If you want to get to know Jesus, you should listen to those who knew him best—his family. If he had any faults or flaws, surely they would have known. But Jesus’ brother James describes himself as “the servant of Jesus,” revealing a view of Jesus beyond mere brother.
1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Well, it’s a new year. We’ve got a brand-new book of the Bible. We’re starting James. We’re gonna be in it for about four months. So, before we get into the book, I want you to get to know the author, this man named James, because the truth is, if you want to get to know somebody, you need to get to know them, and their friends, and especially their family, amen?
That was Grace’s and my story twenty-five years ago. Grace and I started getting to know one another. I got to know her, and then I got to know some of her friends. Liked her, liked her friends. Then I had to go meet her family. How many of you guys remember that day? Oh, that was a tough day. I was a seventeen-year-old kid, Grace’s dad was a pastor, and I was terrified to go meet with a pastor for obvious reasons. I was so scared. I jumped in my first car, a 1956 Chevy.
Hear this, guys. This has nothing to do with the sermon, but it’s very important: It had 60,000 total original miles, and I sold it because I didn’t think it was cool. And every morning I wake up, I slap myself for selling it—I didn’t think it was cool because it had four doors. And today, now that I’ve got five kids, we could use four doors.
Anyways, I jumped in my old Chevy and I went to pick up Grace and meet her family, because you really get to know somebody when you get to know their family. Because the family knows stuff about you that no one else knows, right, and usually tells it to people to humiliate you publicly.
I went to meet Grace’s family, and they lived on a cul-de-sac, and I was so nervous, I drove by the house multiple times, just trying to muster up the courage to pull over, and go meet her family and her dad who was a pastor. But as I got to know Grace’s family, I got to know more about Grace, those who had influence on her and shaped her, and why she grew to be the person that I grew to fall in love with.
What’s true for all of our relationships is true for our relationship with Jesus. If you really want to get to know Jesus, you’ve got to listen to him and you’ve got to learn from him. You need to get to know his friends. In the Bible, they’re called “apostles,” the guys that he spent most of his time with. But especially, you need to get to know his family. And that’s what we’re going to do today. We’re going to get to know Jesus’ family.
The truth is, there’s not a lot said about Jesus’ family, and there’s not a lot known about Jesus’ early years. In fact, some of the early church creeds that are very important to Christian belief say it like this, that he was born of the virgin Mary and suffered and died under Pontius Pilate. What they skip is his life. He was born and he died. Wouldn’t that be a terrible obituary for you? Yeah, Tom was born and then he died. They’re like, “That’s it. That’s all we’ve got.” That’s all the creeds say because there’s not a lot of information about those years where Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with men and God like it says in, I think, Luke 2:52.
But you know who was there? His family. Jesus’ family was there to see him as a little boy, adolescent, young man, grown man. If he had any sin, they would have seen it and they would tell us, just like your family does, right? They tell people the worst things you’ve ever done. If Jesus had any faults, failures, or flaws, his family would be the one to know and his family would be the one to tell. They were there for years of his life before he was public, before he was famous, before he was well-known. They knew him the most and they saw him in the years when no one else observed him.
That being said, his family’s testimony is incredibly helpful and insightful as we learn about this man, the most important man in the history of the world, the most significant man in the history of the world, the most worshiped man in the history of the world, Jesus Christ.
So we’re going to jump into the book of James today and we’re going to get to know Jesus’ bold little brother. We’ll start in James 1:1, and the whole sermon’s going to be on one verse of the Bible, and then we’re going to go back and study some other related sections of Scripture, but we begin here. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.”
Well, who’s he writing to? The twelve tribes. This echoes the Old Testament twelve tribes of Israel. That was the Old Testament language for God’s people, so he’s writing to God’s people, and they are scattered. So, it’s a network of churches in various locations together under the leadership of James, kind of like Mars Hill. We are one church, scattered into multiple locations. It would be accurate to call it a “dispersion.” We are dispersed across various locations, but one church under one message.
So here, James is the senior leader. He’s a teacher, a preacher, and a writer, and he has authority over a whole network of churches. And this message that he is giving goes out to all of those churches, kind of like—not identical to but like the way we do things here at Mars Hill Church. There’s a biblical precedent and pattern here, and most of these people would have been Jewish.
This is believed to be one of the first books written in the New Testament, and at that point, a lot of the Christians were Jewish, though later many Gentiles would join. And today, the few billion people on earth who worship Jesus, the majority of us are Gentiles, not Jews. But at this point, the majority of them were, in fact, Jewish. Well, that’s who he’s writing to, and he is writing as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, his position for Jesus is Lord, he’s high and exalted, ruling and reigning in authority over all. Jesus, he is the Savior come to save us from our sins and Christ the Anointed One of God. So, in those three titles, he tells us who Jesus is. He’s the Lord who saves us and was chosen by God the Holy Spirit to be empowered for a life that was perfect and without sin, that we might be saved through him.
He says that he is his servant. Now, I’m going to make the argument that James is Jesus’ brother. And some would ask, “Why does he not say, ‘I’m Jesus’ brother’?” I believe there’s a few reasons.
Number one, he didn’t need to. If you were Jesus’ brother, everybody knew that. You didn’t have to put that on your résumé. “I’m James.”
Number two, there’s a lot of guys named James in the New Testament, and they’ll say, “James, son of this guy,” or “James, son of that guy,” to denote who it is. Any time it just says “James,” this guy’s so well-known, he doesn’t need any additional information.
Thirdly, to say he was Jesus’ brother could give the impression that he was proud, and here he wants to follow in his brother’s example of humility. So, he doesn’t say, “I’m Jesus’ brother”; he says, “I’m Jesus’ servant. When he was on earth, yeah, maybe we shared bunk beds together, but now that he’s exalted in heaven, he’s Lord over me, and I’m servant under him.” Do you get that?
So he’s following the example of his big brother Jesus, who said that he did not come to be served but to serve. Jesus’ example is one of servanthood and humility, and James is not only Jesus’ brother, he’s Jesus’ disciple, and he’s following in his big brother’s example. He says, “My job is to serve Jesus. That’s why I’m here.”
