Before returning to Capernaum, which would become our home base, we would stop over at Cana in order to visit Jethro, his son Boaz, and Boaz’s new bride Ida. Though it was on the way to Capernaum, we couldn’t help grumbling under our breaths. After so many stops in our destination, including our ordeal in Nazareth, we were anxious to arrive in a friendlier town. For such an important milestone in Jesus’ career, there were only three new members made in Cana. This stopover had to be more important than a visitation to check on converts. We sensed that Jesus had big plans for Cana. Just before we arrived at the city limits, however, something remarkable happened—not so much a miracle as something very odd. A wealthy merchant, who identified himself humbly, as Moses bar Nablis, arrived in a cloud of dust just as we were about to enter the town.
We had seen him exiting Cana and thought nothing of a lone rider approaching, until he stopped and he looked down from his horse. We hadn’t seen this man in the rabble that attempted to stone Ida the last time we were here. His fine raiment, bejeweled fingers, and manner were out of place in our assembly, but he dismounted, coming toward Jesus as a supplicant, bowing deferentially with the words, “Peace be upon you Jesus of Nazareth.
After introductions were made back and forth, he immediately launched into his plea: “Jesus, my friend Jethro told me of your miracle. I heard from travelers what you have done in Samaria, too. Please, I beg of you: my son is near death.”
Typical of Jesus, who would take this opportunity to make a point, he replied, “Peace be upon your house Moses bar Nablis, but tell me this: ‘Why is it that people need signs and wonders in order to believe?”
Unable to answer this, Moses reached out beseechingly. “Jesus, please come to my house before my son dies.”
Taking Moses hands, Jesus looked squarely into his eyes, and asked simply, “Do you believe?”
“Yes.” Moses bowed his head.
“Do you repent your sins and promise to leave righteously in order to have eternal life?”
“I do.” The man wept softly.
“Very well Moses.” Jesus smiled faintly. “Tomorrow you’ll be baptized in God’s grace. Go home to you child. Your son lives. More important than the flesh, is to be reborn in the Spirit.”
Without even asking the man were he lived, Jesus gave what I interpreted as a dismissive look. Moses seemed unsure of what just happened as he climbed back on his horse. Just then however, a second rider appeared in the distance. When he was close enough, he called out, “Moses! Moses! Your son lives!”
Turning on his mount, Moses looked down at Jesus, tears glistening in his eyes. “Thank you Jesus. Clearly, you are more than a man. Please come to my house, so that my household can be baptized too.”
All this happened within a short period of time, yet its impact on Cana would be lasting. Moses would spread the word, himself, during our visit with Jethro. Beaming happily at us, Jesus turned to Peter and slapped his back and walked down the line of travelers cuffing us playfully and tousling our hair.
“What do you think of that?” he asked us. “Already the word is out. Moses will prepare the way!”
We were, of course, impressed by the potential in this encounter—by a man named Moses, no less, but we were far more impressed with the miracle he just performed.
“You didn’t even have to be there!” Peter looked at him in amazement. “Zap!” he added, snapping his fingers. “That man is your friend for life!”
“He’s merely one more convert,” Jesus shrugged it off, “no more important than anyone else.”
“Awe come on, Jesus.” Andrew scowled. “You can’t downplay this miracle. We know how important it is. When word of this gets out, half the town will want to join.”
“Two things.” Jesus held up his fingers impatiently. “One: baptism is not a path to salvation in itself. A person must be born again. Two: miracles are secondary. That man believes because of I healed his son. He might feel differently if I hadn’t done this. More blessed is the person who believes without miracles.”
“All right,” I sighed, “but that was incredible!”
“It happened in the blink of an eye!” John shook his head.
“No matter,” Jesus changed the subject, “we begin to tomorrow. Tonight we’ll visit Jethro’s house. I’m sure Moses will have sent word to him. There’s a river near town. This is where I’ll preach and you’ll do your baptizing. Until then, rest up men. This will be a great harvest!”
“Oh no,” John’s brother slapped his forehead, “not emersion again!”
“Emersion is best,” Jesus counseled. “The experience is more lasting.”
“What’s wrong James?” Peter teased. “You afraid of a little water?”
“I don’t know if I can go on,” Bartholomew groaned. “It’s been a bumpy ride in this cart. My back’s acting up now; I’ll barely be able to walk.”
