The Son Of Thunder
February 7th, 1965 @ 7:30 PM
THe Son of Thunder
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-7-65 7:30 p.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the evening message entitled The Son of Thunder. It is a sermon on the life of the apostle John. Not as the text but as a context that you will find illustrated in his life, turn to the ninth chapter of the Book of Luke. The ninth chapter of the Book of Luke, and let us read out loud together verse 40 through verse 58—through verse 56; 40 through 56 of the ninth chapter of the Book of Luke. And if you who listen to the radio, over WRR, would like to read it out loud with us, do it. Get your Bible, and in this great throng here tonight in this auditorium, we shall read these two incidents in the life of John. The Gospel of Luke, chapter 9, beginning at verse 40 reading through verse 56, now out loud together. “And John answered and said,” Luke 9, have you got Luke 9? The ninth chapter of Luke, verse 40 . . . 40, 40 through 56. Out loud now, together:
And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name; and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us.
And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.
And it came to pass, when the time was come that He should be received up, He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem,
And sent messengers before His face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for Him.
And they did not receive Him, because His face was as though He would go to Jerusalem.
And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt Thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?
But He turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.
For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
Now the text is in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
And He went up into a mountain, and called unto Him whom He would…
And He ordained twelve, that they should be with Him,
and He sent them forth to preach, And to have power over sickness, and to cast out devils:
And Simon He surnamed Peter—
Cephas, “a rock”—
And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; He surnamed them Boanerges—
That’s the best that a Greek translation could do with the Hebrew “The sons of thunder” [Mark 3:17]. Ben, you know, in Hebrew is a son, ben—Benjamin, Ben Hur—bene would be “sons of,” and regesh is “thunder.” And when they took that Hebrew and put it in Greek, and then out of Greek into English, it comes out here: “And He surnamed them Boanerges”: Bene-regesh, “the sons of thunder” [Mark 3:17].
And this presentation tonight is a following through of the life of John, “the son of thunder” [Mark 3:17]. His background is Galilean [Mark 1:16-20]. And as you find often in the fabric and the community of a nation, the people who are farther away from the capital are more fanatically nationalistic than even the people are in the capital. I found that in Japan, down there in Kyushu, the last prefecture in Kagoshima. They had a fanatical nationalism—far greater, in the Second World War, against the United States than they did in Tokyo. It was so in Galilee!
Galilee was a little part of Palestine, a part of Israel, about fifty miles from north to south and about thirty miles from east to west, and all of it lying west of the Sea of Galilee. And they were filled with Zealots: men who were bitterly opposed to the Roman yoke and who kept the ferment for liberty and freedom. The great movement that destroyed the nation began in Galilee when it was run over by the Roman legions in 70 AD. In 6 AD, Gamaliel speaks of Judas the Galinite, Judas of Galilee. He was a fiery, eloquent speaker, and he said, “We have no lord and master but God.” And he, by his eloquence, so stirred up the Galileans that they revolted against Rome, and the legions not only killed him but slaughtered so many of his followers.
When Jesus was a lad, about nineteen years of age, Sepphoris, a city nearby, was accused of harboring traitors against Rome. And the Roman legions came and crucified every citizen in the town. The fanatics of Galilee were constantly stirring up the spirit of the Jew against Rome, and in that seething ferment, John grew up.
Now, he was a disciple of the Baptist, John the Baptist. And John the Baptist was anything else but and beside a quiet, docile, anemic preacher. Jesus referred to him as a burning, a flaming, and a shining light! [John 5:35]. And He gives us an example of the preaching of John the Baptist. John the Baptist preached and he said, “For the ax is laid at the root of the tree. And any tree that brings not forth good fruit is going to be hewn down, and cast into the fire” [Matthew 3:10]. Then he introduced Jesus: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire” [Matthew 3:11]; the judgment of God. And then he said, “The Lord is going to gather all of His wheat into the barn, but He is going to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” [Matthew 3:12]. And John was a disciple of the great Baptist who preached fire and the judgment of God!
Now he was ordained here to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. And he was not only close to the Lord by kinship; John’s mother was named Salome, and Salome was the sister of Mary. So James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were cousins, first cousins of the Lord Jesus by blood, and when they were ordained as apostles, James and John here [Mark 3:17], they immediately were introduced into the inner circle of the family around the Lord.
