Summer 2000

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 3

Spreading the Word

David Hulme

Following the silencing of John the Baptist, Christ’s ministry commences with a private disclosure of who He is. 

As we continue our examination of the Gospels and their relevance to the world of the 21st century, we travel now to Machaerus in modern-day Jordan, to an ancient hilltop fortress on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. This may seem an unlikely place to pursue our study of Jesus of Nazareth, especially when there’s no evidence that Jesus ever went there. Machaerus was once one of Herod’s mighty defensive fortresses, though all that remains of it today are the outlines of a few rooms. Yet here, in the first century, stood a palace with plastered walls, mosaic floors and an extensive water- and food-supply system.

It also served as the prison for John the Baptist, who, as we noted in Part Two of this series, had criticized Herod Antipas, one of the sons of the man who built the fortress of Machaerus.

And here’s where we make the connection with Jesus of Nazareth. What happened in the fortress overlooking the Dead Sea played an important part in initiating Christ’s own ministry. John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner, had spoken plainly about Herod Antipas’s wickedness. John had even intruded on Herod’s personal life with his criticisms, telling the ruler that he had no right to steal the wife of his half brother Philip. So Herod had John put in prison at Machaerus.

But according to Jewish historian Josephus, it was Herod’s suspicious mind that led to John’s imprisonment. It seems that he feared John’s popularity with the people and thought that John might start a rebellion against him.

Living Water

The Gospel writer Mark tells us that when Jesus heard that John’s preaching was silenced, He went to Galilee preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, thus beginning His own three-and-a-half-year ministry (Mark 1:14-15).

On the way from Judea He passed through Samaria and stopped at a famous well, named after the patriarch Jacob. A woman came to draw water, and Jesus asked her for a drink (John 4:4-7).

Now, the Jews and the Samaritans were traditional enemies, the Jews looking down on their northern neighbors as a religiously and tribally inferior people. The woman was puzzled that a Jew would ask a drink of a Samaritan. It would, after all, make him ritually unclean.

Jesus explained that if she had recognized Him she would have asked Him for living water. Inviting her into some spiritual understanding, Jesus engaged her in a conversation that revealed who He was and His capability to read the human heart.

The woman, it turned out, had had five husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband. Jesus perceived all of this and shocked the woman by telling her so. This led to the woman realizing that Jesus had special discernment, and that perhaps He was a prophet (verses 9-19).

For the first time Jesus openly said who He was. Yet He did not tell it to His own people but to a Samaritan woman. 

Jesus in turn was able to explain to her that the Samaritan religion was in error and that He, in fact, was the Messiah to come. Needless to say, it was an astonishing revelation. For the first time Jesus openly said who He was. Yet He did not tell it to His own people but to a Samaritan woman. That’s quite an irony, because she and her townspeople came to recognize Him as “the Savior of the world” (verses 39-42), while at the same time many of His own people did not.

Dawning Light

From this point we start to trace Jesus’ footsteps around Galilee. We’ll turn our attention to the heart and core of Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching found in some of the most remarkable passages of the New Testament. These are some of the great truths embedded in our Western cultural heritage—yet so often, it seems, we’re unfamiliar with their origins or the thought that lies behind them. In this series about early Christianity, we’re intent on rediscovering those universal truths.

You’ve probably noticed that there’s a renewed desire to find values to live by these days. The cry has gone out for a reestablishing of the foundational basics of Western society. In our schools, colleges and universities, the search is on for ethical standards, for the authentic roots of our civilization and the values it claims.

It was in Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, that Jesus took up residence when the people of His hometown, Nazareth, rejected His mission. The small fishing village became the base for His work of teaching and healing.

Capernaum’s location in Galilee placed it in the land populated in ancient times by the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. The Gospel writer Matthew tells us that Jesus’ coming to Capernaum fulfilled an Old Testament promise. In reference to Jesus, Matthew quotes the following from Isaiah the prophet: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:13-16).

According to Matthew, the light that dawned was, of course, Jesus and the truth He would bring to Galilee and the world. Matthew used the Isaiah quote to show his Jewish audience some scriptural support for Jesus’ mission.

