The apostle Paul had the most memorable conversion experience in early Christianity (Acts 9), but James, the brother of Jesus, was not far behind.
The Gospels are uniform in how they portray the skepticism of Jesus’ brothers during Jesus’ earthly ministry. The brothers are named in Matthew 13:54-57, with James at the head of the list. At the end of John 7:2-5, after the brothers openly scoff at Jesus, John records that “even his own brothers did not believe him.” Mark 3:20-21 portrays Jesus’ family being embarrassed at Jesus’ claims and the attention he was attracting.
By the time we get to Acts though, the situation has changed completely. After Jesus ascends to heaven, when all of the believers are in Jerusalem praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit to be sent, Jesus’ brothers are right there with them (1:12-14). Later, James emerges as the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem, according to Acts 12:17 (note that James the brother of John has already been put to death by this point – Acts 12:2), Acts 15:13-21, and Acts 21:17-26. In all three passages, James is singled out above the other leaders of the Jerusalem church as being a man with authority and influence. Likewise, Paul refers to James as an apostle (Galatians 1:19) and a “pillar” (Galatians 2:9) in the early church. According to the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 20.9), James died as a martyr for Christ around A.D. 62.
What made the difference for James? How did he do such an about-face in his attitude towards Jesus? 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 provides the answer. After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to the apostles and other believers. But according to verse 7, Jesus made a special resurrection appearance to James. Before Jesus’ resurrection appearance to James, nothing indicates that James believed in Jesus. But after Jesus’ resurrection appearance to James, everything indicates that James believed in Jesus, and with all his heart.
The reason James turned from a skeptic into a follower and servant (James 1:1) of Christ is the same reason that Paul did. James and Paul both saw the resurrected Jesus, and immediately, all of their opposition, doubts, and objections to Jesus as Messiah were eliminated.
What does this mean for us? If the resurrection of Jesus stands, everything else about Christianity stands with it. The real, physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynchpin of our faith as Christians. Everything else is details. If Jesus, who was crucified and buried, really did rise again in power and triumph, then I’m ready to trust in him, receive his forgiveness, and move forward as his disciple, no ifs, ands, or buts.