Execution, Escape, and Eaten by Worms

How the Word of God Grew

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John Piper

This chapter is about God and Herod. This Herod is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born and ordered the infants killed in Bethlehem. He was brought up in Rome and made king in Judea and surrounding territories by Gaius the emperor.

If You Oppose Jesus, You Lose

The chapter begins with Herod killing James the apostle of the Lord Jesus (v. 2), and ends with the angel of the Lord killing Herod (v. 23). The main point of the chapter is plain: if you oppose Jesus, you lose. Luke put this chapter together to make this plain for the early church: you may feel small and insignificant in the Roman empire; you may think that you are overpowered when some of your best leaders are killed on a political whim. But the truth is: if you stay with Jesus, you win, and if you oppose him, you lose. So be encouraged. Be bold and courageous to spread the Word of truth and leave the outcome to God.

That’s the main point. The way Luke makes this point is to show how Herod’s two deep desires are at work, and God’s opposition to both these desires because they were treason against the King of kings.

Herod’s Two Deep Desires

The first desire Herod had was self-exaltation and the second was Christian limitation. The first was the deepest desire and the second was only a means to that end owing to the political climate in Jerusalem.

Self-Exaltation and Seeking the Praise of Men 

We see this first in verses 2–3, “He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” In other words, what drove him was his desire to be popular as a powerful ruler. “When he saw that it pleased the Jews . . . ” He loved the praise of men, especially praise for power.

This desire for self-exaltation led him to oppose Christianity. We don’t know why he had arrested and killed James in the first place, but we can easily imagine that a man like this would take offense at the sons of thunder, James and John, just like Herod Antipas (the tetrarch, Luke 3:119) took offense at John the Baptist and had him killed to please others.

The message of Jesus is always going to stick in the craw of people devoted to the praise of men. In John 5:44 Jesus said to the glory-seeking Pharisees, “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” In other words, you can’t believe in Jesus and be devoted to glory-seeking among men. Faith is God-exalting. Glory-seeking is self-exalting. They can’t go together. If you are seeking the praise of men, you are on a collision course with God.

Being Seen as Powerful 

That’s exactly what Herod was seeking and that’s just what happened. This is crystal clear in verses 20–23. Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities in Syria, depended on Herod’s breadbasket in Galilee, just like California depends on Iowa. But Herod was angry at these cities and their food supply was in jeopardy. So they come seeking somehow to please Herod. Which is exactly what he likes to be—pleased.

But in a very special way. He likes to be pleased by having himself exalted as powerful. If that takes killing Christian apostles, then he will do that. If it takes giving public speeches with regal pomp and glory, then he will do that. That’s what he does in verse 21. “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and made an oration to them.” In other words he made every effort to let these folks from Tyre and Sidon see that he was really somebody. They were not just coming to beg from a tenant farmer. He held sway over their food supply more like God than like a farmer.

This is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught in Luke 22:25–26, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors [that’s exactly what Herod was exalting about himself—”You are dependent on me!”]. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” So Herod was in direct violation of Jesus’ call for humility.

Arraying Himself with God-like Pomp

And he plays it out to the end so that the treason that it is against God can really be seen. Verse 22: “And the people shouted, ‘The voice of a god, and not of man!'” God lets Herod’s pride and self-centeredness and self-exaltation go all the way to the end so that we can see where all our pride is going and why we should crucify it as soon as we see it rear its ugly head.

So Herod’s two desires become very plain in the story Luke tells us. He wants to be exalted and popular for his power. And to that end he will oppose Christianity and kill its leaders and he will array himself with god-like pomp.

God’s Opposition to Herod 

So much for Herod’s desires. I said the chapter was about God and Herod. And God is the main player in this drama. So let’s look at the way God puts Herod in his place. What I mean by “put him in his place” is this: Jesus said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:1118:14). Herod’s place is to be put down for the treason of his self-exaltation in the place of God-exaltation.

There are three ways that God turns Herod’s desires into futility.

1. Rescuing Peter, Herod’s Prize Prisoner

First, by taking Herod’s prize prisoner right from under his nose and frustrating his desire to get more political boost with Peter’s blood. According to verse 4 Herod intended to bring Peter out for a public execution after the Passover. But verse 5 says the church was praying.

