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Acts 12:1-24 gives us further glimpses into the life of the early church and reminds us that this was a dangerous time to be a Christian. Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great who slaughtered the innocent boys at the time of Jesus’s birth, was no more favourable towards God’s people, trying to keep the Roman peace in the area and therefore wanting to put down any minorities which seemed to threaten this peace. As a result, he had James (brother of John, one of the ‘Sons of Thunder’) executed (Acts 12:1-2) and intended to do the same by Peter (Acts 12:3-4).
It’s striking in this chapter that one of the first disciples (James), who is always linked with his brother John and who was an important apostle, is dismissed from the narrative so swiftly in one sentence (‘He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword’) when the martyrdom of Stephen (whom we only meet in Acts) takes up over a whole chapter! It’s also striking that God intervenes in miraculous ways to deliver Peter from prison, not allowing him to be martyred at this stage in history. We can often feel bewildered as we try to fathom God’s purposes.
Suffering – whether through persecution, imprisonment or even martyrdom – is an inevitable part of the Christian life (see Matt 5:10, Matt 24:9, John 15:20, 2 Cor 4:9, 1 Thess 3:4, 2 Tim 3:12). It’s inevitable because we live in a sinful world among sinful people and because the perfection of the Garden of Eden has been destroyed by sin. But suffering has to be seen in the context of eternity and in the context of God’s glory. Paul said, ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ (Rom 8:18) He said, ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ (2 Cor 4:17-18) Whether by death (James) or by life (Peter’s deliverance from prison), what really counted was that God’s name was glorified. We do well to heed Paul’s words to the Romans: ‘If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.’ (Rom 14:8) Ultimately, that’s all that really matters.