hand—for example, the mission of John the Baptist. This shouldn’t surprise us: the only “Bible” the Gospel writers had was what we call today the Old Testament.

Prescription for Today

John was a fiery preacher. He was one to straighten things out without fear of man. When the people from Judea and Jerusalem went to the Jordan River to hear John, he didn’t spare his words. Identifying certain religious leaders among his audience, he characterized them publicly as a “brood of vipers.” He warned them that divine retribution will come to the unrepentant, that complacency is a trap, and that a show of religiosity is not enough. A change of heart is what God wants to see.

In this respect, John’s mission was not unlike that of the Old Testament prophets. His prescription for behavioral change was the same. When asked for advice on how to practice righteous living, John would reply with specifics such as: “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

The much-hated tax collectors also sought his advice. To them he said: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

Then the soldiers came: “‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay’ ”(Luke 3:11-14).

Share your goods, don’t take more than you should, don’t steal or accuse others falsely, and be content with your pay—these sound like prescriptions for today.

And, of course, they seem that way because John’s expression of right values, based in the Hebrew Scriptures, was timeless. That’s an important aspect of original New Testament teaching—its timelessness. It’s something we’ll continue to note throughout this series.

More Powerful Than John

The kind of discussion John had with his audiences led some to wonder whether he was the anticipated Messiah. Could he be the Christos to come?

John’s answer to this was emphatic and at the same time puzzling. He said: “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16-17).

Whoever he was speaking of had not yet been publicly revealed. But soon Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized. John’s reaction to Jesus’ request was, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus’ reply was that it was necessary to complete the ceremony so that His own life story would reflect the course for all human beings. That is, everyone at some point must accept or reject purification before God. If Jesus was to serve as a living example for all, then this part of the human experience couldn’t be excluded.

Exactly where John baptized Jesus is unknown, but what happened is explained in all four Gospels. As Jesus came up out of the Jordan’s waters, what appeared to be a dove descended on Him. It was a symbol of the Holy Spirit—and a voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32).

After this simple but profound ceremony, Jesus, at the age of about 30, began His public work.

The Tempter’s Trap

Jesus’ immediate challenge concerned the use of His considerable powers for His own purposes. Immediately after His baptism, He was driven into the wilderness to meet an opponent from the spirit world: after having fasted 40 days, Jesus encountered Satan the devil.

Matthew describes the devil’s first line of attack: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matthew 4:3).

The craving for food was no doubt intense. The knowledge of His own power to miraculously change the circumstances was also present with Jesus. Was this an opportunity to use that power for personal benefit? Jesus’ reply was simply, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The tempter then made two more appeals to Jesus’ power. Why not throw yourself from the highest point on the temple’s walls? Surely God will save you. After all, you could prove who you are by taking what would be a suicidal leap, because the Scriptures promise your protection: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone,” quoted the tempter.

But Jesus knew that testing God’s protection in that way would be willful and wrong. His response? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The devil took Christ to a high mountain and surveyed the kingdoms of the world. “‘All this I will give you, he said, if you will bow down and worship me.’” 

Finally, the devil took Christ to a high mountain and surveyed the kingdoms of the world. “‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’” His offer was seductive in the sense that Jesus knew His destiny to be the ultimate rulership of the world, but only on His Father’s terms, not as Satan’s slave. His reply was final: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

This account of the temptation is followed in the Gospel of John by more details about the role of John the Baptist. The religious leaders were obviously perplexed by his ministry and wanted to know who he really was. The Pharisees, having suffered his verbal attacks, sent some of their religious counterparts—the Sadducees—from Jerusalem to speak with John. “Are you the Christ?” they asked. “No,” said John, “nor am I Elijah, nor the Prophet foretold in the Scriptures. I am simply the messenger coming before the Lord” (John 1:19-28, paraphrased).

The next day, Jesus was identified by John as the Lamb of God—the one who was prophesied to come as a sacrificial offering for humanity. And the following day, John repeated the phrase “Lamb of God” to two of his disciples. They then became followers of Jesus.

