THE BAKER OF
a new novel,
plays out in the time of Jesus. How does the baker
of the village perceive the young rabbi?
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top. Scroll down for previous ones.
3. The shepherds of Bethlehem
In the severe drought and
depression of 1933, my father lost his farm and trekked with his Merino
flock along the dirt roads of the Karoo in search of grazing. In Africa,
Canada and Russia, wild herds migrate annually.
With their sensitive noses,
sheep pick up the faint odour of far-off grazing. When the wind changes
over-night, the whole flock gets up instinctively and starts moving toward
the good stuff. My dad slept lightly to hear when the sheep started
bleating, so he could keep them from forbidden fields.
The shepherds of Bethlehem
might have had the same problem. In those days, farms were not fenced off
from one another. In the common grazing fields, each shepherd daily chose
the area where he could graze his flock. Sheep-pens (John 10:1-9) were made
of stacked stones. Maybe there were not enough pens to choral all sheep at
night. So, like my dad, they had to slumber lightly in open fields, keeping
the flock from wandering.
We can imagine the scene: a
dark night with bright stars; the fire burning low; no noise except for the
occasional distant howl of a jackal. Then, suddenly, a blinding light! They
do not have electricity, so such a bright light at night is totally foreign
to them. They lift their heads, shielding their eyes from the light with one
hand. Then they see it: the brilliant figure in mid-air. The angel
recognizes their utter amazement, bordering on raw fear, and calms them
down. They need not be afraid, because he brings them fantastic news: the
Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. They will find him in manger.
While they are trying to
digest the message, a host of angels appear in the night sky, singing as no
choir ever has or will: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth for
those favoured by God.”
The heavenly messengers fade
away as quickly as they have appeared. After a while of flabbergasted
silence, they start to wonder if it is real – “did the others see what I
saw?” Questions about what each one saw and heard get mingled with
enthusiastic retelling of the most wonderful moment in their lives.
Maybe the eldest suggests that
some of them stay to watch the sheep, while a few go to Bethlehem to see the
wonder-baby whose birth was announced by angels. The lucky ones find the
baby in a manger in a stable. They share their story of the angels with the
surprised parents. When they leave, their talkative mood continues,
repeating their story to every interested person. They are the first human
beings who joyfully proclaim the good news about Christ.
2. Caring for the flock of God
When a malicious person gets
into a position of trust, we say: wolf has become shepherd. However, all
dogs descend from wolves, and some dogs have become the flock’s best friend.
Collies have proved themselves excellent herding dogs, while Anatolians are
efficient guard dogs, going with the sheep or goats to the grazing pastures
daily. The puppies grow up in the sheep’s pen, so they and the flock are
used to each other. The presence of these dogs among the sheep or goats acts
as deterrent for cheetahs and other predators.
The Bible speaks about good
and bad shepherds too. David, the shepherd, was called by God to shepherd
his people Israel (2 Sam. 5:2, Ps. 78:70-72). Sadly, Ezekiel 34 exposes the
bad shepherds (leaders) who misused the flock (Israel) for their own selfish
purposes. Instead of following the example of good shepherds, caring for the
sheep with utmost self-sacrifice, the bad shepherds exploited the sheep to
feed their own pleasures. They will be judged by God.
In contrast with the
self-serving leaders of Ezekiel’s time, the apostle Paul spurred the elders
of Ephesus to be good shepherds of God’s flock: “Take heed to yourselves and
to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to
shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts
Their high calling is
accentuated by the fact that (a) the Holy Spirit called them to this task,
and (b) the flock was bought by the blood of God in the flesh. In their
epistles, the apostles gave special attention to the qualities and behaviour
of elders (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1, 1 Pet. 5).
The need for conscientious
elders was underscored by Jesus, when he saw the crowds who looked like
sheep without a shepherd. He answered the need by sending his disciples in
six pairs among them to preach the gospel and to heal the sick.
Later, the disciples would
also become a small flock without their Shepherd. At the Last Supper, Jesus
quoted the words of Zechariah that the shepherd will be struck and the sheep
will be scattered, meaning: Jesus would be arrested and the disciples would
flee and abandon him. However, 50 days later, the fearful disciples were
empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Not even persecution silenced them. With the help of the printing press and
electronic media this goal is now within reach.
