What about Zebedee?
Dr. Connie Befus
Jesus Christ had a significant impact on Zebedee’s life, whether Zebedee wanted him to or not.
Zebedee was the father of James and John, disciples of Jesus. Disciples Jesus called away, let us note, from their family fishing business:
The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus “saw James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay, he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 2:20 NIV).
And what did Zebedee think of that?
One minute he had a thriving fishing business with his sons, the next minute he was left with un-mended nets and (hopefully?) some hired hands! Did Zebedee mind? Had James and John discussed the idea of leaving the business to follow Jesus with their father? Was Zebedee a believer in Jesus, too? Or, was he just suddenly left alone with the business and two extra families to feed—with “the boys” gone following Jesus? Mark doesn’t say, nor is there any information on this subject in the other gospels.
But, you wonder, don’t you?
It is easy to imagine that Zebedee had planned and dreamed for years of having his sons join him in the family business. No doubt he was training them, looking forward to the day when they could take over the hard physical labor, the troublesome employee problems—and he could retire, but maybe stay a little involved. Well, there went that dream!
I don’t know if any of them—James, John, or Zebedee—realized how it would be at the time, but James and John never came back to the fishing business. Jesus called them, they went, and they ended up (as Jesus had said) becoming “fishers of men” for the rest of their lives: first around Galilee, then Jerusalem, then in Rome, Ephesus and other places. Who knew?
We don’t know if Zebedee resented his sons’ leaving to follow Jesus, or cheered them on. In the case of Peter, Jesus walked into Peter’s house early in his public ministry and promptly healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a raging fever. Then she got up and served Jesus and his crew. I somehow think that in Peter’s house, Jesus was popular and always welcome.
In Zebedee’s house—we just don’t know. In the environment of his day, Zebedee could not help knowing about Jesus. No doubt he heard a lot about Jesus and his message from his sons. He must also have heard about Jesus from his neighbors and in his synagogue. I’m sure he heard about people Jesus healed and about the controversial things Jesus said.
It is possible that Zebedee was a believer in Jesus. Or he might have been a skeptic. He might have wanted to believe, but deeply resented the call Jesus made on his sons’ lives. He might have criticized and complained every time James and John were home for a few days. He might have begged them to come home where they “belonged.” He might have made life hard for them as Jesus’ disciples.
I like to imagine, though, that Zebedee was supportive, that he cheered his boys on, and bore with good grace the burdens of the family business as his sons left everything behind. I like to think that Jesus, because he was like that, one day stood with Zebedee man to man, with one hand on Zebedee’s shoulder and said, “Thanks, Zeb—thanks for everything.” And Zeb, who knew better than anyone how much the “everything” cost him, smiled, and shrugged, but was comforted by that interchange with his Lord.
And I like to think that interchange comforted him in the following years: after Jesus’ resurrection, after James was murdered, when John was traveling in Jerusalem and then Ephesus—all while Zebedee ran the family business by himself.
Jesus’ disciples clearly served him—and served us. But the simple truth is that Zebedee also served. Whether he wanted to or not, whether he was supportive or not, Zebedee served Jesus by continuing the family fishing business that would have fed any family James and John had when they were out and about with Jesus. And then, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and James’ death, that family business probably still continued to provide support.
By the time John was a prisoner on Patmos, writing the book we now know as Revelation, I’m pretty sure Zebedee was gone: up in glory, I hope, not concerned at all about his own suffering or that of his son, but simply rejoicing in his small part in helping Jesus’ Kingdom get where it was going because he stayed home—so they could go.
What can we learn from Zebedee?
However Zebedee reacted to how Jesus turned his life upside down. What can we learn from what we know of him?
For one thing, we learn that the obedience of a disciple—any disciple—affects not only that disciple, but many other people. Family members, for sure. Zebedee, his wife, any family of James and John, neighbors, other people in their business…all those people were profoundly impacted by James and John saying “yes” to Jesus.
The obedience of a disciple of Jesus had a wide-reaching effect then, and still does today.
Another thing we learn from thinking about Zebedee is that there can be very different ways of serving Jesus. James and John were called to leave their homes and business and follow Jesus around Palestine for three years. After Jesus’ resurrection, John represented him in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Galatia, and Rome, and was responsible for five of our New Testament books. Both James and John were persecuted and suffered for Jesus.
Zebedee served Jesus by staying home and supporting them and any family they might have had—financially, and probably in other ways.
Today some people are called to be pastors, or evangelists, or missionaries, or to be involved in other kinds of full-time ministry. Often, involvement in such ministries doesn’t result in cushy incomes or elevated prestige. Sometimes sacrifice and suffering are involved.
But those also serve who enable those people to do what they do, whether that is by providing financial backing, or babysitting their kids, or simply encouraging them and praying for them.
We don’t know whether Zebedee willingly served the Lord Jesus and his kingdom. But he is a reminder of how much obedience and discipleship cost other people. And he’s a reminder of how much those who are “left behind” by another’s obedience can be of service. Whether they want to be or not.
I wonder if we’ll see Zebedee in heaven?
I think so. I hope so.