Jesus Christ – A Family Portrait
It was the will of the Heavenly Father that Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, should grow up within a human family environment. A consideration of the biblical data of this arrangement reveals some interesting and rewarding details.
The Family Unit
The apostle Matthew provides us with a snapshot of the Lord’s human family:
And coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brothers, James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? (Matthew 13:54-56). [Note: the plural feminine adjective “all” in this final sentence may imply more than two sisters.]
Let us briefly reflect upon these family members.
One must conclude that Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was an extraordinarily devout Hebrew inasmuch as he obviously was selected providentially to be the foster-father of baby Jesus from among the thousands of available Israelite men.
Matthew depicts Joseph as a “righteous” man (1:19). He was “betrothed” to Mary, a young Jewish virgin. Betrothal involved a prenuptial contract which was generally formalized by physical marriage after about a year. The couple was considered legally married before the union was consummated (1:24-25), and a sexual breach of the betrothal was judged adulterous and subject to the most serious consequence (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
When Mary’s pregnancy was effected, Joseph was troubled about the matter, obviously not persuaded initially that a miracle had occurred. Nonetheless, he was a compassionate soul and was not willing to publicly expose Mary; but he seriously considered putting her away discretely (Matthew 1:19b). When he was informed in a dream of the true nature of the conception, he “arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took unto him his wife” (v. 24). Joseph was an obedient soul.
Luke records that it “came to pass in those days,” i.e., the days when Mary was near to the delivery of her holy child, that Augustus Caesar issued a decree that a Roman subject should adjourn to “his own city” for taxation purposes. It is rather amazing, in view of Mary’s condition, that she accompanied Joseph on a seventy-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem (either by walking or by donkey). While Mary was obligated to pay taxes “it was not required for her to go and do so in person” (Geldenhuys 1956, 100).
It is entirely possible that both Joseph and Mary were aware of Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah was to be born at Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; cf Matthew 2:4-6), and thus yielded to the prophetic declaration. What courage and devotion beat within the hearts of this couple!
After the birth of the precious child, when the brutish Herod the Great resolved to search out and murder the baby, Joseph was warned in a dream: “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt” (Matthew 2:13). Immediately the yielding husband arose, took the baby and Mary, fled Bethlehem in the dead of night (the most dangerous time for travel), and began the 150 mile journey to Egypt. Does not the submissive confidence of this devout couple shine with brilliance?
The final time the Bible student encounters Joseph alive has to do with the family’s journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem to observe the annual Passover, a dozen years after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:41). During those early years Joseph had trained young Jesus in the carpentry business (Mark 6:3). The rabbis taught that to rear a son without teaching him a trade was to bring him up as a robber.
Joseph also saw to it that his “son” had regular religious instruction. We later learn that it was the Lord’s habitual “custom” to attend the synagogue service on the Sabbath. He could both read the Hebrew Bible and locate specific texts (Luke 4:16-17)! Although we happily acknowledge that Mary was “highly favored” (Luke 1:28) (though never treated as “Mother of God” or “Queen of Heaven”), we must not forget the contributions of Joseph as well.
One can only marvel at the qualities that must have adorned this Hebrew maiden, who likely was in her early teens. The rabbis placed the minimum age for a girl’s marriage at twelve (thirteen for the boy). She exhibited great faith for one so tender (reflect back upon the arduous journeys previously sketched). We are constrained to look closer at Mary under a magnifying lens.
When this Jewish girl was addressed by the angel Gabriel and informed that she was “highly favored” by the Lord God (Luke 1:26ff), she was “greatly troubled” about the nature of the statement. She was both confused and worried. But the angel cautioned, “Fear not”—or more literally, “Stop being afraid.” When she was told she would conceive a son, she was puzzled because she had never been intimate with a man (v. 34).
Mary was instructed that the event would be supernatural. Her response was amazing. First, she acknowledged that she was prepared to be the “handmaid” (“bondmaid” ASVfn) of the Lord (vv. 38, 48), i.e., a slave to do her Lord’s will—her own interests thrust aside. Second, she confidently petitioned, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” Such a resolution in the hearts of men would renovate the entire world! This was the “bud” of courage and commitment that would be seen in its “full bloom” at the foot of the cross.
It was Mary, with the heart of a fretful mother, who out of frustration rebuked the twelve-year-old boy after he had lagged behind in Jerusalem and made his way into the temple where he engaged the professional teachers in stimulating dialogue (Luke 2:46). “Son,” she asked, “why have you treated us in this way? Your father and I have been looking for you with painful sorrow” (v. 48). The following text contains the first recorded words of the Savior: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49; or, “about my Father’s affairs?” – cf. KJV). The questions express some surprise that his parents, at this point, did not fully appreciate the relationship that he sustained to his heavenly Father (v. 50). Nonetheless, Mary would treasure these things “in her heart” for future reflection (cf. v. 19). His mother would progressively appreciate his Messianic role, culminating in that day when she watched him die, and a “sword” would pierce through her soul (v. 35).
There was an intriguing incident near the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry. Mary and Jesus, along with his disciples, were in attendance at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. When the wine ran out, Mary approached her son and suggestively said, “They have no wine.” What was the motive behind her request? Clearly she wanted her son to ameliorate the embarrassing situation.
