Of the three apostles closest to Jesus, Peter, James and John, James is the one we know the least about. His name never appears alone in the gospels. He is always mentioned with his younger brother John. Much like Peter and Andrew. The only time we see James mentioned by himself is in the book of Acts where it records his death. James was the first apostle to be martyred.
James, and his brother John are often referred to as the sons of Zebedee. This indicates that their father was of some importance. His prestige may have been a result of his financial standing, family lineage, or both. It appears, from Mark 1:20, that the family business was large enough to employ several servants.
"And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed Him." Mark 1:20
Early church records tell us that John's father, Zebedee, was most likely a Levite and related to the high priest. This is another explanation for the family's prominence. Prestige must have followed John as well. His acquaintance with the high priest gained Peter entrance to the high priest's courtyard on the night of Jesus' arrest.
The fact that James' name follows Peter's in the list of apostles tells us that he must of been a strong leader. James was present when Jesus:
Isn't that what we need to see to strengthen our faith?
His power | His glory | His sovereignty | His agony
James was a man of passion, fervor, zeal and intensity. Jesus calls him and his brother the Sons of Thunder. But this passion needed to be controlled. At the same time we find Andrew quietly bringing people to Jesus, we find James wishing to call down fire from heaven and destroy them. Very different dispositions, both useful for the Kingdom though.
Isn't it wonderful that Jesus can use us even though we are not all the same? We're all different. Different talents. Different gifts. Uniquely designed by the Creator for different purposes.
The passion of James reminds us of an Old Testament character—Elijah. He too was passionate with fervor, zeal and intensity. He too was ready and willing to call down fire from heaven and destroy people. And he did!
"Zeal is a virtue when it is truly zeal for righteousness' sake" —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
Fire From Heaven
In Luke 9:51-56 we find James and John acting like you would expect Sons of Thunder to act. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem for what would ultimately culminate in His death on the cross. He chose the most direct route which was straight through Samaria.
People of the day would go to great lengths to bypass Samaria even to the extent of going well out of their way to travel around it. But on this particular trip Jesus chose to go straight through the city.
Jesus sent messengers ahead to prepare for food and lodging. Most likely the group He was traveling with was large and preparations needed to be made. Because of the hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews, accommodations were refused. This filled James with outrage!
"And when His disciples, James and John, saw it, they said, 'Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?'" Luke 9:54
Their zeal was out of control, their motives wrong, and neither of them had the power to do this.
What I love so much about this passage is that Jesus was on a much different mission! James and John were ready to call down fire on the Samaritans. Jesus came to save, not destroy. After all the time the brothers had spent with Him you would think they would understand this.
"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10
I am so thankful that He came to seek and to save. He came to give His life as a ransom for many, to save instead of condemn, to be a light in the darkness. I am one He sought. I am one He ransomed. I am one He saved when He should of condemned. I am one who found light in the darkness. Praise the Lord!
"The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made." Psalms 145:9
I'm so glad that God is a God of patient loving-kindness and mercy towards sinners! This was the lesson that James and John learned that day.
A few years after this incident, Philip preached in the city of Samaria (Acts 8:5) and multitudes were brought into the Kingdom! Would this had happened if James and John had been permitted to bring down fire on the people? Undoubtably not!
Seats in the Kingdom
Another insight to James' character is found in Matthew 20:20-24 where we not only see his passion, but also ambition and overconfidence. We find here a record of James and John's mother, Salome, coming to Jesus with a petition. She comes to Him requesting that her sons be granted seats on the right and left of Jesus in Heaven. The book of Mark also records the incident. The brothers, and their mother, probably thought of many reasons they deserved this honor. They were included in the most intimate, closest group to the Savior. They had been apostles the longest. However, they clearly had no concept of the price to be paid. They did not know what they were asking for.
This makes me think of my prayer life and how I pray not really knowing what I am praying for. Oh, I think I know. But I really don't. However, the Savior knows. He knows what I need and He intercedes for me!
"James wanted a crown of glory; Jesus gave him a cup of suffering. He wanted power; Jesus gave him servanthood. He wanted a place of prominence; Jesus game him a martyr's grave. He wanted to rule; Jesus gave him a sword—not to wield, but to be the instrument of his own execution." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
Fourteen years following this incident, James would become the first apostle to be martyred. (Acts 12:1-3) This is the one place in Scripture where we see James mentioned alone. He is actually the only apostle who's death is recorded in Scripture. The price was high!
James was still a man of passion, right up to the end. His passion had been instrumental in the spread of the Gospel and growth of the early church. He had been mentored by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to the point that his passion for truth was useful. He was courageous, zealous and committed, and this showed at the time of his death.
History records that the one who led James to his death was moved by his testimony and confessed that he too was a Christian. They were both beheaded at the same time. In the end, James was a little like Andrew after all, bringing people to Jesus. Faithful to the end! His passion tempered by grace.
"...zeal is a marvelous instrument in the hands of God." —John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
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