James and John

Sons of Thunder

This amazing pair of self-centered and self-serving brothers became faithful and self-less servants of Jesus. Along the way they had much to overcome, beginning with themselves. The result was complete loyalty and service to the master.
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As we progress through the list of the apostles, we begin to see less of them mentioned directly in Scripture. This should not cause us to discount their contributions or lessen what we can learn from them. We will continue our study of the apostles by looking at James and John, the other set of brothers called by Christ.

Although given the nickname that leads you to believe these were contentious men, we see later in life that Jesus took those characteristics that led to their nickname "Sons of Thunder" and turned them into humble and faithful followers. This continues to show us that God can use us to His glory no matter where or who we are. We must turn ourselves over to Him. These men did not follow Jesus because they had nothing else to do. They, like the other apostles, were willing to leave everything because of their conviction of who Jesus was.

In this lesson we will look at information about James and John collectively and then individually. We will look at what we can learn from these two faithful followers of Jesus. Let us begin by looking at what Scriptures shows us about these two brothers.

Biblical Information

James and John were the sons of Zebedee, a successful fisherman (Matthew 4:20-22). They were the third and fourth disciples called. Their calling is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Although not attributed to them specifically, they would be a natural fit to work with their fishing partners Peter and Andrew as Jesus called them to become, "fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19).

In Mark 3:17 Jesus gave them the nickname, "Boanerges" or "Sons of Thunder," which is apparently a reference to their bold and aggressive personalities. It may have been because they asked Jesus to let them bring down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that rejected them. (Luke 9:51-56). They also had their mother ask Jesus for special positions in His Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45).

We also see them listed in the first grouping of the apostles, indicating they were part of the inner circle closest to Jesus, and, along with Peter, James and John were with Christ at special times (Mark 5:37; Matthew 17:1; Mark 13:3; Mark 14:33).

Concerning their deaths, James was the first apostle killed (Acts 12:1-2) and the only one, other than Judas Iscariot, whose manner of death we know for certain. King Herod, in an apparent attempt to gain favor with the Jews, and perhaps the Romans, had James killed, "by the sword," indicating a Roman style of execution. John was the only apostle not killed but was persecuted and banished to the island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation.

Compared to his brother John, and to Peter, there is not a lot of information James in Scripture, but we can still learn from James.

We learn to use our passion and zeal to serve Jesus. The word "zeal" indicates enthusiasm to pursue or fulfill a goal or desire. James was a man of zeal and passion, adding further explanation why Jesus gave the two brothers the nickname, "Sons of Thunder." Frequently James was misguided in his actions but remained faithful to Christ.

Another lesson from James is to keep the faith, no matter what the challenge. Historians believe that the death of James occurred approximately fourteen years after the ascension of Jesus. Some believe that Herod killed James because he was recognized as a leader in the Christian community. This indicates that because he let God direct his life, he turned his life, although relatively short, into a wonderful and powerful instrument God could use. James, along with the others, began at Pentecost to proclaim Christ to all with whom he came into contact.

The direct lesson for us is that whatever our characteristics or gifts, when we dedicate them to our Lord's service, we accomplish great things for His glory.

Highlights of John

John is among the most known of the apostles and essential to our knowledge of Jesus, the apostles, and the carrying out of our Lord's will. Here are some highlights from John's life and ministry.

  • John is noted for not referring to himself in the first person and was known as, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." This is in direct contrast to a "Son of Thunder."
  • John was apparently known to the high priest. We see this as he is a witness to the early trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 18:15-17).
  • In a tender moment at the crucifixion, we see John in the small group at the cross. Jesus entrusts John with the care of his mother (John 19:26-27). Historians believe that Mary eventually died in Ephesus under the direct care of John.
  • When informed of the apparent resurrection of Jesus by Mary Magdalene, John and Peter ran to the tomb. John outran Peter but did not go in until after Peter arrived. John notes that they did not understand Scripture about Jesus rising from the dead, so they returned to their homes (John 20:1-10).
  • John is a prolific writer of the New Testament. He is the author of 5 books: Gospel of John, I, II, and III John, and Revelation. This is second only to the number of books written by Paul.
  • We also see John was active with Peter after the beginning of the church in Acts.

What We Learn from John

John teaches us about humility. We have noted that in his writings, John rarely refers to himself directly. He also records the detail of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. It seems as if he is reminding himself of the importance of humility.

John teaches us about the kind of love Jesus wants us to demonstrate, a self-sacrificing love that focuses on others.

  • John is called the "apostle whom Jesus loved."
  • He uses the word love more than 80 times.
  • In I John 4:7-8, John teaches us that love is the characteristic of God.

John teaches us the clarity of being a faithful follower of Jesus.

  • We are walking in the light or in darkness (I John 1).
  • If we are born of God, we do not sin (I John 3:9).
  • We are of God or of the world (I John 4:4-5).
  • If we love we are born of God if we do not love, we are not born of God (I John 4:7-8).

John teaches us to be confident in our knowledge of salvation (I John 5:13). We begin with an acceptance that we are saved and progress to where we are confident in it. This is not a haughty, self-righteousness, but humble gratitude that Jesus has indeed saved us.

John also knew that believers still sin, but his concern is with the overall pattern of a person's life. It is faithfulness, not sin which is the dominant principle in a believer's life and that God rewards our faithfulness. (I John 1:8-10; 2:1).


We have already stated that Scripture describes the death of James in Acts 12:1-2 at the hand of Herod in AD 44. Because of this, there is little information about where he continued to teach. Most traditions have that he was limited to the region of Judea. There is a shrine to James in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It is believed that this is where he is buried.

Although we are not given the details of John's death, Jesus indicated that John would not die as did other apostles (John 21:20-25). Many historians believe John died in Ephesus (Modern Turkey) in AD 98, during the reign of Emperor Trajan. There are several traditions about his death. One is that John was arrested in Ephesus where he was tossed into a basin of boiling oil. According to this tradition, he was miraculously delivered from death and was sentenced to exile on the island of Patmos. Another tradition states that John was killed by a group of Jewish men. There is yet another report that he did not die but ascended into heaven like Enoch and Elijah. In any case, there is no scriptural record of his actual death.

The most likely tradition is that John died of old age. He lived out his years caring for Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Ephesus. He journeyed from a "Son of Thunder" to a gentle man who had a peaceful death among those he loved. We do not have any specific indication why, but perhaps it was the reward for a lifetime of faithfulness to Jesus.

James and John were changed from "Sons of Thunder" to faithful followers of Jesus. They learned to balance their ambitions, zeal and passions with their desire to follow-through with the expectations of Jesus. This is a great lesson for us today. We can look at our lives and change the focus from serving self to serving the Master.

James would have loved, "The Servant Song."

"Lord, make me a servant, Lord, make me like You;
For You are a servant, make me one, too.
Lord, make me a servant, do what You must do
to make me a servant; make me like You."

John would have loved the words in the third verse of the song; "I'll Be a Friend to Jesus."

"To all who need a savior, my friend I recommend,
because he brought salvation, is why I am his friend.
I'll be a friend to Jesus, my life for him I'll spend;
I'll be a friend to Jesus, until my years shall end."

We also make special note of the closing words in John's gospel. In this passage we see the quiet love of a true servant of our Lord:

"Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."
- John 21:25

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize what we know about James and John as brothers.
  2. How was James killed and what can we learn from this?
  3. List some highlights of John's life as an apostle.
  4. Why do you think John was reluctant to refer to himself in the first person?
  5. What is the greatest lesson you learn from John?
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