James never appears as a stand-alone character in the Gospel accounts, but he is always paired with his younger and better-known brother, John. The only time he is mentioned by himself is in the book of Acts, where his martyrdom is recorded.
Between James and John, James was the eldest. And between the two sets of brothers, the family of James and John seems to have been much more prominent than the family of Peter and Andrew. This is hinted at by the fact that James and John are often referred to simply as “the sons of Zebedee”, signifying that Zebedee was a man of some importance.
Mark records that Jesus called James and John “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). While Andrew was quietly bringing individuals to Jesus, James was wishing he could call down fire from heaven and destroy whole villages of people. Even the fact that James was the first to be martyred–and that his martyrdom was accomplished by no less a figure than Herod–suggests that James was not a passive or subtle man, but rather he had a style that stirred things up so that he made deadly enemies very rapidly.
We get our best glimpse of why James and John were known as the Sons of Thunder in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus was preparing to pass through Samaria. He was headed to Jerusalem for the final Passover, which He knew would culminate in His death, burial, and resurrection. Because it was obvious that Jesus was headed for Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and the Samaritans were of the opinion that all such feasts and ceremonies ought to be observed on Mount Gerizim, Jesus’ messengers were refused all accommodations. The problem was not that there was no room for them in the inn; the problem was that the Samaritans were being deliberately inhospitable. James and John, the Sons of Thunder, were instantly filled with passionate outrage. They already had in mind a remedy for this situation. They said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:54). It was not a proper response from James and John. In the first place, their motives were wrong. A tone of arrogance is evident in the way they asked the question.
Jesus’ example taught James that loving-kindness and mercy are virtues to be cultivated. Instead of calling down fire from heaven, “They went to another village” (Luke 9:56). They simply found accommodations elsewhere. It was a little inconvenient, perhaps, but far better and far more appropriate in those circumstances than James and John’s proposed remedy for the Samaritans’ inhospitality.
We get another insight into Jame’s character in Matthew 20:20-24. In this case, he and his brother John engaged in an attempt to gain status over the other apostles. Their ambition ultimately created conflict among the apostles, because the other ten heard about it and were displeased. The question of who deserved the most prominent thrones became a big debate among them, and they carried it right to the table at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24).
It is significant that James was the first of the apostles to be killed. James is the only apostle whose death is actually recorded in Scripture. Clearly, James was still a man of passion. His passion, now under the Holy Spirit’s control, had been so instrumental in the spread of the truth that it had aroused the wrath of Herod. Still courageous, zealous, and committed to the truth, he had apparently learned to use those qualities for the Lord’s service. The Lord used him to do wonderful work in the early church.