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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : VIII The First Disciples

The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

VIII The First Disciples

John i.19 TO ii.12

97. After the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness, John the Baptist continued his ministry of preaching and baptizing, moving northward up the Jordan valley to Bethany, on the eastern side of the river, near one of the fords below the Sea of Galilee (John i.28). Here Galilee, doubtless, contributed more to his audience than Judea. It is certain that some from the borders of the lake were at this time among his constant attendants: Andrew and Simon of Bethsaida, John the son of Zebedee, and perhaps his brother James, probably also Philip of Bethsaida and Nathanael of Cana (John i.40, 41, 43-45; compare xxi.2).

98. The leaders in Jerusalem, becoming apprehensive whither this work would lead, sent an embassy to question John. They chose for this mission priests and Levites of pharisaic leaning as most influential among the people. The impression John and his message were making on the popular mind is seen in the questions put to him, |Art thou the Messiah?| |Elijah?| |The prophet?| (see Deut. xviii.15), and in the challenge, |Why, then, baptizest thou?| when John disclaimed the right to any of these names. John's reply is the echo of his earlier proclamation of the one mightier than he who should baptize with the Spirit (Mark i.7, 8), only now he added that this one was present among them (John i.26, 27).

99. This interview occurred several weeks after Jesus' baptism, for upon the next day John saw Jesus (John i.29), now returned from the temptation, and pointed him out to a group of disciples. Something in Jesus' face or in his bearing, as he came from his temptation, must have impressed John even more than at their first meeting; for he was led to think of a prophetic word for the most part ignored by the Messianic thought of his day, |He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter| (Isa. liii.7). As he looked on Jesus the mysterious oracle was illuminated for him, and he cried, |Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.| Once again on the next day the same thought rushed to his lips when, with two disciples, he saw Jesus passing by (John i.35, 36). Then as Jesus left John's neighborhood and took up again the round of ordinary life, John seems to have reverted to his more ordinary Messianic thought, his momentary insight into highest truth standing as a thing apart in his life. Such a moment's insight, caused by extraordinary circumstances, no more requires that John should retain the high thought constantly than does Peter's confession of Christ at Caesarea Philippi exclude his later rebuke of his Lord (Mark viii.32, 33), or his denials (Mark xiv.66-72).

100. The disciples who heard these testimonies from John understood them to be Messianic (John i.30-34), though their later consternation, when the cross seemed to shatter their hopes (John xx.9, 10, 24, 25), shows that they did not comprehend their deeper meaning. Two of these disciples at once attached themselves to Jesus, and one of them, Andrew of Bethsaida, was so impressed by the new master that, having sought out his brother Simon, he declared that they had found the Messiah. The other of these earliest followers was John the son of Zebedee, and it is possible that he also found his brother and introduced James from the very first into the circle of the disciples. Jesus was about to take his departure for Galilee, and on the next day, as he was leaving, added Philip of Bethsaida to the little company of followers. Philip, impressed as Andrew had been, brought Nathanael of Cana to Jesus. The undefined something about Jesus which drew noble hearts irresistibly to himself, and his marvellous knowledge of this new comer, produced the same effect in Nathanael, as was seen earlier in Andrew and Philip, and he acknowledged the new master as |Son of God, King of Israel| (John i.49).

