Why did the disciples head off across the lake without Jesus?

Q.  I’m reading in John. Before Jesus walks on water, why do the disciples leave without him? Why would they do that if they were following him? Do you think he told them, “If I’m not down from the mountain by tonight, go on ahead to Capernaum without me?”

John’s gospel says simply, “When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.”  This does make us wonder what kind of arrangements Jesus had made with his disciples beforehand.

But Mark and Matthew shed more light on this question in their accounts of this day in the life of Jesus, which included the feeding of the 5,000 and then Jesus walking on the water to join the disciples in the boat. Mark explains that “it was late in the day” even before the large crowd was fed, so that once everyone had eaten, “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” (They were on the “far shore of the Sea of Galilee” according to John, so Bethsaida and Capernaum were in the same general direction from there; either city could be used to describe the boat’s general heading.) Matthew says something very similar to Mark about why Jesus stayed behind.  So it appears that there was some urgency to get the group to its next destination, enough so that Jesus sent the disciples on ahead while he wrapped things up on the “far shore” and then spent some time in prayer, before taking his extraordinary route to rejoin the disciples!

That is likely the reason for the separate departures.  But perhaps more significant for our understanding of this day in the life of Jesus is the theological motif that John brings out as he tells the story. As I explain in my study guide to John, in that gospel, “the festivals and locations that Jesus visits allow his identity to be disclosed against the symbolic background of Jewish religious life and history.”  In this particular case:

The fourth section of the Book of Signs describes a journey that Jesus takes across the Sea of Galilee and back.  The action occurs at the time of Passover.  But in this section Jesus’ identity is still not explored against the background of that festival.  (This will happen in the Book of Glory.) 

Instead, the focus is on the event that Passover commemorates:  the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.  Jesus’ identity is explored in this section against the background of that event.  While Jesus is on the far shore of the lake, he miraculously feeds a large crowd.  When the crowd returns to the opposite shore, they compare this feeding with the manna, the “bread from heaven,” that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness.  And to get back across the lake himself, Jesus miraculously walks on the water.  This recalls the way God made a path through the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape from the Egyptians. The two “signs” that Jesus does at the beginning of this section thus associate him with the exodus.

So we might say that the reason for the disciples leaving ahead of Jesus was the demands of the group’s ministry schedule and responsibilities.  But in the larger plan of God, the purpose for them leaving earlier, occasioning Jesus’ walk on the water, was to reveal more of his identity and glory, as happens throughout the gospel of John.

Lambert Lombard, “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” The feeding of the 5,000 was an act of compassion that also delayed the travel plans of Jesus and his disciples, causing separate departures for the opposite shore of the lake and an opportunity for Jesus’ identity to be revealed even further against the background of the exodus.


How long did Jesus live in Egypt?

Q. How long did Jesus’ parents hide him in Egypt?

The starting point for the journey that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus took down to Egypt is shortly after the end of the wise men’s visit with them, before Herod realized, after a few days or a couple of weeks, that they weren’t coming back to his court as they had promised.

An icon of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt

The gospel of Matthew tells us that after the wise men had started back home, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’”

We don’t know exactly when to date this historically.  It was, however, no more than two years after Jesus was born, because Herod then tried to kill Jesus by slaying all of the baby boys who had been born in Bethlehem in the past two years, based on when the wise men told him they first saw the star.  And since, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus was born around the time of “the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” his birth occurred some time between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.  (Even though A.D. dating is supposed to begin with the birth of Christ, it wasn’t quite calculated correctly in the first place and so it actually begins a little way into his lifetime.)

We have a better idea of when the sojourn in Egypt ended.  The gospel of Matthew also tells us that “after Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’”  Herod died in 4 B.C.  So depending on when Jesus was born, the journey to Egypt lasted no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months.

It seems to me that the most likely scenario is that Jesus was born around 6 B.C., the wise men (by their own account) arrived in Jerusalem two years later in 4 B.C., and in that same year Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt, Herod died, and they returned.  So the length of their sojourn in Egypt was probably about a few months.

One takeaway from this investigation is the realization that King Herod the Great, who had been on the throne for 33 years, died a short time after slaying the children of Bethlehem.  We don’t always see immediately what feels like fitting retribution for atrocities like this one that he committed, but in this case it seems that the perpetrator very quickly joined his victims in death and had to answer for his crimes.

