James: Brother of John, Son of Zebedee


James, the Elder, Boanerges, son of Zebedee and Salome, brother of John the Apostle; a fisherman who lived in Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Jerusalem. He preached in Jerusalem and Judea and was beheaded by Herod, AD 44 (Acts 12:1,2). He was a member of the Inner Circle, so called because they were accorded special privileges. The New Testament tells us very little about James. His name never appears apart from that of his brother, John. They were an inseparable pair (Mark 1:19-20; Matthew 4:21; Luke 5:1-11).

He was a man of courage and forgiveness, a man without jealousy, living in the shadow of John, a man of extraordinary faith. He was the first of the twelve to become a martyr. His symbol is three shells, the sign of his pilgrimage by the sea.

Jesus singles out three of his 12 disciples for special training. James, his brother John, and Peter made up the inner circle. Each eventually played a key role in the early church. Peter became a great speaker, John became a major writer, and James was the first of the 12 disciples to die for the faith.

The fact that his name is always mentioned before John’s indicates that James was the older brother. Zebedee, their father, owned a fishing business where they worked along with Peter and Andrew. When Peter, Andrew, and John left Galilee to see John the Baptist, James stayed back with the boats and fishing nets. Later, when Jesus called them, James was as eager as his partners to follow.

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James enjoyed being in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, but he misunderstood Jesus’ purpose. He and his brother even tried to secure their role in Jesus’ kingdom by asking Jesus to promise them each a special position. Like the other disciples, James had a limited view of what Jesus was doing on earth, picturing only an earthly kingdom that would overthrow Rome and restore Israel’s former glory. But above all, James wanted to be with Jesus. He had found the right leader, even though he was still on the wrong timetable. It took Jesus’ death and resurrection to correct his view.

James was the first of the 12 disciples to die for the gospel. He was willing to die for the gospel. He was willing to die because he knew Jesus had conquered death, the doorway to eternal life. Our expectations about life will be limited if this life is all we can see. Jesus promised eternal life to those willing to trust him. If we believe this promise, he will give us the courage to stand for him even during dangerous times.

Strengths and Accomplishments

  • One of the 12 disciples
  • One of the special inner circle of three with Peter and John
  • First of the 12 disciples to be killed for his faith

Weaknesses and Mistakes

  • Two outbursts from James indicates struggles with a temper (Luke 9:54) and selfishness (Mark 10:37). Both times, he and his brother, John, spoke as one

Lesson From His Life

  • Loss of life is not too heavy a price to pay for following Jesus

Vital Statistics for James

  • Where: Galilee
  • Occupations: Fisherman, disciple
  • Relatives: Father: Zebedee, Mother: Salome, Brother: John
  • Contemporaries: Jesus, Pilate, Herod Agrippa

Key Verses for James

“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory’” (Mark 10:35-37)

James’s story is told in the Gospels. He is also mentioned in Acts 1:13 and 12:2.

Click here to print or download the scripture character study “James: Brother of John, Son of Zebedee


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