101. These early confessions in the fourth gospel present a difficulty in view of Jesus' warm approval of Peter's acknowledgment of him at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. xvi.13-20). Jesus saw in that confession a distinct advance in the disciples' thought and faith. Yet the religious feeling which early questioned whether the Baptist even were not the Messiah (Luke iii.15) would almost certainly have concluded that John's greater successor must be God's anointed. The very fact that men's thoughts about the Messiah were varied and complex made them ready for some modifications of their preconceptions. One with such subtle personal power as Jesus had exercised was almost sure to be hailed by some with enthusiasm as the looked-for representative of God. In fact, it is probable that at any time in the early days of his ministry Jesus could have been proclaimed Messiah, provided he had accepted the people's terms. Such a confession would have been merely the outcome of enthusiasm. The people, even the disciples, did not know Jesus. They all had high hopes and somewhat fixed ideas about the Messiah, nearly every one of which was destined to rude shock. How little they knew him Jesus realized (John i.51), and his self-mastery is manifest in his attitude to this early enthusiasm. He was no visionary; he had a great work to do and a long lesson to teach, and he was patient enough to teach it little by little. He did not rebuke the ill-informed faith of a Nathanael, but sought gradually to supplant the old thought of the Messiah and of the kingdom by new truth, and to bind men's affections to himself for his own sake and the truth's sake, not simply for the idea which he impersonated to them.

102. The visit to Cana seems to have found a place in the fourth gospel, because there the new disciples discovered in their master miraculous powers which were to them a sign that he was in truth God's anointed. It is probable that at the time of this miracle the disciples thought only of the power and the marvel, yet the sharp contrast between John's ascetic habit and Jesus' use of his divine resources to relieve embarrassment at a wedding feast must have impressed every man among them. Their minds, however, were as yet too full of Messianic hopes to leave much room for reflection. They were content to have a sign, for in the view of Jesus' contemporaries signs were essential marks of the Messiah (John vi.30; vii.31; Mark viii.11). They did their reflecting later (John ii.22).

103. Miracles are as great a stumbling-block to modern thought as they were a help to the contemporaries of Jesus. The study of Jesus' life cannot ignore this fact, nor make little of it. It is fair to insist, however, that the question is one of evidence, not of metaphysical possibility. Men are wisely slow to-day to claim that they can tell what are the limits of the possible. If the question is one of evidence, it is in an important sense true that the evidence for miracle in the life of Jesus is appreciable only when that life is viewed in its completeness. The miracles attributed to Jesus may be studied, however, for the disclosure which they give of his character, and of his relation to common human need. So it is with this first sign at Cana. Jesus had just heard the call to be Messiah, and in his lonely struggle in the wilderness had given a loyal answer to that call, and had set out to do his Father's business in his Father's way. He who by the Jordan still carried the marks of struggle, so that the Baptist saw in him the suffering Saviour of Isaiah liii., now returned to the ordinary daily life in Galilee, and as a guest at a wedding feast he commenced that ministry of simple human friendliness (Matt. xi.19; compare Mark ii.15-17; Luke xv.1, 2), which set him in sharp contrast alike with John's asceticism and with the ritualism and pedantry of the Pharisees.

104. His human friendliness is all the more worthy of note, inasmuch as on his return to Cana Jesus did not take up again the old relations of life as they existed before his baptism. This is clear from his reply to his mother when she reported the scarcity of wine (John ii.3-5). While it is true that the title by which Jesus addressed Mary was neither disrespectful nor unkind (John xix.26), the reply itself was a warning that now he was no longer hers in the old sense. A new mission had been given him, which henceforth would determine all his conduct, and in that mission she could not now share. Here is one of the many indications (compare Mark iii.21, 31-35; Luke ii.48) that Mary did not understand her son nor his work until much later (John xix.25; Acts i.14). That with such a clear sense of his new and serious mission Jesus' first official act was one of kindly relief for social embarrassment is most significant. He chose to show his divine authority to his new disciples in a way that brought joy to a festal company. Little as the disciples were likely to appreciate it at the time, it was beautifully indicative of the simplicity and everyday lovableness of Jesus' idea of the earnest service of God.

105. With the disciples thus strengthened in faith, and the mother not separated from him though unable to know his deepest thoughts, and the brethren who could not yet nor later understand their kinsman and his work, Jesus went down to Capernaum (John ii.12), which proved thenceforth to be the centre of his greatest work and teaching. There for a time, how long cannot be known, he continued in quiet fellowship with his new friends, until the approach of the Passover drew him to Jerusalem to make formal opening of his Messianic work in that centre of his people's religious life.

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