Let’s read the Gospel account of Jesus recruiting His disciples. We’ll look at the first three guys and skip the rest:
“He appointed twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. 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: 14-17 NIV).
So there we have Jesus doing His appointing and name-calling. We dealt with Peter in Why Did Jesus Change Simon’s Name to Peter? Now we take a closer look at the next two disciples.
Why did Jesus give James and John the nicknames “Sons of Thunder”?
Because they were loud? Jesus found His first four disciples at the lakeshore. The Gospel of Mark says:
“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen” (Mark 1: 16, NIV).
Simon and Andrew decided to follow Jesus. The story continues:
“When He had gone a little farther, He saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him” (Mark 1: 19-20, NIV).
The Gospel of Luke tells us they all worked for the same small fishing business, perhaps run by Zebedee. James and John, we are told in Luke 5: 9, were “Simon’s partners.”
Reflecting on Peter, James, and John, Pastor Donald J. Gettys of McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church in McDonald, Tennessee, writes, “Isn’t it interesting and natural that these life-long friends, these three buddies, became the closest companions to Jesus? The partnership continued as they went into the fishing for men industry.”
As fishermen, they were probably loud-mouthed. One Internet commentator points out, “Perhaps as fishermen they had to shout across the water, or from water to shore or vice-versa. They may have had naturally loud voices or learned how to project their voices.”
The Aramaic term Jesus used for “Sons of Thunder” was Boanerges, which now refers to a loud fiery preacher, especially one with a powerful voice.
Another commentator wrote, “There is nothing slight or gentlemanly about these guys! They worked the night shift on boats, throwing out nets and cranking them in by hand. No compass, no electric lights, no glass windows, no motor, no radar, no fish-finder. Maybe a sail, but other than that, oars. NO WOMEN in sight, so you don’t have to watch your mouth when your brother slaps you upside the head with a wet net.”
So the term “boisterous” applies. It not only means noisy and lively, but also turbulent or stormy.
Because they were dancers? Sydney Carter wrote a hymn called “Lord of the Dance” in which the life of Christ is depicted as a series of acts in a play or musical. The song contains these lines:
I danced for the fisherman,
For James and John.
They came to me
And the dance went on.
All dance routines today require choreography and special lighting. As a kid during the disco years, I wrote a poem illustrating this:
Flashing on and off;
Feel the heat,
The flickering lights on the dance floor resemble flashes of lightning during a thunderstorm. Maybe James and John were dance partners.
Because they struck quickly? When James and John saw someone doing something in Jesus’ name, they immediately wanted to stop the guy, as if they were trying to prevent trademark infringement:
“‘Master,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.’ ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said, ‘for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9: 49-50, NIV).
James and John were just protecting Jesus and His good name, but John’s stormy heart almost prevented someone from doing good in the name of the Lord.
Well, I did find one race in the Bible that might apply.
Mary Magdalene told Peter and John that tomb of Jesus was empty. The race was on! Who do you think won the race – the Rock or the Son of Thunder? Let’s find out:
“Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. They ran side by side, until the other disciple ran faster than Peter and got there first. He bent over and saw the strips of linen cloth lying inside the tomb, but he did not go in. When Simon Peter got there, he went into the tomb and saw the strips of cloth. He also saw the piece of cloth that had been used to cover Jesus’ face. It was rolled up and in a place by itself. The disciple who got there first then went into the tomb, and when he saw it, he believed” (John 20: 3-8, NIV).
Yep, the Son of Thunder won. He let Peter go into the tomb first, though, because he was a nice guy. He let the Rock investigate what was behind the rock that had been rolled away at the tomb.
Because they had gas? I don’t know exactly what the disciples ate. If I did, I’d write a book called “The Disciples’ Diet.” It would contain all the secrets that Jesus taught His followers about keeping fit and trim. Actually, I do know they ate bread and fish (that’s how Jesus fed the 5,000) and they drank wine (Jesus turned water into wine at a party, and during the Last Supper, Jesus shared a cup of wine with the disciples after He had broken bread with them). I’m thinking they must have eaten beans, too. Those can cause flatulence in some people. Maybe James and John were affected. Perhaps their gas came out in a loud burst, like thunder. Perhaps I’d better move on to another reason.
Because they had thunderous tempers? Jesus planned to go from Galilee to Jerusalem via Samaria. The Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, and most Jews went all the way around Samaria just to avoid the place. Jesus, though, decided to go right through that land:
“As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And He sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for Him; but the people there did not welcome Him, because He was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then He and His disciples went to another village” (Luke 9: 51-56, NIV).