With the birth of Christ, the
shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem followed the example of good shepherds
by accepting God’s message, obeying his command, visiting the Baby, and
spreading the good news.
1. The Lord is my shepherd
I grew up on a sheep farm.
Although the sheep roamed freely in fenced camps, they had to be herded
occasionally for inspection, treatment, shearing, and loading onto trucks
for the marketplace. Most baby animals are adorable; new-born lambs are near
the top of the list. Sometimes, ewes did not bond with their lambs, so the
lambs were bottle-fed and became pets.
As the word “sheepish”
indicates, sheep are not intelligent. While grazing, they often wander off –
easy prey for predators. Our propensity to wander off and get into trouble
may be the reason why God portrays himself in the Bible as a shepherd and us
as sheep. It is not a compliment for us, but it highlights one of God’s
endearing qualities: his caring for his flock.
The renowned images of God as
shepherd are found in Psalm 23 and John 10. David was a shepherd-boy, so he
spoke from personal experience when he said, “The LORD is my shepherd; I
shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside
the still waters.” A sheep’s first priority is grazing; only when filled, it
will lie down to ruminate. David found calm and peace in the thought that
God cared for him as he cared for the sheep.
About 2 centuries after David,
Isaiah connected to the same imagery when he prophesied about the Messiah:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his
arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young”
(Is. 40:11). These words were fulfilled when Jesus interacted with children
and blessed them, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not
hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).
Ten centuries after David,
Jesus presented himself as the Good Shepherd. The thief, wolf and hireling
are interested in the flock for selfish reasons, but the Good Shepherd calls
his sheep out, they know his voice and follow him to lush pastures. He risks
his own life to protect his sheep. He lays his life down voluntarily.
By connecting “the LORD is my
shepherd” with “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus affirmed that he was God
incarnated: “I and my Father are one.” He exposed the motives of his
enemies, and highlighted his own motive of self-sacrifice.
light of these touching images of God as shepherd, it is understandable that
the shepherds of Bethlehem, low in social standing, were of high rank in
God’s eyes. Angels announced the birth of the Saviour to the shepherds of
Bethlehem, not to the Pharisees of Jerusalem.
Treasures in clay jars
3. Ancient letters depict early church
The Acts and Epistles of the
Apostles are jewels in clay jars. They show how the promise of Jesus was
fulfilled: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and
you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and to
the ends of the earth.” Chapters 1-7 of Acts show the spreading of
Christianity in Jerusalem, 8-12 the progress in Judea and Samaria, and 13-28
the increase in other parts of the empire.
Christians remained in
Jerusalem, so God scattered them by persecution. The clay jars had to carry
the treasure of the gospel to other regions. God transformed Saul, the
persecutor, into Paul, the missionary. On his second journey, he fled
Thessalonica by night. He eventually landed in Corinth where he stayed 18
months. From there he wrote his two letters to the Thessalonians to finish
what he left uncompleted when he fled in a hurry. The greeting used in these
letters was repeated in all his later epistles: “Grace to you and peace from
God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
On his third journey, Paul
worked for about three years in Ephesus. The church in Corinth sought his
advice on problems, and he responded by writing to them four letters of
which two survived. In these letters, Paul gave practical advice, showing
the kind of problems churches in that time coped with. Paul revealed much of
his personal feelings for the Corinthians, but these letters also contain
great truths, like his summary of the gospel and its effect (2 Cor.
Paul visited Corinth again,
and over-wintered there. Many scholars assume that he wrote his letters to
the Galatians and to the Romans in that time. In these letters he explained
his main theme: salvation through grace and faith. It was a response to the
teachings of those who wanted to force Christians to observe Jewish law. The
issue had been settled by the Jerusalem decree (Acts 15), but some Jewish
Christians persisted with their legalistic views.
During Paul’s two years of
house-arrest in Rome, he wrote a letter to the Ephesians, Philippians,
Colossians, and to Philemon. He spelled out the essence of the gospel and
its application on their lifestyle. When Paul was freed, he wrote his
pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, giving advice for ministering to the
The general epistles of Peter,
James, John and Jude contain valuable instruction about the faith and its
practical application. The Hebrew letter explains the gospel from Old
Testament prophecies. The book of Revelation is also a letter, but in
apocalyptic form. The treasure of salvation has been carried forth by the
Bible and by believers.