But why did Jesus concentrate on Galilee? Why was it the center of His work? Why did He go back to Galilee from Judea once He heard John the Baptist was in prison?

Galilee was on the caravan routes between the Mediterranean and Damascus and the East. It was a stop along the way for the foreigners, or gentiles, who came and went with their exotic cargoes. It’s likely that Galilee had an intellectual openness that would permit Jesus’ teaching to flourish for a while. And the multicultural atmosphere of Galilee meant that word of Jesus’ activities could spread far and wide.

Fishers of Men

During Roman times, the fresh waters of the Sea of Galilee provided for a lucrative fishing trade. It’s no surprise, then, that among Jesus’ early followers were several fishermen. Their names are familiar: the brothers Andrew and Simon Peter, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.

These four young men were partners in the fishing business. Though they’d been aware of Jesus for some time, they hadn’t yet joined Him wholeheartedly. But they needed no further convincing to become His disciples after He directed them, miraculously it seemed, to a huge catch of fish.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that one day Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee. Seeing Simon, He asked if He would take Him out a little way in the boat. Offshore, Jesus could speak to the crowds more easily, His voice carrying over the water. Simon had heard Jesus teach before, but now he had the chance to listen again in the peace and quiet of the lake’s surroundings.

When Jesus finished teaching, He told Simon to go out into deeper water and let down his net for a large catch. Despite having caught nothing all night, we’re told that Simon and his men immediately caught so many fish that their boat was in danger of sinking. And not only their boat—Simon had to call on James and John to help: they hauled in so many fish that they, too, were endangered (Luke 5:1-7).

What lesson would they draw from this unusual experience? Jesus’ message to the fishermen was simple: Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll be netting not just fish, but an abundance of men and women for the kingdom of God.

The experience was dramatic enough to become a turning point for those early disciples. They immediately left their occupations and became full-time participants in Jesus’ work. It was a decision that would take them all over Roman Palestine and beyond. Their own land was, of course, familiar territory, but what they would learn from Jesus was something entirely new and unfamiliar.

Speaking With Authority

It was apparently Jesus’ practice to teach in one synagogue or another on the Sabbath day. In Capernaum, a God-fearing Roman centurion had built a synagogue for the Jews. The man was so well loved that when his servant was taken ill, the Jewish elders summoned Jesus to help him.

The synagogue that most visitors to Galilee are shown when they go to the Holy Land to walk where Jesus walked is of third- or fourth-century construction. In the foundations are the black basalt footings of an earlier building—perhaps the original synagogue that Jesus knew.

To get a better idea of a first-century synagogue, though, one would have to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to the Golan Heights. It’s a bit remote, but it’s a good place to get a feeling for where Jesus spoke on the Sabbath.

At Gamla are the ruins of what is thought to be a synagogue built from dark gray stone, which is a feature of the entire town. Gamla was destroyed after a frightening siege by the Romans sometime between A.D. 67 and 70. In simple buildings, perhaps like the one at Gamla, Jesus spoke, astonishing His listeners because He taught with unusual authority.

Unlike his contemporaries, Jesus didn’t quote others to support His case. He simply showed the scriptural principles from the Law and the Prophets, and detailed the teaching with analogies from everyday life. 

Unlike His contemporaries, Jesus didn’t quote others to support His case. He simply showed the scriptural principles from the Law and the Prophets, and detailed the teaching with analogies from everyday life.

In the first-century synagogue, the Jewish rabbis generally taught from a seated position. If Jesus spoke from the center of the room, He would have had much more contact with the audience than in today’s synagogues and churches.

Typically, Jesus would have read from the scrolls of Scripture kept at the synagogue and then commented on them. It seems He was an impressive speaker. And it wasn’t just the regular worshippers who were amazed by His authority—even those mentally troubled by the spirits shouted out in recognition of Him.

Luke tells us that one day in the Capernaum synagogue there was just such a man. He was afflicted with what today some might call a multiple personality disorder. In this man’s case, the spirit of these various personalities suddenly spoke out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Luke 4:31-34).

And what was Jesus’ response? Simply to command the spirit to leave so that the man’s sanity could quickly return.

