The apostle James was part of Christ’s inner circle and one of His closest confidants. But unlike Peter and John, we read very little about this “Son of Thunder” as an individual. The majority of what we know about James—and his passionate, zealous character—comes from two key incidents recorded in the gospels.
Last time we looked at his misguided desire to call down fire from heaven in judgment.
We get another insight into James’s character in Matthew 20:20–24. Here we discover that James was not only fervent, passionate, zealous, and insensitive; he was also ambitious and overconfident. And in this case, he and his brother John engaged in a furtive attempt to gain status over the other apostles:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.
Mark also records this incident, but he doesn’t mention that James and John enlisted their mother’s intercession (Mark 10:35-41). Although Matthew records that she is the one who made this 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 had followed Jesus from Galilee while ministering to Him” (Matthew 27:55)—meaning that they supplied financial support and probably helped prepare meals (cf. Luke 8:1–3). Because of the family’s affluence, Salome would have been able to join her sons for extended periods of time, traveling with the company that followed Jesus everywhere and helping meet logistical, practical, and financial needs.
The idea for Salome’s bold request was undoubtedly hatched in the minds of James and John because of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:28: “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve 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. So they decided to have their mother request that they be given the most prominent thrones.
They were already in the intimate circle of three. They had been disciples as long as anyone. They probably thought of numerous reasons why they deserved this honor, so why not simply ask for it?
For her part, Salome was clearly a willing participant. Obviously she had encouraged her sons’ ambitions, which may help explain where some of their attitudes came from.
Jesus’ reply subtly reminded them that suffering is the prelude to glory: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). Although He had explained to them numerous times that He was about to be crucified, they clearly did not understand what kind of baptism He meant. They had no real concept of what was stirring in the cup He was asking them to drink.
So, of course, in their foolish, ambitious self-confidence, they assured Him, “We are able” (Matthew 20:22). They were clamoring for honor and position, so they were still eager to hear Him promise them those highest thrones.
But He did not make that promise. Instead, He assured them that they would indeed drink His cup and be baptized with the same baptism he was about to undergo. (At that moment they could not have appreciated what they had just volunteered for.) But the chief thrones, Jesus said, were not necessarily part of the bargain. “To sit on My right hand and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father” (Matthew 20:23).
Their ambition ultimately created conflicts among the apostles, because the other ten 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).
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 gave 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. Fourteen years after this, James would become the first of the Twelve to be killed for his faith.
James’s Cup of Suffering
The end of James’s story from an earthly perspective is recorded in Acts 12:1–3: “Now about that time 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. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”
Remember, this is the one place in Scripture where James appears alone, apart from even his brother. Few details of James’s martyrdom are given. Scripture records that Herod was the one who had him killed and that the instrument of execution was a sword (meaning, of course, 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. We don’t know why this Herod would be so hostile to the church. Of course, it was well known that his uncle had participated in the conspiracy to kill Christ, so the preaching of the cross would surely have been an embarrassment to the Herodian Dynasty per se (cf. Acts 4:27). In addition to that, it is clear that Herod wanted to use the tensions between the church and the Jewish religious leaders to his political advantage. He began with a campaign of harassment against Christians and soon moved to murder. When he saw how this pleased the Jewish leaders, he decided to target Peter as well.
Peter miraculously escaped, and Herod himself died under God’s judgment shortly afterward. Scripture says that after Peter’s escape, Herod had the prison guards killed and went to Caesarea (Acts 12:19). While there, he accepted the kind of worship that is appropriate only for God. “The people kept crying out, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man!’ And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:22–23). And thus the immediate threat against the church posed by Herod’s campaign of harassment and murder was ended.
But it is significant that James was the first of the apostles to be killed. (James is the only apostle whose death is actually recorded in Scripture.) Clearly, James was still a man of passion. His passion, now under the Holy Spirit’s control, had been so instrumental in the spread of the truth that it had aroused the wrath of Herod. Obviously, James was right where he had always hoped to be and where Christ had trained him to be—on the front line as the gospel advanced and the church grew.
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 of 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 who had 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’s testimony bore fruit right up until the moment of his execution. Eusebius, the early church historian, passes on an account of James’s 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 compassionate, bringing people to Christ instead of itching to execute judgment.
James is the prototype of the passionate, zealous, front runner who is dynamic, strong, and ambitious. Ultimately, his passions were tempered by sensitivity and grace. Somewhere along the line he had learned to control his anger, bridle his tongue, redirect his zeal, eliminate his thirst for revenge, and completely lose his selfish ambition. And the Lord used him to do a wonderful work in the early church.
Such lessons are sometimes hard for a man of James’s passions to learn. But if I have to choose between a man of burning, flaming, passionate, enthusiasm with a potential for failure on the one hand, and a cold compromiser on the other hand, I’ll take the man with passion every time. Such zeal must always be harnessed and tempered with love. But if it is surrendered to the control of the Holy Spirit and blended with patience and longsuffering, such zeal is a marvelous instrument in the hands of God. The life of James offers clear proof of that.
(Adapted from Twelve Ordinary Men.)