The Turning Point
Jesus had begun his ministry with what John the Baptist called the ‘Good News’— a simple message of salvation with himself as merely a messenger as had been John. Now Jesus was no longer the messenger or even just the Messiah, he was God’s son, born of a virgin. Suddenly our mother was like a demigod. Our family was sacred for the prodigy it spawned. What did this really mean? How could Jesus explain this fact and the revised plan of salvation? This was brand new territory. For the most enlightened religious leader or philosopher of our day the answer to this question would confound and befuddle the mind. One could imagine would it did to his disciples, family, and friends. And yet he couldn’t wait for Golgotha. He had to prepare the ground today…. Jesus, we sensed, was running out of time.
As he returned to his role as preacher, he would first have to make us understand this complex issue and then, with a similar explanation, tell others the news. From the beginning, Jesus had worried about telling the whole story. Before we left Peter’s house, we had been forced to withhold it from his family and everyone else except the twelve. To tell the first portion of the story—that he was the Son of God and then try to explain what this meant to believers would require telling them of the shadowy finale, which Jesus admitted was the most important part. When he first explained the formula for salvation, we suspected that it was incomplete. When Jesus approached the River Jordan and John cried out in the wilderness ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ it made little sense to Andrew, Philip, Amos, and me. It was difficult to digest this enigmatic claim, and yet we knew, even then, Jesus was destined for much greater things than John. Now, with his full complement of disciples as witnesses, this inkling had grown into a full realization. There was no longer any question about Jesus’ identity. He was the Promised One, who, as God’s son, was bringing salvation to the world. What troubled us now was his prediction of his death—a notion too great to bear. The next morning, as we trekked south, we were filled with questions about Jesus claims. This discussion displayed just how ignorant most of the disciples were.
In his ignorance, Peter asked, “How could the Son of God he killed?”
“Yes, master.” John’s eyes widened with concern. “The Father is immortal. Are you not immortal, too?”
“Immortality is offered to all,” replied Jesus, “not just the Son.”
“I’m confused, too.” Thomas scratched his head. “You have god-like powers. Why would you allow yourself to be killed?”
“He won’t. He just can’t,” Matthew exclaimed. “You can’t kill a god! You’ll never feel the sting of death!”
“That’s paganism!” cried Judas. “There’s only one God!”
“What did he say?” Jesus’ eyes widened with disbelief.
“That you must be a god,” piped Matthew, “and you can’t kill a god!”
Jesus whirled around and shouted at Matthew and Judas, “I never claimed I was a demigod or God.” “And the rest of you,” he spoke to us all. “Immortality isn’t stopped by physical death. You understand what heaven and salvation are now, so why do you doubt the resurrection of the Son.”
“What does resurrection mean?” Thomas wrinkled his nose.
“It means,” Jesus drew in a breath, “…raised from the dead.”
This caused everyone to gasp. Jesus had said the key words. We understood that moment what he meant. After all, Jesus had raised people from the dead. Silence descended upon us, as we thought about this. Pausing by the side of the road, Jesus gathered us together.
“Listen to me, my children,” he said wearily. “I can only tell you what my Father has revealed to me. Don’t ask me about my death, only what follows—”
“What follows?” John lurched forward impulsively.
“Dear beloved John,” he said patting his head. “Don’t fret so. It’s too early for that. What is important, children, is why this happens. You are familiar with our people’s sacrifice of animals in the temple?”
“Yes,” Peter nodded attentively.
“It’s disgusting.” I made a face.
“This has been our tradition,” he said, wagging a finger. “It has all been aimed at one end: the Lamb of God.”
“I don’t understand,” Thomas made a face.
“You never understand!” Philip frowned
“Let me explain.” He stared into space. “It’s not easy. Ignorant Jews and Gentiles will find this especially hard to understand. Even those familiar with the Torah and Prophets will find it difficult to grasp. It will be up to you after I’m gone to make this clear. For now, without seeing the conclusion, it might be difficult for you to comprehend, but here goes: God, the Creator, caused my mother to conceive His Son. Most of you are familiar with my childhood. I heard Jude telling the story. In order to come to the point, though, I’ll gloss over my birth in the manger in Bethlehem. I explained what happened there during our visit. You’ll recall the reception we got in that town; it was almost as bad as our treatment in Nazareth where I grew up. You can see how correct Isaiah’s later passages were. To be rejected and despised by my neighbors and then the place of my birth was only the beginning. I was an outcast among the children of Nazareth, even among my own brothers and sisters. Though I could never fit in or live a normal life, my parents tried making it so. They tried to keep me a child for as long as possible, until one day, when I brought that dead bird back to life, the realization hit us like a thunderclap. After years of denial, they were forced to accept my future, ill defined as it was, then try to explain to my brothers and sisters who I was. But that wasn’t the full story. I was much more than a prodigy. Aside from Simeon’s prophecy, nothing, except those passages from Isaiah about the suffering servant, pointed to my death. No wanted to make the connection. It was thought by my family that I might be a great teacher, even a prophet in my own right. Who could have conceived of a carpenter’s son being the Son of God? Who could have believed he would bring a new religion to the world and meet such a fate?
