Did Jesus Have Siblings?


James 1:1-21

Have you ever thought about Jesus’ family? The New Testament states that Jesus had four brothers and an unnamed number of sisters. Hmmm. Throughout history, there have been four suggestions about who those siblings were.

  1. That they were full blood-brothers and sisters of Jesus.

This 2nd century viewpoint rejected the virgin birth of Jesus as well as the incarnation and divinity of Jesus. It did not prevail, though liberal and secular critics of the Bible would still hold to this position.

  1. That they were half-brothers and sisters of Jesus – born to Joseph and his first wife – and that Joseph was a widower.

Mary would thus have been Joseph’s second wife, and her only child was Jesus. This is the official position of Eastern Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic Church used to hold to this position and many RC’s still do, but, officially the RC Church has changed its position to

  1. That they were really “cousins” of Jesus because of the perpetual virginity of both Mary and Joseph. This 4th century teaching put forward by the church father Jerome was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, which still holds that the siblings mentioned in the New Testament were actually Jesus’ cousins.

Like I said, though, many RC’s prefer position #2, but, recently, RC scholars have gone one step further against their own church’s position and have caused controversy by stating things such as,

“No linguistic evidence warrants our interpreting Gospel passages about Jesus’ brothers and sisters as his cousins,” (Jerome Neyrey), and that, “calling Jesus’ brothers ‘cousins’ is plain ridiculous.” (Pheme Perkins)

Those RC’s have bravely adopted the Protestant position, which is:

4.That they were half-siblings of Jesus born to Mary and Joseph after the birth of their firstborn, Jesus.

Now, the NT, as you will hear, states only that Jesus had brothers and sisters and it doesn’t say that they were full-blooded siblings, nor that they were children from a previous marriage of the widower Joseph, nor that they were Jesus’ cousins. Accepting what the NT says at face value in believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated a virgin named Mary and that Jesus was raised by Mary and her betrothed Joseph, who acted as Jesus’ earthly adoptive father, we read various passages about Mary and Jesus’ siblings (that’s all the text says) such as the one when they came to see Jesus early in his ministry, not because they believed in him and wanted to spend time with him, but because they were worried about his mental well-being. Having heard that Jesus had been performing miracles and driving out demons and had also chosen 12 disciples to be with him everywhere he went, Jesus’ family decided to do a kind of “intervention”.

When Jesus’ family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:21,22)

Jesus was not impressed and explained to his followers that he had reached a point in his life where his spiritual family – those of the family of God by faith – were more important to him than his natural, unbelieving family.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:46-50)

So, Jesus knew that neither his own family nor his hometown friends accepted who he claimed to be, the Messiah, in fact, God’s Son. One time when Jesus had done some miracles in his hometown, we read,

Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” (Matthew 13:54-58)

Why am I telling you all this? It is because the brother of Jesus, the one named James, wrote a letter preserved in the NT the very letter that we are now doing a sermon series on. So, we know who James was. He was not some unknown mysterious figure from the first century. He was Jesus’ brother. His words thus carry weight. As well, another brother of James and thus of Jesus, Jude (whose name was shortened from Judas by the early church because of its unfortunate association with Judas Iscariot), also wrote a letter which is preserved in the NT, the one situated just before the last book of the Bible, Revelation. As we have just read, neither James nor Jude believed in Jesus so it is a joyous turn of events, I would say, that they came to believe in him and become his followers.

