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Facebook – Neil Booth

3. Jesus and his First Disciples

John 1:35-50


IT’S THE FOLLOWING morning and instead of the usual unbroken blue sky, there are already clouds building up to the north. ‘It looks as if we may be in for a storm,’ says Archippus as he gets John ready for the new day.

‘Oh, I do hope not,’ says Ezra. ‘Yesterday, Simon, the wine-seller, was telling me that his daughter is getting married today.’

‘A marriage,’ says John, as Archippus helps him on with his sandals. ‘It was at a marriage – a wedding in the north of Israel, in Cana of Galilee – that we first saw experienced the glory of Jesus; the glory I was telling you about yesterday. I’ll probably be telling you about the wedding tomorrow, but today I want to place on record how I, and four others, became the first of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Oh yes, it’s quite a story.’

‘Then we’d better get you some breakfast before everyone arrives,’ says Ezra. ‘Then you can get started once they do. What would you like this morning? We have grapes, we have figs, we have goat curds. And we have fresh bread – Phoebe called by with the bread just a few minutes ago; she had been baking for the Elder and thought you might like some too.’

‘Well, I am feeling quite hungry,’ says John. ‘So, I think I’d like a little of everything. May I have it in the courtyard, please.’


Once John has been settled at the table in the courtyard and has had his breakfast, the sun is fully up, though obscured from time to time by the gathering clouds. John the Elder is already there, looking anxiously at the sky; and most of the others are also assembled.

‘Don’t worry,’ says the Apostle to the Elder. ‘I’m the storm will pass over and your parchment won’t get wet!’ He looks round at everyone. ‘Right, I have talked about the witness of John and how he reacted to Jesus, his cousin, when he walked out of the wilderness – gaunt, unwashed, but somehow radiant and bursting with life. “Look,” he said, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Well, the fact is, John and my friend Andrew didn’t really know what to make of that. I mean, we were pretty clueless about anything. We were fishermen from Capernaum in Galilee. I had persuaded my dad to let me have a few weeks off to go down south and see this amazing Prophet who had popped up from nowhere in the Judean desert; but when I said earlier that we were disciples of the Baptiser, I meant nothing more than that we were kind of hanging around with him in Bethany beyond Jordan and wondering what, if anything was going to happen next.’

‘What about you brother, James?’ asks Ezra. ‘Wasn’t he with you?’

‘Alas, no,’ replies John. ‘He had wanted to come too, but my dad said he couldn’t spare both of us and, as James was the elder, he must stay behind to manage the business. That’s why, instead, I had persuaded Andrew to come with me; and though he’d brought his brother Simon with him, Simon had soon lost interest in the Baptiser and was off doing his own thing somewhere.  Anyway, the next day there were no crowds because it was the Sabbath, but Jesus turned up again, waved to the Baptiser, and then walked past us, heading we didn’t know where; and, once again, the Baptiser said, “Look, the Lamb of God,” and … well … I don’t know, it came to us as a kind of instruction, a nudge, and Andrew and I left the Baptiser and started walking after Jesus.’

The Apostle turns to the Elder. ‘Use the verb akoloutheo there,’ he says, ‘– to follow, to go together in the way. Write that we “followed him,” for that was the start of all our following, which is half of what all true discipleship is about. Anyway, after a short while, he must have sensed our presence behind him because, turning around, he saw us and asked, “What do you want?”’

‘It must have been pretty obvious what you wanted,’ says Archippus. ‘You wanted to get to know him; so, I wonder why he asked?’

‘I think he wanted to test us –’ replies John, ‘to see if we were serious, but I’m afraid we were too embarrassed and shy to say anything more than, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”’

‘Why did you call him “Rabbi,”’ asks Leandros. ‘It means “teacher,” doesn’t it? But he wasn’t doing any teaching, was he? He was just going off to his lodgings, minding his own business.’

‘We called him that as a mark of respect,’ says John. ‘I mean, to all intents and purposes, the Baptiser had just said that Jesus was the Messiah, the coming King, but we could hardly call him ‘Your Majesty’ or anything like that, could we? The Hebrew word rabbi actually means “great one,” so that seemed the best title to use.’ John closes his eyes. ‘I can still see it happening in my mind’s eye,’ he says. ‘Just as if it were yesterday. The slow smile spreading over Jesus’ face and then his response – one we’d hardly dared to hope for – “Come and you will see.” An actual invitation to go with him to his lodgings and spend time with him! So, of course, we went and saw where he was staying, and we spent that day with him.’

The Apostle opens his eyes and again turns to the Elder. ‘Use the verb meno there, will you, my dear friend. In other words, write that we “stayed, remained, abode” with him, for, as we must all discover, abiding is the other half of what true discipleship is all about … following and abiding, following and abiding! The fact is, we stayed overnight, sleeping on the floor. You see, it was about four in the afternoon when we met up, so by the time we’d eaten together and told him about ourselves and what we were doing in Judea with the Baptiser, it was too late for us to go anywhere else. Not that we wanted to, of course.’

The sun is now out again, and the heavy rain clouds that have been threatening Ephesus are moving south, across the Aegean. ‘It looks as if Crete is going to catch it,’ says Ezra. ‘Simon, the wine-seller will be pleased.’

‘Ah, yes,’ says John. ‘It’s Simon I want to talk about next – but not Simon the wine-seller; Simon the brother of Andrew.’

‘Is he the one who became the Apostle Peter?’ asks Leandros.

‘Indeed,’ says John. ‘You see, the next morning, on the Sunday, the first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (the Christ, that is). And he brought him to Jesus.’

‘Jesus must have made quite an impression on you both,’ says Ezra.

‘That’s putting it mildly,’ replies John. ‘After just a few hours of talking to Jesus and listening to him and being in his presence, we knew, both of us, we knew for sure, that he was indeed the Promised One. Anyway, Jesus looked long and hard at Simon – use the verb emblepo, my dear friend; it was a searching look that probed his heart – then smiled at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas.” Cephas is, I should explain, an Aramaic word – we all spoke Aramaic then, an everyday kind of Hebrew – and kepha or Cephas, translated into Greek, is petros or Peter. But it means a “rock” and I’m afraid Andrew and I smirked a bit at that. “Rocky” was hardly a great new name for Simon – not as he was then. Andrew knew as well as I did that, though his brother was generous and loyal, he could be impulsive, hasty, pig-headed and, I’m afraid, terribly unreliable.’

‘It’s not the first time God has changed someone’s name to match not what they were but what they were to become,’ observes Barnabas. ‘Take Abram, for example. His name meant “Exalted Father” but God renamed him “Father of a Multitude.” Then there was Jacob – “the Grabber” – whom God renamed Israel – “One who struggles with God.” Do you think, John, that that was what Jesus was doing when he changed Simon’s name – telling him what he would become?’

‘I’m sure of it,’ says John. ‘Jesus saw beyond the existing flaws in Simon’s personality to the solid foundation-stone he would be in the future – a rock on which he could begin to build his new community, his church. Indeed, it is always the case that Jesus can, if we let him, take our greatest flaws and turn them into our greatest strengths.’ He looks around with love at the “church” in front of him, thinking of the transforming work of Jesus, by his Spirit, in their lives and in his own.

‘Well, this is a good time to pause,’ he says after a while. ‘While we think on that, let’s have a little lunch together now, before the sun becomes too strong, and perhaps a nap after it; then I’ll pick up my story again, but this time on the fifth day – the day after Simon became a follower of Jesus too.’

jacobs ladder

‘Shall we wake him?’ asks Ezra. It is now around two in the afternoon and John is still enjoying his after-lunch sleep in the cool confines of his house.

‘I don’t know,’ replies Barnabas. ‘If he’s still sleeping, it’s probably because he needs to.’ But just then they hear the sound of some movement from within and John calling to them – asking them to help him to his seat in the courtyard, under the olive tree.

‘Now,’ says John, once he is settled and the Elder has sorted out his writing materials. ‘Where was I?’

‘You were about to tell us what happened on the fifth day,’ says Leandros.

‘Ah, yes,’ says the Apostle. ‘Well, on the fifth day, Jesus decided we should return north, to Galilee.’

‘Why?’ asks Leandros.

‘I think it was because a message had reached him from his mother, telling him she was going to a wedding of a relative of theirs in Cana; and, for some reason we weren’t aware of then, Jesus wanted to be there. But I’ll get to that later. The important thing now is that just after we’d set off from Bethany in the cool of the day, early in the morning, we spotted some more fellow-Galileans up ahead of us. They too had been to see the Baptiser in action and were now setting off for home. Well, as we drew closer to them, Andrew and Simon (who now lived where we lived in Capernaum) recognised that one of them was from their home-town of Bethsaida, on the eastern bank of the Jordan, just where it enters the Sea of Galilee in the north. His name was Philip; and those two pointed him out to Jesus. At that, without so much as a word to the three of us, Jesus strode quickly ahead, went up behind Philip, put a hand on his shoulder and started talking to him; and as we caught up and joined them, we heard Jesus say to Philip: “Akolouthei moi – Follow me.”’

