Sermon on Acts 12:1-5 – “The Death of James”

Sermon on Acts 12:1-5 – “The Death of James”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, January 15th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Scripture reading:

[Act 12:1-5 ESV] 1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.


I. Herod and James

When we come to this text we immediately need to clarify who these people are. Particularly Herod and James.

This Herod is not the same Herod that was going after Jesus. This is not Herod the Great who sought to kill Jesus when he was born in Bethlehem. This Herod is Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great. It was a whole family of troublemakers.

And the James in this text is not James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. This James is the Apostle James, the brother of the Apostle John, both sons of Zebedee. He is also known as James the Great.

James, the brother of Jesus, would not die until sometime in the 60s AD. But here with James the Great it is said to be the year 44 AD that he finds his demise.

II. Christian Martyrs

And in doing so he is the first of the Apostles to be martyred, to be killed as a witness to the faith.

Incidentally, the later tradition developed that James’ bones (this James, the Great) were brought to a church in Spain. And it is to that church that many pilgrims through the centuries have traveled to see these bones. This “relic,” like almost all relics, must be considered highly doubtful. That is, it is very unlikely that these are his bones. And it is certain that seeing his bones will not grant you any blessings. But many people continue to trek to that church in Spain even to this day. The trail there is quite popular, known as the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago, as it ends in the town of Santiago, Spain.

Now the martyrdom of the Apostles is a great testimony to the truth of the Christian Faith. That these men were willing to die for the faith certainly tells us that they were committed to it and willing to die for its truth.

It is said that all of the Apostles, except for John, died as martyrs. Only John died of old age, of natural causes.

Only two deaths of Apostles are actually mentioned in the Scriptures. The first was Judas Iscariot, hardly a martyr for the cause but rather a betrayer of Christ. The other mentioned is our text with the death of James the Great.

Of the other apostles, various stories developed in Christians history, some more reputable or trustworthy than others. I think it is generally believed that Paul and Peter died in Rome in the 60s AD. For the other Apostles the accounts become more doubtful. But it is not hard to believe that they did die for the faith. It seems more likely than not, given the persecution of Christians both from the Jews and from the Romans.

And certainly in the next generation or two of Christians there were many martyrs for the faith, including prominent bishops Ignatius, Polycarp, and others.

By the second century, one Christian writer Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” meaning that their deaths led to life for others as their testimony bore fruit.

But naturally we must be careful not to place any man in too high of a position. These martyrs are not to be worshipped or prayed to or declared to be “saints” anymore than all Christians are properly called saints.

The martyrs of old (and of today alike) further a point made in last Sunday evening’s sermon: the church tends to grow during persecution and in spite of persecution. Though a prominent figure like James dies, the church goes on. There is no man that is necessary for the continuance of the church, no man but Jesus Christ.

III. The Church Goes On

Whether we consider the death of prominent leaders like R. C. Sproul or Billy Graham or even James the Great or the Apostle Paul, we find that the church goes on. It is the church of Jesus Christ. We are indeed all members of it, but we are not the head.

Now James is killed by Herod “by the sword.” Perhaps this means an actual sword, or perhaps it is the common word used for government action. Paul in Romans 13 speaks of the Government “bearing the sword.” He speaks of it as a positive function in the putting to death of evildoers, but clearly (as in the case of James) a government often uses its powers not for good but for evil. And the Lord will judge Herod Agrippa for his actions.

IV. The Imprisonment of Peter

Well, our text quickly moves on from James to Peter.

And perhaps it brings this question to your mind as it does to mine: Why was Peter allowed to live while James was killed? (This type of question comes to us regularly: why did I survive when another was killed in a car crash or in war or by a disease? Or, the other way around, why did so-and-so find such great riches while I toiled my life away just to make ends meet?

As for Peter, he was not holier than James. So why was one allowed to live and the other to die? It is not for some sin. Ultimately, like with most of these question, we don’t know the answer. We can only say that it is in the plan of God.

Though Peter was not killed, he was captured and place into prison. And guard were stationed there so that there was no chance of escape.

So there is a common theme in our text. Persecution. One is killed, the other imprisoned.

This doesn’t mean that we should SEEK to be killed or SEEK to be imprisoned. It is only truly persecution when we are innocent.

Herod arrested Peter because he saw that James’ death pleased the Jews. Herod is an example of a populist, doing what will help win him favor rather than doing what is right.

We should heed that warning as well. Popularity is not our goal; holiness is our goal.

VI. Seek the Lord.

That is one primary message then this evening: let us seek the favor of God, not of men.

But then there is another. Note that when Peter was in jail, the believers didn’t stand by idly. What did they do?

“earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”

Calvin says: “Peter stood alone, but all the rest fought with their prayers together with him, and they aided him so much as they were able. Hereby we do also gather, that they were not discouraged, for by prayer they testify that they persist so much as they are able in defense of the cause, for which Peter is in danger of life.”

There is always SOMETHING we can do. In the most difficult of circumstances, we can (and we should) PRAY.

And we should not be discouraged.

These prayers express the church’s love for Peter, one of their own. They are not abandoning him. Of course they are not going to physically make an attack on the jail. They have a more powerful approach to take; that of prayer.

We should remember the same. In any circumstances there are many possible responses you could have. Some of  them may be more likely to succeed than others. But in all circumstances we should pray to God. And in all circumstances His will is done.

Some things don’t go the way of the early Christians. Stephen is killed. James is killed. Peter is imprisoned. But they are not a discouraged bunch. They are not saying “woe is me.” Rather, they continue to have supreme confidence in their supreme maker and their savior Jesus Christ.

What an impressive countenance. In all things, praise the Lord.

Of course it is not wrong to have concerns. It is clear that the Christians were concerned as they “EARNESTLY” took prayers to the Lord.

But it is important that that is where they took their prayers. They didn’t internalize and become aggravated or depressed or incensed or downtrodden. They took their prayers to the Lord.

So we have at least two applicable messages in our text:

1) Seek not popularity; seek the Lord.

2) Do not be discouraged, but pray to the Lord. Seek the Lord.

And there is that common theme then: seek the Lord.

[1Ch 16:11 ESV] 11 Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually!

[Pro 3:5-6 ESV] 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

[Mat 6:33 ESV] 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Let us then seek the Lord, and let us earnestly pray to the Lord.