From Rich & Spoiled to Meek Martyr – The Apostle James the Greater

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We’re continuing a sub-series within our study of the Gospel of Mark where we are going to look a little more closely at the lives of the Apostles. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the Apostle Peter, and I reminded you that as we go through these mini-biographies that I want you to do a few things.

First, I want you to find yourself in this group. Without a doubt one of the Apostles’ personalities will jump out at you and you’ll be able to see yourself in them. Look for the ones who were tempted like you are tempted, have the same weaknesses and strengths as you, and see what meeting Jesus and following Him did for them.

Second, I want you to notice how different these people are and embrace the understanding that God calls lots of kinds of people into His kingdom.

Third, I want you to be thankful that you have been chosen just as Jesus chose the disciples. Thankful that you have a divine purpose for your life. You may stumble and fall, but God’s grace is always available to you and once you accept that grace and begin to walk in faith, you can discover that divine purpose.

Are You Veruca Salt?

Have you ever seen Charlie and the Chocolate factory? Probably my least favourite character on there is Veruca Salt, the spoiled rich kid who gets everything she wants.

Do you know anyone who is spoiled and privileged? Someone willing to jump to conclusions before knowing all the facts because they assume they understand everything without asking questions. Someone willing to step onto the ice before they even have their equipment on because they know how good they are. Someone who open their mouth and speaks before they have engaged their brains because no matter what they say people dote on them and think they’re cool?

Do you know someone who wears their emotions on their sleeve? When they are angry, they look and sound angry. When they are joyful you know it because they are loud and boisterous. And God help anyone around when they aren’t getting what they want.

Are you the kind of person who has deep-running emotions, high-highs, and low-lows? Were you spoiled as a child? Did you always get whatever you want and when you didn’t you let everyone know? Are you spoiled now? Do you feel like when you walk into the room you know exactly how things should go, what you are entitled to, how people should be acting, how the decorations should go, and who should be where? Are you able to walk into any place in town and they know your name, your favourite drink, and your favourite seat?

You might identify with the Apostle James then because it seems like he was all of that. And this isn’t going to a “don’t be like Veruca Salt” sermon… it’s going to be a “’Did you know Jesus loves Veruca Salt and made her that way on purpose’ sermon.” Let me give you a quick overview of what we know about the Apostle James from scripture to show you what I mean.

Three James’

First, let’s make sure we know who we’re talking about. There are three big “James’” in the New Testament. The one we are talking about is the Apostle James, the brother of the Apostle John, sometimes called James the Greater or James the Major.

He’s called James the Greater because another James is the other Apostle was also named James, who is called the Younger, and may have been Matthew’s brother.

The other big James in the scripture is James the Brother of Jesus who was not an apostle, but he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James.

James the Greater

So, who was James the Greater? We know most about James because of his association with his brother John, who gets a lot more written about him. When you read the name James, it is almost always followed by “and John.” In the list of Apostles in Mark, which we are basing this series off of, it says Jesus called, “James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is Sons of Thunder)” (Mark 3:17)

We know lots about John, and we’ll talk about him next week, but what do we know about James?

James was one of the first disciples called, and was part of Jesus’ closest inner circle. The people who get invited to witness the most intimate and powerful events in the life of Jesus Christ are Peter, James and John. Something about these three men gave them a special relationship with Jesus. We talked about Peter a couple of weeks ago, and if you know the scriptures then you know that John has some pretty good qualifications and is often called “the one that Jesus loved”, but what was so special about James?

It could be that it was because James and John were family. Salome their mother was probably the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother (John 19:25). But I’m not sure this really makes the case since there were other members of Jesus’ family, his brothers and sisters, who turned against Him at one point and wanted to lock Him up for being crazy. (Mark 3:21) So being part of his family doesn’t automatically make you a believer, or a favourite. There must have been something else about him.

It was only Peter, James and John that got to see the Transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop. It was only Peter, James and John who got to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter. It was only Peter, James and John that were asked to come with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray with him and support him. It says in Matthew 26:36-38 that Jesus took the disciples, “to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go over there and pray.’ And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’”

What was it about James that made Jesus want him there in his most agonizing moments? Let’s do a bit of a personality profile to see.