After hearing the old man’s complaint, Jesus slowed down a pace, allowing the others to walk ahead of him. Praying silently as he walked, he bent over the side of the cart, so as not to be heard. Within earshot, as I eavesdropped, he murmured, “Pray harder, Bartholomew—God will listen, and when you leave the cart this time, your backache will be gone.” The old man closed his eyes and muttered incoherently for several moments, as our band entered the town. When we reached Rabbi Jethro’s house, I helped Bartholomew out of the cart. Though hobbling on his cane, there was a smile on his face. A servant ran out to greet us, a second one taking control of the mule and cart. The old man laughed with delight, giving Jesus a hug. As we followed the first servant up to the entrance, the door opened suddenly, Jethro, Boaz, and Ida appeared together bubbling out a welcome. In the background stood Moses beaming happily at us. As always, Jesus’ predictions rang true.
“Jesus, Jesus.” the rabbi’s corpulent frame shook. “Moses, my friend, told me what you did. Fantastic! Marvelous! We’ve sent messengers out. We want everyone, including villagers in the countryside, to hear the news.”
Ida, who I believe was slightly addled, grinned foolishly. Jethro’s son Boaz was more reserved, but promised that he and Ida would be baptized too. Though his facial expression belied his words, the reaction his promise had on his father was obvious.
“What?” Jethro’s eyes popped wide. “Baptism, dunking in water…Oh…yes, a quaint custom.” He laughed nervously. “We owe that to Jesus. We must set an example, mustn’t we?”
“This isn’t mere custom.” Jesus shook his head. “You’re not doing me any favor, Jethro. This you do for yourself. Baptism is an outward sign to an inner grace. It’s important but not critical. If there were no water in the desert and a man repented and asked to be reborn, God would grant it.”
“Yes, of course,” he rubbed his hands, “but could we make mine a little more discreet?”
“…Discreet?” Peter pondered the word.
“It means secretive,” explained James.
“You’re too proud for dunking?” I looked at him with disgust.
“Well,… not exactly…” He squirmed. “I’m a rabbi, you know. We might do it at the dinner table if you wish.”
“You mean sprinkle you with water?” Jesus sighed with disappointment. “There’s a river near your town, Jethro. Wouldn’t that be much better?”
“For the townsfolk perhaps, but not me, Jesus. I’m the town rabbi. Why do I need baptism anyhow. Aren’t I already saved?”
“You don’t understand my message at all, do you?” Jesus shook his head. “God isn’t a Jew, Samaritan, or Gentile, and he plays no favorites. Only children, innocent of fault, are in God’s good graces. Everyone else falls short unless they’re reborn. Rebirth requires accepting the good news then living it as a way of life, not parading around as a rabbi, Pharisee, or scribe or following every jot and tittle of the law. Your position means no more than it does for the baker, weaver, farmer, or shepherd. Everyone, rich or poor, are saved by grace, not merit, status, or money. A beggar, in God’s grace, is better off than a wicked King. Are you greater than Caesar or Herod? You can’t earn eternal life on your own. It’s purest folly. To accept the good news as a path to salvation requires personal commitment between you and the Lord. It’s an inward grace given to you after your covenant with God. Baptism is an outward grace, demonstrating your commitment to God, that you must accept without regard to how it looks or pleases your friends, family, or peers. It should be done freely and shamelessly, with an open heart. Salvation must be the most important thing in your life!”
“Well, I want it,” Moses announced cheerily. “We can all meet at the river. I’m bringing my entire household, including my servants and staff.”
“Dear me, dear me,” muttered Jethro. “…That won’t do at all.”
“I’ll be there!” Ida beamed.
“Me too.” Boaz nodded uncertainly.
Moses decision made up for Jethro’s embarrassment and Boaz tepid response. Such an example set for townsfolk would a high water mark of the mission. After embracing the rich merchant, Jesus looked back at us, exclaiming, “Rich or poor, old or young, man or woman—all seek the Kingdom of God!”
At the dinner table, which included Moses and his wife Tamar, the merchant’s buoyant mood overshadowed the reticence and half-heartedness of Jethro and his son. The rabbi’s wife hardly said a word and, by the furrows on her brow, disapproved of their rustic guests. Only Ida, among Jethro’s household, jabbered on enthusiastically about the upcoming event, but her reaction seemed exaggerated, as if she might be intoxicated if not deranged. Jesus studied Ida compassionately, perhaps not sure of her sincerity. He gave up trying to convince the rabbi and, for the remainder of the dinner concentrated on Moses and his wife.
