Acts 12 records the death of the first apostle, James. It also records the third imprisonment of Peter. James and John, sons of Zebedee and Salome, were among Jesus’ earliest disciples. They were apparently the first disciples of John the Baptist. John pointed Jesus out to them and John 1 tells that John and Andrew then sought Jesus out.
Spiritual growth and development was as much a part of the lives of the apostles as it is in our own. James and John were hasty in action and fiery in disposition in their early life. Jesus called them Boanerges or “sons of thunder”, and we have examples of their hasty actions (Mark 3:19; Luke 9:44, 53). They were not immune to selfish ambitions either (Mark 10:35-40). In this latter passage, Jesus asked them if they were able to drink the cup He would drink and be baptized with the baptism He would be baptized with. They responded they were. Jesus then indicated that they would be. Acts 12 records the martyrdom of James at the hand of Herod. He was baptized with the baptism Jesus was baptized with.
Because Herod saw that his killing James pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter, intending that Peter would share the same fate as James. However, the Lord intervened. He miraculously delivered Peter from prison, thus sparing him momentarily from a martyr’s death. Some may question, “Wasn’t the Lord able to deliver James from prison as He delivered Peter?” And of course, the answer is “Yes”. But I do not know the answer to a likely “follow-up” question: “Why didn’t He?” We cannot question the ways of God, nor know why some things happen so differently as with James and Peter.
Remember, however, that although Peter’s life was prolonged by what God did, it did not save him from a martyr’s death either. Jesus had predicted such for him when, after His resurrection, Jesus fed seven disciples on the shore of the sea of Galilee and then predicted a martyr’s death for Peter (John 21:17-19). Many years later Peter experienced the same fate as James and wrote in his second epistle his expectation that time was near (2 Peter 1:13-14).
The Lord miraculously delivered Peter from prison at least twice (Acts 5, 12). Paul also suffered imprisonment on two or three different occasions (one imprisonment lasting about four years) yet God never miraculously delivered him from his chains. There is no partiality with God, yet that does not mean that sometimes some servants of God will not suffer more severely than other of His servants, or not suffer nearly so severely. Sometimes the difference may be that one of God’s servants has a special ability to do something that God wants done and so his life is prolonged.
Consider two young men who were fellow deacons of the Jerusalem church, Stephen and Philip (Acts 6). Stephen was the church’s first martyr, dying shortly after the church began. But it was a different story with Philip. Philip survived Stephen at least 25 years, separated by persecution from Jerusalem. But he was God’s servant in preaching to the Samaritans, to the Ethiopian Eunuch, and to people of Caesarea. Both these men filled the role God placed them in.
At the time when James was martyred and Peter was delivered, there was a looming threat to the course God’s church might pursue. Judaizing teachers were rising, and their efforts would meet with much success, even among Gentile converts. Paul’s work among the Gentiles was effective and his dealing with the issue was likely what kept Gentile Christians from accepting the doctrine that Gentiles must accept the law and circumcision. However, it was Peter who could have the greatest success to halt that teaching among Jewish Christians. Read his arguments against that doctrine in Acts 15:1-11.
Jesus sent two disciples to get a colt, the foal of an ass for Him to ride on into Jerusalem. If its masters were to object, the apostles were to say, “The Lord hath need of them” and the master would consent (Matthew 21:1-3). What an honor and privilege to be a servant of the Lord to do something because “the Lord hath need” of me. There are different things the Lord may need me to do, and if as in the case of James, it is to give my life to glorify God, may God grant unto me the courage and faith I need to do that. If, as in the case of Peter, it is to be an influence to stay a rising error among the people of God over several years, may I fill that role.
I cannot know the mind of the Lord; I cannot be His counsellor. But what I can do is to regard it a privilege that “the Lord hath need of” me to do something for Him. Think of all the things He has done for us!