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Acts & Topical by Robert Dean
An apostle is someone who is sent. Some who were commissioned as apostles were sent out by congregations. We rely on scripture, historical sources, geographical sources, tradition and legend to map their routes and follow their personal stories. Find out which sources are more reliable and why. We DO know these martyred Apostles had a faith so certain that they were willing to give their lives to testify to its truth. Sort out each James to clarify his identity and his role in scripture: James, the brother of John; James, the son of Alpheus; James, the Lesser; and James, the brother of Jesus. What is it about Matthew that would make it out of the ordinary that he was so quick to follow Jesus?
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:56 mins 57 secs

God's Choice Men: James, James the Lesser, James the Brother of Jesus, Matthew. Various Scriptures


There are two classes of apostles. The first is those who were directly commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ. That would refer to the original twelve, minus Judas Iscariot. Then there were others called apostles, but they were not commissioned or sent out by the Lord Jesus Christ directly, they were sent out by different churches.  Barnabas is called an apostle, James the brother of our Lord Jesus is called an apostle (he was not saved until after the resurrection); they were sent out by different congregations. So an apostle was somebody who was sent, so it is important to understand who sent them and what they were sent to do. That is what makes the difference between the apostles in the sense of the eleven plus Paul and apostles (lower case).

It is helpful to study what happened to the apostles for a couple reason. First, we see the continued expansion of the church. The Holy Spirit focused on Peter, John and Paul, and we saw how the Holy Spirit expanded the church under their leadership. But all of the apostles were going out, fulfilling the great commission. A second thing we see is that with one exception all are said to have been martyred. The only exception is John. That means that every one of these eleven disciples who witnessed the physical resurrected Lord Jesus Christ were willing to give their life for that. When Jesus appeared to them they had an unexplained courage and bravery and strength that could never be taken away from them because they knew they had seen and heard and listened, and as the apostle John said in 1 John: "What we saw, and what we heard, and what we touched." They knew that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead and nothing could change that. And they were willing to give their lives for that. That gives us great confidence that what we have in the Scripture isn't something that has just been made up. It isn't like other religions where one man or two men have some sort of insight and they give their lives. It's only one or two people who can be deluded or demented to give their life for some weird hallucination, but for ten men of the eleven to have given their lives for the truth of the crucifixion and the truth of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is a tremendous testimony to the accuracy of their testimony.

Now we want to look at James the brother of John. James and John are both called the sons of thunder. Their father's name was Zebedee, their mother's name was Salome who was most likely a sister of the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. James and John are both fishermen. They worked with Andrew; they have a going business. Both are descendants of a priestly family.

What we know about James the son of Zebedee is that he is a Galilean. He is a fisherman. He had a house in Jerusalem and he was probably the connection in Jerusalem for the sale of fish. He and his brother John, as well as Simon Peter, were the three of the disciples who were the inner circle, the closest to the Lord Jesus Christ. We see this especially in one particular passage dealing with the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew chapter seventeen. Matthew 17:1 NASB "Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves." James is probably the older one because he is usually mentioned first when the two are mentioned. There in isolation with just these three Jesus is transfigured. The veil of His humanity is allowed to be drawn back and the glory of His deity shines forth, somewhat cloaked probably. His clothes become as white as light and they see Him as God. At the same time Moses and Elijah appear, so this is an incredible privilege showing how close they are to the Lord and the significance He placed upon their training at this point in terms of their future ministry.

We get another picture of James and John. They are nicknamed the sons of thunder and that is because they had a somewhat expressive personality. They are out in front, they were probably strong leaders, outspoken—like Peter they often spoke before they thought—and we read in Luke 9:54 "When His disciples James and John saw {this,} they said, 'Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?' [55] But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, 'You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; [56] for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.'] And they went on to another village"—again indicating they are ready to fight but they don't understand what the mission is.

Peter and James and John are altogether at the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:23), indicating they are to withdraw with Jesus and be a sort of guard around Him in case anything were to happen and Jesus were to be attacked in some way. Mark 3:17 is the passage for the nickname Boanerges: "and James, the {son} of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, "Sons of Thunder")." The Lord gives them this name because they are constantly speaking out of turn and running ahead of any information they have.

We don't know anything of what went on with James between the day of Pentecost and the beginning of the church until he comes on the scene as the leader of the church in Jerusalem in AD 44. He was martyred by Herod Agrippa I and was the first one to be martyred. As a result of that persecution the church began to expand out even more. 

One of the problems we have whenever we do a study of James in the New Testament is which James we are talking about. In the traditions of the early church as they would talk about what happened with one James and what happened to another James those traditions got a little bit confused. We see some evidence of that because there are some who believe that James the writer of the epistle of James was James the brother of John rather than James the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ. There was a viewpoint that in those intervening years—approximately ten or eleven years between the resurrection of Christ and the death of James—that he went to Spain, visited a large Jewish community and that that is to whom he was writing the epistle of James. That is pretty much disregarded today by most scholars but it shows how people would confuse the different James's that are mentioned in the Scripture. The James that is the author of the epistle of James is most likely James the brother of Jesus.

In Matthew 13:55 when Jesus is preaching to the hometown crowd in Nazareth, they are saying: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?" (If you have a Roman Catholic background what you are always taught is that brother doesn't mean brother, it means cousin—because of the Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception and part of that doctrine is that Mary remained a perpetual virgin. But there is no evidence of that in Scripture; the word "brother" never means anything other than a brother when it is talking about a family situation.) None of Jesus' siblings are saved at this point, they think He is a little bit off His rocker claiming to be the Messiah—which shows how profoundly rooted arrogance and unbelief can be.

You would think that if you grew up in a family and your oldest brother was the Messiah of Israel, the Lord of the universe, and all of the things that happened to Joseph and Mary at the time of His birth were the subject of family story, talk and discussion, you would grow up believing that. That is a great encouragement for some parents who have children who don't seem too interested in spiritual things and don't seem to express that as they are growing up. Here you have Jesus who is perfect. If He is going to communicate anything perfectly to anybody He is going to do it within His own family, wouldn't you think? And yet He has brothers probably sisters who don't believe that He is the Messiah until after the resurrection. The encouraging thing about that is that it shows us how profoundly tenacious that suppression of truth in unrighteousness is in the unbelieving, rebellious hearts of human beings because of sin. We just don't want to respond to God. Jesus siblings are not mentioned positively until 1 Corinthians chapter fifteen. This is the summary Paul gives of the "full gospel," i.e. in the sense that Paul talked about the gospel in a narrow sense of what you need to believe to have eternal like, and then he talked about the gospel in the broader sense because everything that is part of Christian doctrine is telling us the good news. Good news is not only how to have life everlasting in heaven but how to have the fullness of life here on earth. That is the full gospel; that is the whole realm of doctrine.

1 Corinthians 15:1-5 NASB "Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve." What is the first group that is mentioned? These are the immediate disciples, the twelve. They are called "the twelve" even though by the time He appears to them there were only eleven. Judas is already dead. They are called the twelve because they were called the twelve for a long time. [6] "After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; [7] then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles …" What did he say in verse 5? The twelve. So he is distinguishing two groups of individuals, the original eleven apostles who were commissioned by Jesus Christ and then a second tier of apostles that are not apostles in the capital A sense that they had been commissioned by Jesus Christ to be the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), but they are apostles in that secondary sense that they have been commissioned by local church bodies to go and take the gospel. We have that used here in the same sense.

So here, after He appears to the twelve and the five hundred, then He appears to James. This is approximately the time when James is saved—after the resurrection. James becomes a significant leader in the church in Jerusalem. In fact, he is the pastor over the church in Jerusalem. We have Peter, John and the rest of the twelve but they are apostles; they are not focusing on a local pastoral ministry. Their ministry is broader than that; they are taking the gospel eventually to Samaria, Judea and to the uttermost parts of the earth. But James is the one who is the leader of the group in Jerusalem. 

Eight or nine years later when the apostle Paul has been saved he spends about three years in Damascus, goes up to Jerusalem to see Peter and remains with him fifteen days, and says "I saw none other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." This is not classifying James the Lord's brother as an apostle "A" but as a lower case apostle like Barnabas and others who are indicated by that terminology in the early church. So this is James the brother of Jesus, the one who is the author of the epistle to the twelve tribes. He has a primarily Jewish ministry. His epistle was the earliest written in the New Testament, written to the twelve tribes scattered abroad.

There is a tradition that James was appointed pastor of the Jerusalem church by the Lord Himself, as well as the other apostles. We have no record of that, there is nothing that we could base that on, and it is probably more of the fictional side of tradition than the historical side. What we do know is that in Acts chapter fifteen when the church comes together in Jerusalem to deal with the issue of the inclusion of Gentiles James is seen as the leader of the church. This is where it gets confusing. Who is the first leader of the church in Jerusalem? It is James the brother of John. Who succeeds him? James the brother of our Lord, the one who heads up the Jerusalem Council on Acts chapter fifteen.

That brings up another question. Were the early Jewish Christians out of line by following the law? Not necessarily so. Because they weren't following the law as a means of sanctification, they following it as a code of conduct that they had always been raised with and that is how they lived their life. They weren't looking at it from a Judaistic perspective that by observing the commandments they would receive more grace. That is ultimately the difference between Christianity and post-second temple Judaism. In post-second temple Judaism once the sacrifice could no longer be observed at the temple they had to restructure. If they weren't going to be able to sacrifice shed blood for the cleansing of sin how are they going to get forgiveness? This can be a major issue, especially on the Day of Atonement. So in second temple Judaism they said you do it through the sacrifice of giving, the various sacrifices of ritual, not literal animal sacrifices. The Old Testament emphasizes the fact that this is all a picture of the cleansing of sin and sin has to be dealt with, so how do you deal with sin? In second temple Judaism sin is dealt with by observing the law, by following the commandments. You become righteous by observing the commandments. That is not any different from Roman Catholic theology that says Jesus established a treasury of merit and that every time you observe sacraments or commandments you get dealt a little more merit. It is a works-based righteousness.

A lot of early church Jewish Christians still observed the law. Paul takes a vow, shaves his head, goes to the temple; but they are not observing certain aspects of the law. But the temple is still in existence, God hasn't wiped out the temple yet, this is a transition period. And so James is still very respectful of the law, has an austere lifestyle, and he was nicknamed James the Just. Finally he was martyred and the story is that in AD 61 he was involved in a confrontation with Pharisees and they throw him off the pinnacle of the temple. But he survived. He gets up, and they stone him until he dies. The tradition is that he is buried on the Mount of Olives. That is a tradition that seems to have a good source in history. 

Another James is James the son of Alphaeus. We don't know much about him. What is interesting is that there is another disciple by the name of Levi (indicating his tribal origin), also known as Matthew who authored the Gospel of Matthew, who is described in Mark 2:14 as the son of Alphaeus. This sets up something of a debate because there are some scholars who say that can't make sense because here you have Matthew who has basically gone over to the Romans, he is a tax collector (i.e. publican). The way tax collectors worked was that they were given a contract to raise taxes and at the end of the tax-raising period they would be responsible for bringing in a set amount of money. Anything they raised about that was pure profit. So they didn't have a lot of integrity and would go out and raise as much as they could initially because they might not reach their goal. But the Jews hated the publicans because they had sort of sold out their Jewish relatives and background for the sake of money by working for the Romans.

So on the one hand there would be this almost a turncoat, a Jewish tax collector, and on the other side there was this rigorous, righteous, law-abiding James the son of Alphaeus. In the historical argument: how can these two totally opposite brothers be together? Well we don't know that that is an accurate characterization of either one of them; that is just a tradition. But the text does say that James is the son of Alphaeus and that Matthew is the son of Alphaeus. It would be thought that they were brothers.

The answer to that is that other brother sets that are in the Scripture are clearly said to be brothers. Andrew is the brother of Peter, James is the brother of John; we are told that. Levi and James the son of Alphaeus were brothers. We might be told that they were brothers but it never says specifically that they were brothers. Alphaeus was a common name and so it is possible that they both had fathers of the same name. There is some debate back and forth there, but that is pretty much all we know about James the son of Aplhaeus. We are not even sure how he ended up dying.

The next apostle is Matthew. He is also called Levi, which indicates he would have been from the priestly line. He is a tax collector, he is from Capernaum and so he is the one who taxed the fishermen. So he was fairly well known and despised by those living in that area. In Matthew chapter none he is called by Jesus and he immediately stops what he is doing and follows Jesus. That says something about his character and his positive volition. He is always listed as one of the disciples but, again, we don't learn a whole lot about him in the Scriptures.

Later on after the New Testament we have conflicting reports, but most of them focus on him going to an area known as Ethiopia. There was a region in Parthia that had a name similar to Ethiopia, so there is one tradition that puts Matthew in the area of Parthia and then also down in where we think of modern Ethiopia. We are not sure which is which but it is very likely that most of these men went to different areas. Peter went to Parthia, to Persia, to Babylon, and then later he ends up being martyred in Rome. So just because there is a report that they are in one area and then later on in an opposite area of the Roman empire doesn't mean that they didn't travel from one end of the empire to the other taking the gospel. The other problem is that there is a similarity between the name of Matthias and Matthew, and Matthias was the disciple chosen to replace Judas in Acts chapter one. Because of the similarity of their names there is a certain amount of confusion in these traditions as to whether one is talking about Matthew or Matthias. The one thing that is clear is that Matthew was martyred. He was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and there is strong tradition that he was martyred in Ethiopia.

Then there is Simon Zelotes (Simon the Zealot). He is presumably called a Zealot because he came from that political party. It was an extreme right wing Jewish patriotic party antagonistic to the Romans. It is very likely that he was part of that organization. They were engaged in what we would term today "terrorist" activities against the Romans. But that is about all that we know about him. He is in the list in Matthew 10:4 and in Mark 3:18. He is called Simon the Canaanite because apparently there is a similarity in the original between that and the Aramaic word for zealot. That is all the New Testament says about him and there is not a lot about him in terms of tradition. One tradition puts him down in Egypt, others put him in Parthia where he was martyred, but we don't have any specific details related to that. 

There is a tradition that Lazarus and Mary and Martha are all buried in Marseilles on the southern coast of France. That is where they ended up taking the gospel. That is probably as fairly certain tradition as anything that we have. Their graves are allegedly there. And what this points out to is all of the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as a result of the persecution that arose in Judea, scattered and took the gospel all around the world because they were so convinced of its truth and because they had witnessed the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. It is that degree of passion and commitment that we all ought to have because that commission that Jesus gave to them is the same that is true for us, that wherever we are we are to make disciples. We are to challenge people with the gospel and to make it clear.