Both Peter in his long ministry and James in his shorter ministry and less prominent role fulfilled God’s purposes for them. God has different paths for each of us in our service for Him. But to serve Him is to engage in a divine work that ultimately cannot be defeated.
If life originated through a series of chance events, as evolution tries to convince the world, we might expect our lives to be nothing more than just a series of accidents and random events without any purpose at all. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
I like the way Oswald Chambers put it:
Never believe that random events are anything less than God’s appointed order. [We need to] be ready to discover His divine designs everywhere.
All you have to do is follow the events here in Acts chapter 12 to get plenty of evidence that God is in control of the details of life. Things might appear chaotic, unexpected, puzzling, even disappointing. One apostle will die a martyr’s death, but another apostle will be miraculously set free. Both events are part of God’s divine design.
As Acts 12 begins, we see growing persecution of the church:
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword. (verses 1-2)
This Herod is Herod Agrippa I. He’s the nephew of Herod Antipas, the king who had John the Baptist executed. This is a troubling event because persecution is not just coming from the religious leaders; it is now coming from the government.
You can imagine how the death of James sent an earthquake through the early church. His brother John, another member of the twelve original disciples, would have grieved deeply. You hardly read of these brothers in the Gospel accounts apart from one another—it is almost always James and John.
James becomes the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred. One ancient tradition says that as James walked from the courtroom to the place of execution, the soldier escorting him was so deeply moved after witnessing his testimony of faith in Christ that he confessed Christ as well—and as a result was executed along with James.
Well, this persecution does not end with James’s death. We read in verse 3, “When [Herod] saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”
Herod redefines a crooked politician. He’s stooping so low as to even murder somebody in order to boost his public approval ratings. In verse 4, we are told that Herod is “intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people.” He is going to have a public execution of Peter and increase his popularity among the Jewish people.
Verse 6 tells us that Peter is chained inside a prison cell between two soldiers. There is no way out. This situation seems hopeless, especially in light of James’s execution. Peter is going to heaven in a matter of hours.
Scripture does not tell us how the church responded to the arrest of James, but his execution must have moved them to more urgent prayer. With Peter’s arrest, we read in verse 5, “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” Undoubtedly, they are praying for the Lord to uphold him and encourage him in this trial, but the entire church is also praying for Peter’s release.
This is high drama here in Jerusalem. Peter has been intercepted, but the church is interceding.
I have no doubt in my mind that the church had prayed for James’s release, but in His perfect design, God planned for James to receive eternal deliverance. His plan for Peter was for immediate deliverance.
Verse 7 records how this comes about:
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.
The guards do not hear or see a thing; evidently, they have been put into hibernation. The angel simply leads Peter out as the gates open automatically. Then once outside, the angel disappears. The text continues:
[Peter] went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And … he knocked at the door. (verses 12-13)
This prayer meeting for Peter has extended well into the night—they are praying for Peter’s release. And the answer to their prayers is now knocking on the door. A young woman named Rhoda goes out to answer the door, and she’s so shocked when she recognizes Peter’s voice that she doesn’t even open the door. She runs back into the midst of the prayer meeting and tells everybody, “You’re not going to believe it, but it’s Peter.” They tell her she is out of her mind. Then they suggest it must be an angel at the door.
Imagine this scene:
“Peter—he’s at the door.”
“You’ve lost your mind.”
“No, I haven’t; I saw him.”
“Well, you must have seen a ghost.”
“No, I’m telling you, Peter is at the door.”
“Rhoda, we’re busy praying here, asking God to let Peter out. You’re interrupting the prayer meeting!”
When they finally go to the door and realize it is Peter, verse 16 says they are “amazed.”
We’re not the only ones who find it hard to figure out the designs of God at times. Isn’t it encouraging to know that even the apostles and those who hung around with them also had difficulty with this?
Peter then speaks to them, saying, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then, he departs “to another place” (verse 17). The James whom Peter mentions here is the half-brother of Jesus, the prominent pastor/teacher in the church at Jerusalem.
The next morning, Peter, of course, is missing from the prison. Verse 18 says, “There was [a] disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter.” You can imagine! Herod Agrippa suspects the guards are either in on it or negligent in their duty, and sadly, he has them all put to death.
After this, Herod leaves for Caesarea and his coastal palace. No doubt he wants all of this behind him. Besides, his public approval rating has just plummeted. The truth is, God is about to bring Herod to justice.
The setting here in verse 20 is a peace treaty between Herod and the seaport cities of Tyre and Sidon. Evidently, they had done something to upset Herod, and he had imposed some sort of economic blockade. Representatives of the two cities came to Herod at Caesarea and apparently resolved the issue.
Herod takes this opportunity to give a public speech about how great he is. He puts on a splendid robe and comes out before the people with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal appearance. The people begin shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (verse 22). In other words, “Herod is not a man; he is a god.”
Verse 23 then records, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down … and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” With one movement of a sovereign finger, God releases worms within Herod’s intestines that take his life. The reason for this judgment is clearly stated: “He did not give God the glory.”
Beloved, hell is going to be filled with people guilty of this same sin—refusing to give God the glory. The judgment of God is not just for Herod but for all who try to steal His glory and reject His offer of salvation.
This chapter ends with a brief note in verse 25: “Paul and Barnabas returned from Jerusalem . . . bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.” This sets the stage for some dramatic events that take place in chapter 13.
Before we drop anchor today, there is one thing we need to note: Chapter 12 reminds us that the gospel cannot be stopped. The leaders of this world come and go. It looks like they are in command, but the King of heaven is in sovereign control. Let’s live today with that reassurance. His plans are underway, and they will all come to pass.