The question then is which James is this? Depending upon which scholar you believe, there are between 40 and 60 occasions in the New Testament where somebody named James is mentioned, and it refers, again depending upon which scholar you prefer, to 5, 6, 7, 8 different men. It was a popular name. It was a derivative of the Old Testament name “Jacob,” one of the patriarchs, so it’s a very popular name. Well, there’s a number of guys named James, and usually it tells us who their father was. Usually when it tells us just that it was James, it’s in reference to Jesus’ brother.
But there are three positions regarding Jesus’ relationship with this man, James. The first is that they were step-brothers, and it is taught that Jesus’ father Joseph, his adoptive earthly father, Joseph, had a marriage prior to Mary and that he had children including James. And then perhaps his wife died, and he became a widower, and then he married Mary. That was his second wife. Therefore, James would have been from the first marriage and was a step-brother to Jesus.
There’s no evidence for this in the Bible. I think it is speculative at best. It doesn’t seem to fit with the preponderance of evidence that we receive in God’s Word. Every indication is that Mary and Joseph were a young, poor, rural couple, that they were getting married for the first time. There’s no mention of any prior wife; there’s no mention of any prior children, so let’s dismiss that position.
The second is that Jesus and James were cousins, the word for brothers and sisters that is going to be used throughout the Scriptures regarding Jesus’ extended family and immediate family is a broad word they would say. It is not a narrow word. It doesn’t refer just to your brothers and sisters, but to your kin, your clan, your extended family. And that is probable, but not likely. Let me say it this way: it is possible but not probable. That’s a better way to state it. It is possible that they were cousins, but it is not probable for a couple of reasons.
One is that they receive a lot of attention in the Bible, and why would his extended family receive more attention than his immediate family. Like, for example, we know very little about Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, but it keeps mentioning his brothers and sisters.
In addition, that’s not the clearest reading of Scripture, and moreover, it’s not the historical reading of Scripture. What it is is motivated by something where there was a council that met hundreds of years after Jesus, and they came up with this phrase, that Jesus’ mother Mary was ever virgin, semper virgo, that she was ever virgin.
The teaching was that not only was Mary a virgin when she was betrothed to Joseph and conceived, by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, Jesus before she had any relation with any man, that not only was she a virgin at that point, that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life, that she never had any consummation with her husband, Joseph. She never had any intimate relation with her husband. The Catholic Church still teaches this today, and I believe that these first and second positions are motivated by trying to compel us to see Mary as a virgin for the totality of her life.
How many of you were raised Catholic? How many of you were raised Catholic? OK, welcome, good to have you. I was raised Catholic too, OK? Inside joke for us former Catholics. I was raised Catholic too, and I was taught, Mary was always a virgin. To be fair, some Protestant reformers like Calvin and Luther also said similar things. And the goal is to present her as a perpetual virgin, but I don’t think that was the case. I don’t think that’s the case in Scripture. It says in Luke that she was a virgin until Jesus was born, and then we get every indication that Mary and Joseph had a normal marriage that was consummated with normal relations.
So, that brings us to the third alternative. And the first again was that James and Jesus were step-brothers. The second is that they were cousins. The third position, I believe it’s the most accurate reading of Scripture, and it’s the position I’ll be taking for the totality of our time together. And that is that they’re half-brothers. It was the first marriage for Jesus’ mother and father. They got married. Through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, the virgin Mary conceived and birthed the Lord Jesus. After Jesus was born, they consummated their marriage. They went on to have a normal, loving marriage that produced a lot of kids, and they had a big family, and James was one of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, OK? And I’ll show you why I’ve come to that conclusion as we study Scripture together.
What you’ll find is that we learn a lot in the Bible, particularly the New Testament, about, let’s say, Paul or Peter. We don’t learn a lot about James. And when we do learn about Jesus’ family, the spotlight tends to go on Mary—godly, devout, amazing woman. But sort of off to the side in the dark shadows are his brothers and sisters, and very little is taught about them. And some of you may have been in church for a long time, and not heard a lot about Jesus’ family.
Would you like to get to know Jesus’ family? That’s what we’re going to do. So let us start in Mark’s gospel. And I can’t cover every single text that covers Jesus’ family. I’ll cover many of them, and I’ll put all of them on a big blog for you so you can study it for yourself. But the first thing we learn is that James disbelieved Jesus. Mark 3:21, 31–32, “And when his family heard it”—this is Jesus’ family—“they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is’”—what? “‘He is out of his mind.’ And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside, seeking you.’”
So early on, Jesus is preaching and teaching, and at this point, he has left his father and mother. He’s been working as a carpenter with his dad. At this point, he’s in his early 30s, around 30. Think of it like a guy who goes off and joins the military, or heads off to college, or moves out of his parents’ house to start his career. He’s at that season and stage of life. He’s not a little boy at home. He’s a grown man, single, living on his own, and he’s beginning his public ministry.
The family is not with him consistently, but they’re with him intermittently. Just like if you’ve grown up and left home, your family’s not there every day like when you lived in the same house, but they do intersect your life at strategic points. You get holidays together and time together, you know one another, you love one another, and your lives are intertwined together. None of Jesus’ brothers were chosen as his twelve disciples. His disciples tended to be with him almost full-time for three years, and the family weaves in and out of occasions and events throughout his life.
Here’s an indication of what they thought: they thought he had lost his mind because he kept saying that he was God, that he was Savior, that he was Creator, that he was King, and his family was concerned. How many of you, if your brother started saying this, you’d be concerned, too? If your brother—you know, you check his Facebook status, and it says he’s God. You’re like, “Really? I knew he had a high self-esteem, but it seems like he’s overshot.” God. You’re like, “Oh wow.”
All of a sudden, your brother’s in the news, and your brother’s getting a lot of attention, and crowds are coming out, and people are listening to him. Well, what’s he saying? He’s saying he created the heavens and the earth, and he’s come down to judge the living and the dead. The family’s like, “We’ve got to get him home. We’ve got to get him home. We’ve got to shut and lock the door. We’ve got to get him some chamomile tea, and nobody needs to listen to him. The oars are not in the water. He is not doing good.” You get that?
