James: A Son of Thunder
Mark 1:16-20, 10:35-45
6 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
There were three of Jesus’ apostles that were brought into an inner circle, who were granted some privileges that the others were not party to. It is almost as if Jesus was following the ancient dictum, that everything that was to be certified true, had to have been observed by 2 or 3 witnesses. Peter, James and John were the three chosen to be the primary witnesses of the Christ event. Of the three, John would live the longest, and James would meet an early death. Let me tell you his story.
The New Testament gives us six photographs of James the apostle who would soon be martyred. It is interesting to note that all the photographs are somewhat identical. Six times we meet him, and he is true to character in every one of them.
The fisherman. (Matthew 4:18-23)
James is a fisherman, tending to his task of fishing when Jesus encounters him. He and his brother John work with their father Zebedee, an owner of a fishing enterprise, with several employees working for them. My image of fishermen is of burly, strong armed men who are at times rough and ready. Then one day they are approached by Jesus. He calls these two brothers to follow him, and Matthew’s gospel says “They immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.” Impetuous men these two brothers! They immediately left their profession, left their familiar world, and left their ancestral home, to follow Jesus. That is the first photograph of James and his brother.
Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:13-17)
The second photograph fills out some of the details. It is not long before Jesus has James and his brother pegged. He gives some of his followers nicknames. Simon he called Peter or “Rocky”, to these two brothers he gave the Aramaic name Boanerges, which means “Sons of thunder.” Why do these brothers remind him of thunder? Were they loud when they spoke? Were they boisterous in their activities? Were they like angry thunderheads dropping their lightning bolts on those around them? Was the nickname seen as a complement or a jibe? We cannot be sure. Perhaps a bit of both. This second photograph provides significant colour and texture to the portrait of James.
Fire on the Samaritans. (Luke 9:51-56)
A third picture gives us reason to believe that their nickname was well chosen. Jesus was traveling through the northern area of Palestine heading towards Jerusalem. The men were all tired and were looking for lodging for the night. They were passing through Samaria and a couple of the apostles went ahead to make arrangements in a nearby village. But when the villagers knew that Jesus and his friends were heading towards Jerusalem, they refused them hospitality. James and John have the solution. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” There is a loyalty to Jesus that is so strong that they are willing to wipe out any opposition or insult against him. Jesus says “Hold on fellows. You don’t know what spirit you are of. “He has come to help people not to annihilate them. But apparently the sons of thunder preferred the Elijah on Mount Carmel approach much more.
The Strange Exorcist. (Mark 9::38)
There is a fourth snapshot of these two brothers. They had encountered a stranger who was exorcising evil spirits in the name of Jesus. This time brother John is the spokesman for the pair. He says “We tried to stop him because he wasn’t one of us.” Jesus response is “Oh no! Don’t do that. If he’s not against us, he is for us.” These two brothers may not simply be being sectarian here. They are simply jealous for Jesus. And since they go off half-cocked much of the time, the strange exorcist feels a bit of their thunder. There is a fervency of temperament in these brothers that they tend to act now and to think later.
First in line (Mark 10:35-45, Matthew 20:20-28)
There is a fifth photograph that is no more pretty than the others. These two brothers have been hearing Jesus talking about the kingdom of God. It does not take them long to decide on a plan of action. Maybe they have seen Peter being more prominent that they thought right, so they approach Jesus. There are two varying accounts of this moment. In Matthew 20 the mother of the two young men comes to Jesus begging for a favour. In Mark’s version the two brothers come asking Jesus directly. “Promise us,” they say, “Whatever we ask.” Jesus is rightly cautious. “What do you want?” The words come easily. “When you come into your kingdom, let one of us be seated on your right and the other on your left.” They are asking for the places of prominence, and they want to get in their request first. They are butting in line. They are getting the jump on the gun. It is not that they are arrogant, they are just used to leading and used to bulldozing their way to the front of any line. The other ten disciples are angry. Angry, perhaps, because these two sons of thunder have beaten them to the punch.
There is a rashness about these two men. They are spontaneous men who act upon impulse. And my guess is that they rush into things automatically. What they want is what they aim for. They are driven by passion to go always for the gold. These are not men who hide their feelings or their desires. They are not repressed introverts. They live most of their lives in the world, not inside their own heads. They are extroverts.
Jesus is not angry at them. He knows these boyish men. He responds. “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I must be baptized with?” He is referring to suffering and death. And these two men, without even reflecting a moment say in unison, “We are able!” Of course history tells us that a week later, in the garden of Gethsemane, they either fled or followed afar off. They were not able to drink the cup, at least not yet.
The First Apostle Martyred (Acts 12:1-3)
The final photograph is different than all the others. The first five pictures are of two men who stick close to each other. They are not only biological brothers; they are brothers in spirit. In those pictures, however, James is mentioned first. It is presumed that he is the older of the two. That may well be true. But I suspect that he is named first because he is also the leader of the two.
We have some other insights about John his brother that are so different than these pictures that some of us have a suspicion. James was really the Son of Thunder. John was known by the company he kept. All the other pictures of John are compassionate. When he is with James he is just passionate. It seems that John followed the lead of his brother. James is the bold one. The leader of the team.
As I have said, the final episode is different than the others. It is the picture of James alone. Acts 12:1-3 reads,
“About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James the brother of John killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jewish leaders, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”
James is beheaded in AD 44. He is the first of the Apostles to die for his Lord. But why James? Why not one of the others? Can I make a guess? James was so overt about his allegiance to Jesus and his identity with the Christian church that he was recognized early as a ring leader. If some of the believers had said “James keep your head down or you are going to lose it” James would have thought that to be cowardice. There is a boldness in this man, that my guess is, that he helped put his own head into the noose. That is James. A man passionate at all moments for the things he believed in. There is no hesitancy of allegiance. With a zeal for Jesus and the Kingdom, his very presence must have been a red flag before a raging bull. When the authorities look to pull off a coup d’état, James is the natural one to hit. And James is executed because he bore witness for his Lord. I am sure some in that early church would have considered James a bit too bold for his own good.
Why Did Jesus Choose him?
Question: With such a trait, why would Jesus choose this man? He is like a loose cannon. Not quite predictable. Always going overboard. Always going too far.
But it is of interest to note that Jesus did not just choose him. He chose him and placed him in the inner circle of three. Peter, James and John were chosen to give early leadership in the creation of the Church. But why this kind of a man?
Because if a person’s strengths are also their weakness, their weaknesses may also be their strengths. The early days of the Christian Church were to call for courage. Jesus needed people who would dare to swim against the tide and to fly in the face of systemic evil. The impetuous passions of James, when harnessed by grace and by God, would give the church much of its early impetus. If you wanted someone to blaze a trail that others could follow, you would choose James. If you wanted to get the word out clear and fast, you would not choose a timid soul, you would choose the extrovert. James may not be the person you would want for your room-mate, perhaps, but as a catalyst to get things started, James would be your man. So Jesus chose James the self-starter, to be part of the start-up of His church.
Some of us are like James. People of action. People who feel deeply about life. Well, to this very hour God is looking for people who fear nothing but sin, and love nothing more than God. With such people God can build his church in every generation and in every location.
Some of us are introverts. We are quiet, reflective, pensive. We find the loud and clumsy hard to live with. If we are not careful, however, some of us would make the church into a theological society where all we do is think.
There is always the need for those who believe in God so deeply that they cannot keep quiet about it. There are those whose convictions are so clear, that they are moved to action. We need to pray that James might become the model apostle for some of us.