“Then Amos arrived with a message from John the Baptist: it was time to begin my ministry. From that day at the River Jordan, I became the Lamb of God, not the Messiah (which my cousin never claimed). I knew the Lord had plains for me, but this revelation shook me greatly. I understood immediately what he meant, and yet that wasn’t the full picture. It was just the beginning. What I shared with you, my disciples, was told to me by God, my father, not John. The Lord gave me the dreadful details. My mother, because of her virgin birth and what the angel Gabriel told her, should have understood who I was, but she and my father appeared to be ignorant of this truth. They believed that I would do great things, but neither of them suspected what came next. What you know now was never made clear to them. This ultimate truth will hit my mother very hard. As Simeon once told her, ‘a sword shall pierce your soul!’
“From the day when the sparrow flew from my hands, I understood who I was and was haunted by Isaiah’s prophecy. After traveling with Joseph of Arimathea, a rich Pharisee, I learned about the world I must save. Even then I knew portions of my destiny and tried to postpone it as much as I could, but to no avail. When Amos, John’s courier, arrived one day at my house, my time as a carpenter was over. John the Baptist, the Forerunner, was at the River Jordan, exclaiming the good news. As Amos, Jude, and I approached the river, he called out “Behold the Lamb of God.” “I am that sacrifice, who replaces the temple offering,” Jesus announced solemnly. “It’s a destiny I can’t escape!”
Everyone, including Andrew, Philip, and I, who heard John’s announcement first hand, were left speechless after hearing what it meant. To those who didn’t know Jesus, John’s exclamation might have sounded like heresy, but the explanation provided by Jesus would be considered utter blasphemy. Though not at this level of outrage, the disciples, especially James, were visibly shocked. Judas Iscariot, more than even James, was, in fact, enraged.
“… Now we come to the heart of the matter.” Jesus raised two fingers and a thumb. “Why is the sacrifice necessary? You ask. Why kill the Lamb? Before this time, our people’s faith was based upon the priests as intermediaries between the supplicant and God, by killing the sacrificial lambs and doves as offerings to God through ritual and law. Ritual and law were more important to the Jews than prayer. More significantly was the fact that the Sadducee priests didn’t believe in an afterlife. What purpose then did people have for sacrifice or, for that matter, ritual and law?” “Enter the Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis,” he laughed sourly, “men who thought they had the answer. They placed themselves above everyone else, for, unlike the priests, they felt they had the secret to eternal life, yet entry into heaven was filtered through the same rituals and laws. With the cloudy vision of salvation and eternity explained in synagogues, the sinner still strives, unable to follow the growing list of rituals and laws. As you can see, neither priest nor the doctors of the law have clearly answered the questions asked by those facing death: what comes next and how can they be saved?…. Now that the lamb is here, the priests will be responsible one final sacrifice. Through the blood of the lamb, all who believe in him are saved. Though they were dead, they shall live. What follows repentance, acceptance, and a contrite heart is eternal life!”
Finished with his momentous announcement, Jesus waited for our response. I gave Jesus a nod and smile to let him know I understood. Andrew and Philip, who had been somewhat predisposed by John’s exclamation, also gave him nods. The next to show his acceptance, though I doubt he completely understood, was Peter, who was after all designated the Rock by Jesus, and John, who must have felt special after being singled out. James, though once a scribe and student of Nicodemus, sighed heavily and smiled, indicating his acceptance, as did John’s brother James, who appeared, by his agreeable expression, to have taken a leap of faith too. It was left to Thomas, the doubter, to ask the first question.
“Jesus, as a matter of clarification,” he began judiciously, “if your cousin called you the Lamb of God, why wasn’t he sure before his death?”
“John is human,” Jesus answered calmly. “Just like you Thomas, he wanted to make sure. You, however, have the benefit of what you have seen and heard since joining up. What is your excuse?”
“Uh,” he mumbled, “… I dunno.”
“The question should be,” Judas interrupted. “What would John say? Would he believe you’re the Son of God?”
“What do you believe?” Jesus studied him that moment. “…. You, more than anyone here, want me to use my powers, and yet you have a problem with my claim.”
