Jesus’ Family

While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him.
And one said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee.”
But he answered and said unto him that told him, “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?”
And he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

One can hardly overstate the importance of family, both in the ancient and modern worlds. Family connections provided the only real “safety net” of the day; one’s standing in one’s family often defined one’s career and marriage prospects, let alone religion and ideology. One of the worst fates a person could experience was to be bereft of family, excluded from family, or to be a part of a family whose name was dishonorable in the community.

One’s family tends to share in commonalities: a common bloodline, and therefore common characteristics. We have latent expectations that children turn out a lot like parents; athleticism, intelligence, skills, and temperaments tend to be inherited characteristics. If one person in a family gains prominence, it tends to be easier for other family members to also gain prominence as well.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that family would have a role in Jesus’ life and teachings. During His life, those who knew Him from His youth had challenges accepting His authority since it seemed so inconsistent with His family’s social place (cf. Matthew 13:54-58). A lot of people put some emphasis on Jesus’ earthly family: Mary His mother is prominent in the eyes of some, and there are no lack of conspiracy theories about Jesus possibly having a wife and family and how His descendants would become kings. There is no legitimacy to any such tale, but it goes to show just how much we associate people with their families; it is easy to assume that whatever made Jesus great would be passed on to other family members as well.

At one point during His ministry, Jesus’ mother and (half-)siblings wished to speak with Him (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). Concerning what specifically we are never told; considering Mark 3:21 and John 7:5, it probably was not for good. Nevertheless, Jesus is in the middle of teaching the people, and He takes the opportunity to teach a most profound lesson. He declares that those who are really His brother, sister, and mother are not those who are somewhat biologically related to Him, but those who “do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Let us first make it clear what Jesus is not saying. He is not attempting to justify people dishonoring their biological parents; He affirms the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Matthew 19:19), and puts it into practice by making sure that His mother is provided for after His death (John 19:25-27). We should not assume that He intends any disrespect to His earthly family whatsoever with His declaration, and Jesus is certainly not trying to overthrow the institution of the family.

So why does Jesus make such a strong declaration? He does so in part because of the tendency we noticed above: it would be easy for the people to look to Jesus’ earthly family to provide future leadership and to exalt Jesus’ earthly family in inappropriate ways; this is also seen in Luke 11:27-28. The honor and praise is well-meaning but dangerously wrong-headed.

And its wrong-headedness makes up the bulk of the reason why Jesus says what He does. Families are known for their strong connections and the emphasis on what they share in common; Jesus has come to reveal first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles as well that they should honor their spiritual connection with God as primary in their lives, and thus the common relationship they share as children of their Heavenly Father should be preeminent, far more valuable than any earthly connection (cf. Matthew 6:33). Jesus is not trying to say that anyone can become His spiritual “mother”; He is using the terms on the basis of connecting the physical to the spiritual. Yet all can become spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus through the reconciliation with the Father made possible through His blood (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-17). Had His physical brothers and sisters persisted in unbelief, their genetic relationship to Jesus would not have somehow saved them; while James and Jude will take on prominent roles in the early church, it is not because they are Jesus’ brothers, but Jesus’ servants (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Nepotism may get you somewhere on earth, but physical nepotism will not get anyone anywhere in heaven!

Jesus’ teaching is powerful: yes, there is great value in the physical family, and those commitments should be honored (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1-16), but the earthly family should never be made an idol. Instead, as with all good things that come from God, we should perceive how the physical is a shadow of the real and spiritual: participation in the family of God is of the greatest importance, and that which we share in common in Jesus can overcome anything else that could divide us. No one need be excluded from Jesus’ family; there is not one who cannot become an adopted son/daughter of God and thus brother/sister of Jesus. During His earthly life Jesus did honor His physical family but took every opportunity to more greatly honor His spiritual family, bought by His blood. Let us join together as Jesus’ family and honor our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Brothers

For even his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5).

For many of us, the one refuge we can count on in life is family. Even if everyone else is against us and berates us, we like to think that our family members will still accept us and believe in us.

Yet, on the other hand, our family tends to know us all too well. They watched us grow up and many have rather “incriminating” stories about our pasts. Sometimes family members refuse to see any growth or change in us; in their eyes we are still quite young, quite inexperienced, or quite mischievous, even if we have grown up and have learned our lessons.

Jesus had no ordinary beginning, and while we are not given much information about His early years, we have little doubt that they were not very ordinary, either. Contrary to certain religious traditions, it does not seem as if the household comprised only of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are told that He has brothers and sisters– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, and Judas (cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

We do not know much about them. It seems as if they are not terribly much younger than Jesus, since they are old enough to have formed beliefs, and they are known in the community of Nazareth. We can imagine, however, what it might have been like to be the younger brothers of Jesus– the One who always seemed a bit different, One with whom they grew up, but now the One who is making rather grandiose claims about Himself and is engaging in work that is well beyond your average Galilean carpenter!

