In Acts 12:1-2 King Herod had James arrested and killed. James was the firebrand brother of John, nicknamed the “sons of thunder” by Jesus in Mark 3:17. James, then, was likely an enthusiastic and much loved leader in the Jerusalem church.
His arrest, however, didn’t create much of a ripple in the church. There’s no mention by Luke, for instance, that the church put out a request for prayer for James. Maybe that’s because the last time James was arrested and put in jail, along with all the other apostles, an angel had freed them by unlocking the jail door at night (Acts 5:18-19).
They were in for a horrible shock, then, when James was executed. And things got worse too, because Herod was so pleased by the Jews’ reaction to having James killed, that he had Peter arrested too (Acts 12:3). Herod also wanted to make a spectacle of Peter’s arrest, by waiting until the Jewish Passover season was over and then holding a “public trial” (verse 4). And to make sure the church didn’t try to rescue Peter, Herod assigned sixteen soldiers to guard him.
This time it did create a ripple in the church. Stunned by the death of James, and now the upcoming trial and probable execution of Peter as well, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him,” verse 5.
There was no more taking it for granted that God would simply rescue Peter like he’d rescued him in Acts 5. Instead, the church got seriously involved in seeking God for a solution. And what followed in Acts 12 is a wonderful example of how God responds to that.
It tied in beautifully with Barnabas in the previous chapter encouraging the Antioch church “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” in Acts 11:23. And here in a major crisis, when the church in Jerusalem felt utterly powerless, they did just that. They did turn to the Lord with all their hearts.
And based on the amazing events that followed in Acts 12, it’s clear that God deeply loved and appreciated them for it. He loved them throwing all their eggs into the one basket of trusting him – and for letting him know that’s what they were doing too.
They weren’t just resigning themselves to “Oh well, que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.” They wanted God to know they were involved in this up to their eyeballs too. They weren’t sitting back expecting God “to do it all” – they wanted to be part of it, joining in and taking a real interest in what God would do about Peter, and learn how God was now working in this new era of the church. Because it really was new. Why, for instance, had God allowed James to die?
So they turned to the Lord to find out and learn. It’s like the child with a broken bicycle who turns to Dad to repair it, but rather than sitting back and letting Dad “do it all,” the child wants to join in and learn what Dad does and how, and why the bike broke down in the first place.
To me, therefore, this was participatory prayer by the church in Jerusalem, rather than intercessory prayer. They wanted to be part of the process, to tune into God’s thinking, and watch with great interest what God would do, and in their prayers express that to God.
I take it, then, that this was this kind of relationship with God the Holy Spirit was creating in the church, because it was the Holy Spirit who’d allowed James to die, but this was the result of it. James wasn’t a wasted death at all. It had caused the church to get involved and really turn to the Lord with all their hearts, and discover what happens when you do.
And here we are now, in the same church with the same Holy Spirit at work, teaching us the same things. And what a delight in Acts 12 to learn that God clearly loves us turning to him and taking an interest in what he does when we feel utterly powerless. Because that’s when he can land all sorts of amazing surprises on us – as Peter is about to find out….