“You have the power,” Judas declared unflinchingly. “No one in this world and no one since God created the heavens and earth has had such power. Unlike Thomas, I don’t doubt you. I may not know how all the Galileans think, but my fellow Judeans will never accept such a claim.”
“How do you
know that?” Simon stepped forth. “I admit I was shaken by this news, but I
trust Jesus. If God told him this, it
must be true. What that mob believes
out there is another matter.” “You said the word, Judas, ‘world.’ From everything I’ve seen and heard and
after what Jesus told us today, I know that he’s not just here for Galileans or
Judeans. His message is for the world!”
Bartholomew, who had been silent, embraced the little man, as did Peter and John. Coming forward with arms outstretched arms, Jesus hugged him before giving him his new name. “Henceforth,” he exclaimed, gripping his shoulders, “Let it be known: Peter is my rock, and you shall be known as Simon, the Zealot. From a temple spy you have risen, Simon. Your rise was greater than even Matthew, the publican. You were one of them—our adversaries, now you’re one of us. In deed, after I’m gone, the message will go to Gentile and Jew, to the far corners of the earth. Against everything the temple has taught you, you believe the unbelievable, and you accepted the unacceptable. For this leap of faith, Simon the Zealot, you, more than the others, are truly blessed!
Simon, as Peter and John, had been singled out. Now Peter was the Rock, John was the Beloved Disciple, and Simon had been nicknamed the Zealot. Regardless of these important christenings, it was Judas that concerned me. Once again, as we followed the Shepherd, I managed to take Jesus aside on the road, and spoke what was in all of our minds.
“Jesus,” I said, glancing back at the group, “Judas is looking for a different messiah: a warrior, who will return Israel to its previous glory. His view is shallow and restricted to Jews. Despite your admonishment to go to Israelites first, you expected us to reach Gentiles as well as Jews. Your message is intended for the world. Simon, a onetime agent of Caiaphas, saw this. I have a bad feeling about that Judean. I’ve given this much thought, Jesus. Judas’ mind is bent on a conquering messiah, not a savior, so his motives are suspect. You can’t trust that man!”
“When the time comes,” he replied enigmatically, “you’ll understand. For now, remember what I’ve told you all along: I follow God’s will. Judas is following his will too.”
“What?” I clasped my forehead. “Judas is following God’s will? That doesn’t make sense. Are you saying that God’s telling Judas to behave badly and call you a liar? Wouldn’t He want Judas to march in step?”
Jesus frowned severely at me. “Do you question my Father?” He wagged his finger. “Who are you, Jude, to question God?”
After rephrasing his question, I understood the importance of his rebuke. He was telling me once and for all that the subject was closed. I was to accept God’s will and, on the matter of Judas Iscariot, keep my mouth shut. When I returned to the end of the procession to join my friends, I was bitter and in no mood for Judas’ sarcasm. Since Judas was in our company, how could I tell James, Simon, Matthew, Thomas, or Bartholomew what Jesus and I talked about without causing another quarrel? The first person to question me was Judas, himself, who insisted on knowing what Jesus said.
“It was a private conversation,” I replied irritably, “and none of you business.”
“Listen, Jude.” He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I know your brother’s upset, but it’s true. Most of those rustics out there expect to see what Isaiah predicted: someone who’ll restore our people to their proper place. They don’t want a demigod. They want a great leader! As a Jew, don’t you want this too?”
“No!” I spat, folding my arms. “Those days are long gone. You simply don’t understand Jesus at all. You’ve forgotten Isaiah’s second prophecy: the suffering servant. Jesus is that servant, Judas. As much as it bothers me—all of us, I know that’s him!”
“Humph! I don’t agree,” Judas said stubbornly. “Our people have waited for the Deliverer. Jesus has to be that man. How could are holy scrolls be wrong?”
The words flashed into my head; “Who do you believe, Judas: the Torah or the Living Word?” I must have uttered it too loudly, because Jesus turned around and gave me a searching look. Judas muttered, “Nonsense—all of it!” under his breath, then fell back behind the procession lost in his thoughts.
“I don’t care what Jesus said.” I stomped my foot. “I don’t trust that man. He has an agenda. He must have!”
“What sort of agenda?” James looked at me with concern. “What exactly did Jesus say?”
Looking back as Judas’ distant figure, I heaved a sigh. “We were talking about him,” I pointed accusingly, “the serpent in the garden. When I took Jesus aside, I lodged a complaint. I warned him about Judas. Judas is expecting a different messiah. Most troubling is the fact he doesn’t believe Jesus is the Son of God.”
“What does Judas want?” James pressed. “You think he’s a threat?”
