Real Men 9-11: Unsung Servants (Mark 3:18)

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Real Men James, Thaddaeus and Simon—Unsung Heroes

Part 11, Real men from Mark 3:18


During the times of the knights and nobles, one of the greatest compliments you could bestow on one whom you knew or served was to sing a song about them.  To honor someone of greatness, you’d compose an original song about them and their heroic accomplishments, and continue to sing it even after their death, so that in one way they lived on.  This was the highest honor one could bestow on someone else for their selfless service.

This tradition of singing songs for great accomplishments even existed during the reign of King Saul, and is actually recorded in the Scripture.  When David came back from battle, the song on the top of the charts was almost like a rap battle.  “Saul had killed his thousands, 0ooo, and David his ten thousands, Wooooaaaah.”  As you might recall, King Saul didn’t dig that tune.

But even worse than that hit tune, was no hit tune.  The worst curse of all in ancient times was to be an unsung hero–to do great deeds, to pursue noble service, to sacrificially give yourself to a great purpose, and to have no one notice it, and no one sing a song about it was dishonor.  To be an unsung hero was a great insult in ancient times.

Unfortunately, this same fear has made its way into the Church to many Christians because of pride–fear of being unnoticed.  And yet that is what God has called the majority of believers to.  Yes God has called all Christians to be unsung heroes.  Just ask people what they do for a living.  How do they respond?  You can tell if they feel insignificant when they say, “Oh, I only cook.  I program.  I just teach.  Well, I’m an auto mechanic.  I’m just a waitress.  I don’t do much, I’m an accountant for a small firm.”

Christians feel the same way–they look at Pastors or elders, or up front-type people, and they think to themselves . . . if I could sing or play the guitar, then I could really serve.  If I wasn’t so shy, then I could really be used of God.  If I wasn’t so scared about sharing my faith, then maybe I’d make an impact.  If I could just teach God’s Word, then God would  really be pleased with me.  If I could only become a missionary, then my life would count.

But the problem with that is, in God’s kingdom, it’s not just public gifts that are important.  Most body parts are hidden under the skin, unseen.  The truth of the matter is this.

First  All children of God are to be full-time Christians

Just because some pastors are paid to be good and everyone else is good for nothing, does not mean paid pastors are to be more of a Christian than anyone else.  Pastors are paid so they can spend the time necessary to study, pray and teach, to feed and shepherd the flock God has given them.  They are not paid to be better Christians, nor are they paid so they can be full-time Christians.  Every Christian is a full-time believer, in every situation and every circumstance.  A true Christian is ready to represent Christ.

Second  There is no unemployment in the Kingdom of God

Every believer has a job to do.  The problem is–the work of the Lord is hard work, and as a result countless jobs go unfulfilled.  Yet at the same time, many workers are needed.  Why is there a worker shortage in the Church?  Why is it typically 20% do 80% of the work in the Body of Christ?  Why does the Kingdom program of Jesus Christ lack for servants?  Why are there so few true unsung heroes in the Church today?

The Bible gives some reasons.  Many are not saved–as a result they’re not obedient to the commands in the New Testament to serve others, and to regularly exercise their giftedness in the Church.  Many have deceived themselves with errant priorities, replacing Christ’s commands to serve within the Church and share the Gospel in the world, with family, or job, or their age, or worse . . . sports or entertainment of this world.  Many suffer from occasional service instead of faithful service, as if Jesus is pleased by a heart that serves only when it’s convenient, instead of a heart that has surrendered all to Christ.  And many wrongly assume their previous church was biblical to not expect service, or they compare themselves against other Christians and not against the Word of God–therefore they don’t serve.

But God has a job for you to do.  Jesus said in Matthew 23:11, “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.”  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Peter said in 1 Peter 4:10, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”

Each one of us has a job to do as a steward of your gifts.  To not pursue this service to the church is a sin of omission.  It’s like being an organ in the body, but useless to the body.  It’s like being a brick, but not a part of the building.  It’s like being a sheep, but not a part of the flock.  But true service can mean faithfully remaining behind the scenes.  Biblical ministry to others can be exhausting and thankless.  Honoring Christ may mean doing a dirty job no one wants to do, or attempting something out of your comfort zone, even serving when no one will ever know what you did except Jesus.

God anticipated this in Hebrews 6:10, “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.”  Unknown and unsung servants have been a part of Christ’s plan from the very beginning.  And the next three disciples in Jesus’s team of twelve prove it.