After our meal and a short period in which Jesus took Moses and Tamar aside to answer their questions, he led his travel worn companions to the room Jethro provided. As we were bedding down that night out of earshot of the rabbi and his son, he reminded us about how religious leaders might react to his message. Though Rabbi Jethro had shown openness after the marriage in Cana, he was a prime example of how Jesus would be received even by friends. The reasons for a negative reaction from rabbis, priests, and doctors of the law included narrow-mindedness, stubbornness, and embarrassment—basic attitudes shared by magistrates also fearful of public disorder. Our most serious enemy, however, he explained, was Caiaphas, the high priest, whose motives were more sinister than local magistrates and religious leaders.
“Caiaphas is driven by a darker force,” he announced gravely. “He will fulfill scripture. In general the authorities, whether religious or secular, are afraid of change and challenge to established order. Because of this fear, the Romans will fulfill scripture too.”
“Master,” John called from his pallet, “what do you mean?”
“Yes, Jesus.” Our brother James rose up on his elbow. “I studied with Nicodemus for over a year. I don’t remember reading that.”
“Not all truth is written down,” he explained thoughtfully. “Remember the Living Word: God’s, not man’s, continuing revelation, as opposed to what men have written down inspired by God. Inspiration and revelation are not quite the same. All of you were inspired by the Word will also receive this Spirit, but you have much to learn.”
James and I had grown up with Jesus and were used to hearing him say strange things, but this didn’t make sense even to us. Now I understand that Jesus was the Word and incarnation of divine power and revelation for the new covenant God would make through him after the Resurrection. It was therefore appropriate that John asked Jesus what he meant, for in one of his scrolls, which he would one day let me read, the opening statement began appropriately enough, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made… In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” In this passage, not only did John recognize Jesus as the Living Word, he made him, through God, the author of creation. He also presented this enigmatic concept to show the godhood of Jesus, which even after the Resurrection, was difficult for Jesus’ apostles, including John, who would be given this revelation, to grasp. As for what Jesus meant by the Spirit, many Jews understood this as the invisible nature of God. It was consequently, like the word God, itself, an uncontroversial statement made during Jesus’ preaching. During this earlier period, though he referred to this part of the godhood, he was satisfied with referring to God’s earthly nature as just that—the Spirit, and avoided identifying himself as the Son. Clearly now, as I understand God’s threefold nature, my brother Jesus, as Peter would claim, was God’s Son and, as we would later understand, God, Himself. Such thinking, however, was far away from even James and my understanding or acceptance back then. When he told us that day we would be receiving the Spirit, he was, of course, talking about the Holy Spirit—a future concept Nicodemus, a learned Pharisee, wouldn’t have grasped. How then could simple fishermen and even James and I, who were his brothers, have understood him at this early stage?
Jesus remained a mystery to us. Like a scroll, with great wisdom and wonders, unfolding, each day we saw a little bit more of his godhood, but the hand of God wrote it slowly for us. Though I sensed even then that Jesus could look into the future, I wonder now if even he knew what God had in store for him and the world.
We were, I know now, spiritual infants in his shadow, privy to immense, impenetrable knowledge or, in the words of the fishermen, sailing into unknown waters. Jesus was our shepherd and pilot. Each day was a new adventure, presenting us with both danger and enlightenment. I was, however, like my companions, too exhausted to wrap my mind around such thoughts, especially Jesus’ promise that Caiaphas and the Romans would fulfill scripture . I scarcely remember falling asleep, but I recall a troubling dream I had that night.… I was with Jesus again at his secret place, but this time they were throwing me off the cliff. Down I tumbled, screaming loudly, the ground rushing up to meet me, until quite as suddenly I awakened staring up into the darkness. The face of Jesus appeared over me, a small lamp in his hand.
“You’re having a nightmare, Jude,” he whispered. “…What did you dream?”
Gathering my wits, I told him about how I was thrown from a cliff. When I was finished recounting my dream, he frowned and shook his head.
“Don’t worry little brother,” he consoled me. “Our experience left an impact on you. Remember what I told you when we were children. It’s night now, so clear your mind and visualize a daytime sky. Just like those times we laid on our backs watching the clouds overhead move past, concentrate on an imaginary pattern—palaces, fortresses, and mythical monsters forming and reforming in the sky.”
I was getting sleepy just listening to him. Sure enough, after he bid me goodnight, I slept peacefully the remainder of the night, with only a vague patches of dreamscapes remembered the next morning.