First Miracle

At this point Jesus went back to His home region of Galilee, and His public ministry began to emerge alongside that of John. Within a few days, Jesus had attracted the loyalty of new disciples: Andrew and Simon Peter, Philip and Nathanael.

According to John’s Gospel, it was now that Jesus’ first public miracle occurred. At Cana in Galilee, Jesus, His mother and His disciples were invited to a wedding.

During the feast, the supply of wine ran out, and Mary mentioned this to her son. Jesus’ reaction suggests that she knew He could provide more wine, but that He preferred not to do so to avoid too much notoriety. “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” He asked. “My time has not yet come” (John 2:4).

But His mother told the servants to help Jesus in whatever way He asked. Six stone jars were filled with water, which then miraculously became wine—120 to 180 gallons in all. And make no mistake: it was wine. The New Testament Greek word used here is oinos—it means “fermented grape juice.”

Make no mistake: it was wine. The New Testament Greek word used here is oinos—it means “fermented grape juice.”

The steward of the wedding feast was pleasantly surprised. He told the bridegroom, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” The miracle had the effect of confirming to His disciples that Jesus was who they thought He was.

From Cana, on the upper plateau of Galilee, Jesus and His family and disciples traveled down to Capernaum at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, where He would eventually set up a home.

After a few days there, it was Passover time, and Jesus traveled to Jerusalem.

Destroy the Temple?

When Jesus arrived at the temple area, He found the merchants and money changers trading in the outer courts. The money changers were inclined to cheat in their foreign-exchange dealings. Jewish visitors came to Jerusalem from all over the known world and brought with them their currencies. They also had to pay temple tax, which required a certain kind of coin from the ancient city of Tyre. Here again the money changers could easily gouge their customers. No doubt similar price-fixing occurred when commanded animal sacrifices were bought from the merchants. The law of supply and demand induces greed when morality is absent.

All of this corruption motivated Jesus’ fiery condemnation as He drove the traders out of the temple enclosure: “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” He said (John 2:16). It was an unprecedented action that caused the religious leaders to ask Jesus for a sign of who He was and by what authority He did such things.

Jesus’ reply was enigmatic. He said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” To the Jewish leaders this sounded like a preposterous and arrogant claim. How could He rebuild in three days something that had taken years to build and complete?

Jesus was speaking, of course, not of the actual temple but of His own physical body, which, once dead, would be resurrected. After His death, His disciples remembered this unusual statement.

Teaching the Teacher

The Passover season at Jerusalem also gave Jesus the opportunity for an important private meeting with a key religious figure. Jesus’ popularity was growing—His public statements and miraculous works were drawing increasing attention. A prominent leader in the religious community came to Jesus under cover of darkness. His name was Nicodemus. He acknowledged that the Pharisees knew that Jesus was a teacher come from God because of the miracles He was performing. Jesus took the opportunity to explain some truths to this leader that he ought to have known but did not.

He told the man that the kingdom of God is something that is spiritually discerned and that spiritual birth into that kingdom is the destiny of humans who come to have a Spirit-led mind.

It’s significant that a religious leader could be as unaware as the unconvinced and unconverted. This speaks to the vital importance of a mind that is truly open to God’s Word. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10, New King James Version).

Jesus went on to explain that belief in His coming was essential to entry into the kingdom of God. God the Father had given the Son to be a sacrifice for all humanity. People who didn’t want to walk in the light would not come to the Son. The light of truth exposes evil intentions and evil acts.

It was exactly that kind of behavior that John the Baptist was combating. John was still at work baptizing in the Jordan valley. A dispute arose between some of his disciples and the Jews about purification, and about Jesus’ role in baptizing people. John took the position that his own role would now diminish, as Christ’s work would expand.

It was a humble recognition that his part was almost done. Shortly John would be thrown into prison as a political prisoner of Herod. John had been forthright in criticizing Herod for his marriage to his brother’s wife; the openly adulterous relationship was well known—and against the law of God. As a result, John was eventually imprisoned by Herod.

This was the signal to Jesus to go back to Galilee and begin His own ministry in earnest. In the next issue of Vision, we’ll go on the road with Jesus in the area where He grew up.