This is post 2 of 4 in the series “EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE DISCIPLES ... AND THEN SOME"
Everything You Need to Know About The Disciples . . . And Then Some, Part 2: The A Team (Peter, James, John)
PROVIDENCE Presbyterian Church
Dear most gracious Heavenly Father, we thank you for the opportunity we have just to be together in the name of Jesus Christ. We recognize the fact that the remarkable lives of these disciples of old, laid the foundations for all that we know, love and cherish now, as Christians, as members of the body of Christ. We thank you, oh God, for the inspiration we draw from them, and we pray that, yes, in our own way, we indeed may follow in their train, in Jesus name, amen.
I can’t remember now exactly how many years ago it was, I think, probably, seven or eight years ago, I was preaching for a week out in West Texas, in Midland and Odessa, Texas, out in the middle of godforsaken wilderness, and these two communities are there, but the communities are filled with some extraordinary Christian people. One of those people is a man named Kenneth Wyatt. He gave me this book, and inscribed it for me.
Kenneth Wyatt lives in the little community of Tulia, Texas, T-U-L-I-A, and he is quite an accomplished, primarily, western artist. However, he is a profound Christian. And one of the things that he did in his spiritual journey was to embark upon a personal study of the lives of the 12 disciples. As a result of that, he felt that he could better understand the disciples if he could visualize them. And so he set out to paint his own understanding of the 12 disciples—each one—a portrait of each of the 12. He actually then goes on to include Paul, and Jesus Himself. Interestingly enough, the models for the disciples were individuals he found just in travelling around, primarily, in West Texas and Oklahoma. He would be driving down the street, he would see someone whose face appeared to him to have the characteristics that he believed were a part of the life of one of the disciples, he would actually just walk up to a person on the street and ask them if they would be willing to serve as a model for his portrait.
It worked. And one of the things that I am going to do—because I think, maybe, it does help us to have some visual impression of the 12 disciples, better to identify with them, perhaps. What I think is fascinating is that in this book where his paintings are, he outlines his own personal study of each disciple, and then the story behind the model of each, and how he made the decision to paint this particular disciple in this manner. It’s a wonderful book. And what I’m going to do is when we get to each of the 12 disciples, I will put up on the screen before you, Kenneth Wyatt’s portrait of that particular disciple. So we will do that as we move along today.
Now, Michelangelo was an amazing artist. It is said that Michelangelo never, never, discarded a piece of stone, or marble. That he always created a masterpiece out of every piece of stone or marble he encountered. That was not true of most sculptors, and in fact, certainly not true even now. Sculptors make mistakes. And great stones are cast aside, not Michelangelo. Michelangelo never rejected a stone, and never made a mistake in carving that stone sufficient to cause him to discard it. He was asked how in the world that could be true. His answer, one line, “I can somehow see the angel in every uncut rough piece of marble.” “I can somehow see the angel in every rough piece of marble.” I want to tell you that’s one line that captures how Jesus saw these 12. You talk about rough uncut blocks of stone, that’s what they were. Somehow, Jesus saw in them, the angel. And Jesus proceeded, like a sculptor working a piece of stone, to evoke that masterpiece from the stone.
So that we wind up with 12 people who changed the world—quite amazing! Now, let’s remember the chronology a little bit from last week. When Jesus left the carpenter shop and began His ministry, there was a period of time—certainly an extended number of months, probably, maybe, even as much as a year, where Jesus was finding His footing, moving from being an ordinary carpenter to being this travelling Rabbi and teacher. It was a time when Jesus went to John the Baptist and was baptized, but even more importantly, received the divine seal of God upon him. At the baptism, God said, “This is my beloved Son.” It was in the temptation experience that Jesus did battle with the devil and won, and knew then that He had the power to overcome any evil he might encounter along His life’s way. And then He began to engage in this sort of preliminary time of preaching and teaching, mostly in the region of Galilee, in particular, Capernaum. And it was in travelling about in Galilee, doing this teaching and preaching, that He encountered several individuals who later on would become His disciples.
