JAMES THE MARTYR
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A number of years ago the great tenor in Enrico Caruso was driving through New Jersey when his car broke down. While a mechanic in a small town was repairing it Caruso struck up a conversation with the owner of the garage. He happened to mention that his name was Caruso. "Hey," said the owner, "Your not that guy who is so famous are you?" The tenor modestly admitted that he was rather well known. Excitedly the owner stepped to the door where his living quarters were, and he shouted, "Ma' guess who stopped at the station? That explorer fellow Robinson Caruso." Cruso and Caruso are very close, and apparently the man had a taste for adventure more than for music so Caruso was over shadowed by Cruso in his mind.
Men only gained fame by doing things which capture the interests of other men. Fame, therefore, is not a measure of a man's greatness, for many men do great things but never get fame. It is because that what they do is not recorded. This is true also of the 12 Apostles. Being well known and loved by Jesus does not mean one will become well known among men. James was one of the 3 in the inner circle of the 12, and yet he is not very prominent in the minds of most Christians. The other two in the inner circles became the 2 most famous of the 12, and they are Peter and John. James did not gain such fame. Everything he did was in connection with the 3, or with his brother John. We never see him as an individual. There is only one place where we see James alone and that is in Acts 12:2 where he is alone in death as the first of the 12 to be martyred. This is the only distinctive fact that we have about James.
Out of that inner circle came the first martyr, and in contrast to this, out of it also came the last of the Apostles to die, and that was his brother John. They wanted the right and the left hand positions in the kingdom of Christ, but what they got was the first and last positions as far as the order of entrance into the presence of Christ through death. John Henry Newman wrote of these 2:
Two brothers freely cast their lot
With David's royal Son;
The cost of conquest counting not,
They deem the battle won.
Brothers in heart, they hoped to gain
And undivided joy;
That man may one with man remain,
As boy was one with boy.
Christ heard, and will'd that James should fall,
First prey of Satan's rage;
John lingers out his fellows all
And die in bloodless age.
Now they joined hands once more above,
Before the Conqueror's Throne.
Thus God grants prayer, but in His love
Makes time times and ways his own.
All 12 Apostles died as martyrs according to tradition, but James is the only one whose death is recorded in Scripture, excluding Judas. Of course, he was no martyr. There is no elaboration, but just a simple statement of fact that he was killed by Herod with a sword. Anyone today would get a more detailed obituary than that, but here is all that is said of the martyrdom of a great Christian leader. James was one of those of whom Lowell wrote:
The bravely dumb who did their deed,
And scorned to blot it with a name;
Men of the plain heroic breed,
Who loved heaven's silence more than fame.
There could be no doubt that the death of James at an early stage in the history of the church is what caused him not to become as famous as Peter and John. He did not live long enough to leave a lasting mark. His brother John wrote a sixth of the New Testament, and all of it he wrote late in life long after James had been killed. James wrote nothing, and so there is no letter or book to remind us of him and to reveal his character and teaching. The book of James in the New Testament was written by James the brother of Christ, and not by James the Apostle.
All through Christian history we see the same pattern. Those who live long and become mature in the faith produce Christian literature, which gives them an important place in the history of the church. Those who are killed and die before they express themselves in writing are seldom remembered, even if they were great in the eyes of their contemporaries. James beat his brother in gaining a vision of heaven, but John got all the fame for he wrote it down in the book of Revelation for all to read. John knew nothing that James didn't know, but John was able to communicate it. Martyrdom has its rewards, but so does a long life of service for Christ. Most of us would prefer to be a John than a James, but lets not sell him short because he lacks fame.
The question naturally arises as to why Herod would kill James and not one of the other Apostles. The answer is quite obvious for one reason in particular. James was probably the oldest of the 12, and his age, plus his being one of the inner 3 led him to a place of prominent leadership in the early church. the Christians and the Jews were at war, and the Christians being a minority would motivate Herod to try and please the Jews who were the majority. James was the most likely victim, for he was the spokesman for the Christians. When this succeeded he went after Peter next. The clear implication is that James and Peter were the two key leaders of the church. John was too young at this stage to be a leader.
The text seems to indicate, or at least leave open the possibility, that Herod killed James for some other reason, and then he learned that it pleased the Jews that he did so. This has lead to speculation that James was a man who took after his first master John the Baptist. John the Baptist pulled no punches in denouncing sin in high places, and especially in the house of Herod. James may have been boldly doing the same thing, and as a result he ended the same way. It is likely that death by the sword means that he was decapitated like John the Baptist. Whatever the case, the fact that the Jews were pleased tells us that James was a man of zeal, and that he was one they were glad to see gone. They would not be so pleased unless James was an enthusiastic and effective opponent. One less Christian would be nothing to rejoice about, but one less zealous leader would be.