An interesting question that also arises is, since Jesus did find shelter as a refugee in Egypt for some length of time, whether He still feels a debt of gratitude to his briefly adopted homeland, and whether this provides an even further incentive for God to want to see justice done for all sides in current Middle Eastern disputes.  Speculative, but intriguing.

But the gospel of Matthew primarily wants us to take away from this episode an appreciation for how Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel in his own life.  The author quotes a historical recollection of the exodus from the book of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” and says that through the journey to Egypt Jesus “fulfilled” this Scripture.  That is, he gave it a fuller and deeper meaning in light of the significance of his own life.

This same gospel shows how Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel in several other ways as well, for example, by spending 40 days in the wilderness, where Israel spent 40 years.  Ultimately through his death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated a “new Israel” composed of those people from every nation who put their faith and trust in him.   The journey to Egypt, though it may well have been relatively brief, is another small signpost pointing in that direction.

A reader has asked this follow-up question: “Which angel told the parents of Jesus to go to Egypt?”

The biblical text does not tell us.  It says simply that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” and warned him that the family needed to flee to Egypt because Jesus’ life was in danger from King Herod.  So we don’t know which angel this was.

If Jesus gave up his divine attributes to become incarnate, how was he able to do miracles?

Q. I know that you believe in a somewhat qualified version of omniscience.  I also know that it has been traditionally understood that Jesus gave up many of his divine attributes while on earth. In light of that, I’m wondering how you explain many of the things Jesus did that went beyond what a normal person could do. For example, he “sees” Nathanael before being with him, he also makes many specific prophecies that are perfectly fulfilled, and of course, he does many powerful miracles. Would you say that Jesus, while human, was relying on God the Father for his “power,” similarly to the disciples or the Old Testament prophets? Or that Jesus was “empowering” himself? Or something in between?

An icon of Jesus healing a blind man. Did the incarnate Jesus do such miracles by his own inherent power, or as a channel of the Father’s power working through him?

First, although this is not your main question, let me say that I don’t think my view of omniscience is really “a qualified version” of the historic Christian position.  I believe, as followers of Jesus have throughout the centuries, that God knows everything that can be known.  Where I may seem to differ with others is in my view that there are some things that cannot be known, and that it is no defect in omniscience that God does not know these things.

For example, does God know the value of pi (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) to the last digit?  No, because there is no last digit—pi expressed in decimal form is a non-terminating, non-repeating number.  God knows the value of pi to however many digits you care to specify, whether millions or billions or more, but not to the last digit, since there is none.  In posts such as this one I have argued that the free decisions of moral agents are similarly unknowable in advance. But this doesn’t mean that “God doesn’t know everything” or that we need to “qualify” our view of omniscience to accommodate God not knowing what cannot be known.  We may, however, need to qualify our view of knowledge, to move beyond the idea that if we can ask whether something can be known (e.g. the “last digit” of pi), then God should be expected to know it.

But now to your actual question.  Yes, it has been understood and believed historically by Christians that in becoming incarnate as Jesus, the second person of the Trinity gave up certain divine attributes.  This is what Paul means when he writes in Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself”  in order to be “born in human likeness.”  The Greek term for “emptying” is kenosis, and that term is used in Christian theology to describe Jesus’ act of giving up these attributes.

They are specifically what are known as the non-communicable divine attributes, that is, the ones that are unique to an infinite God and so cannot be passed on to finite humans: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, etc.  Communicable divine attributes such as love and holiness, on the other hand, can be taken on by humans, and this is what happens as we “put on the new self” that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” as Paul writes in Ephesians.

So if Jesus gave up his divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence when he came to earth to be our Savior, how was he able to know and do things so far beyond ordinarily human capabilities?  I believe it was through the power and gifting of God, as in the case of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ own disciples. But Jesus was the ultimate exemplar of this; he served as the perfect conduit of divine power to meet human needs.

We have several indications in the gospels that this was the case.  For example, Luke tells of an occasion when Jesus was teaching the crowds “and the power of the Lord was present for him to perform healing.”   The implication is that when the power of the Lord was not present in this way, the human incarnate Jesus did not have supernatural power within himself to heal people.  (In the same way, the Old Testament prophets knew only what God revealed to them. In one case Elisha, for example, who sometimes knew even things that had been spoken in secret at a distance, had to admit he didn’t know why a woman who came to him was in distress, because “the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.”)