The Samaritans refused to offer hospitality to Jesus and His disciples! How dare they! This caused James and John to “blow up” and they wanted God to blow up Samaria! They wanted God to rain down fire – that sounds like thunder and lightning to me! Talk about fiery speech! They were hot-tempered! They were firebrands!
How did Jesus rebuke them? Here’s how a different translation presents the end of the story: “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9:56, NKJV).
Or maybe Christ knew Greek mythology. One scholar actually thinks that James and John were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” based on ancient myths. This scholar says, “this is a classic Greek mimesis (literary copy) based on Castor and Polydeuces [or Pollux], who were by birth the sons of Laertes, but were renamed sons of Zeus, the Thunderer.” Honestly, do you think James and John were named for the twins in the constellation Gemini? Their father was Zebedee, not Zeus. (Zeus was the supreme god of the ancient Greeks; he supposedly lived atop Mount Olympus, from which he hurled thunderbolts to announce his anger. Maybe Zeus and Thor are one and the same.)
As noted above, James and John asked Jesus if they could throw down fire from heaven. This leads some to speculate that maybe James and John thought of themselves as some kind of gods – maybe Greek, maybe Roman, maybe even Norse.
Because they wanted thunderous applause? They were cocky, they sought power, and the storm of personal ambition raged in them. Both Matthew and Mark record an interesting conversation regarding these two disciples. We’ll look at Mark’s version:
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, will you do us a favor?’ Jesus asked them what they wanted, and they answered, ‘When you come into your glory, please let one of us sit at your right side and the other at your left.’ Jesus told them, ‘You don’t really know what you’re asking! Are you able to drink from the cup that I must soon drink from or be baptized as I must be baptized?’ ‘Yes, we are!’ James and John answered. Then Jesus replied, ‘You certainly will drink from the cup from which I must drink. And you will be baptized just as I must! But it isn’t for me to say who will sit at my right side and at my left. That is for God to decide.’ When the ten other disciples heard this, they were angry with James and John” (Mark 10: 35-41, CEV).
In Matthew’s version, Salome (the mother of James and John) is the one who makes this request (Matthew 20: 20-28).
In any case, it shows their arrogance. They wanted the accolades of Jesus and the other disciples (but the other guys were not thrilled; they were jealous). At that point, none of them understood the Kingdom of God. There was no thunderous applause at the table.
Because they thundered out the Gospel and had stormy lives? Just as thunder and lightning unleash power, James and John became bold, intense followers of Christ. Thunder is actually a symbol of the voice of God. Here are some examples:
“The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded” (Psalm 18: 13, NIV).
When His death was drawing near, Jesus said:
“Now I am deeply troubled, and I don’t know what to say. But I must not ask my Father to keep me from this time of suffering. In fact, I came into the world to suffer. So Father, bring glory to yourself. A voice from heaven then said, ‘I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again!’ When the crowd heard the voice, some of them thought it was thunder. Others thought an angel had spoken to Jesus” (John 12: 27-29, CEV).
James and John echoed that thunderous voice, boldly proclaiming the Gospel. This got them into trouble. Recall that Jesus told them, “You certainly will drink from the cup from which I must drink” (Mark 10: 39, CEV). Well, they did indeed share in His suffering.
James became the first apostle to die for the faith. This happened 14 years after the prophecy quoted above. The growth of the Church was irritating the Jews, so to appease them King Herod Agrippa I (son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great) decided to persecute the Christians in AD 44. The Book of Acts tells us that James was a lightning rod:
“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the Church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword” (Acts 12: 1-2, NIV).
John, on the other hand, was the last of the apostles to die. John was a part of the church in Jerusalem and shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, he moved to Ephesus (in modern day Turkey.) Tradition tells us that John became a pastor of the church at Ephesus and later was in charge of all the churches in Asia Minor. He wrote the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and Revelation. That last one (and I do mean the last one in the Bible) John wrote while he was exiled as a prisoner on the Island of Patmos. He says so himself:
“I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9, NIV).
He was set free in AD 96 and returned to Ephesus. He died of natural causes in the second century, long after the other disciples had died.
The Holy Spirit transformed John from a hot-headed firebrand into “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (that’s how he refers to himself in the Gospel he wrote). The same guy who wanted fire from heaven to destroy people gave us the most-quoted Bible verse of all time: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3: 16, NKJV).