“Yes, I do.” I answered, glancing back. “… I can’t explain it. I just feel it like an ill wind.”
For a brief moment, as Matthew came up alongside of us, the subject changed.
“What did you mean by Living Word?” he asked quizzically. “I’ve heard Jesus say that before. Does it replace the Torah?”
“The Living Words are his revelations from God.” I felt sudden illumination. “Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Word incarnate, and the fulfillment of our scrolls”
“I get it,” Matthew’s eyes widened with understanding. “…. The Word, the sacrifice, and Son of God are the same. Why can’t Judas understand that?”
“He doesn’t want to understand,” I explained with conviction. “He never will. He has his own agenda…. He has his own conception of who Jesus is, and it’s not a savior but a conqueror like King David or Judas Maccabeus.”
James, Simon, and Matthew, who were knowledgeable in scripture, nodded in agreement.
“We mustn’t let Judas bother us,” Bartholomew said thoughtfully, looking down from his mule, “his mind’s made up. Jesus keeps him around to stir things up, maybe to test us.”
“He’s no damn good!” Simon snarled.
“He’s crazy,” offered Matthew. “No one’s that thick headed and stubborn!”
“Thomas is right,” James shook his head. “He must be possessed!”
“I’m no better than Judas.” Thomas scolded himself. “There’s a reason for his doubts. I have no such excuse.”
“All right Thomas.” Simon raised an eyebrow. “After everything the master has shown us, why do you doubt?”
“I dunno.” He scratched his head. “Things just get sort of jumbled in my head. Maybe I’m addled too.”
“Not so!” I gave him a playful nudge, “Jesus keeps you around, too, for a reason. We all have a purpose. Your purpose is to keep him on his toes. It takes solid proof for you to believe anything. You must’ve driven your parents insane. When you believes something, it must be true!”
Everyone laughed. Perhaps seeing the truth in it, Thomas joined in our mirth. Not long after our discussion, I grew concerned for Judas whereabouts and fell back in the procession. In the distance, he appeared through the dust on the road, rippling in a heat shimmer, still following after lagging far behind. Out of nowhere, as was his habit, Jesus appeared, startling me half out of my wits.
“Whoa,” I gasped, “don’t sneak up like that!”
“You’ve been arguing with Judas again?” he came straight to the point.
“He wanted to know what you said,” I explained quickly. “I thought our conversation was private, so I told him to mind his own business.”
“Is that all?” He gave me a questioning look.
“No,” I shuddered, “he said some things which I disagreed with.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” He raised a hand. “I know his mind…. He’ll return to us, Jude. It’s his destiny.” “I’m proud of you, little brother.” He tousled my hair. “In spite of your own stubbornness, your heart is pure. Though it’s subtler, you have the gift…. It’s true what you said to Matthew: I am all those things. What Judas believes is no different than most Jews. It will be up to us to change their minds!”
“Yes, of course,” I tried to sound confident. “It just takes time.”
Jesus had much more confidence than me. Though I understood his message was for the world, I was, like the other disciples, more concerned with what happened now in Palestine, rather than what happened in the future when his message spread over the earth. At times as he preached, when I looked out at the multitudes, I saw an unpredictable rabble, many of which attended his sermons for entertainment more than enlightenment. His reputation as a speaker and miracle worker drew in the crowds, but those people actually joining the Way, though increasing in numbers, had proved to be disappointing at times. Most of them would not commit themselves. In many cases, for those that stepped forth, we weren’t even sure that the rite had taken hold. More than anything else lately, it has been Jesus miracles that have drawn the crowds. How many converts would prove to be fair-weather followers in the future would be heartbreaking, but we couldn’t have imagined this then. During this time, we saw, as Paul would describe his own ignorance, through glass darkly. Jesus, whose vision was infinite, saw everything clearly. He saw the future and what it would hold. I understand now what Jesus meant by ‘planting the seed.’ It was up to us to plant the seeds, and up to others, who followed our example, to continue planting, harvesting, and tending the garden. Even, without this hindsight, I sensed once again that day that all of this—spreading the good news, creating pockets of converts here and there, and accepting the sacrifice Jesus prophesized—was intended for the ages.
After that fateful hour, when Jesus true identity was unveiled and he gave us his dark prediction, we were filled with misgivings. Judging by their attempts at normalcy, even levity, the other men were in denial. I made such an attempt myself. No one wanted to believe Jesus’ prophecy. As he had shown us, he had the power over nature. He could calm storms to protect us and summon the wind against our enemies. Surely his vision had to be wrong, we agreed…. But, of course, I reminded James, Jesus didn’t lie. If he said something, it was so. Just this once, I hoped it wasn’t true.