2. Gospels preserve greatest story
It is widely accepted that six
of the Pauline epistles (1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans and
Galatians) were written before the Gospels. The facts about Jesus were
well-known in the early church, so Paul did not give much biographical data
about Christ. God called four other writers to preserve the Jesus-story for
A church father of the 2nd
century affirmed that Mark wrote his gospel as Peter told it to him, so it
is a dictated eyewitness report. It is the shortest of the gospels, focusing
on the main deeds and words of Christ as recalled by his leader disciple.
The main motive for
undertaking the recording of Christ’s life might have been the aging of
eyewitnesses who could attest to what he said and did. Soon the apostles
would be gone and the church would only have hearsay info to depend upon. A
written eyewitness report was urgently needed; so, Peter and Mark made time
to fulfill in that need.
As tax-collector, Matthew kept
notes for business purposes. When he became a disciple, he also made notes
of Jesus’ lessons. When he read the gospel of Mark, he realized that his
notes would be a valuable addition to what Peter and Mark accomplished. His
longest verbal reports are: the Sermon on the Mount, some of the parables,
sending out the disciples, the scolding of the Pharisees, and the lessons on
Paul met Luke on his 2nd
journey, leaving him behind in Philippi to support the new church. On Paul’s
3rd journey, Luke accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, where Paul was
arrested. During Paul’s two-year custody in Caesarea, Luke used the time to
make contact with people who saw and heard Jesus. He collected important
data about the birth of Christ, and about the six months before his
crucifixion. Luke saved many parables for us. He referred more to women and
to Jesus’ prayers than Mark or Matthew.
While the synoptic gospels
probably originated about 60-67 AD, the gospel of John was most likely
written about 15 years later. Because the other gospels were already known,
John did not have to repeat all the detail. He focused on Jesus’ ministry in
Jerusalem during various visits. He described four great signs Jesus
performed in the mother city. He also recorded discourses Jesus had with the
temple elite. One third of John’s gospel describes the last hours of Jesus
with his disciples, his trial, death, resurrection and appearances to his
church recognized the consensus and authenticity of the four gospels. They
are jars in which the treasure of God’s good news about Christ has been
stored for 20 centuries.
1. Knowledge stored in people, books
The humble clay jar has stored
many treasures. Baked clay is as hard and durable as stone, and can survive
sun, rain, heat, cold, microbes and insects. The Dead Sea scrolls were
preserved in clay jars for 2000 years. Earthen pots can be shattered to
pieces, but when handled carefully, these fragile jars protect their
treasure for ages.
Paul compares believers with
clay jars carrying treasure of great value (2 Cor. 4:7). Although the
individual jar fulfills a great purpose, the jar can easily be replaced. It
is the treasure inside that is important.
The main, continuous message
of the Bible is God’s plan of salvation to save sinners. When the human race
was almost wiped out in the Flood, Noah and the ark was that “jar” that
preserved the messianic line. The patriarchs carried in their hearts and
minds the treasure of God’s promise about the Redeemer.
God provided jars for his
treasure in every generation. In the first five books of the Bible, Moses
stored important data about God’s plan of salvation from the beginning until
his own time.
The authors of the books in
the Bible, and those who copied these aging scrolls onto new ones, were
important jars for God’s message of salvation. However, they would not have
written if there was nothing to write about. The characters and events in
the Bible served as vessels for the message.
David was a newsmaker in his
time. His life contained many lessons to write about. His own poetry became
part of the treasure that was saved and passed on for 3000 years.
The word of God was stored in
the most holy part of the temple. When the book of the Law got lost, due to
idolatry, it was found – degraded but preserved – in a store room of the
temple (2 Kings 22).
Those who collected King
Solomon’s proverbs, preserved the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
The prophets wrote down their visions and messages, protecting them for
posterity. The four Major Prophets were recorded in separate scrolls, and
the twelve Minor Prophets were bundled into one scroll.
Despite the fluctuating curve
of Israel’s spiritual life, the message was preserved by scrolls in clay
jars, and in the devoted hearts of the faithful over many generations.
Since the invention of
printing in the 15th century, the Bible has been preserved and
multiplied on paper. In recent years electronic media have become jars by
storing Scripture magnetically. However, without believers it won’t be
stored at all.