This is important because some of you have the same perspective of Jesus as his family did. A guy says he’s God, that’s crazy. They started there. It’s OK for you to start there. I want you to see their progression, and I want you to have their same progression. What’s important here as well is to understand that Christianity is founded on the claim that Jesus is God. And some would say, “Well, it’s a ruse. It’s a shell game. It’s put together by a con man, and his family was in on it.” His family was not in on it. His family did not originally initially believe his claims to be God. They had resistance to it. They were concerned for him.
But do you get in this: his family loved him? They didn’t just disown him and let him go. They show up. There’s a crowd. “Somebody go get Jesus. Tell him his mom’s here and his brothers are here.” They love him, they’re concerned about him, they’re worried about him. We would call this an intervention today. Jesus got an intervention. And if you’re here, his claims to be God are either true or false, but he made those claims. And his family knew he made those claims.
The story continues in Mark 6. James dishonored Jesus, Mark 6:3–4. So, here’s the conversation that’s happening. “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary’”—and then here’s some of the family members—“‘the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?’” Jesus and his mother, and then here it names four brothers. You’re going to hear about sisters as well, so this is a big family.
Tangentially, how bummed is the brother whose name happened to be Judas? How bummed is that guy? “Oh, you’re Jesus’ brother? What’s your name?” “Judas.” “Oh, I heard about you.” “I’m not that Judas,” right? “I’m Tom Bin Laden. I’m a totally different guy,” right? Like, it just—so, bummer for that guy. But it’s a different Judas. Just like there’s a lot of guys named James, there’s a lot of guys named Judas in the New Testament. “And are not his sisters here with us?” So, Jesus, James, Joses, Judas, Simon. Four kids, Jesus makes five, and sisters. That’s at least two, big family. Big family. Big family.
“And they took”—what? “Offense at him.” They were offended by some of the things Jesus was saying. How many of you’ve been offended by some of the things Jesus says? “And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet.’” He says he’s a prophet—big statement. Big statement—”prophet.” “You read the Old Testament? I’m like Moses. I’m bigger than Moses. Moses said that a prophet would be coming in Deuteronomy. I’m here, that’s me.” “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”
Here’s what Jesus is saying: “I go out and preach and teach, and lots of people come and listen to me, but not my own family.” How many of you’ve had that experience? Like, “Man, I’m respected except with my family. I’m honored except by my family. I’m listened to, except by my family.”
How many of you have tried to teach your parents something and found it didn’t go well? How many of you’ve tried to teach your brother or sister something and realized they weren’t listening? That was Jesus’ situation. His brothers, his family, and his sisters didn’t honor him. Others were listening to him; they weren’t listening to him. Others were following him; they were not necessarily following him. He was dishonored by them.
How many of you felt hurt because your family didn’t support you? How many of you felt hurt because your family wasn’t there for you? How many of you felt hurt because your family didn’t have a great dignity toward you? This had to be lonely for Jesus. I mean, he’s walking into a stiff headwind of resistance. He knows that his days are numbered, and his death is coming, and he doesn’t have the support of his family.
Now again, they don’t oppose him, they don’t hate him, they’re not mean to him, they’re not cruel to him. I don’t want to overstate my case. They keep pursuing him, speaking to him, and they’re trying to help him, and trying to love him, and trying to serve him, but they don’t yet fully understand or at least receive who he is.
Sometimes your family are the last people to see you for who you’ve become. Now, Jesus had no sin. For those of us who are sinners, it makes sense. Our family was there when we were little. Our family was there for the best and worst parts of our life, and sometimes, who we’ve become is tainted by who we were. But for Jesus, he was without sin, so his family and their unwillingness to see him for who he is, is not based upon anything he’s done.
But true or false, it would be hard to see, ladies, your son as God? True or false? You’re like, “I changed his diaper, and I’m supposed to worship him?” How many of you, it would be hard to see your brother as God? Any of you have a brother? Like many of us, they warm up to Jesus as God over time. They love him, they respect and appreciate things about him, they’re staggered by his claims and resistance comes to some of his instruction, but you’re going to see that they warm up over time.
Some of you are like that. Some of you know a little about Jesus. Maybe you try to be a good person; you believe a little bit of the Bible. You don’t hate Jesus, you’re not opposed to Jesus, but you’re not convinced yet he’s God. You’re in the warming up process as his family was.
Well, the story continues that James also doubted Jesus. John is one of the most significant gospels to give us insight into the thinking of Jesus’ brothers. In John 2, they are with him, the family is, at his first miracle in Cana of Galilee, where he turns water into wine. So, they’ve seen him do some things that are supernatural and miraculous. They are traveling some with him at that point. The story then jumps to John 7:2–5. “Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand.” So, it’s like a holiday like Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter. You know, the family gets together—it’s a holiday.
“So his brothers said to him.” So, the brothers are together. They’re like-minded. They’re thinking the same things, so they approach him as a group. They say to Jesus, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” Here is the tell. Here’s the tell: “For not even his brothers believed in him.” Here’s what his brothers are saying. “You think you’re a big deal? Then leave our small town. You think you’re God, Lord, King, Savior, and Christ? Go to the big city, go public, preach that to the world, show that to the world. Go for it.”
How many of have reached a point with somebody, you’re in disagreement with them. You say, “You know what? If that’s what you think, go do it.” And you’re convinced, “They’re wrong, I’m right, and this’ll prove that I’m right and they’re wrong.” That’s the heart of what’s going on with Jesus’ brothers. “You say you’re God. You say you’re Creator. You say you’re Savior. Go to the big city. Go tell it publicly. Go prove it openly. Go prove us wrong.” Sometimes families can be complicated and discouraging.
