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Minor Men With A Major Message (Zebedee)

Mark 1:14-20

John Vannorsdahl, the President of Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary, was preaching. And he was preaching on the call of Jesus to His disciples, the calling of James and John to be exact, and how they left their father fishing and went off and followed Jesus. And Vanarsdahl commented—it was just a little throwaway remark—”Jesus broke the hearts of many a first-century Judean family.”

That little throwaway remark wormed its way into my consciousness, for I had never before thought about how Zebedee, the father of James and John, would have reacted to his two boys leaving their fishing nets and hitting the road as traveling evangelists with Jesus. Of course, the Bible gives us very little direct information about Zebedee, just a couple of significant details, but I think that we can combine those details with what we know of Zebedee’s sons and thus draw some conclusions about Zebedee himself, and also what he thought about Jesus’ calling his sons.

We know, for example, that Zebedee was largely unsophisticated and uneducated, but he was not poor. He was a commercial fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. Since fish was a staple of the diet in those days, the fruits of Zebedee’s labors were in great demand. The Bible notes that Zebedee owned more than one fishing boat, perhaps he even had a small fleet. Not only were his two sons, James and John, involved in the business with him, but they had several hired hands as well. Quite clearly, then, Zebedee was a successful and reasonably affluent businessman whose business was fishing.

And we know the qualities and characteristics required to be a successful fisherman on Galilee. Sailors on fishing boats had to be strong physically, because the great trawling nets used to fish then could be several hundred feet long and when they were wet and loaded with fish, they would have been quite heavy when hauled in by hand. And those fishermen had to be quite agile because the painstaking work of deploying those nets in precise locations from the deck of a pitching boat required superb dexterity. Then, of course, they had to be accomplished sailors. The Sea of Galilee was then, and is now, a treacherously unpredictable body of water. It can be as calm as a millpond in one moment, and then whipped into a raging froth the next.

We can even speculate with some certainty about what this father, Zebedee, actually looked like. He would have been short of stature as were most first century Jews. He would have been dark-complected, particularly because of long hours under the middle-Eastern sun. His hair would have been thick and black; his teeth standing out white against his sun-bronzed face. He would have worn a garment rather like a loincloth when working. He would have had bare and calloused feet; his hands scarred and rough from the tension and tearing power of the nets. His eyes would have been the eyes of a sailor—always squinting, always looking off into the distance, always seeing things most people never see.

So the Bible tells us that Zebedee, his sons, and his hired hands were working on their boats, mending their nets. Along came Jesus and He said to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The Bible then notes that “they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him.” Now what interests me about that is that there is no recorded objection on the part of Zebedee. That Lutheran preacher I referred to earlier seemed to imply that Zebedee might have been devastated by this development. I mean, here were his closest associates and his designated successors in the business—and they suddenly dropped everything, including him, and headed off in a new direction for their lives. But I must tell you that I think Zebedee was glad—not grieved—but glad when his two sons made this decision to follow Jesus.

I think he was glad, first of all, because he had given them a foundation for the future.

It is terribly important in life for us to know from whence we have come. And I believe that Zebedee had laid the foundation of the past so solidly in his sons, that when they wanted to go off in pursuit of a new dream, he was not filled with worry and anxiety. He could relax because of the firmness which he knew had already been built into their characters.

Make no mistake, Zebedee knew his boys weren’t perfect. They must have been a handful growing up. Remember, please, that later on Jesus was to label them “the Sons of Thunder.” They must have had explosive tempers and an eye for trouble. There’s just no telling what kind of scrapes Zebedee had to get them out of when they were young, and there is no way of knowing how many sleepless nights he spent wondering what kind of mischief they were making. I suspect that there were times when Zebedee, as he tried to rear those boys aright, would have agreed with the little girl who was asked what she thought about her new baby brother. She replied: “He’s all right, but there are a lot of things we needed worse!” I imagine there were times when Zebedee felt he didn’t need the headaches given him by his two “Sons of Thunder.” These two boys had an inordinately high view of themselves and they tended to run roughshod over those who were closest to them. Yet even though that was true, and even though some of those characteristics carried over into their adult years, still they were men of great character, because of the solid foundations laid in them by their father Zebedee.

