Of the brothers, James and John, James was the oldest. (This is doubtless why his name always appears first when the two names appear together.) And between the two sets of brothers (Peter and Andrew, James and John) the family of James and John seem to have been more prominent than that of Peter and Andrew. This is hinted at by the fact that James and John were often referred to simply as “the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 20: 20) signifying that Zebedee was a man of some importance.
Zebedee’s prestige might have stemmed from his financial success, his family lineage, or both. His fishing business was large enough to employ multiple hired servants (Mark 1: 20). Moreover, Zebedee’s entire family had enough status that the apostle John “was known to the high priest,” and that is how John was able to get Peter admitted to the high priest’s courtyard on the night of Jesus’ arrest (John 18: 15-16 ). There is some evidence from the early church record that Zebedee was a Levite and closely related to the high priest’s family. Whatever the reason for Zebedee’s prominence, it is clear from scripture that his family’s reputation reached from Galilee all the way to the high priests household in Jerusalem.
Biblical Scenes with James
James never did take first place among the apostles except in one regard: he was the first to be martyred. But James is a much more significant figure than we might think, based on the little we know about him. In two of the lists of apostles his name comes immediately after Peter’s (Mark 3: 16-19, Acts 1: 13). So there is good reason to assume he was a strong leader—and probably second in influence after Peter.
Of course, James always figures prominently in the close inner circle of three. He, Peter, and John were the only ones Jesus permitted to go with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5: 37). The same group of three witnessed Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1). James was among four disciples who questioned Jesus privately on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13: 3). And he was included again with John and Peter when the Lord urged those three to pray with him privately in Gethsemane (Mark 14: 33).
James’ Innate Characteristics
What little we know about James underscores that he had a fiery, vehement disposition. He was outspoken, intense, and impatient with evil doers. While Andrew was quietly bringing individuals to Jesus, (see Andrew-Apostle of Small Things) James was wishing he could call down fire from heaven and destroy whole villages of people. Even the fact that James was the first to be martyred—and that his martyrdom was accomplished by no less a figure than Herod—suggest that James was not a passive or subtle man, but rather he had a style that stirred things up, so that he made deadly enemies rapidly.
Zeal is a virtue when it is truly zeal for righteousness sake. But sometimes zeal is less than righteous. Zeal apart from knowledge can be damning (Romans 10: 2). Zeal without wisdom is dangerous. Zeal mixed with insensitivity is often cruel. Whenever zeal disintegrates into uncontrolled passion, it can be deadly. And James sometimes tended to let such misguided zeal get the better of him. Two incidents illustrate this. One is the episode where James wanted to call down fire. The other is the time James and John enlisted there’s mother’s help to lobby for the highest seats in the Kingdom.
Fire from Heaven
A Little about the Samaritans
We get our best glimpse of why James and John were known as the Sons of Thunder in Luke 9: 51-56, as Jesus was preparing to pass through Samaria to Jerusalem for his final Passover.
The Sumerians were the mixed-race offspring of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom. When Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the land was resettled with pagans and foreigners who were loyal to the Assyrian king (2 kings 17: 24-34). Poor Israelites who remained in the land intermarried with those pagans. They claimed to worship Jehovah as God (and ostensibly they accepted the Pentateuch as scripture), but they founded their own priesthood, built their own temple, and devised a sacrificial system of their own making. In short they made a new religion based in large part on pagan traditions. The Samaritans’ religion is a classic example of what happens when the authority of scripture is subjugated to human tradition.
A sample of this man-made religion was evident when the Samaritan woman in John 4:20 said to Jesus, “our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” Obviously, this was one of the chief points under dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans. (To this day a small group of the Samaritans descendants still worship on Mount Gerizin.)
Many of the original Israelite’s descendants who later returned to Samaria from captivity were also the product of intermarriage with pagans, so the culture of Samaria suited them perfectly. Of course, the Jews regarded the Samaritans as a mongrel race and their religion as a mongrel religion. This is why, during the time of Christ, such pains were taken to avoid all travel through Samaria. The entire region was deemed unclean. But Jesus chose the more direct route to Jerusalem through Samaria.
Why James Wanted Samaritan Destruction
Along the way, Jesus and his followers would need places to eat and spend the night. Since the party traveling with Jesus was fairly large, he sent messengers ahead to arrange accommodations. Jesus’ messengers were refused all accommodation. The Samaritans not only hated the Jews, but they also hated the worship that took place in Jerusalem. The problem was not that there was no room for them in the inn; The problem was that the Samaritans were being deliberately inhospitable.
Of course, Jesus had never shown anything but goodwill toward the Samaritans. But now they were treating him with deliberate contempt. James and John, the Sons of Thunder, were instantly filled with passionate outrage. They said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” on Ahaziah’s soldiers (Luke 5: 54).
