“Have you heard the news? Herod beheaded James!”
“No way! Not James! He was one of the inner circle with Jesus! Peter, James, and John. I thought for sure that God would protect James!”
“But that’s not all. The latest polls show that Herod’s approval rating went up after he killed James. So now he also has Peter in custody. Word has it that tomorrow, after the feast is over, he is going to execute him! There’s a prayer meeting tonight at Mary’s house.”
“I’ll see you there.”
There are times when evil seems to be winning the day. Wicked men get away with murder and their popularity goes up, not down. The righteous suffer terribly. Their loved ones are bereaved. It’s easy at such times to wonder, “Where is God in all of this? Why did He allow this to happen? How can any good come out of such awful wickedness?”
James and John had been close. They had worked together in their father’s fishing business. They had spent three years in close contact with Jesus. They had hopes and dreams of how God would use them in spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. But now, James was suddenly gone. John was left wondering, “Why?”
At the beginning of Acts 12, we have James dead, Peter in prison, and the tyrant Herod basking in his popularity and power. At the end of the chapter, we have Peter free, Herod eaten by worms and dead, and the Word of God growing and multiplying. Luke is showing us that the gospel is unstoppable. If you oppose the gospel, you may temporarily win, but you will finally lose and lose big. If you stand for the gospel, you may temporarily lose, but you will finally win and win big.
Since God is almighty, no force can stop the spread of His gospel according to His purpose.
I want to share four lessons that will help us when it seems that the bad guys are winning and the good guys are losing:
There is a marked contrast between the love of the racially mixed church in Antioch for the famine-afflicted Jewish church in Judea (11:27-30) and the hatred of Herod and the Jews in Jerusalem for the church there (12:1-3). Luke notes that Herod’s mistreatment of the church happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), and that the Jews were pleased. When someone’s religion allows him to be pleased with the death of a righteous man, his religion is worse than useless.
The Herod of Acts 12 was Agrippa I. He was born in 10 B.C., the grandson of Herod the Great, who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. “Grandpa” Herod assassinated his son, Agrippa’s father, when Agrippa was only three. He went to Rome with his mother and grew up on close terms with the imperial family. He was a playboy and had to flee Rome to escape from his creditors. He spent some time in prison, but the emperor Caligula released Herod and assigned him as king of the northernmost provinces of Palestine. Later he was given all of the territory that had formerly belonged to his grandfather, which he ruled until his death in A.D. 44. The apostle Paul would later stand trial before his son, Agrippa II.
Herod was a quintessential politician who when in Rome lived like the Romans and when in Palestine knew how to court the Jews. He observed the Jewish feasts and sacrifices. He used his influence to keep Caligula from erecting a statue of himself as god in the Jewish temple. He helped the Jews of Alexandria receive more humane treatment. He moved the seat of government from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and had begun reconstruction of the city’s northern wall. He knew that to keep Rome happy, he had to keep the Jews happy. He viewed the Jewish Christians as disruptive. He didn’t want this upstart sect to disturb the peace that he had worked so hard to establish (the above gleaned from Richard Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:407-408). So he arrested a number of the Christians and had James beheaded. When he saw the favorable response among the Jews, he planned to repeat the process on Peter.
So we see mingled together the wickedness of an evil tyrant and the sovereignty of God who allowed this tyrant to operate on a leash. We would be greatly in error if we thought that somehow God could not prevent Herod from his evil deeds. As David says:
Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!” He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them (Psalm 2:1-4).
No wicked act, not even the slaughter of the righteous, takes place apart from the sovereign will of God. God did not lose control when Herod Antipas got drunk and gave the head of John the Baptist on a platter to the sensuous Salome. Even the terrible deeds of the Antichrist in the end times are under God’s control: He will remove him when it is His time, but before then many godly people will suffer and die (Rev. 6:9-11). There are three practical lessons that we should draw from this:
The so-called “Word of Faith” teachers say that deliverance from any trial is ours if we simply claim it by faith. They brazenly state that God must obey us when we speak a word of faith! If you are not healed, then obviously the problem is your lack of faith. I cannot understand why these arrogant charlatans get such a large following. None of them are able to avoid disease and death!
He loved James and John just as much as He loved Peter. But He allowed James to die and John to mourn the loss of his brother, but He delivered Peter. And He offered no explanation! Perhaps He was teaching the church that no man is indispensable to His cause. The death of James did not hinder the spread of the gospel. Perhaps He was teaching them to trust Him when they did not understand what He is doing. But whatever the lessons, John and the rest of James’ family would have been greatly mistaken to conclude that somehow God did not love them as much as He loved Peter. As someone has observed, we must always interpret our circumstances by God’s love, not God’s love by our circumstances.
