James is the third of Jesus’ inner circle; Peter, John, and James often accompanied Jesus in his most private moments. He was John’s brother, son of his father Zebedee and mother Salome.
We know little of James’ early life other than what can be surmised from his association with his brother, John. The brothers, Peter, and Andrew were fishermen together. In some traditions his mother, Salome, was the older sister of Jesus’ mother, Mary.
During Jesus’ ministry, James was with John and Peter as Christ raised Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5, Luke 8), at the Transfiguration, and the Jesus’ agony in Gesthemani. He and his brother were impetuous, zealous, severe in temper and earned from Jesus the nicknames “sons of thunder.” Luke 9 includes two examples:
1) John reports to Jesus, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us;” to which Jesus responds that whoever is not against them is for them (v. 49-50); and,
2) When Samaritans did not welcome him, they urged Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (v. 51-56), drawing a rebuke from Jesus.
James was the first apostle to be executed in 44 A.D. Acts 12 describes what happened. He was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. Agrippa was intent on pleasing the Jewish community over which he ruled and James was a visible leader within the growing Christian community; a perfect target to send a message. The result was so pleasing to Agrippa that he sought Peter’s life; but Peter’s life was miraculously spared by an angel of the Lord who provided for his escape.
According to tradition, when James was being led out to die, the man who had brought the false accusations against him came along as a spectator. He watched James walk to the place of execution beheading expecting to see James looking broken, pale, and frightened. Instead, James was bright and joyous. He looked like a conqueror who had won a great battle. This surprised the accuser and jolted his soul. He was convicted that only the true God could grant such an attitude and courage to a condemned man. The miracle? He converted on the spot and was condemned to die with James.
The life of James teaches us that in human terms happy endings and miraculous escapes are not always God’s plan. James’ triumphant martyrdom again, in human terms was still a beheading and a death. Nonetheless, we look at his spirit; his spirit that was consistent with his enthusiastic passion for the Lord. He claimed and lived the victory promised by the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He belonged (as do we) body and soul, in life and in death not to himself but to his faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
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