Some of you look at your family, you’re like, “Man, I have a hard family.” You’re not alone. Jesus had a devout, good, godly family, but even a good, devout, godly family has moments of failure where they discourage you or they oppose you. So did Jesus. I love the humanity in this. I love that the whole family isn’t just walking around with halos saying pithy statements and raising dead people. I love the fact that they are real people with real doubts in a real process, coming to real faith in a real Jesus. I love that, because the Bible’s the most honest book that’s ever been written.
Now, what happens is that Jesus does leave town. Jesus does go to the big city. Jesus does preach and teach that he’s God. Jesus does do miracles. Jesus does it all, and he is arrested and tried for this claim: he said he was God. If you’re here and you’re not a Christian, you need to understand this: Jesus was put to death because he claimed to be God. The governmental leaders saw that as an offense to their political leadership. The religious leaders saw that as an offense to their theological convictions. And they agreed together. The Bible says those who were Jewish, those who were Gentile, those who were Roman, everybody agreed, that guy needs to die. That guy needs to die. He says he’s God. He says he’s God.
When they came to arrest Jesus, he asked them, “For what cause do you put me to death?” and the answer was, “Because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” That was the answer. Jesus claimed to be God. If you’re here, you have to address this. You have to wrestle with this. You cannot ignore this. Jesus said he was God. His family was resistant, initially, to that, and others opposed him, ultimately murdered him, because he said he was God. And that claim is true or false. It’s not made by the founder of any other major world religion. Jesus stands alone in a category unto himself.
Who was there at the death of Jesus when he was beaten, flogged, and crucified? The Bible tells us that at the foot of the cross was his mother, Mary. There was his mother. Ladies, imagine the horror of that day. Your firstborn son, a miracle, a miracle baby that God gave you. When you held him, counted ten fingers, ten toes, you weren’t thinking that they would end up nailed to a Roman cross.
Your son is being murdered openly, publicly, shamefully because of his claim to be deity. You feared this day was coming. That’s why you got the family together and tried to bring him home. You feared that this was going to be his fate. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the family was there. I mean, if your day of execution came and your mother was there, I would hope that your brothers and sisters would be there to support her.
Jesus is murdered. He is crucified. He’s then wrapped in upwards of a hundred pounds of burial linens and spices. His body is put in a tomb. His family knows he’s dead. Mary is devastated, the sisters are destroyed, and the brothers are distraught. And the family is weeping, and the brothers are trying to encourage Mary, and love their sisters, and make sense of the death of their big brother. The family has a funeral. The family sheds their tears. The family mourns their loss.
Then three days later, unprecedented in the history of the world, vindicating everything Jesus ever said or did, Jesus rises from death. Jesus alone conquers death. The wage for sin is death, and because Jesus had no sin, death could not contain him. This is the most magnificent, unprecedented, epic event in the history of the world. Jesus rises from death and Paul records historically what happened in 1 Corinthians 15:7. “Then he appeared to”—who? “James, then to all the apostles.”
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that reunion between James and his big brother Jesus? I don’t know what it looked like. James opens the door, and there’s Jesus, nail-scarred hands. “I’m back. I conquered death. I told you I was God.” “Yes sir, you are.” Amen? Friends, that’s how it happened, OK? That’s how it happened.
Well, wherever James was on the continuum of faith in Jesus, this is where the switch got flipped. He’s in. “Jesus is God. Everything he said is true. He’s my Creator, he’s my substitute, he’s my resurrected Savior. I’m in.” James appears to be hot and cold, and in and out, until Jesus is risen from death and they have their face-to-face reunion.
Let me say this as well. Others will teach that Jesus didn’t die, that someone who looked like Jesus died, a body double, a stunt double. You know who would know? His family. You can fool a lot of people, but not a guy’s mom, not a guy’s brother. James saw it with his own eyes. James testimony for us is credible, historical, and truthful. Jesus rose from death and they had this reunion.
Can you imagine what that was like? When we get to the kingdom of God, I want to ask James, “How did that go? Like, were you laughing? Were you crying, like, ‘I am sorry. I am so sorry’? Or like, ‘Jesus, you’re back!’ Or stunned, or shocked—or what happened? Did you fall down and worship him like Thomas did? Did you just embrace and weep upon him? Did you rejoice? Did you pick him up? What did you do?” Amazing! There was James, and once he saw his big brother risen from death, he changed.
Friends, I want you to receive Jesus as risen from death, and I want you to change. Wherever you’ve been on your continuum of faith, I want you to come to the place that James arrived. “Jesus is God, he died for my sin, he rose to conquer sin and death, he’s my God and Savior.”
This is one of the most credible, historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, friends. Cause and effect. What I’m going to show you in a moment is how James became a leader, a pastor, a preacher, and ultimately a martyr. Cause and effect. But what accounts for the change in James? He didn’t believe in Jesus. He didn’t worship Jesus. He didn’t agree with all the teaching of Jesus. And then he did. He went from trying to get his brother to stop saying what he was saying to saying the same things that his brother said. Cause and effect.
For those of you who would disagree with the testimony of the historical record of God’s Word, the burden of proof is on you. How else can you account for the transformation in James? If Jesus died and didn’t rise, why in the world would he become this bold preacher and servant of Jesus as God? The burden of proof is on you. The only thing that accounts for that kind of radical transformation in thinking and commitment is the resurrection of Jesus from death.
If someone dies, we tend not to devote our life to them as God. We tend not to follow in their footsteps and pattern ourselves after their example. We tend to mourn their loss and move on. Not James. In fact, James joined the early church. We see this in Acts 1:14. This is the account of the early church. It’s not a lot of people. Today, arguably a few billion people on the earth say Jesus is God. In that day, there was only about 120 of them, and it’s recorded historically in the book of Acts, and they gathered together.
Here’s what we read, “And these with one accord”—so there’s unity in the early church—“were devoting themselves”—so it’s ongoing and habitual—“to prayer, together with the women and”—who? “Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Who are the first converts? Who’s the first core group for the church plant? Who are the first people who sign up for Christianity? Jesus’ mother and brothers.
