When I see a life on fire for God snuffed out in its prime, I confess I wonder what goes on in the mind of a sovereign God. So much potential. So much to offer. All that potential—gone.
Have you ever known a young, gifted individual who loved the Lord but whose life came to a sudden end—with all that potential wasted in an early death?
I have. We are not the first to scratch our heads at God’s grand plan—that includes what seems like life wasted.
Why do you think Jesus invited James into the inner circle of disciples only to allow his execution so soon after the church got its start?
James—Great Privilege and a Question
James had a tremendous privilege among the apostles:
- As brothers, James and John shared one nickname given by Jesus: “Sons of Thunder.” In fact, the Gospels never mention James without John; the brothers were inseparable.
- Jesus invited James into the inner circle of the three apostles—Peter, James, and John—who saw more and did more with Jesus than any of the others.
On Jesus’s last pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the brothers approached the Master in private to ask a favor. (In truth, James and John got their mommy to ask Jesus for them.)
Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left. —Matthew 20:21
Their request revealed their motive. They wanted glory, and Jesus was the ticket. Jesus directed His answer toward James and his younger brother:
You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?
The “cup” represented Jesus’ impending execution in Jerusalem. The brothers boasted, “We are able.” Then Jesus affirmed, “My cup you shall drink” (Matthew 20:22-23).
A Motive Review in the Garden
After a week in Jerusalem and a final Passover meal together, Jesus asked the three in His inner circle to join Him in Gethsemane. The Master confided that He wanted them to pray with Him, for He suffered grief over what lay ahead. But instead of supporting Jesus, James and his pals fell asleep . . . that is, until Jesus woke them and the rattling of swords and the light of torches exposed the soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus.
In a fit of fear, James and every other disciple abandoned the Lord and fled like rabbits. Perhaps Jesus’ question echoed in James’s ears as he zigzagged through the olive trees in the black of night.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
A New Reason to Live—and an Unexpected Death
The absolute disillusionment that followed Jesus’ crucifixion—His own seemingly wasted life—raked the pride and selfish ambition from James and all the Lord’s glory-bound disciples. But then mourning gave way to joy as Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, having commissioned His church to make disciples.
For eleven years the young church struggled and grew until King Herod Agrippa arrested some of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, including James, whom Agrippa ordered executed by sword (Acts 12:2).
The suddenness and brevity of the account leaves us stunned. And it begs some questions:
- Why would Jesus choose James to join His innermost circle only to allow the disciple’s execution so soon after the birth of the church?
- All that time, all that training—for nothing?
- Certainly someone else was more expendable?
From our perspective, it seems a life is wasted.
When Life is Wasted for God’s Glory
The shortness of James’s eleven-year ministry would have had a jolting influence on the ministry of his brother John—the apostle who lived the longest and became the apostle of love. James was the first apostle to suffer martyrdom; John was the last. An early death by the sword—not quite the glory James requested of Jesus that day along the road.
It was, in fact, much more.
As the executioner approached James’s prison cell, the disciple’s conversation with Jesus must have rung in his ears. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink? The guards bared James’s neck, and he heard the shing of the sword jerked from its scabbard. We are able. The soldier raised his sword above James’s head. My cup you shall drink.
And then, in a moment, James’s conversation with Jesus was no longer just a memory but a reality—as he beheld the risen Christ again face-to-face. The first apostle home. The first to experience glory—far beyond what he requested.
What We Cannot Know and What We Cannot Doubt
We cannot fathom the reasons God takes someone home early. But we do know this:
James’ short life—like Jesus’—reveals that a life that glorifies God is never wasted—be it short or long.
Tell me what you think: What motivates you to follow Jesus? Are you willing to surrender your life? If so, are you willing to do that daily—even if you live to an old age? To leave a comment, just click here.
Adapted from Wayne Stiles, “James: Wasted for Glory,” from Shaping the Modern Disciple (IFL Publishing House, 2014), 32-35.