It was a startling event. It caused a great stir and spread Jesus’ reputation all around the region of Galilee. A man who could tame a troublesome spirit was rare indeed.

More Misconceptions

In the first segment of this series on the Gospels, you’ll remember we discovered some common misconceptions about the New Testament story—like the date of Jesus’ birth, which we found was not December 25 or anywhere close.

Then we looked into the number of wise men who came from the East, and we discovered that there’s no New Testament support for three wise men. Wise men or magi, yes—but not three of them.

Now we’re about to uncover another common misconception. The Bible tells us that the disciple Peter had a house and that he was a man with a mother-in-law. That’s right—a married man, not a celibate!

For too long, traditional Christianity has had the idea that the disciples, and even Jesus Himself, lived out on the road—that the disciples were mostly homeless, unmarried and poverty-stricken. 

For too long, traditional Christianity has had the idea that the disciples, and even Jesus Himself, lived out on the road—that the disciples were mostly homeless, unmarried and poverty-stricken. Yet clearly the New Testament shows that Peter had a home, a wife, and for a time even a fishing business. The traditional site of Peter’s house in Capernaum is a few hundred yards away from the much-visited synagogue.

The Gospel of Mark describes a visit to Peter’s house by Jesus. It says: “As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them” (Mark 1:29-31).

By the end of that Sabbath, on Saturday evening, many were at the door begging for Jesus’ healing. He helped them, of course, but He also told some of those who’d been mentally disturbed not to say who He was—the Christ, or the Messiah (Luke 4:40-41). It wasn’t time yet to have that title broadcast. Or, like John the Baptist, Jesus could be caught up in Herod Antipas’s paranoia and silenced. Remember, it was Antipas’s father, Herod the Great, who’d tried to kill Jesus just after He was born. In the early days of His ministry, Jesus didn’t need to invite Herod Antipas’s opposition. Now it was time to carefully assess the future of His work.

The next day, before dawn, Jesus went out alone to an isolated place to pray. Here was an opportunity to reappraise the situation. After some time, His disciples came looking for Him. They told Him that the people of Capernaum wanted more of His attention. But Jesus was now convinced He had to move on and teach in other towns and villages (verses 35-39).

And so began His first great tour of the Galilean region.

Widening the Arc of Ministry

Jesus’ travels only enhanced His reputation. Matthew says that great crowds traveled from far afield to hear and be healed (Matthew 4:23-25). No longer did they come just from Galilee. They came from Perea, on the east bank of the River Jordan, from Jerusalem, and from Judea. There were people from the Decapolis—a region of 10 sophisticated cities of Greek culture southeast of the Sea of Galilee. The southernmost of these cities was Philadelphia, which is today Amman, capital of Jordan.

On His teaching tour, Jesus continued to heal all kinds of sickness—from epilepsy and paralysis to leprosy and various mental illnesses. But He was still wary of the acclaim His actions would bring. From time to time He would withdraw from the public eye for a while.

All the same, His activities were becoming an irritant to the local religious leadership. They obviously feared Jesus’ popularity with their people, and they began to look for every opportunity to criticize.

On one occasion, as Jesus healed a paralyzed man, He said something that astonished His critics. He told the man that his sins were forgiven. The Pharisees and doctors of the law overheard and immediately began to accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Mark 2:1-7).

Perhaps it seems like an overreaction to us. What was blasphemous about what Jesus had said? Well, in claiming to forgive sin, He put Himself on a level with God in the Pharisees’ eyes—for only God could forgive sin.

Of course, the message Jesus wanted to send was that He, as the son of man and the Son of God, had the power to forgive sin. To emphasize the truth of His statement and its spiritual significance for everyone, Jesus restored the paralytic’s ability to walk (verses 8-12).

It was an amazing event. But would we believe it if it happened today? Would we believe in a man who really healed miraculously? It’s something to think about in view of the religious confusion that surrounds us today.

In Part Four of our series on the Gospels, we’ll continue our look at the development of Jesus’ ministry. As His following grew, so grew the need to teach the moral core of discipleship. To that end, Jesus delivered to His disciples what has been termed the greatest moral discourse of all time: the Sermon on the Mount.