The Life of Jesus: Jesus and His Family
Our text for this morning comes from Mark 3:
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
We continue our series The Life of Jesus today as we consider Jesus and his family. I want to encourage you to keep your Bible open, as we will not stick with one text. Instead, we will move through all four Gospels.
Several years ago I was invited to assist Benny Littlejohn in the funeral for his grandmother Hazel Littlejohn. I walked into Greenlawn Chapel a little early and saw Judge Bruce Littlejohn who had already arrived. The Littlejohns and the Neelys have a lot in common. Both families are quite large. I sometimes tell people that we are like wild onions with too many to get rid of and too many to count. To this day I still have not sorted out all of the Littlejohns.
I said, “Bruce, I didn’t know that you were kin to Hazel.”
He answered, “Oh, yes. I’m kin to her.”
“Tell me how you’re related.”
He explained, “I’m her fifth cousin twice removed.”
I laughed, “Bruce, that’s almost no kin at all!”
He quipped, “Kirk, when you’re in politics, you’re kin to everybody.”
Have you ever thought about Jesus and his relationship with his family? We see immediately that the Gospels take this issue of family relationships seriously. They are an important part of Jesus’ identity and ministry. Luke and Matthew each devote an entire chapter to the two different genealogies of Jesus: one through Mary and the other through Joseph.
We have already seen in our sermons up to this point that Mary and Joseph were devout Jews. Many of the passages we read in the Gospel accounts provide evidence. Jesus was introduced to worship as a small child. We see that observed in the very act of his dedication in the temple as a baby. We read the account of the family traveling to Jerusalem when Jesus was only twelve years old and observing the Passover. The parents’ emphasis on worship impacted the life of Jesus.
Joseph, Jesus’ father, was a common laborer. The word used to describe his vocation is tekton, usually translated as carpenter. It might also mean stonemason. Regardless, Joseph worked with his hands to make a living. When we think about the family of Jesus, we need to realize that this was a blue-collar family.
Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56 name Jesus’ four brothers: James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. These names were quite familiar, common, during the first century. We learn that these brothers were important in the early history of the church. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the author of the book of James. He is sometimes referred to as James the Righteous to distinguish him from James the Apostle. Jude is credited with writing the book by the same name in the New Testament. These same verses mention Jesus’ sisters; however, they do not provide their names or the number. Many scholars believe that Mary and Joseph had a large family which was the norm at that time in history.
After the incident in the temple in which Mary and Joseph found Jesus talking with the elders, we see no mention of Joseph again in the Gospel accounts, with the exception of people in Nazareth asking, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” That fact tells us that Mary was probably widowed at a fairly early age after having these children. Mary was a single parent. Jesus may have actually waited to begin his ministry long enough to take care of his mother. He could also have waited until the younger brothers grew up and assumed that responsibility.
Jesus, as we know, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Some, especially in the more liturgical churches, claim say that Mary remained a virgin. They also propose that Jesus’ siblings came into the family because of a previous marriage for Joseph. I can find no solid scriptural evidence that Joseph was married prior to his marriage to Mary.
We are aware that Jesus also had an extended family. It is difficult to find Mary’s sister being named Salome in any one place in the Bible. If you look at all the Gospel accounts and consider the women at the cross, you can deduce that Salome was Mary’s sister. In John, she is mentioned only as Mary’s sister. Salome, wife of Zebedee, was Jesus’ aunt. That means that the apostles James and John, called “sons of thunder,” were his first cousins. No wonder Salome wanted them to have the places of honor; they were blood kin.
Mary had a kinswoman named Elizabeth though we do not know exactly what their relationship was. Mary stayed for a while at Elizabeth’s home in the hill country of Judea after she discovered that she was pregnant out-of-wedlock. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were advanced in age when their son, John the Baptist, was born. We are not sure how Jesus and John the Baptist were related. My guess is they were “fifth cousins twice removed.”
How does Jesus regard the marriage? Evidence points to the idea that Jesus really approved of this institution. John 2 includes the account of Jesus performing his first miracle in the wedding at Cana of Galilee. When I perform a wedding ceremony, I often point to this wedding and say that Jesus blessed marriage by being present. I have done renewal marriage vows for nineteen couples at one time in the chapel there in Cana.