When James and John suggested fire from heaven as a fitting response to the Samaritans inhospitality, they probably thought they were standing on solid precedent. After all, Elijah was not condemned for his actions. On the contrary, at that time and under those circumstances, it was the appropriate response from Elijah. But it was not a proper response for James and John.
In the first place their motives were wrong. The tone of arrogance is evident in the way they asked the question. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” Of course, they did not have that capability. Christ was the only one who had such power. If that were an appropriate response, Jesus could have done it himself. James and John were brazenly suggesting that he should give them power to call down fire. Christ himself had been challenged many times by his adversaries to produce such cosmic miracles, and he had always declined (Matthew 12: 39). James and John were in effect asking Jesus to enable them to do what they knew he would not do.
Furthermore, Jesus’ mission was very different from Elijah’s. Christ had come to save, not to destroy. Therefore, his response to the brothers was a firm reproof; “But he turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘you do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them’” (Luke 5: 55-56).
The Lesson Jesus Taught James
Jesus’ example taught James that loving kindness and mercy are virtues to be cultivated as much as (and sometimes more than) righteous indignation and fiery zeal. A few years after this, as the early church began to grow and the gospel message spread beyond Judea, Philip the deacon “went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them” (Acts 8: 5). A marvelous thing happened: “the multitude with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles that he did. “For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. And there was a great joy in the city” (Acts 8:6-8). Undoubtedly, many who were saved under Phillip’s preaching were some of the same people whom Jesus spared when James had wanted to incinerate them.
Thrones in the Kingdom
We get another insight into James’s character in Matthew 20:20-24.
“What do you wish?” she said to him [Jesus], “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and the other on the left, in your Kingdom.” but Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to him, “we are able.” so he said to them, “you will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; But to sit on my right hand and on my left is not mine to give but it is for those for whom it is prepared by my Father.” and when the 10 heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers.
Mark also records this incident, but he doesn’t mention that James and John enlisted their mother’s intercession. Although Matthew records that she is the one who made the request of Jesus, a comparison with Mark’s account makes it clear that she was put up to it by her sons.
By comparing Matthew 27: 56 with Mark 16:1, we further discover that the mother of James and John was named Salome. She was one of “many women who follow Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.” (Matthew 27: 55)—meaning that they supplied financial support and probably helped prepare meals (Luke 8:1-3).
The idea for Salome’s bold request was probably hatched in the minds of James and John because of Jesus promise in Matthew 19:28. “Assuredly, I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel.” Jesus immediately followed up that promise with a reminder that “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (v. 30). But it was the promise of thrones that caught the attention of James and John. Although Jesus had explained to them numerous times that he was about to be crucified they clearly did not understand what kind of baptism he meant.
Their ambition created conflicts among the apostles, because the other 10 heard about it and were displeased. The question of who deserved the most prominent thrones became the big debate among them, and they carried it right to the table at the Last Supper (Luke 22: 24).
The Martyrdom of James
Fourteen years after this, James would become the first of the 12 to be killed for his faith. The end of James’ story, from an earthly perspective, is recorded in Acts 12: 1-3. Scripture records that Herod was the one who had him killed and that the instrument of execution was a sword (meaning that he was beheaded). This was not Herod Antipas, the one who killed John the Baptist and put Jesus on trial; This was his nephew and successor, Herod Agrippa I. James is the only apostle whose death is recorded in scripture.
That Son of Thunder had been mentored by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and shaped by those means into a man whose zeal and ambition were useful instruments in the hands of God for spreading the Kingdom. Still courageous, zealous, and committed to the truth, he had apparently learned to use those qualities for the Lord’s service, rather than for his own self-aggrandizement. And now his strength was so great that when Herod decided it was time to stop the church, James was the first man to die. He thus drank the cup Christ gave him to drink. His life was short, but his influence continues to this day.
History records that James’ testimony bore fruit right up until the moment of his execution. Eusebius, the early church historian, passed on an account of James’ death that came from Clement of Alexandria:
“(Clement” says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian. They were both therefore, he says led away together, and on the way he begged James to forgive him. And (James), after considering a little, said, “Peace be with thee,” and kissed him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time.” Thus in the end, James had learned to be more like Andrew, bringing people to Christ instead of itching to execute judgment.
Zeal such as James’ must always be harnessed and tempered with love. If it is surrendered to the control of the Holy Spirit and blended with patience and long-suffering, it is a marvelous instrument in the hands of God. The life of James offers clear proof of that.
You may also be interested in learning more about:
Andrew – Apostle of Small Things
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Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur