What a story! One of many dramatic stories in Acts, perhaps one of the most dramatic. And like all good stories, it has heroes, and it has a villain. Let’s start with the latter.
This villain is unpleasantly real and violent. King Herod, Herod Agrippa I, is the grandson of the Herod who had all the infant baby boys murdered at Jesus’ birth, nephew of the Herod who had John the Baptist killed and was involved in Jesus’ trial. He is from a line of corrupt, evil rulers.
And to increase his own position and popularity he acts with violence and evil to garner support – to try and bolster his base, you might say. He has James, a key leader of the Jerusalem church, violently killed. There’s no evidence of even a sham-trial, just a brutally swift extra-judicial murder.
I actually found myself very cross at verse three: “After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”
After he saw that it pleased the Jews… Pontious Pilate, rightly, gets a bad name for washing his hands of doing what he knows is right, in order to please the crowd. Herod goes further here and seeks to do yet more evil, because it pleased a crowd. And his timing is deliberate – looking to have Peter killed just after the Passover, when Jerusalem will be at its most full of devout Jews. Herod wants to broadcast his wicked persecutions to as wide an audience as possible – to benefit from murder as much he can.
If I’m honest, I found it hard to have anything but contempt for Herod – he seems of the line of the worst of violent, evil, self-promoting and self-serving men. But then I was reminded of a passage spoken by C.S. Lewis’ fictional demon Screwtape as he teaches some younger demons how to tempt humans to evil:
‘The great sinners seem easier to catch. But… They are capable, you see, of real repentance. They are conscious of real guilt. They are, if things take a wrong turn, as ready to defy the social pressures around them for [God’s] sake as they were to defy them for [evil]. It is in some ways more troublesome to track and swat an evasive wasp than to shoot, at close range, a wild elephant. But the elephant is more troublesome if you miss’.
I was reminded that great perpetrators of evil can hold the potential to become great advocates of good.
And I recalled Paul, such a wild elephant who did turn and do much good instead of much evil. And I began to wish that instead of doing evil, Herod had repented and done good. That he had broken with his family tradition of violence and wickedness.
Here then, is a challenge: Praying for the end of injustice at the hands of the unjust, that wickedness would be toppled, is absolutely right. But let’s also remember to pray for the wicked, for the enemies of righteousness and the persecutors of the church, that they might turn in repentance.
I wonder if Herod offers another challenge too; I don’t know what you feel about your ancestors or heritage, what you think your forebears were like. Whether those who came before you did good or evil. Maybe it is more complicated than that simple dichotomy, but let’s not think we must follow in unrighteous footsteps, but instead follow in the path of the righteous. God has grace and power to lead us on that path.
Enough of Herod the unrighteous, let’s turn now to briefly reflect on the heroes, on the faith-filled action of the church. They pray, fervently for Peter. That feels particularly bold and faithful, given that they may well have done the same for James, only to see him killed. For me, this asks the hard question of why are some fervent prayers answered, and some not? It’s a question I have a good amount of experience wrestling with, and the short answer I’ve come to is that I don’t know why. But, if you find that question a struggle too, I want you to know we can still walk in God’s path wrestling with it, together. And although I don’t think scripture allows us to lean on some-hollow-feel-good crutch of ‘everything happens for a reason’, I do think it implores us to recall us that God is good and loving, and that he can, and often does, work good from even the most depraved schemes of violent men.
And sometimes, more often than a natural-pessimist like me would notice, God’s delivering hand works mightily to burst us out of darkness and imprisonment, whether at the hands of evil men, or some other oppressive situation. Even when we, like Peter, are so resigned to our fate that we don’t expect, don’t believe, that God can actually be breaking us out.
Because the Lord who sent his angel to rescue Peter is the same Lord who has sent his Spirit to be with and within us. Whatever prison we find ourselves in, whether one created by others, or circumstances, or of our own making, he is able to break us out – and furthermore, he will be with us throughout any imprisonment and beyond. We may be required to put on our belt, fasten our sandals or wrap our cloaks around us – but we will certainly be asked to follow his leading. We may have to do some of the walking ourselves, but it is God who will do the opening of the gates that he needs us to go through.
After all, this same God sent his son to be with us, to break us out and rescue us from dark imprisonment without the light of Christ in our lives. He prevailed against the gates of our sin and the futile efforts we might have made to save ourselves. Charles Wesley’s famous hymn celebrates this better than I can:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,Charles Wesley
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Let’s pray together:
Lord, we pray fervently for salvation and liberation from wickedness and injustice for all who are oppressed. Please bring architects of unrighteousness to humble repentance and turn evil deeds to good, including us and our actions, when that’s needed. Whatever chains cling to us, please free us and help us to rise, go forth, and follow you,