James, the author of the epistle bearing his name, grew up in a devout Jewish home. His family life centered round the daily rhythms of the family carpentry business, the weekly rhythms of the synagogue, and the seasonal rhythms of Jewish festivals which celebrated the ancient work of God toward his covenant people. There was never a time that he did not know about Jesus. In fact, Jesus was perhaps so familiar to him that he only saw him as that overachieving obnoxious big brother. Yes, Jesus was his actual brother. But James just did not “get it” when it came to Jesus.
For James and the rest of the family, it was one thing for Jesus to step out of the family business so that he could get this obsession with talking about God’s kingdom out of his system – it was quite another thing to speak to the established religious authorities like this:
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters…. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:30-37).
This is not the kind of thing that James had learned at home or at synagogue. Big brother had crossed the line; he had gone too far, making himself out to be the authority and talking on about how our words are so important. Crazy Jesus had to stop. It was time for an intervention. So, the text of Matthew 12 says this: While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. This was not a nice social call. James and the rest of the brothers were there to set Jesus straight about how he was upsetting the family and going against the system. Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” Jesus replied, “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” (Matthew 12:46-50).
Something dramatic happened to James after his brother’s miraculous resurrection: James moved from seeing Jesus as the familiar brother to the Savior who has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and the Lord of life who must be followed with unflagging devotion and obedience.
I can relate to James. I grew up in the family farm business. Jesus was a name familiar to me all my life. My growing up years marked with the daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms not much different than James. And like James, I did not really know Jesus. The first seventeen years of my life Jesus was just a name in the background of my existence. He did not really exert any significant impact on me. But when I came to the point in my life where I saw Jesus for whom he really is and I gave my life to him, it changed everything for me.
You see, I can no longer look at church as a building and a place to go on Sunday. The church is now the people of God gathered and sent into the world with a mission to make the name of Jesus known as more than just another name. I can no longer hear the words of Jesus and think he is off his rocker talking like he did. I now take those words to heart and believe that I really ought to be making disciples and mentoring people into a faith that shapes everything I say and do.
When Jesus is nothing more than a familiar name, we live our lives with only an acceptance of the religion we have always known. But when Jesus moves to being the Savior and Lord of our lives, it changes everything. Acceptable religion without Jesus is marked by some church attendance, not rocking the spiritual boat, and doing what our families have always done. But James learned from his big brother and became the leader of the Jerusalem church. He followed Jesus into martyrdom and left a legacy of faith, commitment, and wisdom for us. Acceptable religion for James changed to becoming measured by how well we control our tongues, how we care for the needy, and how morally pure we can be within a corrupt world.
What is acceptable religion to you?
Does it measure up to James’ view?
Where do you go from here?
Is Jesus for you someone to be followed, or in need of an intervention?