But they were one among any number of people who, basically, kind of signed on as disciples of Jesus. Some stayed with Him through the whole length of His ministry, some came and went, disappeared under the pressure of opposition. But there were these 12 that He raised up out of the midst of that large band of disciples, and He designated them apostles. So all of that was going on during this first, say, nine months to a year. During that period of time, Jesus knew Andrew, Peter, James and John. In fact, we can safely assume that Jesus actually lived in Capernaum, in Simon Peter’s home, during this first part of His ministry. We’ll come back to that again in a few minutes when we get to Peter himself. But in any case, He knew them. They had a relationship. So the call to become apostles came after a period of rather extensive exposure to Jesus: seeing Him work miracles, hearing the things He taught, coming to understand who He understood himself to be in the world. So all of that was this shaping time.
And then He chose the 12. And then, gradually, as the 12 continued to function with Him in close proximity, they began to subdivide into groups. The one group that I will deal with today is the group I call the A-team. There were 3 of the 12 who became especially close to Jesus: Peter, James and John. There are three instances where it specifically notes that Jesus took Peter, James and John with him, leaving the others behind—took Peter, James and John with him—in each instance, for an unbelievably profound experience. He knew that these three—right from the very beginning—would wind up being the three key leaders in the early days of the church. And he knew that they needed to be prepared for that role. And so He deliberately took them with Him in these three remarkable experiences. The first you can read about in Mark 5. That’s the story where, in Capernaum, Jairus, who was a very wealthy ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum, had a little 12-year-old girl who was stricken. She seemed on the verge of death.
He went to Jesus asking for help. And while he was there asking Jesus for help, the servants from his home came and said, “Don’t bother Jesus anymore. The little girl’s dead.” Jesus said, “Don’t pay any attention to that. Come with me.” And then it notes, Jesus took Peter, James and John, it says, left everybody else behind, took Peter, James and John, went to the house of Jairus. When he got there, there was a mob of people. This was a prominent man in Capernaum—a mob of people—they were all weeping, and wailing, and gnashing their teeth, and—I hate to say this—Jesus actually said to them, “Hush up!” He did. That’s what He said, “Hush up!” He then ordered everybody out of the house. He took Peter, James and John into the room with Him where the little girl was dead on the bed.
And Jesus proceeded to raise her to life again in the presence of these three, demonstrating to them, early on, that He had the power to conquer death, and that they, ultimately, would have that same power. It’s an amazing experience when you see what was behind it. Jesus wasn’t just raising a little girl from the dead. He was equipping the A-team for what they would have to deal with later. Matthew 17, once again, an extraordinary experience. Jesus, it says, takes Peter, James and John and goes up on what is called The Mount of Transfiguration. And there, before their very eyes, Jesus is transformed into this shimmering vision right in front of them. And once again, the message comes from God. He says, “This is my son, listen to him.” Once again, establishing in the minds and the hearts of the A-team that He is nothing less than the son of God, and they can count on that, and God’s power is in Him, and consequently will be also in them, an amazing experience.
In fact, it was such an incredible experience, Peter, who always had a better idea anyway, said, “Why don’t we just stay here? Let’s just build a permanent shrine. This is so good. We’re just going to stay right here.” And Jesus said, “No. Back down into the valley. There’s work to be done.” The third experience, the garden of Gethsemane, the tenderest, for me at least, most emotional event of the last week of Jesus’ life, where Jesus feeling the weight of the world’s sin, feeling the horror of the cross, needs to draw deeply on the strength of His Heavenly Father. He leaves the other disciples, and He takes Peter, James and John deeper into the garden with Him. And you remember, he says to them, “Please help me. Stay awake. Support me with your own spirit, your own presence, your own prayers.” And then He pours himself out in agony before His Heavenly Father. Well, you remember that the three fell asleep, not once, not twice—three times. But the fact of the matter is, they did have something of the experience of Jesus at the heart of the garden of Gethsemane when He was most vulnerable, and when He was most dependent upon His Heavenly Father.