Martin Luther once told an allegory in which Satan was listening to reports of his workers. One told of how he let wild beasts loose on a caravan of Christians, and he left their bones bleaching in the sun. Another told of sinking a ship of Christians and they all drowned. Satan listens but is bored and unimpressed, for he said, "What of it all, their souls were not harmed." Then one said that for 10 years he attempted to destroy the zeal of a disciple and at last he had succeeded. Then all hell rang with the triumphant shouting of the sons of darkness. James lost his life and his head, but he never gave hell cause for cheer, for he never lost his zeal for Christ.
James and his brother John made a solid commitment to Jesus. When he asked them in Mark 10:38 if they could drink of the cup that he drank of, and be baptized with his baptism, they said that they could. Whether they fully understood it or not they were saying they would follow Christ in persecution and in death, and that is what they did. Someone wrote,
Of the cup that I sup are ye able to take,
Desolation and anguish and bitter heartache?
Will ye share my despair and count all but loss
Save the rack and the anguish of Calvary's Cross.
In the fight for the right are ye willing to share
And the brunt of the battle full able to bear?
Will ye come to drum at the word of command
And the rush of enemy bravely withstand?
James was the first to demonstrate the depth of his commitment to Christ. This is just about the only positive statement we can say on his behalf, for all of the other references to James are in connection with his brother John, and they are mostly negative. Those that are not are merely neutral and simply indicate that he was among the inner circle invited to come with Jesus on special occasions. He never took a stand different from his brother. When his brother got angry at the Samaritans James also blew his stack and felt those small town hicks deserved to die. He felt his indignation was righteous, but Jesus rebuked him and made it clear that he did not have the spirit he ought to have. Some poet put it,
My son, art thou above thy Lord?
A greater one than He?
When called I for fire or sword?
Thou hast not learnt of Me:
Make truth thy sword, and love thy flame,
Then battle in thy Master's name.
There is every reason to believe that James did learn the lesson Jesus wanted him to learn. We have no biblical text to support this, but only tradition. Eusebius the historian of the early church quotes from a lost book of Clemens Alexandrimus, which tells us the only thing on record about the death of James. A man informed Herod against James and this led to his arrest. This informer, however, was so deeply moved by the Apostle's noble behavior at his trial that he became a Christian. He asked James to baptize him before he was killed and he was received into the church. This was treason to Herod, and so that man was sentenced to die with James. The informer begged James to forgive him as they were led to the place of execution. James kissed him and said, "Peace be unto thee." The son of thunder was more like the Prince of Peace before he was martyred.
From the point of this martyrdom on James is connected with Spain. Legend says that his body was put in a ship by his friends, and the next morning the ship was off the coast of Spain. His body was kept there and he became the patron saint of Spain. Spanish tradition says that James was the founder of the church in Spain. It seems unlikely, but it is not impossible. Someone went there early in Apostolic days, for Paul desired to go there as if he had some reports from Spain. Christian art pictures James with a copy of the Gospels in one hand and a Pilgrims staff in the other. This shows that he was a traveling evangelist.
The story in Spain is that some hermits saw an exceeding bright star in the sky. It continued night after night, and they heard marvelous singing coming from the star. The bishop was informed and an investigation led the discovery of a cave under the star. In it was found a beautiful tomb and a letter in good Spanish. It read, "Hear lies Santiago, sun of Zebedee and Slaome, brother of St. John, whom Herod beheaded in Jerusalem." The date of that discovery was July 25, 813, and it has been the feast day of St. James.
The King Alfonso II gave 3 miles of land in each direction for a shrine, and later it was increased to 6 miles. People from all over Spain have come to see it. It was called Santiago, which means St. James de Campostelo-field of stars. It rivaled Rome and Jerusalem in attracting pilgrims. They came from England, France, and all of Western Europe. Commerce and trade were greatly stimulated. The Christians felt that St. James gave them victories over the Moslems. 1492 is the date that the Americans think of as the discovery of our land, but in Spain this was the year of liberation from Moslem control. Ferdinand and Isabella celebrated their victory by ordering a thank offering to the shine of St. James. St. James is to Spain what George Washington is to the people of the United States. James became famous after all in at least one part of the world, and this may have never been had he not been the first Apostolic martyr.