What have you been grateful for lately? Or has it been hard for you to be grateful? We all go through seasons of abundance and seasons that seem dry like a desert. What season are you in right now? I’m writing this in the spring of 2020 when the entire world has been on quarantine for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Quarantine can easily feel like one of the desert times, making it very hard to be grateful.
During the quarantine, Michelle and I have many reasons to be grateful to God. Our family is healthy. I finished my doctoral classes. Though Michelle has been off work for two months, we’re making it financially.
What are the ways you’ve seen abundance lately in your life?
Even during quarantine. Extra time for sleep? Time with Family? Health? Recovery from bad health? Do you have the provision of employment and finances? We could go to the basics, if need be. Do you have food, clothing, homes, air to breath, a heart that is pumping.
What I’ve noticed about myself is that it is very easy to feel I am lacking when I compare my life to those who have more than me. Maybe you have a tendency to think like that too. In our world, there will always be people who have more.
Perhaps we are better off comparing ourselves to those who have less. Maybe then we will see that we are the ones with abundance.
What I’m getting at is that are ways that all of us can say, “I am blessed.” It is often just a matter of perspective.
Taking the perspective that we all have at least some reason to count our blessings, I want us to consider a related question. The main characters in our next chapter in Acts will help us answer that question, “How should I count my blessings?”
Turn with me to Acts 12. In this chapter we are going to see a stark contrast in the lives of two powerful leaders. Peter is the leader of the upstart followers of Jesus who are called the “Way,” or “Christians.” The other character is King Herod. In the years previous to this story Herod has consolidated power, little by little, to the point where the emperor in Rome made Herod the ruler of all Israel. Before this story is over, one of these two men will die. Who will it be and why? I believe it has to do with the question we are looking at in this series of posts: how should we count our blessings?
In Acts 12, the account starts with Herod. Who was he?
That name Herod might sound familiar. There are many Herods mentioned in the New Testament, starting with Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the guy on the throne at the birth of Christ. Herod the Great was also the king who met the wise men, and who ordered the genocide of children in Bethlehem. Then we come to Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas. Antipas was the king who put John the Baptist to death and to whom Pilate sent Jesus for questioning right before his crucifixion. Today we meet Herod Antipas’ nephew, Herod Agrippa 1, and what did we just read about him? He was doing some killing too. These are really wonderful men, these Herods, wouldn’t you say?
The account in Acts 12 starts off with Herod Agrippa on the hunt for Christians. The early church is being persecuted again. So far in our series through Acts, I hope you have noticed how frequently persecution was a reality for the early church. Things were not easy for these people. Here’s a quick review:
- The persecution really started with Jesus’ crucifixion.
- Then a few months later in Acts 4, Peter & John are imprisoned by the Jewish leaders, who command them to stop preaching Jesus. They don’t obey.
- Acts 5 – The Apostles are again jailed by the Jews, who also flog the apostles. Again the Jewish leaders command them to stop preaching Jesus. Again, the apostles don’t obey. Instead they rejoice that they were persecuted.
- Acts 6 & 7 – Stephen is arrested and put on trial by the Jews, who stone him to death for preaching Jesus.
- Acts 8 – Widespread persecution breaks out against the Christians in Jerusalem, led by Saul. Many Christians are jailed or flee the city.
- Acts 9 – Saul is on the way to Damascus to arrest more Christians. Jesus appears to him, and Saul becomes a disciple of Jesus and begins preaching that Jesus is the truth. The Jews in Damascus now try to kill Saul. When Saul eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he preaches there too and again the Jews try to kill him, but he escapes.
Now in Acts 12, King Herod is persecuting the Christians.
Yes, there have been periods of peace in the church. But there has been regular opposition. Imagine what that must have felt like, to know that so many powerful people could at any moment destroy your movement.
Despite all the ways the church had been attacked, none of the apostles had been killed, even though they remained in Jerusalem, directing the work of the church. In Acts 12 that changed as Herod puts James to death.
Who is James? This is the James who was part of Jesus’ inner circle of three disciples: Peter, James and John. Look ahead to verse 17 where Peter refers to another James. That other James in verse 17 is the brother of Jesus who would go on to write the book of the Bible titled James. Back in verse 2, Herod kills James the disciple, the first disciple to be killed as a martyr.
This is sinister, and likely was a power play on Herod’s part. As we saw in the list of persecutions the church had already faced, the Jewish religious leaders badly wanted to destroy the church. Further Herod wanted to please the Jews, because he wanted to be able to send reports of peace and prosperity back to his boss, the emperor, in Rome. Herod doesn’t want the emperor hearing anything about uprisings and discontent among the Jews. So he kills off one of the top leaders of the church.
But he doesn’t stop there. Peter is the #1 top leader of the church. Herod goes for the jugular, throwing Peter in jail. The text tells us he intends to bring Peter to trial after Passover. It’s very likely the result of Peter’s trial would be the same as what happened to James: execution. It is a dark, ominous time for the church.
Before we find out how the story unfolds, let’s continue with Herod’s story, because something very mysterious happens to him. For the rest of the story, check back in to the next post!