So God sends his angel to show Herod that not even with four squads of soldiers (v. 4) can he keep the one God decides to free. The angel wakes Peter, takes the chains off his hands, leads him past the guards and through the iron gate leading to the city. Verse 11 sums up what is happening: Peter says, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

The Lord rescued Peter from Herod. The Lord showed Herod who was more powerful. The Lord showed Herod and the church and us today that when James was martyred just days before, it was NOT because the Lord couldn’t save him. It was not because he was weak or incompetent. It was because, among other reasons, Jesus had said to James, “The cup that I drink you also will drink” (Mark 10:39). Some bear witness through death, others through life.

God can release and God can sustain and empower in martyrdom. That is the point of releasing Peter and not James. God is in control over this little Herod in both cases. In fact there is an extraordinary power in martyrdom. Paul said in Philippians 1:14, “Most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.” In other words the suffering of Christian martyrs has a powerful spiritual effect on those who live. It puts us face to face with eternity. It shows the reality of faith. It strips away the petty pursuits and the trivial anxieties in our lives. And it fires us with the same zeal.

Tertullian, the Christian defender of the faith who died in 225, said to his enemies, “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is [the] seed [of the church].” (Apololgeticus 50). And Jerome said about 100 years later, “The church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it” (Letter 82).

So it isn’t as though God fumbled the ball with James and scored a touchdown with Peter. God never fumbles the ball. If he turns it over to the other side for a few downs, it’s because he knows a better way to win.

So the first thing God does to put Herod in his place and bring him down from his self-exaltation is to take his prize prisoner right out from under his nose.

2. Taking Herod’s Life

The second thing he does is take Herod’s life. This is recorded in verses 20–23. The angel of the Lord turns up twice in this chapter. The first time to save Peter and the second time to kill Herod. Right in the middle of one of his lavish demonstrations of self-exaltation he crosses the line of God’s patience, and verse 23 describes what happens: “Immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he did not give God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and died.”

The point of this is to make clear to everyone who will listen that God and not Herod is to be honored and glorified. If a man lifts himself up against God, he becomes weaker than a worm. It is insane to commit treason against the Creator of the universe. You can’t win.

Daniel gave the same message about kings. In 2:21 he said, “God changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” And when Nebuchadnezzar boasted, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” a voice came from God and said, “You will eat grass like an ox . . . until you have learned that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he wills” (4:30, 32).

So God put Herod in his place by taking his prize prisoner from under his nose, and then by taking his life.

3. Making the Word of God Grow and Multiply

Finally, God turned the tables entirely on all that Herod was trying to do by killing James and arresting Peter—he made the Word of God grow and multiply. Verse 24: “But the word of God grew and multiplied.” He exalted God not Herod. He made the reputation of Jesus spread, not Herod’s.

This is the goal of all God does—to magnify his wisdom and power and spread the fame of his Son who saves sinners and glorifies his Father.

The lesson for us is plain: if we oppose Jesus we lose. We may feel small and insignificant; we may think that we are overpowered when some of our best leaders are killed on a political whim. But the truth is: if we stay with Jesus, we win, and if we oppose him, we lose. So be encouraged. Don’t be impressed by temporary worldly triumphs over the gospel. Be bold and courageous to spread the Word of God and leave the outcome to God.

What does Acts 12:23 mean? [⇑ See verse text ⇑]

Acts 12:23, KJV: And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.

Herod Agrippa I generally spent his three years in power accommodating and even protecting the Jewish religion and respecting the Jewish God; the Jews respected him for it. The ancient historian Josephus fills in some of the details about this event not mentioned in Acts (Antiquities 19.8.2 343–361). According to Josephus, on the second morning of games Agrippa has inaugurated for Caesar, he addresses the audience wearing clothes made of silver. The sunlight catches the silver, and he glows like the Phoenician sun god. The audience goes mad, saying, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22).

Ordinarily, Agrippa might have denied their praise, but this day he hesitates. Perhaps he’s caught up in the games. Perhaps he wants to display his glory to his antagonists from Tyre and Sidon (see Acts 12:20). Either way, he has made himself somewhat of a religious leader among God’s people, and God will not stand for it. Agrippa is immediately overcome by severe pains in his abdomen and dies. Josephus indicates this involved five days of agony. Adoring Jews suspect poison. Modern researchers have many theories, but nothing concrete (Josephus’ Antiquities 19.8.2 343–361).

Agrippa I had many similarities with his grandfather Herod the Great. He understood Judaism, he was the first to be called king by the Roman emperor since his grandfather, and he died a horrible death. Modern scholars think Herod the Great died of chronic kidney disease exacerbated by maggot-infected gangrene of the genitals. It’s been noticed that Agrippa I, the silver-bedecked king who died with maggots in his gut, is the perfect illustration of a white-washed tomb (Matthew 23:27). His external appearance, and actions, have one appearance, while the reality of what’s inside is awful.

