I’ve often told students and congregants how difficult it must have been to be one of Jesus’ brothers or sisters. What must it have been like to hear Mary or Joseph say, “Why can’t you be like your brother?” While there may be some truth in this reflection, in reality the Bible speaks too little about Jesus’ upbringing for us to know much, if anything, about His relationships with siblings growing up.
What we do know is what their relationships were like as young adults, because Scripture is explicit on this point. There was a lot of pain and confusion among the family members when Jesus began His public ministry. We see this in several places. An early example of the friction between Jesus and His family is when His family members had heard about the enormous crowds and (presumably) the alleged miracles. They knew Jesus. Perhaps they reasoned, “How could our Jesus attract so many people? He must have lost His mind. He’s embarrassing the family. We’ve got to bring Him home” (see Mark 3:21).
The Apostle John also mentions a time when Jesus’ brothers were goading Him to astound the crowds with miracles at a feast in Jerusalem. John notes that Jesus’ brothers didn’t say this because they really wanted Him to heal people; they were only antagonizing Him since, as John explains, “not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5, CSB).
Another third example is more subtle than the others. When Jesus was dying on the cross in the presence of His mother, He asked John to take His mother into his house (John 19:25-27). Although we need to be careful about concluding too much, it’s important to note that John was not one of the brothers of Jesus. As the oldest son, Jesus was making sure His mother was taken care of. Almost everyone assumes that Joseph was dead, but where was James? Why couldn’t he have taken care of his mother? Why did he not pay his respects to his crucified brother?
Perhaps by the time Jesus died, James was finished with Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t finished with James. The Lord could have rightly said, “A prophet has no honor in his own household.” Or, “My real family members are those who do my Father’s will.” In Paul’s majestic chapter on the resurrection, he mentions that Jesus appeared to James (1 Corinthians 15:7). This reference is after Paul mentions Jesus appearing to Peter, the apostles, and the 500, and, to my own great consternation, Paul gives no details about this appearance. Did Jesus rebuke James? Did He embrace him? Or did He do some of both?
We don’t know the details of the meeting, but we know the results. James was a different man. Not only did he believe in his brother; he helped lead the flock for whom his brother died. The fact that it took years for a brother of the Son of God to believe in the Son of God gives us hope that God will continue to save even the most stubborn sinners today. James’ experience also gives those who look back at their own lives with shame and regret confidence that the Lord can use them mightily in the future.
The little letter by James we have in the New Testament is a hard-hitting, no-nonsense wake-up call to the scattered Church. We would do well to heed its warnings and take heart in its promises. Behind the clear, bold statements stands a man who tasted the Lord’s grace like few before or since.