Do you feel the weight of that? They didn’t believe this until he rose from death, and they were a devout Jewish family. Think of the most devout, religious family you know, maybe very devout Jewish or very devout Muslim. They are all about doing it right, following the rules, obeying the Lord. Like, whatever their understanding of God’s commands is, they’re very devoted to it. Every indication is that Jesus’ family was like that. Mary and Joseph, devout Jewish people. They make their pilgrimage to the temple. They offer the sacrifice of those who are poor. These are devout people. These are devout people.
They know the Ten Commandments, the first of which is, “There’s only one God,” and the second is, “You only worship that God or the consequence is you go to hell forever.” So, they’re not people like us who dabble in spirituality, and try on religions, and maybe experiment with a new concept of divinity. They’re not like that. They’re devout, and all of a sudden, they worship Jesus as God. Jesus’ own mother worshiped him as God. Jesus’ own brothers worshiped him as God. This is amazing!
How many of you would not worship your brother as God? Like, if you could pick anybody on the earth, OK, you’d say, “Yeah, brother, last guy I’d pick. Satan? I’d pick him as Satan, but I’d not pick him as God. I lived with that guy. He was horrible. He did horrible things.” We know the sins of our brothers, we know the failures of our brothers, we know the faults and flaws of our brothers. And they worshiped their brother as sinless God and Savior, and they’re part of the early church.
In addition, James and his brother Jude, Jesus’ brothers, they become very powerful pastors. OK, so we’ve looked at James 1:1, and Jude 1:1 is going to echo much of what is said in James 1:1. “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ.” So again, “servant.” Not boastful, Jesus’ brother; humble, Jesus’ servant. “And brother of”—who? “James.” Mary and Joseph apparently had quite a family. They raised Jesus, James, and Jude. One of their sons is the point of the whole Bible. The other two sons wrote books of the Bible. That’s a pretty amazing family.
Some of you need to know that the most amazing ministry you will do is not by you but by your children. Joseph never wrote a book of the Bible; his sons did. His sons did. You can be humble, you could be poor, you could be hard-working, you could be blue collar, and very effective if you raise your children to love and serve the Lord. We don’t know a lot about Joseph, but everything we need to know, we can know by looking at his family. We know a little bit more about Mary, but everything we need to know, we know by looking at her family.
The grace of God through the Holy Spirit at work through this mother and father led to servants of God that are amazing. This is a family that is worth modeling ourselves after by the grace of God. These men have such authority that they write books of the Bible, James and Jude. We hear a lot about Paul; we hear a lot about Peter. We don’t hear a lot about Jesus’ brothers. Well, you can add Jude to the list. This is a very large family with a lot of brothers and some sisters. The story continues.
In Acts 15, there is one of the most important meetings in the history of the world, and that’s not an overstatement. Jesus was Jewish, his family was Jewish, they were waiting the Old Testament Messiah. They converted to worshiping Jesus, some did. The original converts to Jesus were Jewish. And then as Christianity spreads, Gentiles start to be saved of their sin, and filled with the Holy Spirit, and worship Jesus as God.
So, like you and me. Most of us are not Jewish, we’re Gentile. The question then was, what do we do with all the Gentiles? It was a big question. A lot of the New Testament is dedicated to answering that issue. The question was, “Well, do all the men need to get circumcised?” because we told the Gentile men to get circumcised. They’re like, “Double check. We’re not sure. Make sure before we just do that. We’re not ready to sign up. Go check.” We told them they couldn’t eat ham sandwiches anymore or pork ribs. They said, “Yeah, run it by a committee. Double check. We’re not ready to give up pork products and go get circumcised.” Like if there’s a plan B, all the Gentiles voted, “Yeah, we’ll take plan B.” So, there was a question, do all the Gentiles need to convert to Judaism? So, they convened a meeting in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was the mother church. Jerusalem was headquarters. We use the language at Mars Hill of a trunk and branches. So, Mars Hill Bellevue is the trunk. And you could pray, we’re looking for a couple hundred thousand square feet, more seating, offices, classroom, studio, undergrad, graduate program. We need all of that together at the trunk. And the goal of the trunk is to nourish and feed the branches.
Well, Jerusalem was like that. So, we’ve got our fifteen churches. Fourteen are beyond Mars Hill Bellevue, but Mars Hill Bellevue exists as a trunk to nourish those branches and then to help plant new churches, right, new branches on the tree. Well, in that day, Jerusalem was the trunk, and the resources, and the training, and the authority went out from Jerusalem and the people who were spiritual leaders across the various churches, they would come into Jerusalem.
One of the ways that you know that someone has significant spiritual authority is they have convening power. So, when a meeting is called somewhere, not everybody’s going to go, but if a meeting’s called in Jerusalem, everybody’s going to come. You know why? The highest ranking spiritual leaders are there. Now, in the New Testament, there are people who are itinerant and they travel around. The quintessential example is Paul, and there’s guys like Timothy and Titus who do that with him. Barnabas as well. They’re traveling, planting churches.
Two guys stayed put in Jerusalem, right, the trunk: Peter, the leader of Jesus’ disciples, always named first in the list of disciples because he is the human leader appointed by Jesus, and James, Jesus’ brother. They stayed in Jerusalem, they oversaw the trunk, and they nourished the branches. And when the controversy erupts out at the new church plants, “What do we do with all the Gentiles?” then it was, “We need to have a meeting. Everybody come into Jerusalem. We all need to sit down and we’re going to figure out what God’s will is for the Gentiles.” Not everybody got to go to that meeting, only the highest ranking spiritual leaders.
You need to see that in the New Testament, there are levels of spiritual leadership and spiritual authority. Not everybody goes to the meeting; it’s not a congregational vote. They don’t, you know, cast a ballot across all the churches. The senior leaders get together, they open God’s Word, they study, they pray, they seek the will of the Holy Spirit. They try and figure out what God’s will is for the Gentile converts, and they’re doing so in Jerusalem, which is overseen by Peter and James.
Everything turns in the most one of the most important meetings in the history of the world. Our fate is at stake, those of us who are Gentiles. Here’s what we read in Acts 15, in the middle of that meeting, verses 12 and 13. “And the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Not everybody’s there, but certain guys are there.
