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"Judgement of Herod."


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          This week, we conclude Acts chapter 12 in our series of messages from this New Testament history book.  If you were here last week, you know that in chapter 12 the apostle James is martyred and Peter is miraculously spared certain death when an angel of God miraculously rescues him from his jail cell hours before his scheduled execution.  The main characters in chapter 12 however, are not Peter or James or the angels who appear in the accounts.  The two main characters in this chapter are opposed to each other and are King Herod Agrippa, the ruler of Palestine and God, the Ruler of the universe.  Everything in chapter 12 ultimate revolves around them.  Luke places Herod at the beginning and end of this section—like bookends.  At both ends, Luke shows Herod to be publically spitting in God’s face and grievously offending him.  As we saw last week, he has the apostle James killed and makes plans to execute Peter, the leader of the apostles.  In the account we will read this morning, Herod does perhaps the most foolish and dangerous thing a fallen creature can do before a holy God.  Let’s read this text and see what God has to say to us through it. 

          Beginning with verse 20, Luke writes, “20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. 24 But the word of God increased and multiplied. 25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.”  Luke sets the stage for this account by indicating the two port cities north of Caesarea, Tyre and Sidon have done something to make Herod angry—and the scholars tell us this word in the original is very strong.  Herod is in fact furious with the people of these cities that were located in Phoenicia, which were not under his rule.  This was not good news for the people in those cities because they were dependent on Herod’s kingdom for all their food.  If he were to direct that all shipping be done through other port cities, like Caesarea, that would have devastated Tyre and Sidon. 

          Luke tells us that the diplomats from Tyre and Sidon have made peace somehow through Blastus, who was like Herod’s chamberlain or his personal chief of staff. [1]  A Jewish historian of the time named Josephus tells us that at this time, there was a festival honoring the emperor Caesar and it was on that occasion that he, in Luke’s words, “delivered an oration to them.”  He made a speech.  This speech marks the third and fatal sin Herod committed against God after killing James and planning the same for Peter.  Luke tells us he puts on his royal robes.  Josephus gives us a description of those robes.  He says, “…he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those who looked intently at him…” 

          All political speeches have an element of theatre about them and his choice of apparel manifests his desire to evoke a dramatic response from his audience.  Today, we would probably say his outfit was gaudy—like something Cher or Liberace would have worn.  But, assuming Josephus is accurate; in the sunlight it looked positively glorious to these first century people, even to the point of being horrifying.  Herod wants these people to see him as glorious and worthy of great reverence.  Verses 22-23 tell us the specific reaction of the people to his speech and Herod’s blasphemous silence.  And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!”  Immediately, an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”   Again, Josephus’ account concurs with Luke.  He writes, “…and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god…A severe pain…arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner…and when he was quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life…”  Luke, through the Holy Spirit looks beyond the material world and Herod’s physical anguish.  God has revealed to him the spiritual origin of what happened here when Herod refused to give God the glory in response to these people who said he was a god.  In the unseen spiritual realm, Luke tells us.  Immediately, “an angel of the Lord struck him down and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  Using an angel, God struck Herod with a lethal affliction.

          We don’t know precisely medically what Luke means by “eaten by worms” but the fact that he was a physician should give us confidence that this is as accurate a description as would have been possible in the first century. This could be intestinal roundworm—which is NOT a good way to die.  Whatever the case, this brought on, as Josephus says, “violent pain.”  This was not a merciful end—it wasn’t intended to be—it was an expression of God’s wrath. We know that whenever we read the Bible, our primary question of any text should always be—what does this tell us about God?  Our goal as we read Scripture should be that through it we would know God better and therefore love him more and from that love, obey him.  This morning, I want us to ask of this text, “What does this tell us about God?”  This morning, let’s look at three truths this account reveals about God.

          One truth about God this text reveals is:  He is an impassioned, jealous God.  The Old Testament is filled with references to the jealousy of God because Israel’s continuous idolatry provoked his judgment and what prompted that judgment was his jealousy.  In Exodus 34:14 he tells his chosen people to pull down all the idols of the Canaanites and the reason is, 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),   Here, he says one of his names is Jealous—El Qanna.  We must understand that God’s jealousy doesn’t have the evil element that characterizes much of human jealousy.  Some forms of human jealousy are good and appropriate.  If someone is romantically engaging your spouse, your jealousy of the intruder is an expression of your love.  But often human jealousy is based on pettiness and covetousness.  God’s jealousy is rooted in the fact that he is the Lord and Creator of the universe and as such is alone worthy of worship.  Creatures are not appropriate recipients of worship the Creator is.  Subjects of the king are not worthy of worship, but the all powerful, Sovereign Lord and Master is.  God isn’t jealous because he is petty, but because his holiness demands jealousy.  His holiness is assaulted because it is the height, the very apex of rebellion for a person he created to worship himself, to worship something or someone else.

          God describes himself as one “whose name is Jealous.”  That means that God’s jealousy is so much a part of his essence—it so powerfully expresses his identity, jealousy is more than simply a description of him—it’s his name—it’s who he is.  Idolatry is wicked and hated by God because it provokes his jealousy.  His prohibition against worshipping graven images in the second commandment illustrates this.  5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,”  The Hebrew word translated “jealous” carries another nuance and that is “impassioned.”  God is impassioned in his jealousy—he doesn’t just experience jealousy, he burns with jealousy.  We see this burning jealousy repeatedly in the Old Testament. 

In Deuteronomy 6:14-15, God says to his people, “14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— 15 for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.”  It’s God’s jealousy that kindles his anger and provokes his destructive power.  In Joshua 24, at the conclusion of a ceremony where God’s people recommit themselves to serve Yahweh, Joshua responds in verse 19, “…You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good. Notice two things.  First, God’s jealousy is very closely related to his holiness and second, note the fact that it is God’s jealousy that prompts him to do harm or consume his people after having done them good.  Deuteronomy 4:23-24 says, “23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. 24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”  God’s consuming fire of judgment is ultimately released against those who provoke his jealousy.  We must hear the zealous, burning passion God has that no person or thing be worshipped other than himself. 

And we mustn’t think God’s jealousy is only an Old Testament reality—as if he fundamentally changes in the New Testament.  There are two reasons why that assumption would be foolish.  First, because God never changes—his character is not altered from one testament to the other.  Malachi 3:6 says, 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.  The second reason it would be wrong to think God’s jealousy is only taught in the Old Testament is because it’s simply not the case.  In First Corinthians chapter 10, Paul is warning the Corinthians against eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols and he reveals there are demons behind the false idols to whom those animals were sacrificed.  He says, “21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? Paul is writing to believers here and is consistent with the Old Testament here because he roots his prohibition against this form of idolatry in the jealousy of God.  Idolatry in either testament and at any time in history provokes the Lord to jealousy.

If the Lord’s jealousy is aroused when his people worship idols, then how much more when a man—especially a Jew like Herod—receives worship as a god.  Perhaps you remember an incident in the book of Daniel when Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon ascribed for himself qualities god-like qualities.  Daniel 4:29 says of Nebuchadnezzar,  “…he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.”

This account is connected the judgment of Herod, not only because neither of them gave glory to God, but also because both of these men experience an immediate outpouring of God’s wrath.  While the words were still in his mouth”…  Immediately” is the way God’s actions are described in Daniel.  Likewise in Acts chapter 12--“Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him [Herod] down, because he did not give God the glory…”   Throughout Scripture, God is portrayed as enduringly patient, long suffering and giving people multiple opportunities to turn from their sin. Not here.  Here, his judgment is instantaneous.  His jealousy is roused instantly to a white-hot level of intensity and immediately his judgment is poured out.  Isaiah 42:8 says, “8 I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.  When someone tries to steal God’s glory, the Bible teaches that judgment occurs not only in the next life, but in this one as well.  I have wondered this week if this hasn’t happened in our own time.  Some of you are old enough to remember the summer of 1966 when John Lennon said, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that: I'm right, and I will be proved right. We're [the Beatles] more popular than Jesus Christ now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity.” No one can say authoritatively, but one wonders whether this blasphemous claim of supremacy over Christ and a couple of his songs which openly attack God, were the reason why Lennon suffered such a violent and early death.

