In Acts 12:1ff we have the account of an outbreak of persecution instigated by ‘King Herod’ (v1, Herod Antipas). Several believers are arrested and James, the brother of John, is executed (v2). Herod ‘proceeded to seize Peter also’ (v3), no doubt planning his death too. Events turned out very differently when ‘an angel of the Lord’ released Peter in a miraculous intervention of the Lord. James was executed – Peter was released: the difference raises the kind of questions we often ask about God’s dealings with his people, especially the differences we see between them. Consider Acts 12:1-10 God’s mysterious providence.
1. Our conviction
We must begin with a fundamental conviction that God is sovereign over all things in his creation. Only in that context can we speak of ‘providence’. The sovereignty of God is taught throughout Scripture: ‘God is King of all the earth’ (Psalm47:7-9). His rule extends even to the birds (Matthew 10:29). The supreme example of the sovereign working of God is the death of Christ (Acts 4:28). We need a robust – biblical – doctrine of providence. However we explain God’s actions (if we can), we cannot compromise his sovereignty.
2. Our ignorance
The providence of God quickly brings us to realise our profound ignorance of God’s ways. Why did James die and Peter live? It cannot be that one was more godly and deserved life – both were imperfect sinners. We must conclude that God still had work for Peter to do. Regarding the providential working of God in the lives of his people, most aspects are unknown and unknowable. We may discern some aspects of God’s purpose in events, though at times our guesses are entirely inaccurate, but in general we remain ignorant. He acts ‘as far as it shall serve for God’s glory and their own good’ (Shorter Catechism Q66).
3. Our submission
The attitude of believers must be willing submission, not making foolish comparisons between his people, otherwise we will fall into discontent, even anger and bitterness. With Abraham we can say, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25). We know he will always do right, and so we rest content, since ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6). We must beware of questioning the wisdom, power or love of the Lord, or referring only to pleasant outcomes as ‘God’s good providence’. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we cultivate a spirit of happy submission.
4. Our confidence
We can be confident of one thing: the Lord’s eternal purpose will be fulfilled in every detail. This is because of his sovereignty, as Nebuchadnezzar was brought to realise (Daniel 4:35). God’s providence accomplishes all that he wills. All glory is to be ascribed to God for his works of providence, which includes our salvation (Revelation 5:13). We can thus be at peace when we do not understand the details of his working for us or others.