Peter’s there. It’d be hard to argue that anybody has more spiritual authority on earth in that day than Peter, appointed by Jesus to lead. Paul’s there, any living apostles/disciples of Jesus are there. This was an invite-only, closed-door meeting. Not everybody gets to come, and not everybody gets to speak. And it gets very quiet, and the floor is given to Paul and to Barnabas, who have been doing itinerant ministry out on the branches. “Tell us about the new fruit. Tell us about who’s meeting Jesus. Tell us about who the Holy Spirit is filling. Tell us about what is happening.”
And they give a report: “There’s an explosion. The Holy Spirit’s been unleashed. Gentiles are meeting Jesus. They’re repenting of sin. They’re falling in love with the God of the Bible. And there are many of them, and churches are getting planted all over the place, and what God is doing is extraordinary. And we’re bringing you a report back to the trunk of what God is doing with new fruit at the edge of the branch.”
Everybody’s quiet, and there’s that dramatic pause, and in one of the most important meetings in the history of the world, the question is, “Who will stand up and speak for God?” Who will the Holy Spirit speak through? “After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘Brothers, listen to me. ‘Paul, listen to me. ‘Barnabas, listen to me. Peter, listen to me.’” Do you sense the weight of that? I don’t have that kind of authority. I doubt I would have been let in the room. If so, I would have been in the corner, quiet, taking notes, not standing up, saying, “Brothers, listen to me.” I don’t have that spiritual authority.
James does, and James teaches the Old Testament, and James leads the early church. And James sets the trajectory—yes, along with Peter, and yes, along with Paul, and yes, along with Barnabas and the apostles, because the Holy Spirit brings them to unity of mind regarding God’s will for the Gentile converts.
Here’s why I tell you this: we’re going to spend almost four months together looking at the book of James, and his Word is, “Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me.” If Peter is willing to sit, and Paul is willing to sit, and Barnabas is willing to sit, and they’re all willing to listen to James, Mars Hill, we need to be willing to listen to James. If they’re willing to sit under his spiritual authority—these are men who wrote books of the Bible and they’re under his authority.
As we study his book of the Bible, I want you to respect his authority, I want you to honor his authority, I want you to hear him as they heard him. The story continues. Paul speaks of James in his letter to the Galatians.
Here’s what he says in Galatians 1:18–19: “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem,” right? Convening power, everybody’s got to come, give your report. “To Cephas”—that’s Peter—“and remained with him fifteen days.” We don’t know what they talked about, but apparently they covered a lot.
Think of a meeting between Peter and Paul for fifteen days. All right, this is quite a meeting. “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” James the Lord’s brother. Paul submitted to the authority of Peter and James. Now, when you and I read the New Testament, the guy who’s written more books than anybody’s who? Paul. Paul wasn’t just in authority; he was under authority. Hugely important.
I’m not just in authority; I’m under authority. I have pastors do my performance review, can rebuke me, can terminate me, whatever the case may be. It’s important to know that everyone needs to be under spiritual authority, including those who are in spiritual authority.
Repeatedly in the book of Acts, this happens on more than one occasion. It reports it here in Galatians. Paul makes the long journey to Jerusalem—it’s not easy—so that he can sit down and get his performance review with Peter and James. Do you see that?
What this does, friends, is this puts James in a level of authority with the apostles—that’s what he does right here—and with Peter who is appointed by Jesus to be the human leader of the entire movement of early Christianity. We’ve not studied James enough. We’ve not considered James enough. We’ve not honored James enough. He’s been overlooked. Not entirely, but he’s not received the kind of regard that he is worthy of based upon simply what the Bible says about him.
So, I’m so excited we’re going to do that. We’re going to study James for almost four months together. I want you to see him for who he is, a bold preacher, teacher, writer of the Bible, leader of Christianity, working from the most important church on the earth, feeding, nourishing the other churches and church-planting movements, and men like Paul will travel many, many miles to sit across from him and to learn from him. It’s magnificent that James wrote a book for us, and that we get to sit down like Paul sat down, and we get to learn from him as Paul sat down from him.
I would say this: those who would tell you—and we’re going to get into this in James, and I don’t want to get too far down the road, but some would say, “Well, I see conflict between James and Paul.” I don’t. Paul seems very happy to learn from James. Paul seems very happy to travel and meet with James. Paul seems very happy to honor and submit to James. He says this as well in Galatians 2:9: “When James and Cephas and John”—what a team! Jesus’ brother, the leader of Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus’ best friend. “John is the one whom Jesus loved,” the Bible says. What a team. What a team.
Jesus’ brother, leader of the disciples, and best friend. The guy who—at the cross, he told John, “Look after my mom.” Nobody’s closer relationally to Jesus than John. “When James, Cephas or Peter, and John, who seemed to be pillars.” Here’s a nickname Paul gives them: they’re the “pillars.” You know what a pillar does? Carries a load. Not everybody has equal spiritual authority. Not everybody carries the same load. If you’re remodeling a house and you say, “I’d like to take out that wall and make it an open concept,” the first thing you’ve got to figure out is, “Is that a load-bearing wall? Because if it is, I take the wall down, I’m going to take everything down.”
What he’s saying is these guys are load-bearing. “Boy, on these three guys, it’s kind of all . . . humanly-speaking. Yeah, the Holy Spirit’s empowering them, but these guys, they’re load-bearing. Lots riding and resting on them. One of them decides to betray the faith, or run off with another woman, or lose his mind, we’ve got a real problem.”
But he said, “They’re pillars. They’re like marble columns in the temple. They were there last year; they’ll be there next year. They don’t move. They are rock-solid. They can handle a serious load. They’re pillars.” What a nickname! We could use a lot of men like that. “Perceived by the grace that was given to me, they gave me the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles.”