When the Lord raised Jairius’ daughter from the dead, He took with Him Peter, James, and John, that inner three [Mark 5:22-23, 37-42]. When the Lord was transfigured He had with Him, James, Peter, and John on top of the mountain [Mark 9:2-4]. And when the Lord gave His great apocalyptic discourse, in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, it was an answer to a private question by Peter, James, and John [Mark 13:3]. And when the Lord entered into Gethsemane, He took with Him that same inner three, Peter, James, and John [Mark 14:32-33]. And of those three, two of them were friends until death—Peter and John.
When the Lord made preparation for the last Passover, He sent Peter and John to prepare for that last and final meal [Luke 22:8]. And when they were at the Last Supper breaking bread, even the boldness of Simon Peter wasn’t that bold. So he turned to his friend John and asked John to ask Jesus to point out who it was that was to betray Him [John 13:21-25]. And when the great, awful day arrived and the Lord was delivered into the hands of sinners, John was known to the high priest [John 18:15]. And he went into the palace where the Lord was being tried by Annas, by Caiaphas, by the Sanhedrin. And Peter was on the outside. And John went outside and brought in Simon Peter [John 18:15-16], warming himself by the fire when he denied the Lord three times [John 18:17, 25, 27]. And at the cross, Peter following far off, John was standing close by, and into his loving hands, Jesus commended and committed the care of His mother, Mary [John 19:26-27].
And after Pentecost [Acts 2:1-47], the first apostolic miracle was wrought by Peter and John. And when the Holy Spirit came upon the converts of Philip at Samaria, they sent Peter and John down to Samaria to see what it was that God hath wrought among those people in Samaria [Acts 8:14-17]. And when the conference was held in Jerusalem, in Acts 15 and in Galatians 2 [Galatians 2:9], Paul mentions the fact that up there in Jerusalem he talked and shook hands with Peter and John.
James, of course, was slain by Herod Agrippa I, whose sister, Herodias, had slain John the Baptist. James was slain, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, was slain by Herod Agrippa I in that first terrible persecution that saw the first martyr among the apostles of the Lord [Acts 12:1-2].
And, as you know, after Simon Peter had been dead for a whole generation, for maybe thirty years, the apostle John wrote the addendum, the twenty-first chapter of the Book of John, the Gospel of John, as a tribute to his old friend, Simon [John 21:1-25].
Now what kind of a man, in his spirit, was he? Well, first of all, he was very ambitious, full of eagerness and anticipation. And James, his brother, his older brother, was exactly like him. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Mark, for example, James and John, sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus and say, “Master, we want You to give us a request.” And the Lord said, “What would ye that I should give you?” And they said, “Grant unto us, when You come into Your kingdom, that one of us may be chosen to be Your prime minister and sit on Your right hand, and the other one of us may be the [chief of] staff of the army, or the chancellor of the exchequer, the secretary of the treasury, and sit on Your left hand. When You come into Your glorious kingdom, Lord, grant that one of us will be on one side of You and one of [us] on the other side” [Mark 10:35-37].
And when the other disciples heard of that, they were highly indignant and displeased with James and John [Mark 10:41]. And then it was that the Lord called His disciples to Him and told them, “That is the way the Gentiles do but not you. But not you. For the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many. And he that would be great among you, let him be the servant of all” [Mark 10:42-45].
But that’s a reflection of the spirit of James and John. Now the other part in the Bible is the one that we read together just now. They had a volitive spirit, and that’s why the Lord called them the “sons of thunder” [Mark 3:17]. They had a volitive spirit. John had a volitive spirit. Isn’t that a strange thing? The man who represents the love of God among all the disciples, the one that Jesus loved and who writes about love and who says God is love [1 John 4:16]—that man is the one that had the most volitive of all the spirits among the disciples. He’s the one that came to Jesus and said, “Lord, we saw somebody casting out devils in Your name, and he does not follow with us. Now forbid him!” And the Lord said, “Why, no. Why, no. He that is not against us is for us. Let him go” [Mark 9:38-40]. And that ought to be the spirit of all of us in the field of religion. Barring an actual intervention into the fabric of our society, and into the very heart and foundation of our life, let the man go! Let him go. Let him go. Maybe he’ll do some good. That’s what the Lord said to John. He does not follow with us, but he casts out devils in the name of Christ? Let him go. Forbid him not. But John was in a spirit to interdict it right there.
