Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Jesus and Family Relationships

There is a strain of teaching in the gospels which notes how spiritual unity in Jesus is more important than family ties. Jesus said he came with a sword, "to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:35–38). When his own earthly family came to talk to Him, not understanding fully His mission, Jesus replied, "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward 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 12:48–50).

With these comments, it can sound like the earthly family does not play much of a role in the New Testament. Sometimes these verses are used to critique an emphasis on restoring Christian families in line with God's word and treating the family as a basic institution. Now, these verses are important, but their target is not pastors who teach Christians to be good spouses and parents, respecting the household as a basic institution and equipping it to serve as God's instrument. Rather their target is situations where the claims of family and Christ are set against each other, for example, when a person is tempted to compromise in order to please a family member. When the church and the family are pulling in opposite directions, then our true home is in the church; when Jesus and the family are both seeking you ultimate loyalty, then you must follow Jesus. The same with yourself - when your desires and Jesus' words conflict, you must follow Jesus rather than yourself.

There is another strain of biblical teaching which emphasizes the importance of the household and family relationships. The household is generally incorporated into the covenant as a unit (Genesis 17:1-14, Acts 16:31-34), relationships with unbelieving family members are sanctified by believers, and the children of believers are holy (1 Cor. 7:14), parental instruction is a vital means of passing on the faith to children (Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4), and family duties are an important part of Christian growth and faithfulness (Col. 3:18-4:1, Eph. 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:18-7).

It is true that Jesus prioritized His heavenly Father and spiritual family over His earthly family, but the extent to which He worked along with natural family relationships in His ministry is often overlooked. Remember that John the Baptist was a relative (their mothers were cousins of some sort, Luke 1:36). We find that when Jesus died, among the women who followed him was not only his mother, but also his mother's sister. Comparing the gospels, it is quite possible Mary's sister was Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of the apostles James and John (John 19:25, Matt. 27:56, Mark 15:40), which would make John and James the cousins of Jesus. We know for certain that Jesus included two pairs of brothers among his apostles (Matt. 4:18-22), and that the mother of James and John followed Christ (Matt. 27:56), and that Peter's mother-in-law served Jesus after He healed her (Mark 1:29-31).

Jesus Himself had sisters and four brothers, most likely younger siblings from Mary and Joseph, though some have speculated that they were step-siblings from a prior marriage of Joseph's. As the people of Nazareth said of Jesus, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3). While His brothers at first did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5), Mary and His brothers were believing members of the initial church before Pentecost (Acts 1:14). James would become a significant leader in the Jerusalem church, even being referred to as one of the apostles (Gal. 1:19) and playing an important role in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13-22). Jesus' brothers James and Jude (short for Judas) both wrote the books of the Bible bearing their names. They recognized that Jesus was not merely a brother - they respectfully called themselves servants of Jesus - being well known enough that little further identification was needed: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1), "Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James" (Jude 1:1). Hegesippus, a 2nd century church history, recounted that Jesus' brother James was killed for his faith shortly before the fall of Jerusalem. He also recounted that Jesus' brother Jude had grandsons who were arrested under Emperor Domitian because they were of the royal line of David, but were released after explaining the true nature of Christ's kingdom (i.e. they would not try to take David's throne by force) and became leaders of the churches because of their testimony and because they were of the Lord's family.

These apostles and brothers that followed Jesus also followed Him with their wives. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that he was unmarried, but that this was an exception to the general practice: "Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [i.e. Peter]?" (1 Corinthians 9:5). These other apostles and Jesus' brothers had believing wives who traveled with them as they spread the gospel. Is that the picture you have in mind when you think of them fulfilling the Great Commission? There were stories in the early church, mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150 – 215), that not only did Peter have children by his wife, but that "when the blessed Peter saw his own wife led out to die, he rejoiced because of her summons and her return home, and called to her very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, and saying, 'Remember the Lord.' Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their perfect disposition toward those dearest to them" (Clement of Alexandria, recorded by Eusebius, The Church History, 3.30).

In short, there is an important message for us in Scripture to prioritize Jesus above all, even above the most dear of earthly relationships. Some people are tempted to compromise the faith to keep their children or spouse. Some people receive hatred and alienation from their family members for following Christ. Yet, family and Christ are not always at odds. God often works through natural relationships of family and the household. While families can be divided by Christ, they can also be brought together as a powerful force for good within the church. Even Jesus' family became an important part of the early church, even though at one point it was divided by Jesus' claims and sought to interrupt His ministry. May we pray that God would show similar grace to unbelieving family members, and may we serve the Lord more and more by fulfilling our family duties. May we find hope from where Scripture says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31), and may our households respond by being baptized together (Acts 16:15, 34, 1 Cor. 1:16), believing together (Acts 18:8), and serving together (1 Cor. 16:15).

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