Teaching the Twelve Apostles: James the Lesser

In the final blog regarding Jesus’ twelve apostles, we finish with James the son of Alphaeus. Scholars often refer to this student of Jesus as “the Lesser,” in relation to James, one of Christ’s inner circle along with Peter and John. Although James the son of Alphaeus enjoys a smaller role in the recorded ministry of Christ, we take care not to minimize his contribution. Notably, Jesus gave him power to heal diseases and cast out demons, and he was present for the feeding of the five thousand, the Great Commission, the ascension, the selection of Matthias to replace Judas, and early outreach ministry as recorded in the Book of Acts. I will present lessons in relation to James and a suggestion for teaching in the Sunday School classroom.

Key verses regarding James the son of Alphaeus:

Matthew 10:1 

And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 

Matthew 10:2–3 

The names of the twelve apostles are these: … James the son of Alphaeus. 

Mark 6:30–31, 40–44 

The apostles returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught. And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. ... So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties ... And He divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.

Mark 15:40

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.

Matthew 28:16–20 

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. … And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What do we know about James the Lesser?

  • James is the Greek version of Jacob. Jacob means “supplanter” or “heel-catcher.”
  • James may be the son of the “other Mary” who was at the tomb on Easter morning (see Matthew 28:1 and Mark 15:40).
  • He is referred to as James “the Lesser” in relation to James, one of the three in Jesus’ inner circle.
  • Jesus gave him power to heal every disease and to cast out demons.
  • He was present for the feeding of the five thousand, the Great Commission, the ascension, and the selection of Matthias who replaced Judas, Jesus’ betrayer.
  • He was active with the other apostles in the early ministry of sharing Christ.

Is “Lesser” less important?

Satan works hard to discourage Christians from taking part in the ministry of the Church, either in the sense of the Christian Church through time and place or the local congregation. He discourages believers in at least two ways. First, he tempts other people, Christians and unbelievers, to injure our confidence. Second, he tempts us toward fear of failure, the false belief that we have nothing to share, and laziness. Perhaps James felt the same way.  

Teaching James the Lesser can encourage young Christians to be engaged. Paul writes, Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4–7). Perhaps more important, remind students that the Holy Spirit works through the Word and Sacraments. Everyone can share Jesus with others and encourage people to be baptized. God can work through even those who consider themselves “lesser.” 

Teach the story of those closest to Jesus during His ministry.

Learn More about the Twelve Apostles

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Phil Rigdon

The Rev. Dr. Philip Rigdon and his wife, Jamelyn, live in Kendallville, Indiana, with their two rabbits, Frankie and Buttons. He serves as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and School in Kendallville. He enjoys writing, running, and playing guitar.

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