Blood Is Thicker Than Water
Preached by Jason Abbott
We assume we know what the saying “blood is thicker than water” means, but do we really? Likely, in fact, we have given it a precisely opposite meaning from the original. We take it to mean that “blood” or family is closer than “water” or friendship is. Far more likely, however, is that the saying originally was to mean that sharing a “blood” covenant will make for a closer relationship with someone than sharing the “water” of the womb will.1
Just consider this evidence which one scholar shares about a similar saying from the Middle East. He explains:
We, in the West, are accustomed to say that ‘blood is thicker than water’. . . but the Arabs have the idea that blood is thicker than milk, than a mother’s milk. With them, any two children nourished at the same breast are called ‘milk-brothers,’. . . and the tie between such is very strong. . . But the Arabs hold that brothers in the covenant of blood are closer than brothers at a common breast.2
Isn’t that fascinating! Isn’t it interesting how sayings can change over time and evolve to mean the very opposite thing from what they originally meant!
Language, however, communicates ideas. And these ideas, not the language, hold the power. They indoctrinate us—Family relationships are the highest order of relationship. Family is the most important bond there is. Then, consequently, our ears are deafened and our eyes are blinded to biblical passages like the one we’ll study today. Let’s read it then hear and see how. (Brown Bibles, 1035)
25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
So, let’s dig in here and hang our thoughts on two hooks—two questions: (1st) Does Mary really need a son? Spoiler alert—I’m going to argue she doesn’t. And if she doesn’t, we have to ask the other one: (2nd) What’s Jesus doing here? Why is he creating this mother-son relationship? Let’s find out.
1. Does Mary need a son?
I’ll first lay out the case for why she would need a son—what some think Jesus might be doing here for Mary when he tells her to take John as her new son and tells John to take Mary as his new mother.
In the ancient Near East, there was no retirement plan or 401(k) for people. Mostly men and women worked until they died or, if they lived past their capacity to work, they expected their children—typically their oldest son—to provide care for them. This is one of the reasons having children was considered such a blessing in the ancient Near East.
What, however, happens if a couple has kids but then outlives those kids? The answer is that the husband must continue to work to provide for the family—for himself and his wife. But what if she then outlives her husband—who provides for her? The answer to this question is given us in the Old Testament book of Ruth. In that book, a woman named Naomi outlives both her husband and her two sons, and, consequently, she must rely on the charity of her hometown to eke out a living for herself. In short, she has to go on Old Testament welfare.
Some, therefore, believe this is at the heart of what Jesus is doing for Mary at this precise moment. They believe he’s making provision for his mother’s care following his death. They believe he’s making sure that Mary doesn’t need to rely on welfare. After all, Joseph (her husband) had likely died already, and Jesus hangs dying upon a cross at this very moment. Who then is going to take care of her?! Because of all this, one commentator explains Jesus’ words in this way:
[Jesus] was performing the mightiest Work of all history, He was engaged in doing that, which in comparison, the creating of a world fades into utter insignificance, yet he forgets not to make provision for his mother . . .3
Maybe the best textual support for the “Jesus-as-model-son-to-the-end” view is that, as soon as Jesus says these things from the cross, John tells us:
And from that hour the disciple [John] took her to his own home (v. 27).
In other words, John took care of Mary. He provided for her.
This appears to put a bow on the whole package, except that it doesn’t at all! For starters, the cross was no surprise to Jesus. He’d been focused on it for years. He knew he had come to die. He knew that his ministry was headed to the cross—“to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). If this is indeed the case, then why would Jesus wait till now to make provision for her?! Did he just forget?! (Sorry Mom! I was tying up lots of things there at the end, with the Twelve and all! As far as your care when I’m gone, here’s a son for you.) No! That’s not Jesus!
Another problem with this view is that Mary wasn’t short of having backup when Jesus died. Scripture tells us that she had other sons who could care for her. We’re even told their names when Jesus—on one occasion—visits his hometown. The crowd is offended at Jesus’ teaching. They chide:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him (Mark 6:3).
Look, it’s not that I believe that Jesus was anything less than a model son throughout his entire life. For sure, he was a model human being in all that he did! Perhaps part of what he’s doing here is making sure that Mary is being comforted and cared for after he’s gone; but in my opinion, if that’s the main thing he’s doing with this saying from the cross, then we’re left with more questions than answers.
- Why did Jesus wait till now to take care of these arrangements?
- Did Jesus forget until now?
- What made now the right time if Jesus didn’t forget?
- Why wouldn’t the other brothers of Jesus take care of Mary?
- Why would Mary want John to take care of her instead of her real sons?
Because of these kinds of questions, I’m convinced Jesus had more in mind than just providing for his mom when he said these words from the cross. I believe he was teaching us something profound about his sacrifice and his family.
And this brings us to our second question:
2. What’s Jesus doing?
One of my favorite scenes from any movie is a sequence from A River Runs Through It. The setting is the early 20th century in rural Montana. And the film depicts the story of a family (dad, mom, and their two sons). It’s simply the story of their relationship with one another (good and bad) over three decades.
