Remember the cycle introduced early in Acts?
- It begins with prayer and prophesying (speaking forth the mind and counsel of God) which includes scripture.
- This leads to power, lives are changed, something notable happens.
- Which in turn leads to opposition, which sometimes comes in circumstances, and sometimes comes in persecution.
- Which drives Jesus’ followers back into prayer and the cycle begins again.
Cornelius’ conversion, and the powerful surge of faith happening in Antioch disrupted the status quo in every way, spiritually and culturally. It was inevitable equally large repercussions would ensue.
And, they did.
Just as the beloved Stephen, first among the deacons, was stoned in chapter 7, so now James, one of Jesus’ closest friends, and brother to John (who was perhaps the second most well-known of the apostles), was suddenly and shockingly beheaded.
The Herod of Acts 12 was the third king claiming that moniker. His grandfather had ordered all the baby boys to be killed when Jesus was born, and his uncle was the one who beheaded John the Baptist. The Jews hated the Herods because they resented having Edomites as their rulers, instead of Jews. As a result, the Herod family found themselves regularly trying to find favor with the Jews, any way they could. Persecuting the Christians ended up being a hit, so when Herod saw that having James killed pleased the Jews, he had Peter arrested during the Passover.
The church, who knew how to pray in power, were praying earnestly to God. In response, God sent an angel to release Peter from his chains, protect him from discovery, and walk him out the prison doors!
Opposition –> prayer –> power
Jesus spoke often of angels, throughout the gospels, and intimated angels are assigned to individuals, which explains why some of the people praying at Mary’s house thought it was Peter’s angel at the door. You’ll notice at the end of this chapter another angel was assigned to strike down Herod.
The church had confidence that Peter would be delivered, and he was. Yet, why did God allow James to be martyred, even as He supernaturally arranging for Peter’s jail break?
You and I can’t always see how the hard, painful crises and disasters of life are worked together for good. We’re simply asked to believe God when He says they are.
If you and I were to have asked James how he felt, I think he might have related something of the story we read about when Stephen died. I imagine at some level he was scared, of the pain, of the horror of it. Maybe he was filled with a deep regret that he would not get to see the church spread out into the world, he would miss out on all the glorious things yet to come. A young man, I imagine there was someone he was in love with, maybe even married to, maybe he had children. Certainly, he loved his brother, and his brothers and sisters in the Lord. He surely hated parting with them, and dreaded how hard it would be in those last moments
But, I also think God gave James amazing grace for this last, awful act of violence and ruthless hostility that ended his life. I think James might even have rejoiced, as he had done before,
As they [all the apostles] left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.Acts 5:41 (NRSV)
That’s why Peter could sleep so soundly, even though Herod had his execution planned for the very next day. All the apostles counted it joy to serve Jesus in whatever way He asked, and they trusted Him completely to do what was right.
It looked like Herod had all the power. He carried life and death in his hands, killing James. His soldiers hauled Peter off to prison. He could cut off the food supply of entire nations, as he did with Tyre and Sidon. He even received worship from his minions. So, why did Luke put this story in here? Because as powerful as Herod was in the lives of all the people in his domain, he was no match for God.
The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck Herod down, and he was eaten by worms and died.Acts 12:22-23 (NRSV)
Herod’s death was an affirmation from God the Lord alone is sovereign. Herod opposed the gospel, and he had begun to take out the apostles, but Herod died and the gospel thrived. That’s the way it will always be. There will be enemies who oppose the gospel, but in spite of opposition the good news spreads. God’s word, empowered by His Spirit, is effective, God’s word is penetrating, God’s word is life-giving, God’s word is eternal—the Word really will endure forever.
There’s a metaphorical aspect to Peter’s and James’ stories. Plenty of times you and I can feel imprisoned by our circumstances. As the saying goes, your life is living you rather than the other way around! Not even just in attitudes or feelings, but it real, concrete ways. A car that breaks down and no resources to fix it, a dead-end job with no prospects in sight, or maybe no work at all and the bills are piling high. Illness, disability, isolation, unsafe conditions, scary people who have power in our lives, the demands and expectations that are heaped—sometimes without cause or justice—on top of us… there are all kinds of ways to find ourselves bound in chains, as Peter was, having to fall asleep between hostile guards.
In each circumstance, there is everything right about asking God for deliverance. God will either deliver you and me out of our imprisoning circumstances (like Peter), or He will deliver us spiritually and emotionally within our circumstances (like James).
Either way, we can expect in faith God will respond to our prayers in the very best way possible as we trust the Lord to be powerful enough, loving enough, and good enough to do right.
[Peter in Prison | A.N. Mironov [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]