‘So, he was calling Philip to be a disciple along with you and Andrew and Simon, was he?’ asks Ezra.

‘In retrospect, yes,’ answers John. ‘Though, as you know, akoloutheo basically just means “to walk the same path with someone.”  He could just have meant, “Let’s travel north together.” Anyway, the upshot was that Jesus and Philip walked together, a little away from the rest of us, deep in conversation, for quite a while, then we heard Philip say, “I’ve got to find my friend Nathanael; he set off even earlier than us, he must be somewhere up ahead of us,” and off he went, charging up the road through the Jordan Valley.’

‘Who is Nathanael?’ asks Barnabas. ‘He wasn’t one the Twelve, was he? I don’t recognise the name.’

‘You know him as Bartholomew,’ replies John. ‘His full name was Nathanael bar Tholomew – Nathanael son of Ptolemy – and he was from Cana in Galilee which is where Jesus was heading; but for some reason he become generally know just by his surname, Bartholomew. He later told us that when Philip found him, he (Philip) could hardly speak for excitement. “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote,” he blurted out. “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”’

‘Ah, that must mean that Jesus had been going through the Scriptures with Philip when they were talking together in the way,’ says Ezra; ‘identifying himself as “the prophet” that Moses spoke of [Deuteronomy 18:15-19] and as “the servant” in the prophecies of Isaiah, and so on.’

‘Indeed,’ replies John. ‘Philip told us later it was the best Torah study ever!’

‘So,’ says Barnabas, ‘how did Nathanael, or Bartholomew, react when Philip said what he said?’

‘On his own admission, not very well,’ says John. ‘I believe his exact words were, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Understandable, of course. Those of us who lived in Galilee didn’t think much of the place, and Cana where Nathanael hailed from was nearly on its doorstep. Nazareth was a bit of a dump and had quite a bad reputation; not at all the sort of place the Messiah might be expected to hail from. Furthermore, Nazareth was nowhere mentioned in the Scriptures. Had Nathanael known Jesus birthplace was not Nazareth but Bethlehem, in Judea, his reaction would no doubt have been very different!’

‘Why?’ asks Leandros.

‘Because Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David,’ replies Ezra, ‘and, according to the prophet Micah, that’s where the Messiah was to come from [Micah 5:2].’

‘So, how did Philip respond to Nathanael’s put-down about Jesus?’ asks Barnabas.

‘He simply said, “Come and see,”’ replies John. ‘Philip knew that, for anyone with eyes to see, that was all it would take. Once you met Jesus face to face, you simply knew – knew that, however unbelievable it might seem, it was true – he was the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Christ.’

It is getting very hot now and the cicada are chirping themselves into a frenzy in the olive trees. Ezra moves across to the Apostle and repositions his chair so that John remains in the shade. ‘What happened next?’ he asks.

‘Well, Philip and Nathanael walked back to where Jesus and ourselves were making our way up the valley, but before Philip had chance to introduce his friend, Jesus saw Nathanael approaching and said of him. “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael was taken aback. “How do you know me?” he stuttered. And Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”’

‘And had Nathanael been under a fig tree when Philip found him?’ asks Leandros.

‘Yes,’ says John. ‘He and some others had set off before dawn and had been walking for several hours. They’d stopped for a rest where there was some cover from the sun and Nathanael was under a shady fig tree, on his own, quietly meditating, when Philip found him.’

‘But Jesus can’t have seen him; he wasn’t there!’ says Leandros.

‘Jesus could see all manner of things that no one else could,’ replies John. ‘He used to tell us that his Father showed them to him.’

‘Hm …’ Leandros thinks about that for a moment, then asks, ‘And what did Jesus mean about an Israelite without deceit?’

John looks to Barnabas for a reply and Barnabas says, ‘You do know who Israel was, don’t you, Leandros?’

‘The father of the twelve tribes that make up the Jewish people,’ answers Leandros.

‘Yes, but who was he before he was Israel?’

Leandros looks blank.

‘I told you before lunch,’ says Barnabas, ‘when we were talking about giving people new names. Perhaps you weren’t listening. Anyway, Israel’s old name was Jacob and he had a brother whose name was Esau. Well, Jacob deceived his father to get the blessing that rightly belonged to his brother [Genesis 27]. So, you see, Jacob was an “Israel” in whom there was a great deal of deceit.’

