James was the first of the Twelve apostles to suffer martyrdom, in approximately A.D. 44. The Bible records, “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1, 2). The fact that James was deemed important enough to be selected by Herod Agrippa to suffer martyrdom implies that he was one of the prominent leaders of the early church.
As in the case of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:10), the decapitation of the apostle James shows that his death was decreed by a civil ruler, who employed Roman methods of punishment (Matt. 20:23). Had the apostle been guilty of blasphemy or heresy, the Sanhedrin would have sentenced him to death by stoning. A tradition, preserved by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History ii. 9) from Clement of Alexandria, records that James’s accuser became converted when he beheld the faith and patience of his victim.
Zebedee, his father, was a fisherman of the Sea of Galilee. Salome, his mother (Mark 15:40; Matt. 27:56), was one of the godly women that followed Christ and “ministered unto him” of her substance (Luke 8:3). His brother John the beloved took care of Mary the Mother of Jesus after the Lord’s death (John 19:27).
James was one of the only three apostles whom Jesus chose to witness His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1,2). In one occasion, James and John asked Jesus to grant them seats on His right and left in His glory not knowing what that request entailed (Mark 10:37-40).
James and John had fiery temper and had earned the nickname Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:16-17). Their temper was once exhibited when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan town for rejecting Jesus. But the Lord rebuked them saying, “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:56).
The New Testament describes James, at the beginning of his life, as being slightly selfish, ambitious, and outspoken man, but later on by the grace of God, the apostle was transformed into a calm and capable leader that reflected His Master’s character.
In His service,
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