It seems remarkable that the death of this great man, James, is passed over in a brief sentence. Stephen, the first martyr, got a long chapter on his death, and he wasn’t even one of the apostles! James, one of the inner circle and the first apostle to die, doesn’t even get a decent obituary! It doesn’t seem right!
But the seeming wrongfulness of it stems from our temporal perspective. James was welcomed into heaven by Jesus with the victor’s crown and the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the eternal joy of your Master!” He went instantly from this life of pain, sorrow, and trials into the place of eternal joy. John, of course, had to remain for another 50 years on earth, and I’m sure that he missed his brother often. But as soon as John passed over into glory, he realized how short even his relatively long life was in light of eternity. He knew that all of his suffering and grief was worth the eternal joy of being with Christ.
So the death of James at the hand of Herod teaches us that although God is almighty, He does not prevent the untimely deaths of some of His choicest servants.
No prison can shut God out or keep His servants in if He wills to free them. God easily could have spared James, if it had been His will. It was no big deal to God to get Peter out of the most secure prison that Herod could devise. Maybe Herod had heard from the Jewish leaders how Peter and John had mysteriously escaped from custody a few years before (Acts 5:17-20). He wanted to make sure that it did not happen this time, so he assigned four squads of four soldiers each to guard him around the clock. Two soldiers were chained by the wrist to each of Peter’s two arms. Two more stood guard at the door of Peter’s cell. Then there were two more guards, plus an iron gate that led into the city (12:10). But to get Peter out of there, the Lord didn’t need to send a squad of angels. Just one easily did the job!
He appeared at night, when it would have been pitch black. Whether from the countenance of the angel or a light from heaven, suddenly the cell lit up. But the guards did not wake up, even when the chains fell from Peter’s wrists. Even though he would be executed the next day, Peter was so sound asleep that the angel had to strike his side to rouse him. With David, Peter could say, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).
The angel said, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” Peter groggily responded. Then the angel said, “Wrap your coat around you and follow me.” As they walked out of the prison, Peter thought that he was just having a pleasant dream! When they got to the final locked door, it was like walking out of Wal-Mart—the door swung open automatically! Peter didn’t fully realize what had happened until the angel suddenly left him standing in the street. But the whole operation was a piece of cake for God, even though it was humanly impossible. Three applications:
If Peter had engineered his own escape, he would have been praised for his ingenuity and daring exploits. But what could he say about his part in this escape? He wasn’t even thinking about escaping—he was sleeping! Can you imagine him boasting, “Yeah, I had to gird myself and put on my own sandals and coat. The angel didn’t fly me out! I had to walk out of there on my own two legs.” Peter had nothing in himself that he could boast about! His testimony was, “The Lord led me out of prison” (12:17).
Peter’s deliverance is a picture of how God saves sinners. Probably Charles Wesley had this scene in mind when he wrote the verse of his great hymn, “And Can It Be?”:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Before God saves us, we are like Peter, sleeping in the darkness, insensitive to our sin, and not able to see the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ. Our sins chained us so that we could not escape, even if we had wanted to. We were under God’s sentence of death. While we were in this desperate and helpless condition, God broke in with the light of His glory, woke us out of our spiritual slumber, and caused our chains to fall off so that we could willingly and joyfully follow Him out of this prison of death. Since our salvation was totally from the Lord in His great mercy, He gets all the glory. We can only praise Him because He saved us. We had nothing to do with it.
The text does not say whether the church was praying for James, but I assume that they were. There is no hint that they were somehow at fault for his death because of their lack of prayer. But the camera zooms in on the church at the eleventh hour with Peter. It was the very night before Herod was planning to execute him that we see the church gathered in this all-night prayer meeting, praying fervently (12:5). Fervently is an athletic term that pictures an athlete straining every muscle as he puts everything into a race. Luke 22:44 uses the same word to describe Jesus’ fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
There is nothing like an eleventh hour crisis to get us praying as we should be praying the rest of the time! If we only could see it, we’re always on the brink of disaster and death, because our adversary, the devil, is prowling about as a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. So at all times we should be a praying people! But the Lord often delays the answers to our problems or crises so that we will recognize how much we really do need Him.
I say that God is not limited by our prayers because clearly, although the church was praying, they were not praying in faith. If they had been expecting God to work, they wouldn’t have been so surprised when He answered! They would have been jubilant, as Rhoda was when she recognized Peter’s voice on the other side of the door. But they would not have said, “You’re out of your mind! It couldn’t be Peter. It must be his angel!”