But was there more? Did she want him to demonstrate supernatural power? She had not seen such before (John 2:11), but is it not possible that she was aware of Old Testament prophecy relating to the Messiah’s miraculous powers (Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6). There is no question but that she was subtly suggesting that her son do something, and one must reverently note that she was out of order—as indicated by the Lord’s response: “Woman, what have I to do with you?”
In the Greek Testament the language is obscure. Literally it is: “What to me and you?” Or, more to our mode of expression: “What do you and I have in common regarding this matter?” He politely but firmly rebuked her. Lovely as she was, she had stepped beyond her place. She realized it; hence, meekly said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Surely this was a defining point in Mary’s thinking.
Misdirected Family Members
Later in his ministry, Jesus was teaching near the Sea of Galilee (Mark 3:7). Because of his miracles, a great crowd followed him. After a private time, during which he selected the twelve apostles, he entered a nearby house; but the crowd so thronged the residence that they could not even take time for food (v. 20). The older translations follow with this rendition: “And when his friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on him” (v. 21a). Of special interest is the term “friends.” The original text has three words—
hoi par’ autou, literally, “the beside him ones.” This expression was used in several senses; in this case almost certainly for “family” (cf. NIV; ESV) or his “own people” (NKJB). This seems firmly supported by the subsequent context which references Mary and Jesus’ brothers (vv. 31ff).
They attempted to “lay hold on him” because they said, “He is beside himself”—or “he is out of his mind” (ESV; note the word’s contrast with a “sound mind” in 2 Corinthians 5:13). It seems that Mary and her other children (cf. Matthew 13:55) wanted to save Jesus from himself! Did they believe he had lost his balance due to his increasing popularity? Whatever their motive, they revealed a lack of appreciation for the urgency of his mission, and they were fueled by a misguided zeal. The Lord’s evaluation of the effort was most revealing (vv. Mark 3:31-35).
The events of the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel transpire in the autumn prior to the Savior’s death the following spring (7:2). The Lord was teaching in Galilee, for it was not safe in Judea; the Jews there were plotting his fate. He knew he soon must die, but his “hour” was not yet come.
The feast of tabernacles was approaching and there would be vast crowds in Jerusalem. The half-brothers of Jesus therefore took it upon themselves to challenge him to go into Judea. The purpose would be “so that your disciples also may behold the works you are doing” (v. 3). John unhesitatingly reveals that “his brothers did not believe on him” (v. 5). The verb is an imperfect tense, suggesting that their unbelief was ongoing. Moreover, that chilly and distant “your disciples” clearly implied they were not in that category. What, therefore, was their motive in this dare that he not remain “in secret,” i.e., in the more obscure Galilee; rather, he should advance “openly” into Judea?
Some suggest these brothers wanted to put the Lord to the test for their own spiritual benefit. “If” he truly could perform the “works” which he claimed, and of which others spoke, let him “manifest” himself in the most public way. Note that hypothetical “if” (v. 4b). Thus, if he could demonstrate his miraculous works on the Judean public, these brothers likewise would be constrained to believe and therefore be counted among the disciples.
Others suggest that the motive was more crass and grandiose. Though they did not endorse his Messianic claim, clearly crowds thrust themselves upon him wherever he went. Why not then go where the greatest concentration of the populous would be—at Jerusalem for the coming feast? Perhaps he would be proclaimed as a great political leader of sorts, just as had been attempted a few months earlier (John 6:15). If so, as brothers, they might share in the resultant benefits of royalty.
Whatever the motive, it appears to have been less than noble, illustrating the Savior’s earlier observation that a prophet is not honored in “his own house” (Matthew 13:57). At least, however, they had not disowned him. There still was hope, as later events would demonstrate.
Lenski makes an important observation when he addresses the testimony of the brothers’ unbelief. A fabricator of the narrative certainly would have eliminated such an embarrassing fact as this, or modified it in some way, so as to nullify this rather negative detail in the ministry of Jesus. The fact that it appears in its unvarnished frankness is strong evidence of the integrity of the sacred narrative (1943, 532).
When the disciples met in the upper room following the ascension of Christ, both Mary and Jesus’ brothers were present (Acts 1:13-14), and the whole company was in “one accord,” and in prayer. Clearly the brothers had abandoned their unbelief. What could have effected such a dramatic change? Obviously the Lord’s resurrection from the dead! (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:7). James later became a prominent influence in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13, 19), and composed the epistle that bears his name (James 1:1). Another brother, Judas (Jude), penned the next-to-last book of the New Testament.
At the Cross
Of all the family members, Mary alone was at the cross when her son died. No sons stood by to embrace a sobbing mother; no daughters to encourage a pierced heart (cf. Luke 2:35). Only a sister, Salome, and a nephew, John. (There are three lists of the women who were at the cross [Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25]. A comparison of these leads to the probable conclusion that Mary’s "sister” is to be identified as Salome, the mother of James and John [Barclay 1959, 29-30].) But of the inner family, only Mary was rugged enough to go all the way. What a tough woman of fortitude she had become!
Significantly, the Lord did not commend the subsequent care of his precious mother to his brothers, which is perfectly understandable in view of their lack of faith thus far (cf. John 7:5). Surely this is one of those undesigned coincidences that stamps the biblical record with the ring of authenticity.
Thus we have it. In a rather abbreviated fashion is a biographical portrait of the family of Jesus Christ. As one inspects the linguistic imagery, he is filled with amazement and joy at the details revealed.
- Barclay, William. 1959. The Master’s Men. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
- Geldenhuys, Norval. 1956. Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1943. The Interpretation of John’s Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.