“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 called His twelve disciples, He couldn’t have picked a more unlikely group of young men to walk in His footsteps.
Fishermen, political activists, loners, a tax collector, brothers, sons, and sinners. At first glance, they were as common as they come - ordinary, unlearned men who lived relatively unremarkable lives until Jesus called them to follow Him. Each been called to bear witness to the love, the glory, the teaching, and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and like all of us, their passion and personality needed to be trained, tempered, and tenderized by the Holy Spirit.
Of course, none of the Twelve was more in need of tempering than the often zealous, outspoken, fervent, and even thunderous sons of Zebedee, James and John, who Jesus affectionately, perhaps even admonishingly, nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.
Who Were the Sons of Thunder in the Bible?
Though the Sons of Thunder might seem more appropriate as a professional wrestling moniker, Jesus gave this nickname to two of his closet and most fervent disciples, bash brothers, James and John.
But who were James and John and what did they do to earn their respective nickname?
The gospels tell us that James and John were brothers, fishermen by trade (Matthew 4:18-22), partners with fellow disciple Peter (Luke 5:10), sons of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21), and some of the first to be called by Jesus. It is also probable that Salome, a woman listed among those who traveled with Jesus and one who brought spices to the tomb on the third day, was the mother of James and John (Mark 16:1; Matthew 27:56).
From the gospels, we can also assume that Zebedee, the father of James and John, was a man of some importance or prestige. He is, in fact, the only father listed by name (and often) among the Twelve (Matthew 20:20, 26:37; Mark 10:35; Luke 5:10; John 21:2). Furthermore, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, John writes in his gospel that he was “known to the high priest” and spoke to the doorkeeper to gain Peter access to the courtyard (John 18:15-16). Some biblical scholars believe that Zebedee’s standing could have extended from Galilee to Jerusalem, which would have afforded John the reputation to make such a request on Peter’s behalf.
As disciples, James and John were members of Jesus’ “inner circle” along with Peter. These three were invited into the room when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:37), they witnessed Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), were allowed to question Jesus privately on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13:3), and went further with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest than the others (Mark 14:33).
Both brothers saw much during their time with Jesus. As a result, much would be expected of them later in life (Luke 12:48). Both would go on to become bold, outspoken leaders in the early church, proclaiming the gospel wherever they went.
However, it is the passion and often fiery temperament of James and John that earned them their nickname and, above all, demonstrated the transforming love and grace of Jesus Christ, which they too would learn to submit to and adopt.
Where Did This Name Come From?
It’s difficult to know when exactly Jesus gave James and his younger brother John their infamous nickname. To be fair, James and John were not the only disciples to be given a new name intended to highlight an attribute Jesus wished to transform.
Simon also was given the name Peter, or “Rock” by Jesus. When Jesus wanted to admonish Peter for acting like his old, stubborn self, Jesus would often call him Simon. When Jesus wanted to encourage Peter to become more like the leader He knew He was capable of being, He called him Peter. Nicknames were used as both encouragement and reprove in these instances.
Similarly, it seems the Sons of Thunder were given a nickname designed to address a natural behavior Jesus sought to refine in James and John.
Of course, the only mention of the nickname is found in Mark’s gospel. We don’t know when the Sons of Thunder was first given as a nickname, though we have some idea of what kind of behavior might have prompted it.
For example, as Jesus and His disciples made their way to Jerusalem, they stopped in a village of the Samaritans (Luke 9:51). When the disciples went to make arrangements for the night, the Samaritans refused to receive them, continuing the tradition of inhospitality and disdain between the Jews and Samaritans.
Luke writes that when James and John saw that their lord had been disrespected, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). To this, Jesus rebuked the sons of Zebedee, saying, “you do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:55)
It’s clear that James and John felt justified, even righteous, in their indignation. The Samaritans had insulted Jesus. As Christ’s disciples, James and John felt it was their place to take a stand and make these disrespectful dogs pay, believing in arrogance that they had the power and authority to call down fire from heaven, as Elijah had once done.
After all, they had seen and heard from Jesus, James and John still failed to understand that Jesus had come to save, not destroy. His was a rescue mission, not one of judgment; and it was His blood that would be shed, not that of His enemies.