Prayer is a mystery. Why do we need to pray when God already knows our needs? A major part of the answer is, so that we will recognize that we are totally dependent on Him. And yet, He can work even if my prayers fall short in their form or in their faith. Sure, I should believe in Him with a strong faith. But even if my faith is weak, He is able to do far more than I can ask or even think (Eph. 3:20). His answers do not depend on any merit in my prayers, but only on His sovereign grace and mercy.
We’ve seen that although God is almighty, He does not prevent the untimely deaths of some of His choicest servants. And, since God is almighty, He can easily deliver us from humanly impossible situations.
The angel struck Peter and he woke up so that he could be delivered. The angel also struck Herod, but he was eaten with worms and died. After Peter’s escape, Herod mounted an intense manhunt, but he could not find him. Peter told the gathering at Mary’s house to report these things to James (the half-brother of Jesus) and the brethren, who may have been hiding out elsewhere. He was not directed this time to go and stand in the temple and preach (as in 5:20), and so he wisely used common sense and went into hiding. Perhaps he went to Antioch at this time (Gal. 2:11-13). Meanwhile, Herod assumed that the guards had taken a bribe, so he had them all executed. After these embarrassing events, he needed a vacation, so he went to his beach quarters at Caesarea.
Due to some falling out, he was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, to the north, and had cut off their food supply. They gained an audience through Blastus, his chief of staff. On the appointed day, Herod took the rostrum and began delivering a speech. Josephus, the Jewish historian, gives an interesting parallel account of this event (Antiquities of the Jews [19:8:2]). He says that Herod put on a garment made entirely of silver. When the sun’s rays hit it, it was so resplendent that the people were awestruck. Either being carried away or perhaps to flatter him, they cried out that he was a god. When he did not rebuke them, he immediately got a severe and violent pain in his belly. After five days of awful suffering, he died at age 54.
Herod knew enough about God that he should have seen God’s hand in Peter’s deliverance and realized that he was fighting against God. He should have remembered the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, whom God humbled for his pride (Daniel 4). But instead, Herod foolishly accepted the adulation of these people that were under his power. Since he did not give God the glory, God used a lowly tapeworm to bring down this humanly powerful and proud man. Note two lessons:
God will not give His glory to another (Isa. 42:8; 46:11). If we seek to exalt ourselves, the Lord will surely humble us. We must all beware of the temptation of pride, of taking credit for ourselves when it is God alone in His mercy who deserves the praise.
Herod’s glory was short-lived, and his misery is eternal. Even the Antichrist and the false prophet will only enjoy three and a half years of glory before God casts them into the lake of fire, where Satan himself will end up. All who never submitted to God will be thrown into that cauldron, to be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 15).
Luke closes this section by telling how the word of God continued to grow and be multiplied, and then mentions the return of Saul, Barnabas, and John Mark to Antioch. This sets the stage for the expansion of the gospel among the Gentiles that comprises the rest of Acts. Herod and the Jews opposed God’s Savior and came under His judgment. The apostles and early church suffered much, and many died violent deaths, but the word of God continued to grow and be multiplied. God rewarded them abundantly and eternally in heaven.
So the bottom line is, whether the Almighty God delivers us from persecution or whether we die for our faith, we must commit ourselves wholly to the furtherance of His gospel.
John Paton was born in Scotland in 1824. As a young Christian, he labored as a city missionary in the slums of Glasgow. But he felt God’s call to take the gospel to the fierce cannibals of the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific. John Williams and James Harris made the first attempt to take the gospel there in 1839. They were clubbed to death and eaten within a few minutes of their landing. Paton and his new wife landed there on November 5, 1858. On February 12, 1859, she gave birth to a son, but on March 3rd, she died from complications after childbirth. On March 20th, the baby died. Of course Paton struggled with his grief and loneliness. Just before his wife died, she expressed her wish that her mother could be there with her. Then she added,
“You must not think that I regret coming here, and leaving my mother. If I had the same thing to do over again, I would do it with far more pleasure, yes, with all my heart. Oh, no! I do not regret leaving home and friends, though at the time I felt it keenly.
Her dying words were, “Not lost, only gone before to be for ever with the Lord.” Paton lived into his seventies, devoting himself to the cause of the gospel among these cannibals, experiencing many divine deliverances. At the end of his life he exclaimed, “Oh that I had my life to begin again! I would consecrate it anew to Jesus in seeking the conversion of the remaining Cannibals on the New Hebrides” (John G. Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth], pp. 84-85, 496).
Whatever the cost, may we all commit ourselves to the cause of the unstoppable gospel of Jesus Christ!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation