Let me immediately answer the titled question – I don’t know why James was the first apostle to be martyred. The Bible doesn’t explicitly give an answer to the question in the way I wonder about it.
Along with Peter and John, James (the other half of the “sons of thunder”) seems to have been a very influential individual amongst the original twelve … which could have played a role in his martyrdom in of itself. The fact that James was privy to restricted lessons and demonstrations of Jesus’ power (Mark 5:37, Luke 9:28) has to prove the former possibility of great influence to a certain extent! Nevertheless, according to Acts 12:1-2, very early into the leadership of the apostles and the growth of Christianity, James becomes the first apostle to experience the later half of Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:23.
Although I readily admit the Bible gives no explicit answer to why James was individually targeted, I do have some thoughts which may be helpful, to an extent, in finding a general answer to the question.
- James was spiritually strong enough to endure the trial he faced (Matthew 20:20-23; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
- None are immune to acts or times of evil (Ecclesiastes 9:12).
- Individual depravity is real and political offices, such as the Herods, easily overflow with evil and egotistical behavior (Ecclesiastes 9:3).
- Satan (Revelation 12:13-17).
The first century church no doubt hurt at the sudden and shameful loss of James the son of Alphaeus. And it doesn’t seem as if they were given anymore of a specific answer than we are given today.
The twenty-first century is no different than the first-century when it comes to the question of, “Why?” Many situations in life still cause us to wonder about “the reason” behind it all. These situations can vary greatly in magnitude! From the loss of a friendship, to the loss of a job, to the loss of a life, and even the loss of faith. However close we find ourselves to the epicenter of the event, it would do us well to remember the general principles of scripture to find an understanding when specific answers are not available.
“Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spoke concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one word of them has failed.” (Joshua 24:14 NKJV)