THE TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH OF TRUSTING IN GOD AND THE GOSPEL
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. 6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place. 18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there. 20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. 24 But the word of God increased and multiplied. 25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
— Acts 12:1-25, ESV
At the end of this account, two men are dead. Another survives, at least for the time being, in spite of faithless prayers. The tale is both profound tragedy and peculiar triumph, all told in the context of a spreading gospel, all controlled by the hand of God.
Tragedy and Triumph in Providence
The 1689 London Baptist Confession declares, “God, the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, determines, and governs all creatures and things.” This is the definition of providence, the bedrock belief that God is sovereign, active, and in control.
Christians take bitter and sweet comfort in this fact. When tragedy strikes, we acquiesce it was just God’s will, God’s providence, and somehow good will come out of it. When triumphs are won, we give glory to God and praise Him for His smiling providence.
In this incident in the book of Acts, and in the providence of God, a good man named James loses his life. This is not just any man. This is the Apostle James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, member of the inner circle of Jesus (along with his brother, John, and Simon Peter). This is a man who put his trust in God and the gospel, who followed Jesus for three years, and who had been living for Jesus for another dozen or so, shepherding the church, spreading the gospel, spending time with family and friends.
Suddenly, James’ time was up. It was not cancer or another disease that got him. It was not a sudden fall or some other kind of accident. He was “killed … with the sword.” In other words, this Herod (Agrippa I) had James’ head cut off, like his uncle Herod (Antipas) had done to John the Baptist, like his grandfather Herod (“the great”) had done to baby boys in Bethlehem, like Islamic terrorists have done in a fairly recent spate of Christian martyrdom.
This was a tragedy. This was unfair. This was merciless. This horrified his wife, children, and fellow Christians. This happened under the evil eye and cruel hand of Herod. And, this happened under the watchful eye and providential hand of God.
Herod had the same fate planned for Peter. He curried favor with the Jewish religious establishment by executing James; therefore, his political stock would only rise higher if he did the same to Simon Peter. However, Peter escaped. He lived another two decades or so, preaching the gospel, planting churches, writing a couple of inspired epistles.
This was a triumph. This was a miracle, for there is no other explanation. This was just, the release of the innocent. This thrilled Peter’s wife, children, and fellow Christians. This was a complete escape from Herod’s evil intentions. And this, too, happened in accordance with the providential plan of God.
There is tragedy and triumph in the providence of God. Faith in God and the gospel does not necessarily spare from one and guarantee the other. We must understand both as part of a bigger, redemptive plan.
Tragedy and Triumph in Prayer
Some would suggest the different fates of James and Peter are owed to the respective absence and presence of the old fashioned prayer meeting. We do not read of one being held for James. Perhaps his arrest and execution was too swift to plan for a prayer vigil. Perhaps the church panicked instead of prayed, and the lack of intercession led to execution. Perhaps they did gather to pray for James in the same way they did for Peter, but Luke just ran out of scroll space. None of these reasons can change the fact that James was murdered, tragically.
But can prayer account for the way Peter was delivered, miraculously and triumphantly? To be sure, Peter’s outcome was not tragic. However, we must admit it was more comedic than triumphant.
Recently Andrea and I sat down to watch a dramatic comedy. An hour in, there was no compelling drama and we had not laughed a single time. We should have picked up Acts 12, for it is full of both. The execution of James and incarceration of Peter are both high drama. But the prayer meeting at John Mark’s house was akin to a classic episode of the Jewish comedy series Seinfeld.
Fearing Peter’s death, the church prays. God answers prayer, Peter is miraculously released. Peter shows up at prayer meeting, appearing first to Rhoda (another Jewish comedy). When she gives the good news, some shush her, for they are busy praying, while others mock her, believing Peter to be already dead (in spite of their prayers) and his ghost has come to the door.
By the way, the keystone Christians involved in this prayer meeting include Mark the Gospel-writer, James the half-brother of Jesus, Saul soon-to-be-called Paul, and Barnabas, among other notables. A free Simon Peter must have marveled at how God answered prayers offered with such a lack of faith.
