My previous post was entitled “God Can Make a Way” and was based upon the story found in Acts 12:1-19. That post focused upon how God made a way of escape for Peter as Peter sat in a Roman prison awaiting execution the following day. Now, with this followup post, I want to take the same story and use it as evidence that there are times when God, for reasons known only to Him, doesn’t make a way.
What we Christians tend to forget is that Acts 12:1-19 features not one but two apostles. Yes, Peter is in there, but so is James (the brother of John). And while Peter experiences a marvelous delivery from death, James surely doesn’t. Acts 12:1-2 says:
Now about that time Herod the king stretch out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. (N.K.J.V.)
The Herod spoken of here is Herod Agrippa I. He was the grandson of the Herod the Great who ordered the children of Bethlehem to be put to death in his attempt to kill the young Jesus. He was also the nephew of Herod Antipas, the ruler who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. Needless to say, the Herods were a despicable family. It isn’t so surprising then that Agrippa I ordered the execution of James, thus making James the first of the apostles to be martyred. The words “with the sword” seem to indicate that he was beheaded.
No reason is given for why James was executed other than Agrippa I “saw that it pleased the Jews.” This particular Herod was known for doing things to win favor with the Jews over whom he ruled. Obviously, the death of one of the strongest leaders in the early Christian church would have pleased the Jewish religious elite (the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, and the Herodians). Peter’s death would have pleased them all the more, but they didn’t get to enjoy that one.
Why, though, did God sit up in heaven and watch the sword take James? Were there no angels in Jerusalem that day? Was it because the execution happened so quickly that the Christians in Jerusalem didn’t have time to offer up enough prayers for James’ deliverance? Or was it something else?
Many commentators note a possible tie-in between James’ martyrdom and the fact that he and his brother John, with the help of their mother, had once requested that Jesus grant them prominent thrones — one on His right hand and the other on His left — in His kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-45). In response, Jesus had asked the brothers, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In their foolish overconfidence, they had answered, “We are able.” Warren Wiersbe, in The Bible Exposition Commentary, says of that answer:
Of course, they did not know what they were saying, but they eventually discovered the high cost of winning a throne of glory. James was arrested and killed, and John became an exile on the Isle of Patmos, a prisoner of Rome (Rev. 1:9). Indeed, they did drink of the cup and share in the baptism of suffering that their Lord had experienced!
While I don’t dismiss the possible tie-in between James’ martyrdom and the request that he and John had once made, I’m not going to say that it was the sole reason why God allowed James to be killed. Neither is Warren Wiersbe, for that matter. He goes on to say:
Why was James allowed to die while Peter was rescued? After all, both were dedicated servants of God, needed by the church. The only answer is the sovereign will of God, the very thing Peter and the church had prayed about after their second experience of persecution (Acts 4:24-30).
J. Vernon McGee, in his Thru The Bible commentary, offers the same explanation when he writes:
I’m sure there were many who asked, “Why in the world was James put to death and Peter permitted to live? Why would God do that?” Many ask that same question today. The answer is that this is the sovereign will of God.
I think it is G. Campbell Morgan, though, who speaks to my heart the most on this whole subject. Therefore, I’ll offer an extended quote from his The Acts of the Apostles. He writes:
It is impossible to read the story and declare that God’s government can be finally explained. Why did God permit James to be slain, and deliver Peter? Why did He allow Herod to arrest James and slay him; and then, to use the word that is always indicative of our human limitation, miraculously deliver Peter? There is no answer to these questions. I also have seen James slain when I thought we could not spare him. I also have seen a man full of fire and enthusiasm and force removed swiftly and suddenly, by a way of pain; and I have said, “What is God doing? His is a government which does not attempt to explain itself finally to watching men…
…God did not deliver James, but immediately afterwards He delivered Peter. That reveals the fact that if He can deliver Peter, He could have delivered James. There is infinite comfort in that; the comfort of the revelation of the fact that One who could deliver Peter, and in wisdom did so, was equally wise when He did not deliver James. Life can never be perfectly understood in the process of its living; we must wait. Just beyond the gleam and flash of the sword, and the overwhelming agony of the moment, James came to the explanation.
Perhaps you, too, have seen times when you could put no rhyme or reason to what God was doing. Why did He allow this? Why did He cause that? Why didn’t He prevent this? Why didn’t He stop that? I can assure you that I myself have been there on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to come up with any more answers than Warren Wiersbe, J. Vernon McGee, and G. Campbell Morgan. God just does what He does, and He doesn’t concern Himself very much with explanations that satisfy our human reasoning.
One thing I have learned is that if you absolutely have to have all the answers and explanations before you will serve God, you will NEVER serve Him. It’s that simple. In many ways, God is an easy Master to serve, but in other ways He isn’t. Sometimes the only word you’ll receive from Him is, “I’ll explain later,” and He’ll fully expect you to keep forging ahead with Him even as that explanation tarries. Even worse than those times are those in which you don’t even get, “I’ll explain later.”
I realize that posts such as this one do not make for easy reading. I mean, everybody wants to hear that God can make a way, but who wants to hear that He doesn’t always do it? And yet, oddly, this is the only type of word that speaks to that dark place in my soul, the one that harbors all my questions, doubts, and fears. I wonder, does that make me abnormal or normal?
As I live in this world that is awash in books, sermons, devotions, and blog posts about Peter’s angelic deliverance, I’m told as a preacher that it’s only the upbeat, positive, theme — the one where the Christian wins, experiences deliverance, gets healed, and becomes rich — that resonates with individuals. However, I’m an individual myself, a Christian no less, and I’ve seen plenty of times in my life when I related much more to James than to Peter when I read Acts 12:1-19. And my guess is that I’m not the only one. It’s just that we are afraid that if we dare lower our shield of outer spirituality and start asking hard questions about why God did or didn’t do something, someone might think less of us as a person or a Christian.
I for one am beginning to retrain myself in regards to how I read the Bible. That’s why I no longer do a blow-by of the execution of James as I race ahead to the deliverance of Peter. I also don’t ignore the fact that those soldiers who guarded Peter ended up executed for one reason and one reason only: They couldn’t outdo an angel and keep Peter in prison. Tell me, were those deaths the “sovereign will” of God or were they exclusively the will of Herod Agrippa I? You see, that line gets very blurry very quickly. Like I said, if you have to have all the answers and all the explanations before you will serve God, you will never serve Him. I don’t know why He sometimes makes a way and other times He doesn’t. All I know is that walking with Him in the dark still beats walking without Him in the light.