“The Brothers of Jesus: Loving the Unbelieving Relative,” Ensign, Mar. 1987, 50
Many of us have a father or mother, husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter who rejects the gospel we hold so precious. Many compassionate and helpful sermons have been given on how best to handle this situation, but I have never heard one that attempted to examine how the Savior dealt with that problem in his own family.
Certainly the scriptural record is skimpy, and doubtless Jesus addressed many gracious acts and words to his unbelieving brothers that are not recorded in the surviving accounts of his earthly ministry. Nevertheless, we can learn much from the few incidents that have been preserved and from the final outcome of Jesus’ labors with his family.
Mark 6:3 tells us that Jesus had four younger brothers and at least two sisters, the children of Mary and Joseph. The sisters’ names have not been preserved, but the brothers were called James (in the Hebrew, Jacob), Joses (in the Hebrew, Joseph, after his father), Simon, and Judas or Juda (also known as Jude). (See also Matt. 13:55.)
Although there is no scriptural evidence for it, tradition claims that when Mary’s husband died, her eldest son, Jesus, took over his business and supported the family until his brothers and sisters were married or independent. Even if that were not true, by the time Jesus was thirty, evidently his mother was a widow, and as the oldest male in the family, Jesus was sought out when there were important family matters to consider, even after he had given up his carpenter tools and engaged full-time in his ministry. (See Matt. 12:46–47.)
They were a close family. After the marriage at Cana (because of Mary’s and Jesus’ roles at the feast, the wedding was most likely that of a close relative), the whole family accompanied Jesus and his earliest disciples to nearby Capernaum, where they stayed for a short time. (See John 2:1–12.)
The first weeks of Jesus’ ministry were full of glorious successes. Luke says of the Savior’s first missionary journey, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.” (Luke 4:14.)
Yet, when Jesus returned to Nazareth and declared his Messiahship to his former friends and neighbors, the response was uniformly hostile. The congregation became so angry at his claims that they attempted to cast him off a cliff. He escaped, but it is not recorded that any brother’s voice or hand was raised in his defense. (See Luke 4:16–30.) The sad truth is that, despite their exposure to his words and his works, “neither did his brethren believe in him.” (John 7:5.)
Months later, during a second missionary journey through Galilee, Jesus revisited Nazareth. Although he had established himself as a prophet and a healer whose name had become well known in the land, the Nazarenes’ response was so derisive that he exclaimed, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4; italics added.)
We can only imagine the degree of Jesus’ pain at this rejection by those he loved. Perhaps we get some glimpse of it on one occasion when his mother and brothers interrupted a meeting at which he was teaching the gospel. We don’t know the reason for the interruption, but his family may have wanted Jesus to attend to some family matter they felt was important.
“Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for the press.
“And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee.
“And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.” (Luke 8:19–21.)
Some have considered Jesus’ words to be harsh. But the Savior knew what his family did not yet fully realize—that the bonds of faith and covenant are stronger than the bonds of blood, and that his role as eldest son in the family, which they honored, was of little significance compared to his role as Savior and Redeemer.
He was, in fact, saying to them no more than what Abinadi had said almost two hundred years earlier. Speaking of the Christ who should come, Abinadi taught:
“When his soul has been made an offering for sin he shall see his seed. And now what say ye? And who shall be his seed?
“Behold I say unto you, that whosoever has heard the words of the prophets, … all those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins, I say unto you, that these are his seed.” (Mosiah 15:10–11.)
The Savior’s disappointment and pain at the faithlessness of his earthly brothers were much more poignantly revealed at Calvary. From the cross, Jesus looked down at his distraught mother weeping together with a small cluster of disciples. She had four other sons, yet apparently none were present to comfort her. Evidently none were disciples, committed to love God and one another and to follow the way he had taught. Only his beloved John was by her. What mixed feelings Jesus must have had when he declared to his mother: “Woman, behold thy son!
“Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” (John 19:26–27.)