Unfortunately, the shelve-life of books, tapes and DVD’s is limited. Hard
disk drives can be wiped by accident, malice, and nuclear explosions. The
scrolls in clay pots were safer.
4. Crumbs from the Master's table
Jesus sometimes taught by
paradox, using words that sounded self-contradictory, such as: “Whoever
desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my
sake will save it.”
He also used extreme contrasts
to make a point: “Remove the plank from your own eye, then you will see
clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
This apparent contradiction of
terms is evident in his interaction with the woman in Phoenicia. It was
Jesus’ first trip to a region outside Israel. How did it happen?
After he had ministered for
two years in Galilee, he fed the five thousand. They wanted to make him king
right away, but he moved higher up on the hill to pray.
A few days later, he spoke to
the crowd in the synagogue of Capernaum, explaining that he had to die to
fulfill his task. What they needed was not more bread or manna but the bread
of life, his body and blood. Those who would eat his flesh and drink his
blood would have eternal life.
The crowd took his words
literally, and was offended; the eating of blood was prohibited by the Law
of Moses. Many turned away from him, realizing he was not the leader that
would help them to throw off the Roman yoke.
Rejected by Israel, Jesus went
to the Gentiles. However, he knew that his disciples were not yet ready for
this shift of focus. So, in his contact with the Phoenician woman, he used
phrases that were still part of the disciples’ philosophy: “Israel should be
our first priority; we should not give the children’s bread to the dogs.”
This woman’s problem was not
policy or philosophy. Her little daughter was suffering in the clutches of a
cruel demon. She had heard enough about this healer from Galilee to throw
herself at his feet and plead as only a desperate, loving mother can.
God gave her the words that
would soften the hardest heart: “Yes, Lord, but the puppies under the table
wait for the crumbs falling from the master’s table.” She saw herself as a
little dog waiting for the crumbs. She was not demanding; she was begging.
Jesus’ heart did not need
softening, but those of the disciples. When that happened, Jesus granted her
request and her daughter was healed.
However, the disciples still
had to chew their cud, so to speak. The good news had just flowed to someone
outside Israel’s borders – the gospel had become available to the Gentiles
Long before Philip and Peter
baptized the first Gentiles, Jesus introduced the disciples to this notion
with an object lesson they would never forget.
3. Salvation has come to this house
The greatness of a person is
not determined by body size. The small David slay the gigantic Goliath; the
short guy from Corsica became the feared Napoleon; and the stumpy Winston
Churchill was Britain’s prime minister during World War II.
Although the story of
Zacchaeus starts with his short stature, that was not his real problem. He
accepted his shortness with humour. When he could not get a glimpse of Jesus
because of the crowd, he did not hesitate to make a fool of himself by
climbing in a sycamore tree to get a better view. He knew the crowd would
also get a good view of him, and being a tax-collector, he was not their
Why would a rich man risk his
dignity in such an impulsive way? Maybe he was inspired by the healing of
the blind beggar, who was still jumping with joy alongside Jesus. The rich
man wanted what the poor man enjoyed—a new life.
It must have been quite an
awkward moment when Jesus stopped beneath the branch where Zacchaeus sat.
When the renowned healer-preacher looked up with a smile, all eyes turned to
the rich man in the tree. The hated tax-collector grinned self-consciously
and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Well, Lord, here I am.”
Jesus called him on his name
and invited him into a friendly relationship: “Zacchaeus, come down, I want
to stay at your home today.” Jesus still does that: He stops at the place
where you watch as a curious outsider, calls you by the name, and invites
you to become an involved insider.
Jesus saved Zacchaeus from
gross embarrassment by asking him to come down and serve some refreshments
at his opulent home. This turned the whole situation around. The
tax-collector became joyful and the crowd turned grumpy. How could Jesus
dare to eat with such a sinner?
When Zacchaeus heard the
criticism, he vowed to turn his life around and refund those he cheated.
Jesus knew his change of behaviour was the result of his change of heart. He
affirmed that salvation had come to that house, when the owner invited Jesus
into his home and heart. The reviled tax-collector was restored as son of
The story started with
Zacchaeus’ physical shortness; it ends with his spiritual greatness, thanks
to God’s Mediator. God wants to use his children as ambassadors to reconcile
sinners with God (2 Cor. 5:18).