However, in the time period the Gospel books write about, that of Jesus’ three-year ministry, his family did not believe in him. We read, in the Gospel of John, that his brothers challenged Jesus to “step up to the plate”, so to speak, to put his money where his mouth was, to put up or shut up, to use modern phrases, and to go to Jerusalem and tell the authorities who he was, if he really was the Messiah. The brothers did not tell him to do so because they believed in him but because they didn’t. They wanted him to “man up”. So, Jesus did what they challenged him to do, but it is a sad thing to read what John wrote,

Even his own brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:5)

That must have been hard on Jesus, but his ministry was not easy on his family, either. Jesus and his ministry embarrassed them. And, yet, they must have been watching and pondering for we read that, on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion,

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother. (John 19:25)

His mother was there trying to support her oldest son. We are not told at what point Mary and her sons came to believe, but in a beautiful tidbit of information, we read that, after Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to many people in his resurrected body and that following his resurrection – and then his ascension back to heaven – in obedience to Jesus’ commandment to stay together in Jerusalem and pray continually for his replacement, the Holy Spirit, to come upon them, that included in that group of 120 praying believers were:

     Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1:14)

So, his family came to believe. It is beautiful. We just don’t know when. Tradition is strong that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was revered in the early church and that she travelled with the apostle John to Ephesus and died there – you can still visit her supposed “house” there. Tradition is even stronger – because this in actually in the NT – that James became a leader in the early church, being the first Bishop of the church in Jerusalem. It wasn’t Peter or John (though they, with James, were called the “pillars” of the early church), and it wasn’t Paul who were identified as the first leader of the Jerusalem church. It was James, the brother of Jesus. To see how revered James was in the early church, let’s look at a few passages. Concerning Jesus’ resurrection, this is what Paul wrote:

Jesus was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. He appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also. (1 Cor. 15:4-8)

James being the last person Jesus appeared to before he appeared to Paul was significant to Paul. As for Paul himself, after his own conversion, which came about after Jesus had appeared in his resurrected body to him in the famous road to Damascus encounter, Paul, went first to Arabia and then to Damascus for three years to study and learn about his new faith. He then decided that he had to return to Jerusalem and face the music for all the persecution he had done against Christians there. Paul was aware that the Christians in Jerusalem did not trust him because he had been their most fierce persecutor, so he played it safe by visiting only Peter, staying at his house for 15 days, before venturing out to see the only other individual who could swear for him and make him acceptable to the Christians on Jerusalem:

“I saw none of the apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians 1:19)

That Paul chose to see only Peter and James was because he knew that if was to be accepted by the Jerusalem Christians that he first needed the endorsement of their leaders, Peter and James. Paul adds,

“Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas.” (Galatians 2:1)

We read about why Paul went to Jerusalem this second time as a follower of Jesus. He went there to meet with all the leaders of the early church at the famous “Council of Jerusalem” which is described in detail in Acts 15, a council meeting called by Paul because he was having difficulty with Christian Pharisees who still clung to their legalistic ways, and who declared that the new Gentile believers Paul had led to the Lord needed to be physically circumcised before being acceptable to the church. Paul vehemently disagreed. That was not only bad for the new Gentile believers but also for Paul’s ministry. He knew that his ministerial calling from God was being challenged and that he,

“Had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews” (Galatians 2:7)

If allowed to prevail, this demand of the Christian Pharisees would not only undermine Paul’s own ministry but would lead to the failure of the entire Great Commission enterprise Jesus had given to his followers, that of taking the Gospel message of salvation to all the people on earth, which meant taking it to the Gentiles. This became such a huge issue that a “once-and-for-all” council meeting of all the leaders of the early church was called to decide and make a final ruling about it. At the meeting, all the leaders were given a chance to speak. After hearing from the Pharisees first, and then Peter, and then Barnabas, and finally Paul, it became obvious that a decision needed to be made. Guess who made the final decision?

     When they had finished speaking, James spoke up…(Acts 15:14)

James, Jesus’ brother, the Bishop of Jerusalem, a former non-believer, who was now the leader of the early church in Jerusalem and thus the leading authority in the early church, decided what needed to happen, declaring,

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from (eating) blood.” (Acts 15:19,20)

Everyone agreed to James’ decision, which is how much they respected and revered him. James then wrote a letter explaining his decision and gave the letter (and, no doubt, copies of it) to Paul and Barnabas and to some others to take and read to every Christian community. We Gentiles all owe James a vote of thanks and gratitude for his decisive action on our behalf, and so I look forward to reading through another of his letters, the one preserved in the NT. In the meantime, after the Council of Jerusalem had reached its decision, Paul writes,

