We are fully justified in regarding James as an apostle, for Paul writes “But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). There is much we do not know about James but we do know that his attitude towards his brother, Jesus, underwent a dramatic, revolutionary change.
Introduced as the eldest of the Lord’s four brothers (Mark 6:3), James went from initial speculative neutrality to open hostility: and then to resolute certainty as regards belief in his brother, the Son of God.
The change in James
As the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus had the support of James and the rest of the family. “After this [the water to wine miracle at Canaan Galilee] he went down to Capernaum, he and his mother and his brother, and his disciples…” (John 2:12). However, this support officially evaporated and we read:
“Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:3-5, NIV).
Notice the challenging words of his brothers, ending with the writer’s statement, “For neither did his brother believe in him.” Worse yet they considered him “besides himself” (Mark 3:21).
At the embryonic Jerusalem Ecclesia, after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, James and the rest of the family are present, “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14).
A notable event clearly had occurred which transformed James into a determined apostle for the cause of Christ. It is recorded by Paul in the catalogue of resurrection appearances, “After that, he was seen of James, then of all the apostles” (1Cor 15:7). In this context James is paired with the apostles along with another converted apostle — Paul. There are no further details in the New Testament of this resurrection appearance, but one thing is certain: the mind of James was changed from one of disbelief, to one whose life was both renewed and forever changed by the presence of his Brother — his Lord.
James, the new apostle
The upkeep of the truth in Jerusalem and its spread to the Roman world needed men of singular commitment: James and Peter for stability at home; Paul for evangelizing in the empire. So as the Jerusalem Ecclesia struggled under violent persecution (Stephen and John’s brother were killed; Peter was imprisoned) James rose to the occasion:
“But he [Peter], beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place” (Acts 12:17).
Peter, miraculously released, requested, “Go shew these things unto James.” Likewise Paul before his ministry began met with James as we discussed above.
These three apostles, James, Peter, and Paul, met again at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15) when the shrewd presiding of James averted a split between the fledgling Antioch Ecclesia and the established Ecclesia over a doctrinal issue!
“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:13-21).
James clearly was presiding over this conference, which was so vital in ensuring that the gospel could be delivered to the Gentiles without requiring the onerous imposition of all the requirements of the Law, which the Judaizers wanted. The decision of the conference, as declared by James, was conciliatory, but it gave Paul what he wanted. The influence of James was that which defused the crisis at this important time. We can see James as a wise, perhaps mild, but tolerant and practical man! Does not our community still need brothers of this caliber?
James, the pillar of the early church
James was clearly the acknowledged leader of the early church in Jerusalem:
When Paul came to Jerusalem with his collection for the poor, it was by James and the Elders he was received (Acts 21:18).
Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion was to James and Peter (Gal 1:19).
Fourteen years later, James, Peter, and John are the “Pillars of the Church” (Gal 2:9).
He clearly had enormous influence over the early Jewish Christians outside Jerusalem as well, as we can read in his epistle, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting” (James 1:1).
His epistle indeed shows faith in action, and quoting now “The Christadelphian Expositor,” we see this in five aspects:
Faith can triumph over trials.
Faith can govern action towards other.
Faith can discipline the tongue.
Faith can purify character.
Faith can create confidence in God.
Why, incidentally did Jesus not put his mother in the care of James? We cannot be certain of the reason. John (beloved disciple) was at the cross, the only male. James was not, and he had not yet converted! Whatever the reason, we clearly see that relationships within the Truth can be far stronger than “flesh and blood” ones. Perhaps, a few of our natural kin are in doubt regarding the Truth we embrace, perhaps they are even hostile. But there is hope that they, like James, can be transformed by our constant and consistent presentation of a crucified Jesus, just as was James who saw his brother Jesus alive after his death on the cross.
The death of James
So James disappears from the New Testament, and like most of the apostles, his ultimate fate is not recorded. However, Josephus, a contemporary historian, records that, during the brief interval between the death of Festus, and the arrival of Albinus, the next Roman governor, Ananus the high priest sees his opportunity to dispatch the leader of the Jerusalem Christians:
“So Ananus, being that kind of man, and thinking that he had got a good opportunity — because Festus was dead and Albinus not yet arrived, held a judicial council; and he brought before it the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ; James was his name — and some others, and on the charge of violating the Law he gave them over to be stoned” (Antiquities of the Jews; 20; 9,1).
And so James passes from the scene, faithful to the last.
Clive Drepaul (Brooklyn, NY)