The Power of Church and State
Herod Agrippa I had power. Acts chapter twelve describes how he used his power for an assault on the church. He believed that he had the power to limit or even stop the spread of the Gospel. Even during Passover, as the people celebrated the power of God to deliver. In fact, I find it interesting that he wanted to bring Peter out after Passover. Was he thinking that God could slip one past old Pharaoh, but he cannot deliver under the watch of powerful King Herod Agrippa? From the perspective of the young church, it appeared that he was right. Acts tells us that he killed James and had Peter arrested (12.2-3).
In a sense, this is Peter’s last “act.” For although he does make a brief appearance in chapter fifteen, we are not told anything else about Peter. In Acts, the fate of Herod is more important to the story than the fate of Peter. In light of his imprisonment, what can the church do? How can the church be taken seriously when Herod has all the power? Should they hire a lawyer with a reputation of representing minorities? Should they begin to leave propaganda in conspicuous places in the hope that others will join their side? Should they begin filling out petitions to protest Herod’s treatment of Christians? Should they join with other opponents of Herod to fight for proper social action? Should they re-package themselves so that government might see them as a benefit to the kingdom? What should the church do?
Acts wants us to know that the activity of the church during this time was prayer (12.5-12). This is important because prayer admits that we are unable to cause change on our own. This cannot be overemphasized. This episode in the life of the church cautions us from taking things in our own hands.
On the surface, prayer may appear to be an impotent force against the power of Herod. Yet, as the story continues, one begins to realize that there is a power greater than Herod. Peter is delivered from prison. The news is almost too good to be true. Peter arrives at the house of those who are celebrating the power of God to release slaves (that is what they do in Jerusalem during Passover) to find that they do not believe that he had escaped. This may remind us that God’s power is greater than the expectations of His people.
Throughout this entire episode, neither Herod (as we realize later at 12.23) nor Peter (after 12.17 he is gone) are the main player (or the main power). Acts wants us to understand that the main player throughout is the one who delivered a nation from slavery, the one who delivered Peter, and the one still able to deliver.
Acts loves to record speeches. Peter, Stephen, and Paul each give speeches that are recorded in Acts, some of them in detail. As Herod prepares to give a speech (12.21), one wonders what a government official like Herod will add to the speeches of Acts. The king must have performed well, for his audience declared that this was “the voice of a god, not of a man.” Surely such a speech is worthy of recording. But where is this power speech? Acts does not care. Herod gets a thumbs down, his words do not matter. Nevertheless, he receives much flattery and refuses to give the glory to God. At that point, Herod the king is eaten by worms. Chapter twelve is a reminder that while government officials are temporary (just ask Herod), the word of God continues to increase and spread (12.24).
What a complete reversal of the church’s situation in just one chapter. At the beginning, Herod is on the rampage, killing James and arresting Peter. At the end of the chapter, Herod is dead, Peter is free, and the word of God is increasing. Herod will not speak again, but God’s words will continue to be heard.