In Acts Luke has shown us the Lord Jesus taking old Israel and remaking her, through repentance, forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. He has also shown Jesus expanding his reborn Israel to unite Gentiles with Jews in his kingdom, most recently in the first local church in Syrian Antioch. But now Luke takes us back to Jerusalem (and possibly a few years back in time to 42AD) to show us the slow collapse of old Israel, as Jesus’ kingdom becomes the place of God’s activity. To do this, our chapter describes the battle of two kings: Herod and Jesus. We see Herod win an apparent victory but then the story turns to show us that, ultimately, he loses everything in his sinful folly.
There are various Herods in the New Testament, who ruled over parts of Palestine. This one – Agrippa – had been a friend of the Roman emperor Caligula on his way to power. Now concerned to please his Jewish citizens, he moves against the church (v1). There were all kinds of small groups and movements accepted within Judaism at this time, but the Christians had already wound up the authorities with their claims about Jesus. Now their general popularity has waned and Herod feels able even to execute one of the 12 apostles (v2, compare with Ac 8:1) and arrest their public spokesman, Peter, with a view to trying him too (v3). The apostles’ time of witnessing to Jesus as the Christ in Jerusalem seems to be closing; other tasks now lay ahead of them.
But wasn’t James’ death a waste – only serving for, maybe, twelve years? No: it was the beautiful completion of his service. Luke links our minds back to Jesus’ death (Lk 22:1), with his notes about the feast of unleavened bread and the Passover (v3,4). And when we think of the cross, we know that even an ‘early’ death need not be a waste. For a Christian, death can actually be our last act of faith and service to God; the completion of a life lived for the Lord. As Paul wrote, the end of life can be like the wine poured out at the end of an animal sacrifice (2Ti 4:6,7). We believe that through Christ our dying – though death is horrible in itself – can bring good. James’ was the final element of his apostolic witness to Jerusalem’s sin and her need of the Saviour. We should want our departures from this world to be full of trust and submission to our good Father, as we ask what good they might do. Only a few will be martyrs, but all may leave in a way which inspires, guides or strengthens others; the last act of our service to the Lord and his people.
So, in fact, though Herod manages to kill James, his murder is no victory and that becomes clearer as the story goes on. In an almost comedic episode, Herod thinks he has imprisoned Peter in a very secure location (v4). The reality, however, is otherwise. The Spirit moves the church to pray (v5) and the result is like a resurrection. Peter is entombed, guarded and certain to die (v6); but then his heavenly king sends an angel to release him. He is woken by the angel and his chains fall away from him (v7). Whilst his guards doze, Peter takes the time to dress (v8) before walking freely out of the prison (v9), feeling rather confused about what is happening. The main gate swings open before him, just as the tomb stone moved for the Lord (Lk 24:2), and he walks down a street in the cool night air (v10). When the angel leaves, he realises this is real (v11).
Such a story should, in some ways, make Christians laugh. Certainly the weakness of human kings makes the king of heaven laugh (Ps 2), before he turns to punish them for their arrogant, sinful opposition. And in the light of that, Christians can live in this world with great hope. Of course there will be suffering and pain. But that will be part of our service to the Lord and we can know that when his time is right, we will be freed from our troubles. Even long before our final moments in this world, we will suffer little deaths – times of darkness and pain – along life’s pathway (1Co 15:31). But little resurrections will also follow them, in which the Lord lifts us back out of the pit and puts our feet on the road again. The world may knock us down, and kick us when we’re down, but the Lord will pick us back up. He does the impossible; he brings us joy. And at the end of time, when our glorious resurrection takes place (1Co 15:54), we shall truly laugh with delight at all the Lord has done for us, as every tear is wiped away (Re 21:4).