This Sunday I’m beginning my sermon series on the Letter of James, the younger brother (technically, half-brother) of Jesus, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem during the time when Peter and Paul were traveling the world with the gospel.
We know for sure that James was not a believer during Jesus’ lifetime. He, along with his mother and other siblings, believed that Jesus had gone “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21-22, 31-35). The Gospel of John also reports the skepticism of James and his brothers (John 7:1-9).
According to Paul, however, the resurrected Jesus appeared to James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and James became not only a believer but a leader in the church at Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19, Acts 15:13-21), as also confirmed by both church sources and the historian Josephus (in an undisputed, independent reference to the historicity of Jesus, by the way).
We also know for sure that James was martyred: After religious authorities gave him the opportunity to renounce his faith and disperse Jesus’ followers—the Jewish Christians would listen to James, they reasoned, since he was Jesus’ own brother—James instead bore witness to Christ. As a result, he was thrown from the highest pinnacle of the Temple Mount and then clubbed to death.
Doug Powell asks a pertinent question in Resurrection iWitness: “What would it take for you to believe your brother was god incarnate?”
Similarly, in one of his sermons on James, pastor Tim Keller invites us to think about the natural sibling rivalry that must have existed between Jesus and his little brother. After all, we can’t hide anything from our siblings. They know us better than anyone. Siblings are the ones who often write the gossipy tell-all books when their brother or sister makes it big. Because only they know the person behind the facade.
Yet, in spite of all this, James believed that Jesus was God’s Son, the Messiah, Lord and God.
It’s worth asking: What would explain this dramatic turnaround in James’s outlook—such that he was even willing to die an excruciating death for his convictions?
One thing would: He believed his brother was resurrected.
In his scholarly tome, The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright offers another piece of evidence for the resurrection: the fact that the early church didn’t anoint James as Jesus’ messianic successor after Jesus’ death.
Again, even a small amount of disciplined historical imagination will paint the scene. Jesus of Nazareth had been a great leader. Most considered him a prophet, many the Messiah. But the Romans caught him and killed him, the way they did with so many would-be prophets and Messiahs. Just as John the Baptist’s movement faded into comparative obscurity with John’s imprisonment and death, with the speculation about John’s role within various eschatological scenarios being transferred to his slightly younger cousin, so one can easily imagine Jesus’ movement fading into comparative obscurity after his execution, with the spotlight now turning on his somewhat younger brother. The younger brother turns out to be a great leader: devout, a fine teacher, well respected by other devout Jews. What more could one want? But nobody ever dreamed of saying that James was the Messiah. He was simply known as the the brother of ‘Jesus the Messiah’. At this point the argument runs in parallel with the famous Sherlock Holmes story that hinges on the dog doing something remarkable in the night—or rather on the fact that the dog did not do anything in the night, though it had every reason to do so, thus revealing the fact that the dog must have recognized the intruder. If we suppose that Jesus of Nazareth had simply been executed as a messianic pretender, and that his younger brother had become a strong and powerful leader among his former followers over the next thirty years, someone would have been bound, given the climate of the times, to suggest that James himself was the Messiah. But nobody ever did.[†]
† N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:Fortress, 2003), 561-2.