Who is Jesus?
The day that John the Baptist singled out Jesus as the Lamb of God was the beginning of my brother’s ministry in Judea and Galilee, yet it was not clearly understood by John’s followers, who had expected another King David to deliver them from oppression. According to Amos, John’s courier, even John’s closest disciples, Andrew and Philip, whom he suddenly handed over his successor to, were caught off guard. Following Amos’s dirty finger, my eyes were led to these important men. The Apostle John would record this as a great event—the fulfillment of scripture, but at the time, as we looked on, it was an awkward moment. As Andrew, Philip and John’s other followers watched Jesus approach, dripping with water, his hair plastered onto his face, they seemed embarrassed. It couldn’t have been as impulsive an act as it must have seemed to them. John must have had this in mind when he sent for Jesus, and yet Amos and I saw surprise and even disappointment among everyone present. Was John abandoning his role as his followers’ spiritual leader or merely giving Jesus two of his best men? More importantly, for the bigger picture, what did this mean? Just who was Jesus suppose to be? Why did John call him the Lamb of God? For a few, familiar with scriptures, this claim implied that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.
Amos and I discussed this quietly amongst ourselves as Jesus, John, his disciples, and four other men stood chatting on the riverbank. There was no question that the Baptist had caused controversy again in the minds of onlookers not yet committed enough to join. Those very moments, we saw a man climb onto his horse and ride off at a gallop, either to inform the authorities about this heresy or, if he was a convert, spread the word. Normally, Amos explained to me, John would either awe or anger his listeners. He always put on quite a show. Yet, with the exception of John, himself, we saw little excitement for Jesus among the other men.
Much later, after joining up, myself, when I had a chance to talk to Jesus’ first apostles, I was not surprised by their doubts. Until he actually assumed the role given to him by his cousin and began to preach, they weren’t impressed. Of course, they didn’t know him as I did. John’s closest disciples like all his other followers were simple men. How could they fathom that Jesus, who replaced the Temple’s sacrifice, was the offering for our sins? Though he had been singled out as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world, no one except the Baptist made the connection that day. John’s closest disciples, Andrew and Philip, were especially troubled. They were to set aside the fiery wild man of the desert for a man they didn’t know. What did this strange, blue-eyed mystic have in mind for them now that they had abandoned John? It seemed almost laughable at first. Then it sunk into the disciples’ minds and spread throughout the congregation: This was not merely another dramatic flurry of words by the prophet. This was the man John had promised them. For those who were knowledgeable enough to understand what it meant, this was hard to digest. I would learn later that a few Pharisees in the crowd would inform the Sanhedrin about John’s claim. That day, however, despite what Amos told Jesus and me about John’s detractors, no protests were shouted after John’s announcement, only a low, murmur of discontent and doubt among the skeptics in the crowd. No one clearly understood the Baptist choice of successor, if that’s what he was, nor had the prophecy of the coming savior, even to learned men, ever been clear. Even Isaiah appeared to equivocate. Almost as an afterthought, John had introduced his cousin as Jesus of Nazareth but gave him no title that moment. Most of those standing by the river barely heard the introductions made between John, his closest disciples, and Jesus, which struck me as strange and somewhat rude. In the ranks of observers and the recently converted the questions were more basic. It had been a sunny day as John went about the business of preparing lost souls for the Deliverer and suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus arrived to be baptized too, but as the Lamb of God. There was, mingled in with the general reverence shown the prophet, confusion and discontent among men and women in the crowd. According to Amos, the Pharisees had been the most vocal, and yet they appeared to be in a state of shock. Pointing his dirty finger again, Amos singled out the Pharisees that today—finely dressed, pious Jews, with phylacteries and oiled beards. I wasn’t surprised. In Nazareth our family’s worst critics were these men. Cupping my ear I could hear them clucking like hens back and forth.
“Humph, who is this Lamb?” the first man asked
“I heard John call him Jesus,” answered a second man. “In Hebrew it’s Yeshua. John’s name is Greek too.”
“Really?” the first man muttered, “I heard of this rascal John, but not Jesus. What’s the Baptist up to now?”
“Word is,” claimed a third man, “Jesus is the prophet’s cousin.”
“Yes,” a fourth man replied, “and his poorer cousin too, a Nazarene—a carpenter at that!
“He doesn’t look like much,” a fifth man joined in. “Look at John’s ‘Lamb.’ In stead of a chariot with an army of angels, he rides in on a mule!”
The five Pharisees laughed smugly and, as John’s followers frowned disapprovingly at them, continued their conversation in muted tones.
I bristled at what these self-righteous men were saying. Amos had only contempt for Pharisees, but he understood why Jesus might be vulnerable to their barbs. Jesus, he confided thoughtlessly, didn’t even look like a Jew. He didn’t fit into this crowd. In spite of his appearance and mannerisms, my new friend appeared to be somewhat educated. Many of the illiterate Jews, he observed, couldn’t grasp all the subtleties of the prophet’s sermons, and his disciples were barely literate, themselves. John, who was thoroughly versed in the scriptures, often used fancy words and said strange, startling things, and yet he tried to get the basic message across, ‘Repent, the Kingdom of the Lord is at hand.’ During such times, many in the audience still had dumbfounded expressions. He would stop, if necessary, to explain himself again and again, at times irritated by their thick-headedness. This new declaration, “Behold the Lamb of God,” Amos believed, would be much more difficult to explain.
I was, like everyone else, unable to interpret what I saw and heard. Although I had an excellent memory and consequently a working knowledge of scriptures, I had never taken the prophets seriously and I cared not a wit for the law. During these moments, I recalled my days in synagogue school and time spent as a student of Gamaliel, a great scholar who would one day challenge Saul. Contrasting Joachim and even the kindly Aaron’s narrow interpretations and Elisha the Pharisee’s, was Gamaliel’s presentation of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, which comprised the Tanakh, our holiest scrolls. He made an effort to make the Tanakh interesting and significant to our lives, so we wanted to learn and think for ourselves. It was Gamaliel who gave me the greatest foundation of my knowledge, and yet it was Jesus’ simple teachings that were the greatest inspiration in my life. Jesus, who could quote scriptures effortlessly, never preached redemption or quoted points of the law, but in one momentous event he had turned our holy writ upside down.
What would Rabbi Aaron’s congregation think if they caught wind of this? It would probably be considered heresy. Samuel, who had given Jesus his blessing before he died, might have considered this a blasphemous act. Simple folk, as those at the river and those back home, had enough trouble comprehending just ordinary scripture without being given such a shock. I wouldn’t try to explain to my family that Jesus, as the Lamb, replaced the sin offerings of the Torah and was, by inference from the prophet Isaiah, John’s promised Messiah. This notion struck me as barbaric, and I rejected it outright. I refused to plague my mother and family with the truth of Jesus’ folly. I decided that I would tell them that he had joined John in his mission to bring sinners to repentance, which was half true. The words John uttered during his baptism of converts were proof of that. Not knowing what Jesus had in mind next, I hoped he would come to his senses when he discovered what a ragtag band of misfits many of these people were. The question was ‘How could I, who was not in John’s inner circle, break Jesus away from that man?’ Would my brother, in his frame of mind, even listen?’ After my nightmare about John, I was afraid of him, still half convinced my dream was a sign.
Amos claimed that there were prostitutes, thieves, and beggars in the ranks of uneducated peasants and a number wealthy townsmen, including Pharisees and even scribes, who found John’s preaching and baptism a diversion in their boring lives. Until John sent him to fetch his cousin, he admitted that he had also been impressed. Who could not be overwhelmed by the prophet’s message? He had never heard anyone preach like that. But John had talked about a remote, heaven-sent, Deliverer (or so he thought), not a man riding in on a mule, who was flesh and blood. How could he convince his followers that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah? Was Jesus not born of woman, the son of simple folk, and from a backwater town? That a simple carpenter was the promised Deliverer was impossible for Amos to digest. He had thought that John might convert my brother as the others, even make him a prophet, like himself—not make this wild claim. Though I had great respect for Jesus’ miracles and gifts and resented Amos’s remarks, I couldn’t argue with him. With my excellent memory and education I was well versed in scripture. It didn’t add up. Except for one obscure passage about a ‘Suffering Messiah,’ most believers didn’t accept, Isaiah wrote about a conquering hero. All rabbis told their congregations about this man. I could remember both Joachim and Aaron, his successor, telling us to be patient; someday a Deliverer would come and throw off the yoke of the Gentiles. Now John called the Messiah the “Lamb.” Was Jesus being deceived by him? He dropped everything to run off and meet this man.
“What John did today is very strange,” Amos concluded, folding his arms. “Like you, Jude, I’m familiar with Isaiah, and none of this makes sense. I stopped awhile during my travels to listen to the “wild man” in the desert, and a few days ago reluctantly agreed to bring Jesus back. There was something appealing about his promise of salvation and deliverance from sins. The world, especially for the poor, is a hard and unfriendly place. Of course not everyone agree with John’s visions. Most learned men, like the ones you heard today, walk away shaking their heads after hearing his shouts. Many of them are insulted by his words. Yet to those simple folks, including myself, John has a very persuasive way about him that’s sometimes intimidating. He’s patient with his listeners, but he allows no one to disagree with him. His eyes bore into you and his voice seems to grab your very soul.”
“He’s sounds deranged,” I snarled, “not at all like the John I once knew.”
