Jesus' Disciples: James the Less

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Monday, September 14, 2020 0 comments

by Katie Erickson

As I wrote previously when writing about Jesus’ disciple James, there are multiple men named James associated with Jesus and the New Testament. Today, we’re going to look at the other James who was part of the Twelve Disciples.

This James was the son of Alphaeus, whereas the other was brother to John and son of Zebedee. He is often referred to as James the Less, not because he was less important but likely because he was of smaller stature. He is mentioned in all of the lists of the Twelve in Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16.

It is believed that James was related to Jesus. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 1:18-19, “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” Some scholars believe this was Jesus’ actual half brother (biological son of Mary and Joseph), whereas other scholars believe he was actually a cousin or other relative of Jesus. Early Christian men often called each other “brother” even if they were not actually biological brothers, so there is some ambiguity in Paul’s statement.

There is additional support for the theory of James being Jesus’ brother from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” There in verse 7, this is the James who is mentioned. Jesus may have singled James out among the rest of the apostles in this appearance because of their biological relation.

But, the fact that James the Less is also called James son of Alphaeus indicates that he was not Jesus’ half brother, or else he would have been James son of Joseph. Acts 1:12-14 says, “Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” This was right Jesus’ ascension into heaven and before the day of Pentecost, so we see that James son of Alphaeus was present there, still very much a part of the Twelve.

In Acts 12:1-19, we see the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. Verse 17 records, “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,’ he said, and then he left for another place.” This is believed to be James the Less that Peter spoke of.

We see in Acts 15 that James presided at the council held to consider what to do with the Gentiles in the church. He is specifically mentioned in verses 13-21 where he quotes the prophet Amos in saying that God intended for the Gentiles to be included in His church. We see James as head of the church in Jerusalem when Paul comes to visit, as recorded in Acts 21:17-26. Specifically, verse 18 says, “The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present.”

But was this the James who wrote the letter of James included in our New Testament? James was a common name in that era, just as it is today, and they didn’t use last names then like we do today. It is believed by many scholars that the same James who was head of the church in Jerusalem is the same James who wrote this letter, as its tone matches what we see in Acts 15 and 21 referenced above, but there is still some uncertainty there.

All that is great for historical knowledge, but what can we learn from James the Less for us as disciples of Jesus today? Our culture today, and even the Church today, is very divided on a number of issues. It is so easy for us to put ourselves and others into different groups based on all sorts of factors. We often separate between Christians and non-Christians, and even among our faith, we divide ourselves into different denominations, different congregations, and even different groups within congregations. With all that division, it’s difficult for those who are outside of our faith to see how we are all unified, and this could be a stumbling block to those who want to have faith in Jesus but don’t want to deal with the confusion of all that division.

So, I believe the most important lesson we today can learn from James is from the speech he gave in Acts 15. In particular, verse 19 says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” The big division in that time was between Jews and Gentiles. Once the early church decided that Jesus’ gospel message was for Gentiles too, they then struggled with how to incorporate both into one Church that followed Jesus.

While there are certain commands of God that we all are called to follow, we who are in the faith should not make it difficult for anyone else who wants to be a part of our community, whether just our overall community of brothers and sisters in the faith or for joining a particular local congregation. Yes, need to help our fellow believers to follow the commands God has given us, but we primarily are called to build one another up in love (1 Thessalonians 5:11) rather than making it difficult for others to be a part of “our club.”

We are not all called to be leaders over a congregation like James the Less was, but we can still learn from him that we need to be leaders in encouraging all who want to be a part of our faith.

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