Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Thunder Boys

Jesus gave James and John the nickname “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). When a Palestinian Jew called someone a “son of” something, it meant his character was like that thing (Acts 4:36). Today we might have called them “Thunder Boys.” James and John must have been ham-fisted troublemakers, or at least had explosive tempers, to earn such nicknames.

This was a character trait that needed to be changed, but James and John did not change easily. Even after spending quite a bit of time traveling with and learning from the Master of masters, and even after seeing a glimpse of His glory, James and John still argued among themselves as to who was the greatest (Luke 9:46–48); they still schemed for power positions in the kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20–21); and they still thought somehow it was their job to invoke judgment against the ingrate Samaritans who refused hospitality to Jesus (Luke 9:51–56).

Changing people is no light matter. Sometimes it seems like people never change. You perhaps have prayed for someone for years, and nothing has happened. That brat who always complained is still a brat who always complains, and the lazy good-for-nothing is still a lazy good-for-nothing. Even more distressing is when we look at ourselves and see the same characteristic faults we had ten years ago.

Just like James and John, we too wish we could call down fire from heaven on those who promote the killing of children before their birth, on those who parade homosexuality and promiscuity as good, or on those who under the guise of “scholarship” pervert or malign the very person of Jesus. Judgment will certainly come, but we, as recipients of grace, must be emissaries of grace. Also like James and John, we jockey for positions of power and influence, and we too like to play the part of “great spiritual leader.” When we look at ourselves or those around us we ask, “Will we never change?” and we want to give up.

But Jesus did not give up on the Thunder Boys. It took a long time, and a great sacrifice, but God did change James and John.

James became the first apostle to die for his faith (Acts 12). His commitment to Jesus must have been well known since his death pleased the unbelieving Jews. But no longer was James seeking center stage. In fact, he is hardly mentioned in Acts until his martyrdom—his ministry must have been quietly in the background. The new James was not seeking his own glory, but that of his Lord. There is an old tradition dating back at least to the second century that the guard was so impressed with James’ deep love for God that he became a Christian and asked to be beheaded along with him.

John was changed into the “beloved” disciple who penetrated the mystery of God’s love more deeply than any man before or since except Jesus Himself. And he too no longer sought his own glory—in John’s gospel he does not mention his own name, and even in his letters he either makes no mention of himself or simply uses the vague and unpretentious title “the elder.”

God changed the “Sons of Thunder” into “Sons of Wonder,” men characterized by the wonder of God’s grace. Their words are no longer invocations of fire against us, but of fire within us, the fire of God’s own Spirit.

Perhaps more than anything else, the ability of the Gospel to change people is a testimony to the power of God. To do a natural miracle like casting down fire from heaven is a little thing for God; the miracle that really cost God dearly was to change sinners to saints.

Origen of Alexandria, one of the most prolific of early Christian writers, knew this. Origen was a bit like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead—some of his work was very very good, and some of it is horrid—but Origen was certainly a brilliant scholar and deeply committed to the Lord Jesus and His written Word. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a thoughtful apologetic work called Against Celsus. In this work, Origen time and again returns to the fact that although some other religions can simulate miracles, and though some can give people a spiritual “high,” and though some can impress people with deep philosophy, high-sounding language, or magnificent ritual, there is only one religion in which sinners are changed into saints.

This is certainly not a quick or painless process. Before James and John could become examples of fealty and love, they had to go through the valley of humiliation and despair. We may chafe at what we consider God’s “slowness,” but if God moved faster it might destroy us. But God does change His people. And He never gives up.

Thus there is no room for us to “give up” on people either because God does change lives. Even yours.