This is staggering. Who came down, converted Paul, and called him to be a missionary to the Gentiles? Who did that? Jesus Christ. After Easter, we’re going to get back into the book of Acts and we’re going to study it. Even though Jesus came down—Jesus came down from heaven, right? He died for our sin, rose as our Savior, ascended to heaven where he rules and reigns. One day, he got off his throne and came down for a short meeting with a guy named Saul. Blinded him, converted him, changed his name to Paul, said, “Go preach to the Gentiles,” and then Jesus went back to heaven.
What Paul didn’t do is walk around saying, “Jesus told me I get to plant a church. Jesus told me I get to write books. Jesus told me I get to preach sermons. That’s what Jesus said.” Here’s what Paul says: “I went to Jerusalem, and I sat down with James, Peter, and John. And I brought Barnabas with me, and I told them, ‘Here’s what Jesus has done in my life, and here’s what Jesus has called me to do with the rest of my life.’ And I submitted it to them for spiritual authority and oversight.”
Those of you who feel called to ministry, those of you feel called to leadership, particularly those of you who feel called to preaching or church-planting, you are not above Paul. You have no right to just say, “Well, God told me and I’m going to go do it.” No one had a more magnificent calling than Paul.
Whatever calling you’ve received, I tell you this: Jesus didn’t come down from heaven to convert you and to call you. And even Paul, receiving that direct calling from Jesus himself, submitted to the authority that Jesus placed over him. There is no spiritual ministry apart from spiritual authority. There’s not.
Paul says, “I took what Jesus said and did and I brought it to the men that Jesus appointed over me.” Paul is saying, “I saw James as an authority over me, and Peter an authority over me, and John an authority over me. And before I preached, and before I planted churches, and before I wrote books, I asked them, ‘Do I have your blessing?’”
Because see, God works through spiritual authority. There’s nothing more dangerous than just a renegade leader who wants to go do their own thing and say, “Jesus told me, and I’m only accountable to him.” It’s dangerous, it’s deadly, it’s devastating, and sometimes damnable. Your authority, my authority, is nowhere near Paul’s authority, and he submitted his authority to higher authority, and so should we. So should we.
When I felt called to start Mars Hill, I went and met with elders. When I felt called into ministry, I went and met with my first pastor. I said, “I think this is what God’s telling me to do.” He said, “I think that’s right, but you’re nowhere near ready. It’s going to be a really long time.” “OK, I’ve got a lot of work to do.” When I felt called to plant, I went through a full assessment. Pastors oversaw me, a team interviewed me, a church sent me, an overseer had authority over me.
The Bible talks about laying on of hands. What this is saying is that not only has God chosen this person, but he’s confirmed their calling through godly leadership in authority over them. And placing a hand on somebody is demonstrating authority over somebody. And when leaders are installed in the Bible, oftentimes it’s through the laying on of hands.
Here’s what Paul’s saying: “There were six hands on me. Can you see it? Peter put his two hands on me, prayed over me. James put his two hands on me, prayed over me. John put his two hands on me and prayed over me. And I’m called by Jesus, but I’m sent by these men, and I’m under the authority of these men, and I give report to these men, and I return and meet with these men, and I submit to these men.” Part of Paul’s greatness was the greatness of his submission. It put him in a safe place where God could use him in a big way. Do you see that?
We all need that, myself included. Perhaps myself more than anyone. And it’s James. I mean, have you ever thought, “Who did Paul’s performance review?” “Well, that was a pretty good sermon, and you’re doing OK.” Like, who did—who does your performance review? Who’s going to do Paul’s performance review? James does Paul’s performance review in Jerusalem. Paul travels to James. James doesn’t travel to Paul, Paul travels to James. That’s convening power, that’s spiritual authority, that’s incredible leadership.
What happens to James from here? He continues to preach and teach. It’s reported historically, apart from Scripture, but it’s the most accurate historical record we have, that he was murdered, martyred around A.D. 62 or 63. He was Jesus’ bold little brother. He stayed in Jerusalem. He stayed the course. He was a rock-solid pillar. He did not move, he did not crumble, he did not tumble, he did not waver.
In addition to the nickname that Paul gave him, the Pillar, church history, the early church historians say that he had two other nicknames. “James the Just”—what a name! That’s like “Holy Hank.” Really? That’s amazing! “James the Just.” And his other nickname was “Camel Knees.” OK, you know what that’s from? Praying a lot. James was on his knees so much that his knees were hardened. So, he’s known as being a pillar, a righteous man, who has always on his knees until they came to murder him.
History records that they took him to the top of the temple. This is supposed to be God’s house, all foreshadowing the coming of Jesus, the presence of God, the sacrifice, the priest. It’s all about Jesus. And they take James to the top of the temple, the religious leaders do, the same group-thinking team of religious leaders who murdered Jesus. Not everybody converts.
Religious people sometimes are the worst. They murdered Jesus; he rose from the dead. You think they would have learned something. No, instead they continue opposing Jesus’ people after he’s ascended back to heaven. They take James’ brother, the leader of the church at Jerusalem, they bring him up the pinnacle of the temple, and they throw him off to openly, publicly, shamefully murder him as they did his brother. History records that he hit the ground, apparently a pretty tough guy, didn’t die. So, then they stoned him and beat him to death. Now the family’s got another funeral. Mary buried some sons.
History records that James’ successor, probably chosen by James, was one of his other brothers. What a family! Kill the big brother. “I’m here to preach.” Kill that guy. “Well, we’ve got another brother.” I wonder if they had beards and duck hunted. This is quite a family. This is quite a family. I mean, they’re pretty durable, amen? You get that feeling? That guy’s name is Simeon or Simon, depending upon which historian you follow. What an amazing family this is. The brothers write books of the Bible, the brothers are willing to die, the brothers are willing to step in.
How many of you, if your brother died on the job, you would not be his successor? This family is utterly convinced Jesus is God, Jesus is Savior, Jesus rose. “You can kill us, we’ll go see him. It’s going to be OK.” And if you’re here, and you’re not a believer, I have got to ask you, how in the world do you account for this? What motive could they have possibly had? There was no fame, there was no glory, there was no fortune. There was death, and they endured it because they no longer feared death because they’d seen their God-brother conquer it. Now, what I don’t want you to do is just admire this family. I want you to join this family.