I suppose, for example, that there came a time on the Sea of Galilee when he taught the boys how to row a boat. Now when you are rowing a boat, because the place you want to go is behind you, it is difficult to row and stay on course. If you keep looking over your shoulder to see where you are headed, your course will be very erratic. I am sure that Zebedee taught James and John that the way to keep a straight course is once you have started the boat in the right direction, then watch your wake. Watch the trail of churning water you leave behind. As long as the trail is straight, you will be progressing toward your target. In other words, if you keep the past in sight, you will reach your future goals. You chart your course by looking at what’s behind. Zebedee taught that to his boys, and he also probably taught them that what applies to sailing applies to living as well. Keep your eye upon your wake. Parents who give a solid foundation to their children don’t have to be worried when their children are drawn into the fluidity of the future.

General Douglas MacArthur is remembered for many things, but I like to remember him for the prayer he prayed for his son:

“Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

Build me a son whose wishbone will not be where his backbone should be; a son who will now Thee—and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm, here let him learn compassion for those who fall.

Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.

Then, I, his father, will dare to whisper, ‘I have not lived in vain.’”

There were long, rough, difficult years before that prayer was answered. All a parent can do is lay the foundation. Some people never see that, but Zebedee did. Zebedee worked to lay a foundation, yet it was a long time before his boys began to build on that foundation. But, you know, I think that’s what Proverbs means when it says: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

And I think Zebedee was glad also because he didn’t want his sons captured by the commonplace.

I recently read an article by Peter Drucker on leadership. He wrote: “Leadership is not magnetic personality—that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not making friends and influencing people—that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” That’s precisely what Jesus Christ does for a person’s life. Some people never see that, but Zebedee did.

You see, it’s quite likely from what we know in Scripture, that Zebedee had had the chance to hear Jesus preach, perhaps even a number of times. The Bible tells us that Jesus had already been ministering in that area, and since religion was one of the major topics of conversation in those days, everybody would have gone out to hear this new preacher. In fact, the Bible says that Jesus had attracted huge crowds and they were impressed with His teaching. Quite likely, Zebedee was one of those people.

Therefore, when Jesus came along and called James and John to follow Him, Zebedee would have known that they were not being called to a life of lethargy. They were not going off on an extended vacation. Instead, they were being called to something far greater than fishing for fish. And any parent rejoices when someone holds out to that person’s children some meaningful task, some noble goal, some worthwhile commitment, some consuming purpose in life. In fact, I would venture to say that some of you parents are praying today that some person of positive influence will move into the life of your son or your daughter because you know that person will lead your youngsters in the way that is good, will lead them to be with Christ. Zebedee, you see, didn’t want his boys to be captured by the commonplace. He wanted them to be drawn into the high adventure of commitment to Christ.

Now you may think that I am giving too much credit to Zebedee because the Bible says so little about him. But I’ve discovered that you can tell a good deal about parents by looking at the way their children turn out over the span of their lifetimes. And the fact is that James and John went on to become two of the greatest disciples. When they came into contact with Jesus Christ, then the power of Jesus’ spirit began to work in their lives and they were changed. Their experience reflected what Paul later put into words when he said: “I count all things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord.” Scripture tells us that James was the first of the disciples to lose his life in the service of his Saviour. *The story is told in Acts 12. Tradition tells us that John was the last of the disciples to die, that he lived to be 97 years of age, that he spent those years building strong the Church of Jesus Christ, that he finally closed his eyes in Ephesus and was buried there.

You see, the power of Jesus Christ transformed Zebedee’s boys from “Sons of Thunder” into “Sons of Wonder.” They were not captured by the commonplace. Ultimately, they gave their lives to win the world for Jesus Christ.


We read in John 21, that after the crucifixion and resurrection and all the torment and tumult of those days, Jesus and John went back to Galilee for a little rest. They went back for a time to Zebedee and the boats. They wanted to feel once more the sting of the spray on their faces and the pull of the nets in their hands. So they went out one morning to fish. When they came back, Jesus, now risen from the dead, was on the shore waiting for them. And the Bible says that they had breakfast together on the beach.

I wonder if Zebedee saw that. I hope so. I hope he saw those strong sons of his who now had a vision for all the world in their eyes and a dream of conquering it for Christ in their hearts—I hope he saw them sitting on the shore with Jesus. Because, you see, there can be no greater joy to a father’s heart than to see his children in the company of Christ…

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