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That Bitter Brother of Jesus

by Alex Wilson

Consider with me a member of our Lord’s human family whom we rarely think about: James, the brother of Jesus. He should not be confused with James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Those brothers were two of the three main leaders among the twelve apostles of Christ, but that James was martyred soon after the church began. Two or three other men named James also appear in the New Covenant scriptures. The James we will study now is first mentioned as the oldest of Jesus’ four brothers. Observe Mark 6: 1-6, NIV.

Jesus…went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.

Jesus’ Siblings

Maybe you’ve heard that Joseph and Mary never had any children of their own – that Jesus was Mary’s only child. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have traditionally taught that these “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were merely His cousins, or else were Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage (thus Jesus’ half-siblings). There is no Biblical text that requires or even supports those views. And they arose only because of the idea which spread later in church history, that Mary was perpetually a virgin. But that idea is contradicted by Matt. 1:25, “[Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” (NIV). Or, he “kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son.” (NAS.) Note the “until,” which clearly implies that after Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary had normal sexual relations. (And if they didn’t, it would violate the scriptural principle Paul later set forth in 1 Cor. 7:3-5.)

There are other verses about His brothers in addition to the one given above. For instance, John 2:12 reveals that after his 1st miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. And Matthew 12:47 says that someone told Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

Thus it seems clear that after Mary had Jesus, she and Joseph had sons and also daughters. Jesus had four younger brothers and James was the oldest of the four.

Imagine James’ situation: (I admit we’re merely guessing on some matters here.)

What Would It Be Like . . .

*Growing up being the younger brother of a boy/man who to some people seemed flawless!
*Constantly being in your big brother’s shadow?
*Having a brother who never goes along with your disobedience, or any bad ways?
*Having an older brother who is extremely bright and smart (like that time when he was only 12 but had that long, impressive discussion with scholars in the temple)?

But Also, What Would It Be Like…

*Hearing tales from some folks in your village about your mom, dad and older brother. Snide remarks and questions like, “Didn’t your parents ever tell you that your brother was born before they were married, and that Joseph admits he is not Jesus’ dad?”
*When you ask your dad about that, he admits that yes – your brother is not his son. But then he tells you an incredible story about angels and a supernatural birth, etc. And your dad even said that he and your mom believe that your brother actually is none other than the Messiah! Your brother!

*How would you feel when your brother turns 30 and leaves home? That means leaving the family carpenter shop for good, forcing you to support the family (for your father Joseph has died in the meantime)?
*How would you feel when before long your brother gets publicly endorsed by the headline-making prophet, John the Baptizer – who happens to be a relative of your family?

*How would you feel when your brother himself becomes a celebrity, although a controversial one? ‘
*How would you feel when a band of followers gather around your brother, following him around every- where. They believe he is an outstanding teacher, maybe even the Messiah!

What would it be like? How would you feel?

So far we’ve done a bit of speculating. Now, let’s see what we can learn about Jesus’ brother James directly from the gospel accounts. They indicate that Jesus’ siblings adopted a skeptical attitude toward His ministry and personal claims.

First the gospels raise questions about James because of what he did not do. Consider: Why didn’t James himself become a follower of Jesus, and later even become a member of the 12 apostles? By that time it’s likely that the younger brothers – Joseph, Simon and maybe even Judas – could run the carpenter shop and support the family financially.

If that were not possible, surely James could have joined the larger band of Jesus” disciples, and accompanied him at least some of the time, while usually working in the shop at home. Why didn’t he?

This fact by itself only hints at his doubts about Jesus. But here’s some additional, and stronger, evidence of James’ skepticism. Mark 3 says, “Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind”….

When his mother and brothers arrived, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Now we know that Mary did believe in Jesus (Luke 1-2; John 2: 1-11, etc.). Probably on this occasion she was just expressing a mother’s deep concern for her son’s health and welfare: “He’s not taking care of himself – all those people constantly thronging around him and not giving him even a minute’s rest. And he’s not even eating – why, it’s like he’s out of his mind!”