And then the second thing: when they were going through, the Lord on His way to Jerusalem for the last time, and the Samaritans saw He was going down there among those hated Jews, why, they wouldn’t receive Him, and when they wouldn’t, why, James and John came up to the Lord and said, “Lord, what do You want us to do? Command fire like Elijah did? [2 Kings 1:10, 12]. Command fire to fall down from God in heaven and burn up that village?” [Luke 9:54]. That’s John. That’s John; a son of thunder, a volitive and a burning spirit!
Now we’re going to follow John after the pages of the Bible. He lived through the most terrible and militaristic and tragic of all of the eras in the history of the world. I don’t think there’s any that are as filled with tears and heartache and blood as the era in which John lived. In 64 AD, in 64 AD, from July 19 to July 24, Rome burned; the great city burned, and in the area that had burned out, it just happened to be in the exact place in the city where Nero the emperor wanted to build his golden palace. So when that thing came to pass, the people who’d lost their homes and lost all that they had, and many of them their lives and their neighbors and friends, they began to point a finger to Nero and said, “He burned us out! He set fire to the city in order that he might have room to build his golden palace.” In order to dissuade the people and to cast away guilt from himself, Nero pointed to that hated band of Christians and said they did it. And he burned them as torches up and down the avenues of the remaining city of Rome and drove his chariot in the light of their burning. That was about 64, that was 64 AD.
And just about the same year the Sadducees, says Hegesippus, and the Pharisees, says Josephus, took James the Just, the Lord’s brother, pastor of the church at Jerusalem, and one of them says they stoned him, and the other says they threw him down from the pinnacle of the temple. And James the Just was martyred.
And then in 66 AD, in 66 AD, there was begun of that terrible and horrible war that ended in the destruction of the nation in 70 AD. In 66 AD Herod Agrippa II was stoned out of Jerusalem because they looked upon him as a stooge of the Roman government, even though he was a Jew and the grandson of a Maccabean princess, Mariamne. In 66 AD, Herod Agrippa II was stoned out of the city of Jerusalem. And in 66, that same year, Masada, the great bastion on the western side of the Dead Sea, was put to the sword by the Jewish zealots and fanatics. And in that same year, Machaerus, the great bastion on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, fell to the fanatical bands of the Hebrew people. And in that same year, the palaces of the Romans were burned in the city of Jerusalem, and Cyprus was taken. And in five months, the entire country of Palestine was aflame in its revolt against the Roman yoke.
The Syrian legate, in whose province Palestine comprised a part—the Syrian legate, Cestius Gallus, with Herod Agrippa II, marched down from the south with the Roman legions to quell the rebellion. And the Roman legions were [defeated] on Mount Scopus, just to the north and a little to the west of Jerusalem. The Roman armies were defeated. They regathered and fought another battle at Beth-horon—where Joshua commanded the sun and the moon to stand still [Joshua 10:12-14]—and the Roman legions were again defeated there at Beth-horon. And the Roman army was compelled to retreat clear out of Palestine. And in the ferment of that rebellion, for just a few months, the Hebrew nation was free.
But news of the defeat of the Roman armies was brought by swift messengers to Nero who was at Olympus attending the annual Greek games. Now there was a great and able general in the Roman Empire at that time by the name of Vespasian, and because he had yawned during the singing of the emperor Nero—why, Nero had dismissed him in disgrace and dishonor. But in the face of this furious rebellion in Palestine, why, he called for Vespasian and he sent Vespasian with a Roman army to destroy the rebellion of the Jews in Palestine. And in 67 AD, Vespasian and the Roman legions landed in Ptolemais. And Vespasian with his Roman army began to march southward toward Jerusalem. And as he did so, he slaughtered the Jews in the way; even the infants, even the babies. And those that he captured he sent to Greece, in order as slaves to dig the canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, a thing that wasn’t achieved until this modern day—what was begun back there by Nero with those Jewish slaves. And as the armies of Vespasian came down south from Ptolemais, they pushed all of the Jews before them until finally they gathered behind the walls in the city of Jerusalem, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them. That was in 67.
In 68 AD, in June, Nero committed suicide, and in 69 they declared Vespasian as the emperor of the Roman Empire. So he left prosecuting the war against the Jewish nation in Palestine and returned to Rome to be the emperor of the Roman Empire. And he left the fighting of that war against the Jewish nation to his son, Titus.
So Titus began the siege of Jerusalem the fourteenth day of April in AD 70. And there was a famine as Titus shut up those Jews in the city of Jerusalem; there was a famine beyond anything the world had ever seen before. Jesus spoke of that when He said, “the beginning of sorrows” [Matthew 24:8]. This is the beginning of sorrows, and He used the destruction of Jerusalem [Matthew 24:15-21], as a type of that great tribulation that shall precede the intervention of God in human history when, at the battle of Armageddon, the Lord Jesus appears out of the sky of glory to set up His kingdom in the earth [Revelation 19:11-16]. “This is the beginning of sorrows” [Matthew 24:8].
There were so many corpses in the houses that were unburied, until the city was a stench and pestilence raged among the people. Even mothers ate their children as Titus held that city in an iron grip. The fourteenth day of April, the terrible siege began. In the seventeenth day of July, the sacrifices forever ceased on the altar there in Jerusalem according to the saying of the man of God. And on the eighth day of August, the Roman legions broke down the wall and poured into the city. On the tenth day of August, the temple was burned down by inadvertence when a Roman soldier, against the orders of Titus, threw a flaming torch into the sanctuary and it caught fire and burned down. And the eighth day of September AD 70, the city was destroyed. There were 1,377,410 Jews who were killed in that siege. There were 101,490 who were taken slave to grace the triumph of Titus in the city of Rome. And after the glorious, triumphant march of Titus through the city, they struck a medal in honor of his quenching the rebellion, and then a few years later erected that gorgeous, glorious arch of Titus that you see today in the Roman Forum.
And on one side of that marble panel, on the inside of the arch, on one side you will see the picture of Titus, the Roman emperor, as he rides through the streets of the city with those Jewish captives by the thousands and the thousands. Titus, in his chariot, crowned with a laurel, and then on the other side, you’ll see the trophies they brought from Jerusalem: the seven-branched lampstand; and you will see there the table of showbread. And you will see the Jewish people in shackles and chains, carried, driven through the streets of the city like cattle in triumph of the Romans over the Jewish nation, when it was destroyed according to the saying of the Lord Jesus [Luke 21:24].
John lived through all of that. And in about 69 [AD], before the horrible seizure of Jerusalem, in about 69, John fled from Palestine as the Christians had been warned to flee [Matthew 24:16]. They fled to Pella, over into Decapolis, into Gilead, as the Christians were warned to flee when they saw the standards of the Romans, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not, spoken of by Daniel the prophet [Matthew 24:15]. When they saw that, according to the word of the Lord [Matthew 24:16], the Christians fled away out of Jerusalem, and they were saved and spared, when those that remained were either starved or slain or sold into slavery.
Now in that exodus of the Christians in about 69 AD, John fled to Ephesus. And the holy and sainted apostle in Ephesus became the pastor of the church in that great Asian city and the spiritual leader of all the Christian people in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
As you know, Vespasian died in 79; he was emperor from 70 to 79. And then Titus his son succeeded him, and Titus was emperor from 79 to 81. And then Titus died, and his brother Domitian was emperor from 81 to 96. And it was in those days of Domitian’s emperorship, in about 95, that he exiled John to the rocky island of Patmos [Revelation 1:9]. Suetonius says of Domitian that he began every decree, every imperial discourse, with these words: “The lord and god Domitian says.”
And in his attempt to make everybody in the whole Roman Empire worship his image in all the temples of the Roman Empire, the Christians came front to front and face to face with that mandate from the emperor. And in those days of persecution under Domitian, in about 95 AD, the apostle John, then about ninety-five years old, the apostle John was exiled to the rocky island of Patmos [Revelation 1:9].
In those days, in about 97 or 98 AD, somebody stabbed Domitian. And Nerva, who was a great leader in the Roman Senate, Nerva was made emperor, who associated with him, Trajan. And Nerva immediately remanded and interdicted all of the decrees of Domitian. And that was when John had opportunity to return home to his beloved church and his beloved people in Ephesus. And Irenaeus and Jerome say that John lived into the reign of Trajan. Trajan reigned until 117 AD. So sometime in that era John died, the only apostle who died a natural death, and he lived to be over a hundred years of age.
