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.

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