Chapter 12 is an action-packed passage and one of my favorites. In fact, I like it so much that I had a hard time looking past all the familiar parts of the storyline in order to see it in a different light this morning. I mean, who doesn't love the fantastic story of Peter getting released from prison by an angel? Herod intends to kill him, but instead God releases him. Then there's the part about the friends of Peter praying for his release, then failing to believe it's really him when he shows up on their doorstep. Oh, and if you're cheering for the good side, you can't help but do a little fist pump when you hear what happens to Herod in the end.
But then I looked closer. I read the passage a few more times. And there is was. The death of James. Luke matter-of-factly records this event in one sentence, then moves on. Here is the first martyrdom of an apostle and all Luke does is give it a mention. But it was obviously important to him. It was important to the rest of the story. But how many times have I read right past it without even taking notice of the fact that James, the brother of John, and one of the three apostles who made up Jesus' inner circle, was put to death right at the beginning of the church age. I mean the martyrdom of Stephen gets more press than the death of James. Which prompts me to ask why?
When you read this story, it's easy to get excited about the miraculous release of Peter from prison. God stepped in and saved the day. He thwarted the plans of Herod with His own divine plan. He answered the prayers of the believers who had gathered to lift up their brother in Christ. He gave Peter an incredible boost to his faith and an unbelievable story to share with his friends.
But what about James? Was nobody praying for Him? Did God not care about Him? Was he less important than Peter? Was his death just payback for his arrogant request for Jesus to give he and his brother prominent places of authority in His coming kingdom (see Mark 10:38-45)? Why did James have to die, yet Peter was set free to serve another day?
Our unsearchable, unfathomable God
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! - Romans 11:33
The fact is, we don't know why God chose to spare Peter, but not James. But we do know that "all His ways are just" (Deuteronomy 32:4). We know that God has a plan and He is working it to perfection. Stephen was cut down in the prime of his ministerial life, and we struggle with that. James was martyred for his faith and would never get to see the rapid expansion of the kingdom of God he so longed to be a part of. But God was at work. God was in control. God was working His plan.
There is much about God we will never understand., because He is God and we're not. But we do know that God is a just and loving God. We know that God has a redemptive plan that is unstoppable and bigger than any one individual. It's bigger than James, bigger than Stephen, bigger than Peter, and bigger than Herod. No man can prevent it or improve it. We may not even be able to understand it. But we can rely on it.
An Unstoppable Force
I love the way chapter 12 ends.
But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied. - vs 24
James was gone. Herod was dead. Peter was free. And the gospel continued to spread. I may not understand His methodologies. I may not agree with His plans. But I have to admit that the results speak for themselves. He is God and He knows what He is doing. And the one man who would probably echo that statement the loudest is James himself.
Father, help me trust You. Help me realize that You can be trusted because you are righteous and all Your ways are just. You know what you're doing even when it makes no sense to me. You are the potter and I am the clay. Forgive me for the many times when I question you and ask "what are you doing?" (Isaiah 45:9). You know what you're doing and I need to learn to trust You more. Amen