God Can Handle Herod

Bible Book: Acts  12
Subject: Politics and Jesus; King Jesus; Prayer and Power; Herod is Dead

Seven years ago, then presidential candidate, Barack Obama, sat on the stage of the Saddleback Community Church in California and told Rick Warren that he believed marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, and that “he did not promote same-sex marriage”.[1]

Just a couple of weeks ago, the White House, now the home of President Obama, was lit up in rainbow colors, in support of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country. It is amazing how much can change in just a few years. Political winds shift, cultural whims change, and those who hold the reigns of power can turn the ship of state in a hurry.

The church in Acts experienced this kind of rapid shift. Back in Acts 9:31, we find this statement: “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria…”

There was a time of rest after the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The church then enjoyed a period of peace and spiritual progress that lasted for 7 or 8 years. But in chapter 12, that period of rest for the church would be disturbed by a new man with a name we’ve heard before in the Bible; Herod. This Herod was the grandson of that Herod that had massacred the babies of Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. In the end, this Herod, like his grandfather before him, would lose both his life and his battle against Jesus and His church.

This chapter, when taken as a whole, presents a conflict between an earthly power and the eternal power. It is Herod, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews, against Jesus, the God-anointed King of kings. What we find is that though earthly powers, like Herod, may stretch forth their hands to persecute the church, our God knows how to handle the Herods of this world. As John Stott put it, “The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; and it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the Word of God triumphing.”[2]

In a day where the powers that be seem to be turning against the church and the followers of Christ, this chapter encourages us to remember that the risen Jesus rules and overrules over the rulers of this world.

Just before He left, Jesus assured us that “all power in heaven and earth” belongs to Him (Matt. 28:18). He knows how to handle those who harm His church or hinder the advancement of His gospel.

The Holy Spirit shows us in this passage that when we face an earthly power, like a Herod in our own day, first of all:


The Herod we meet in the gospels was known as Herod the Great. The Herod we meet in Acts 12 was known as Herod Agrippa I. His official title would have been “King of Judea”, but everyone knew that he was a king under the Caesar in Rome. His position was more of a middleman than a monarch. I agree with R. Kent Hughes, who said of this Herod, “He was preeminently a politician.”[3] Politics is exactly what we find going on at the beginning of chapter For instance, we see:

A. A politician abusing his power

Herod Agrippa had been born in the land of Judea, but he was raised up in Rome, and was buddies with both the Emperors Claudius and the crazy Caligula. It was through his friendship with them that the kingdom of Judea, which had once belonged to his grandfather, came under his control. It was a power he would use and abuse for his own gain.

Luke says that about the time the church was starting to expand into Gentile territories, Herod flexed his power to “vex certain of the church.” The church wasn’t causing any particular problems for Herod, but they represented the kind of minority sect that could be an easy target for political gain. In a show of force, he executed James, the brother of John and one of the original disciples of Jesus. James became the first apostle to be martyred.

Why did Herod do it? We aren’t told exactly, but we can be sure that James had broken no law. He wasn’t a criminal. Herod was the real criminal! The old saying is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Truthfully, any power can be corrupting to men who are already corrupt with sin. Still today, we see this kind of abuse of power from dictators like Assad in Syria, killing his own people, to black-robed judges dictating their wishes in our own land.

We see in Herod, not only a politician abusing his power, but we see also:

B. A politician appeasing his people

In verse 3, when Herod saw that the killing of James won him political points with the Jews in Jerusalem, he went on to arrest Peter as well, with plans on killing him too. So we find a politician doing whatever he thinks will please the population under him. If the people of Jerusalem were thirsty for Christian blood, then that is what Herod would give them.

Our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” In theory, that sounds like a good idea. But when the people want what is contrary to the will of God, and politicians are all too ready to give them what they want, what happens is that those who stand with God often find themselves standing against their politicians and the populace who elected them.

In truth, though, the church has often been the minority when it comes to political power. Many times throughout history the church has been on the sharp end of the sword of government. Nevertheless, while the kingdoms and governments of this world have come and gone, the church has remained as a constant presence in countries and communities all over the world. For instance, in the early days of communist China, the government tried everything, including torture and murder, to stamp out the name of Christ and Christianity. Today, one of the fastest growing segments of the global church is to be found in the country of China.

Politics may change, and politicians will gladly change with them, but we, as the church, need not fear Herod’s kind of politics. Jesus can handle Herod.

We don’t have to fear Herod’s politics, and we also learn in this chapter that:


The bulk of this chapter is taken up with the wonderful story of yet another divine prison break in the book of Acts. The Lord miraculously delivered Peter from Herod’s prison.

We are reminded here that though we may at times suffer in this world, our God is able to deliver us in ways that glorify Him and further His kingdom. No doubt knowing that Peter had escaped before, Herod put him under maximum security, with a total of 16 guards responsible for watching him. That would not be enough, though.

We are reminded that we don’t have to fear what men can do to us when we know what God can do for us.

How should we respond when the powers of this world come against us? I think we see here that:

A. We ought to be realistic

We will look at the miraculous escape of Peter in just a moment, but that powerful story has to be read in the light of James’ painful story. Peter got out with his head. James did not. In the mysterious providence of God, James was allowed to die rather than being delivered from Herod’s hand.

We must be careful reading this story and assuming that it is always God’s will to get us out of trouble. No, sometimes God’s will is to allow us to suffer, even unto death, for the sake of His name. But, let us not forget, whether we die at the hands of our enemies, or God delivers us from them – we cannot ultimately lose.

Herod’s sword only served to send James to His eternal reward. He closed his eyes in Herod’s prison and opened them in the presence of Jesus. That is not losing in any way.

We don’t have to fear Herod’s prison, and we ought to be realistic about what that means. But, this story also encourages us that when we face persecution from the powers in this world:

B. We ought to be optimistic

Perhaps staying in the same cell where James had been kept, we find Peter, on the night before his own execution, chained to two guards, behind three locked doors, sleeping like a baby. He was sleeping so soundly that when the angel of the Lord came to “bust him out”, he had to jab him to wake him up. His shackles fell off without any keys, and Peter stood up, put on his shoes and clothes (after being told to), and essentially sleepwalked right out of the jail. The main door of the prison opened before him like an automatic door at the grocery store, and it was not until out in the cold night air that Peter realized he wasn’t dreaming the whole thing!

Other members of the church, meanwhile, had organized a prayer meeting on Peter’s behalf, which is a good thing! The church fights the powers of this world primarily on its knees. Yet, when Peter showed up to let them know he was out, he was left standing in the street by an overly excited girl named Rhoda. The believers then said she was crazy, and didn’t even believe he was really there.

The whole scene is both funny and a bit ironic. When the believers finally see him, they are amazed that God had actually answered their prayers! “What’a you know! He’s out!”

On one hand, this scene is encouraging to us. These early believers were not super Christians, with totally heroic and unshakable faith, but they were, as one writer put it, “…the same kind of muddled, half-believing, faith-one-minute-and-doubt-the-next sort of people,”[4] that most of us tend to be. On the other hand, the failure of these believers to really believe that God could answer their prayers is a challenge to us. If our God can deliver us, and do so in miraculous and mighty ways, should we not ask Him to do just that, and be optimistic that He will?

I love the story of the church that met during a drought to pray for rain. The preacher got up and said, “We are here to ask our God to send rain. All I want to know is, where’s your umbrellas?”

We shouldn’t be surprised when the powers of this world come against us, and as we pray for God to deliver us from them, we shouldn’t be surprised when He does just that!

After his escape, Peter went to an undisclosed location, and the next morning, the guards who were to take him to his execution, had to face Herod’s wrath themselves.

Before the chapter closes, Luke tells us that Herod would face a judgment of his own. God will handle Herod, and as He does, we are reminded not only that we don’t have to fear Herod’s politics, and we don’t have to fear Herod’s prison, but thirdly:


The last scene in Acts 12 is one of contrasts. There is a contrast between the church who appeals to God for their help, and a people who have to appeal to Herod for their help. There is also a contrast between Herod’s power, and the power of the Lord who puts down the proud and removes the mighty from their seats.

As the church reading this story today, we do well to pay attention to these contrasts, and to remember that our help comes from the Lord, and that no one who exalts himself above God can stand before Him for very long.

Notice in this closing section of the chapter that we find:

A. A people groveling to Herod

In verse 20, the Holy Spirit relates a little history, unrelated to the church, in order to set up the record of Herod’s death.

The story is that somehow the cities of Tyre and Sidon had gotten on Herod’s bad side. He was furious with them. For their part, they were anxious to get back in the king’s good graces, because as verse 20 says, they got their food from Herod’s kingdom. They managed to get a lobbyist in the form of one Herod’s close servants, and arranged a meeting in which they could show Herod how sorry they were. Don’t miss this: it is not that Tyre and Sidon really loved Herod. It is likely that they didn’t. But, they did fear him, and they feared what he could do to them. So we find them groveling at the feet of this little tyrant, hoping to get some food out of the deal.

Contrast this with verse 5 earlier in the chapter. It says, “Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.”

The people of God don’t have to grovel at the feet of world powers. We don’t have to placate them and plead with them.

We don’t have to hire lobbyist and pay politicians off to vote our wishes. We don’t have to come humbly to the thrones of this world. We can go boldly to the throne of grace and plead our cause before the Christ who holds the whole cosmos in His nail-scarred hands. We don’t have to fear Herod’s power. We can go over Herod’s head.

And we see who it is that is over Herod’s head when we see not only a people groveling to Herod, but we see also:

B. A power greater than Herod

The people of Tyre and Sidon gathered round to kiss up to Herod, and Herod put on His royal clothes to come out and address them.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod’s clothes that day were made of silver and gleamed in the sunlight. As Herod began to make his speech, the flatterers in the crowd said, “Oh my, what a speech! You sound like a god rather than a man. You are a god!” Herod, no doubt enjoying this reception, did not correct their blasphemy, so the God of heaven did.

Verse 23 says, “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.”

History affirms Luke’s account. Josephus says that during his speech Herod doubled over with some kind of pain in his stomach. He was carried to his bed, and in short order he was dead.

What happened? God handled Herod. God displayed who was really worthy of both the fear and the praises of men.

Don’t miss the change from verse 23 to 24. In verse 23, Herod gave up the ghost. In verse 24 it says, “But the word of God grew and multiplied.”

Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch, from which they would launch out into the world with the gospel.

You see; Herod died, but Jesus lives. Herod’s rule was cut off. Jesus’ rule carried on.

We need not fear the powers of modern-day Herods. We have no reason to bow before them, worried with what they might do to us. The King we serve died on a tree only to rise again from the dead three days later. His enemies tried to stop Him, but even as they nailed Him to the cross, they were only lifting Him closer to His throne. They did their worst to Him, but it turned out for the best for Him and His people.

The church in Acts was constantly coming up against the powers of this world, and then overcoming them by a power not of this world. The gospel we as the church believe and confess tells of a Savior who was despised, rejected, and condemned by this world. And yet, through His death and resurrection, He has overcome this world.


Are there still Herod’s today? Yes, there are. Will the church still have its martyr’s and prisoners for the gospel? Yes, we will. But, we can face them on our knees together, praying to a God who can deliver us, and believing that He will.

And, whatever may happen to us, we know that the day is soon coming when all the Herod’s of this world will die, and all the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.

And He shall reign forever and ever. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

[1] “Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum”, 8/16/08, www.cnn.com, accessed 7/9/15, http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0808/16/se.02.html

[2] Stott, John R.W., The Message of Acts, (IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 1990), Amazon Kindle edition

[3] Hughes, R. Kent, Acts: The Church Afire, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1996), Amazon Kindle edition

[4] Wright, N.T., Acts for Everyone: Part One, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008), p. 185