James the Greater among first called by Jesus to serve
Before he became an apostle, James was in the fishing business with his brother John and their father Zebedee.
They employed several hired hands, and their business partners were Peter and Andrew.
“They were businessmen, they were industrious,” says the Rev. John “Bud” Traylor. “And they cast their nets aside in the Sea of Galilee and left the business with their father and hired servants to follow Jesus.”
Traylor is a former president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, served as an interim president of Louisiana College in Pineville and was a longtime pastor at First Baptist Church of Monroe. He’s currently interim pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Baker.
“James and John weren’t cane-pole fishermen,” Traylor says. “They were businessmen, and that they left their business to follow Jesus is remarkable.”
The story is told in Matthew 4:18-22: “And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed him.
“Going on from there, he saw two others brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”
That’s how it’s told in the New King James Version of the Bible. The wording may be a little different in other versions, but the story is the same.
“James and John were the third and fourth disciples called after Peter and Andrew,” says the Rev. Paul Counce, pastor of the Cathedral of St. Joseph and a canon lawyer. “James was probably a first or second cousin to Jesus. In some references, there is mention of their mother Salome as the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary.”
Cousin or not, the point is James’ faith in Jesus was so strong he willingly left his business for this ministry, a ministry that eventually would lead to martyrdom.
“James is believed to be the first disciple to be martyred,” Counce says.
His also is the only martyrdom recorded in the New Testament, (Acts 12: 1-2) when King Herod Agrippa had him beheaded by sword.
Interestingly, Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of King Herod the Great, the Roman monarch of Judea who ordered the three Wise Men to bring the baby Jesus to him. The Wise Men told him they were in search of the King of the Jews, and Herod didn’t want his power usurped. When the Wise Men didn’t comply, Herod ordered the death of all Bethlehem boys age 2 and younger.
“The Christians were being persecuted, and King Herod Agrippa wanted to please the Jewish leaders,” Traylor says. “So, he arrested Peter and put him in jail and had James beheaded.”
“Fox’s Book of Martyrs” states that James’ death came 10 years after the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. But Traylor points out a part of the story that’s even more significant.
“James’ influence was so great, that his accuser wanted to be martyred with him,” Traylor says.
“Fox’s Book of Martyrdom continues: “The account given by a eminent primitive writer, Clemens Alexandrinus, ought not to be overlooked; that as James was led to the place of martyrdom, his accuser was brought to repent of his conduct by the apostle’s extraordinary courage and undauntedness, and fell down at his feet to request his pardon, and resolving that James should not receive the crown of martyrdom alone. Hence, they were both beheaded at the same time.”
Still, James’ life was as significant as his death. “He, John and Peter were the closest disciples to Jesus,” Traylor says.
James is called James the Greater to distinguish him from James, the son of Alpheus, also one of the 12 disciples. The second James is known as James the Lesser.
“James was older than John, but this wasn’t the reason he was known as James the Greater,” Counce says. “Traditionally, it’s believed that he was the bigger of the two Jameses.”
Jesus, as noted in Mark 3:17, also called James and John the Boanerges or “sons of thunder” because of their fiery styles.
An example of that style is found in Luke 9:52-56, when the two asked for fire to rain down on a city of Samaritans after it rejected Jesus. But Jesus told them no: “The son of man came not to destroy souls but to save.”
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, James went to Jerusalem.
“The Catholics call him the first bishop of Jerusalem,” Counce says. “Peter had left for Antioch, then Rome, and James was left in charge of the apostolic community in Jerusalem.”
James also authored the Letter of James in the New Testament. where he emphasized that Christians come to Christ through faith, but faith also should be accompanied by good works.
“He said we were saved through our faith,” Counce says. “But the works should come naturally.”
James’ ministry continues today. His feast day is July 25, and his symbol is the scallop shell, c found on the shores of northern Spain. It’s said the shell’s grooves metaphorically represent pilgrims’ paths beginning in different places and meeting at one point, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
“Traditionally, James’ body was miraculously brought to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain,” Counce says. “It’s one of the most famous places of Christian pilgrimage in the world.”
The pilgrimage is known as The Way of St. James and ends at the cathedral, where it’s said James’ body is buried. There Christians pay homage to the disciple who gave up a lucrative business on faith to follow Jesus and spread his message.