March 23, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 9 - James, the Disciple with a Pedigree

There are three famous James’s in the New Testament. First is James, the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, the brother of John, and the member of Jesus’ inner circle. Second is James, the half-brother of Jesus, the author of the epistle of James, and the influential elder in the early church of Jerusalem. And then there is “James, the Less” (Mark 15.40), or ‘little James’ as it might be literally translated. He probably preferred to be called “James, the son of Alphaeus” (as he is called, for instance, in Matthew 10, Mark 3, and Luke 6). Why ‘little James’? Maybe it was because he was short. Maybe it was because he was the younger of the two disciples named James. Or maybe (probably) it was because he was simply less influential than his namesake in the circle of disciples.

At any rate, he was known as ‘little James.’ But here is what is worth noting … little James came from a family of no little stature! Little James came from a family of great and sturdy Christian stock. For, though the gospel writers tell us absolutely nothing about James’s actions, thoughts, words, or character-traits … they tell us a good deal about his family. First, he was “the son of Alphaeus.” Big deal, right? Well, maybe and maybe not. It could be that James’s daddy’s name is evoked by Matthew, Mark, and Luke simply in order to distinguish him from the other James. But it could also be that Alphaeus’s name was dropped because the early readers knew exactly who he was – perhaps for his piety and Christian commitment. In fact, it could be that Alphaeus, the father of James, was the same Alphaeus who was also the father of Matthew (Mark 2.14). We don’t know for sure, but maybe. Maybe James the Less was also James, the brother of Matthew.

But here is what we do know for sure*: Even if James’s father wasn’t a well-known Christian (as I have wondered), his mother certainly was. In fact, when you read on in the gospel of Mark, you discover that she was one of the brave handful of souls who followed Jesus all the way to the cross (Mark 15.40). She was also one of only three who were there when He was laid in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15.47). And (Mark 16.1-8), she, along with Mary Magdalene and Salome, were the very first ones to arrive on Sunday morning to care for Jesus’ entombed body … and to hear, from the angel, that He had risen. Just as there had been a set of three male disciples who were closest to Jesus … Mary, Mary, and Salome seem to have been the female version. And James’s mother was one of them! What a valiant woman! And what a pedigree James, therefore, had!

Add to that the fact that when Mary, James’s mother, is mentioned, she is usually described as the mother, not only of James, but of “Joses” or “Joseph” as well. Who was Joses? We don’t know. But again, he must have been a significant enough figure in the early church for the gospel writers to drop his name into the story without explanation. That is, the early Christians must have all known who he was quite well … presumably for good reasons. So James’s family tree seems to pepper the New Testament and early church history. One of the Alphaeus clan seems always to be popping up and loving the Lord Jesus in some way or other.

So what does James the Less have to teach us? Not much, by himself. But surely all the information about his family reminds us of the great value of a godly heritage. As a grown man (and quite likely as a young boy as well) James got to see his mother and brother(s) following the Lord, and be spurred on by it. And they, in turn, got to watch and be encouraged by him, a disciple of the Lord in their own family! And great things were accomplished in love to Jesus because of that family synergy. So, when you think of James, ask yourself: ‘Who’s watching me? My wife? My husband? My kids? And are they the better for it? If someone writes the story of my godly spouse, or child, or brother, or sister, or niece, or nephew, or co-worker … what role will I have played in that story?’

*For more on James' pedigree, see John MacArthur's Twelve Ordinary Men, 170-173.

March 16, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 8 - Thomas, the Disciple with the Bad Rap

Thomas has become a modern day proverb. Any time someone seems skeptical or incredulous, we are prone to call him a ‘doubting Thomas.’ Why? Well because of this apostle who, after his ministry partners had reported seeing Jesus risen from the tomb said famously: “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails … I will not believe” (John 20.25). So yes, Thomas deserves the nickname. But is that all we can say about him? ‘Thomas? O, he was the disciple who didn’t believe Jesus had risen until he saw Him with his own two eyes.’ I believe that, when we think of Thomas only in terms of his doubting, we miss a couple of important points; a couple of reasons to be thankful …

First, we need to remind ourselves that the other apostles also believed because they had seen Jesus. In fact, Thomas’s infamous remark came in response to the others saying to Him (John 20.25): “We have seen the Lord!”. Imagine … if Thomas had been in the original group who saw the Lord … and, say, Peter had been the one who was on another errand that particular day … how do we know that Peter, or John, or Matthew might not have said the same thing: “Unless I see … the nail prints”? And what about us? Might we have found ourselves echoing Thomas’s doubts? Or is it that we are mighty oaks of never-doubting faith?

