Recently I was having dinner with some brethren in this congregation and, as is sometimes the case, I received a request to speak about a particular topic that one of the people at dinner was interested in, namely the connections between the various people of the New Testament. Like the current Pacific Northwest or Florida or Texas or California, the Galilee of Jesus’ time was a region that had been on the frontiers of Jewish culture and had been settled by Judean pioneers from the overcrowded and not as fertile area around Jerusalem about a century and a half before the birth of Christ after the area had been conquered by the newly independent Jewish state of the Hasmoneans. We are perhaps not used to thinking of the area of Galilee as a frontier region like our own but this particular experience had consequences of making the world of the Gospels a much smaller world than might have been assumed at first. As descendants of pioneers in search of more land and a better life, the people of the Gospels and even parts of Acts are far more closely connected than we would assume unless we took the time to look at the stories that connected them together. And that is what we will do today, look at a variety of passages in the Bible that demonstrates that just like the Disney ride, it’s a small world after all in the Gospels. Be prepared to flip through your Bibles pretty quickly today, as we will be looking at more verses than usual.
Let us begin our search today by looking at Luke 1:5. Luke 1:5 tells us the following about the parents of John the Baptist: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” Here we see that John the Baptist was descended from parents who were both from the priestly line of Aaron. Let us now drop down to verse 26, where we read: “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” Dropping down once again to verse 36, we read the following: “Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.” From these verses, we can piece together the connections that tied the priestly line of Aaron with the kingly line of Judah, since Mary and Elizabeth were related through a marriage that would have connected these two lines together, since the genealogies of Matthew and Luke show that both Joseph and Mary were descended from the line of David, Joseph through Solomon going down to Jehoiachin, and Mary through David’s son Nathan, possibly named after the famous prophet of the same name and time.
John 19:25-27 gives us an inference that Jesus Christ was a cousin to another John, namely the apostle John. As it is written in John 19:25-27: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.” The parallel passage to this in Matthew 27:55-56 reveals to us that Mary’s sister is the mother of John and James. Matthew 27:55-56 tells us: “And many women who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him, were there looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” From this we may figure that a great deal of the squabbling over position was related to the fact that some of Jesus’ most notable and intimate disciples were also first cousins, and we all know how there can be close favorites among relatives. This would make John and James of Zebedee related to John the Baptist as well, since they would share the same connection that Mary herself had through their mother.
We may notice in this part of the Gospels that John was also connected to the circle of the high priests in John 18:15. John 18:15 reads: “And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest.” How was John known to the high priest? While we do not know exactly, there are several possibilities. For one, we know that John, like Jesus, was related to the priesthood through one of their mothers’ close ancestors, perhaps their common maternal grandmother. For another, we know that Zebedee was a wealthy business owner dealing in the fish of Galilee, and it is very possible that Zebedee had some sort of business dealings with the priesthood to provide fresh Galilean fish through the fish gate into Jerusalem for the priestly elite, which would account for his own elite status and for the fact that his family was able to mix and mingle socially with the corrupt but sophisticated priestly elite of the time.
We know of at least three more close family connections of Jesus in the New Testament. Two of them are very easy to note, namely the fact that both the book of James and the book of Jude were written by half-brothers of Jesus Christ who, notably, do not remind us of that fact in their letters, which point out that they are bondservants of Jesus Christ but not his half-brothers. Matthew 13:55-56, which you can just jot down in your notes, tells us the following: “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?”” This passage, by the way, serves as one of the most obvious demonstrations of the fact that Mary herself was not a perpetual virgin but after giving birth to Jesus had at least seven more children, four sons and at least three unnamed daughters, through the normal means during the course of her marriage with Joseph the carpenter.
We find further indications of this when we look at the beginnings of James and Jude. Admittedly, James 1:1 does not give us that much information about its author. James 1:1 reads: “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.” We get more information when we look at Jude 1. Jude :1-2 reads: “Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” It is from Jude that we learn that the brother of Jesus that was called Judas in Matthew 13 was called Jude by the time he wrote his letter some thirty to forty years later. What accounts for this change? It is admittedly speculative, because Jude does not tell us the reason himself, but the infamy that was attached to the name of Judas after his betrayal of Jesus Christ seems to have mad the name less desirable in Christian circles and encouraged people to use other forms of the name so as not to be confused with him. At any rate, Jude :1 confirms that Jude is the brother of the James that wrote the book of James, and it is striking that neither of the two brothers plays up their connection as the half-brothers of Jesus Christ but rather both claim to be his bondservants.
What is the thread that ties all of these people and all of these stories together? It is the same thread that ties so many of our own lives together with others, and that is the way that God works with people through space and time so as to bring people together as part of His family and then place them in places where they become connected to other believers and develop ties with those who recognize their integrity and competence and skill and honor and who then build other ties and connections of friendship and business dealings. Throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts we have seen the close connections that helped make the early church a very closely tied place. Nor do these exhaust the possibilities. Time would fail for us to talk in detail about all the connections that Paul made with various important people through his own missionary journeys. We have confined our attention to the small space of Judea and the area just outside of it, and what we have found there is that many of the people of the Gospels were related to each other by blood and marriage. The family of God was, as it is now, frequently a matter of family connection on a physical as well as a spiritual level. The ties and connections forged by business partnerships, shared travels, shared beliefs and obedience to God, and family connections formed over the generations made the world of the Gospels a small world, like our own congregations are for us today.