The scene I love takes place when the boys are young, maybe between seven and ten-years-old. Their father is a Presbyterian pastor and a very strict academic who has decided that these boys must both be excellent writers. The brothers both want to go fishing; yet, their father has determined they can’t until they complete, to his satisfaction, an essay. Each time the oldest son gives his paper to his father (hoping he’s done!) his father makes some marks with a red pencil and replies, “Half as long.” to both of his sons’ chagrin.
You see, he’s teaching his sons to make every word count.
We so often use our words frivolously. I know I have a propensity to do this. Perhaps you do as well. But, here’s the point. Jesus never used his words like that. Scripture never uses words like that. John didn’t record these words of Jesus for us in order to merely fill space. As Paul reminds us:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Friends, the words of Jesus here are very important; they’re not merely filler. Therefore, we need to put them into the fuller context of the ministry and teaching of Jesus in order to grasp what Jesus was teaching John and Mary . . . and us as well. What’s Jesus doing here?
Well, it might help to remind ourselves of some of the really radical things which Jesus taught about family during his earthly ministry. Often these were some of his hardest teachings to accept and to understand. Yet, these are his last words about family before his death, and I wonder if they might not be a kind of capstone for us when we read them in light of some of the other teachings about true family (what it is and isn’t) from the ministry of Jesus. Let’s just look at three:
In this first reference to family, Jesus has just spoken with a rich young man about what it means to be saved. But this rich man will not give up his possessions in order to follow Jesus so he goes away sad. He worships his wealth above all else and, therefore, he cannot be saved. As Jesus and the disciples discuss the situation, Peter wants Jesus to reassure them of their salvation—of their reward. So he says: We’ve left everything for you. So what does that mean for us, Jesus? In response, Jesus says this:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).
What’s he saying? Well, Jesus teaches them that following him may mean they’re rejected by their family members—brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, or even their children. Nevertheless, Jesus encourages them that God will provide for them a family which will far exceed their wildest dreams. Yet not by the waters of birth, but by the blood of the covenant! The covenant in his blood!
In this second reference to family, Jesus is sending the Apostles on mission. He wants them to know how difficult being gospel messengers will prove for them. Allegiance to him as Lord will mean all other allegiances must take a back seat—even family allegiances. Here’s what he says:
. . . I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:35-37).
What does Jesus mean? Well, he’s explaining the new system of allegiance which his Lordship brings. Those who follow him must love him above all else—so much so that other relationships, even the closest family relationships, will pale in comparison. And, because of this new allegiance to Christ, he tells his disciples to expect strife—especially in those family relationships where one follows Jesus and another does not. The blood of Christ unites us more than the waters of birth!
In a third and final reference to family, Jesus is teaching a pretty big crowd of people, and Mary and his brothers have come to fetch him. They can’t reach him because of all the people, so they send word in that they’re outside waiting for him. This is how Jesus responds to that message:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
With these words, Jesus—in the clearest way!—teaches us the preeminence of the family of God. He’s telling us to open our eyes to the new order of things. He’s saying that blood is thicker than water—that the covenant which God makes with us creates a far more permanent bond than any mere earthly family ties could. Sharing my blood, he says, creates far thicker relationships than sharing DNA.
So then, what’s Jesus doing on the cross?
The short answer to this question is—Jesus is creating the family of God through his sacrifice, through his blood. That’s why Jesus hangs there before them, so that they may be made God’s sons and daughters through faith (Galatians 3:26). At the moment he said, “Woman, behold, your son. . . [son] Behold, your mother” Jesus was making this ultimate family-of-God-relationship possible.
He’s not giving Mary to John so that John might provide for Mary’s needs. Rather, Jesus is providing for their needs and is pointing them to God’s provision by highlighting this new, glorious, and divinely formed relationship to one another. You’re now family! Through faith in me, you’re eternally united to one another—mother to son, son to mother . . . forever in Christ!
This, I’m convinced, is what Jesus is saying from the cross in this passage—Through faith in this covenant in my blood, I’m making you into mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters without end. How amazing!
However, too often we treat this gift of Christ as if it were something cheap. We may talk as if we have a family in the church, but our actions tell another story. There is no deep community. There is no intimate sharing. There is no real fidelity. There is no service of others. There is no service with others. There is no family.
I’m going to close with a true story. It’s the story of two families I know—neither of whom you know. Both families attended the same church, the church which I served in Missouri. Both sets of parents were friends with one another. Both had children who were roughly the same ages. When I began pastoring there, the families were in roughly the same place spiritually. When I left nine years later, one family was thriving spiritually and the other was floundering spiritually.
What was the difference? The difference between the two was commitment over years in often seemingly insignificant ways to being a part of the local church, the local family of God.
Just little things over time:
- coming faithfully to church on Sundays
- meeting with a small group regularly
- volunteering in some ministry
- inviting someone who is new to lunch
Or, just little things over time:
- attending church when it’s convenient
- joining a small group . . . next year maybe
- volunteering, but then backing out after a month or two
- avoiding someone who is new at church
Friends, I don’t challenge you with these things to crush you but to love you. Christ died in order to connect you to his family. Don’t neglect the supreme value of your relationship to it. Don’t undervalue your part in it.