Who Were the “Sons of Thunder” in the Bible?

St. Mark Bible

“These are the twelve he appointed: Simon, to whom he gave the name Peter, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder.” (Mark 3:16-17)

When Jesus selected His twelve apostles, He couldn’t have picked a more unusual group of young men to follow in His footsteps.

Fishermen, political activists, loners, a tax collector, brothers, sons, and sinners are among them. At first sight, they appeared to be as common as any other individual – simply hardworking folks who led rather average lives until Jesus called them to follow Him. Each one has been commissioned by God to testify of Jesus Christ’s love, majesty, instruction, and sacrifice in their own unique way.

Of course, the often zealous, outspoken, fervent, and even thunderous sons of Zebedee, James, and John were among the most in need of tempering. Jesus affectionately, perhaps even reprimandingly, nicknamed them the Sons of Thunder.

Who Were the Sons of Thunder in the Bible?

Although the Sons of Thunder may seem like a more appropriate professional wrestling name, Jesus gave this moniker to two of his closest and most devoted followers, bash brothers James and John.

Who were James and John, and what did they do to acquire their sobriquets?

The gospels say that James and John were brothers who worked as fishermen (Matthew 4:18-22), that they were associated with fellow disciple Peter (Luke 5:10), had sons of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21), and were some of the first to be designated by Jesus. It’s also probable that Salome, a woman mentioned among those who traveled with Jesus on whom spices are said to have been buried on the third day, was their mother (Mark 16:1; Matthew 27:56).

We may also infer that Zebedee, the father of James and John, was a figure of authority or renown from the gospels. In fact, he is the only father named by name (and regularly) among the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 20:20; Mark 10:35; Luke 5:10; John 21:2).

Zebedee, on the other hand, may have been known to the high priest and spoke with the doorkeeper in order to gain access to the courtyard on Jesus’ arrest (John 18:15-16). Some biblical scholars believe that Zebedee’s stature may have extended from Galilee to Jerusalem, allowing John to make such a request on Peter’s behalf.

James and John were members of Jesus’ “inner circle” alongside Peter, being invited into the room when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:37), seeing Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), being permitted to question Jesus privately on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13:3), and going further with Jesus into Gethsemane on the night of His arrest than any other disciples (Mark 14:33).

During his ministry, Jesus took both of them on several journeys. As a result, their later lives would be expected to have much (Luke 12:48). Both Earp brothers would go on to become bold, outspoken preachers in the early church, declaring the good news wherever they went.

However, it was their zeal and often passionate nature that earned them the name “Sticklers,” as well as their devotion to Jesus Christ, which they would learn to submit to and adopt.

St. John

Where Did This Name Come From?

It’s hard to determine when Jesus gave James and his younger brother John their famous moniker. To be honest, James and John weren’t the only disciples to get a new name intended to illustrate an aspect of Jesus’ persona that He wanted to change.

Simon was also named Peter or “Rock” by Jesus. When Jesus wanted to scold Peter for behaving like his old, obstinate self, He generally referred to him as Simon. When Jesus wanted to encourage Peter to become more like the Leader He knew He could be, He called him Peter. These nicknames were used both as encouragements and criticisms in these instances.

Furthermore, it appears that the Sons of Thunder were given a name to address a natural behavior Jesus wanted to improve in James and John.

The name “Sons of Thunder” is first mentioned in Mark’s gospel. We don’t know when the Sons of Thunder was initially given as a moniker, but we do have an idea what kind of behavior might have prompted it.

The Samaritan village is mentioned in the book of Luke 9:51 as an example. As Jesus and His followers traveled to Jerusalem, they stopped in a Samaritan town (Luke 9). The disciples went out to make arrangements for the night, but the Samaritans refused to receive them, continuing a long-standing tradition of hostility and contempt between Jews and Samaritans.

When Jesus’ disciples saw that their Lord had been insulted, they exclaimed, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to descend from heaven and burn them up?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus rebuked the Zebedee children, saying, “you have no idea what kind of spirit you are. The Son of Man did not come to wipe out people’s lives but to save them.”

It’s obvious that James and John felt justified, even righteous, in their anger. Jesus had been insulted by the Samaritans. Because they were Christ’s disciples, James and John thought it was their responsibility to protest and make these insolent dogs pay with belief in pride that they had the power and authority to call down fire from heaven, as Elijah had done previously.

After all, they had met and spoken with Jesus, James, and John, yet they were unable to comprehend that Jesus had come to rescue rather than punish. His was a rescue operation rather than one of retribution; and His blood would be shed not that of His persecutors.

Jesus had said:

– “The Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

– “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

– “for God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17)

Unfortunately, the sons of Zebedee’s errand of mercy hadn’t quite settled in. As a result, Jesus promptly rebuked these fiery sons of thunder for wanting to burn down an entire village rather than simply moving to another city, which they eventually did.

On another occasion, James and John sent their mother to ask Jesus for special treatment in paradise for her sons, requesting that they be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus in eternity.

To this, Jesus said to James and John, “You don’t know what you’re asking for. Can you drink the cup that I’m going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)

It was only when the Sons of Thunder responded, “Yes, we are capable,” that it became clear they had no idea what they were getting into. Jesus’ statement, “For the cup” (Hebrews 10:34) suggested a cup of suffering for Him. As He instructed His disciples in subsequent verses, “Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your slave; and whoever wishes to be second among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

The rivalry and ambition of James and John caused some dissension among the other disciples. Whether they considered themselves deserving of a higher ranking than the rest or simply enthusiastic about the prospect of “thrones in heaven” that they desired to be first in line, James and John again showed, demonstrating either ignorance of grace doctrine or a lack of humility, selflessness, and sacrifice in Christ’s heart and would yet further demonstrate on the cross. They would eventually, however.

