What the Thunder Said

After his wife’s death, Shakespeare’s Macbeth reflects on the futility of his ambition and his life: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”  Macbeth’s lament stands in sharp contrast to the “sound and fury” signifying everything sounded by the “Son of Thunder,” St. John, apostle, evangelist, and beloved disciple of the Lord.

This son of thunder, no idiot, tells a tale of the Son of God which still roars through the Church today. Yet, this thunder song is not one of rage and fury but a psalm of love sung for his Beloved Master. And this hymn has a refrain all followers of Christ are invited to join.

Only St. Mark’s gospel mentions the new name bestowed on John and his brother James by the Lord: “James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” (Mk 3:16-17).  These brothers, along with Peter, comprise the inner circle Jesus chose to surround Himself with at key moments of His ministry, like the scene of the Transfiguration.  That this primacy of position continued into the life of the early Church is attested to by St. Paul who refers to these three as the “pillars” of the Church of Jerusalem (Gal 2:9).

Their friendship with Jesus is further highlighted by the fact that these three are the only apostles to receive new names from the Lord.  It is often thought that James and John are called the “sons of thunder” in reference to the impetuosity of their character.  After all, these are the brothers who ask for permission to pray that God might reign down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village which just rejected them (Lk 9:51-56).  They also boldly request, in the presence of the other apostles, the seats on Jesus’ right and left in the new kingdom (Mk 10:35-37).  From these incidents alone, it is easy to see why the appellation “sons of thunder” adequately describes James and John.

There may, however, be another reason for the name bestowed on them by Christ.  What if it was not just an indication of a past personality trait but a revelation of their future vocation within the Church?  After all, Simon was renamed “Peter, the rock” by Christ but personally did not display solidity and firmness until later in his life. Therefore, what if James and John were not called “sons of thunder” for what they had done yet in their lives but what they will do as apostles?

In the Scriptures, thunder represents the sound of the voice of God. Camped at the base of Mount Sinai the people of Israel await God’s revelation: “there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). Amidst this terrifying scene, “Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Ex 19:19). In the New Testament, John’s gospel narrates that once when Jesus prayed to His Father “a voice came from heaven” and “the crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered” (Jn 12:28-29). John is the only evangelist to relate this story from Christ’s life. Did he do so because he liked the reference to thunder?

This understanding of thunder as the voice of God can shed light on the deeper meaning of John’s name as the “son of thunder”.  Fundamentally, what does the voice of God sound? It sounds the words of God, His message. In its most profound sense, it sounds the “Word” of God.  It is this Word, the Logos in John’s terminology and theology, that “was with God” and “was God” from the beginning (Jn 1:1). And, it is the creative, all holy Word of God who comes to redeem the fallen creation. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). To be a “son of thunder” as John is named takes on a new dimension. The name can be re-worked to mean a “son of the voice of God” or even better, a “son of the Word of God.”

St. John completely assumed his new identity as the son of the Word of God. He is the only author in the New Testament to refer to Jesus as the Word of God and he does so in each of the three literary genres he contributed to the Bible—gospel, epistolary, and apocalyptic. The voice of God that John personally heard, though, was not the thunder that shook the earth and struck fear in the hearts of men. He heard the human voice of the Incarnate God. It was that sound which rang in his ears. John emphatically witnesses to this voice in his first letter: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard” (1 Jn 1:1). The first physical sense John uses to describe his encounter with God is the sense of hearing because it is the sense by which faith comes into one’s life. St. Paul explains this reality, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

The preaching of Christ that John relates in his gospel complements the portrait of Jesus presented by the other evangelists. The synoptic gospels, overall, present the same teachings and miracles from the life of Christ. Surprisingly, though, fewer than 1 in 10 of the stories in John’s gospel are shared in common with the three synoptic gospels, which means most of John’s gospel text is distinctive to him. He wrote his gospel last and had the benefit of looking at the other gospels texts before he sat down to pen his own. For example, John’s gospel narrates the beautiful encounters of the wedding of Cana, the late night dialogue with Nicodemus, and the Samaritan women at the well. From his privileged place in Christ’s inner circle, he also bequeaths to the Church the Lord’s teaching on the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper. As one finishes the fourth gospel, John seems to share his frustration at having to limit himself to these few stories: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).

From the Word’s very first words to John as recorded in his gospel, “What do you seek?” and “Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39), John inextricably fixed his heart, mind, soul, eyes, and ears on Christ.  He became the son of the Word of God. This develops into his new identity so completely that John never refers to himself by name in his gospel. His self-identification of choice throughout the fourth gospel is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (see Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20).

It is love that marks the teaching of Christ throughout John’s writings. As one hears the words of John proclaimed, whether in the gospel, the epistles, or the Apocalypse it is the revelation that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16) which marks each text. The greatest invitation extended to John to know God’s love was to lie close to the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper (Jn 13:23, 25). He heard with his own ears the beating of the human heart of God. This intimacy with the Sacred Heart only grew deeper when he was given care of the Mother who had formed that Heart. At the foot of the Cross, when all the other apostles fled, John, the beloved, remained because of love.  In return, he received the greatest treasure possible from the Lord, the gift of the Blessed Mother as his own mother, “Behold, your mother!” (Jn 19:27). From the time of the Crucifixion to her Assumption into heaven, Mary was able to fashion the Beloved Disciple’s heart to mirror her Son’s Heart.

John was so transformed by God’s love that he spent the rest of his life proclaiming it to others.  He confessed this grace-filled burden along with Peter, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).  He weathered all manner of suffering, was boiled in oil, freed from a poisonous cup, and exiled for giving testimony to the Word of God. He was the only apostle not to suffer a martyr’s death and, due to his long life, the last to inherit his eternal reward.  John’s brother, James, was the first apostle to shed his blood for Christ. It is fitting that the two sons of thunder, who requested seats at the right and the left of Christ, should serve as the two pillars framing the early life of Christ’s Body, the Church—the first of His followers to die and also the last.

It is said that at the end of John’s life, he was carried into the church and would repeat these words as his sermon: “Little children, love one another.” When the assembled Christians would ask for something more from John on the Christian life, he would respond “it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.”

Macbeth thought the sound and fury of life signified nothing. For a life without Christ, that is true. Yet, to this view, St. John, the son of thunder, responds that to know Christ, to know God’s love is enough—it is everything.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “St. John the Evangelist on Pathmos” painted by Alonso Cano in 1646-50.

Ben Akers

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Ben Akers is the Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catholic Catechetical School.

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