Jesus summarized his ministry
in a few words, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was
lost.” A week after this incident, Jesus paid in full for the sins of
mankind on the Cross of Calvary.
2. I believe you are the Christ
First impressions of another
person are often one-sided and unfair. At the moment of introduction, we
have only external clues to assess. We may be misled: people usually put up
a façade when introduced; we don’t know the real self and history of the
person; and sub-conscious prejudices, spawned by our past experiences, may
make us either too positive or too negative about a stranger.
I’m sure many of us can recall
instances where we changed our mind about someone when we had the
opportunity to discover the real person. Then we had to conclude: “He/she
did not appear friendly, but actually he/she has a heart of gold.”
Many remember only Luke’s
picture of Martha: the woman who was so focused on housekeeping and cooking
that she missed out on fellowship with Jesus. Not quite. John shows another
side of Martha: her understanding of the person and power of Jesus.
Look at John’s story: Martha’s
brother Lazarus is critically ill. He’s weakening fast. Desperate, Martha
sends a messenger to Jesus in the Jordan Valley. He promises to come but
tarries two days before heading for Bethany. When someone tells Martha that
Jesus has been spotted near Bethany, she leaves her household chores
immediately and runs to her friend.
Out of breath she hugs him and
blurts: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I
know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” She blames Jesus for
coming too late, but affirms her trust in his power – even now nothing is
impossible for him.
When Jesus promises that
Lazarus will live, she takes it as a referral to the resurrection of the
last day. Then Jesus conveys to Martha truth that will comfort many through
the ages: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will
live… Do you believe this?” Martha responds with amazing insight and faith:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to
come into the world.” Martha has been illuminated.
When Martha’s sister joins
them, Jesus weeps with them and with all who mourn. He has the tomb opened,
and calls Lazarus back to live, to his old body. Martha’s faith has been
vindicated: God gives Jesus what he asks (Ps. 2:7-8).
Martha and her family are
overjoyed. When Jesus arrives for the Passover, Martha organizes a welcome
meal for him, and her sister Mary anoints him with expensive aromatic oil.
Lazarus is at the meal too, telling the guests about his death and
Later, Jesus rose from death
with a new body. He is the first-fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20).
1. I was blind but now I see
Many disabled people have
astonished the world with their incredible adaptation to a handicap. Some
without arms developed dexterous feet and toes. Some amputees broke records
as blade-runners. The deaf can learn to speak and lip-read; the blind can
transverse city streets with guide-dogs, and read with the help of Braille
In the time of Christ, these
options were not available. The man born blind needed a friend every day to
take him to a temple gate. His only hope was charity. He had no hope of
improving his situation.
He had some factors in his
favour, though. With no visual image of his world, this man finds his way by
hearing and touching. Taste and smell enables him to enjoy the morsels
obtained by begging. Lack of vision sharpens his other senses. He identifies
people by the sound of their voices, footsteps, and actions.
One day, sitting at a temple
gate and begging for alms, he hears a clear voice addressing the crowd in
the temple court. Then people start shouting angrily. The hasty foot-steps
of a small group tell him they flee from the angry mob.
Though rejected by the crowd,
the person with the clear voice notices the beggar and says, “I am the light
of the world.” The blind man is puzzled when clay is applied to his eyelids.
“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” the voice says.
Two people grab him by his
arms and lead him to this place. As he washes, a strange sensation overcomes
him: he sees light for the first time in his life. More washing, more light
– until the full vision of the surroundings overwhelms him.
Jumping for joy, he shouts, “I
can see! I can see! Praise God! I can see!”
Overjoyed, he hurries to the
area where he lives to share the good news. He is rebuffed by sceptical
friends and hostile Pharisees who refuse to believe the most fantastic
moment in his life. Despite the putdown, he joyfully testifies, “One thing I
know: I was blind but now I see!”
When he reasons with the
Pharisees that a person who can open the eyes of the blind must be sent by
God, they ban him from the synagogue.
Seeing but lonely, he wanders
back to the temple. He has not seen his healer but he knows his voice. He
wants to thank him for the wonderful gift he received.
A friendly person suddenly
asks, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” Aha! Unmistakably, his voice! The
former blind man sinks to his knees and worships, relishing the privilege to
see his Redeemer. “Yes, Lord, I believe,” he confesses from the heart.