James and John to the Sons of Thunder

Pastor Josh Combs

“James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder).” Mark 3:17

Like children fixated on the petty and unimportant, James and John among the other disciples often served as discouraging distractions to the Lord. Whereas the eyes of the Lord were fixed on Calvary’s cross, these ambitious followers of Jesus were angry at a perceived slight by the Samaritans. Racial and cultural tensions between Jews and Samaritans were too great to be ignored or escaped. In the several interactions Jesus had with the Samaritans recorded in Scripture, or the parable He told that we know as “The Good Samaritan,” Jesus encounters, addresses, and at times corrects this racial strife. Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans returned the sentiment.

In Luke chapter 9, as Jesus is traveling towards Jerusalem, He and His disciples find no welcome in an unnamed Samaritan village. Accents, dress codes, various customs, and dietary restrictions would quickly reveal a Jew to a Samaritan. Equally, Samaritans would be identified and despised by Jews. A Samaritan woman, whom Jesus encounters at a well, honestly asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, asked for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). John adds, “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Even the religious leaders, in their barrage of attacks on Jesus, reveal that calling a Jew a Samaritan had become, in their minds, a vicious insult. “Are we not right,” they snarled at Jesus, “in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48). In the hearts of these religious leaders, Samaritans and demon-possessed madmen were in the same category of deplorable, disposable people.

When Jesus and the disciples found no hospitality or warm welcome, the disciples were incensed. They felt personally insulted and provoked to come to the defense of Jesus. He was their miracle-working Master, who had healed and ministered to Samaritans. But now all the guest rooms were supposedly full, schedules packed, and no food available. So rather than moving past the town and traveling further, two angry siblings have a plan. These men were raised in the cutthroat world of the Galilean fishing industry. They knew retribution, retaliation, and how to send a message.

Jesus had called these two brothers, James and John, to follow Him. The Lord, according to Mark’s Gospel, had even given these brothers a nickname that seems quite fitting: “Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). These men were no choir boys.  John is a long way from being known as “the beloved” or viewed as the tender, effeminate disciple of Davinci’s “Last Supper.” He and his brother are harsh, foul-mouthed, vindictive fisherman.

Upon seeing this cold welcome, James and John petition Jesus to do something ruthless. “Lord,” they ask, “do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). With the image of Sodom and Gomorrah ablaze in their eyes, these disciples are ready to, literally, burn it down. Jesus would later give instructions on how to respond to the cold shoulder. Essentially Jesus would instruct them to preach, leave the judgment to God, and walk away. But for now, James and John want justice. They want the holy judgment of God to fall from the sky and strike down an entire village of men, women, and children. They certainly don’t appear to be tempered or patient men. They are “the sons of thunder.” Here comes the boom. They have embraced the role of God’s executioner. Jesus is disgusted. He rebukes their cruelty. The Scripture in its brevity conceals the severity of the rebuke. We can assume with some confidence that the words of Jesus were piercing. Jesus wasn’t concerned about destroying this village; He was concerned about saving it. Years later and with significantly greater understanding, John would record these words of Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

What “the Sons of Thunder” failed to see was that the patient love and mercy of Jesus for that unwelcoming village was the same longsuffering love the Savior had extended and was extending to them in that moment. Praise God for His mercy. May we extend that same mercy and love to everyone, even those who reject us and our Lord.a

“James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder).” Mark 3:17

Matthew chapter 20 is a portion of Scripture with incredible amounts of tension-filled anticipation. For the third time in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has revealed the reality of His impending arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. Yet none of the disciples seem to grasp what Jesus is attempting to explain. They seem obsessed with busying themselves with parade preparations. They know their geography. They realize they are within hours of Jerusalem. They are hearing and probably participating in the rumors of Jesus entering Jerusalem as a conquering King. Expectations in the hearts of Jesus’ followers could not have been higher. The miracle-working, death-defying, buffet-bearing King is traveling towards the city of David. The Messiah has arrived and they have a front seat. More than just a personal connection to the King, they can claim to be His most loyal and long-time followers. They wrongly assume the nature of Jesus’ kingdom and totally misunderstand His kingship. They are clueless as to the true nature of Jesus’ purpose for entering the sacred city.

The Sons of Thunder, among other characteristics, had abysmal timing. While Jesus is grappling with the terrors of the cross, James and John are picturing themselves sitting upon thrones. These members of Jesus’ inner circle have devised what, in their minds, appears to be a clever plan for securing their spot in the royal pecking order. Without any hesitation, they enlist the help of their mother. Kneeling humbly before Jesus, she asks, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). James and John have gone for broke. The remaining ten disciples, according to Matthew’s Gospel, are “indignant at the two brothers” (Matthew 20:24). Jesus kindly explains, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” The Sons of Thunder are quick to clamor, “We are able.” C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity writes, “Pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am annoyed at someone else being the big noise.” In 1940s British vernacular, Lewis reveals the exact heart of James and John. They wanted to be the “big noise.” After all, they were the Sons of Thunder.

Their selfish ambition and their itch “to execute judgment” as MacArthur dubs it, was erased after the resurrection of Christ. These two men who were noisy, judgmental, vindictive, ambitious, and conniving abandon everything for Christ. History notes that James, even when marching towards the executioner, was found to be boldly proclaiming Christ. His faith was so convincing that the early church fathers testified that the very guard escorting this great apostle converted to Christ on the spot and was beheaded alongside James.

John, his brother, would write much of the New Testament. He would be the longest surviving apostle of Christ. Sentenced to hard labor on the island quarry of Patmos, John was given the vision we see recorded in the book of Revelation. He would pen the Gospel of John, uniquely and for all time proclaiming the love of Christ.

These Sons of Thunder truly made some noise. They left an indelible mark on the entirety of humanity. When Jesus met them, they were boisterous, empty noisemakers. When Jesus changed them, they were the thunder echoing the one whose “appearance was like lightning” (Matthew 28:3).

Today’s Bible Reading: Luke 9:49-56; Mark 3:17; Matthew 20:20-24; Mark 3:17

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