James the Privileged

James had a lot going for him, worldly speaking. He came from a wealthy, privileged family. The scriptures say that James and John had “hired men” and more than one boat working for them in their fishing business (Mark 1:19-20, Luke 5:1-3). Only people with money can get another boat or two and hire other men to help their work. Zebedee clearly had some money.

Another hint we have that James came from a wealthy family was that his mother, Salome was one of the women who “followed Jesus and took care of his needs” (Mark 14:40-41). She was a wealthy follower of Jesus who supported his ministry. She was also able to afford the expensive spices that she brought to the tomb of Jesus to anoint him after He was crucified.

So James came from a wealthy family, but they were privileged as well. During the story of the crucifixion we read something very interesting that happens with Peter and John. It says in John 18:15-16, “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple [This is the Apostle John]. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in.”

Do you see what happened there? John walked right through the door into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter got stopped at the door. The guards and the maidservants were more than willing to hassle Peter about his accent and about being a follower of Jesus, buy when John, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James came to the door, it was “Yes sir, let me get that door for you.”

I think that tells us a lot about the kind of family that James came from. His family was known, wealthy, privileged, had the ear of the High Priest, and ran sizeable fishing business in the area. James was older than John, perhaps the eldest son of the family, and knew his way around town.

James the Spoiled

Keep that in your mind as we read more about James. There are two places in scripture where we can learn a lot about this privileged young man.

Let’s read Matthew 20:20-22:

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’”

I think we can all tell that at a relational, sociological, psychological level, there’s a lot going on here. Who asks? The mom. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation between James, John and their Mother Salome.

“Well, have you asked him yet?”

“No, mother…”

“Why not? You don’t want one of the other disciples to ask first, do you? Who better than you to sit on his right and left. You have privilege, means, abilities, education, and are popular with the people. You should be there. Go ask!”

“No, mother…. I don’t think that’s a good idea…”

“Fine then, I’ll ask!”

And Salome walks up to Jesus and asks. I think reading between the lines here gives us quite a clue as to what went on at the Zebedee home. These boys were spoiled! They were spoiled, rich kids with an over-achieving mother who wanted nothing but the best for her kids.

According to scripture, just moments before this Jesus had just said:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (20:18-19)

So when James (and John) looked at Jesus and said, “We are able to drink the cup”, they really should have known what he was talking about. In scripture, “The Cup” means “one’s divinely appointed destiny”. The Zebedee’s looked at Jesus, the powerful, popular, miracle worker and knew He was the Messiah. But their vision was of a Messiah who would conquer Rome and lead Israel to be the rulers of the world. They were happy to sign up to drink that cup… They were used to that cup. But that’s not what Jesus meant.

Now let’s read Luke 9:51-56, which is probably my favourite James and John story.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.”

I love that it doesn’t even say what Jesus said to them. I would love to hear what Jesus said, but I’m not sure He had to say anything. “Jesus, I know we’re going town to town to give the good news that you are here, but since these folks won’t let us stay there, would you like us to call down fire and destroy the entire town? After all, their just Samaritans.”

Wow! That’s bold! Let’s give them some credit for being willing to say something! They knew Jesus enough to ask dumb questions.

And I don’t want to read too much into this, but based on what we know about over-privelaged, mama’s boys… what do you think was going through their minds?

“How dare they reject us! Don’t they know who we are… I mean who Jesus is? We get into all the parties! We get the best invitations! We get into every club, every store, everywhere. There’s nowhere we can’t go! And not only that, we’re with the Messiah! How dare you reject us… and Him. And you’re Samaritans! You should be kissing our feet just for coming near your crummy little town.”

James the Disciple of Jesus

Why on earth would Jesus want this guy to be in his inner circle? Peter James and John? You’d think that Jesus would want to teach this guy humility by not letting him into a place of privilege. But Jesus doesn’t operate like that.

James wasn’t just spoiled, he was a man of passion, confidence and zeal. All the good things – the money, status, self-confidence – that he had been given while growing up could have gone both ways. It could have been a barrier to his relationship with Jesus – after all, Jesus Himself says “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:24).

But James did something that made all those barriers into strengths. He said “Yes” to Jesus. Let me read it from Luke 5:7-10, “And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.”

Luke takes the time to pull out James and Johns name from the crowd. Why? I believe that it’s because when Jesus came to the shoreline that day and showed them His miraculous power, they saw their need of Him. Peter felt it most acutely and was the one who announced it, but James and John felt something more.

