James the Great
James the Great was not only one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, but he was also one of three that were especially close to Jesus. Peter, James, and John are three of the most well-known disciples that were a part of Jesus’ “inner circle.” This allowed them to witness many miracles and also suggests that they were especially trusted by Jesus. James was one of Jesus’s closest followers and confidants and spent his life serving and teaching his fellow men.
There are many lessons we can learn from James, especially his willingness to serve Jesus and witness his miracles. James was one of the earliest followers of Jesus and spent the rest of his life spreading the joy of Jesus' gospel.
Names of James the Great
James is known by a couple of names, such as James the Great, St. James the Apostle, James the Greater, etc. Though James was a great man, his title “James the Greater” was most likely used to distinguish him from James the Lesser, a fellow apostle who was probably younger or smaller. Between James and John, James is also most likely the elder of the two, which scholars attribute to James being listed first in most scripture.
Jesus also called James and John “Boanerges,” which translates to “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Though Jesus doesn’t give a specific reason for this nickname, scholars associate this name with the temperament, boldness, and passion of the two brothers. An example of their zeal is often referenced in Luke 9:54; while trying to find a place to stay for the night, Jesus was rejected by Samaritans who were prejudiced against Jews. James and John asked Jesus if he wanted the two of them “to call fire down from heaven to destroy them,” which Jesus rebuked them for.
It’s possible that James and John were quick to anger, but we see in this verse that it may have come from a place of loyalty and protectiveness. The people of Galilee were known to be hardy, religious, and great defenders of their beliefs. Jesus gave the two brothers this name during the beginning of his ministry when he appointed them as apostles, which gives us some insight into Jesus himself: that he knows each of us individually.
Who was James the Great before he was James the Apostle?
We don’t know a great deal about James before he became involved in the work and ministry of Jesus, but we do know that he labored with his family on the Sea of Galilee. He was close with his brother John, another disciple of Christ; many saw the two as inseparable. Similar to Simon (Peter) and Andrew, these two brothers worked together before being called by Jesus and served together throughout Christ’s ministry.
James was a fisherman, like several other apostles. James, along with John, were the sons of Zebedee, another fisherman by trade. The two sons worked with their father, and it was during a fishing excursion that both James and John left their father’s side to follow Jesus.
When Jesus called upon them, they left Zebedee “in the boat with the hired hands and followed him” (Mark 1:20). Because of their willingness to leave their father and Zebedee’s willingness to let them leave, many believe that Zebedee and his sons were righteous men and were eagerly waiting for Jesus to come. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John “immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him,” showing that James was obedient and dedicated to God from the beginning (Matthew 4:22).
What was James the Great known for?
James is one of the first disciples called by Jesus, along with Andrew, Peter, and John. As the first disciples, the four of them helped establish a foundation for Jesus’s earthly ministry, which suggests that James was a great example to his fellow believers. Many of the disciples were killed for their dedication to Jesus, and James was the first one to be martyred for his beliefs. From the beginning to the very end of his life, his involvement in Jesus' ministry has made him a well-known figure of the 12 disciples.
The Inner Circle
As mentioned, James the Great was one of the three apostles that were included in Jesus’ inner circle. This position made James a witness to many of Jesus’ amazing miracles. Some miracles and events were witnessed only by Peter, James, and John, so James was privileged to be with Jesus during some of his most important moments. By being present for these key events, we can assume that James was trusted by Jesus and that Jesus was preparing James for his future ministry.
The Transfiguration of Jesus
For example, James was there during the Transfiguration of Jesus, where Jesus took the three apostles up into the mountain and was transfigured before them. In this incredible and overwhelming experience, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, he conferred with the prophets Elijah and Moses, and James and the other apostles heard God’s voice tell them that “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9: 2-7). Though the extent of Jesus' transfiguration isn’t perfectly clear, James and the other apostles were reminded of Jesus' divine nature and true glory.
Jesus asked James (along with Peter and John) to accompany him to the Garden of Gethsemane, too. As depicted in the Bible, Jesus suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane. He specifically asked Peter, James, and John to “stay here and keep watch with me,” meaning he asked them to stay awake (Matthew 26:38). This is another indication that Jesus relied on and confided in these three specifically.
Between episodes of great agony, He returned to the three disciples to find them sleeping, and woke them by asking Peter: “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?...Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26: 40-41). He found them sleeping three times, which suggests that the three disciples, though trusted by Jesus to be with him, were too weak to stay awake and potentially missed out on what Jesus was trying to teach them.
Raising Jairus’ Daughter
James was also there with Peter and John when Jesus performed the miracle of raising Jairus’ daughter, whom everyone thought was dead. Jairus, a local synagogue leader, approached Jesus and told him: “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live” (Mark 4:23). Jesus went with him, and by the time they arrived, everyone was mourning because they were convinced the little girl was dead. Jesus told them that she was only sleeping, which everyone laughed at. Then, Jesus specifically took Peter, James, and John with him to witness him miraculously heal the girl.
Jesus including James in these extraordinary miracles speaks to James’ involvement and devotion to Jesus and his sacred purpose. These experiences helped strengthen James and his belief, which most likely solidified his faith and his willingness to preach the gospel.
Was James the Great a missionary?
James the Great was a dedicated missionary, and tradition suggests he was especially active in Spain. Due to his missionary service there and his hand in establishing Christianity in that region, he is considered the patron saint of Spain to this day. His influence there even led to the establishment of a famous pilgrimage center, called Santiago de Compostela; some believe his remains were buried there by his followers.
James also did missionary work in Samaria and Judea. After 14 years of teaching, King Herod Agrippa I beheaded James for his dedication to Jesus and his preaching of the gospel. Herod was known to prefer Judaic traditions and customs, and both he and the Jewish people felt threatened by the Christian faith. Herod made an example of him, and James (possibly for his outspoken nature) was the first to be martyred of the 12 disciples.
James the Great: A Witness and Missionary of Jesus
From fisherman to follower of Jesus, James the Great is a remarkable example to us today of what a disciple of Christ looks like. He witnessed significant miracles and events of Christ’s life on Earth, such as Jesus’ Transfiguration. His life as a missionary speaks to his love of Jesus and his sincere belief in Jesus’ teachings. James gave his life to stand up for what he believed in and honor Jesus.
James was also one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples and friends. You can see more of their friendship and the many miracles of Jesus when you The Chosen. If you haven’t already, check out Angel Studios’ The Chosen to view the first-ever multi-season show about the life of Jesus. This historical drama set in Judaea and Galilee in the first century CE follows Jesus and those whom He met and ministered to. Download the Angel app on Google Play or the App store and start watching today.