Do you have a nickname? I think nicknames are loads of fun. Interestingly, it seems Jesus was inclined to give some of his friends nicknames! That not only tells you something about Jesus’ personality, but also about the power of naming.
One of the people that Jesus gave a nickname was his friend John, whose backstory we have been studying this week as we prepare to enter a months-long study of John’s Gospel. To learn John’s nickname, turn to Mark 3:17. There we read that Jesus gave the name Boarneges to the brothers James and John. Boarneges is likely a Hebrew or Aramaic word, so thankfully, Mark tells us what it means: “Sons of Thunder.” Why would Jesus call him that? Was their dad thunder-like? Maybe. James’ and John’s dad’s name was Zebedee, and though he shows up in a few stories, those stories never tell us anything about him. Instead, it seems that Jesus gave James and John the nickname Sons of Thunder because of how they acted. How did they act?
Turn in your Bible to Luke 9:51-56, where we read a story about James and John that might help us understand why Jesus gave them the nickname Sons of Thunder. Please pause reading this post, because you’ll want to read Luke’s story, as it is fascinating, and then continue the post below.
How about that? James and John wanted to send down fire on the Samaritans! I wish I could see video of it. Were they angry and vicious when they said it? Were they laughing? Was it a joke or was it real? And if it was real, did they believe they could actually send fire on the Samaritans? Or we they expressing a deep faith in God that God would do it? I’m partially impressed, if they were being serious, because it means they believed God would perform the miracle of reigning down fire from heaven if he wanted to. No doubt that would be an awesome miracle to behold. But whether they were serious or not, Jesus rebukes them, because that’s not what he was about. Here again, was he laughing at their ridiculousness? Or was he upset at them, because clearly they had not taken to heart his teachings about loving your enemies. And when Jesus rebuked them, were they humble and teachable, willing to admit their bad attitude? Did they learn from this?
We don’t know, of course, but we do know that their thunderousness comes up another way. Turn in your Bible to Matthew 20:20-28. Keep your finger there and also turn to Mark 10:35-45. Both places, Matthew 20 and Mark 10, tell the same story, but Matthew includes one important extra detail. Please pause reading this post and read Mark’s version of the story first.
How bold, right? They want to be given special privileges from Jesus? They want him to name them as the #2 and #3 officials in his Kingdom? What is going on with these two? They must have been something else.
Now turn to Matthew’s version of the story, and look at verse 20. Surprise, surprise, their mom is with them, advocating for them as well! Maybe it is not their father who is the thunderous one, but their mom! In fact, though this story does not put James, John or their mom in a good light, she will show up in the gospels, true to Jesus till the end (see Matthew 27:56), including almost certainly being named as, Salome, one of the three women who traveled to Jesus grave to put spices on his corpse but found an empty tomb. Clearly, she was a strong woman, and it seems she passed this strength to her boys.
It was a strength for sure. We are called to be bold, but our boldness is too often left unchecked, untrained by humility and the Fruit of the Spirit, so that we too can be Sons and Daughters of Thunder. I suspect that Jesus, when he gave them that nickname, he did so with a twinkle in his eye, because he knew that there was more to James and John than just being arrogant or impetuous. That’s why Jesus taught what he taught them after they and their mother asked Jesus to give them special places in their kingdom. What did Jesus say? Look at Mark 10 verse 42. He is talking about the way of the world, and he describes it as “lording it over” people.
Lording it over? What is Jesus talking about?
Jesus is referring to a relational tendency that was very prevalent in his era, and still is common in ours. It is using our tone of voice, our body language, our boldness, including the boldness to be passive aggressive, which is a sneaky boldness. We can use those methods to control, to hurt, to wound, to get our way. It is akin to survival of the fittest in business, in relationships, in school, on sports teams, using whatever means necessary to get ahead, to win.
Jesus says, “Not so with you. Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” And then he talks about how his mission was to serve, to give his life. That is the foundation of Christian discipleship. We give our lives, just as Jesus gave his. Would the Son of Thunder, John, give his life? He sure did. For the rest of his life, he served Jesus, the church, and the world.
What I love from this detail in the story of John the Disciple is that Jesus does call regular people, untrained people, to follow him, and they can follow him and serve in his Kingdom. John was a fisherman. John did not go to seminary. John was a guy who let stuff fly out of his mouth.
Does that resonate with you? Have you ever thought, “I don’t know enough about the Bible. I don’t have good control over my mouth. I’m just a regular guy who works with my hands. My vocabulary is more like Dr. Suess. I don’t think I’m the person God really wants to make an impact in his Kingdom.”
Then look at how Jesus interacts with John. He says “Come follow me,” and then look at what John did. He followed. John could have said, “Me? No, not me. You’ve got the wrong guy Jesus.”
But John followed, and Jesus shaped John into a man who served his Kingdom well. What next step will you take to answer Jesus’ call to follow him into a new area, a deeper discipleship?