But that is not the end of the story. Before considering what we might learn from the Savior’s experience, we need to follow the course of his brothers’ lives after the Crucifixion.
Paul relates that after the risen Christ had appeared to Peter, then to the other Apostles, and then to five hundred of the worthy brethren, Jesus appeared also to his brother James. (See 1 Cor. 15:5–7.)
The details of that reunion are not available to us, but the results are. James and his brothers responded as did Saul of Tarsus and Alma the Younger and the four sons of Mosiah. The brothers not only repented, but they became committed servants of Christ—their eldest brother—and eventually powerful leaders in the early church.
Immediately following the ascension of Christ, the Apostles returned to Jerusalem to the home of John Mark’s mother: “When they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.”
Then Luke makes this revealing observation: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” (Acts 1:13–14.)
At last, the brothers of the Lord had taken upon themselves his name and become, in very truth, members of his family!
James quickly rose to a position of leadership. Indeed, Paul implies that James became an Apostle. Three years after his conversion, about A.D. 38, Paul traveled to Jerusalem to meet with a few church leaders. He wrote of that experience:
“I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
“But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.” (Gal. 1:18–19.)
At another time during a period of intense persecution, Herod killed James the brother of John and imprisoned Peter. (See Acts 12:1–4.) When an angel came and freed the chief Apostle, he fled immediately to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where some of the disciples were gathered together praying. After describing his escape, Peter instructed them to “go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren.” (Acts 12:7–17.)
A few years later, Paul and Barnabus attended a council at Jerusalem concerning Jewish requirements for gentile Christians. Only Peter seems to have had a more influential position at the meeting than James, and James was the one who proposed the final accepted solution. (See Acts 15:6–31.)
Paul, in referring to that event, wrote of “James, Cephas [i.e., Peter], and John, who seemed to be pillars.” (Gal. 2:9.) Quite possibly, James the brother of the Lord filled the position in the church leadership left vacant by the death of that other James who had served with Peter and John.
Whatever his exact position in the early church government, we treasure James’s general epistle to the church. The former nonbeliever wrote—most likely from his own painful yet glorious experience with his resurrected brother—“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5.)
In that epistle, he identifies himself not as the brother of the Lord, but as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 1:1.) Though others referred to him, Jude, Simon, and Joses as “the brethren of the Lord,” James himself was loath to assert his special kinship, preferring to be known as a servant of Christ.
In a similar vein, another of the four brothers opens his epistle with “Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James.” (Jude 1:1.) We know little about Jude except what we learn from his epistle. Most impressively, Jude demonstrates a keen perception of his elder brother as the past and future Lord—the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt and who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Lord who will come in the last days to execute judgment upon all. (See Jude 1:5, 7, 14–15.)
From his denunciation of certain kinds of apostasy, we also know that his letter was one of the later epistles in the New Testament. In his lifetime, Jude stood firm with Peter and Paul in fighting the rising tide of heresy that threatened to destroy the church.
All four brothers, family members who had once looked at Jesus as their elder brother only, were able to accept him as the Lord and the Son of God. What great joy there must have been in heaven, and especially for the Savior, over these four brothers, each of whom repented.
It is true that the Savior’s family was unique. No other family has had to come to terms with their close relative turning out to be the Redeemer of mankind. But in another sense, every converted person who deeply loves his or her unbelieving spouse or relative suffers as Jesus suffered over his faithless brothers. And, as did Jesus of Nazareth, every disciple can love truly and well, with hope and patience.
We must never lose sight of the eternal realities—the worth of each soul, the inviolability of each soul’s agency, and the universality of the plan of salvation. Above all, we must never give up.
It is well to remember that those of whom it was once written “Neither did his brethren believe in him” ended by designating themselves servants “of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So it may be for our Jameses and our Judes, our Sauls and our Almas, and all of their female counterparts. In a personal, intimate way, Jesus himself suffered so that he is able to succor them that also suffer. (See Heb. 2:18; Alma 7:12.)