Open your Bibles to Mark 3 and take the outline in your bulletin.  If you’re new, we’re studying the gospel of Mark, and for some it is uncomfortably too slow.  We slowed down to look at each of the men Jesus appointed as his twelve apostles, and have arrived at the last set of four, which includes one traitor, and this week three unknown, unsung servants.

Jesus is now at the halfway point in his ministry.  The external, hypocritical leaders are plotting to kill Him.  The crowds are seeking Christ out in a crushing mass of hurting humanity.  So the Lord appoints twelve men to assist him in serving the masses, and to be his trusted leaders to continue His work after He’s ascended to heaven.  So Jesus appoints the twelve, and lists the last four in the last half of 18 and verse 19, “and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and [1]James the son of Alphaeus, and [2]Thaddaeus, and [3]Simon the Zealot; 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him.”

Mark lists out three unsung servants–faithful apostles we know little about, (1)James the son of Alphaeus, and (2)Thaddaeus, and (3)Simon the Zealot.  What is so great about these unknown servants?  Think about it–though we know very little about them, we do know they were chosen by Christ, and stuck with Christ through it all.  It’s true they often manifested doubt, disbelief and confusion.  Sometimes they were looking to be great, more than to serve.  They spoke when they should have been silent.  They were flawed men prone to make mistakes.

In the gospels, they were never portrayed as heroes, but as real men.  Yet Christ empowered them to heal, raise the dead and cast out demons.  Then after Christ ascended and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them, they became strong and courageous, proclaiming the Gospel with boldness, and teaching God’s Word with unshakable conviction.  All twelve, except the traitor, went on to become the foundation of the Church, Ephesians 2:19 and 20, “So then you . . . of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.”

Our church, each of you, and the entire universal Church made up of all true believers, exists today because these men launched the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.  And their heroism will be rewarded and commemorated throughout eternity in the New Jerusalem, where their names will be permanently etched into the foundation of that city.

Turn to John 6, and though we may not know much about these three today, we do know they remained faithful to Christ even when others left.  In John 6, after feeding the 5,000, the crowds were sticking around for more free food.  So Jesus taught some difficult truth about being the Bread of Life they would have to eat.  Jesus was not talking about cannibalism, but using vivid imagery to speak of the absolute commitment He required of His followers.

So John tells us in verse 60,  “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’”  “Disciples” here refers to a larger group of followers around Jesus, not the twelve.  John goes on to say in verse 66, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”

On that day, many other disciples who’d sat under Jesus’s teaching and witnessed His miracles stopped following Him.  His sayings were too hard, and His demands too rigorous for them.  But not the twelve–they remained resolutely committed to Christ.  As the crowd dissipated, in shock Jesus looked around at the twelve and said to them in verse 67, “Do you also want to go away?”  This was heartbreaking, and all of you here have tasted this bitter pill when your friends revealed their unsaved hearts, and walked away from Christ, or left your church for unbiblical reasons.

Do you also want to go away?”  Peter exposes a redeemed heart when he answered for the rest in verse 68.  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  This is what makes real men into Godly men–not their efforts, their cleverness, or their service, but their dependence upon Christ and His Gospel.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  Godly men are dependent men–men who know they have nothing to offer Christ but a broken vessel.

Spiritual leaders are those who know they’re desperately needy.  I am so thankful for our elders, because friends–I’m involved with some elders elsewhere who view themselves as godly men who can’t make mistakes, and don’t sin in unanimity.  They don’t see themselves as weak, needy men, and they are harming Christ’s Church.  So these twelve disciples were staying with Jesus no matter what.  Except for Judas Iscariot, they were men of true faith, including the three unsung apostles we know very little about.  But what do we know, and what can we learn from these three unsung servants?

#1  James, the son of Alphaeus–Mr. Less

Don’t be confused about Mark 3:18, James the son of Alphaeus.  There were three men close to Jesus with the name James:

#1 James, Mr. Zealous, brother of John, Son of Thunder–in the inner circle and first apostle to be martyred by Herod in Acts

#2 Then James, the half-brother of Jesus, who was not found among the followers of Christ until after the resurrection, but became the key leader in the Jerusalem Church

#3 And finally, James the Less, the ninth disciple in all the lists, another unsung servant, and the one we want to know

The New Testament tells us absolutely nothing of what James said or did, but it does mention in all the lists that he was the Son of Alphaeus, which has caused some to speculate whether James was apostle Matthew’s brother, since Matthew is also called the son of Alphaeus.  Alphaeus was a common name, and there is never any indication they were brothers, so most scholars reject the brother idea.

