IT IS LATE afternoon. John has had an afternoon sleep and is just making his way back into the courtyard, helped by Archippus. Most of the others are already assembled, and Leandros, who has been to the market and bought sardines, large plump ones, is busy getting a fire going in the brazier, over which to cook the fish at sundown. The Elder and Phoebe then arrive and, close behind them, comes Barnabas, out of breath and looking very excited.
‘So, what’ve you been up to?’ Ezra asks him.
‘It’s to do with Samuel, the potter,’ Barnabas says. ‘You know, don’t you, that he and Abigail, Joshua’s daughter, have just been betrothed?’
‘Well, he’s asked ME to be his best man!’
‘Good for you!’ says Ezra, and others join in the congratulations. ‘Being the SHOSHBIN – the friend of the bridegroom – is a real honour; but it does carry some big responsibilities too. You are aware of everything you’ll have to do, aren’t you?’
‘I think so,’ says Barnabas. ‘I’ll have to arrange the wedding, deliver the invitations, and then, of course, preside at the feast. But I’m looking forward to it all.’
‘And you have one other duty,’ says the Apostle. ‘One you haven’t spoken of and a very special one. On the wedding night, once Abigail is in the bridal chamber, it will be your job to guard the door and let no one in but the bridegroom. Only when you hear HIS voice in the darkness, may you open the door, and then only to him. And at that point you must leave, unnoticed.’ John makes himself comfortable at the head of the table. ‘That was how the Baptiser saw himself, you know. It’s what he called himself the last time we saw him – the friend of the bridegroom – Jesus’ best man.’
‘So, when did Jesus get married then?’ asks Leandros.
John chuckles. ‘He didn’t,’ he says. ‘Jesus never married. But he does have a bride.’
‘Eh? Who?’ Leandros, as usual, is out of his depth.
‘The church,’ says Ezra. He waves his hand around him. ‘Us. The new people of God. Did not the prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 62:5] tell the people of Israel that “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you,” and did not Hosea write [Hosea 2:16, 19] of the day to come when: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ … and I will betroth you to me forever.” The church is God’s bride – the bride of Christ.’
‘And the Baptiser knew something of that truth,’ says the Apostle, ‘though he may have seen “the bride” as being only Israel. How do I know that? Because, you see, once Passover had ended, Jesus left the city itself and we moved further north, almost to the Samaritan border, and the Baptiser was already there. He hadn’t yet been arrested and was still baptising, but now at Aenon – the village of springs – near Salim, because there was plenty of water there. Well, we ended up in a village not too far away from him, and that’s when Jesus decided to baptise us and to teach us how to baptise other people. But it caused a problem; more people were coming to Jesus than they were to the Baptiser.’
How did the Baptiser know?’ asks Barnabas. ‘Did he have spies out to watch Jesus?’
‘No, of course not,’ replies John. ‘He was told, I think, by a Jew whom we’d baptised – a very intense young man who got into quite a discussion with Jesus about the meaning of baptism. Anyway, after leaving us, that young man, it seems, ended up at Aenon and started questioning the Baptiser’s disciples as to whose baptism was the more valid – Jesus’ or John’s – and telling them how much more popular Jesus was than the Baptiser himself. That upset the Baptiser’s disciples, of course, and they went running off to the Baptiser to put him in the picture.’
‘Do you think they expected the Baptiser to be jealous and try and put a stop to Jesus’ activity?’ asks Barnabas.
‘Probably,’ says John. ‘But if so, they were in for a disappointment. The Baptiser was delighted at the news. “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven,” he said. “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’” And here’s the thing, Barnabas. He then said, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”’
‘The Baptiser was recognising that his job was done,’ says Ezra. ‘That, in Jesus, the Lord had come for his bride, the new people of God. Now he must bow out of the story.’
‘A hard thing to do,’ says Archippus, ‘to stay within the bounds of your gifting or ministry.’
‘Yes,’ says the Apostle, ‘but the Baptiser recognised, you see, that the one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. They might both have been baptising people, but they were actually from different realms. Jesus was from heaven – the Word made flesh – whereas the Baptiser was from human stock, nothing more. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard.’ The Apostle shakes his head woefully. ‘And that’s true even if no one accepts his testimony.’
‘There you go again, John,’ says Ezra. ‘You’re talking as if everyone rejected Jesus and refused to believe that what he said was true. But they didn’t – they don’t; loads of people – ourselves included – have accepted his message.’
‘I know,’ says John. ‘I’m just thinking of all who haven’t. But you’re right, of course, and whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. They’ve set their seal on the message from God that Jesus both proclaimed and embodied to perfection.’
‘Are you saying that all previous messages from God were somehow garbled or flawed?’ asks Barnabas.
‘Not at all,’ says John. ‘But they were … I don’t know, rationed; whereas everything that Jesus said or did, every breath he took, every look, every smile or frown, was a message from God. It still is. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. Our Isaiahs and Jeremiahs and Ezekiels and so on all had just enough of the Spirit meted out to them to enable them to deliver specific messages from God; but it was different with Jesus. I said earlier that when the Spirit descended on him at his baptism, it remained on him, and so it did. It remained on him and filled him, saturated him, so the message of God through him was continuous, overflowing, unfettered and utterly true.
‘You need to understand. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.’
‘Orge!’ exclaims Archippus. ‘Wrath! That’s a strong word to use of the Father of the Lord Jesus – the God who is agape love itself. It makes him sound more like one of our Greek god’s; Lyssa, perhaps – the one the Romans call Ira or Furor – hurling thunderbolts around and striking people down in blind rage.’
‘But that is to misunderstand completely the nature of orge,’ says the Apostle. ‘As I use the word of the Father, “wrath” has two aspects. Firstly, it merely describes the consequences of sin. Consequences that are intrinsic to sin itself and will, therefore, unless there is some outside intervention, simply follow on when a particular sin is being committed.’
‘I’m not sure I know what you mean by that,’ says Leandros, who has threaded some large sardines on a skewer and is about to place them over the fire to cook them.
‘Well, place your hand over the coals, instead of the sardines, and you’ll soon find out,’ says John. ‘God created fire, you see, but fire comes with inbuilt rules as to how you should interact with it. Follow those rules and the consequences are beneficial – it cooks your fish, it keeps you warm and it drives away predators – but break those rules and the consequences are harmful, catastrophic even – it burns and maims and kills, it destroys your home and consumes your possessions. The consequences of breaking the rules are what I am calling “wrath,” and because God made the rules, that “wrath” is the wrath of God.
‘But wrath has another aspect too and we cannot ignore it. If the first aspect relates to the consequences of transgressing the law of God – the rules that govern his ordered universe – the second relates to the consequences of offending against the love of God – the self-giving, all-embracing relationship within the Godhead itself that spills out over his entire creation and seeks to unite it all with himself.
Tell me, Archippus, when you recall the thousands of atrocities committed against our brothers and sisters in Christ by the emperor Domitian throughout the years before he died, how do you feel, even now, several years afterwards? Are you indifferent, unaffected?’
‘No, of course not,’ replies Archippus. ‘I am full of sorrow, but full of anger too – at the cruelty, the gratuitous suffering, that that monster inflicted on so many beautiful, loving followers of our Lord – burning them alive, severing them limb from limb, letting them be ripped apart by ravening beasts in the arena.’
‘And so you should be,’ says John. ‘Because God is angry too. His love is holy – pure – and ever affronted and violated by such things, and his anger is righteous; it is another aspect of his “wrath.” But it has nothing to do with the blind rage of Lyssa in your Greek myths. Our heavenly Father throws no tantrums nor ever loses his temper. His wrath is his perfectly judged and entirely proportionate response to evil and the sins that evil spawns. It is neither vindictive nor retaliatory and it is always accompanied by the offer of forgiveness and mercy. But, if the Son is rejected, his love spurned, and his offer of forgiveness scorned, then, as I have said, his wrath will and must remain on those who have called it down upon themselves. Remember the serpent on the pole. The venom must be neutralised by trusting in the one on the cross or it will destroy the one who has been bitten. Wrath is the response of love when it encounters evil; the evil must be removed or destroyed.’
‘I think, Leandros, that you’d better remove those sardines from the brazier before they’re destroyed,’ quips Barnabas. ‘I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m hungry.’
‘Me too,’ says Ezra. ‘But, John, are you going to tell us another story while we eat? What happened next?’
‘Next, we went into Samaria,’ says John. ‘But that story is too long to tell tonight; let’s leave it until the morning.’ He turns to the Elder. ‘So, my dear friend, you can put your pen and ink and parchment aside for a while, and let’s enjoy are supper together …’
7. The Snake in the Wilderness | 9. The Woman at the Well