Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:2d “. . .James the son of Zebedee,. . .”
The life of James can be highlighted in three words: family, ambition, and thunder. First, James shared faith with family. The first four Apostles were two sets of brothers. It is good when people united physically are also knit spiritually.
Many find family hard to win to Jesus, but this harsh reality is softened by the fact relatives are easy to demonstrate Christianity to. Kinfolk see each other often. Thus, unbelieving family members are forced to see, firsthand, Christianity in action in believing family members. Family is a natural communication system, a bridge which lets spiritual influence cross over from Christians to prechristians.
Relatives we dread seeing the worst, due to their sin, are the ones we should make most effort to be with. They are the ones who most need to see Jesus in us.
When around prechristian family members, be on guard, live at your best. Let their lostness goad us to a higher level of living. They may openly mock us, but are still forced to see our conduct. In their heart of hearts, they know the difference improves our quality of life. The Christian life is its own best defender.
Be comforted in knowing our lives do serve as secret checks to the excesses of others. Without us, the sins of extended family would probably be worse.
Christians are not perfect. No one expects us to be. Don’t carry a pompous air of superiority. If we falter–and we will–humbly apologize. Moments of honest vulnerability can be our strongest witness. Prechristians are often more understanding and forgiving than we give them credit for. Hypocrisy is more damaging to our cause than is failure truly apologized for. Our task is to remain faithful.
Live as godly a life as possible, trusting we may someday have a chance to win our prechristian loved ones. Two sisters in our church recently indicated on their registration card they wanted information mailed on how to become a Christian. Their elderly dad was nearing death without Christ and they wanted to make one last effort to win him. It worked. They never gave up, and because of it, shall someday see their dad in heaven. Such success will not always crown our efforts, but staying faithful is our best hope of winning loved ones to Jesus.
Second, James was ambitious. He and his brother John grew up in a home of means. They had hired servants (MK 1:20), and their mother contributed regularly to Jesus’ ministry (MT 27:55-56). This social standing may have caused them to deem themselves a cut above the other disciples, for one day their mother asked Jesus to give her two sons the kingdom’s highest seats of honor (see MT 20:20-23 NAS). She told Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” James and John replied, “We are able.” The two felt their mom’s request was appropriate. They had no reservations about feeling worthy of the honor. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, with two malefactors on each side, I wonder if James and John still wanted to be on His right and on His left.
Beware the seductive lure of ambition. We all want to be on the platform, but are we also willing to serve in the nursery? Everyone likes to be the soloist, but how about being a member of the choir? We rarely find believers who truly understand the innermost essence of being a Christian. Hear Jesus’ words again, “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (MT 23:11 NAS). To add emphasis to His words, He washed the disciples’ feet. Make a habit of looking at people around you and asking, what can I do to serve them, how can I bless them today.
Many clamor for seats of honor. We need more servants. Mac Brunson, Pastor at First Baptist Dallas, tells of a lady who was crushed on a sidewalk beneath a steel crane that collapsed. For six hours, as she was pinned to the ground and crews tried to free her, a construction worker held her hand. Many weeks and several surgeries later, a reporter asked her how she survived. She said she would have given up and not made it had it not been for the man who held her hand.
We need more servants. Gene and Rowena Sooter, members at Second, regularly visit residents at a local nursing home. Their latest report reads, “Life continues at its own slow pace with the residents. We try to brighten lives and give them hope, reminding them they are not forgotten. We love them, but most important, Jesus loves them and He has not forgotten them. We work with the activity director, Irene Painter. . . .(we) asked her if she wants us to continue (coming). She said that if we did not continue to come to the center they would come to our house.” May the Lord make us servants willing to hold hands and visit the lonely.
Third, James was a thunderbolt. Jesus gave James and John a nickname, “the sons of thunder” (MK 3:17). They were hotheads, firebrands. In their early days, their fervency ran amok. When a Samaritan village refused accommodations to Jesus, James and John were infuriated, and said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (LK 9:54 NAS). Jesus turned and rebuked them. Their fanaticism had to be harnessed. A church needs defenders of the faith, Christianity needs people who are blunt honest, we need believers who won’t compromise, but remember, zeal tends to be brash and stupid.
Apart from love and sensitivity, zeal destroys. Fire with softness warms, fire without softness scorches. A serious danger of zeal is not knowing its limits. James and John crossed over the line of unacceptable behavior. They decided the Samaritan village was worthy of instant execution.
The sons of thunder were wrong, and many believers today follow their steps of error. I lamented in a previous sermon the latent racism that is slowing the Christian response to AIDS in southern Africa. Another delaying factor is the spirit displayed here by James and John. We hear of AIDS and often think, it’s their own fault, they’re just getting what they deserve, they made their own bed hard and now can sleep in it. Such thinking is unchristlike. In the first place, it’s not true for all the orphans and children, and for many adults. Secondly, even if a person’s illness is caused by their own life choices, he or she is still a human being created in God’s image and one for whom Christ died, and thus of infinite worth. Even if a person blasphemes God to their last breath, they deserve to go to Hell with a Christian holding their hand.
There is a place for holy indignation. We should be aroused to oppose evil, but must never return evil for evil. Vengeance belongs to the Lord, not us. Only He knows when it is time to inflict punishment. Our task is to show His mercy to the nth degree.
Then came the end (AC 12:2). When Herod Agrippa I began his effort to exterminate the infant church–thereby proving himself a true descendant of his grandfather who tried to kill infant Jesus, and a true nephew of his uncle who beheaded John the Baptist–he first struck the lightning rod, the eldest son of thunder.
James’ fiery ways resulted in his being considered the most dangerous disciple. Only after James’ death did Herod arrest Peter. Thunderous to the end, James was the first Apostle to die, first to wear a martyr’s crown, first to enter Heaven.
James was executed with a sword. As he knelt with hands tied behind his back, and bent his head forward to lose it, I wonder what went through his mind. Family? He may have wondered if his family would ever even know what happened to him. Ambition? No, that issue had been settled long before. Thunder? Maybe, a bit of defiance may have remained, but his thunder soon ceased to roll.
Maybe the last reflections of another faithful servant can give us insight into what James thought at the end. Allen Gardiner, faithful missionary to Picton Island at the southern tip of South America, experienced many hardships and physical difficulties in his service for Jesus. Despite his troubles, he resolved, “While God gives me strength, failure will not daunt me.” In 1851, at age 57, he died on the mission field of disease and starvation. When his body was found, his diary lay nearby. It bore the record of hunger, thirst, wounds, and loneliness. The last entry showed the struggle of a shaky hand trying to write legibly. It read, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.” Maybe this is what James felt, a sense of gratitude for having been given a cause worth giving up his life for.