The deductions here are dramatic and comedic, tragic and triumphant. Does prayer change things? Yes, and no. Peter lived, James died. Does prayer have to be sincere to be successful? Yes, and no. They prayed and realized Simon Peter’s escape, but by no means did they pray with great faith. Should we pray, or not? By all means we should, it is commanded, it is an honor, it is a means of grace. But face it, God's answers to our prayers can be as tragic as they are triumphant.
Tragedy and Triumph in Punishment
Finally we get to deal with Herod Agrippa I. What a, well, you finish the sentence. His evil came honest, and he was honestly one of the most evil men who ever lived. Not only was his family tree rotten, his best friend growing up was Caligula, which explains why he traveled with a chamberlain. History records his death in AD 44, so now you know where we are chronologically in the book of Acts.
Herod got what he deserved, stricken by an internal ailment the Romans could not explain, but one that God had planned and delivered via an angel. It looks like just punishment for a tyrant and murderer, who even executed Peter’s guards after the escape, a cruel Roman tradition. Should we raise our hands in triumph over the death of the wicked?
Or, should we count it a terrible tragedy. Death is practically the only thing that rules out the opportunity for repentance and faith, salvation by grace, a home in Heaven rather than eternity in Hell. Are we not called upon to love our enemies? Are we not told that God does not delight in the death of the wicked (ref. Ezekiel 18:23)? Are we not told that God would that all come to repentance and faith (ref. 2 Peter 3:9)?
I enjoy revenge fiction. I loved it when the Feds came knocking on Warden Norton’s door at Shawshank Prison, when the High Plains Drifter decimated the town that hung him, when we learned it was Boo Radley who saved Jem and Scout by taking care of the nasty racist Walter Ewell. But that’s fiction, which offers a way to channel our emotions outside of reality.
In the real world, I have lived long enough to read the obituaries of people who did great harm to churches I have served and to me personally. I wonder what made them the way they were. I wonder if they had faith, but just failed to show it. I wonder if they lacked faith, and now regret it. To see them dead is no triumph whatsoever, only tragedy. I must leave them with God. God is judge, not me.
Trust in God and the Gospel
Therein lies the key to this puzzle of tragedy and triumph. God is judge, not me, not us. God decides, by His providence, who lives and who dies. God determines, in His sovereignty, how to address our prayers, or the lack thereof. And God will punish the wicked, in His own way and in His own time, as surely as He will reward the faithful.
Trust in God and the gospel, then whether you live life short or long, the main thing is that your life matters, and eternity will envelop all the tragedies and triumphs on earth. What do you think James Bar Zebedee and Simon Peter are doing right now?
Trust in God and the gospel, and pray with all your might. God is provident but, paradoxically, prayer matters. The prayer of repentance and faith matters. The prayer for help and healing matters. The prayer to advance the gospel and the word of God matters, and ultimately it was answered with triumph in this tragic text. Pray while you’re on earth, and eternity will make sense of the mystery.
Trust in God and the gospel, lest you end your life as an enemy of God. I don’t think I’ll run into any Herod’s in Heaven. Hitler probably won’t be there either. But the kindest, sweetest, most generous unbeliever who ever lived on earth will share their fate, too, if he or she does not have faith in God and trust in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’ve always tried to practice what I preach, but seldom have I gotten to practice it before I preach it. This week Andrea and I had a serious brush with death. We walked right into the middle of two thugs shooting at each other in downtown Little Rock. We were two seconds and a few feet away from one of the shooters as he fired his semi-automatic pistol. God spared us, as we ducked into a restaurant then ran through the kitchen and out a back door. God heard our prayers, uttered swiftly and succinctly as we made our escape. They only caught one of the perpetrators, and not the one we faced, but God will punish people who do this kind of thing, even if American justice does not.
If we had died, it would have been a tragedy for you, our church family, and especially our own children and grandchildren. But it would be triumphant for us, to go to be with the Lord, after living lives dedicated to Christ and His church. But providence kept us safe, for if we had not jaywalked at one intersection we would have been right in front of the shooter instead of right beside him. We prayed before we left for a safe trip, as we always do, and God answered our prayer affirmatively, by about two seconds. Prayer matters. And judgement, for this moment and every second of every life, is in the hands of a sovereign and provident God. Life, even the Christian life, is full of tragedies, near tragedies, and other upheavals. But trust in God and the gospel, and in the end there will only be triumph.