by Matthew W. Bassford
Acts 12 offers one of the great conundrums of the New Testament. In the first few verses of the chapter, the wicked king Herod Agrippa arrests and executes the apostle James, the brother of John. Shortly thereafter, he arrests Peter with the same intention. However, God sends his angel to rescue Peter from prison, and soon after that, Herod becomes worm food.
To most Bible students, this apparently preferential treatment is perplexing. Admittedly, Peter was important to the early church, but so was James. Along with Peter and John, he was one of the three inner-circle apostles during the ministry of Jesus. He was one of only three witnesses to the Transfiguration, and after his death, God was down to two!
Why, then, did God save Peter but allow James to be beheaded? Wasn't James worth an angel too?
At this point, Bible classes usually turn to discussions of the inscrutable will of God. We don't understand why He permits one of His faithful servants to perish while sparing another, but we trust His wisdom, judgment, love, etc.
I too have shared in these discussions, but in the midst of Bible class last night, another thought struck me. The issue here may not be our inability to understand the will of God. It may be our failure to share His priorities.
To us, the death of James may seem senseless and tragic, but it is far from the worst thing to happen to an apostle in the book of Acts. That dubious distinction belongs to Judas, who meets a gory fate in the opening chapter and is erased from the roll of the apostles because of his treachery. He is replaced by Matthias after Peter cites a curse from Psalm 109 as authority for so doing.
The true tragedy here is the story of Judas, not the story of James. It still would have been a true tragedy even if the former had outlived the latter. James fulfilled God's purpose for his life and entered into his reward. Judas betrayed his Lord and entered into a fate so awful that Jesus said it would have been better for him if he had not been born.
We can see all sorts of ways in which James would have been useful in the further spread of the gospel, but self-evidently, he was not necessary. Even Peter, rescued in Acts 12 but martyred on a later occasion, proved not to be necessary. He finished his work, part of which continues with us to this day, and the kingdom went on without him. Both men, I believe, were satisfied to have it so.
I think the same is true of me. Many people have told me how sad it is that my productive life in God's service is going to be cut short. Certainly, it is not the fate that I would have chosen for myself, but it is far from the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I can think of several worse fates off the top of my head. I could have betrayed my marriage vows and been unfaithful to my wife. I could have allowed a porn habit to take over my life and consume me. Intellectual pride could have led me to pervert the gospel I proclaimed. I could have crushed my children and driven them away from God through self-righteous harshness. I could have become a bitter, contemptuous social-media warrior, doing the devil’s work in the name of God.
I would choose death over any of these things, but they are not mere far-fetched hypotheticals. I know my own frame and my own weaknesses. Without the help of God, I would have fallen prey to any or all of them. In some cases, this still may happen. God isn't finished with me quite yet, but Satan isn't finished with me either.
When a servant of God finishes his race, those remaining may mourn his loss, but it is a triumph rather than a tragedy. All of us may serve Him for a time, but His work is greater than any of us, and His purpose will be accomplished with or without us.
We are not necessary to His service. Rather, His service is necessary to us. It outweighs all the concerns of this life. 2000 years from now, will any of us care that we died at 45 rather than 85? Do James and Peter care about the extent of their time on earth right now?
The only thing that will matter to us is that we were faithful, whether for many decades or few. Either one leads to an eternity of glory. Disaster only lies in a failure to honor God, for if we do fail, we will have the same eternity to lament it.