A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind. [Matthew 4:21-22 (NLT)]
The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were among the first to follow Jesus. Along with Simon Peter, they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. The three men knew Jesus the longest, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, were witnesses at the Transfiguration, and went with Jesus to Gethsemane. It was these brash brothers who wanted to rain down fire from heaven upon an inhospitable Samaritan village. Because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave them their nickname: “sons of Boanerges” (meaning sons of thunder). It even may have been at their urging that their mother brazenly asked Jesus to grant special places for her boys in His kingdom.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus around 33 AD, the first followers of Jesus were tolerated by the Jewish leaders. They considered Jesus’ believers to be a minor sect that would die out in time. But, instead of diminishing, the Christian movement rapidly grew with its acceptance of Gentiles. By the time of Herod Agrippa I (41 to 44), Jewish leaders became alarmed at the number of Christ’s followers. Rather than a minor sect, they were becoming a religion—something the Jews considered apostasy. Like the Herods before him, Agrippa ruled over Palestine on behalf of Rome and his main purpose was to keep the peace for the emperor. Knowing the importance of currying favor with the Jewish leaders, the king began to persecute some of Christ’s followers and James, the brother of John, was the first of the disciples to die.
Acts 12 tells us he was “killed with a sword” which is just a polite way of saying James was beheaded. According to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy and James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and Mosaic law for the “false teachings” of Christianity. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king. Although the Sanhedrin lacked the right to execute without Roman permission, as king, Agrippa could execute at will, which he did!
We know little about this fisherman from Galilee who was among the first to be called and the first of the apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions. The men immediately left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked them if they could drink from the same bitter cup of suffering from which He would drink. Again, without hesitation or asking what that might entail, John and James said they could.
James died more than a decade after Jesus’ ascension and Scripture is silent as to what he did during those years. Although legend has it that James evangelized in Spain for several years before returning to Jerusalem, it took eight centuries before that legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, James probably limited his preaching to Judea and Samaria but we don’t know. All we really need to know, however, is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me. Although his life was cut short and his brother John lived more than one hundred years, both apostles lived for Jesus and always said, “Yes!” to Him. Can we say the same?
But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” [Mark 10:38-39 (NLT)]
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