The first truth this account of Herod shows us is that God is an impassioned, jealous God.

A second and related truth about God is in the final verses of Acts 12.  That is:  He is an avenging God.  As we have seen so many times, Luke communicates his message not only through the choice of his words, but the way he arranges his material. It is no coincidence that Luke places Herod’s execution of James and God’s judgment on Herod back to back.  There were many other things that doubtless happened in between these two events, but Luke places them back to back to show, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that Herod’s murder of James did not go unanswered by God.  Ultimately, no sin ever goes unanswered by God, but in this case of the first apostolic martyr, God reveals something about his character.  Luke wants us to see that James’ execution may have won some Jewish friends for Herod, but it also brought God’s judgment.

This world can be a very rough and unfair place to live.  People will steal you blind; they will steal your identity, pilfer your bank accounts and ruin your good name.  They will manipulate you to serve their selfish and evil ways. They will cheat you out of a promotion by spreading bad reports of you.  They will mistreat you in business deals.  They will physically injure you, abuse your kids, and unjustly attack you in 1000 ways.  When the people of this world mistreat or abuse us in some way, the fact that our God avenges his people is crucial in dictating our response to those people.  Paul says in Romans 12:17, “17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.

We have to be careful here.  This is not a license to take delight in the notion, “God’s really gonna get you!”  It simply means that believers can be freed from their feelings of anger and bitterness against those who have hurt them by remembering that the injustices we suffer in this life are not the final word on the matter.  God is just and that means that no one gets away with anything.  There will be punishment for every sin and because God is our loving Father, he will punish sins against his children with special intensity.   If we really understood this truth, we would over time feel great pity for those who have injured followers of Christ.  God is an avenging God and he avenges Herod’s murder of James in a very grisly way.  If you offered me 100 ways to die and I could choose one, I would put being eaten by worms near the bottom of my list.  Being consumed from the inside by parasitic worms would be tortuous to experience not only physically, but psychologically.  Think of how demeaning it must have been for a king to be reduced to worm food.  Yet, this is how God avenges James’ death in this world.

A third and final truth this account teaches us about God is—He is a sovereign God.  We see this in verse 24-25 where Luke tells us immediately after relating the death of Herod, “24 But the word of God increased and multiplied. 25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.”  The martyrdom of James and the imprisonment of Peter did nothing to hurt the church.  The words “increased and multiplied” communicate rapid growth.  In the face of Herod’s attack against God’s apostles, many converts are added to the church.  This is one of many historical examples proving a statement made by Tertullian about 150 years after this incident.  He wrote to the Roman governor of his province who was persecuting believers, “kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust…. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”[2]  That is—the church often flourishes in soil that has been watered with the blood of martyrs.  In response to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus says to him in Matthew 16:18, “18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Nothing can stop Christ from building his church—it cannot die or be destroyed.

God’s sovereign power is put on display in that, while Herod is acting as a pawn of Satan to strike at one of the leaders of the church, the church just keeps growing.  God is bigger than the Herod’s of this world.  He is bigger than the Kim Jung Ill’s of this world—He’s bigger than the Paul Pots, the Ahmadinejad’s, the Stalin’s, the Hitler’s, the Mao’s, the bin Laden’s.  Islam cannot stop Jesus; Hinduism can’t stop him, not Buddhism or any other false religion.  Corrupt governments and their leaders can’t stop him.  No plot, no plan, no strategy, no person, no movement or system can stop him from building his church because he sovereignly controls all of them.  There will continue to be Herod’s ruling in this world until Jesus comes back, but we know that whoever or whatever comes along, Christ will build his church in spite of and at times, because of what they do to try to stop him.  He is sovereign.

