May 24 – Saluting an Unknown Soldier (James, son of Alphaeus)

The twelve apostles included “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matt. 10:3).

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God often uses ordinary people to accomplish great things.

Like most Christians, James the son of Alphaeus is an unknown and unsung soldier of the cross. His distinguishing characteristic is obscurity. Nothing he did or said is recorded in Scripture—only his name.

In Mark 15:40 he is called “James the Less,” which literally means “Little James.” That could refer to his stature (he might have been short), his age (he might have been younger than James the son of Zebedee), or his influence (he might have had relatively little influence among the disciples).

In Mark 2:14 Matthew (Levi) is called “the son of Alphaeus.” Alphaeus was a common name, but it’s possible that James and Matthew were brothers, since their fathers had the same first name. Also, James’s mother is mentioned in Mark 15:40 as being present at Christ’s crucifixion, along with other women. She is referred to as the wife of Clopas in John 19:25. Since Clopas was a form of Alphaeus, that further supports the possibility that James and Matthew were related.

From those references we might conclude that James was a small, young man whose personality was not particularly powerful. If he was Matthew’s brother, perhaps he was as humble as Matthew, willing to serve the Lord without any applause or notice. Whichever the case, be encouraged that God uses obscure people like James and rewards them accordingly. Someday James will sit on a throne in Christ’s millennial Kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel—just like the other, more prominent disciples (Luke 22:30).

No matter how obscure or prominent you are from a human perspective, God can use you and will reward you with a glorious eternal inheritance.

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Suggestions for Prayer:  Thank the Lord for all those people unknown to you whom He has used to shape your life for His glory. ✧ Seek to be more like James, serving Christ faithfully without applause or glory.

For Further Study: Read Luke 9:23–25. What did Jesus say is necessary to be His disciple? ✧ Read Luke 9:57–62. What were those men unwilling to give up to follow Christ?[1]


James the Son of Alphaeus

The first-named of these unknown apostles is James, who is distinguished from the other apostle James (the son of Zebedee, v. 2) and from James the half brother of Jesus by being identified as the son of Alphaeus. In Mark 15:40 he is referred to as “the Less.” Mikros (“less”) can also mean smaller or younger. Used in the sense of smaller, the name may have been another means of distinguishing him from James the son of Zebedee, who was clearly larger in influence and position and possibly also in physical stature. In the sense of younger, it may have indicated his youthfulness in comparison to the other James.

As just mentioned, this James was considerably less than James the son of Zebedee in the realm of influence. He may have had outstanding traits such as boldness or courage, but, if so, he would likely have been called “the Bold” or something similar, rather than “the Less.” He could have been older than the other James; but if that were true, he would probably have been called “the Elder,” since that description would have been less confusing and more respectful of his age. It is also possible, of course, that he was smaller in stature. But the most probable meaning of “the Less” would seem to be that of youthfulness, coupled with that of his subordinate position in leadership.

Because Matthew’s father was also named Alphaeus (spelled Alpheus in Mark 2:14), James and Matthew may have been brothers. Or this James may have been a cousin of Jesus. Clopas was a form of Alphaeus, and if Jesus’ “mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), was James’s mother, he would have been Jesus’ first cousin. That possibility is also supported by Mark 15:40, which tells us that the mother of James the Less was named Mary. It is possible that he was both Matthew’s brother and Jesus’ cousin. In either case or both, this James’s low profile testifies to his humility, since there is no indication that he tried to take personal advantage of any such relationship.

James was not distinguished as a gifted leader, either before or after his calling and training. We can assume he faithfully fulfilled the Lord’s work during his ministry, and we know that he will one day sit on a heavenly throne and join the other twelve in judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). But his apostleship had no relationship to outstanding ability or achievement. He was an unextraordinary man, used in unextraordinary ways to help fulfill the extraordinary task of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

After 2,000 years, James the son of Alphaeus remains obscure. We do not know a single word he spoke or a single thing he did. The early church Fathers claimed that he preached in Persia (modern Iran) and was crucified there as a martyr for the gospel. If that is true, one can only wonder what would have happened to that country and to world history had those people responded favorably to the gospel.[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 157). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 10:3). Chicago: Moody Press.

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