Mark tells us of another occasion when Jesus returned to Nazareth, his home town, but “was not able to do any miracles there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”    In his account of this same episode, Matthew says that “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

In other words, the ministry of Jesus, like that of the prophets and apostles, depended on the mysterious interaction between God’s sovereign disposition to act supernaturally at specific times and human receptivity to that disposition.  (For example, as I note in my study guide to John, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana when “Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust showed him that God was powerfully at work in that very moment.”  One way we recognize the divine disposition is through human receptivity to it, which we call faith.)

If Jesus did miracles through his own inherent power, rather than in cooperation with the power and will of the Father, I don’t know how we can explain his statement that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”   We certainly don’t have inherent power in ourselves to do even greater works than Jesus did.  But this statement makes perfect sense if we believe, as I wrote in my last post, that “Jesus in his humanity provides an example and model for all of us of how to be a channel for God’s powerful works through attentive obedience.”

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you in response to your question, and I hope they encourage all of us to be aware of situations where “the power of the Lord is present” and just looking for an attentive, willing channel to work through.

Was James a carpenter like his half-brother Jesus?

Q. We’re using your study guide to biblical wisdom literature in our Sunday School class.  We’re currently studying the book of James and we have a question about its author, the half-brother of Jesus.  Would he have been a carpenter too?

John Everett Millais, “Christ in the House of His Parents” (“The Carpenter Shop”), c. 1849. Is this how we should understand the biblical references to Jesus as a “carpenter”?

The place to begin answering this question is by asking whether Jesus was actually a carpenter himself.  Mark records in his gospel that when Jesus returned to Nazareth and taught in the synagogue there, the hometown crowds were amazed at his wisdom and power and asked, “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the tektōn?”  In Matthew‘s version of the same episode, the people ask, “Isn’t this the son of the tektōn?”

In these cases the Greek term tektōn is traditionally translated “carpenter,” and this has led to popular pictures of Jesus at work with his father in a carpenter’s shop, building tables and chairs for friends and neighbors.  But the term actually has a broader meaning.  In classical texts in can refer to a worker in wood (for example, someone who makes plows and yokes for farming).  But it can also refer to a “joiner,” that is, a construction worker who puts together buildings out of wood.  In other texts it describes workers in stone, i.e. masons, and in rarer cases it even describes a metal-worker.

So we should really understand tektōn to mean something like “construction worker.”  This gives us a very different picture of Jesus from the one that has him working in the family carpentry business.  Jesus most likely took construction jobs wherever he could find them, such as over in the larger city of Sepphoris near Nazareth.  He was, in effect, a day laborer. This helps us appreciate, for one thing, how Jesus shared all aspects of our human condition during his incarnation, including uncertainty over employment.

But knowing the broader meaning of the term tektōn also helps us appreciate that Jesus may have been regarded as socially inferior by many in his home town because of his occupation.  The word seems to have those associations.  For example, according to Walter Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon, Aristoxenus says that the father of Sophocles was a tektōn. But the Life of Sophocles rejects this idea and suggests instead that the father may have had tektōnes among his slaves.  So the occupation was considered lower class and perhaps even dishonorable.

This gives a more dismissive and condescending ring to the comments Jesus heard from the townspeople when he returned to Nazareth.  But this is another way in which Jesus “made himself nothing” and took on the “nature of a servant” when he came to earth, as Paul says in Philippians.

And as for his half-brother James, if the father and the eldest brother were each a tektōn, then it’s likely that this was a landless family of day laborers and that all of the brothers would have worked in this same profession.  One can easily imagine people from Nazareth hearing the wisdom teaching that was later collected in the book of James and wondering similarly, “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the tektōn?”

What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?

Q. I have a question.  What do you think Christ “did” for three days after he descended into hell?

The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about what Jesus did between the time he died on the cross and when he was raised from the dead, but it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and actively preached the gospel to those who had perished centuries before in the great flood.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at that time, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods, since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark, it’s possible that on this occasion Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in this letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

Paul gives us a suggestion that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

From these biblical hints about what Jesus did between his death and resurrection, the community of his followers later developed the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”  To “harrow” means to despoil; the idea is that Jesus triumphed over hell and released its captives.  This doctrine has a rich history in the art and literature of the church.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, "The Harrowing of Hell"
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Harrowing of Hell”