That morning in Jethro’s house we were herded around like sheep. As our shepherd, Jesus wanted his disciples to look their best and be in the right frame of mind. While we hurriedly dressed, splashed water onto our faces, and ate breakfast, Jethro our host was nowhere to be seen, obviously terrified by the prospects ahead. Boaz was also absent, as was Ida, his harebrained wife. We waited just long enough for Moses to send messengers throughout Cana with the glad tidings before proceeding to the river. It sounded naïve and unrealistic to us that so many people would hearken to Moses’ summons, but we were unaware of how much influence the merchant had in this town. Added to the legend already existing and Jesus reputation as a healer that preceded him, the news of his presence appeared to strike the right chord. Looking out one of Jethro’s windows, we could see townsfolk already filling the street. Another explanation for this marvel—that Jesus used his powers to mesmerize these people—swirled in my mind, as I followed the others out the door.
Deciding to keep this thought to myself, I concentrated on getting Bartholomew on his feet and into his mule cart, as the other disciples gathered in front of Jethro’s house. Men and women, many of them probably just curious, on their way to the river, stopped to gawk at us. Though there was no verbal exchange yet, Jesus waved at them. As before, the fishermen were anxious but not terrified this time. Bartholomew sat quietly in the cart, uncomplaining, and James stayed close to me, dreading the ordeal ahead. Other than Jesus, himself, he and Bartholomew were my closest friends. All of the fishermen had warmed up to James and me, but there was still that distance between us caused by resentment that Jesus gave us special treatment. This wasn’t true, of course. Peter and John held a very special place in Jesus’ heart, and Jesus often claimed that all of his companions were equally loved.
When we reached the outskirts of Cana, the road dropped suddenly in elevation, allowing us to view a spectacular panorama: against a backdrop of an almost treeless plain, a small river snaked in a wide arc around a outcrop of ancient rock. Like the River Jordan, though much smaller, it was, Jesus reassured us, a perfect spot for baptisms. Most importantly for our purpose, we could see a great number of people already present on the shore. Once again, my heart beat with anticipation, but I wasn’t afraid. Always in Jesus’ presence, we expected something incredible to happen. Today, I was certain, would be no different.
The closer we came to the crowd, the more their number grew. Around us, as if oblivious that Jesus was the cause of this event, they moved passed. From other paths out of town and from the countryside they were also arriving: men, women, and children—the largest multitude so far. Upon reaching the closest loop of the river where the crowd was huddled in anticipation, Jesus stood upon a convenient boulder and shouted out in a clarion voice: “Citizens of Cana, it is right and good that you have come, for I bring you good news: God’s grace is upon you! The priests who spoke for you in the temple no longer have God’s ear. They don’t believe in an afterlife. For them, the righteous are rewarded here on earth. Their money changers and animal sellers have turned God’s sanctuary into a slaughter house. Though burdened by the law, the rabbis and Pharisees at least have it right: for the righteous there is life after death. But like a dimly lit lamp, this truth has been kept almost as a secret. Where do I go, after I die? is a hard question for them to answer. The closest they come to a destination after death is the Bosom of Abraham. This might have served the Israelites in the days of the Patriarchs, but this is a new age. There is a wondrous paradise awaiting all believers they don’t tell you about, because it’s not in our scriptures. Here before you scripture is being written. All people—rich and poor—are listening. Even your rabbi has seen the truth. Everlasting life in paradise is open to everyone. All you have to do is repent your sins, strive to be righteous, and accept God’s grace to merit heaven. Your baptism today will signify your rebirth into a new life!”
It was a simple message. All those deep, enigmatic discussions he lapsed into around his disciples would be covered years later in their writings. The fishermen, I would discover, were far more intelligent than I had imagined. Whatever they didn’t understand, Jesus would explain. Considering they were practically illiterate, however, the works that Peter, James, and John wrote must have had divine guidance. Jesus showed good common sense in keeping his sermons brief and simple. His disciples, as well as the new converts, understood just enough of the message now to comprehend the basic meaning. The simplicity of what Jesus offered greatly contrasted the complex, law-ridden, religion of the Sadducees and Pharisees. Even the name of our congregation was simple: the Way.
Filled with much more confidence about our mission, I was proud to be Jesus’ brother and one of his disciples, and yet I was concerned more than ever for his safety. If the magistrates and Caiaphas’ spies had been worried about Jesus impact upon people before, they would really be worried now. As we stood there watching Jesus orchestrate this event, we were stunned by the numbers, which continued to grow. Several men and women had already entered the water, ankle-deep then knee-deep, looking over at Jesus, as if waiting for directions.
“Jesus,” Peter cried, “is the whole town here?”
