Deep Thoughts for Shallow Christians from Acts 12

We grieve a changing America—and I suppose we should do everything within our rights and power to turn things around. But read this in Acts 12:1.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.

So you think America is going down the drain? Don’t get me wrong, I’m anxious and troubled about many things, but mostly I’m thankful, because in other countries,

More people are dying for their Christian
faith than in any other time in Christian history.

This is exactly what happened in the early church, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy, that everyone who lives a godly life will be persecuted. The Roman government, you know, was not exactly Christian. How not Christian were they?

[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword (Acts 12:2).

Don’t miss this. He had him stabbed to his bloody end. A Christian leader.

I’ve been spending a good portion of my time lately with folks from Frontiers, a ministry to Muslims. They’ve introduced me to what they call “a Gethsemane theology of suffering,” that is, a New Testament willingness to literally lay down your life for others.

Currently Frontiers has over six hundred workers with their children serving in potentially life-threatening areas of ministry. One single woman wrote to us that she had come to a place where she faced her greatest fear: that she would have to trust totally in the grace of God. Like Paul, who tells us about his suffering, that he asked God repeatedly to take it away. God responded, “My grace is enough.”

Yet this woman could be arrested, or deported and told she can never return. Christians in the Arab world, in places like Egypt, are dying daily. The “Arab Spring” has brought terrible persecution to Christians in the region.

[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread (2-3)

The persecution pleases religious people. Here in Acts 12 religious people are celebrating the death of James the brother of John, which leads me to me to my second deep and troubling thought:

Religion is cruel, sometime inhumanly cruel,
and religious people can be really mean.

Of course we see this very clearly in the Muslim world, where they are killing Christians—and each other. But I’ve suffered some of the most painful moments of my life at the hands of Christians, for whom “the truth” is more important that kindness.

Recently I was talking with a new friend, a woman in fulltime Christian ministry. She grew up in a very conservative home, attended a very conservative church, a very conservative Christian school, and a very conservative Christian college in the Midwest.

People in those places were so narrow-minded, so mean, she told me. Then, bless her soul, she got a copy of my book Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe, in which I write about multiple dimensions of grace. She told me it changed her life. And some people were mean to her for reading it.

After arresting [Peter], [Herod] put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him (4-5)

This is so obvious it’s not obvious, which makes it a deep thought:

Prayer is what you do
when there’s nothing else you can do.

And this happened:

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision (6-9)

Which leads me to my fourth deep and troubling thought:

Often we can’t see God working,
even when it’s ridiculously obvious.

[Peter and the angel] passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” (10-15)

So here’s another deep thought for shallow Christians:

Often we can’t see God answering our prayers,
even when it’s ridiculously obvious, because
God seldom answers them the way we pray them!

You know, we’ve all asked God to do something, but we’ve also told him, in precise detail, how we want him to do it. That thought hit me recently when I was praying with a group of believers. They were certainly sincere, and they didn’t seem demanding, but they sure were specific in the way they were telling God what they needed him to do. It struck me funny!

But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. (16-18)

What’s up with this?! Why these men? Was it their fault they were killed? Why would the angel save Peter and let these other men die? This is a dark side of chapter in Acts that we just don’t think about. We’re so happy to know God worked a miracle to rescue Peter, we don’t give a second thought to what the families of these soldiers felt when they heard the husbands and fathers were executed.

It’s like the Christmas story. The part we never hear at Christmas. The mothers weeping for their children, killed by another Herod. This is the deep thought:

Way too often life doesn’t make sense,
and often the Bible doesn’t answer the questions we ask.

Like, why did these men lose their lives? It’s like collateral damage, which the dictionary defines as “damage to things that are incidental to the intended target. It is frequently used as a military term where it can refer to the incidental destruction of civilian property and non-combatant casualties.”

Jesus talks about this in Luke 13:1-4.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Jesus is telling us here that not everything that happens in life can be explained by simple cause and effect, something so common in Christian thinking, like: a bad thing happened to him. He must have done something bad. In the closing verses of Acts 12 this is exactly want happens to Herod. A bad man dies badly.

But many times, maybe more often than not, things happen that aren’t the result of something bad we do. Like the eighteen men killed in the collapse of a portion of the wall of Jerusalem. Or 26 people, mostly small children, killed in an elementary school in Connecticut.

Some things can never be explained, but there’s always something to learn. In the examples Jesus uses in Luke 13, the lesson is simple: We live in a fallen world, anything can happen to us anytime, and ultimately what matters is whether or not we are right with God.

Back to Acts 12:

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (19-23)

This is exactly what we want to hear. It’s like the end of every action movie, from James Bond to Star Trek. The bad guy gets killed, and he gets killed in a wonderfully terrible way.

But let’s put all hard questions aside. Everything we’ve talked about up to this point. All the insights. All the deep and troubling thoughts. Because the last verse is maybe the most important of all:

But the word of God continued to spread and flourish (24).

And this is my last deep thought:

In the end, the only thing that matters is that the word of God
continues to spread and flourish.

Seek first, Jesus said, the kingdom of God, and everything else will fall into place.

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