We do see a wrinkle here in the parent-child relationship at this wedding, however. Mary came to Jesus and called his attention to the fact that the host had run out of wine. Jesus turned to his own mother and asked, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Regardless of the translation you read, that retort to Mary seems callous. You can squint one eye and try to read that response sideways, but it still sounds a bit harsh.
Mary then turned to his disciples and the servants, instructing, “You do whatever he tells you.” Then she stepped back, a wise move for her as his mother. You will notice that as the account unfolded, he did exactly what she wanted him to do, performing a miracle by turning water into wine.
Jesus’ view on marriage was so favorable that when asked about divorce, he had some pretty hard comments. Matthew 19 tells us that Jesus asked what the law said about divorce. The men answered that Moses allowed it, permitted it, saying a person could write out a statement of divorce. Jesus’ response went all the way back to the time of Creation: “Yes, but from the beginning it was not so. God intended that one man and one woman be joined together in marriage.”
In talking about divorce in another place, Jesus made a remarkable comment. Jewish leaders of the first century thought that if a man divorced his wife and married another woman, he had sinned against the man who owned that woman. At that time the leaders did not view divorce as a sin against the woman. Consider this analogy, which explains their perspective: a man who stole a horse did not sin against the horse; he sinned against the owner of the horse. Jesus redefined divorce, saying that if a man divorced his wife and married another woman, the woman was the victim of adultery. Why is that significant? With this teaching about divorce, Jesus elevated the status of women by saying, “You have to think about the personhood of the woman.”
What was Jesus’ view of children? If we look at Mark 9:36-37, we see that Jesus welcomed little children. He said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Children at that time in history were treated as half-people, not to be seen or heard. They essentially lived life among the giants, in a world of kneecaps. Jesus did not approve of this treatment.
We see these same disciples, whom Jesus was teaching in the previous chapter, again preventing little children from coming to him. Jesus scolded, “Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Then he added to these big, grown-up disciples he knew best, “Unless you receive the kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it” (Mark 10:13-14).
Clearly Jesus valued the family. He valued marriage. He valued children.
This story of relationships has another side. Jesus made some comments about the family that are difficult for us to hear. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus was walking along the road with people following him.
When a man told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus responded, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58). We will come back to that reply in just a moment.
Jesus said to another man, “Follow me.”
The man answered, “First let me go and bury my father,” meaning, “My father is old and in poor health. Let me wait until he dies. Then I will follow you” (Matthew 8:21-22).
Jesus directed, in what sounds like callousness, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” We find that answer a bit hard to swallow.
Still another person declared, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family” (Luke 9:61-62).
Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” His comment seems insensitive.
In Matthew’s Gospel, a would-be follower said, “Let me go. I have taken a wife and cannot come.”
Jesus answered, “Follow me.” He accepted no excuse from the man.
Matthew 10:34-37 contains an even harsher reply by Jesus:
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Jesus was emphasizing that in some ways his coming into the world would actually separate the family. Perhaps you know families that have been divided because of someone accepting Christ.
Years ago a woman attended church here with her children every Sunday. One day I said to her, “Thank you for coming each week and bringing your children. I know it’s hard to get your children up and ready on time.”
She replied, “Dr. Kirk, the hardest part is when I get back home. You cannot imagine the ridicule that I take from my husband for going to church.”
There you have an example of Jesus’ very presence dividing a family.
How many times have we read stories about people, not just in other countries but also in our own country, who convert from another religion to Christianity and the response of the family is to disown them? Family members act as if that person never existed or act as though the person had died. Sometimes devotion to Jesus can break apart a family.
Maybe the harshest statement of all comes in Luke 14:25-26 when a large crowd was following Jesus as he walked along the path. He turned, spinning on his heels to face the group, and revealed, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” What are we to make of that reply?
A man once told me, “I have decided to get a divorce.”
I said, “Are you sure that is what you want to do?”
He said, “Yes, the Bible says to hate your wife, and I hate mine.” He cited this very passage from Luke 14.
How do we understand these harsh remarks from the lips of Jesus? You must realize that Jesus often used a figure of speech called Aramaic hyperbole, which is extreme exaggeration. He used that literary technique in the passage about hating one’s father and mother. He used that technique when he spoke the language from a carpenter’s shop: “Why are you bothering with a speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-5). We see Aramaic hyperbole in his comment to the Pharisees: “You are so particular about the law that you will strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). Ingesting either one of these unclean animals would have been a violation of Jewish dietary law.
Jesus used extreme exaggeration in these harsh teachings to make an important point: we must remember our primary relationship is to him. According to the book of Revelation, Jesus told the church at Ephesus, “This one thing I have against you. You have lost your first love” (Revelation 2:4-6). What is that first love? For the Christian, it must be Jesus. For the Christian, it must be our devotion to Christ. Nothing can preempt that. Surely marriage relationships are important to Jesus, but our connection to him is more important. Surely relationships with our children, brothers and sisters, and parents are important to Jesus; they do not, however, come before our connection to him. Was Jesus just pulling these comments out of thin air? He was probably being autobiographical and talking about something he had learned in his relationship with his own family.
Let’s return to the passage from Luke 9. Can you hear a note of homesickness when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head”? Can you hear the longing of his heart? He was lamenting, “I wish I had a place to call home.” That home certainly could not be in Nazareth. You remember how the people in his hometown treated him when he declared that he was the suffering servant. They thought he was committing blasphemy and tried to kill him.
Jesus did have homes away from home. He often stayed in the region of Galilee at Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum. Down in Judea when he needed a home, he usually went to see Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who lived in Bethany. Even though he had homes where he could stay, the melancholy of his heart, the homesickness, the longing for his own family are evident.
Consider a line from our text today: Mark 3:20: Some translations say, “He entered the house.” For now I like the version which reads, “He went back home.”
When his family heard that a crowd had gathered, they went to take charge of him. They commented, “He is out of his mind.” His own family – Mary, his brothers – made this accusation. Do you think that remark hurt Jesus? Can you imagine how it broke his heart? Can you imagine how it must have broken the hearts of his family members to think that Jesus had lost his mind?
After arriving at the home, they stood outside and asked someone to call him. Can you feel the tug when he learned from those sitting around him that his family was outside, asking for him? Can you feel how he might be pulled between his family of flesh and his family of faith?
Jesus answered by looking at those seated around him and saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” His treatment embarrassed his family.
Sometimes families get embarrassed. Parents often make poor decisions because they are embarrassed.
John 7:5 provides us some very significant information: “His own brothers did not believe in him.” James, Jude, Joseph, Simon did not believe in Jesus at that time. Jesus loved this family so much. He also loved the people of Nazareth dearly. Jesus had a family of flesh, but he also had a family of faith, those who do the will of God. Jesus made a strong distinction between the two families in his own life and ministry.
When Jesus was dying on the cross Mary, his mother, was there, as was Salome, Mary’s sister. Jesus looked at his mother and said to her in what we call one of the seven last words, “Woman, behold your son.” He was not telling her, “Look at me.” Instead, he was directing her attention to the disciple standing beside her, John. Jesus then addressed John, saying, “Behold your mother.” With these statements, he connected John and Mary. From that point on, we read in John’s Gospel that Mary lived with John. For that reason Mary is believed to have accompanied John all the way to Ephesus where he served as bishop. Apparently, she was buried in there.
The family of flesh is important to Jesus, but he calls us to keep the family of faith as our priority. The Christian home is the greatest instrument that we have for evangelism. More people are won to Christ in the context of the Christian home than anywhere else. You have all heard the expression, “You cannot take it with you.” Let me tell me that you can take your family members with you to heaven.
Many of us now are praying for people we love dearly, for people who are a part of our family but do not know Jesus. Our hope and our prayer is that these people will one day know the Lord Jesus as Savior. We pray that our family of flesh will also become a part of our family of faith. Then they will truly be our mother, our father, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins – not because of blood but because of faith. You hear it said that blood is thicker than water. The blood of Jesus is thicker than water. All who confess Jesus as Savior are brought into his family.
This story of Jesus’ relationship with his family has a happy ending. I do not know how long the rift between Jesus and his family lasted; but Luke, in describing the early church in Acts 1:12-14, writes that they all joined together in constant prayer. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers – those same family members who had earlier thought he was crazy, those same brothers who did not believe in him – had become a part of the family of faith following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
My hope and prayer is for all of my family to be a part of the family of faith. I know you have the same hope and prayer as well. It begins when we make our commitment to Christ, when we decide that we are going to follow Jesus and live for him. If you have never made that decision, we invite you to do so today.Kirk H. Neely © February 2014