But wanting to know everything God has revealed in His Word, look at the two verses listed for you in your outline.  Compare Mark 15:40 and John 19:25.  Mark 15:40 mentions Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses.  John 19:25 names Jesus’s mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

John MacArthur writes, “It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Jesus’ mother’s sister (“Mary the wife of Clopas”) and (“Mary the mother of James the Less”) are the same person.”  (“Clopas” may have been another name for Alphaeus, or James’s mother might have remarried after his father died).  That would make James the Less, Jesus’s cousin.

Was James the cousin of our Lord?  Or . . . was he the brother of Matthew?  We don’t know–Scripture doesn’t expressly tell us.  Thankfully for us, the importance of the disciples did not result from their title, position or pedigree.  What made these men important was the Lord whom they served, and the message they proclaimed.  If we lack details about these unsung servants, that’s okay.  We will get to know them intimately in heaven.  In the meantime, it’s enough to know they were chosen by the Lord, empowered by the Spirit, and used by God to carry the Gospel to the world of their day, laying the foundation for us today.

Remarkably, each of these unsung servants disappears from the biblical narrative within a few years after Pentecost.  That’s because the Word of God always keeps the focus on the power of Christ and the power of the Word, not on the men who were merely the instruments of that power.  These men were filled with the Spirit and they preached the Word–that is all we really need to know.  The vessel is not the issue–the Master is.

Look again at Mark 15:40.  At the cross of Christ, there were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome.  We do know who the mother and brother of James is–his mother’s name was Mary, and his brother was Joses.  And his mother Mary was so devoted to Christ, she actually remained with the small group of believers near Christ as He was being crucified for our sins.  And this Mary was also one of the women who came to prepare Jesus’s body for burial.

Joses, James’s brother, must have been well-known as a follower of the Lord because his name is mentioned repeatedly.  Aside from those scant details that can be gleaned from the Bible about his family, this James is utterly obscure.  His lack of prominence is even reflected in his nickname, for in verse 40, Mark refers to James as “James the Less”.  His nickname indicates inferiority–literally Less means “little”.  The Greek word gives us our English word “micro”, as in microbe, microbiology and microscope.  By calling James the “Less”, some believe him to be younger in age to the older James, the brother of John.

One commentator suggests James the Less means he is the son of James, the brother of John, and thus a grandson to Zebedee.  Still others suggest that by calling him James the “Less”, Mark is referring to his shortness of stature—that Mark was calling him James the little, or Shorty, or Little Jimmy, which sounds a lot like a rapper’s name, or our Jr. High Pastor when he’s in trouble with Korena–Little Limmy.  So James the Less might have been a short, or small-framed man.  Others think his nickname was to distinguish him from James, the half-brother of the Lord, who ultimately headed-up the early Jerusalem Church.  In fact, James the Less has also been called James II (the second), by some early writers.

Now most believe the “Less” refers to his rank or influence, as contrasted with James the brother of John, one of the inner four.  So our James here would be James Minor, as against James Major.  James, brother of John and son of Zebedee, was a man of prominence.  John 18 tells us his family was known to the High Priest.  Mr. Zeal James was part of the Lord’s most intimate inner circle.  He was the better-known of the two Jameses.  Therefore, James the son of Alphaeus was known as “James the Less”, or “Little Jimmy”.

It may well be that all these things were true of James, meaning Mr. Less was a small, young, quiet person who stayed mostly in the background.  That would be consistent with the low profile he had among the twelve.  We might say a distinguishing mark of James the Less was obscurity.  That in itself is a significant reminder to every one of us.  Apparently James the Less sought no recognition.  He displayed no great leadership.  He asked no critical questions.  He demonstrated no unusual insight.  Only his name remains, while his life and his labors are immersed in obscurity.  But he was one of the twelve.  The Lord selected him for a reason, trained and empowered him like the others, and sent him out as a witness.

Each of you here are James the Less–this is you.  Very few of us will be remembered by anyone fifty years after we die.  But God will remember all we did, empowered by His Spirit, and done for His glory.  Early Church history is also mostly silent about James the Less.  He is often confused with the other James.  Some say James the Less took the Gospel to Syria and Persia.  Accounts of his death record he was stoned, but not fatally.  One account says he was beaten to death.  Still another says James was actually sawed into pieces while alive–the saw actually become the apostolic symbol for James the Less.

#2  Judas, Son of James–Mr. Three Names

Two of the twelve apostles are called by the name Judas, which was a very popular name in those days, but no longer since the death of Christ—kinda’ like calling your kid Benedict Arnold or Osama.  The writers of Scripture labored to make certain you would distinguish Judas, Son of James, from Judas the betrayer.  They did this two ways—one, by calling him “not Iscariot”.  And two, by using different names to describe him.