Don’t miss my point. Thomas definitely should have believed. He deserved the rebuke Jesus gave him (v.27). And he deserves the nickname. All I am saying is that, had you or I been in Thomas’s shoes that day, who’s to say that the proverb might not be about ‘doubting Kurt’ or ‘doubting [fill in your name here]’?

The other positive thing we can say about Thomas is: ‘Thank God he wasn’t afraid to ask questions, say what he really thought, and reveal his ignorance.’ Some of our greatest theological pillar texts come from the mouth of Jesus and as a result of Thomas’s candid, though skeptical, words. Remember John 14.6 … where Jesus said, famously: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Do you know what prompted Jesus to say that? Doubting Thomas’s candid question in verse 5: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?” Thomas didn’t get it. He didn’t understand Jesus’ heavenly mission and home. But probably neither did the other disciples! So thank God Thomas opened his mouth … even if doing so did show off his ignorance. We have one of our great evangelistic texts … the classic text, in fact, on the exclusivity of Jesus … as a result of Thomas’s candor.

And what about the most famous of Thomas’s cynical remarks? “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails … and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20.25). Did that waffling produce any fruit? Absolutely! For Jesus showed up not too long after Thomas’s remarks, and showed Thomas just what he had asked to see … prompting Thomas to respond (v.28): “My Lord and my God.” And why is that so important? Because Jesus, after being called “Lord” and “God”, congratulates Thomas (v.29) for believing; for getting it right. In other words, John 20.28-29 is one of the clearest examples of Jesus acknowledging His own deity. It’s one of the places we turn when trying to win over our Muslim, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witness friends. It’s the passage to which we turn when someone says: ‘O yes, maybe Paul called Jesus God … but I don’t know that Jesus ever accepted that title for Himself. Do you see? John 20.28-29 is one of the most important texts in the Bible. And we wouldn’t have it without Thomas’s honest and open doubts back in verse 25!

So what am I saying? My encouragement is not that you be like Thomas (unless of course you are going to imitate his later life, pack up your bags, and go to India with the good news!). Please don’t doubt like Thomas. But don’t belittle him either. Thank God that he was just candid enough to speak up … and draw out of Jesus some of the truths which we, who have not seen, hold most dear.

March 11, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 7 - Matthew, the White Collar Criminal

Isn’t that what men like Matthew (also called Levi) would be called today? Matthew was a tax-collector. And a tax-collector’s job was, on behalf of the Roman government, to collect the appropriate taxes from the populous and pass them on to the local officials. But those officials apparently didn’t do extremely careful audits on their IRS employees, allowing men like Matthew to skim a little off the top – actually to collect, from the people, a little more than the government required, and to keep the surplus. And, while the government turned a blind eye to the dishonesty of its employees (how contemporary!) … the common folks seethed with hatred toward men like Matthew (see Luke 5.27-32). They had a sneaking suspicion they were being taken to the cleaners, but with no way of proving it, and no recourse even if they did. Such was, most likely, the case with Matthew. We are not told, in so many words, that he was a cheat. But the fact of his occupation, the attention that the gospel-writers give to it (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5), and the reaction of the bystanders to Jesus’ eating in Matthew’s house (again see Luke 5) are strong indicators that Matthew was a typical tax-collector.

Imagine how incensed you were when you read about the big-time auto executives flying their luxury jets to Washington to ask the government to hand them some of your hard earned dollars to stabilize them in their ‘plight.’ That’s how the people must have felt about fellows like Matthew. Only they didn’t hear about Matthew on Fox News with Shepherd Smith. They saw him face-to-face, and placed their hard earned shekels directly into his bejeweled hands. And on top of this, he was a Jew … working for the occupying Roman government.

Is this the man that Jesus wants to be His disciple? Is this the designer fabric from which Jesus is going to cut a bold, rough-hewn preacher who will take the good news to Egypt and Ethiopia? Are these bejeweled, money-grabbing fingers going to write the most extensive biography of the most important person in world history? Could God possibly use a self-serving, dishonest, wealthy, white collar cheat to proclaim the gospel of Jesus? Yes! And that is a good reminder for those of us who tend to look with disdain, distrust, and suspicion at the upper classes and big cheeses of our day. O, it’s easy to talk about how the rich look down upon and despise the poor. But the streams of enmity flow in both directions, don’t they? But Jesus loves both poor and rich. And He changes and uses them both for His good purposes. So let’s not sit in the position of the Pharisees … despising the Matthew’s of our own day. But rather let’s walk up to them, like Jesus, and urge them to leave everything and follow Him!

