Last week we concluded with a bit of a cliffhanger. Jesus had been talking with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the Samaritan town of Sychar. They’re having a rousing conversation, and just then Jesus’ disciples show up. And that’s where we ended.
Before we pick up the story and find out what happens next, I think we need to back up to the beginning of the chapter. Partly to review, but partly because I skipped something last week. Look at John 4, verses 1-3:
The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
We read that last week. Jesus’ ministry had started, and he was training his disciples to do ministry. They are doing the baptizing. This week, let’s pay close attention to Jesus’ interaction with his disciples. That is what I skipped over last week. So what do we see in these verses about Jesus’ interaction with his disciples?
First of all, what we see in verses 1-3 might seem like a surprising move on Jesus’ part. Just when his new ministry is going great, Jesus shuts it down. He has a thriving ministry in Judea, but when he finds out the Pharisees are taking notice of his success, he shuts down his ministry and heads north to Galilee, away from the Pharisees’ central area.
It got me thinking, was Jesus being cowardly? Is he giving his disciples a lesson in caving in to fear? No! We’ve learned in our study of the Gospel of John that already once he walked right into the temple and created a ruckus that could have gotten him killed. Jesus was not a coward. We also know what will eventually get him killed. He will eventually walk right back into enemy territory and face them down. He is not afraid. So why he is seemingly quitting and fleeing to get away from the Pharisees?
Because Jesus is smart.
As he said to his mother Mary at the wedding in Cana in chapter 2, “My time is not yet come.” Jesus is a master of managing his ministry, of discipling his friends, of waiting until the time is right. Here in chapter 4, the time is not right. But what is it that is not right?
If he stayed in Judea, it is likely that he would face increasing confrontation from the Pharisees, which could lead to his arrest and death too soon. Too soon? Why not just get it over with? It’s why he came, right? Considering how awful his death would be, wouldn’t he just want to be done with it? No. Why not? What’s he waiting for?
Jesus has not yet invested enough into the lives of his disciples to the point where they are ready to take over for him. In other words, Jesus knows an end is coming. Or rather he knows a transition is coming, a transition from his leadership of the ministry, to their leadership of the ministry.
You and I know that transition well. We call it the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. To us it seems like the most natural thing in the world, the climatic events that led to the beginning of the church. It is an amazing story. But we’ve had all our lives to learn that story, not to mention the 2000 years of history during which the church developed and continues to this day. In other words, we are used to that story, that outcome.
But 2000 years ago there in Judea, Jesus had only barely started a relationship with the 12 disciples. By this time, they might have been together a few months at most. They’re not ready to take over leadership of the ministry. Jesus needs more time to disciple them, to invest in them. So he makes space for that investment of time, for that discipleship to happen. He makes space by packing up his ministry and heading home.
We learn an important principle from Jesus here. People need time to grow. Rarely do we mature deeply and rapidly. Usually, it takes us a long time. When our kids were younger, and parental disciplinary action was a normal part of our lives (thank God we are past that!), we used to dream of what I call The Golden Discipline. The Golden Discipline is the perfect parental response to a child’s bad behavior.
It might be a serious conversation. It might be a grounding. It might be a taking away of something special, like their cell phone. Once we removed the door from our son’s room, a discipline we learned from our friends! Or it might be, when they were younger, some kind of corporal punishment, like “the snap.” Snap their legs, hand or mouth, depending on what they did. In our minds, if we talked long enough, intense enough, took away a privilege, or did just the right snap, it would be the golden punishment and they would get it, be remorseful, never need to be punished again, and the rest of our lives would be awesome.
Except there is no golden punishment. No matter how perfectly conceived and delivered was our punishment, our kids would misbehave again. And again. And again. Just like you and I all did when we were young, usually causing our parents stress and frustration. No, there is no golden punishment. There is only time, lots of frustrating parental time, investing in our kids.
What Michelle and I tried, and rarely succeeded at, was emotionally-stable, consistent enforcement of the rules, in love and grace, fully realizing that our accountability would need to be applied probably hundreds or thousands of times. It was hard. We messed up from time to time and had to apologize to our kids. Sometimes our kids had to figure how to grow up in ways we couldn’t teach them or show them.
Ever so slowly, we watched our kids mature to the amazing place they are at today. Young adults, two of whom are now married, including one who is starting the parenting journey himself! And they continue to grow and change. What we have begun to enjoy is becoming friends with our adult children.
I think something like that is why Jesus packed up his ministry and left. Obviously not because he was punishing his disciples. But because they needed time to grow. He had more to teach them. More to show them. They needed more time to observe him, watch him, and learn from him.
I find that helpful. We, and especially we Americans, want success now, and we define success by “Bigger is better…NOW!” We fire the coach if he doesn’t win the Super Bowl in his first season coaching the team. We pull out our hair if the WiFi is down. We can be so impatient, so discontent. We can struggle with the slow grind that is sometimes necessary to become proficient at a skill, to build a strong foundation for a family, a ministry, a business, an organization. We struggle with patience.
That doesn’t mean that if we master patience and pace ourselves just right, things will turn out splendidly every time. As with parenting, time is no guarantee of perfection or a great outcome. Remember that Jesus, even after he put in lots of time and investment in his disciples, still had one of them betray him and one deny him. Not to mention that at the moment of crisis, when he was arrested, they all ran away scared. They left Jesus alone.
That said, there is a great wisdom in Jesus’ steady, slow patience. One person has called it a “long obedience in the same direction,” in God’s direction. We might not see the fruit of long obedience in the same direction. We might pass away before we reap the fruit of our investment. Sometimes, rarely, we might see fruit fast. But for the most part, the fruit of changed lives requires a long obedience in the same direction. That long obedience grows fruit in ourselves and in others.
I have often believed that I’d rather be a late bloomer than a flash in the pan. I suspect Jesus was like that. Patient, slow, steady, relationship-building, investing. He didn’t start ministry until he was 30! Then right near the beginning, just as his ministry seems to have successfully launched and is gaining ground, he hears that the Pharisees are throwing up warning signs about him. Jesus knows that staying and facing them is a bad move at this early stage. So he wisely packs up his thriving ministry and leaves.
At this point, it is highly possible that Jesus’ decision to head all the way to Galilee was a disastrous ministry decision, at least from the perspective of “Bigger is Better.” He was thriving there in Judea. He was outpacing John the Baptist. To pack it up and head north was to essentially call it quits and start over. Sometimes you need to do that. Jesus did. The time was not yet right.
In the next post, we’ll follow Jesus and his disciples on their journey north, which takes them to a surprising place.