Notice how John calls Judas “Son of James” in this passage.  John 14:22, “Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, ‘Lord, what then . . .’”  And to keep Judas, Son of James from the stigma attached to the name of the betrayer, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Judas, Son of James is called by his different nicknames.  Matthew called Judas, Son of James in 10:3, “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus.”  Mark called Judas, Son of James in 3:18, “Thaddaeus”.

“Judas” was probably the name given him at birth–Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus were essentially nicknames.  Thaddaeus means “breast child”–evoking the idea of a nursing baby.  It almost has a derisive sound, like “mamma’s boy”.  Perhaps he was the youngest in his family, and therefore the baby among several siblings, especially cherished by his mother.  I am the baby in my family, and I am very cherished.  His other name, Lebbaeus, is similar.  It is from a Hebrew root that refers to the heart–literally, “heart child”.  Both names suggest this Judas had a tender, childlike heart.

Can you imagine what it was like to have such a gentle soul hanging around Peter Mr. Initiator and James the Zealous, and Mr. Political Simon the Zealot?  No wonder Judas, Son of James, said little in the gospels–those guys could run over anyone.  But the Lord can use both kinds of men.  Zealots make great preachers.  But so do tender-hearted, compassionate, sweet-spirited souls like Lebbaeus Thaddaeus.

The twelve disciples contained every imaginable personality, and like the other three faithful members of the third apostolic group, Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus is shrouded in obscurity.  But that obscurity should not cloud our respect for them.  They all became mighty preachers, were used to turn the world upside down for Christ, and establish the Church of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament records one incident involving Judas, Lebbaeus, Thaddaeus.  Jesus and his men are in the upper room before Jesus is arrested, and in John 14:21 Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me.  And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”  Then John adds in John 14:22, “Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, ‘Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?’”

You can see the tender-hearted humility of this man.  He doesn’t say anything brash or bold or overconfident.  He doesn’t rebuke the Lord, like Peter once did.  His question is full of meekness, and devoid of any sort of pride.  He couldn’t believe Jesus would manifest Himself to this rag-tag group of eleven, and not to the whole world.  After all, Jesus is the Savior of the world.  He is the rightful heir of the earth—King of kings and Lord of lords.  The twelve had always assumed Jesus came to set up His kingdom and subdue all things to Himself.

The Gospel of forgiveness and salvation was certainly good news for all the world.  And the disciples knew it well, but the rest of the world was still, by and large, clueless.  So Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus wanted to know, “Why are you going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the whole world?”  This was a man who loved his Lord, and who felt the power of salvation in his own life.  He was full of hope for the world, and in his own tender-hearted, childlike way, he wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t going to make Himself known to everyone.

He was obviously still hoping to see the kingdom come to earth.  We certainly can’t fault him for that, for Jesus taught his men to pray in Luke 11:2, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come.’” Why can’t you declare yourself to the world, Jesus?

Jesus gave him a sweet answer–an answer as tender as the question, in verse 23.  “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.’”  Christ would declare Himself to anyone who loves Him.  Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus was still thinking politically and physically–“How come You haven’t taken over the world yet?  Why don’t You just manifest Yourself to the world?”

Jesus’s answer meant, “I’m not going to take over the world externally–I’m going to take over hearts internally, one at a time.  If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word.  And if he keeps My Word, My Father and I will come to him and together we’ll set up the kingdom in his heart—for now.”

There is a literal Kingdom coming where Christ will physically rule.  It’s promised in the Old Testament, and declared clearly in Revelation 20 that Jesus will take over and rule with a rod of iron for a thousand years.  But until then, does Christ rule in your heart?

Early tradition of Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus suggests a few years after Pentecost, he took the Gospel north to Edessa, a royal city in Mesopotamia in the region of Turkey today.  There are numerous ancient accounts of how he healed the king of Edessa, a man named Abgar.  In the fourth century, Eusebius the historian said the archives at Edessa (now destroyed) contained full records of Thaddaeus’s visit, and the healing of Abgar.

The traditional apostolic symbol of Judas Lebbaeus Thaddaeus is a club, because history says he was clubbed to death for his faith.  This tenderhearted soul followed his Lord in martyrdom too.  His testimony was as powerful and as far-reaching as that of the better-known and more outspoken disciples.  He, like them, is proof of how God can use a mama’s boy who’s been transformed into a tender-hearted real man.

