Who did Jesus consider to be his brothers and sisters? What lessons can we learn from the way Jesus dealt with his earthly brothers and sisters? How did the lives of James and Jude change after the resurrection?
Mark 6:3 tells us that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. The sisters’ names have not been preserved, but the brothers were called James (in Hebrew, Jacob), Joses (in Hebrew, Joseph), Simon, and Judas or Juda (also known as Jude). (Cf. Matt. 13:55)
They were a close family. After the marriage at Cana (because of Mary’s and Jesus’ roles at the feast, the wedding was most likely that of a close relative), the whole family accompanied Jesus and his earliest disciples to nearby Capernaum, where they stayed for a short time. (Cf. John 2:1–12)
The first weeks of Jesus’ ministry were full of glorious successes. This is what Luke says of the Saviour’s first missionary journey, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.” (Luke 4:14)
Yet, when Jesus returned to Nazareth and declared his Messiahship to his former friends and neighbors, the response was uniformly hostile. The congregation became so angry at his claims that they attempted to throw him off a cliff. He escaped, but it is not recorded that any brother’s voice or hand was raised in his defense. (Cf. Luke 4:16–30) The sad truth is that, despite their exposure to his words and his works, “even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:5) They even thought that he had gone mad when he did not have time to eat. (Cf. Mark 3:20-21)
Months later, during a second missionary journey through Galilee, Jesus revisited Nazareth. Although he had established himself as a prophet and a healer whose name had become well known in the land, the Nazarenes’ response was so derisive that he exclaimed, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4)
We can only imagine the degree of Jesus’ pain at this rejection by those he loved. Perhaps we get some glimpse of it on one occasion when his mother and brothers interrupted a meeting at which he was teaching the gospel. We don’t know the reason for the interruption, but his family may have wanted Jesus to attend to some family matter they felt was more important.
“Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.’” (Luke 8:19–21)
Some have considered Jesus’ words to be harsh. But the Saviour knew what his family did not yet fully realize—that the bonds of faith and covenant are stronger than the bonds of blood, and that his role as eldest son in the family, which they honored, was of little significance compared to his role as Messiah.
Christ’s disappointment and pain at the faithlessness of his earthly brothers were much more poignantly revealed at Calvary. From the cross, Jesus looked down at his distraught mother weeping together with a small cluster of disciples. His earthly brothers and sisters were nowhere to be found. Evidently none were disciples, committed to love God and one another and to follow the way he had taught. Only his beloved disciple John was standing nearby. What mixed feelings Jesus must have had when he declared to his mother: “’Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:26-17)
But that is not the end of the story. Before considering what we might learn from the Saviour’s experience, we need to follow the course of his brothers’ lives after the Crucifixion. Paul relates that after the risen Christ had appeared to Peter, then to the other Apostles, and then to five hundred of the worthy brethren, Jesus appeared also to his brother James. (Cf. 1 Cor. 15:5–7) The details of that reunion are not available to us, but the results are. James and his brothers responded as did Saul of Tarsus. The brothers not only repented, but they became committed servants of Christ and eventually dedicated leaders in the early church.
Immediately following the ascension of Christ, the Apostles returned to Jerusalem to the home of John Mark’s mother: “When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.”
Then Luke makes this revealing observation: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:13–14) At last, the brothers of the Lord had taken upon themselves his name and become, in very truth, members of his family!
James quickly rose to a position of leadership. Indeed, Paul implies that James became an Apostle. Three years after his conversion, about A.D. 38, Paul travelled to Jerusalem to meet with a few church leaders. He wrote of that experience: “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother.” (Gal 1:18-19)
Paul and Barnabus attended a council at Jerusalem concerning Jewish requirements for gentile Christians. Only Peter seems to have had a more influential position at the meeting than James, and James was the one who proposed the final accepted solution. (Cf. Acts 15:6–31) Paul, in referring to that event, wrote of “James, Cephas [i.e., Peter], and John, who seemed to be pillars.” (Gal. 2:9) Quite possibly, James the brother of the Lord filled the position in the church leadership left vacant by the death of that other James who had served with Peter and John.
Whatever his exact position in the early church government, we treasure James’s general epistle to the church. The former nonbeliever wrote—most likely from his own painful yet glorious experience with his resurrected brother—“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5) He also reinterated Jesus’ teaching in Luke 8:21 that disciples of Christ have to put their faith into practice. (Cf. James 2:14-26) In that epistle, James identifies himself not as the brother of the Lord, but as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 1:1)
In a similar vein, another of the four brothers opens his epistle with “Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James.” (Jude 1:1) We know little about Jude except what we learn from his epistle. Most impressively, Jude demonstrates a keen perception of Christ as the past and future Lord—the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt and who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Lord who will come in the last days to execute judgment upon all. (Cf. Jude 1:5, 7, 14–15)
From his denunciation of certain kinds of apostasy, we also know that his letter was one of the later epistles in the New Testament. In his lifetime, Jude stood firm with Peter and Paul in fighting the rising tide of heresy that threatened to destroy the church.
James and Jude, family members who had once looked at Christ as their elder brother only, were able to accept him as the Lord and the Son of God. What great joy there must have been in heaven, and especially for the Saviour, over these two brothers who have repented.
It is true that the Saviour’s family was unique. No other family has had to come to terms with their close relative turning out to be the Redeemer of mankind. But in another sense, every converted person who deeply loves his or her unbelieving spouse or relative suffers as Jesus suffered over his faithless brothers. And, as did Jesus of Nazareth, every disciple can love truly and well, with hope and patience.
We must never lose sight of the eternal realities—the worth of each soul, the inviolability of each soul’s agency, and the universality of the plan of salvation. Above all, we must never give up. It is encouraging to remember that those of whom it was once written “even his own brothers did not believe in him” ended by designating themselves servants “of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So it may be for our Jameses and our Judes, our Sauls and our Thomass, and all of their female counterparts that Christ suffered so that he is able to help them when they are being tested. (Cf. Heb. 2:18, 4:15, 5:2)
Let The Servant Song remind us that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.