February 2, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 2 - Silent James

When we think about the apostles, the number 12 is obviously key. But perhaps just as important a number is the digit 3. Why? Because, of the twelve closest followers of Jesus, there were three who, along with Jesus, formed the inner circle within the inner circle – Peter (whom we know well from all his impulsive antics within the gospel accounts), John (who wrote, perhaps, the most well-loved of the four gospels), and James (about whom we know almost nothing).

Have you ever considered how strange it is that we should know so little about one of Jesus’ three closest followers? We know James was the son of Zebedee and brother of John. All of the first three gospels record this fact. And we know that he was there at all the key moments in Jesus ministry; those private moments when Jesus saw fit only to have a few of the disciples with Him – when He raised a little girl from the dead (Mark 5); at His transfiguration (Matthew 17); and as He wrestled in the inner recesses of the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13). In other words, whenever Jesus felt it necessary to bring a long only a few of his most trusted friends, James was among that group! And yet he never had an individual speaking part in the gospel accounts. In fact, it was his little brother who overshadowed him and became a well-known pastor, the author of five New Testament books, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

In the gospels, only two brief passages shed any individual light at all on the personality of the older son of Zebedee. And both are negative. First we have the account (Luke 6.51-56) of how a certain village refused to allow Jesus and the disciples to stay overnight. James and John’s solution? “Lord, do you want us to command fire from heaven to come down and consume them?” So much for letting him who is without sin cast the first stone! Follow that story with Mark chapter 10, in which James and his little brother had the audacity to ask Jesus to make them co-regents with Him (with the God-man!) in heaven (vv.35-40) … and what we have is another young and restless follower of Jesus who sometimes let his passions get away from him. Jesus, in fact, nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder”(Mark 3.17) because of their abrasive pride.

So, in many ways, we could say the same things about James as we did a week ago about Peter (and about some of ourselves): rash, arrogant, and so on. But there was a difference. James’s occasional impulsiveness seems to have been mixed (most of the time, anyway) with a natural propensity to follow, rather than push his way to the front. Why do we know so little about James and so much about Peter? Not because James was any less present at the most important moments in Jesus’ ministry … for he was always there. But because James seems to have been always there primarily as a supporter and follower, rather than a decision maker. Perhaps he simply wasn’t the kind of natural and vocal leader Peter was. He was a sergeant rather than a general. If so, his story is a simple reminder that God uses all kinds of men to shepherd His flock – not just type A’s.

Or perhaps James’s usual silence is an indication that he learned his lesson more quickly than Peter. Maybe he learned, sooner than Peter did, to listen and learn before he let fly his thunderous opinions. Perhaps James learned, in the course of those three years of Jesus, to temper his fleshly zeal and be slower to speak. That is not to say that James was a wimp. Surely a man nicknamed “son of thunder” was no wimp! In fact, in Acts 12 we learn that he was run through with a sword … presumably for preaching Christ. So James wasn’t afraid to speak. But he had apparently learned the art of knowing when to speak with boldness, and when to hold his tongue. And that is a lesson, in one direction or the other, from which we can all benefit!

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