This is in contrast to Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14:8–18. When the people of Lystra declare Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, the two immediately tear their robes and stop the people from sacrificing to them. Paul spends his ministry understanding his place before God. Despite all his credentials as a faithful Jew, Paul considers all his good works “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8). Only Christ matters.

The word for “struck” is the same used in Acts 12:7 when the angel “struck” Peter. The angel struck Peter to wake him and rescue him from prison. Now, the angel strikes Agrippa to afflict and destroy him.

Eaten By Worms: Comparison between Acts 12:23 and Death of the Persecutors 33-35

When asked if I wanted to write an article for this blog about worms, I was hooked. It is one of my favorite parts in my dissertation and I cannot get tired of talking about Galerius and how his groin got eaten by worms from the inside out.

But first things first:

In quite a few ancient sources a bad emperor gets eaten alive by worms and in most of them it is made clear from the beginning that a god or God is punishing some impious tyrant by these means. There is already some work on the topos of worms as a disease naming numerous examples.[i] I want to compare the descriptions by Lactantius and Luke in Acts to see how they differ and why that may be:

In On Death of The Persecutors, Lactantius tells us how the emperor Galerius is afflicted with an illness, first showing itself as an ulcer (ulcus malum). Medical treatment is insufficient and the wound opens up time and again under great loss of blood. He looks for help from pagan Gods and thus worsens his suffering. His lower body is completely destroyed and finally worms emerge to eat him from the inside out. He suffers from immense pain and a swarm of worms pushes out of his body, even more worms still remaining. His whole body dries up, there seems to be no cure. After Galerius decides to worship God his illness stops long enough for him to release his edict against persecuting Christians before he finally meets his end (Lact. Mort.  33-35). Luke also explains in Acts that Herod Agrippa is punished by angels because he denied God and thus dies eaten by worms (Acts 12:23). Lactantius uses several chapters until his antagonist finally dies and Luke attributes one verse to the death of Herod Agrippa. Both tell us the emperor denied God and thus is punished. Lactantius introduces the anecdote about Galerius’s suffering with the words “when God punished him with incurable wound”[ii] and resolves with “nevertheless he did not achieve forgiveness for his deeds from God, but […] was consumed by horrific decay”.[iii] Luke combines all information within this single verse, naming the punisher, the punished and the punishment.

The descriptions differ in various aspects. Lactantius shows his readers how much Galerius suffers in great detail. He includes the worms in a row of illnesses, the first being cancer. The passage of punishment ties to Galerius’s suffering from social lowering through the promotion of Constantine and thus is an addition to recent punishments. Galerius then seems to have the chance to get better by acknowledging God but decides to turn to a pagan god, which are demons.[iv] He then is rotting alive and eaten by worms. It seems his reaction to former punishments is challenging God to end his life in such great misery. Galerius is punished for his deeds against humanity, the state, and his denouncing God – although one might argue, that the first two are a sign for the acts against God.

Luke, on the other hand, shows a different approach. Herod Agrippa is punished by angels, not God himself, but is punished for what he did to God not for what he did to his fellow humans or the angels. I think it would be useful to ask further questions as to why the angels execute the punishment and how this fits within Luke’s broader notion of God throughout his Gospel and Acts. For the time being I want to note that in comparison to Lactantius, the interpretation might be twofold: First, God exists outside of this world and does not interact personally but uses messengers who interact on his behalf. Second, God does not punish himself.

In conclusion, Lactantius makes God a very real part of this world, who decides which punishment is sufficient for a bad emperor and who himself is the force executing said punishment directly or indirectly. Luke describes a God outside of this world, who has no direct connection to what is happening within its boundaries. So their respective notions of God become apparent within the passages and show considerable differences. The cause of punishment is in both cases the delinquent’s renunciation of God. The punishment itself is different especially in its length: Lactantius puts his description of worms at the end of a long period of suffering but does not make them the immediate cause of death. It is rather the tipping point for Galerius’s attitude. Luke ends Herod Agrippa’s story with him being eaten alive. There is no lesson to be learned. Both authors show us that as soon as the punishment via worms is applied, there is no way to escape certain death. It might take longer because there is a repentance to be made like in the case of Galerius but whatever happens after the punishment is set in motion, it does not bring salvation.

After this very short analysis, I wonder how other descriptions of punishment through worms compare and if they might actually contribute to a closer understanding of the notion of God in these sources?