Luke says it so quickly, so matter-of-factly: “[Herod] killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:2). In the flow of the story this little phrase sets the stage for Peter’s dramatic prison rescue by the angel. So that’s what we remember. When Peter later wrote, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9), this is the sort of rescue that easily comes to mind.
But the night that James sat in prison the angel didn’t come. I’m sure he prayed for an angel. He knew God could send one if he wanted to. An angel had already rescued him and the other disciples once before, in chapter 5. But this night there was no bright light, no chains falling off, no sleeping guards. Just desperate prayers and fitful dozing—if he slept at all.
In the morning James was still in jail when the dreaded voice of the captain of the guard shouted, “Bring out the prisoner!” There was an anxiety-filled, prayerful walk to the place of execution. There was a pronouncement of guilt. Possibly there was an offer of pardon in exchange for recanting, followed by a refusal. There was a raised sword. There was a wince of fearful anticipation. No deliverance.
Or was there?
Jesus allowed the sword to fall on James as intentionally as he opened Peter’s prison door. So the death of James is as crucial for us to remember as the rescue of Peter. Why did God let James die?
This question is relevant because at some point most of us will find ourselves facing death, pleading for deliverance, and not receiving what we think we are asking for. And it points to a difficult lesson that all of Jesus’ disciples must learn: Jesus often has different priorities than we do. What may feel desperately urgent to us may not be urgent to him—at least not in the same way.
Remember how Jesus slept in the boat during the storm? The disciples panicked at the fear of drowning and cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). He calmed the storm and then said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Jesus’ lesson was clear: you’re afraid of the wrong thing. Don’t fear what or who can kill your body, but fear and trust me because I rule over storms and death (Matthew 10:28). Jesus knew that there were more dangerous “storms” ahead for the disciples, ones that would kill them. They needed to know whom to fear.
And so do we. Unless Jesus returns first (maranatha!), every one of us will face a storm that will kill us. And our initial response may be similar to the disciples’ in the boat: Jesus, don’t you care that I am perishing? In that moment we need to remember that he cares deeply. He who wept beside Lazarus’ tomb will weep with us—and he will raise us. And we need to remember that he knows what death is like and will be with us and help us say as he said to the Father, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
And we also need to remember James, who faced death “refusing to accept release that [he] might rise again to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35). There is the real key to understanding Acts 12:2: Jesus let James die because he had a better life to give him. James was not being neglected by Jesus. He was in fact the first of the Twelve to experience what Jesus prayed for in John 17:24: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me from the foundation of the world.” Peter’s deliverance from prison was remarkable. But he lived to die another day. James experienced the true deliverance: death being swallowed up by the Resurrection and the Life.
And that is what Jesus longs and intends to give to us too. That’s what he endured the Father’s wrath on the cross to purchase for us. He wants us to see and enjoy and rejoice in his glory forever.
There will come a time when Jesus’ prayer for us to be with him will overrule our prayer for prolonged earthly life. And when it does, we will experience a life so far better, richer, fuller, purer, and more joyful that we will shake our heads in wonder that we were ever reluctant to leave here.
May God cause this reality to become more real to us all.
To live is Christ and to die is gain,
Recommendation: John Piper’s sermon, "What Happens When You Die: At Home With the Lord" and a message by Sam Storms from our 2003 national conference, "Joy's Eternal Increase: Edwards on the Beauty of Heaven," are great resources to help cultivate your longing to experience in full what Jesus has in store for you.