Let me read from Matthew 2:21-22, “And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”

Immediately, when Jesus called James answered and said “Yes”. Though he was a person of wealth and status, He subordinated Himself to Jesus. Yes, as we’ve just talked about, He struggled with his attitude while walking with Jesus, just as we all do… but what mattered absolutely most, is that He said “yes” to following Jesus. And with that “Yes”, Jesus took a brash, spoiled brat, and gradually turned him into a powerful servant of God.

James the Martyr

How do we know? Look at Acts 12:1-3:

“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”

The first Apostle to be Martyred was James, which occurred 10 years after the martyrdom of Stephen. When Herod decided it was time to crack down on the church, who was the first name on the list? Not Peter… James. Why? Could it be that his place of privilege and status was a big problem for them? He was like a Christian celebrity today – one that everyone knows and watches. If you want to make a point, you don’t knock out the unknown leaders of the group, you take out the names that everyone knows – the one that is on the street corners talking to people, the one in the commercials, the first name people think of when they think “Christian”, the face of the organization. I think James was that guy, and that’s why he was the first to be targeted. He stuck his neck out for Jesus.

The story of James’ martyrdom is powerful. It says in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that as James was led to where he was to be beheaded, the soldier who was guarding James while he was in prison, fell at James’ feet and begged to be forgiven. He professed himself a Christian and said that James should not face his death alone. They were both beheaded at the same time.

James did receive the cup that Jesus told him he would, but he did so with courage and humility. Peter was miraculously released from prison, but James’ wasn’t. James didn’t whine like a spoiled person. He didn’t try to bargain like a rich-boy. He didn’t try to call down fire like an impetuous fool. No, this follower of Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, met his death bravely, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ even to the very last people he would meet in this world.

James the Example

I’ve come up with a few lessons we can take away from the life of James.

First, anyone can be saved. There’s no cookie-cutter Christian. God seems to be all about “diversity”. On the outside, James didn’t need anything or anyone… but on the inside, he knew He needed Jesus. Let us not look upon others with judgement thinking “That person could never be a Christian.” or “I shouldn’t share the gospel with them because they’ll never listen.” Or even, “That person’s not a Christian because they don’t act like me… or what I think a Christian should act like.” It is God who changes hearts, God who calls, God who equips, and God who sends us out into the world. He’s given us the ministry of speaking the Gospel to others. I read a great quote this week. “God needs messengers, not editors.” Let’s not edit the gospel for certain people. Let’s just share it with everyone.

Second, often our greatest strengths are our greatest sources of temptation. It’s the double edged sword of who God created us to be. The same upbringing that made James a spoiled brat, gave him access to things that many others didn’t have. The money that caused James to feel self-entitled, was also used to fund Jesus’ ministry. The brash mouth that wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town was the same one that preached the resurrection of Jesus right up to the moment of his execution.

In the same way, whatever our gifts are – whether it be a quick mind, a creative ability, a full bank-account, courage, tenacity, boldness, leadership ability, a compassionate heart… can also be our greatest source of temptation. Knowing this is a huge step in realizing the ploys of the devil. And once we turn those things over to God, we can see how they are not mistakes, but they very fuel that He uses to bring us closer to Him and proclaim His gospel and glory to the nations.

Third, along a similar line, “meekness is power under control”. A warhorse under the control of a great soldier is not weak… it’s meek. James had a lot of power. He had wealth, social influence and passion – which are neither good nor bad. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being poor and obscure, and there is nothing evil about being rich and powerful. The good or bad comes with what those things are used for.

We can have enormous gifts, talents, money, status, or anything else, and bring all those things under the lordship of Jesus Christ, like James did. We can take all those things and say, “Jesus, this is all yours, not mine, and you can do whatever you want with them. If you want me to have them, I’ll use them for your glory. If you want to take them away, that’s fine too, because you are all I need. If you want to increase them, then I’ll use that for your glory too!”

Turning these things over to Jesus will be a struggle throughout our lifetime, and will require sacrifice, but as we do, we will be showing our trust in God and our devotion to Him, and will learn that all that we are trading away is merely temporary anyway… and we are getting the better end of the deal when we give it all to God.