“Humph,” Amos grunted, “he’s not like the John I knew! The day he sent me to bring Jesus to the river, I wanted to protest. It sounded unreasonable. Why had he sent me to fetch that carpenter, whom he now calls the Lamb of God? How would he fit into John’s plan? Now this. He had promised us that a deliverer was coming, not a kinsman from a small, barely known town. I guess I’ll stick around to see how this turns out, but this isn’t what I had in mind.”
Like Amos, my mind was in turmoil. Amos was obviously not a convert yet, but what he said about John, added to what I had seen and heard today and the nightmare I had last night, caused me great concern. I remember a friendly, carefree cousin, who had once comforted me after the loss of my friend, but that person had changed. He had abandoned his heritage to join a band of hermits, who had a totally different conception of our faith. Now he seemed to be ushering in a new age. Just what kind of person was this John? What did he want with Jesus?…Would he make him a heretic too?
To make matters worse that day, was Jesus’ decision to hike into the desert and pray. I learned this when I tried to get his attention. I knew I couldn’t discourage him from this undertaking, even though Mama had asked me to do just that. I had to at least try. At this point, however, as I walked over finally to ask him what were his plans, he grew testy.
“Jude,” he said irritably, “you agreed to return when I reached my destination. “This is not your business. You must go home now, and tell our family that I will be gone for forty days and nights. During this time, God will fill my mind with His plans.”
As I stood there in stunned silence, Jesus continued to converse with John, Andrew, Philip, and other followers. Strangely enough, I was the first to hear this bit of news. John and his disciples were shocked when they were told. It sounded so absurd I broke into hysterical laughter.
“Did you hear that?” I giggled, walking back to Amos. “He’s going into the desert and pray!”
“What?” Amos cried in disbelief.
Suddenly things had become even stranger. Jesus departure into the desert for forty days and nights would delay the mantle John had placed upon him. It confused John’s followers that much more, especially Andrew and Philip. It certainly confused me. It would prove impossible to explain to our mother when I returned home. Amos and I couldn’t hear the conversation between Jesus, John, and the other men, but the expression on their faces told us a lot. Jesus had that otherworldly look on his face I had seen before, and it was obvious that his listeners were very upset. It appeared, though, as he turned away briefly to mingle with the crowd, that his departure was imminent. I was afraid to interrupt these hallowed moments or embarrass Jesus. He had a look of resolution on his face.
“It is rather peculiar,” Amos commented. “John introduces him as the Lamb of God. Now this. I don’t understand your brother. Why go into the desert? Why would God test him like that? That place is dark and unfriendly at night. In the daytime there’s no water or shade. There are wild dogs, even lions in the hills. Even John doesn’t go there. What purpose does it serve?”
I was at a loss for words. “I don’t know,” I answered, shaking my head, “…I must talk to him—get him away from those men.”
Amos frowned at me. “How? Your brother’s a big, strong man, at least a head taller than you. His mind’s made up, Jude. Do you plan on tying him on his mule to bring him back?”
As the men conversed, we remained on the sidelines discussing the crisis. I was not a part of this drama. It appeared as though Amos was having second thoughts too. Finally, after quietly arguing with Jesus, John called to my brother as he walked away, “God’s here and now, Jesus. Not out there. You’ll die of thirst and hunger in the wilderness. This is madness; you’re walking into the desert without food or water. Wait awhile—tomorrow, perhaps the next day when you have provisions. Please, Jesus, stop and think this out!”
Jesus, however, straightened his shoulders and began walking toward the wilderness. I could scarcely believe he was leaving now, without food or water and at the noon hour—the hottest part of the day.
“I’m not afraid,” he called back to us, “the Lord will provide! Don’t worry John, Andrew, and Philip—The Lord is speaking to me. I shall return. Please, Amos, accompany my brother back to Nazareth. I’ll call him when I need him. You too will one day serve the Lord!”
“Jesus,” I shouted, “you don’t have to do this. Leave this place. Come home with me. With your powers, you can do anything you want!”
Jesus whirled around angrily that moment as John and I followed after him. “Stop this—both of you,” he snapped. “Listen to your own words, Jude. Do you really think God will abandon me now?” “Please, believe me John.” He looked at the prophet. “I must do this. You know God’s will. When I return from the wilderness, I will come for you. Continue to spread the word!”
I stood there between John and Amos, watching my brother traipse into the desert, without water or food, a fool’s errand to say the least, and yet I sensed that moment that he would survive. I knew Jesus better than anyone there. I was certain, in spite of my doubts, that I was witness to something important. What exactly that was I wasn’t sure. What caused me much distress was the dilemma Jesus placed me in. How would I explain all this to my family? Our mother would suffer greatly. Jesus might pay us a visit someday, but not to stay. Amos, who could make no sense of John’s claim, placed his arm around my shoulders to console me but said nothing this time. I felt like weeping. As I stood beside my new friend that hour, I knew that Jesus was no longer ours. The mission Samuel predicted for him had come at last. It appeared as though Jesus, my brother, belonged to the world.