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Written December 17, 2012

Philip, by God’s grace the fourth disciple whom Jesus Christ called to follow him,

To John, who is even now compiling a gospel about the life of our Lord,


You have requested, for your forthcoming book, that I write to you with my recollections of the first few days I spent in Jesus’s company.  That was indeed a memorable week, I can assure you.

Meeting the Chosen One

I happened to be in Bethany-beyond-Jordan when the famous John the Baptist was baptizing there.  I was rooming with Andrew and Simon, two brothers who were friends of mine from back home in Bethsaida.

One of the brothers, Andrew, had recently become a follower of the Baptist.  Andrew and a second follower were standing near the Baptist one day.  (I won’t mention the other man’s name, but we referred to him afterwards as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” if you know what I mean.)  Jesus happened to walk by.  “There he goes!” the Baptist exclaimed.  “That’s the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!  I have seen it and I bear witness:  this is God’s Chosen One!”

Andrew didn’t quite know what to make of this, and the other disciple’s eyes widened, but they walked after the man whom the Baptist had pointed out.  Jesus turned around and asked what they wanted.  The other disciple answered, “Where are you staying, Teacher?”  “Come and see,” Jesus replied.  The two men followed.  It was about four in the afternoon, and they spent the rest of the day with him.

The first thing Andrew did the next morning was to come back to our rooming house and find his brother Simon, telling him “We’ve discovered the Messiah!”  Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and gave him the new name of Peter, the Rock.

It seems Jesus had been invited to a wedding in the Galilean town of Cana, near his own hometown of Nazareth.  He was planning to depart shortly, and Andrew and Simon Peter and the other disciple decided to tag along.

But before leaving, Andrew fetched me to meet Jesus too.  Jesus said simply, “Follow me.”  I knew immediately that I should.

Like Andrew, I just had to spread the news to somebody else.  I happened to know a man from Cana whose name was Nathaniel, and I knew he was in the area.  I went to find him.  He was sitting under a fig tree not far away.  I told him, “We’ve found the man foretold by the prophets!  It is Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”

“Nazareth?” exclaimed the man from Cana.  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  I answered, “Come and see.”  So he did.  Jesus saw him coming and said, “Now here's an Israelite who isn't afraid to speak his mind!”  Impressed, Nathaniel also became Jesus’s disciple.

A Wedding to Attend

Our little group, Jesus and his five new friends, arrived at Cana a couple of days later.  There we joined another group that had come out from Nazareth:  his mother Mary and her other sons, Jesus’s brothers.

I was introduced to the father of the bride.  “I’ll wager,” I said to him, “that when you invited ‘Mary and her guests’ you didn’t think that almost a dozen of us would show up!”

“No problem,” he replied.  “The more the merrier.  I’ve ordered extra food for the feast, and of course Clopas has agreed to pay for everything.”

“Clopas?” I asked.

“The groom,” he explained.  “I’m proud to say that my daughter is marrying a very wealthy man.  Now what was your name again?”

“Philip, from Bethsaida,” I answered.

“Really?  I have a little boy named Philip as well.  We call him ‘Philip Nicolai.’  He’s twelve years old.  You’ll see him around.  He’ll talk your ear off.”  And so he did.

The Younger Philip

“You haven’t met my sister, have you?” Philip Nicolai began.  “I’m glad she’s getting married.  I’m tired of having her traipse around the house.  She’s always boasting about the rich husband she’s landed.  You know how much Clopas is spending on his wedding?  It’s a lot, let me tell you.  My father had to order in 600 gallons of wine!  My sister doesn’t deserve it.  She and her friends will be in there with all the music and dancing, celebrating with all that strong drink, but not me.  I’m not even allowed to taste wine yet because I’m not old enough.  I can’t drink until I’ve had my bar mitzvah.  But that’s only six months away!  I’m planning ahead.”

Jesus had strolled over to join the conversation, which Philip Nicolai continued to monopolize.  “You want to know what I did, to plan ahead?  I skimmed off some of that fancy wine — some of the best stuff.  And I hid it until after my bar mitzvah.  Then we’ll have quite the celebration, my buddies and I, let me tell you.”

“How does one hide wine?” I asked.

