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I live in a world where popularity ratings mean so much. Consider politics. All about polling. Social media? How many likes; how many comments? How many followers?

It is corrupting to me. I have to break free. Jesus offers the way out.

That’s when King Herod got it into his head to go after some of the church members. He murdered James, John’s brother. When he saw how much it raised his popularity ratings with the Jews, he arrested Peter — all this during Passover Week, mind you — and had him thrown in jail, putting four squads of four soldiers each to guard him. He was planning a public lynching after Passover. | Acts 12:1-4 (The Message Bible)

God watched and noted what Herod Agrippa I was doing to His people. This evil man was the grandson of Herod the Great, who ordered the Bethlehem children to be murdered, and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded.

A scheming and murderous family, the Herods were despised by the Jews, who resented having Edomites ruling over them. Of course, Herod knew this; so he persecuted the church to convince the Jewish people of his loyalty to the traditions of the fathers. Now that the Gentiles were openly a part of the church, Herod’s plan was even more agreeable to the nationalistic Jews who had no place for “pagans.”

“The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous” (1 Peter 3:12).

Herod had several believers arrested, among them James, the brother of John, whom he beheaded. James became the first of the Apostles to be martyred.

It takes on special significance. James and John, with their mother, had asked for thrones, but Jesus made it clear that there can be no glory apart from suffering. “Are you able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He asked. Their bold reply was, “We are able.” And they were and they did.

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. Indeed, they did drink of the cup and share in the baptism of suffering that their Master had experienced!

If it pleased the Jews when James was killed, just think how delighted they would be if Peter were slain! God permitted Herod to arrest Peter and put him under heavy guard in prison. Sixteen soldiers, four for each watch, kept guard over the apostle, with two soldiers chained to the prisoner and two watching the doors. After all, the last time Peter was arrested, he mysteriously got out of jail, and Herod was not about to let that happen again.

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. Herod had “stretched forth” his hand to destroy the church, but God would stretch forth His hand to perform signs and wonders and glorify His Son Jesus. God allowed Herod to kill James, but He kept him from harming Peter. It was the throne in heaven that was in control, not the throne on earth.

The Jerusalem church did not replace James as they had replaced Judas. As long as the good news was going “to the Jew first,” it was necessary to have the full complement of 12 Apostles to witness to the twelve tribes of Israel. The stoning of Stephen ended that special witness to Israel, so the number of official witnesses was no longer important.

It is good to know that, no matter how difficult the trials or how disappointing the news, God is still on the throne and has everything under control. We may not always understand His ways, but we know His sovereign will is best.


Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 452). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson