James and John — Inseparable brothers
There are the four places where Jesus’ apostles are named: Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16, and Acts 1:13. Though the order of the list changes each time, three things remain the same. The list always starts with Peter, ends with Judas Iscariot (except for Acts 1:13, since by that time Judas had died), and though the grouping and order of the other apostles change, the Gospels and Acts all list James and John together.
James and John: here were two inseparable brothers who served together in the Lord’s service. Together they were called by Jesus to be among his twelve disciples (Mark 1:19-20), named “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:14-17), struck out in judgment (Luke 9:49, 54) and as a result received rebuke and instruction (Luke 9:50, 56), were select witnesses to Jesus’ miracles (Mark 1:29; 5:37), petitioned Jesus for special favor (Mark 10:35-41) (and received more instruction as a result), were present at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:1), heard the details of the Olivet Prophecy (Mark 13:3-4), were drawn aside with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33), pulled the miraculous draught of fishes (John 21:1, 6), and saw the risen Lord (Acts 1:13). Together they witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven and saw thousands of people answer the call of the gospel; however, although these two brothers were associated so closely in their lives, they met very different ends.
John was the last of the apostles to die. After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, it seems he joined the Ephesian ecclesia before being exiled by the Roman government to the prison island of Patmos (Rev 1:9).
In contrast, James was the first apostle to die for his faith. In AD 44, just prior to the feast of Passover, James was killed at the order of King Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, in an effort to appease his Jewish populace (Acts 12:1-2). James was not the first follower of Christ to lose his life for his faith (Stephen’s death is recorded in Acts 7:58-60. Acts 9:1 speaks of Saul’s “threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord”), but he was the first apostle to do so. Herod Agrippa’s sword shattered any illusion that the apostles were immune to violence and persecution. Even though James, along with his brother John, was particularly close to Jesus, this did not mean that they would be free from persecution. Jesus had warned that his followers would face hardship, opposition, and even death (Matt 10:16-26).
While James faced his hardship in the form of an early, violent end to his life, John’s hardship was stretched over the following 50 years as he witnessed waves of persecution and the rise of apostasy within the ecclesia. However, though the forms of their trials differed, both were prophesied by Jesus some fourteen years before when Jesus told James and John that they “shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of” (Mark 10:39). By the end of their lives, James and John did drink of that cup, but both men had to learn that this cup of Christ’s sufferings must come before a crown of glory. Though the nature of the drink differed between the two brothers, the principle that they needed to learn was the same.
We first meet James and John in the Gospel of Matthew while fishing in the Sea of Galilee:
“And going on from thence, [Jesus] saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him” (Matt 4:21-22).
Their response to Jesus’ call was instantaneous and without hesitation — a virtue in this case, but as we see in three separate instances, the immediate, zealous responses of James and John were often not tempered with knowledge. James and John were quick to act on how they thought things should go and had to learn the principle that “zeal is not good without knowledge” (Prov 19:2, HCSB).
Shortly after their calling, Jesus gives us some insight into their character in calling them “Boanerges” or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:13-17). The Greek is here a transliteration of a compound Hebrew word that refers to someone who “quivers violently with emotion,” or as Jesus says, like thunder. This can be either a good thing or bad (Strong, Gesenius). James and John had to learn to control their intense zeal, temper it with knowledge, and use it to do God’s will. We are shown three times in the Gospels where they failed to do this.
The three failures
The first instance is in Luke 9:49-50. John told Jesus “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us.” Their reaction was instantaneous when they saw something that they thought was amiss — they “forbade” or prevented this man from continuing in his task. James and John showed zeal — but as Jesus points out in the next verse — it was not tempered with knowledge. He rebuked them directly. “Forbid him not” said Jesus, “for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50). Mark’s account adds this, “for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39).
The account is reminiscent of one in Numbers 11:25-29 in which there was a report of two men prophesying in the camp. When Joshua heard it, he responded in a manner similar to James and John. “My Lord Moses,” Joshua cried, “forbid them” (Num 11:28). Likewise, Jesus’ reaction in the Gospels is an echo of Moses words, “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29). Just like zealous Joshua was too quick to judge and had to be corrected by Moses, James and John had to learn from Jesus that zeal must be combined with knowledge.
James and John had a second opportunity to learn this lesson as Jesus and the disciples journeyed down to Jerusalem. Only recorded in Luke 9:51-56, we are told that when James and John learned that the Samaritans would not receive Jesus, they turned and said to Jesus in Luke 9:54, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” Having been on the wrong side of an Old Testament precedent in the prior situation (where James and John embodied the zealous but misguided words of Joshua to Moses), here James and John cite the actions of Elijah. (Interestingly, this is the only place where the Samaritans are portrayed in a negative light — consider Luke 10:25-37; 17:11-19; Acts 1:8; 8:4-25.)
This reference seems appropriate for the context as well. We are told in the beginning of Luke 9 that James and John witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration where they saw Moses and Elijah — having failed to follow the example of Moses previously, could they redeem themselves by following the example of Elijah in calling down fire? (2Kgs 1:1-18). And having just seen Jesus’ transfiguration, they certainly understood that Jesus had access to this kind of power!
Jesus taught them again that it is not good to have zeal without knowledge, “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56). They failed to understand that the precedent of Elijah was not just one of fire and judgment, but one of preparing people’s hearts for the Lord. It was the later example that James and John were supposed to follow.
Likewise, they failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Reading from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus summarized his role this way: “He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus purposely ended his citation of Isaiah 61:1-2 prior to the description of God’s righteous judgment, “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa 61:2b). The purpose of his earthly ministry was to “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Isa 61:1a). When he returns he will bring “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa 61:2b).
Jesus taught them that their role was to call men to repentance and warn of the judgment to come (compare with Luke 9:5; 10:13-16; and 17:20-36). But if they were rejected, the response is to move on, even as Jesus “went to another village” (Luke 9:56).
The final time that Jesus redirected James and John’s zeal is recorded in Matthew 20:20-23 and Mark 10:35-41. In both accounts, Jesus gave his clearest statement yet about what awaited him once they reached Jerusalem:
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again” (Mark 10:33-34; cp. Matt 20:18-19).
On the right hand and the left hand
But James and John heard only what they wanted to hear. The danger of uninstructed zeal is that it can cause us to completely miss the plain truth, and here James and John respond to the pronouncement of Jesus’ crucifixion with a question about securing a position of preeminence in the Kingdom.
Mark’s Gospel records the following:
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you? They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mark 10:35-37).
James and John weren’t trying to be insensitive to Jesus’ revelation about his upcoming crucifixion — they just interpreted what Jesus had said to mean what they wanted to hear! James and John thought that Jesus was clearly talking about the final conflict that would usher in the Kingdom and that now would be the perfect time to ensure they secured places next to Jesus in that new order! Their statement came out of zeal for the Kingdom and a desire to be close to their Master in his glory; but again, it was misguided. This time, James and John were wrong on three counts:
First, as Jesus showed in his response, James and John didn’t know what they were asking for. They enthusiastically responded that they would be able to drink of the cup and partake in the baptism of Jesus’ death, but failed to understand what that would involve (Mark 10:38-39).
Second, James and John failed to realize that they would not achieve preeminence through petition. Jesus told them in Mark 10:40, “But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.” This was a lesson that he had taught his disciples before in a parallel episode in Mark 9:31-37. Both instances start with Jesus proclaiming that he is going to be killed and rise again (Mark 9:31; 10:33-34) and are followed by a question of obtaining positions of greatness (Mark 9:33-34; 10:35-37). In Mark 9, the question arises among all the disciples, “they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest” (Mark 9:34). In Mark 10, the question of preeminence comes specifically from James and John — they had failed to learn the lesson Jesus taught in the earlier episode, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
The third issue created by their question is seen in Mark 10:41. Their unguided zeal upsets the other disciples, “And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John” (Mark 10:41). All the disciples had heard Jesus’ lesson in the prior chapter and here James and John were looking for special favor, pushing themselves ahead of the rest.
James and John, the Sons of Thunder, showed zeal for the Truth but needed to have it tempered with knowledge. Their temperament led them to be quick to judge and speak, where they needed to be reminded three times of the importance of service, love, mercy, and understanding.
The lessons learned?
And it seems that both learned this lesson.
In Acts 12:1-2, James became the first of the apostles to lay down his life in his service to Jesus, drinking of the cup and partaking in the baptism of Jesus’ suffering. James had learned that service would lead to salvation and that the cross came before the crown.
John also drank of that cup and learned to live a life of devoted service and sacrifice for the Truth, where his zeal, while undiminished, became guided by knowledge. We see in his care for Mary (John 19:25-27), deference to Peter (John 20:4-5), and especially in his epistles that John learned the lessons that Jesus taught him about tempering judgment with mercy, understanding the Father’s plan, and the importance of love for our brethren.
The two Sons of Thunder bookend the apostolic ministry and give us an example of the need for zeal and heart-felt enthusiasm for the Truth. They also serve as a warning of how that zeal must be combined with knowledge.
Allen Laben (Baltimore, MD)