The previous chapter ends with a flash on Agabus which is strongly reminiscent of some “raids” of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., 2 Chr 11:2-4). The “Old Testament” climate continues in this chapter 12, where God shows that he has not ceased to exercise control over political authorities, even if sometimes his choices are not easy to understand.
The chapter seems to interrupt Luke’s “filigree drawing”, because events that are relevant are introduced, but they have little to do with the story of Paul (which is close to Luke’s heart). It can be discerned that Luke considers this chapter as a parenthesis, not only from the substance of the story, but also from the last verse, which seems to take up the discourse interrupted at the end of the previous chapter: at the end of chapter 11, in fact, we find that Barnabas and Paul are going to Jerusalem and there is a return to them at the end of chapter 12, as if the thread of the interrupted discourse was to be resumed for reasons of force majeure. In this chapter 12 we will look at the meaning in itself, then, without looking for an underlying filigree design.
Perhaps the “logical necessity” of this chapter and its meaning should be sought, as usual, in its simplest sense. Describing the political reality of their time from God’s point of view was a typical activity of the prophets, who wrote about it much more than they cared about the future. Indeed, often glimpses on the future served primarily to illuminate their present. Thus the prophets of Israel came to write what happened in their time «upon Israel and upon all the kingdoms of the countries» (1 Chr 29:30). In short, after leading us on the path of birth of the new “uncircumcised synagogue” (that is, the church of Antioch), as a good prophet, Luke also describes the political context in which God places it.
On the relationship between church and politics, we Christians often have confused ideas. Luke explains the matter in a simple and concise way, because those who had the background of the Old Testament understood it easily. In fact, the new relations between a politically non-autonomous people of God and the political authorities follow the old relations: well-described both before the formation of the State of Israel (from Abraham to the Exodus) and when this State falls apart. It is not by chance that the Bible dwells upon Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus (e.g., Isa 44:24 to 45:13; Jer 25:1-14; 27:1-11; Book of Daniel) because that is where it clarifies the new general political situation.
The Bible then speaks little of the relationship between believers/politics, but only because that approach remains valid, as Christ shows in his submission to imperial political authority, which Jeremiah had in his time invited [the Jews] to do (Jer 27:11). When Christ subtly warned Pilate that his power was a power derived from “Someone” who stood above him and to whom he would answer, he behaved very much like Daniel did with Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:24-25).
The Herod mentioned here is Herod Agrippa I, whose grandfather was responsible for the slaughter of the newborns (Mt 2:16). This Agrippa, who began to mistreat the Church, reminds us of pharaoh: as God let pharaoh manifest his wickedness, to then reaffirm His sovereignty (Ex 1-15), so Luke shows us that God let Herod kill the apostle James, but then He set up a barricade to defend the Church, and when the king’s pride went beyond measure, «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» (23).
All clear, then? Yes, it is all clear what God clarifies, but if we want to go beyond it, it all becomes confused.
– It is clear that God allows his people to be persecuted. Less clear is the reason: perhaps to show his power in letting us endure trials, perhaps to show his love to enemies. That God allows the “defeat” of his own is clearly stated by Daniel, Jesus, and Revelation (Dan 7:21; Luke 9:22; Rev 13:7).
– The prevalence of the wicked does not mean that God is distracted or powerless, and He later proves that by judging the persecutors (Dan 7:26-27; Mt 25:31-33; Rev 19:11-15).
– God allows the persecution of his people, but his “strategic plan” goes ahead. Today his “strategic plan” is the spread of the Gospel throughout the world, so God is very irritated when political authorities (like Herod Agrippa) interfere with His purpose. Despite the evil power of the various Herods, Luke reiterates what we have defined as the “chorus”: «The Word of God progressed and spread more and more» (12:24).
– Already during Israel’s stay in Egypt, God had made it clear that he does not ask political authorities for favouritism (he does not need it!), but only that his people be left free to serve him (Exodus 7:16).
– The church in Antioch may appear as an “unexpected novelty”, but God had begun to prepare it already in the time of Solomon. For example, there was the extraordinary conversion of Naaman, head of the enemy army of Syria (2 Kings 5), where Antioch is located! Through Solomon, then, «all the kings of the earth» were shown the wisdom that God had put in his heart (2 Chronicles 9:22).
– Why is James killed and Peter miraculously freed? It does not seem to me that God clarifies it, but it is certain that it is not because James was more of a sinner than Peter, as John the Baptist had not been killed because of some specific sin of his. From Abel on it was clear how, by faith, one can experience both extraordinary victories and endure extraordinary losses (Heb 11:30-40). It is not surprising that victories are more pleasing than the enduring, it is surprising that many Christians think that one can identify with the Risen One by separating him from the Crucified One, as if the apostles had only taught us the pleasant side of belonging to Christ.
The chapter ends with the “detail” that Barnabas and Paul, returning from Jerusalem, took with them Mark (also called John), son of a Mary who had made her house a church (v. 12). A detail that will prove important, because it will be Mark the point of separation between Barnabas and Saul (15:36-40).
Link n. 5
ACTS 12, BETWEEN EXODUS AND REVELATION
Reading Acts 12 we can see a connection with the beginnings and the end of the history of the people of God: it is therefore important to dwell on it.
The theme of political authority that persecutes the people of God, to the point of deluding itself of being stronger than the God of that people, we have already mentioned that it makes one think of the Pharaoh of Egypt described in Exodus 1:8-22 and who will then be judged by the return of Moses (Ex, Ch. 8-14).
Let’s not dwell on the kings of nations enemy to Israel who were defeated in the time of the judges and kings (e.g. Judges 3:9-10; 7:9; 2 Chr 20:22; 32:20-21), so that we can immediately reach that “fourth kingdom” described by Daniel and resembling a terrible beast with four heads and ten horns (Daniel 7:6-7), who «shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High», but then will «be consumed and destroyed to the end. And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High» (Daniel 7:25-27). It is clear that Daniel is performing the function of pointing out to the people of God the seemingly contradictory ways through which the coming of the kingdom of God will occur.
Daniel describes a coming of the Messiah/Christ preceded by a period in which evil seems to prevail; this description of the first coming, Revelation will see it as prophetic of the second coming of the Messiah/Christ, since it will also be preceded by a terrible “beast” with ten horns, «drunk with the blood of the saints»; this beast and his allies will fight the Lamb Jesus, but «the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful» (Rev 17:3-14).
Very significant is to draw the connection between Acts 12 and 1 John 2:18, where it is written: «as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come». The coming of the Antichrist, therefore, is not seen by John as the bursting of something completely new, but the rush to the tip of a dynamic already present («the spirit of the antichrist […] now is in the world already», 1Jn 4:3), in which “little antichrists” emerge, like Herod, who seem to prevail, but who soon are judged by what can be defined as “the little and secret returns of Christ”, who for believers are unequivocal signs of his “great return” in which «every eye will see him» (Rev 1:7).
Even in the diversity of situations and in the advancement of God’s plan, then, the dynamics remain similar, because the character of God does not change.