‘But what had that to do with Nathanael?’ asks Leandros.

‘Well, as Nathanael told us later, it was the story of Jacob and his famous dream that he was meditating upon, under the fig tree, when Philip found him.’

‘Wow!’ Leandros looks stunned.

‘You’re surprised at that?’ says John. ‘Well so was Nathanael. So much so that he rather impulsively declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” And what Jesus then said was this: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” And then Jesus turned to the rest of us and added, “Truly, truly, I tell you, you all will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”’

‘There’s a lot there that I don’t understand,’ says Leandros. ‘What the stuff about angels, for a start?’

Barnabas answers once again. ‘After Jacob deceived his father, he had to go on the run because, not without reason, his brother wanted to kill him. Well, having travelled all day, he laid down at nightfall, out in the open, and went to sleep using stones as a pillow; and he had a dream – the dream I just mentioned. In the dream he saw a ladder or staircase set up between earth and heaven, and angels were going up and down it. That was the story that Nathanael had been musing on under the fig tree [Genesis 28:10-19].’

‘So,’ says John, ‘what Jesus was telling us was that WE would all see what Jacob saw; except that, for us, Jesus himself would be the “ladder” set up between earth and heaven – the place where earth and heaven meet. As I explained at the beginning, Jesus is the Word made flesh; in him God has come to earth and in him we are carried to heaven. This is the reality of what Jacob had dreamed about. Now, in Jesus, there is a constant coming and going between earth and heaven – God’s presence streaming into this world in grace and mercy and truth, and the world’s neediness and brokenness and failure pouring into heaven to be met and mended and redeemed.’

‘John,’ says Ezra. ‘I’m very struck by the very odd way you’ve had Jesus introduce his promise of what you would all see. Amen amen lego humin – “Truly, truly, I tell you …” I mean, I know the Hebrew word amen means “steadfast” or “sure” but it’s normally used at the end of a prayer to express the certainty that God will grant what has been asked, not at the beginning of a statement like the one Jesus was making – and certainly not twice.’

‘Yes, I know;’ replies John, ‘but it was an expression Jesus always used when he wished to underline the certainty and sureness and truth of something of special importance that he was about to say. So, you’ll need to get used to it, for you’ll hear Jesus use it scores of times in the Gospel you are having me commit to parchment.’

‘Hm,’ muses Ezra. ‘I recall that the Apostle Paul who founded this church saw Jesus as God’s Amen to all his promises. Did he not write to the church in Corinth [2 Corinthians 1:20]: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” – amen – in Christ?” You could say that Jesus is the Amen.’

‘Indeed,’ replies John, ‘and rightly so. As the prophet Isaiah once said, God’s very name is Amen [Isaiah 65:16, literal translation] so it is a name that belongs to Jesus too and it may be that by his double amens at the start of some of the things he said he was in some way putting both the Father’s signature and his own upon them.’

‘May I ask one last question,’ says Leandros. ‘You say Jesus was claiming that he himself would now be the ladder between earth and heaven, but if I heard you correctly, he was claiming no such thing. He actually said that someone called “the Son of Man” would be the ladder?’

‘Ah,’ says John. ‘I understand your confusion, my young friend. But the fact is that Jesus was “the Son of Man.” It was a title he used of himself from time to time because, I think, he liked its ambiguity; the Hebrew term ben-adam could, in ordinary speech, simply mean ‘a human being,’ but privately (and for those with ears to hear) he was taking the meaning of the term from the book of Daniel [Daniel 7:13-14]. There, in a vision, Daniel saw “one like a ben-adam – a Son of Man” coming with the clouds of heaven and approaching God – the Ancient of Days – and being led into his presence where he was given authority, glory and sovereign power. Then all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him; and he ruled over a kingdom that would never be destroyed. And that is who Jesus saw himself as being. Indeed, I have long believed that that vision of Daniel’s was a vision of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, after his death and resurrection, when he returned to the Father – the Ancient of Days – in full humanity as well as full divinity – the Son of Man.’

As John falls silent, the sound of music and singing and revelry is carried up the hillside by the breeze. ‘That will be the wedding banquet at Simon the wine-seller’s house,’ said Ezra. ‘There’ll be no shortage of wine there, that’s for sure!’

John smiles. ‘No,’ he says, ‘but there was at the wedding I’m now going to tell you about – the wedding at Cana in Galilee.’

2. The Witness of John the Baptist | 4. The Wedding at Cana

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