I wish I had time to do this like I want to do it. There is no finer poem in the English language than Robert Browning’s “A Death in the Desert.” Of course, it is poetic, it is a figment of a poet’s imagination, but it reflects one of the finest, finest presentations of the faith of Jesus Christ that you will find in any piece of literature in the world. Robert Browning’s “A Death in the Desert” is a poetic presentation of the death of John, the apostle of Christ. And of course, what Browning is doing in that poem, he is combating the rationalism and the unbelief of the nineteenth century in which he lived. And ah, the dramatic passages in that poem! Would you listen just a little piece, just a moment or two? I won’t present all I have here, but just to get an idea.
John is in a coma, the aged apostle is dying, and he’s on the inside of a cave, surrounded by five faithful disciples, because of the bitter persecution that is raging under Trajan. And they are seeking to arouse the dying apostle that he might say one word more. And they rub his hands. And they pour wine into his lips. And they talk to him, but there’s no response. Then one of those five, quote, “stung by the splendor of a sudden thought,” he runs to a place in the cave and finds a copy of John’s Gospel, and he begins reading it to the old and beloved disciple.
And when he comes to the passage “I am the resurrection, and the life” [John 11:25], then Browning continues, “Whereat he opened his eyes wide at once, and sat up of himself, and looked at us; and thenceforth nobody pronounced a word: only, outside, the disciple who was keeping watch over the flocks of goats, lest anybody think they were there for an ulterior purpose, nothing was heard except his call, his cry, from time to time, that they might know inside the cave that everything was all right.”
Then John begins to speak. Isn’t that a marvelous way to introduce a poem? Listening to the Word of the Lord, “I am the resurrection, and the life” [John 11:25], and immediately, the apostle opens his eyes and begins to speak:
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And [has] so far advanced thee to be wise.
Wouldst thou unprove this to re-prove the proved?
And then he continues on of the faith in the Lord. Oh, I hate to pass over it! “But he was dead,” at the end of the poem:
But he was dead: ‘twas about noon, the day
Somewhat declining: we five buried him
[That eve], and then, dividing, went five ways,
And I, disguised, returned to Ephesus.
The cave’s mouth must be filled with sand
So, lest the memory of this go quiet,
Seeing that I tomorrow fight the beasts,
I tell the same to Phoebus, whom believed!
For all was as I say, and now the man—
John, the sainted apostle, John—
Lies as he lay once, breast to breast with God.
[From “A Death In the Desert,” Robert Browning]
Oh! What a heritage! What a faith! What a foundation! And the little thing I’ve tried to go through so rapidly in these few minutes is just a segment, it’s just a part, it’s just a piece, of the great background that gave us birth. Born, as the great Churchill said, “in blood, and sweat, and tears”; that’s the gospel of the Son of God.
While we sing our song, somebody you, to follow in that train: “Lord, the Spirit of God has touched my heart and touched my soul, and I want to be a Christian. When they call the roll in glory, O God, pronounce my name. Call my name. Call my name [Luke 10:20]. And if I lived in that day, I would have been a disciple, and now that I live in this day, Lord, number me among the Christians of the earth.” Could a man make a greater avowal, one more meaningful, more significant, with everlasting repercussion? Could you? Could you face any decision in life even comparable to the decision of accepting Jesus as Lord? Do it tonight. “Here I am, and preacher, on that confession of faith, I want to be baptized into the assembly of God [Acts 8:35-38]. I want to belong to the household of faith [Ephesians 2:8]. I want to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ, and here I come. Here I am.”
“Preacher, I’ve already done that. Best I know how, I’ve turned in faith to the Lord. I’ve asked Him to forgive my sins [1 John 1:9]. I hope to see His face someday when I die [Revelation 22:3-4]. And I’ve been baptized, I belong to the church, and I want to put my life here in this assembly, in this congregation, in this household of faith, and I’m coming by letter.” A family, or a couple, or one somebody you, while the Spirit speaks, make the decision now. Then, when we stand up, on the first note of that first stanza, start down one of these stairways or into one of these aisles and down to the front: “Here I am, preacher, I make the decision tonight. I want to belong to the household of God. I want to follow Christ. I am a Christian in my soul and here I avow it.” Come. Come. Make it tonight. Make it now. Do it now. On the first note of this first stanza, into that aisle and down to the front: “Here’s my hand, preacher. I do avow my faith in Christ as my Savior, and here I come” [Ephesians 2:8]. Do it. Do it. Do it, while we stand and while we sing.