We see in Acts twelve a contrast between two men: Saint Peter and King Herod Agrippa. As Christians, we should imitate the one and avoid being like the other.
Herod Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, who killed babies at the time of the birth of Christ our Lord. His grandson Agrippa had a similar thirst for power. He gradually rose in status, receiving rulership over more territories. By the time of our story, he ruled over as much territory as his ancestor, Herod the Great.
As far as we know, the Christian Church did not provoke Herod Agrippa. They did not appear to say or do anything that offended him. He did not have any reason to suddenly attack the church, except this: by doing so, he pleased some of the Jews. So this seemed to be a sly scheme to win him friendship among key members of the community.
So he did not execute Saint James. He murdered him. He killed him without any pretext or accusation or any appearance of legitimacy. For Herod, and others like him, human life is not as important as status and power. His grandfather thought so when he slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem. Women who get an abortion in order to keep their career think so. A terrorist who thinks that his suicide attack will earn him a place in paradise thinks so.
How inflated was Herod’s ego? He accepted the praise of being called a god. For this, he was struck down by an angel of the Lord and died in horrible agony.
Here Josephus adds some details on this same story. He does not contradict the Biblical text, but fills out the picture more fully. [Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361] Josephus says, “[Herod] put on a garment made completely of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be merciful to us; for although we have up to now reverenced you only as a man, yet we will henceforth treat you as superior to mortal nature.’ Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery.” Soon “a severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. … And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.”
Thus the end of a murderous, blasphemous man who set himself against the Church of Christ the Lord. Although he seemed to be winning for a little time, his end was certain. If he had received the gift of repentance, as Saint Paul did on the road to Damascus, then he too would have been snatched out of the clutches of death. But he did not.
May we avoid such pride. We probably will not find occasion to receive praise as if we were a god. Yet we have blasphemous thoughts, deep down. We think far too highly of ourselves at times. We may sometimes choose unscrupulous means to help our position. Perhaps it was as seemingly innocent as a small untruth. Perhaps it was so large as taking a baby’s life, or encouraging another to do so, or supporting a woman’s right to murder her child. Or perhaps we have simply been indifferent to the culture of murder around us.
May the Lord keep us in His gift of repentance and faith.
Then there is Peter. He is not powerful. He is not a schemer or manipulator. When Herod arrests him, Peter has no armed guards to protect him. He does not fight or resist at all as far as we know. He is helplessly put under armed guard.
Is this the rock upon which the Church is built? The answer is no. Peter is not the rock. The rock is the confession Peter gave, and the faith of all who confess like Peter. The Rock upon which we are built is Christ.
So Peter is rescued by an angel. The poor apostle is so clueless, he thinks it is not real.
The other members of the Jerusalem Church are not much better. The maidservant who answers the door for Peter does not even let him in. The others think she is crazy. They even come to the odd conclusion that it is not Peter but his angel, which apparently means his guardian angel.
Does anyone know what is going on? Only the Lord. He is directing affairs. He is in control.
We are so often a bumbling, clueless Church. But the Lord directs things to unfold the way He wants.
Sometimes it does not seem so. Sometimes we feel like the saints surely did when James was murdered. Was God in control then? Well, yes. He brought James home at the right time. He lifted His apostle out of this dark valley to the brightness of Paradise. To God’s glory, a saint died for the good confession. This thing that appeared to be a failure was a victory.
So be like Peter, who confessed the truth and was chained up for it. God may or may not snatch you out of the hands of your earthly captors. But we know for certain that eventually He will snatch us up out of this earthly life to immortality and resurrection. The hands of the herods and demons and even the icy clutches of death are no match for the Lord. He conquered death and satan. He overcame all earthly powers, not by scheming and plotting, but by dying for iniquity. So you are safe in the wounds of Christ, and may even confess before emperors and kings and not be afraid. If we perish, we know that the Lord will make the gates of death open for us to leave. He will make the shackles of this sinful flesh fall away, and clothe us instead with immortality.
For now, we must be willing to be struck by God’s angel. Both Herod and Peter were struck. Herod was struck in judgment to death. But Peter was given a friendly punch to wake him.
So we also will be struck in a gentle fashion. It may not feel gentle at the time, but compared to the blows God gives to the herods, we get off easy. He sometimes disciplines us, as if to say, “Wake up! Stop sinning!” if we have been lazy or stuck in a sin. When we are struck with God’s disciplining hand, we should quickly repent, which is neither easy nor painless. We sometimes need that little jostling to wake us up.
When we are struck more roughly than we like, may we remember that we are God’s sons, not enemies. Through faith in Christ, He looks approvingly upon us. Therefore He will not strike so hard as to destroy, not in this life, nor the life to come.
God preserve us in this faith and repentance by His grace. Amen.
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