WHY DID GOD LET JAMES DIE BUT DELIVER PETER?
by Shawn Brasseaux
In Acts 12, why did God spare the Apostle Peter but allow the Apostle James to be executed?
“ Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.  And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.  And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)  And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.
“ Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.  And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.  And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.  And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.
“ And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision.  When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.  And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.” (To find out the rest of the story, you should read verses 12-18 in your own study.)
As there were different Caesars, so there were various Herods in the New Testament. Both are titles (like “king”), not first names of people. The Herod of Acts chapter 12 is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great (the bloodthirsty king who attempted to kill the Christ Child in Matthew chapter 2 some three decades earlier).
Herod Agrippa I successfully put the Apostle James to death by beheading (verse 2). Attempting to “score more political points” with the unbelieving Jews, he arrests and imprisons the Apostle Peter. Herod purposes to execute Peter, but the Messianic Church prays and Peter is delivered. As we read, the angel of the Lord spares Peter in a dramatic rescue operation. It is bizarre that Peter was allowed to live but James was allowed to die. Someone might reply, “That is the mysterious working of God, something inexplicable that we dare not try to answer!” Friends, it is our firm conviction that the Bible provides a reason as to why God spared Peter. There is precious little about James here in this chapter (a single verse—verse 2). However, there is so much more about Peter. Peter stands out in this passage, and for good reason. We will not learn about it until chapter 15.
Back in Acts chapter 9, Saul of Tarsus met the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ; he was saved unto eternal life and commissioned on the road to Damascus. At the time of chapter 12, this new apostle, the Apostle Paul, has been traveling for over a decade preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God. The Jerusalem Church—the Messianic Church—has met him back in Acts 9:26-29 (cf. Galatians 1:18-19). While Paul is in the early stages of his ministry amongst the Gentiles, the Lord directs Peter to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (Gospel of the Circumcision) to some Gentiles—the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household (Acts chapter 10).
By the time of chapter 15, Paul has been preaching for about 20 years. Jews from the Jerusalem Church are telling his Gentile converts that they must follow Judaism. Paul and his ministry coworker Barnabas travel to Jerusalem to settle the matter. What right do Paul and his Gentile converts have in operating apart from Moses/Judaism? After all, Judaism had existed prior to Paul’s ministry. The 12 Apostles were all Judaistic in their theology. In order to straighten out the confusion, the Holy Spirit directs Paul to visit Jerusalem and confer with the Apostles (cf. Galatians chapter 2).
Read Acts chapter 15: “ And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.  When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.  And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
“ And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.  But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.  And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.
“ And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.  And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;  And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
“ Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.  And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:  Simeon [Simon Peter] hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.  And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,  After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:  That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.  Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.”
(NOTE: James here in chapter 15 is not the same as John’s brother James of chapter 12; remember, John’s brother James is already dead. The James of chapter 15 is the Lord’s brother [Galatians 1:19], the man referenced in Matthew 13:55, and an elder of the Jerusalem Church. As per Galatians, he is an apostle in a secondary sense.)
Peter’s firsthand testimony of his experience with Gentile Cornelius years earlier saved Paul’s Gentile ministry from being discredited and destroyed! God had Peter visit and evangelize the Gentile Cornelius in chapter 10 for a special purpose—but Peter would not realize it for another 15 years. At the Jerusalem Bible conference, Peter discovered his experience with Cornelius provided him and the Jerusalem Church with insight into Paul’s Gentile ministry.
Had Peter died with James in chapter 12, he would not have been present to come to Paul’s defense in chapter 15! (Peter was the leader of the 12 Apostles, as per Matthew 16:19—“thee” and “thou” is second-person singular, referring to Peter alone. It was thus more important that Peter bear witness rather than John’s brother James. This was why God selected Peter, not James, to visit Cornelius.) At the time of chapter 12, Peter had not yet publicly endorsed Paul’s ministry. God was not yet finished with Peter, which is why He spared Peter. Peter went on to publicly endorse Paul’s ministry in chapter 15, before fading off the scene from Acts.
SUPPLEMENTAL: ACTS 12 AND PROPHECY
Acts chapter 12 previews what will follow our Dispensation of Grace. As Herod was an apostate king reigning in Jerusalem, so Antichrist (yet future) will be another satanic king governing Jerusalem. Herod decapitated James; likewise, the Antichrist will behead believers in the Lord Jesus (Revelation 20:4). Some members of the Jewish Little Flock, Israel’s believing remnant, will be spared, of which Peter’s escape and survival typifies (Revelation 12:1-17). Others, like James, will not be so fortunate. When Jesus Christ returns at His Second Coming to destroy the Antichrist, He will bodily resurrect all those who died for His Word (Revelation 20:1-6). Herod’s gruesome demise in the closing verses of Acts chapter 12 pictures the Antichrist’s destruction.
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