While there is much we do not know, there is one thing that the Gospels make certain– His brothers do not believe in His claims regarding Himself. In Mark 3:21, Mark informs us that “they who were of” Jesus went to Capernaum to seize Jesus because, in their estimation, He was out of His mind. In John 7:3-5, His brothers are all but taunting Him, challenging Him to go up to Jerusalem and prove to be who He claims to be, for they did not believe in Him. Jesus’ responds in ways likely not much less acerbic, declaring that it is not yet His time, and that while the world cannot hate them, it does hate Him (John 7:6-8). Sibling rivalry indeed!

At first, this might seem incredible to us, and it may lead to some doubt. Jesus suffered temptation, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15); wouldn’t His brothers have noticed this in His first thirty-four or so years? Did they not understand how their mother had conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and did they not hear about all of the signs that accompanied His birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2)? How could they not believe in Him?

Yet, when we think about it, we can make some sense of it. There is a reason why it is said that familiarity breeds contempt. With the exception of Jesus at the Temple when He was 12, we do not get the impression that Jesus was active in ministration until His baptism and temptation (cf. Matthew 3-4). If you know Jesus as your older brother who lives in Nazareth of Galilee and who works as a carpenter, perhaps even working together with you in that trade, and then all of a sudden He claims to be the Son of God, abandons the trade for at least a portion of the year, gathers twelve fishermen, zealous, tax collectors, and others around Him, and starts proclaiming this message of the impending Kingdom of God, we can see why they would think Him a little crazy. This is Jesus, from the backwaters of Galilee, the carpenter. Who does He think He is? Why is He doing things that very likely will get Him into trouble, and by extension, His mother and brothers? We can see why Jesus spoke as He did in Matthew 13:57/Mark 6:4: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”!

So Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. That was probably not a good testimony for Him, but we get no indication that He compelled or coerced them into believing. They had as much of a chance to share with Him in the work of God as everyone else did (cf. Matthew 12:49-50).

Jesus’ brothers were good Jews, however, and they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover in that fateful year when their elder Brother would be crucified. And then we learn something extraordinary.

[The eleven] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Wait a second! Here Jesus’ brothers are listed as in prayer with their mother, the other women, and the eleven disciples. Something clearly happened. But what?

The Gospels do not provide direct testimony, but later on, Paul mentions that when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to over five hundred brethren, and then to James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). James here is the same James who is listed as Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13:55!

How all of this happened is not detailed precisely. It is entirely possible that Jesus’ brothers came around at some point during His ministry, but there’s no evidence of such. They would have seen Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and we know that at least James, and likely the rest of His brothers, saw Jesus in the resurrection.

And that is the power of the resurrection– unbelievers are often made believers! James will become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem church and the author of the letter bearing his name; according to Josephus, he is martyred at the hands of the Jews (Acts 15:13, 21:18; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9). Judas, otherwise known as Jude, is responsible for the letter bearing his name. Both of them refer to themselves as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Can you imagine? Those who once did not even believe in the claims of their older Brother, who thought Him crazy, now call Him Lord and are willing to be known as slaves of their elder Brother!

Jesus is Lord, and the proof is in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the difference that changed recalcitrant brothers into willing servants. Has Jesus’ resurrection changed your life? Let us trust Him as Lord and do His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary, Mother of Jesus

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).

One of the figures in early Christianity that has captivated many is Mary the mother of Jesus. Her legend has steadily grown throughout the past two thousand years to incredible heights. When we think about Mary, it is likely that much of what comes to mind is based on these later legends. We get a picture something akin to one of the ancient icons: a younger woman, holding Jesus as a baby, quiet, serene, seemingly confident.

Yet most of what is believed about Mary comes from pious legends that came far after the New Testament. What can be gained about Mary from Scripture is much more human, and much more compelling.

We meet Mary in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. She is a young Jewish girl living in Nazareth in Galilee, a teenager, betrothed to the local carpenter Joseph (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:26-27). The angel Gabriel visits her with a most compelling story: with her consent, she will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Child will be Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the promised Branch of the house of David who will reign over Israel forever (Luke 1:28-35). Mary consents, exhibiting great faith in the God of Israel, and in so doing she proves to be the first person to suffer shame and indignity for the cause of the Lord’s Christ (Matthew 1:19-24, Luke 1:38). She was now the virgin who would bear the Immanuel child (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23)– a peasant girl from Nazareth! The irony is not lost on her, as is made plain by her song of praise often called the Magnificat– a declaration of how the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled through the power of God (Luke 1:46-55).

Her wonder only grows as the Child is born. He is born during a visit to Bethlehem, and shepherds come to see the Child after Gabriel declares to them that the Savior, Christ the Lord, was born (Luke 2:6-19). While presenting Him in the Temple, she marveled as Simeon the prophet spoke of the Child as salvation, a Light for the Gentiles, and glory for Israel– and how He would be the cause of fall and rising for many, and will pierce through Mary’s own soul, so the thoughts of many would be revealed (Luke 2:22-35). Magi came from the east, bearing presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit for a king, and bowed down before the Child (Matthew 2:11-12). It was a very auspicious start. But what did it all mean?

Contrary to what many believe, Mary would go on to have some children with Joseph– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, Judas, and some girls (Matthew 1:25, 13:55-56, Mark 6:1-3). We see Mary again when Jesus is 12 at the Passover festival in Luke 2:41-51. The family left town but Jesus stayed behind, and they spent three days looking for Him, and finally found Him in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, asking them questions, and amazing all who saw Him. Mary cries out to Him in her distress: “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing” (Luke 2:48). His response did not make sense to them: did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house (Luke 2:49-50)? Despite not understanding this, she treasured this– along with all the past events– in her heart (Luke 2:51).

For most of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mary His mother does not seem to be present often. She is confident of His divine power and prods Him a bit during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-11). After that event He and His disciples stayed with her (John 2:12). A little later we see “those who were of Jesus,” understood to be His family, went out to seize Him because of all of His preaching activity, because they were convinced that “He [was] out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). We can be fairly certain that His brothers were involved, since they did not believe in Him at the time (John 7:2-5). Perhaps Mary was unaware of what they were doing and had no part in it; perhaps Mary was not only aware of it but went with them. There is also the episode where Mary and Jesus’ brothers were attempting to speak with Him, and He took the opportunity to teach how His true family are those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46-49, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). The reason for the visit is entirely unexplained.

There seems to be a disconnect with all of this. Did Mary not receive all of these statements and signs about who her Son would be? How come she did not understand Jesus’ words in the Temple? Even if she had no part in the actions of her other sons, how could it be that they did not believe in Him? Didn’t she tell them about Gabriel, the promises, and everything else? How can all of this be?

Some have speculated that all of this shows that the birth story was a later “add-on” to the Gospel; we need not go to such extremes. Instead, let us again consider the expectations of His brothers, at least, and quite possibly His mother also. As good Jews, they were waiting for the Messiah. They would have imagined the Messiah, the King in the line of David, the One who would rule over Jacob, as doing so in a very physical and concrete way. They expected Jesus to be King in Jerusalem, conquering nations and restoring Israel to its glory. Everything Gabriel told Mary could be understood through this perspective. But Jesus was not doing these things. It was clear that God was with Him, and that He had divine power, but He was preaching and teaching about a very different sort of Kingdom. He made it fairly clear that He did not come to overthrow Rome as much as to overthrow the works of the Evil One and sin.

Perhaps this is why Mary did not expect to find Jesus in the Temple asking questions; she may have imagined Him to be destined for a throne in Jerusalem, and not among those teaching in the Temple. Having an overfilled house in Capernaum, preaching and teaching, seemed as madness. This was not the expected script!

The next time Mary is mentioned is at the crucifixion, when Jesus makes provision for her, commissioning John to care for her (John 19:25-27). We know that Mary is watching her Son die on the cross. It is quite likely that the full effect of Simeon’s words was crashing down upon her (Luke 2:35). As to her faith and confidence in her Son, in the purpose of God for Him, in whether or how the predictions God made were being fulfilled, we know nothing.

The next time we do know something is also the last time Mary is mentioned in Scripture. Mary and the brothers of Jesus were part of the 120 who were gathered in the upper room between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-15). While she might have doubted before, and she most likely did not fully understand the sort of Messiah her Son would be, by now she fully believes and understands. Jesus her Son did not remove the Roman yoke to rule an empire from Jerusalem. He had done far better– He had defeated sin and death, removing the burdens that no man has ever been able to bear, and was crowned Lord of lords, and King of kings (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-2, 10:4, Revelation 19:16).

Ultimately, Mary’s story is mostly left up to our imagination. We know that she was full of faith in God, willing to bear the reproach of the Lord’s Christ, and was there for her Son from birth to death and even beyond. She certainly understands that He has power from God, but it seems doubtful that she really understood the plan that God established for her Son. Perhaps her confidence at times wavered; perhaps she persevered in belief, even when she did not understand everything and when her children did not believe. She watches her own beloved Son die on that cross, and we can only imagine the heartache she experienced in so doing, and all the more so if she did not fully understand God’s purpose for Him. Yet, in the end, she is numbered among the disciples of her own Son, and is praying with her now repentant children, no doubt that God’s will through Jesus be fully manifest as it would be on Pentecost.

We would like to know more about Mary, but we must remember that this is the story of Jesus, not His mother. Yet Mary still encourages us in our faith, for no matter how many internal trials and difficulties she experienced, she began with faith in whom her Son would be, and either maintained or returned to that faith by His death and resurrection. Her faith became better informed as He grew, taught God’s purposes, and then fulfilled them. She was, no doubt, not ashamed to be called His disciple, and neither should we. Let us be encouraged by Mary’s example and serve her Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry