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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

God Cares about Christian Persecution {Acts 12:1–24}

by William Boekestein posted May 17, 2023

The history of the world is a constant power struggle between good and evil (Gen. 3:15). In Acts 12:1–24, this war is personified in Herod’s conflict with James, Peter, and the praying Jerusalem church.

To us there’s no real suspense; we know that God wins. But we do feel suspense in our own lives as we take our turn in the ongoing conflict between good and evil. We may fear that our struggle against evil has no purpose. We wonder if our prayers are truly heard. We get discouraged when evil seems to triumph.

This historical account can be a huge help. It warns us against fighting God. It calls us to pray against trouble. And it reveals the Lord standing with his people.

What Does Acts 12 Say about Persecution?

The first violence against the church came from the Jewish religious establishment—first by the ruling council, then by Saul. The next wave of persecution was led by Herod—grandson of Herod the Great (see Matthew 2) and father of Herod Agrippa (see Acts 25–26). This persecution was politically, not religiously, motivated. Herod was a selfish political opportunist and a bully. He found favor with the Jews by killing James. Peter was next. Herod “intend[ed] after the Passover to bring him out to the people” to be killed (Acts 12:4)

The church responded with earnest prayer—constant, focused petition. What the church wanted was “impossible.” Herod had the will, might, and popular support to kill Peter as he had killed James. And Peter couldn’t escape. Sixteen soldiers guarded him. But prayer is just how God’s people address the impossible.

God answered the church’s prayer by sending angels. Don’t miss Luke’s emphasis on angels in this chapter. Peter was sure that the Lord sent his angel to rescue him. Peter’s friends thought an angel stood at the gate of Mary’s house. They were wrong. But their belief in angels made this explanation plausible. And an angel of the Lord struck down Herod for his blasphemy. Angels are still “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14; cf. Ps. 34:7).

At the start of Acts 12, Herod seemed invincible. At the end of the chapter, his corpse swarmed with worms. God repaid Herod for killing James—poetic justice. But the given reason for Herod’s grisly death is his religious devotion to himself. Herod knew God but refused to worship him (see Rom. 1:21). Herod tried to be his own god. He craved the praise of the people. He thought he could control his own destiny. But God conquered him. The picture of his death is like an editorial illustration to 1 John 5:21: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

How Can We Prepare for Persecution?

Acts 12 isn’t merely history. It’s also a battle plan for modern Christians.

Expect Trouble

God wasn’t punishing James and Peter. And Luke doesn’t dwell on the persecution as if something strange were happening (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus had already told James: “[T]he cup that I drink you will drink” (Mark 10:39). Christ suffered for us—he healed us by his wounds. But he also left us an example that we might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21–24). Becoming a Christian is not a way to escape trouble; it’s a guaranteed way of trouble. Professing the faith puts you in Satan’s crosshairs. Bunyan’s Apollyon articulates Satan’s hatred of Christians: “I am an enemy to this prince: I hate his person, his laws, and his people.”[1] If you are a Christian, expect trouble. But also be prepared to fight back. How?

Be Ernest in Prayer

The book of Acts again teaches that fervent prayer is our best response to trouble (cf. Acts 4:23–31). Trouble tests whether we’re trusting in ourselves or in God’s power. Self-confidence is always misplaced. We are weaker than we think. But, “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). In fact, God is better at answering prayer than we are at offering prayer.[2] Peter’s friends prayed sincerely. But when God answered—when the servant girl told the believers that Peter was standing at their gate, “[t]hey said to her, ‘You are out of your mind’” (Acts 12:15). They found another way of explaining God’s answer to their prayer. Clearly God is far greater than our weak prayers.

Trust God for the Victory

The book of Acts documents the beginning of the conquest of the gospel in a fallen world. That’s why, after this conflict between the church and the world, we read a common theme in Acts: “But the word of God grew and multiplied” (Acts 12:24; cf. 6:7, 13:49; 19:20). The progress of God’s word can’t be stopped. It wasn’t stopped when James died; for him to die was gain (Phil. 1:21). And despite the loss of this important church leader, the word of God continued to advance.

Acts 12 is about being on the right side of history. Herod couldn’t do what he intended or what the Jewish leaders expected. Herod trusted himself and God defeated him. Peter and James trusted God and they are reigning with Christ. “Man’s work faileth; Christ’s availeth.”[3] Commit yourself to God’s cause and you will not be disappointed.

[1] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (New York: The Mershon Company, n.d.), 70.

[2] Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 129.

[3] Venantius H.C. Fortunatus, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 335.

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