We commemorate James, son of Zebedee, also known as James the Greater, who was one of the Twelve Apostles, on April 30 according to the Julian calendar. The Church of Christ is referred to as the Apostolic Church in the Creed because She is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone (Ephesians 2:20). Apostle James, son of Zebedee, is one of the foundational stones of the Church, which is why every Christian should know the basic facts from the lives of those who the building of our Church rests upon. Our aim today is to let you know more about the most important facts of Apostle James’ life.
1. James and his brother John were sons of Zebedee and went fishing in the Sea of Galilee like their father. Their mother’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere except the Gospel of Mark, where she is called Salome. Jesus Christ calls them to be his apostles immediately after Peter and Andrew: And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. (Matthew 4:21). James and John immediately left their father and followed Jesus. Saint John Chrysostom underlines how poor they were if they had to mend their nets instead of buying new ones. Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid asks why they left their father and suggests that it was because Zebedee, their father, didn’t believe in Christ. Saint Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, praises the two brothers and says that they managed to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven at the cost of a boat and old fishing nets.
2. The Lord gave Simon a new name, Peter, which means ‘a rock’; likewise, He nicknamed the brothers Zebedee Boanerges, or ‘Sons of Thunder’. What did He mean by that? Chrysostom points out that Jesus did it in order to show to everyone that He was the same God who had given people the Old Testament and who had the authority to rename people: He had renamed Abram into Abraham, and so forth. St. Philaret (Drozdov) explains that their name ‘Sons of Thunder’ meant that they were “thunderous messengers of the Good News”.
3. We often hear that all apostles are absolutely equal. In spite of the fact that they all share the same Apostolic calling, they were still different in the level of their intimacy with Jesus. There are the Seventy Apostles, and there are the Twelve who were the closest to the Lord. Similarly, the Lord always singled out the three of his closest disciples – Peter, James, and John – from the ranks of the Twelve Apostles. James, along with his brother John and Peter, participated in the miraculous fishing (Luke 5:10), the healing of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37), witnessed the Transfiguration of the Lord (Luke 9:28), and the prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Although James doesn’t play a significant role in those events, he and his brother still venture to ask Jesus to let them sit on his right and his left hand in his glory (Mark 10:35-40), which made the other ten disciples livid. Saint John Chrysostom explains this passage thus: See how they all were imperfect: both these two who wanted to be superior to the ten, and those ten who were envious of these two? But, as I have already said, Look at their subsequent life, and you shall see them free from all those passions. Listen how the same John who now comes to Jesus asking him to make him superior, later concedes the highest rank to Peter both in preaching and in miracles… As far as James is concerned, although he didn’t live too long, he was so on fire for God that he disregarded all things human, achieved unspeakable prowess and was immediately deemed worthy of martyrdom. They all became perfect in all virtues; but then, they were indignant.” (Commentary on Matthew).
4. Gospel of Luke reports the following peculiar detail of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking Jesus, after the Samaritans hadn’t let the Lord and his disciples stay in their village, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? (Luke 9:54). However, the Lord declined, saying that they didn’t know what manner of spirit they were of, and that He is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. Blessed Theophylact thinks that the disciples were unable to bring down the fire but they wanted to make the Lord seek retaliation because they weren’t perfect yet.
5. The last piece of information the Scripture tells us of the life of Saint James, son of Zebedee, is that he suffered martyrdom for Christ’s sake. He was beheaded at the behest of King Herod Agrippa not long before Apostle Peter was arrested. Thus, Saint James was the first apostle to die preaching the Risen Christ. We know from the Holy Tradition that one of the guards who led James to the court, was so impressed by his courage and words that he converted to Christianity and asked Apostle James to forgive him. The apostle paused to think and then replied, Peace be to you! and kissed him, after which they were beheaded together.
Holy Apostle James, son of Zebedee, son of thunder, pray to God for us!