I’ll close with the words of Jesus because you can’t do any better than that. Mark 3:35, “For whoever does the will of God, he,” Jesus says, “is my brother and sister and mother.” How many of you guys here, you’re like, “Man, it would have been great to have Jesus as a big brother”? Jesus says, “I’ll be your big brother. Do what I tell you to do and I’ll be your big brother. I’ll love you, help you, encourage you, be there for you. I’ll be your brother.”
How many of you ladies hearing this say, “Boy, it would have been great to have Jesus as a big brother.” Jesus says, “I’ll be your big brother. Do what I tell you to do.” How many of you ladies think, “Man, it would have been amazing to be Mary, to be Jesus’ mom.” Jesus says, “I’ll love you like I love my own mom if you’ll obey me and do what I tell you to do.” Jesus invites us into his family. You may not have been born into his family, but you can be born again by the Spirit of God into the family of God.
And men, Jesus is like a big brother, puts an arm around us. “Hey, we got stuff to do. Look at James, look at Jude. We got stuff to do.” Puts his arm around the ladies, “I’m your big brother. Sisters, come on, support. We need you on the team; you’re very important. Older women, you too. You’re like mothers, super important. We need you in the family. You’re a big deal. You got stuff to do.” James pick up this tenor and tone. And the book of James is all active present tense verbs, “Do this, do this, do this, do this, do this, do this,” because the family of God is seen by the works of God.
If you’re here and you’re not a Christian, the first thing you need to do is turn from sin and trust in Jesus. You need to cross that line of faith that James and his family crossed. They went from knowing him, knowing a little bit about him, kind of liking him, being concerned about other things, receiving certain teachings, struggling with others, to full-hearted, full-throated commitment to Jesus as God and Savior. And I’m inviting you not to just admire Jesus’ family but to join it, and you do so by turning from sin and trusting in him.
For those of you that are here and you are Christians, the book of James is written largely to religious people who know a lot but they don’t do a lot. And he’s trying to move them from conviction to action, from belief to behavior. And for some of you religious people, this is the perfect time of year. It’s a new year. And my question to you would be: what is Jesus commanding you to do? What is his will for you this year? What’s on the to do list from the risen Lord for your life starting right now?
Some of you say, “I don’t feel close to Jesus like a brother. I don’t feel close to Jesus like a sister. I don’t feel close to Jesus like my mother.” Well, then, here’s the issue: maybe you’re not serving him. Maybe you’re not doing what he’s doing. Maybe you’re not working where he’s working. Maybe you’re not obeying where he’s commanding. And it’s not that he is far from you, but that you’re not in sync with him.
So, I’m going to give you a chance to respond. We’re going to collect our tithes and offerings. As we do, this is where we give Jesus our best, that we would be able, by the grace of God, to see the gospel still go out to the Gentiles. And as we collect our tithes and offerings, we’re giving God our best.
I want to give you a good news report. We asked you to give generously, those that are at Mars Hill and those who are listening online and part of our global family of support. We asked you to give generously so we could meet budget, OK? Did we meet budget this year? Yes or no? Yes, yes we did, OK? Now, if you’re not used to clapping during an offering, it’s a good day, all right? Not often in a church, “We’re going to collect the offering, yay!”
We asked you to give $2 million above and beyond the budget to get Mars Hill Tacoma, Mars Hill Everett, Mars Hill Olympia, and Mars Hill Huntington Beach into new homes, and also to launch Mars Hill Phoenix, and to support more church planters internationally. Did you give $2 million over and above budget, yes or no? Yes, you actually gave more than $2 million. So, we beat budget, OK?
Here’s the good news: we are in the strongest, healthiest financial fiscal position that we have ever been in the history of Mars Hill Church. That eighteen years ago this month, we had our first core group meeting with just a few dozen people, it was not a big deal, and many years later, God has been very gracious to us and through you, and I want to say thank you. And as we collect our tithes and offerings, the Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver, and thank you for being cheerful and thank you for giving.
Lastly, one way you can respond as well is, in addition to taking Communion to remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood in our place for our sins is through baptism. And if you’ve given your life to Jesus today or if you’ve given your life to Jesus at some point previously but not been baptized, this is part of obeying his commands. He says to be baptized. He commands us to be baptized. And this is showing that Jesus lived, died, was buried, and rose in my place for my sins. As water cleanses me from filth, Jesus cleanses me from sin. And in Christ, I’m clean. In Christ, I’m forgiven. In Christ, I am new.
We are going to baptize people today, and at Mars Hill, we celebrate that, we rejoice in that, we love that, we enjoy that. And so I want you to sing and to celebrate the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want you to welcome new brothers and sisters into the family of God.
If you’ve never been baptized, today is the day for you to be baptized in obedience to Jesus, to start your obedience through baptism. And you may say, “I don’t have a towel.” “I don’t have shorts.” “I don’t have a shirt.” We do. Jesus told us you were going to need them so we’re all ready to go, amen. All right, let me pray.
Father, thank you that I get to teach the Bible. Thank you that this is going to be the eighteenth year from core group phase that I get to teach the Bible at Mars Hill Church. God, I thank you that we get to go through books of the Bible. I thank you for the patience of our people as I take an hour-plus a week.
God, thank you so much that you work in and through people like us, families, people who have struggles and doubts, people who are in process, people who are radically changed and greatly used. God, we thank you for the testimony of Jesus’ family. I pray that the ladies would be like Mary and his sisters. I pray that us men would be like his father Joseph and his brothers, guys like James and Jude.
God, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for the Holy Spirit, that he comes to empower us to live new lives as new people, born again as part of God’s family. Jesus, we come to sing and celebrate right now. And we know that James and Jude, Mary, your brothers, sisters, your father, Lord Jesus, are in your presence right now. They see you unveiled in full glory. They’re rejoicing in who you are and what you’ve done along with the angels, and we come now to join them, and to sing and celebrate in Jesus’ great name, amen.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.