We’re going to skip chapter 11 because mostly it’s Peter telling the church at Jerusalem what happened in regards to Cornelius. I’ve beaten the whole “church at Jerusalem was prejudiced against Gentiles” motif to death, so I’ll let it rest for now.
Herod (not the same guy who killed John the Baptist) was on thin ice with Rome. He needed to curry favor with the Jews, so obviously the solution was to crack down on Christians. This leads into a grand miracle and angelic visit as described in the rest of the chapter, and which we’ll look at tomorrow.
But for today I’d like to use this as a springboard for some tough questions. Have you heard the story about the woman and the angels? There are several versions of it on the internet, and it’s gained the status of urban myth. It goes something like this: A woman, against her better judgment, walks home at night in a rough section of town. She prayed that God would protect her. She notices some bad-looking characters following her, but they keep their distance the whole time. After a while they go their separate ways. She reads the newspaper the next day and discovers that the gang members found another woman and raped her. She goes to the police station and asks them why they didn’t attack her. “Are you crazy lady?! You had those big bruisers walking next to you the whole time!!!”
You’re supposed to read that story, get chills up your spine, and go “Ooooooooohh!! God’s angels are protecting me.” OK, let’s assume for a moment that the story actually happened (and I have to point out that we're never given any name or details to check). What about the girl who was raped that night? Did she not pray hard enough? Did God just not care about her as much? Why was she brutalized and the first girl was spared?
I think of that story every time I read this chapter or think about today’s narrative. We read chapter 12 and think “Wow, what an incredible miracle!” An angel comes down and releases Peter from the prison. His chains fall off, the doors open for him, and the guards for some reason don’t respond to what’s going on.
What about James? Where was his angel?
That’s what we call the mystery of Providence. God in his wisdom allows bad things to happen to some of his children, and some of them he spares. Why some and not others? There’s a train wreck and some die and some live. A burglar picks one house to enter and tragedy ensues. Why that house and not mine? I’ve lost some friends to cancer. Why them and not me?
We don’t know. I don’t know.
But here are some things I do know:
1) God is perfectly capable of protecting us. He could easily prevent every scraped knee and every paper cut. When someone endures tragedy, he could've prevented it.
2) Let’s face it. Most of the time, there’s not an angel sent to rescue me when I’m in trouble. Of all the Christians who’ve been jailed for their faith throughout history, a lot more of them ended up like James than like Peter. When God does intervene (and I believe he does), it’s usually behind the scenes instead of openly like in chapter 12.
3) As far as tragedy is concerned, neither I nor anyone else deserve anything but judgment from him. If I undergo horrible experiences as a believer, it's not because of what I deserve. As a believer, he deals with me according to his perfect plan and what I need, not what I deserve.
4) He knows what he’s doing. If something terrible happens, then my Father is allowing it for a reason. It might be related to sin in my life, but it may not. Job’s a perfect example where it was emphatically not the case.
Why am I bringing this up? Is this my annual “Depress my readers day”? Of course not. But when we read the book of Acts, we need to keep in mind that most of the time our Father doesn’t act like he did for Peter. Good people die every day in horrible circumstances. Church tradition says that Peter was finally killed by being crucified upside-down.
But our Father knows what he’s doing. The tragedy that we encounter and hear about is not the end of the story. I promise you this: One minute after the sword left his body, James wasn’t complaining.
Father, it’s so hard sometimes to make it through tough times when I don’t know what the heck you’re doing. But you're in charge, and you know what you’re doing, and you’re good. I believe it, and I’ve seen it personally. Please help me to remember that.