The boy was happy to tell me.  “I found 30 empty clay water jugs.  They’re plainly marked ‘water,’ with the wavy-lines symbol, you know?  But I secretly filled each of them with five gallons of wedding wine.  Then I hid the jugs in a closet out in the spring house.  They’ll never find them there.”

“But isn’t that stealing?” Jesus asked mildly.  “You’ve read the Scriptures.  You do know thou shalt not steal, don’t you?”

“Clopas still has 450 gallons of wine for his feast,” Philip Nicolai rationalized.  “By the time they get through all of that, they’ll be so drunk they won’t know whether it’s wine or beer they’re guzzling.  They’ll never miss what I’ve set aside.”  The twelve-year-old trotted off, quite proud of his ingenuity.

Oh, No!  A Delay!

About then one of his older sisters came by.  She was the maid of honor, and she seemed distraught.  Nathaniel and I asked her what was wrong.

“This wedding’s going to be ruined!” she moaned.  “We scheduled the ceremony for sundown.  But that jerk just sent word that his business in Capernaum is taking longer than expected.”

“Do you mean Clopas, the bridegroom?”

“This is a disaster,” the maid of honor continued.  “He’s going to be several hours late getting here.  Late, to his own wedding!”

“So when exactly is he expected to arrive?”

“We don’t know!  It could be midnight, or even later!  What are we going to do?”

Well, the other guests figured out what to do.  They began sipping the wine.  The party started early, and the carefully-arranged chairs for the wedding ceremony began to fall into disarray.

The Lighted Passage

However, the bridesmaids couldn’t join in that frivolity.  They were expected to form an outdoor reception committee to welcome the groom.  Lined up in a double file alongside the path leading from the road to the door of the house, there they would stand, five from the bride’s family on one side and five from the groom’s family on the other, each holding a brightly-glowing oil lamp.  “You’ve got to be ready when the time comes!” demanded the maid of honor.  So the girls dutifully lit their lamps and stood huddled in the vestibule, waiting to go out.

Philip Nicolai was amused by the sight.  “Those girls think they’re so clever,” he giggled.  “They’re going to be standing there for hours!”

“I know how you can help,” his father suggested.  “Why don’t you go up on the roof and watch for Clopas?  When you see him coming, you can alert the rest of us, and we’ll send the bridesmaids out.”

“Of course!” Philip Nicolai exclaimed.  “I’ll be the watchman on the heights!  Just like in Isaiah chapter 52, when they saw the exiles returning from Babylon to Zion.  ‘Break forth together into shouts of joy, you ruins of Jerusalem!’  That’s what I’ll call out.”

“You don’t have to be quite that dramatic,” his father remonstrated.  “Our house might be a bit of a mess, but it’s hardly the ruins of Jerusalem.”  However, that didn’t dampen his son’s enthusiasm, and he scampered up to the roof.

Hours passed.  Alone under the stars, Philip Nicolai wrote a poem about his assignment.

“Hey, wake up!” the voice calls to us.
The guard up on the walls cries to us,
     “Wake up, dear town, Jerusalem!”

Now in night's dark midnight hour
The watcher shrilly calls with power,
     “Where are you, clever young women?

“Wake up!  The bridegroom's near.
Pick up your lamps and cheer,
Get ready now; the wedding's on.
You must go out and meet the groom.”

Editor’s note:  This poem actually was written by Philipp Nicolai — the real Philipp Nicolai, who lived in Germany and wrote the words for a hymn, “Wachet auf,” published in 1599.

Johann Sebastian Bach featured it 132 years later in his famous chorale Sleepers Awake.  Then 271 years after that, in 2002, Paul Farseth made the metrical verse translation into English that you see above.

At Last, He’s Arriving

It was indeed after midnight when we heard Philip Nicolai call out, “Hey, wake up!”  The girls had all dozed off.  I know; I was keeping my eye on them.  They hurriedly shook themselves, trimmed their lamps, and prepared to take their stations.

However, the five who represented the groom’s family discovered their lights were sputtering.  “Our lamps are going out!” they exclaimed to the other five.  “We didn’t bring any oil to refill them.  The maid of honor should have reminded us.  Give us some of yours.”

But the bride’s side of the aisle refused, saying, “We were prudent and brought extra flasks of oil, but we don’t have enough for all ten of us.  You’d better go to the store and buy some for yourselves.”  “At this time of night?” the others wailed.  But they had no choice.  They went off looking for lamp oil, and I never saw them again.

Jesus stood near me, taking this all in.  “You know,” he mused, “I could use this for a sermon illustration.  The kingdom of heaven is coming soon, but no one knows the day or the hour.  So we must always be ready, lest we miss the wedding.”

Editor’s note:  The resulting parable can be found at Matthew 25:1-13.  Before his crucifixion, Jesus (the "bridegroom") had promised to inaugurate his kingdom in the near future, within the lifetime of his disciples.  "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Mark 13:30).  But the apocalypse did not happen.  His arrival was delayed.  Decades later, some scholars believe, this parable was composed to urge Christians not to lose faith; the Second Coming could still happen at any time.

The ceremony was duly performed, though some decorations were now out of place and half the bridesmaids were absent.  Afterwards the party really began, and the wine really began to flow.

Running Dry

In the small hours of the morning, Jesus decided we’d all had enough, and our table stopped drinking.  Just in time, apparently, because it was not long afterward that his mother came by, followed by four worried-looking servants:  two waiters and two wine-stewards.  She whispered to Jesus, “They have no wine left.”

“That’s no concern of mine,” he told her.  “What do you want me to do about it?  My hour is not yet come.”

“I don't care,” she replied.  “See if there’s any way you can help.”  And to the servants she said, “Do whatever he tells you.”

“Well, Philip,” Jesus muttered to me, “Mother Mary has spoken.  It appears that my hour has come.  Let’s go take a look at the situation.  You come too, Philip Nicolai.”

Seven of us, including the four servants, trudged to the pantry in an adjoining building.  Philip Nicolai was singing, “Let’s go out to the pantry!  Let’s go out to the pantry!  Let’s go out to the pantry, and find ourselves some wine!”  He might have been sampling the grape slightly ahead of schedule.

In the outbuilding, we found no more wine.  But there were six stone water jars standing empty, the kind used for the Jewish rites of purification.  Each appeared to hold about 25 gallons.  A little multiplication reminded Jesus and me of the 150 gallons of wine that the boy had hidden in the spring house.  An idea began to form.

The Deception

“Fill the jars with water,” Jesus ordered the two waiters.

“Where should we find that much water?” they objected.  “Do you expect us to lug these huge stone jars out to the spring house, fill them up from the spring, and drag them back?  Once they’re filled, they’ll weigh 300 pounds each!”

“Hmm,” said Jesus.  “Perhaps there’s an easier way.  When I was in the spring house earlier, I think I saw some five-gallon water jugs in a closet there.”

“No!” screamed Philip Nicolai, having discerned the plan.  “We can’t carry all those jugs back here.”

“Of course we can, if we make several trips,” said Jesus.  “You two waiters, stay here.  The wine-stewards and the rest of you, follow me.”

When we opened the closet, the wine-stewards sniffed the water jugs and looked at each other questioningly.  But Jesus said, “Not a word.”  And, obeying Mary’s order, they were silent.  So the five of us, including a grumbling Philip Nicolai, carried the jugs back to the pantry and filled the stone jars to the brim.

“Now then,” said Jesus to the waiters, “draw some off and take it to the master of the feast,” and they did so.  The master tasted the “water” now turned into wine.  He didn’t know where it had come from, though of course the servants knew.  He called over the bridegroom to congratulate him.  “Everyone else,” he said, “serves the best wine first, and the poorer wine only after everyone is already tipsy.  But you have kept the best wine until now!”

Naturally, the waiters had to tell everyone how they had magically drawn this excellent wine from jars of ordinary water, and how Jesus was responsible for the transformation.  As word spread, people began referring to this trick as a miracle.  They remembered the story of the Greek goddess Oeno, to whom Dionysus gave the power of turning water into wine.  Perhaps Jesus himself was one of the gods.

It was the first of many “signs” that Jesus would perform, leading his disciples to believe in him.


(a retelling, with considerable embellishment, of John 1:34 through 2:11.  See also John 21:2.  Click here for some comments about writing this story)


Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.


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