James the son of Alphaeus is one of the more obscure of Jesus' twelve disciples. His name appears in each of the four lists of the disciples in the New Testament found in Matthew 10:2–4, Mark 3:14–19, Luke 6:13–16, and Acts 1:13. But not much else of him is described in Scripture.
There are two other men named James mentioned in the New Testament. The first is James the son of Zebedee who was also a disciple of Jesus. He is clearly a different James as he is also in each of the four lists of Jesus' disciples alongside his brother, John. The other James is the brother of Jesus. He was one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension and authored the New Testament book of James (Galatians 1:19; Acts 12:17).
Throughout the history of the church biblical scholars have proposed theories about James the son of Alphaeus' identity. He is also known as James the Less or James the Younger, based on Mark 15:40. This could be referring to his age, his physical stature, or his prominence among the disciples. Some scholars think that James' father Alphaeus could be the husband of Mary the wife of Clopas. Clopas may be another name for Alphaeus.
One other theory arises from the name Alphaeus, which is linked to the apostle Matthew as well. Matthew is called "Levi the son of Alphaeus" in Mark 2:14 when Jesus calls him to leave his life behind and join His ministry. Some question if James the son of Alphaeus and Matthew the tax collector were brothers. This is unlikely, though, as two other sets of brothers—Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee—are explicitly identified as brothers in the lists of disciples. Matthew and James the son of Alphaeus are not.
Irrespective of who his true blood relatives may have been, we can conclude that James the son of Alphaeus was a faithful servant of Christ. He is just as much an apostle as are those who are featured more prominently in the biblical narrative, like Peter or John. James the son of Alphaeus was a witness to Jesus' years of ministry on earth and His resurrection. He was empowered by the Holy Spirit and a leader in the early church alongside the other apostles. Tradition says that James, son of Alphaeus, evangelized in Persia (modern-day Iran) and was martyred there.
From James the son of Alphaeus we can be encouraged that our faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him matters whether seen by many or by few. Though we know relatively little about him, James the son of Alphaeus is known fully by God and will be honored alongside the other apostles (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 21:14). James the Less was in no way lesser in God's estimation. The same is true of all who faithfully follow God in whatever He gives them. Earthly notoriety holds little value in God's kingdom; rather, faithfully following Him and living for His glory because of the grace we've been granted through faith in Jesus does (Ephesians 2:8–10; 1 Corinthians 3:5–15; 12:4–27).
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