“No,” he answered, “shielding his eyes from the sun, “but it’s a lot—more than we had in Judea or Samaria. Many of them are merely curious, though. Perhaps they need more coaxing. That’s one of the great benefits of bringing people into the fold: when they go their separate ways they, too, will spread the message. Even those on the sidelines are witness to the word. I see Moses and his wife approaching the water with their family and friends, but so far no sign of the rabbi, his daughter-in-law, and son.” “Men!” He turned to us. “Last time we were at such a river, the numbers were much smaller and you went out in pairs. The numbers are greater this time, so you’ll do it separately, each with his own line.” His arm sweeping the length of the crowd, he motioned to various spots on the shoreline were people had begun, without being told, to enter the water. “All of you,” he cried out with a tinge of irritation, “please wait for directions. As my men line up along the river, follow their guidance. Follow the man for your line until you’re waste deep in the water. Wait until you’re given the signal.” Peter, James, and John,” he called, snapping his fingers, “here, here, and here. Andrew, Philip, Jude, and my brother James: over there, there, there, and there. We’ll have eight lines. In order to do this properly, let’s do it in an orderly fashion: one man, woman, or child shall come forward, then another. Please don’t let them bunch up. Try to keep equal numbers in each line. I’ll assist you Bartholomew. If it becomes too much for you, return to your cart.” “Now let’s begin!” He clapped his hands.
As he had done previously when we were turned loose, Jesus gave the audience the three requirements for eternal life: repentance of sins, acceptance of God’s grace, and the promise to live a righteous life. “As a outward sign of inward grace,” he explained once again, there follows baptism, which signifies your spiritual rebirth. Only after admitting your sins to God and asking for forgiveness, is repentance genuine. Even the rite of baptism is hollow if the heart isn’t contrite. Though some sins are greater than others, all of them can be wiped clean by true remorse.” Jesus reminded his audience that baptism was not a replacement for repentance. In this way, water is a symbol of new life but doesn’t replace the baptism of the spirit, which comes with prayer. Fear of God is not the reason to embrace Him, for He is the God of love, not vengeance. After explaining the doctrine of salvation, Jesus listed the Ten Commandments as he had before, warning his audience that the path to eternal life required constant vigilance. “If you dwell on evil,” he warned them, “you’ve committed the act in your heart. A man who covets his neighbors wife has committed adultery in his heart. This is true for having murder or other hateful thoughts in your mind.” Jesus, however, differentiated between merely thinking evil and dwelling on it. Temptation in itself is not wrong, he explained. Only when evil festers in the mind does it become a sin. Those reborn must strive for pure thoughts and set an example for others.
Repeating the prelude to baptism, he shouted, “Turn away from evil and strive to be righteous. Those of you who feel God’s grace now, pause to be sure, then step forward.” “Please line up behind one of my men,” he reminded them. “There’s no hurry. Everyone, who is ready and wishes to be baptized, will have their turn.” “That’s it, folks.” He motioned. “Continue separating into lines—single file, don’t bunch up.” “Remember the words I taught you,” he said discreetly to Bartholomew, “follow my example.”
The first ones to be baptized, perhaps out of sense deference by the others in line, were Moses bar Nablis, his wife Tamar, his children, and entire household. Of this group, Moses insisted that his wife Tamar be the first citizen of Cana baptized.
“Daughter, are you sorry for your sins?” he asked, gripping her shoulders
“Yes.” She grinned happily.
“And do you promise to live righteously and walk with God?”
“Oh yes.” She nodded enthusiastically.
“Then, by my Father’s grace, I baptize you into a new life.”
In a procedure that would be repeated nearly three hundred times for men, women, and children by Jesus and his disciples, Jesus cradled her body and, asking her to hold her nose, dunked her backward into the water. When Tamar surfaced, she was laughing with joy.
“You are reborn, daughter,” he commanded, “go and sin no more!”
When were completed with the rites of baptism for a large segment of the crowd, we were all hoarse and trembling with fatigue. Fortunately or perhaps by divine providence, there were no more people stepping forth. Moses, our merchant friend, insisted that we stay in his house that night. Since Jethro’s household had not been represented at the river, it would have been awkward for us to stay in his home. I was so exhausted, I walked alongside of the cart numbly, scarcely able to think. I could hear Bartholomew jabbering about something, but my only thought those moments was for food and rest.
When we arrived at Moses sumptuous house, the rich merchant’s cook had prepared a much finer meal than we received at Jethro’s house. Even Bartholomew’s mule was treated better than before. The stable boy, who had been one of the converts, had been cheerful, as had been the chamberlain, cook, Tamar, and Moses’ three sons. When we finally departed the next day and were on the road, Jesus was in a jubilant mood. All of us, in fact, were quite satisfied with ourselves and were both excited and anxious about the journey ahead.