James, Peter and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. (Galatians 2:9)

So, Paul went away from that Council of Jerusalem with James’ letter but, as you know, it was not the only letter James wrote. His first letter was the one preserved in the NT that we will be preaching through. You need to know that James’ letter we are preaching through was the earliest New Testament letter written, earlier than Paul’s, Peter’s, John’s, or Jude’s. James wrote it some years prior to the Council of Jerusalem. This first letter of James was what is called an “epistle”, which means it was a letter of instruction. An “epistle” is not a general letter of greeting of giving information but is a letter of teaching. James’ letter was written to the Christians who had been forced to flee from Jerusalem on the same day of the martyrdom by stoning of the deacon Stephen. We read:

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…Now those who had been scattered by the persecution traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 8:1 and 11:19)

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James was concerned that those Christians who had fled didn’t really know how to live as Christians in a foreign land, for it was something new to them, as before that they had been Jews who living in Jerusalem. What did they know about living in the Gentile Roman Empire? Not enough! James knew that his former congregants had not had time before they fled to be properly briefed on what they would be facing, nor on how they should be living. They were Jewish converts now living in a Roman Gentile world. Their newfound group were not even by that time known as Christians but as The Way. James believed they were the true Israel of faith, the 12 tribes of the spiritual Israel, and he was worried for them. His letter starts:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1)

James knew they were facing persecution, trials, and troubles.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

James knew that either the scattered believers would give up the faith in the midst of their suffering, or they would grow and mature as a result of it. James encouraged them to embrace their suffering with “pure joy” for, if they did, they would benefit and gain wisdom into God’s ways and what their own situation was really all about.

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. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:5-8)

If any Christian is lacking wisdom about living through a tough time, ask God and He will give sufficient wisdom on how to do so. That is still true for us today. For those scattered early Christians, fleeing to a new place meant suffering but it also meant poverty, having to start over again. James encouraged pressing on.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wildflower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. (James 1:9-11)

The Lord lovingly develops character through one’s trials. The rich are no different from beautiful, but temporary, flowers, James writes, for just as the pursuit of money will come to an end when one dies, so will the advantage that wealth brings in this life. So, be encouraged!

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)

Rich rewards – the crown of life – await all those who persevere!

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. (James 1:13-16)

While living in a difficult situation, watch your tongues and thoughts, James writes. A Christian can be either strong and mature or can give in and think and say things that are of the world and will result in sin. So, choose wisely, knowing that not everything tempting us is good.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:17,18)

If it’s truly good, it is from God and anything good brings joy and life. Those good gifts include the new birth Christians experience when they hear God’s word of salvation and believe, salvation being the “first fruits” of all the good gifts God gives to His children. So, when living in a world of trials, temptations, troubles, and suffering, be determined to honour the Lord with your life, to “walk the talk” of what being a believer is all about. As Ken Bellous preached last week,

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)

James knew the challenges his former congregants were facing. And he also knew that simply living in the Gentile Roman world would involve something more than just words of piety and faith. Living in such a world would involve engagement and faith if that world was to be won to Jesus, it would take action on the part of the Christians. In the Roman Empire, if a child became an orphan, he or she would simply be thrown out into the street. As well, if a husband died first, his wife, now a widow, would have little chance financially of being able to look after herself as job opportunities were scarce for widows. James knew that for his former congregants to make an impact in that Gentile Roman society, their words need to be accompanied by actions. They would be blessed by being caring and hospitable, the orphans and widows would be blessed, and the looking, watchful non-believers would be impacted. James wrote,

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:26,27)

So, what we have read through today in chapter one was James’ first bit of advice in practical terms to the scattered Jewish Christians: keep a tight rein on your tongues, look after orphans and widows, keep yourself from giving in to society’s polluted moral and ethical codes, and you and your world will be impacted. History tells us that the early Christians did exactly as James did, and the Roman Empire was won to Christ as a result. More next week! Amen.

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