And so these three, on the strength of those events, became the group that, ultimately, would provide the significant leadership in the early days of the Church. So now, we want to deal with each of the disciples in turn, the three of the A-team. Kenneth Wyatt’s Peter. Studdert Kennedy said, “There’s nothing in man that’s perfect. There’s nothing in him at all complete. He’s not but a big beginning from his head to the soles of his feet.” That’s all Peter was, really, a big beginning. Because, let me tell you, there was nothing perfect about him. His life is marked by a whole series of what I have chosen to call highlights and lowlights. Now—I will try to do this in each case—let me give you just some sort of general, personal, biographical stuff. Peter, with his brother Andrew, started out as fishermen in Bethsaida, which is up on the coast of the sea of Galilee. At some point, they moved to Capernaum. And they actually then became partners in the much larger fishing operation run by Zebedee, the father of James and John. Luke refers to Simon Peter as the partner of James and John. So they went into partnership in a fishing business. And believe me it was a very prosperous business. Zebedee, undoubtedly, was very well-to-do. In fact, one of the things that’s mentioned about Zebedee is that he had a number of hired people in his fishing operation. So it was a big operation, and very successful. You can begin to imagine that that’s true when you visit Capernaum, and you see the sight of the house of Simon Peter. It’s just ruins now, but it’s not very far from the synagogue in Capernaum, and it was a very large home. Peter was a very successful fisherman. First time Trisha and I visited Peter’s home in Capernaum was 25 years ago, I guess, now. And at that point, all you could see were just the ruins. Then I learned that the Roman Catholic Church was actually building a church over the top of the ruins of his home. And I thought, “how awful”!
But then I saw what they did. It’s an amazing structure. They built this magnificent church way up in the air. And the struts for the church go down and surround Peter’s house—the ruins thereof. So you can walk through the ruins of his house, and then climb the ramp up, and worship in the church right above it, quite an amazing sight. But it was a significant home. Peter was married. You remember his mother-in-law, obviously, lived in this home with him, because at one point, Jesus actually healed his mother-in-law. It says any number of times that Jesus was at home in Capernaum. And it is quite clear that He was at home in Peter’s house. It is a large house, and it would have had plenty of room to accommodate mom-in-law, Jesus, Andrew probably and who knows who else. But in any case, it was a successful operation that Peter, his brother James and John, with patriarch Zebedee, they ran this incredibly successful commercial fishing operation. We’ll look at that a little more when we get to James and John.
Peter was probably the most dominant figure among the disciples right from the very beginning. He is argumentative. He has a hot temper. He brags. He curses. He questions. He cajoles. He commands. He demands. Everything that you can think of as a human characteristic, somehow, you find in Simon Peter. How Jesus found the angel in the midst of all of that, I have no earthly idea. But you see it all in this remarkable exchange right at the beginning, when Jesus gave him his name. One of the things you’re going to see is that Jesus takes great delight in delivering nicknames. It’s said that our President, George W. Bush, loves to give nicknames to people. Well, Jesus loved to give nicknames to people too. And He always did it with a purpose in mind.
So He says, when He calls Simon, it’s Mark 3:17, I think it is, He says, “You are Simon Bar-Jonah,” Simon the son of John, Simon Johnson. “But you shall be Cephas.” Now, I know most people say “Cephas”. That is not correct. It is spelled C-E-P-H-A-S, that is the Aramaic word cephas, the Aramaic word for rock. It is translated into Greek, and the disciples, most of whom were Galileans, spoke Greek. They used, most frequently, the Greek form of that name, Petros, which is translated into English, Peter the rock. Simon is called Simon in the New Testament whenever they’re just general information about him, or whenever Jesus is mad at him. It’s amazing when you go through there and look at it, it’s absolutely amazing. When he is living up to the vision that Christ had for him, he is called Peter, Petros or Cephas.
Paul, for example, refers to him consistently as Cephas, using the Aramaic form of the name. Most often, I guess, because it kind of became his full name, he is referred to in scripture as Simon Peter, and that, certainly, is how we know him today. Simon Peter, this rough, tough fisherman with a world of faults. I said to you he had highlights and lowlights in his life. He did have many. He had highlights galore. I would point to one. I regard this as being the ultimate highlight for Peter. At Caesarea of Phillippi—Matthew 16. Caesarea of Philippi is up right at the base of Mount Hermon, in the far northern edge, or what we know today as Israel. That is where out of the base of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River, the headwaters of the Jordan, flow up out of that mountain, and down into the Jordan River, and down to the sea of Galilee. And it was there that Jesus said to His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And you remember they played a guessing game. They all threw out their own little idea. And Peter suddenly says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” The most incredible affirmation of the truth of Jesus Christ ever made.
No one has ever been able to say it better. No one has ever said it more completely or thoroughly. A simple sentence. I want to suggest to you that the moment he said the words, he thought to himself, “Where did that come from?” And Jesus must have smiled, and said, “Right you are.” And He said, “I’m going to give you the keys to the kingdom.” What He was giving him was the gift of preaching. You see, it is the preaching of the Word that opens the door to the kingdom. We have this vision of Peter standing at the gates of heaven with his keys in his hand, and he’s going to let you in or not. I don’t buy that. When Jesus said I’ll give you the keys, He was saying I’m going to enable you to communicate the faith in such a way that the door to the kingdom will open up for countless millions upon millions of people. They will come streaming in on the strength of your proclamation. That was his high point. Low point? Night before the crucifixion when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, taken to the palace of the high priest. Peter and John followed along. When they got to the gate of the palace, Jesus was in the control of the soldiers of the temple guard. They took Jesus on in. Peter was prohibited from entering. John did go in. Why? Well, wait just a little bit and I’ll tell you. John then came back and got permission for Peter to come in. Peter then entered the court of the palace of the high priest. And that is where this incredible scene of denial took place where he denied three times that he knew Christ. And Christ had predicted that before the cock crowed, Peter would deny him. Today, on that spot, the palace of the high priest, there is built one of the most beautiful churches in all of the Holy Land. It’s called Saint Peter in Gallicantu, G-A-L-L-I-C-A-N-T-U, Saint Peter and the crowing cock. It’s an amazing place, because when you go down under the church, you go down, actually, into the ruins of the palace of the high priest. And there you see the courtyard. There you see the bottled dungeons where, no doubt, Jesus would have been held and tortured. There you begin to understand what was going on in Peter’s mind that forced him in that moment to dig deep into his own sinfulness that he’d been acknowledging all along, and to deny the knowledge of his Christ. Highlights, lowlights, his whole life is marked by those. Is your life marked by those as well?
I would have to tell you mine is. It’s an interesting thing for you to do—I’d ask you to write this down in the margin—to look at what I choose to call the five sea episodes of Peter’s life, his encounters with Jesus that took place on the sea. There are five of them. They tell you an amazing story of not only Peter’s faults, but also Christ’s power and grace. The first, Luke 5, where the call initially goes out to become an apostle. Jesus is actually—remember this is in the first year of His ministry. He’s got all these disciples. They’re all arrayed on a hillside there, on the edge of the sea of Galilee. Now, by the way, at that point, on the sea of Galilee, the hills come together and form a natural amphitheater. You can stand on the shore and speak and be heard way up the side of the hill. You can do that to this day. The crowds were so great that Jesus was gradually being edged back into the water. And so at that point, He saw that there were a couple of boats there belonging to Peter, Andrew, John and James. They had been fishing all night, no luck. They’re cleaning their nets. And Jesus turns around, and He says to Simon, “Let me borrow that boat.”
And Simon says, “Well, all right.” So Jesus climbs up in the bow of that boat, Simon pulls the boat back off the shore, and Jesus proceeds to preach from the bow of the boat with His voice carrying up the hillside. Then, after He has finished His teaching, He says to Simon and the other fishermen, “You didn’t catch any fish during the night?” They said, “No. Tough night.” So He said, “Well, go out right now and fish.” Simon Peter immediately says, “Are you nuts?” He was a professional fisherman. He knew you don’t fish on the sea of Galilee in the day time, you fish at night, where you can identify the shoals of fish, and then you stick a light over the side of the boat, and the fish are drawn to it, and you have a huge dragnet, two boats pulling each end of the dragnet, you then pull the boats to the shore towing the net, and then you wind up pulling the net onto the shore, and all of the fish are caught in that dragnet. That’s the way they fished.
You don’t do that in the day time. And immediately, Peter says, “I got a better idea than you, that’s for sure. You don’t know what you’re talking—you’re just a carpenter.” And Jesus said, “Go out.” And they went out, and the catch was overwhelming. And Peter, seeing what’s occurred, he knows the power of that miracle, because you don’t catch fish in the daytime in Galilee, he says, “Lord, depart from me. I am a sinner. I got no business being in your company.” That’s the way he started out as an apostle; I’m a sinner. It’s an amazing episode.
Then Matthew 8—you remember the story—Jesus and the disciples got in the boat, they were going to sail to the other side of Galilee. Jesus was exhausted, went back in the back, fell asleep. They encountered a tsunami, an earthquake at sea. The Greek word is seismos, that means an earthquake at sea. It was a ferocious storm with huge waves, and Peter immediately turns to Jesus, He’s sound asleep, mind you. Peter says, “Don’t you even care about us?”
Peter’s the only one of the 12 disciples who ever tried to rebuke Jesus. He did it more than once. But this is one time, “Don’t you even care about us?” The very idea of saying don’t you even care about us. Jesus, very patient, He gets up, wipes the sleep out of His eyes, stands up in the boat and says, “Hush,” that’s the Greek word, and there was a great calm, the Bible says. And the disciples said, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?”
Matthew 14—another time on the sea of Galilee. Jesus, once again, wanted to withdraw from everybody, needed to spend the whole night in prayer. He sends the disciples on across the sea in the boat. In the middle of the night, they encounter another storm. Jesus, recognizing that they need help, comes walking to them across the water. When they see this figure walking across the water, their first thought is, “Good night. It’s a ghost.” And then suddenly, they recognize it’s the Lord. And Peter, good old impulsive, brash Peter, jumps overboard, “I’m coming to you, Lord.” And he starts walking on the water. Well, then suddenly he thinks to himself, “What in the Sam hell am I doing?” And he looks around, the waves are rolling, and in that moment he starts to sink. Now, here’s what you don’t often see or hear, he was in his clothes, had all his clothes on. He would have gone to the bottom of the sea of Galilee like a rock, but it says Jesus reached out and saved him. Believe me, Jesus saved Peter more than once, but this was one time when He did, saved him. They all got back in the boat, and then once again, there was the declaration, this is the son of God.
Matthew 17—Peter was obviously the leader of the group because in Capernaum, the guy who was in charge of soliciting the temple taxes—there were some taxes that went to the Romans, those were bad, but the taxes that went to the temple, those were good, everybody liked to pay those—well, he came around to Peter, and he said, “Is your master paying His taxes?” And Peter says, “Oh, yeah. Sure.” And the guy says to Peter, “Well, it’s time to do it again.” So Peter thinks to himself, “Now, why in the world? This is the son of God for heaven’s sakes. He’s the Lord of the temple. What does He need to be paying His taxes for?” Well, Jesus read his mind. So when he comes to Jesus, he’s ready to make this case. Jesus says, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I don’t need to pay those taxes, aren’t you?”
He says, “I want you to do something for me, Peter. You’re a good fisherman. Go down there and stick a line in, catch a fish, and when you catch that fish, open that fish’s mouth, inside you’re going to find a shekel.” The temple tax was two drachma per person. Four drachma is a shekel. So Peter goes and catches this fish, opens the mouth, bless my soul, there’s a shekel in there! And Jesus said, “You see, yes, I have the power of God, but I’m also a part of this world, and I’m going to submit to paying of the taxes to the temple. And not only that, Peter, I’m paying yours too.” He must have laughed at that boy.
John 21—after the resurrection. They’ve seen Jesus, but then they go for a while, and he’s not there. They become kind of dispirited. They head back to Galilee. Peter says, “I’m just going to have to go back to doing what I always did, fishing.” And there are six other disciples at that point who say, “Well, we’re going with you.” That gives us a clue that 7 of the 12 disciples, apparently, were fishermen. Interesting. Jesus uses that image of fishing so much in His own teachings, but nevertheless. So they go out fishing—and long night—they aren’t doing so good, and suddenly as the dawn breaks, there’s a voice calling at them from the shore. They recognize it’s Jesus. Peter, in his usual manner, piles into the water and heads to the shore. Jesus says to the others, “Put the net on the other side of the boat.” They put the net over there, another huge catch. That’s the way this thing started, here’s the way it ended, the same pattern.
What’s even more amazing, when Peter gets to the shore, he discovers Jesus already got a fire built. He’s got some fish already. He’s cooking breakfast for them. And He says to the others, “Bring the other fish. We’re going to have a feast together on the beachside.” And it was during that meal that He, three times, commissioned Simon Peter, “Do you love Me? Feed My sheep. Do you love Me? Feed My sheep. Do you love Me? Feed My sheep,” overcoming the power of the three denials. And Peter did go on from there to become the great leader of the church.
Let me just put this up for you very quickly. I want you sometimes to make a note of Acts 1-12. Peter is the dominant figure of the first 12 chapters of The Book of Acts. He may not have acted much like his nickname before Pentecost, but beginning at the ascension of Jesus, and continuing on through Pentecost, and on until the end of his life, Peter was in the ultimate sense of the word, “the rock”. He became everything Jesus saw in him the capacity to be.
If you go through The Book of Acts, you see very clearly, Peter takes the lead in replacing Jesus. He becomes the preacher spokesman for the church. He and John become miracle workers. Peter faces down the Sanhedrin. He deals with the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira. He creates the initial church organization.
