Luke in this passage describes a very sad event in the life of the church in Jerusalem – the execution of the apostle James by Herod. This Herod was a nephew of the Herod who killed John the Baptist, but we can see that the same hatred of Christ’s church was found throughout the family.
We are not told why James was singled out for this fate. He is an apostle that we don’t know very much about apart from the fact that he was a brother of the apostle John. James was one of the first disciples of Jesus and he was the first of the apostles to be martyred. What can we say about him?
James was one of the favoured three disciples who Jesus delighted to have with him. Several times in the Gospels we have incidents described in which Jesus showed special favour to Peter, James and John, such as in the home of Jairus, or on the Mount of Transfiguration, or in the Garden of Gethsemane. So James had the privilege of intimate communion with Jesus.
Jesus on one occasion gave nicknames to James and John when he called them ‘the sons of thunder’ (Mark 3:17). I suspect they were given this name because they were ready to explode at any moment. One example of this is seen in Luke 9:54 which details that James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that had refused to help Jesus and his disciples. Jesus rebuked them and told them that they did not realise the spirit they were expressing. Clearly the Saviour had a lot of work to do in James, but grace prevailed and he became a changed man. This is very encouraging for those of us who have similar faults.
James, as was John, was marked by confidence. On one occasion, perhaps instigated by their mother, they asked Jesus if they could have the next two important places in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-37). ‘Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized...”’ We are not told what the two brothers thought of that prediction, but James eventually discovering that what Jesus said would happen did take place. James drank out of that cup. But I am sure by that time he no longer lived by his self-confidence, but instead depended entirely on Jesus himself.
We can deduce something of James’ consecration too. About fourteen years have passed since the ascension of Jesus. James had seen Jesus leave the earth and go to heaven and since then James had been devoted to his Master. His brother John would live a lot longer, for another five decades perhaps. But what matters is not the length of service, but the depth. James must have been regarded as very devoted in order to be singled out by Herod as the one to be got rid of. Day after day, for fourteen years, James had served his Master.
A final detail to mention is James’ crown. I wonder did the apostle John think of his brother James when Jesus said to the church in Sardis in Revelation 2:10: ‘Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ Almost fifty years previously, James had received his crown, and he wears it still, and will do so forever.