When Jesus reunited with the disciples, he found them positively excited about their experiences since he had sent them out, but at the same time a little perplexed. On the one hand, they had been received with appreciation in many places. And yet, it appeared that all sorts of people were now attempting healings and exorcisms in Jesus’ name. “Teacher,” said John, son of Zebedee, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he wasn’t following us.”
“Don’t stop him!” Jesus replied. “No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever is not against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to the Messiah will certainly be rewarded.“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to stumble and fall into sin, it would be better for that person to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and to be thrown into the lake. If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands in the fire of Gehenna, which can’t be put out. If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into Gehenna with two feet. If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter G-d’s dominion with one eye than to be thrown into Gehenna with two. That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
It appeared that the disciples had fulfilled the mission he sent them on, and Jesus decided to extend their apprenticeship in the work of G-d’s dominion. He led them down to the Kinneret, where they got in a boat and headed south, intending to disembark and follow the east bank of the Jordan River.
As they readied the boat, Peter looked somewhat nervously at the clouds forming overhead. It was a chilly winter day, a season known for storms, but this did not seem to deter Jesus as he told his disciples to weigh anchor and head across the lake. The Kinneret is a bowl-shaped lake sitting among hills and winds can come up quickly and create choppy waves, almost without warning.
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Leaving the crowd behind, they headed down the lake, accompanied by some other boats. Suddenly a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. The boat pitched and rolled, and it seemed to the disciples it was likely to sink. As seasoned fishermen, they knew enough to be afraid. But where was Jesus? Huddled under a low shelf in the stern, reclining on a cushion and fast asleep. The disciples, becoming frantic, woke him and asked, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
Jesus got up, assessed the situation, and rebuked the wind, saying to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Suddenly, the wind died down and it was completely calm. What most stunned the disciples, even the fishermen among them, was that while the wind could come and go quickly, once the water was stirred up, it remained choppy for a good period of time. But not this time. Jesus had stopped both wind and wave instantly. Jesus looked at them and saw the fear in their eyes, fear caused not just by the storm but by what Jesus had just done. He pressed them, asking, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
In truth, it was beginning to dawn on them that Jesus was no ordinary, mortal man. But he clearly was also not the Messiah that they expected. In their terror they asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Who, indeed?
Having reached the southern shore of the lake, they disembarked and set off. The journey down the familiar north-south road was uneventful, not least because few people traveled any distance at this time of year. Jesus had hoped to go to the spot where he had been baptized, returning to where his ministry had really begun. Perhaps not many would be expecting him there, and he would have time to further prepare his disciples for what was to come. It was raining as they walked along, so they pulled their outer garments up over their heads. They believed that no one would recognize them in these conditions. But, in fact, the word had already spread that Jesus was entering Judaea once more, and large crowds were on the lookout. When they spotted him, they followed him, and he healed many of them there.
After a day or so, some Pharisees came down from Yerushalayim to test Jesus yet again. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”
Jesus sighed deeply. “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female? And G-d said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one. Therefore, humans shouldn’t pull apart what G-d has put together.”
The Pharisees jumped on Jesus’ response. “Then why did Moses command us to give a divorce certificate and divorce her?”
“Moses did not command divorce, he allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are hard. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning. I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for incest, and marries another woman, commits adultery.”
It was clear to the disciples that Jesus was essentially taking away the male privilege of divorce. One suggested to him, “If that’s the way things are between a man and his wife, then is it better not to marry?”
Jesus replied, “Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And then there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the dominion of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it.”
“I certainly can’t accept it,” said Peter, to much laughter. Jesus shook his head with an affectionate smile.
Some women approached them, with their children in tow. Often women had brought their little children to Jesus in the hope that he would bless them. Tenderly, carefully, Jesus would lay his hands on them and pray for them. But with their dawning realization of who Jesus was, the disciples began to rebuke those women who now brought their children to Jesus. Many believed that small children had no place in meetings where a teacher was instructing adults, let alone a teacher who just may be the Messiah. But Jesus rebuked his disciples in turn, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the dominion of heaven belongs to such as these.” After he had placed his hands on them all, he went on from there, managing to get away from the crowds for the moment.
Jesus knew what lay ahead of him, and after much prayer and reflection, he set his face like flint to journey to Yerushalayim. When he announced this to the men and women who formed the core group among his disciples, they were astonished. Others who followed became afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Yerushalayim, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the Law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him, and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
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As a heaviness fell over the group, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and, as if they had not heard a word he had just spoken, said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
“What do you want me to do for you?”
“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left when you come into your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
“We certainly can,” they answered with the naiveté and assurance of young men, especially young men who had performed miracles, and who now believed that all kinds of things were possible for them.
Jesus regarded them with a heavy heart. “You will indeed drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
When the other ten heard their request, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them all together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It is not to be so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
“Amen, I say to you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit everlasting life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
The disciples looked at each other. Who were they anyway? Fishermen? Tax collectors? They were merely ordinary men from various walks of life, lowly backgrounds, and sinners like everyone else. Why had they been chosen by Jesus in the first place? Surely it was just an act of G-d’s pure grace. And just as surely, the end must be at hand, for the blind were receiving their sight, the demons were being cast out, and the dead were being raised to life.
But as for Jesus himself, he was beginning to realize that when you empty yourself, and take on the form of a servant or slave, you are likely to end up with the fate of a servant or slave: death by crucifixion, the punishment for runaway and rebellious slaves. And no one thought that was a noble martyr’s way to die—no one.
Did you enjoy this entry? It is an excerpt from Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Jesus: A True Story. In this imaginative harmonization of the four Gospels, Witherington opens up the world of Jesus and helps us hear his story as one seamless narrative.
With his customary eye for cultural and historical details, and engaging commentary on what are sometimes overly-familiar stories, this New Testament scholar invites us to join those first century followers of Jesus around their fires and at their dinner tables, and hear the Gospel of Jesus for the first time all over again.