Acts 7—the only chapter in that section of Acts where Peter is not mentioned, that’s the story of the stoning of Steven. Then 8, Peter reacts strongly with the magician, puts the faith in the new understanding, so that it is not a magical thing at all. He then heals Aeneas, and raises Dorcas from the dead. He wins the Gentiles to faith, the marvelous story of his encounter with Cornelius, and the conversion of the Gentiles. Peter is the very first one to win Gentiles to the Christian faith. He’s the one who broke the barrier and said the faith is too big just for the people of God in Israel. He then responded to his critics, and he overcame, ultimately, in Acts 12, the effort to stop him. The authorities tried to stop him, tried to kill him. He managed to escape.
He then went on, ultimately, to travel through much of the Holy Land, through Asia minor. It is mentioned in Paul’s letters in Galatia and Corinthians that Peter was in those places. He went on to Rome. He ultimately is responsible for the Gospel of Mark. Mark is written by John Mark, who was the secretary to Simon Peter. Simon Peter was preaching regularly in that part of the world, and Mark was along taking notes on his sermons. And Peter illustrated his sermons with the stories of Jesus. He was an eyewitness, and he told the stories of Jesus. And Mark simply wrote those stories down, and ultimately collected them into the form of the Gospel of Mark.
Here’s a fascinating thing for you to do sometime. In Acts chapter 10, you have there a speech delivered by Peter at the home of Cornelius in the presence of all these Gentiles. That speech is an absolutely amazing affirmation of the story of the Christian faith. When you take the speech that Peter gave at the home of Cornelius, and lay it down phrase by phrase by phrase, and then you take the Gospel of Mark and lay it down section by section by section, you discover that the speech at Cornelius’ house is the outline of the Gospel of Mark. It’s the proof that John Mark was writing down the words of Peter. And then, of course, Peter wrote two letters in the New Testament, first and second Peter. They came later on, and they bear all of the marks of this transformed Peter, no longer wishy-washy, no longer braggadocio, no longer impulsive, now incredibly strong, steady and determined in the faith—Peter, Cephas, Petros the rock.
John, James, Peter, Andrew, in partnership with Zebedee, we have a good reason to believe that not only was Zebedee a very prosperous fisherman, but Zebedee may well have been the one who provided fish from the sea of Galilee for the temple authorities in Jerusalem. We know that, for example, John had a home in Jerusalem, not far from the temple mount. We know because of what happened after the crucifixion that that’s what took place. We know that John had unusual entree into the home and the palace of the high priest, not everybody got to do that. When Peter and John went, after Jesus was arrested, John was immediately given entrance there because, it said, he knew the high priest. We have good reason to believe that John, and James and their father, Zebedee, were the fishermen for the temple authorities in Jerusalem, and that was certainly a part of their wealth and their prominence. Tradition tells us—we don’t know if it’s true or not—tradition tells us that John was the only one of the 12 who was not married. Maybe that is in part the reason that Jesus on the cross entrusted His mother to John.
Early on, you can read about it in Mark 3 where Jesus calls the disciples, and there it says He called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and He gave them a nickname, Boanerges which means sons of thunder—an amazing name. We have a tendency when we see paintings of John, to see John as kind of pale, emaciated, sensitive, cute, loving, soft. This was one of the Boanerges brothers. He was a son of thunder. And we see that thunder all the way through until you get to the Revelation, where the heavens erupt in thunder in response to the revelation of Christ to John. Boanerges. The implication of the word, we don’t know this for sure, the implication of the word Boanerges, sons of thunder, is that they were twins.
That word was drawn from a mythical story at the time, and the sons of thunder in that story were twins. You can put that down as a footnote that is absolutely worthless. Son of thunder. He was very, very strong. He was concerned about truth. He was a truth-seeker, and he was a truth-teller. He was passionate. He was filled with the fire of the faith, and he needed it. Because, as it turns out, he had a long but terribly difficult life. He needed all of that fire for the balance of his days. Boanerges, the son of thunder. But like Peter, Jesus gave him a nickname for a reason. And Jesus set about transforming this son of thunder into the disciple of love. Four times in the gospel that John wrote, he refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved: upper room, Calvary, Easter and again on the lake shore in John 21. Now, that’s the way English translations have it—the disciple whom Jesus loved. What the Greek actually says is, this was the disciple whom Jesus kept on loving.