And if we’re among them (as all of us really are in this country) … let’s put ourselves in Matthew’s shoes, and get out of his seat. Let’s leave behind our riches (with the missionaries and the impoverished foreign masses) and get up and follow Jesus into a lifestyle of gospel fervor.

And let’s remember that Matthew’s dishonesty was not his only, or even his primary, sin. In fact, the dishonesty was just one foul weed that grew up from the deep roots of self-centeredness. So you need not be a cheat in order to follow in the footsteps of Matthew … just a self-centered American (or Canadian, or Brazilian, or Mongolian, etc.). Isn’t Jesus worth leaving your riches behind that you might win souls? That you might follow Him, even unto death? That’s what Matthew did, according to historians – either being run through with a spear or burned at the stake (or perhaps both).* The man who had made a career (literally) of taking and keeping ended his life giving. What about you?

*For tradition on Matthew's death, see Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and John MacArthur's Twelve Ordinary Men, 156.

March 2, 2009

Ordinary Joes, Part 6 - Nathanael, the Disciple with Two Names

OK, so really all of us have two names (at least). Mine is Kurt Strassner. Our elders are Keith Gorby and Charles Tassell. Two names … just like Nathanael. The only difference is that, sometimes, Nathanael went by last name – Bartholomew (or, son of Tholomew). You’ve probably known someone like this somewhere along the way. Maybe a guy on the high school football team that everyone just called ‘Jackson’. Or my dad’s boss. I never knew, I think, until I was almost grown, that His first name was ‘Al’ and not ‘Ragland.’ Get the idea? Well, that was Bartholomew, or Nathanael, depending on how well you knew him, I suppose.

So how well do we know Nathanael? Not all that well, actually. He is named four times (as Bartholomew) by Matthew, Mark, and Luke … but none of them tells us any more than that he was one of the twelve original disciples of Jesus. Only John puts us on a first name basis with Mr. Bartholomew … and that only briefly, in John 1.45-51.

In those few verses we learn that Nathanael was somewhat of a cynical man. His friend Philip runs up to him with excitement, hoping against hope that he has actually stumbled across the long-awaited Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael’s response is now famous: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Sounds a bit prejudiced, huh? ‘Nazareth? That backwater? Where the people love to mix two parts Bible with three parts paganism? Come on, Philip. Nothing good could come from that cesspool!’

Well, maybe it was a cesspool. But you don’t get the impression that Nathanael felt compassion on the sinners who lived there. And you don’t get the impression that He believed very deeply (as of yet) in the power of God to change them or do anything good in Nazareth. ‘That neighborhood?’ he would have said if he had lived in modern Cincinnati. ‘Can anything good come from there? In fact, if we start getting members from that ‘hood, it will probably be more of a drain on the church than a blessing. Good grief, not _______ of all places.’

Good old bigoted Nathanael. At least He was honest! I think that’s what Jesus might mean when He greets Nathanael with the words: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” Some people take these words as a compliment … that Jesus knew some things about Nathanael’s character to which we are not privy. That’s possible. But given what we are told about Nathanael, I am not so sure. I think it is possible that Jesus was saying something like this to Nathanael: ‘Behold, a Jewish boy who’s not afraid to admit that he looks down on sinners.’ I think Jesus words could be the equivalent of you or I saying to a fellow church-member, with tongue in cheek (and with his best interest in mind!): ‘Behold, a Baptist who’s not afraid to admit he thinks he’s better than his neighbors!’

Now if that is what Jesus meant, we can see why Nathanael’s attitude changed so quickly. He had been humbled and humbled quickly. And don’t we all need to be humbled? Are there any Nazareth’s in your life … whether the Nazareth is a location, a race, a class, or an individual? If so, there is hope for you. Jesus burst Nathanael’s elitist bubble. And you might pray He bursts yours … and makes you like Nathanael who, after the close of the New Testament, had such a changed view of the ‘filthy pagans’ that, tradition says, he went as far as Persia, India, and Armenia preaching to them … and was tied in a sack and thrown to his death in the sea … for Jesus’ sake.*  Don’t you want to love the nations and the neighborhoods like that? Then find your own personal Nazareth … and go make sure that something good comes from it!

*See MacArthur's Twelve Ordinary Men, 147.