Of the three disciples in Jesus’ closest inner circle, James is the least familiar to us. The biblical account is practically devoid of any explicit details about his life and character. He never appears as a stand-alone character in the gospel accounts, but he is always paired with his younger and better-known brother, John.
The only time he is mentioned by himself is in the book of Acts, where his martyrdom is recorded: “Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword” (Acts 12:1-2).
This relative silence about James is ironic, because from a human perspective, he might have seemed the logical one to dominate the group. Between James and John, James was the eldest. (That is doubtless why his name always appears first when those two names appear together.) And between the two sets of brothers, the family of James and John seems to have been much more prominent than the family of Peter and Andrew. This is hinted at by the fact that James and John are often referred to simply as “the sons of Zebedee” (Mark 10:35)—signifying that Zebedee was a man of some importance.
Zebedee’s prestige might have stemmed from his financial success, his family lineage, or both. He was apparently quite well-to-do. 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 he was a man of importance, and his family’s reputation reached from Galilee all the way to the high priest’s household in Jerusalem.
James, as the elder brother from such a prominent family, might have felt that by all rights he ought to have been the chief apostle. Indeed, that may be one of the main reasons there were so many disputes about “which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (Luke 22:24). But James never did actually take first place among the apostles except in one regard: He was the first to be martyred.
James is a much more significant figure than we might consider, 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 also 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’s 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). So as a member of the small inner circle, he was privileged to witness Jesus’ power in the raising of the dead, he saw His glory when Jesus was transfigured, he saw Christ’s sovereignty in the way the Lord unfolded the future to them on the Mount of Olives, and he saw the Savior’s agony in the garden. All of these events must have strengthened his faith immensely and equipped him for the suffering and martyrdom he himself would eventually face.
If there’s a key word that applies to the life of the apostle James, that word is passion. From the little we know about him, it is obvious that he was a man of ardent fervor and intensity. In fact, Jesus gave James and John a nickname: Boanerges—“Sons of Thunder.” That defines James’s personality in very vivid terms. He was zealous, thunderous, passionate, and fervent. He reminds us of Jehu in the Old Testament, who was known for driving his chariot at breakneck speed (2 Kings 9:20), and who said, “Come with me and see my zeal for the Lord” (2 Kings 10:16)—then annihilated the house of Ahab and swept away Baal-worship from the land. But Jehu’s passion was a passion out of control, and his “zeal for the Lord” turned out to be tainted with selfish, worldly ambition and the most bloodthirsty kinds of cruelty. Scripture says, “Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, which he made Israel sin” (2 Kings 10:31).
The apostle James’s zeal was mixed with similar ambitious and bloodthirsty tendencies (though in much milder doses), and he may have even been headed down a similar road to ruin when Jesus met him. But by God’s grace, he was transformed into a man of God and became one of the leading apostles.
Mark, who records that Jesus called James and John “Sons of Thunder,” includes that fact in his list of the Twelve, mentioning it in the same way he notes that Simon was named Peter (Mark 3:17). We don’t know how often Jesus employed His nickname for James and John; Mark’s mention of it is the only time it appears in all of Scripture. Unlike Peter’s name, which was obviously intended to help encourage and shape Peter’s character toward a rocklike steadfastness, “Boanerges” seems to have been bestowed on the sons of Zebedee to chide them when they allowed their naturally feverish temperaments to get out of hand. Perhaps the Lord even used it for humorous effect while employing it as a gentle admonishment.
What little we know about James underscores the fact that he had a fiery, vehement disposition. While Andrew was quietly bringing individuals to Jesus, 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—suggests 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 very rapidly.
There is a legitimate place in spiritual leadership for people who have thunderous personalities. Elijah was that kind of character. (Indeed, Elijah was the role model James thought he was following when he pleaded for fire from heaven.) Nehemiah was similarly passionate (cf. Nehemiah 13:25). John the Baptist had a fiery temperament, too. James apparently was cut from similar fabric. He was outspoken, intense, and impatient with evildoers.
There is nothing inherently wrong with such zeal. Remember that Jesus Himself made a whip and cleansed the temple. And when he did, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for Your house will consume Me’” (John 2:17; cf. Psalm 69:9). James of all people knew what it was to be eaten up with zeal for the Lord. Much of what James saw Jesus do probably helped stoke his zeal—such as when the Lord rebuked the Jewish leaders, when He cursed the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, and when He confronted and destroyed demonic powers. 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 (cf. 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 had a tendency to let such misguided zeal get the better of him. Two incidents in particular illustrate this. One is the episode where James wanted to call down fire. The other is the time James and John enlisted their mother’s help to lobby for the highest seats in the kingdom.
In the coming days we will consider both incidents, and what we ought to learn from this passionate apostle.