Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
What’s the significance of being called “Christians”?
In chapter 11, again, we have yet more people being taken aback by Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. The writer is certainly ramming it home with repetition! I think part of the reason for this is to do with identity. It seems to me that Jesus didn’t intend to create a new religion, but to transform what had already been set in motion. That’s clearly what the first disciples thought too, which is why they focused their attention on preaching to the Jews – these are the people already set apart for a special relationship with God. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come to replace the old traditions, but to fulfil them.
The change we begin to see in these early chapters of Acts show that in reality although ‘normal’ Jews were very receptive to the message, the Jewish leaders weren’t, and that meant that transforming Judaism into what God had planned just wasn’t going to work. The Spirit was moving, and the only way to keep up was to move outside the Jews and into the Gentiles. And so we see a new faction appear, a new identity, something distinct from the established Jewish religion, something called “Christianity”. Only by becoming something separate could the news reach all those God wanted to speak to.
Maybe we need to step out and do something new. Sometimes a sticking plaster turns out not to be enough. Sometimes the change won’t happen fast enough in the current climate. Sometimes the old really will hold us back, and a clean break is needed. But if it is, God will instigate it and drive it, not our own impatience.
Why wasn’t Peter put to death immediately?
It seems like one of those rookie errors. It reminds me of the opening scene of Star Wars IV, where the escape pod containing R2-D2 and C3PO gets ignored because it doesn’t contain any life forms – a mistake that, if avoided, would have immediately put a stop to everything that followed. The same seems to happen here in Acts 12; we know Herod has already killed James, so it would seem logical to do away with Peter too. Putting him in prison instead meant that Peter could escape.
Interestingly, this is the same Herod who appeared in Jesus’s own crucifixion account. On that occasion, Pilate deferred to Herod’s authority, but Herod couldn’t find any fault in him so sent him back, and Pilate had him crucified. Here in Acts 12, Herod seems to be stepping up to the plate a bit more, planning on bringing Peter out to the people after the Passover. It seems to me that Herod saw how the problem had escalated after Jesus’s death, and that he needed to take action after all. He wanted to make a public statement, making a spectacle of Peter to stop it spreading any further. No wonder he was cross when Peter escaped!
Why did Peter think it was a vision?
In one sense, I can completely understand this. The events are clearly so unlikely that it must have seemed much more like a dream than reality. That’s what happens in a miracle – logic and normality fly out of the window. On the other hand, I wonder whether God needed Peter to think it was a dream, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone along with it. There are times when we need the wool pulling over our eyes, so that we can actually get on board with what God is doing; it’s only afterwards that we realise what was going on.
Was Herod really eaten by worms?
It reads like it all happened in a matter of moments, in some Hollywood-style CGI-enhanced gory visualisation, where in a matter of seconds he gets eaten up by thousands of ugly looking worms, leaving nothing but a skeleton standing on the podium. Back in the real world, it’s more likely that he got an untreatable case of parasites, and over the course of several weeks he grew weak and died of his affliction. Or maybe that’s me putting too much ‘reality’ onto it.
The point the writer is making is that Herod’s actions don’t go unnoticed by God. As far as the writer is concerned, at least, God sent judgement on Herod, prompted by his boastfulness on stage. If it were me, I’d have done that when he killed James, not waited for his speech. I guess what we learn here is that God’s judgement is not the same as ours, we don’t know the full picture, and we’re not really in a position to tell God he’s wrong; we have to accept that God is just, even if it doesn’t make sense to us.