“as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20, ESV)
Last Sunday night I got to share in Spanish to our Oikos community, the one that meets on Sunday nights in Mark and Anna Burgess’s house out of the twelfth chapter of Acts. It’s a well-known story, but very sobering for me to read lately in light of facing eternity in different ways than I ever had before, and re-evaluating what I’m living for and how passionately I’m living for Christ. Whether my life would be cut short, or I live to be a ripe old age.
We begin the chapter with the notification that James had been killed with the sword. He is the first of the twelve who followed Jesus to be martyred, casting doubt on the idea that the inner 12 had some kind of special protection on them making them immune to this sort of thing.
The Church has been on a “hot streak” up to this point, experiencing one exciting conversion after another; Saul of Tarsus, then the Gentile centurion Cornelius, then the mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles in Antioch. Things had been going well for a while, and now a huge change takes place. Seeing his approval ratings rise in the polls when he kills James, Herod seeks to improve his ratings even more when he proceeded to go after Peter also, another figurehead of the Christian movement. No doubt this was done because it was politically popular for Herod and would have really dealt a blow to the early Church to lose a prominent figure like Peter. It pleased many of his citizens who didn’t like the Christians.
James is certainly not the first Christian to die in faithfulness to Jesus. Stephen (Acts 7:58-60) was martyred before this, and certainly others were also under Saul’s persecution. James was one of the three closest disciples of Jesus’ original twelve. He and his brother John, as well as Peter who the chapter goes on to focus on, were the three who were with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration and saw him in a different light (pun intended) than the other 9 got to experience.
John and James, the sons of Zebedee, had come once to Jesus and asked to be considered His two chief lieutenants,
Jesus said to them,“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10: 38-40)
This was the fulfilment of that promise. James truly drank that cup, while John, it’s historically believed, would go on to live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes, the only one of the twelve disciples to do so.
As I was reading this I couldn’t help but wonder; why did James get killed, but Peter escaped from prison? Out of the inner three, why did John never face the martyrdom that his brother, and Peter later, both faced?
Only God knows.
A Serious Threat To The Enemies of God
Knowing that Peter (with other apostles) had mysteriously escaped from prison before (see Acts 5:17-21), Herod assigned a high-security detail to guard Peter. Normally it was considered enough for a prisoner to be handcuffed to one soldier, but as a special precaution Peter had a soldier each side of him and both his wrists were manacled. Not to mention he had four squadrons of soldiers arrest him. This was no little security measure for Herod–this was a high-profile prisoner and he wanted nothing to go wrong!
That night Peter was sleeping. The way the text reads, Peter showed no signs of anxiety. He was able to sleep soundly on what probably was going to be the last night before his execution. I can’t pretend I’d have had peace like that very often in my life. For two nights after getting robbed at gun point recently, I couldn’t sleep well and had my thoughts running a mile a minute. And I was now safe after the fact.
Peter was facing death when an angel “struck” Peter’s side and woke him up. In Spanish the word used here has the connotation of being hit or smacked. I had never seen that before I shared this teaching: the angel really wanted Peter to wake up, and then they left. They came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord. The soldiers, the chains, the guard posts, the iron gate – are all nothing when God is with us and prayer is behind us. Which leads to a change of scene in the narrative.
“No, it’s just his angel!”
Rhoda is so excited to hear from Peter at the door to the house where believers are praying for him, that she leaves him outside at the gate and runs to tell the others that he’s there! We are comforted, and amused, by the little faith of these Christians. Even while they are praying for Peter, they found it hard to believe God actually answered their prayer while they were praying. The Jews and early church believed in the idea of “guardian angels,” and it seems that they may have believed that one’s guardian angel bore some kind of resemblance to the human it was assigned to.
Then of course we’re brought back to Herod’s political agenda. At this point, Herod proceeds to give a speech to the people of Tyre and Sidon who were anxious to please Herod, and he receives their overstated praise–that he’s a god and not just a man. For this, he receives the judgment of the very God he refused to glorify.
In other words, his political aspirations backfire profoundly and he’s killed by the very God he’s trying to snuff out.
The contrast between Herod and the Church is clear: Herod believed he had the upper hand against God’s people, but God showed who was really in charge — Herod is judged, the church is blessed. The word of God spread and grew again more through persecution and martyrdom, which is something by and large I think many of us in the Western world reading this blog are unable to say we’ve tasted.
Oftentimes I think many of us read this passage and it’s a story of an angel helping Peter escape from prison, but we easily forget he had just lost a close friend and ministry colleague, and he most likely was awaiting his own death when this miraculous escape took place. His friends and the other believers were praying earnestly for his release. Death was a very potent reality they were facing, and I highly doubt this was just a 15-minutes before-breakfast prayer meeting.
As for the disciples mentioned in this narrative, one of them gained more for the growth of the kingdom of God by death, while the other’s testimony of escape from death and living some time longer, proved to help spread the word of God further.
It’s my prayer also, that Christ may be honored, but also that the Word of God may spread through my life whether by life or by death.