The sons of Zebedee show some familial characteristics early in life that might have been the reason for the nickname given to them by the Lord. They were brash, at times harsh, and more than a bit concerned about their position in the kingdom.
The two left the family business to follow the Lord Jesus. It is likely that they came from a fairly well-to-do home, as their father had hired servants helping with the boat (Mk. 1:20). The identification of James and John as “the sons of Zebedee” suggests he may have been well known. Also, John was known to the high priest and was able to gain access into the courtyard for himself and Peter in John 18.
Among the twelve, the two brothers, along with Peter, were part of an inner circle. The three of them were with the Lord Jesus as His transfiguration. At the raising of Jarius’ daughter, these three went into the room with the Lord. Finally, in the garden, they were privy to the intense suffering of Christ as He prayed prior to the cross. In these three scenes, they were witnesses of the Savior’s glory, His grace, and His grief.
In Luke 9:54, the brothers asked the Lord if He wanted them to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” This was in response to the negative reaction of the Samaritans to the ministry of Christ. This drew a rebuke from the Lord Jesus, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” (Lk. 5:55).
Matthew 20:20-28 records Salome’s request and the Lord’s response. She met the Lord Jesus; her two sons were with her as she asked for positions in the kingdom for her boys. It would seem from Mark 10:35 that James and John initiated the request and used their mother to deliver it. This caused indignation among the other disciples against the two brothers. The Lord responded with a challenge about faithfulness and a word about true greatness through service. In light of Luke 22:24, it is possible that this was an ongoing source of conflict and controversy. Just before the time in the Upper Room, there was a rivalry among them as to who would be considered the greatest. Later on, the two brothers obviously learned and applied the lesson about service and faithfulness to the Lord.
Very little is known about James, whereas John, along with Peter, would be among the most famous of the twelve. Though they share similar characteristics, their deaths stand in contrast to each other. James was the first of the disciples to be martyred, but John was the only one of the twelve to die of old age. Thus, of these two, it could be said that James died for Christ while John lived for Christ.
Due to the fact that James is mentioned before his brother, it is thought that he was the older of the two. James is almost always mentioned in connection with his brother John or as one of the twelve. Only at his death is he alone. James is among the disciples in Acts 1 and not seen again until Acts 12:2.
There is no biblical or historical background as to what James was doing or why he was so conspicuous. One might surmise that he was vocal and visible in his testimony for Christ so that he came to the attention of Herod. The account of his martyrdom is brief: Herod killed James with the sword.
Clement of Alexandria gives an anecdotal account of events surrounding the martyrdom of James. The account is found in Miller’s Church History. Either his guard or his accuser was so moved by the boldness and testimony of James that he repented of his part in the affair. He fell at James’ feet and begged for forgiveness for what he had done. James raised him up, embraced and kissed him, and said, “Peace my son, peace to thee, and pardon for thy faults.” The man immediately publically professed himself to be a Christian and both were beheaded at the same time.
The Lord Jesus had asked James and John if they were able to drink the cup that He was about to drink. Their response was that they indeed were able, to which the Lord said, “You will indeed drink My cup.” James proved in his life and death that not only was he able, but he was also willing to drink that cup and become a martyr for the sake of Christ his Lord.
Although he was the younger of the two boys, much more is known about John than James. His contribution to the New Testament is enormous, giving us a Gospel, three Epistles, and the book of Revelation. The Gospel presents grace embodied in the person of Christ; the Epistles emphasize the godliness of life required of a Christian; the Revelation reveals the glory of Christ at the end of the age.
The only time in the Gospels that John is mentioned by name without someone else at his side is in Mark 9:38, where he rebuked someone for casting out demons. This incident, along with the others mentioned above, paints a picture of a man who is hard, sometimes brash, and who would err on the side of truth. John aged well; he learned the balance of grace and truth, and he became the apostle of love. What a wonderful example of finishing well!
John in his own Gospel never mentions himself by name. He simply uses the phrase, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He gives the most intimate portrait of the Savior, gleaned from being the closest to Him. The one who “leaned on the Savior’s breast” reveals the heart of the Lord Jesus.
John was the only one of the twelve that is recorded to have been at the cross when the Lord was crucified. It was in those touching moments that the Lord Jesus committed His mother, Mary, into John’s care. Based on tradition, John never left Jerusalem and the care of Mary until after her death.
John moved to Ephesus, and it was from there that he was exiled by the emperor Domitian to the rocky island of Patmos. It was on Patmos, in a small cave, that he was given the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The heavens were opened above him and the future was unfolded before him. After the death of Domitian, the apostle John returned to Ephesus, living there for the balance of his days. He passed away from this scene and into the presence of the One he loved so well around the year ad 100. Tradition again relates that John was the only one of the twelve to die of old age; all the others died as martyrs for Christ.
Another anecdotal account of John’s last days in Ephesus was that John would be carried to the assembly, asked for a word, and his constant refrain was, “My little children, love one another.” When asked why this was his only message, his response was to the effect that this was the Lord’s command and if it is obeyed, everything else will be right.
The apostle of love has left a wonderful legacy. In his Gospel, he attests to the deity of Christ, while in 1 John, he affirms His humanity. Thematically, he develops the concepts of light, life, and love. He gives the balance of truth and grace first seen in Christ and subsequently to be seen in us all.
It is fitting to end with these instructive and transformative words of John to us: “Do not love the world or the things of the world” (1 Jn. 2:15).
“Beloved, let us love one another” (1 Jn. 4:7).