According to John MacArthur in his book 12 Ordinary Men, “James (and John) wanted a crown of glory; Jesus gave them a cup of suffering. They desired power; Jesus offered servanthood instead. They desired prominence; Jesus permitted them to be martyrs.” (91)

Needless to say, James and John were passionate, ambitious, zealous Christians who well deserved Christ’s name of “Loving.” However, these characteristics were all able to be transformed by the light of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ kindness. When guided and perfected by the Spirit, these faults became strengths.

What Were They Known For / What Did They Do?

The bulk of what we know about James and John comes from the Gospels, where they frequently appear together. However, there are a few instances when James or John is mentioned alone; and his tale continued well beyond those documented in the gospels.

According to the Chronicle of Matthew and Mark, fourteen years after Christ’s ascension into heaven, James would be martyred, becoming the first of the twelve disciples to perish for his beliefs (Acts 12:1-2). In fact, he is the only one of Christ’s followers whose death is recorded in Scripture; and this is the only instance when James’ name appears alone. Herod Agrippa I decapitated him in Jerusalem fourteen years later.

James was a man of great zeal and passion, who allowed Christ to transmute his intensity into a zeal for the gospel. He was the first to encounter Christ in eternity due to his loyalty.

John, in contrast, would outlive the other apostles and be the final of the Twelve to die.

In his own gospel, John claims to be “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” (John 13:23). Not surprisingly, John was one of the disciples who saw Christ’s entire crucifixion when he was at the foot of the cross. During His dying breath, He assigned John responsibility for caring for His mother (Mary) (John 19:26-27). It tells us a lot about Jesus’ love for John that He entrusted Mary’s care to him rather than to one of his half-brothers or other disciples.

Others have interpreted John’s love as evidenced by his image of John “leaning on Jesus’ bosom,” suggesting that he was quiet, delicate, and serene. This was certainly not the case throughout his lifetime.

John, like his older brother, was as rough and tough, hot-tempered, combustible, aggressive, confident, and zealous as they came. Even those characteristics were transformed and refined after three years with Jesus to make John into an outspoken apostle rather than a thundering voice of thunder. It wasn’t natural; nevertheless, like grace and mercy, love was something he learned from Jesus.

John was a source of spiritual enlightenment for the early church. After Christ’s ascension, he went with Peter to heal and preach (Acts 3-4, 8), and he became a pillar of the Jerusalem Church later in his life. He wrote the Gospel of John, Epistles 1, 2, and 3 John, and the Revelation after being given divine revelation while on Patmos during exile.

John continued to preach, looking forward to the glory that awaited him in eternity, even though he was alone and no doubt devastated with grief at having outlived his brother, friends, and fellow apostles.

The Sons of Thunder may have acquired their name for their hot-tempered, fiery temperaments; but in the end, it was Christ’s never-ending love and grace that transformed James and John from the inside, leading to the Sons of Thunder becoming members of eternity bearing a new name: Jesus Christ.

Jesus’s last public address in Galilee may have been on humility. Immediately following Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the sermon, they go on to describe His final departure from his home province (Galilee) to journey south. “And it happened that when Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilaea and came into the country of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 19:1-2; Mk. 10:1). Although the authors do not provide any information about this trip, they do mention Christ’s journey to Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication, which occurred at the end of winter. John recorded this festival (Jn. 10:22-23), from which we learn that the Galilee departure was at least four months before Jesus’ crucifixion. Nonetheless, the trek was not without its share of drama. Luke preserved a few of these events in his Gospel (Lk. 9:51).

One of the events is recorded in the preceding text (Luke 9:51-56). The evangelist’s words seem to allude to the same journey from Galilee to the south, as he introduces his narrative. Matthew and Mark refer to this in passages that we have previously cited. Near the conclusion of His earthly ministry, Christ made a trip through Samaria “when the days were drawing near for His ascension.” The phrase “He set His face firmly toward Jerusalem” is a strong indication that Christ’s mission was moving from the north to the south.

The term “east” in the English translation of The Gospel According To St. Matthew (Matt 16:24) does not always refer to the physical direction He was heading, but also and primarily to His mental frame of mind at the time. He traveled toward Jerusalem, and from this moment forward, his duty would be located there. He would be a martyr who had dedicated himself to death. His face was stern, serious, and proud. It reflected the magnificent and noble aim that drove His heart.

It was only natural for Luke, Paul’s traveling companion and evangelist to the Gentiles, to carefully safeguard this story from Jesus’ final journey through Samaria. It served the goal that he had in mind throughout the period he was compiling his Gospel admirably. It perfectly reflected the Christian religion’s all-inclusiveness. As a result, he tucked it away in his basket so that it wouldn’t be forgotten. He included it in his Gospel in an ideal location – immediately after the tale of the exorcist.

We don’t have to go through the whole process of discussion, as we did in Chapter 25, because it happens right here. In any case, John is the narrator and one of two disciples of The Sons of Thunder who are involved in this scenario. This latest event, like the one before it, exhibits a striking contrast between the stern spirits of the followers and their Master’s kind, courteous nature. It is this contrast that generates moral interest in the narrative.

The center statement in the narrative is this: at the conclusion of a day’s journey, Jesus and His followers arrived at a certain Samaritan community. The residents of this village were asked to allow them to stay for the night. However, they refused. As a result, James and John approached their Lord with the idea that the offenders should be burned from heaven by fire.

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