But James and the other brothers seemed to be really dubious about Him – truly questioning His sanity. Remember Jesus’ statement after the people of Nazareth got riled up over His sermon there? “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor…. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.”

James lacked faith in his brother. He was unwilling to honor Him as others were doing.

John 7:1-6 expresses these facts even stronger, and puts beyond any doubt the assumption we’ve been making. We read, After this, Jesus… purposely [stayed] away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure [Sneer] acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. Therefore Jesus told them, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Beyond the shadow of a doubt we know that at least by this time James and his younger brothers had rejected Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah, or even a teacher sent from God. They did not believe Him.

In addition, James spurned his mother’s testimony to Jesus. Surely, seeing James’ unbelief, Mary must have given witness to Jesus’ unique conception, the angelic announcements about Him, His special mission, His divine nature, His identity as the Messiah sent by the Lord. But James refused to believe her. Oh how that must have grieved Mary. Oh how that must have hurt Jesus.

James’ unbelief was so deep it led to his refusal to do his duty as a son and brother:

When Jesus was crucified, and Mary was there watching her son die, where was her next-born son? Why wasn’t James there to comfort her in this, her most tragic hour of shame, despair and the depths of grief? Oh yes, maybe–just maybe–he was back in Nazareth running the carpenter shop, and didn’t know what was going on till too late. But note the following facts which seem to indicate otherwise.

While Jesus was hanging on the cross, John the apostle was there, along with Mary and her sister and some other women. Jesus said to Mary, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John he said, “Here is your mother.” Then we read, “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” She went to live with John! Why? It would surely seem it was because James her son had forsaken her – or at the very least had cruelly snubbed her. (John 19:25 ff.)

Why didn’t James take his brother’s body down and help bury him? Why was it left to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea to perform those sorrowful tasks? Because James did not believe in his brother, and apparently would have no part in seeming to back him.

Oh how his mother must have grieved, not only at the loss of her first-born but also her second-born – and her other children who seem to have been influenced by the latter.

But That’s Not the End of the Story, Praise God!

Notice God’s Grace. In 1 Cor. 15:5-7 we read that Christ, after His resurrection, “appeared to Peter [who had denied Christ], and then to the Twelve [who had run away in fear]. After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living….Then he appeared to James…. (who had never become His disciple at all).

What happened as a result?

l) James did become a disciple. He renounced his former unbelief and became a believer indeed. And as his younger brothers had formerly followed him in rejecting Jesus, now they followed him in their acceptance of Him. For we read in Acts 1: 14 that after Christ ascended into heaven, the apostles “returned to Jerusalem…… [and] went upstairs to the room where they were staying. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”

2) In the following years James and his brothers even undertook some evangelistic trips, apparently, for Paul writes in 1 Cor. 9:5, “Don’t [Barnabas & I] have the right to take a believing wife along with us [on our travels], as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers?”

3) Reading on in the Book of Acts, we see that as time passed James emerged as the leading elder of the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 21, Luke writes, “When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present” (17-19). He was the only elder whose name is mentioned.

Then in Gal. 2:8-10 Paul states: “God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars [leaders in Jerusalem and among all the churches], gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles [primarily], and they to the Jews” [primarily].

4) James is even called an apostle, though–like the apostle Paul–he was not one of “the 12” original apostles of Jesus. Paul writes in Gal. 1:18-19, “Three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him 15 days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (The NAS is clearer than the NIV regarding this verse.)

5) James wrote the book of James, one of the NT epistles. In his letter he refers to his older, once-despised brother as “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” And he referred to himself humbly as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1; 1:1).

In several places the letter seems to reflect James’ personal errors and experiences. We saw earlier that he had almost surely disbelieved his mother’s story about herself and Jesus. He must have concluded that she had been nothing but an impure girl who after getting pregnant out of wedlock “trapped Joseph into marriage by silly stories of visions and dreams” (M. W. Hines). Then later, James seems to have thought Mary conned Jesus into believing the same nonsense, leading Him to make preposterous claims about Himself and thus mislead multitudes. Due to Mary’s loyalty to Jesus, James seems to have forsaken her in her widowhood–leading Jesus to give her into the care of the apostle John. Now James, with shame seeing his errors, writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after … widows in their distress…” (1 :27).

James had formerly slandered his Brother as an insane fake. Now he urges the disciples of Jesus, “Brothers, do not slander one another” (4:11). He himself had wandered from truth into flagrant error, and yet God had forgiven him. So he appeals to his fellow-believers, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:19).

James had experienced God’s gracious dealings with him. Based on his experience, he advises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all generously and without reproaching – without finding fault –, and it will be given to him” (1:5, RSV / NIV). The Lord God had forgiven James, transformed his heart, and built him into an able leader and a teacher of practical righteousness. What grace! According to church history, James later demonstrated his devotion by suffering martyrdom, probably in 62 A.D. He had come a long way, and he followed his Master to the end.

Lessons for Us to Apply

1. Familiarity breeds contempt: Don’t let it happen to you, if brought up in a Christian home. Don’t take such privileges for granted.

2. God’s astonishing grace: Forgiving a staunch, longtime, influential unbeliever and building him into a convinced, fully devoted follower of the One he used to oppose bitterly.

3. Christians, keep praying on and on for unconverted relatives and friends. Jesus, and Mary, must have prayed for years for James to trust and commit himself to Jesus. Finally he did!

[After this article was written and preached, an interesting discovery was made. On Oct. 21, 2002 the news media reported that a scholar had deciphered the inscription on a “burial box” (or ossuary) of bones he bought from an Arab antiquities dealer 15 years ago. The inscription says, “JAMES, SON of JOSEPH, BROTHER of JESUS.” And experts say the box has not been tampered with, and that it dates to the mid-60’s A.D. That is the time when Christ’s brother James was killed for his faith, according to the historian Josephus.

If this find is genuine, it is the first archeological evidence of Jesus ever found. Of course there are numerous historical references to Him in writings by various contem-poraries and near-contemporaries, both Christian and secular. But this, if actually the bones of Christ’s brother, would be the earliest archeological inscription referring to the Lord. The names James, Joseph and Jesus were all common in that time. But hardly ever did such inscriptions refer to a brother. Why would it in this case, unless that Brother was more prominent than the man whose bones are there?]

[P.S.: Edward Fudge’s GracEmail reported facts similar to the above. But one day later he published additional information he had received, as follows:
James A. Ayars, a Seventh Day Adventist scholar, writes that while the James Ossuary just mentioned is a significant find, it is not the oldest archaeological reference to Jesus. “In September, 1945, an equally significant ‘recovery’ occurred in the back yard on the Talpiot Road, south of Jerusalem. Dr. Eleazar L. Sukenik and N. Avigad catalogued the contents of this ‘catacomb,’ and published the results in The American Journal of Archaeology, 51: 351-365, October, 1947 under the title ‘The Earliest Records of Christianity.’ (see also ‘A Tomb on the Road to Bethlehem,’ Look Magazine, vol. 23, no. 25, December 22, 1947, pp. 75-79.)

“This tomb contained ossuaries holding the remains of various members of the Barsabas family (mentioned in Acts 1:23 and 15:22). What was most significant in this find were the inscriptions: ‘Jesus is risen/ascended,’ ‘Jesus is LORD’ and ‘For Jesus, son of Joseph.’ Another significant revelation was the use of the symbol of the cross on these ossuaries. According to coins and pottery evidence found within the ossuaries, this crypt was last closed in 42/43 A.D. These inscriptional evidences of Jesus predate the James Ossuary by two decades.”]

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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10