Do you hear what’s being said? He wasn’t perfect. Jesus kept on loving him in spite of his weaknesses, his drawbacks, his shortcomings. And Jesus kept on loving him, and kept on loving him and kept on loving him, until at last he ends his life as the greatest embodiment of Christian love in all of the history of the world. The transformation is complete from the son of thunder to the disciple of love. In his Gospel alone, he uses the word love, Christ’s love, or God’s love, 80 times more than all of the other Gospels put together use the word love. He is the last of the eyewitnesses. He lived a long, long time. He’s the only one of the 12 to die a natural death. And because of that, he was the one who, in essence, carried the faith on after the others had given up their lives for Christ and the faith. He was the one left as the sole eyewitness. And so he winds up writing the Gospel that carries his name.
It was written for two reasons. One, to establish the fact that Jesus was the son of God, and two, to defeat the heresies and the pagan thoughts that were beginning to invade the early Christian Church. And you have to read the “Gospel of John” understanding that that’s why he wrote it. You see, most of his Gospel has to do only with the last week of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, think about this, “Gospel of John” is basically 24 conversations—recorded conversations—between Jesus and somebody else; 17 other individuals. 24 conversations involving 17 individuals. The conversations are strung together in such a way that he wants to use the actual words of Jesus to deliver the message he’s trying to deliver. The only way to defeat the heresies that were there was to bring the word of Jesus himself to the fore. And so he’s not giving us a biography of Jesus. He’s giving us an instrument to use to keep the faith strong and pure.
It’s an amazing document when you see it in that light. And then, of course, he wrote 1, 2, 3 John, very short little letters filled with love, filled with hope, but filled with truth, and with strength and with the command to stay true to the pure faith. Once again, when you read 1, 2, and 3 John, if you listen carefully, you will hear in the background the sound of thunder. And then with the ultimate, Revelation—the Revelation of Christ to John—the last book of the Bible. This incredible vision of Christ, of the church, of the evil world and of the eternal kingdom that waits for us. The book is divided into four sections. It’s an amazing study to dive into this ultimate Revelation that then became the foundation stone for the Church’s growth beyond that first century. It is said, and I think it’s true, Peter formed the Church during the first 12 chapters of Acts; Paul, spread the Church, his missionary journeys through Acts and his letters; but John established the Church. John formed the theology of the Church, built the belief system of the Church, demonstrated the validity of the Church, encouraged and empowered the Church to stand against incredible persecution even as he had to do in his own life.
And then we come to the third member of the A-team, James—passionate, zealous, strong guy. We don’t know much about him. We know more about John, a lot about Peter—don’t know much about James. What we do know is he had a fiery temper. He was a son of thunder, remember. There was a time when Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, and they went through the region of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans hated the Jews, and then consequently, they were inhospitable to Jesus. James and John go to Jesus, and they said, “Lord,” they’ve been watching Jesus all this time. They know what he can do. “Should we just call down fire on these people and burn them to a crisp?” I mean, they were mad. Now, at least, they were insulted that Jesus was being mistreated. Well, they got mad, and wanted to incinerate the whole place. And Jesus said, “Nuh-uh.” He was also blindly ambitious together with John. In fact, they even use their momma. Their momma was Salome, and so they talked to her. She was one of the big supporters of the ministry of Jesus, and Zebedee’s money was probably flowing into the operation anyway.
And so they said, “Momma, how about going to Jesus and get for us special places in the ultimate Kingdom?” And so she did. And they’re standing there looking over Momma’s shoulder. And Jesus turns to them, and He says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I’m going to drink?” “Oh, yes. We can.” And Jesus said, “No. I don’t think you know what you’re saying.” And Jesus then uses this incident to give the disciples an incredible teaching on what it means to be a servant, a servant of the Lord. He then lived that out in the foot washing later on, but it’s an amazing little story. The only other thing we know about James, and even that is a bit of a stretch, but I think we can do it, Acts 4. In Acts 4:23-31, here is what has happened. That’s a prayer that is taken right from Acts 4. Peter and John have been arrested. They have been prayed for by the other apostles and disciples, and miraculously they are released. When they return, immediately, one of the disciples offers a prayer. Now, we know at this point Peter, James and John were the three primary leaders of the disciples. Peter and John have just been released. They are the ones who are being prayed for.
