St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr

Acts 15:12-22a; James 1:1-12; Matthew 13:54-58

October 23, 2022

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


Within the New Testament there are five men who bear the names of James. Three of them are fairly obscure: there is James who is the father of the disciple Judas (not Iscariot); there is James the Less, the brother of Joses and the son of a certain Mary (not the Virgin Mary); there is James the son of Alphaeus, one of the disciples.  Then there is James the Great, the son of Zebedee and the brother of the apostle John. Lastly, there is the James the Just, a half-brother of Jesus and early leader of the Jerusalem church, author of the epistle in the New Testament.  It is this James who we remember today.

Many modern theologians believe that James was a son of Joseph and Mary and, therefore, a biological half-brother of Jesus. But throughout most of the Church (historically, and even today), James is thought to be the son of a sister of Joseph or Mary who was widowed and had come to live with them, or the son of Joseph from a previous marriage.  Either way, James is among the household of Joseph and Mary and most likely grew up with or very near to Jesus.

In recent years James has been in the headlines around the world because of a first century ossuary that has been found inscribed “James, the Brother of Jesus.” An ossuary is a box that the bones of a deceased person were put in. In the burial practices of first century Jews, the departed were placed on a ledge in a cave. After a year or so, when the body had decomposed, the bones were placed in the ossuary. The James ossuary is authentic, meaning it really is a first century artifact. It also seems most likely that the James referred to is the one we remember today. This also supports the reliability of the biblical record.

Although later a leader of the Christian Church in Jerusalem, his early life doesn’t show any belief or support in Jesus’ claims to be the Christ.  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, teaching in the synagogue, probably the very one that he grew up attending most of his life. And he shocks the people there, he shocks them because He speaks as One who actually has authority, who not just knows what he is saying, but literally embodies the promises of God. 

And there is James.  He is offended along with the rest of what Jesus is saying and doing and doesn’t believe, not even welcoming Jesus his brother at home.  As bad as that might be, it gets worse.  While James refuses to believe that Jesus is the Christ, or follow Him as a disciple, he isn’t even mentioned as present during Jesus’ death.  Maybe he was afraid of the close family connection and that he might be arrested and killed along with his brother, or maybe he had so much anger or animosity that he felt Jesus was getting what he deserved.  Either way and whatever the reason, as Jesus’ mother wept at the foot of the cross, our Lord commended her into the care of one of His disciples, John, who was present, rather than into the care of the absent brother, or any of the other family members.

After years of rejecting Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, a resurrection appearance seems to have been the life altering moment. It takes an encounter with the resurrected Jesus to bring somoeone from unbelief to faith. St. Paul mentions him to the Christians in Corinthians in his first letter to them, “Then Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:6-8). Significantly, Paul only includes the name of one person that Jesus appeared to, James, and includes him as one of his apostles.

It’s not all that different with each of us.  It takes an encounter with the resurrected Christ to bring one from unbelief to faith. Regardless if you were an infant when that happened, a young adult, or elderly, it takes an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.  And Jesus promises where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is.  Where the Word is preached, heard, there Jesus is. And this Jesus calls you by name. Today, we witnesses the miraculous new birth of water and spirit the holy baptisms of Raleigh and Dylan. Brought to faith through hearing of the word and in response to the faith brought about by the Spirit of Christ and the promises of God, they were brought to font where Jesus called them by name, and even more importantly, the name of the Triune God was given to them. It takes an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.  

Apparently, it didn’t take long for James’ faith to express itself in loving service to others.  Very quickly, James becomes a leader of the church in Jerusalem, Paul described James in Galatians as one of the three pillars of the church, along with Peter and John. As Bishop of Jerusalem he occupied a position of unrivalled importance in the early Christianity. The book of Acts shows that James was respected as an important figure. When Peter was miraculously freed from prison and had to flee Jerusalem, he asked that James be informed (12:17). As we see in our text, when Antioch Christians were concerned about what Gentile Christians needed to be saved, they sent Paul and Barnabas to confer with him. And when Paul arrives in Jerusalem to deliver the money raised for the faithful there, he goes to James (21:18). He even gets to be known as James the Just because of his outstanding virtue.  This can be most clearly seen in the Epistle that he authored, where he encourages and guides Christians to live godly lives of faith leading to piety and good works. 

James is a godly example of true piety and godliness.  We see in him an example of someone who outright refused belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who thought his half-brother had lost his mind, who wasn’t even present at Jesus death.  Yet, through the encounter with the resurrected Jesus was brought from unbelief to faith. And then from faith to martyrdom. 

During his thirty years as Bishop of Jerusalem, he converted many Jews to Christianity. Annoyed by this, as extra-biblical historical documents show, the Scribes and Pharisees plotted to kill him in the year 62. They led him to the pinnacle of the temple and asked what he thought of Jesus. According to the great Church historian Eusebius (following Hegesippus), they entreated him to “restrain the people, who are led astray after Jesus, as if he were the Messiah,.” Instead of denouncing Jesus to the people, he confessed Jesus as the Messiah, as the One who is risen from the dead and grants eternal life to all who believe in him.  Greatly angered, the Jewish teachers threw him off the roof. He did not die immediately but with his final strength, prayed for his enemies. Eusebius adds that after the fall failed to kill him, they stoned him and at last broke his skull with a club.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, James writes, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). It is on that broken skull, to be healed on the day of resurrection, that Jesus will hang the crown of eternal life.  That is God’s promise to you – blessedness, steadfastness under trial, and the crown of life that comes through an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.   The freedom of the resurrection means that we are free to face death and to face that moment when the sinful world wants to control us, even to kill us. We can only do that because of the resurrection of Jesus, that allows us the freedom to die in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.