As we close, let me give two points of application.  First, we must factor God’s impassioned jealousy into our walk with him.  For the follower of Christ, the point of application of this story is not—don’t ever claim to be god or have god-like qualities.  That’s self evident.  The point for us is—live for the glory of God and not your own glory.  When we live for our own glory—for the praise and admiration of others—instead of for God’s glory as we were created to do, then we too offend God’s jealousy by trying to steal his glory.  This is a hideous sin and it is woven deeply into the core of our fallenness because when Adam and Eve fell, it was because they wanted to be like God.  They wanted to loose the bonds of their creatureliness and ascend to God’s throne.  We will fight that fallen tendency to steal God’s glory until we die.  Some of God’s most revered Biblical leaders were guilty of this.  We see it in Moses when he, independent of God’s direction, struck the rock for water and then presumed to speak for God, “shall we [that is, God and me] bring water for you out of this rock?”  Using God’s power and attaching him to his own completely independent action did not uphold God’s unique holiness.  This was far too close to saying, “God and I are running the show around here and here’s what I have decided for him.” That was an offense against God’s unique glory.  We see this glory stealing in King David when he numbered the soldiers in his army.  That implied that the strength of Israel was due to the army he commanded and not God.  That’s stepping on the glory that belongs uniquely to God.  We see it in Samson when he takes the physical strength God had given him for his glory and instead uses it to satisfy his own, selfish desires.

We are guilty of it each time we use the talents or resources God has given us for his glory and use them to make much of ourselves instead of God.  God gives us the ability to make money—certain people have that gift.  When those people use that gift to make money to impress others with their possessions instead of magnifying God in its use, they are encroaching on God’s glory.  Perhaps God has made us really good at something—professionally, physically or intellectually.  God gave us those talents so that his glory might be magnified in us.  Instead, we use them to draw attention to ourselves—to feed our egos.  That is taking what God intends to be used for his glory and prostituting it to call attention to ourselves. We must fight by the Spirit of God against this fallen impulse in several ways.  First, by remembering that when we do this, we are doing something that strikes at the very heart of God and which can provoke his jealousy for his glory.  We must see the seriousness of this sin and tremble. 

Second, we war against it by reminding ourselves that we have nothing apart from God and can do nothing without him.  In 1 Corinthians 4: 7 Paul says, “7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” We war against this sin by crucifying our desire to boast whether openly or with great subtlety.  We must, by God’s grace crucify--kill those impulses when we feel them rising within our sinful flesh.  We do that by reminding ourselves truths like Isaiah 42:8.  8 I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.”

 A final way we war against this is by thinking long and hard on the gospel. In the gospel, more than anywhere else, we see ourselves for what we are—helpless sinners who, unless God rescues us—will be lost for all eternity.  When he does rescue us—it is not due to anything in ourselves or in any way for our glory.  In fact, we must admit with Paul that God intentionally chooses the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  It’s in the gospel that we see most clearly that God alone deserves all the glory and to try to take it for ourselves is the height of presumption.  C.J. Mahaney in his book, “Humility” writes, “When we stand next to the cross, there is no room for pride. To look at what Jesus did for us on the cross, taking upon the sin of the entire world, we can be nothing but humble.  The cross puts God in his rightful place as the Savior and Lord of the universe and it puts us in the right place compared to him—that is—as creatures completely dependent upon his mercy and grace and—who, apart from his grace would be deserving subjects of his eternal wrath.

Second, when we are wronged, trust in God’s just judgment to make it right. Some people spend years poisoned by bitterness over a wrong committed against them.  They know they can never regain what the perpetrator has been taken from them and there is nothing that they can do to him/her that will not injure himself.  They can’t get even, so they get bitter.  We must remember that all sin will be punished and that is intensely true for sins people commit against God’s children.  The penalty for all sin will either be born by the guilty party in eternal torment, or by Jesus who took the punishment for their sin on the cross and who forgives all those who trust in him.  If you are bitter or angry at someone who has hurt you, remember that God avenged James and he will do no less for you.  Leave that to him---trust him with that—release your anger to God--he will repay.  May God give us the grace to live before our jealous, avenging and sovereign God in ways that bring him all the glory.

[1] Bock, ECNT, Acts, p. 431.

[2] http://www.persecution.net/download/seed.pdf


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