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, this errand of mercy hadn’t quite settled in with the sons of Zebedee. That is why Jesus immediately rebuked these fiery sons of thunder for wanting to incinerate an entire village instead of simply moving to another town, which they eventually did.
On another occasion, James and John would send their mother to petition Jesus for preferential treatment for her sons, asking that they be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus in eternity.
To this, Jesus asked James and John, “you do not know what you are asking. are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)
Though the Sons of Thunder replied, “yes, we are able,” it was clear they had no idea what they were signing up for. For “the cup” Jesus was referring to was a cup of suffering. As He would later tell His disciples, “whoever wants to become prominent among you shall be your servant, and whoever desires to be first 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.” (Matthew 20:26-28)
It comes as no surprise that the arrogance and ambition of James and John created a little bit of conflict amongst the rest of the disciples. Whether they felt they deserved a higher place of honor than the rest or were simply excited by the prospect of “thrones in heaven” that they wanted to be first in line, James and John demonstrated, yet again, that they did not understand the doctrine of grace or the heart of humility, selflessness, and sacrifice that Christ had embodied and would further embody on the cross. They would, however, in time.
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 wanted power; Jesus gave them servanthood. They wanted a place of prominence; Jesus gave them a martyr’s grave.” (91)
Needless to say, James and John were passionate, ambitious, fervent, enthusiastic, and zealous in their faith and well-deserving of Christ’s nickname. However, these were all qualities God was able to transform under the guiding light of the Holy Spirit and lovingkindness of Jesus Christ. When channeled and perfected by the Spirit, these weaknesses became strengths.
What Were They Known For / What Did They Do?
Most of what we know about James and John comes from the gospels, where they often appear in tandem. However, there are a few instances where James and John are mentioned individually; and for John, his story continued well beyond the events recorded in the gospels.
As mentioned, James would become the first of the twelve disciples to be martyred for his faith, fourteen years after Christ ascended into heaven (Acts 12:1-2). In fact, he is the only one of Christ’s disciples whose death is recorded in Scripture; and this is the only time James is mentioned separate from his brother John. James was likely beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in Jerusalem fourteen years later.
Passionate, outspoken, and unwavering to the end, James allowed Christ to transform His fervor into a passion for the gospel. For his faithfulness, he was the first to reunite with Christ in eternity.
John, on the other hand, would outlive the rest of the apostles and be the last of the Twelve to die.
In his own gospel, John describes himself as “the disciple, whom Jesus loved.” (John 13:23). Not coincidentally, John was also one of the only disciples to witness the full crucifixion of Jesus as he was there at the foot of the cross. There, as Jesus breathed His last, he gave John the responsibility of caring for His mother (Mary) (John 19:26-27). It says a lot about Jesus’ love for John to entrust the care of His own mother to John and not one His half-brothers or other disciples.
Now some have used descriptions of John’s love, coupled with the image of John “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” to suggest that John was soft-spoken, tender, and tranquil. For most of his life, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Like his older brother, John was as rough and tumble, hot-tempered, explosive, assertive, and zealous as they come. However, after three years with Jesus, even those qualities were reformed and transformed to turn John into an outspoken apostle, less of thunder but of love. It wasn’t natural, but love, like grace and mercy, was something he learned from Jesus.
After Christ’s ascension, John would travel with Peter, healing, and preaching (Acts 3-4, 8), and would eventually become a pillar of the Jerusalem church. He would go on to write the gospel of John, the epistles 1, 2, & 3 John, and in the later years of life, the book of Revelation, after receiving divine revelation of things to come while in exile on the island of Patmos.
Though alone and no doubt filled with grief, having outlived his brother, friends, and fellow apostles, John persisted in ministry, looking beyond his earthly sufferings in anticipation of the glory that awaited him in eternity.
The Sons of Thunder may have earned their nickname for their hot-tempered, fiery disposition; but in the end, it was the never-ending love and grace of Jesus Christ that transformed James and John from within, leading the Sons of Thunder into eternity bearing a new name, the name of Jesus Christ, welcomed in and invited to sit at Christ’s table as beloved, redeemed, and perfected friends of God.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Trifonov_Evgeniy
Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.