#3  Simon the Zealot–Mr. Political

In Luke 6:15 Simon is called “the Zealot”.  In Mark 3:18 and in Matthew 10:4, Simon is called “Simon the Cananite”.  That isn’t a reference to the land of Canaan or a village in Cana–the word comes from a Hebrew root which means “to be zealous”.  Simon was a member of the political party known as the Zealots.  The fact that Simon bore the title of zealot all his life may also suggest he had a fiery temperament.  But that term in Jesus’s day signified a well-known and widely-feared, outlaw political sect.

Along with fundamentalist Pharisees, liberal Sadducees, and the isolationist Essenes, Zealots were the politically extreme.  The Zealots hated the Romans, and their violent goal was to overthrow the Roman occupation.  Extremists in every sense, Zealots were militant, violent outlaws who believed only God Himself had the right to rule over the Jews.  Therefore they believed they were doing God’s work by assassinating Roman soldiers, political leaders, and anyone else who opposed them.

The Zealots were hoping for a Messiah who would lead them to overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel and its Solomonic glory.  They were red-hot patriots, ready to die in an instant for what they believed.  They began during the inter-testamental period, led Israel to about 100 years of independence, until Rome took over Israel in a slick political move.  They continued to lead open rebellions and stir up uprisings against Rome until they were suppressed.

Around the time of the birth of Christ, most of the zealot rebellion went underground.  Their acts of terror became more selective and more secretive.  They formed groups of secret assassins called sicarii, meaning “dagger-men”, because of the deadly, curved daggers they carried in the folds of their robes.  They would sneak up behind Roman soldiers and politicians and stab them in the back, between the ribs, expertly piercing the heart.  They occasionally would burn Roman targets, then retreat to the remote areas of Galilee to hide.

When captured, they were famous for their willingness to suffer any kind of death, or endure any amount of pain, including the torture of their own wives, children or friends.  The Romans might torture them and kill them, but their political oppressors could not quench their passion.  And Simon had apparently been a member of that sect.

It is interesting when Matthew and Mark list the twelve, they list Simon just before Judas Iscariot.  When Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two in Mark 6:7, it is likely that Simon and Judas Iscariot were a team.  They probably both originally followed Christ for similar political reasons.  But somewhere along the line, Simon became a genuine believer and was transformed.  Judas Iscariot never really believed.  When Jesus did not overthrow Rome, but instead talked of dying, some might have expected Simon to be the betrayer–a man of such deep passion, zeal, and political conviction would align himself with terrorists over Christ.  But that was before He met Jesus Christ.

Of course as one of the twelve, Simon also had to associate with Matthew, who was at the opposite end of the political spectrum, collecting taxes for the Roman government.  At one point in his life, Simon would probably have gladly killed Matthew.  In the end, they became spiritual brothers, working side-by-side for the same cause–to spread the Gospel, preach the Word, and worship Christ.

It is amazing that Jesus would select a man like Simon to be an apostle.  But he was a man of fierce loyalties, amazing passion, and unshakable courage.  Simon believed the truth and embraced Christ as his Lord.  The fiery enthusiasm he once had for Israel was now expressed in his devotion to Christ.  Christ turned hate into love.

I wonder, don’t you, what attracted Simon the Zealot to Christ?  Was it the zeal of Christ when He cleaned out the temple?  Was it the power of Christ when he hushed a storm to stillness?  Was it Christ’s compassionate power shown in healing the suffering?  Was it when Jesus justly spoke out against religious hypocrisy?  Was it the greater perfect Kingdom Jesus spoke of as coming that would no longer be oppressive, where widows would no longer be cheated by religious leaders, where no one would be overtaxed, where justice would rule, leading to peace and abundance?  We don’t know, but we do know it was the Lord who grabbed Simon’s heart, and awakened his need for faith in Christ and repentance from sin.  Has He done the same for you?

Several early sources say after the destruction of Jerusalem, which was said to be caused by the Zealots, Simon took the Gospel north and preached in the British Isles.  Like so many of the others, Simon simply disappears from the biblical record.  There is no reliable record of what happened to him, but all accounts say he was killed for preaching the Gospel.  This unsung servant was once willing to kill and be killed for a mere localized, political agenda, but now found a more zealous cause for which to give his life–the proclamation of salvation for sinners out of every nation, tongue and tribe.  Are the rest of you unsung servants getting it?

#1  What makes you important is the Lord you serve, and the message you share

#2  Little tasks and unseen acts really matter to Christ

#3  God can use physically challenged, tenderhearted and passionately zealous men and women for His glory

#4  Christ alone can transform a person from the inside out

#5  Dependence upon the Spirit and a passionate commitment to obey God’s Word is the path toward seeing God work in and through you

Let’s pray

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.