It is logical to assume that it is James who offered this incredible prayer. And when you read the prayer, you discover the language that is so comfortable to James. You hear his passion, you hear his zeal, you hear his understanding of the power of God. And then at the same time, you hear his plea for that same power to come to him and to the others. It’s a perfectly beautiful prayer. And listen, when you read this prayer in Acts 4, go on and read the following verses after it. Because it says that when the prayer was finished, the whole place began to shake. What a prayer! I would suggest to you that that prayer was delivered by James.
James was the first of the disciples to die. We know his story in Acts 12. Herod we’re told—now quickly, there were three Herods; “Herod the Great”, that’s Herod I. He was in charge when Jesus was born. He’s the one who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem, Herod I—“Herod the Great”. Herod II was “Herod Antipas”. He was on the throne when John the Baptist—he’s the one who had John the Baptist beheaded. He’s the one who consented to the crucifixion of Jesus. Herod III succeeded Antipas. His name was “Herod Agrippa”. About 14 years after the resurrection, Herod Agrippa, seeking to curry favor with the Jewish religious leaders, set out to destroy the three leaders of the early church: Peter, James and John. He had Peter and John arrested. They were thrown into prison. It was his intent to execute them. He then sees James, the third of the three, and in Acts 12 you can read the story. With his own sword, Herod III sliced off the head of James, the very first one of the 12 to die for his Lord.
Tradition tells us that the soldier—the officer of the guard—who was responsible for James during his brief imprisonment before his execution, became so impressed with James’ faith that he actually apologized to James for the brutal treatment he had received. James forgave him. James said to him, “Peace be with you.” And in that moment, this officer of the guard converted to Christ and publicly confessed his faith arousing the wrath of Herod III. And the tradition tells us that immediately after the beheading of James, this soldier was beheaded as well—James, the first to die.
Peter—Peter preached all the way up to Rome. By the way, you can note this down—I Corinthians 9:5, Paul tells us there that the disciples—remember tradition tells us all of them were married, save John—that the disciples took their wives with them when they branched out and began to spread the church. Peter had his wife in Corinth. She travelled with him. She ultimately travelled with him to Rome, and there, the two of them were arrested. Peter, tradition tells us, was locked away for 9 months in the brutal Mamertine Prison in Rome, where he was kept in total darkness, chained to a post for 9 months. He was never cleaned, and fed only sporadically. During that time, he converted his 2 jailers and 47 other prisoners. His wife, the tradition tells us, and it’s a pretty solid tradition—his wife was put to death first—and Peter was made to watch as his wife was executed.
And it is said that in those moments, she fixed her eyes on Peter, and he kept saying to her over and over, and over again, “Remember the Lord. Remember the Lord. Remember the Lord.” And from the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus had lived in her home, she remembered the Lord, and she took strength, and she died for her Lord as well. And having watched his wife put to death, Peter was then crucified. You remember, he insisted that he be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to be crucified in the manner of his Lord. How did he start? Lord, depart from me. I am a sinner. How does he end? Lord, I’m still just a sinner, but at least I’m yours.
John—the only one of the 12 to live a full life, died at nearly 100 years of age—right close to the end of that first century. He took Mary into his home, ultimately moved to Ephesus, travelled around in Galatia and other places. We know from Paul’s letters that he was there. It is said also that he went to Rome. We think that’s true. There, in Rome, he was captured, arrested, for proclaiming the faith. He was actually placed in a confined position and hot oil was poured over his body. It left him scarred for the rest of his life. Another time, the authorities tried to poison him, somehow he managed to survive it. Then ultimately, under the reign of Domitian—the terrible persecution that took place—John was arrested.
He was an old man by this time, in his 80s, and he was placed on the isle of Patmos out in the sea. There he was made to suffer hard labor living in a cave, tortured periodically, untold privations for an old man. It must have been incredibly tough. But it was there on Patmos that one day he caught a vision from Christ, and that vision became “The Revelation”. Ultimately, he returned to Ephesus, and there he lived the rest of his days. There he became the Bishop of Ephesus, establishing the church there and far beyond there. At the end of his life, he was so physically decrepit that they had to literally carry him into the church at worship services. And near the end, he could only utter a few words, “My little children,” he kept saying over and over again, “My little children, love one another.” The son of thunder had become, truly, the disciple of love. His grave, like the grave of Moses, is known only to God.
Who follows in their train?
Go in peace.
God bless you.