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Luke’s purpose in including this story about the death of Herod Agrippa is not entirely clear, but there are certainly some hints from which we can make a well-informed guess. The framing of the chapter with the death of James at the beginning and the death of Agrippa at the end perhaps indicates that, in the words of John Piper, “if you oppose Jesus, you lose”. In contrast with Peter’s journey from Judea to Caesarea (chapters 9-10), which brought life and the spread of the gospel, Herod’s journey brought only fear and death.
Luke introduces us to the political context of Herod’s furious dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They need to pacify him, as they depend on his grace and economic favor to be able to eat. Having got Herod’s close official on their side, they arrange some kind of festival where they plan to flatter him. Josephus mentions this event in more detail than Luke, in his book Antiquities, written probably forty years after the event and close in time to when Luke was writing Acts. There are a remarkable number of words used only here in the New Testament, which suggests that Luke might have borrowed this story from another writer.
When the Tyreans and Sidonians started to acknowledge Herod – a Jewish king, note – as a god, Josephus says, “He did not rebuke them, nor did he repudiate their impious flattery”. He was immediately struck down by an angel of the Lord, a messenger of judgment, for not giving glory to God. Luke’s description of Agrippa’s death by worms is likely to be symbolic, used in other well-known ancient writings such as Maccabees, Josephus (of another Herod’s death), Lucian, and Eusebius.
Although Herod Agrippa breathed his last, the word of God, in contrast, continued growing and multiplying. The first verb is often used of natural things, such as plants and children (eg Luke 1:80; 12:27); the second verb is used of Abraham’s descendants in the Greek version of the Old Testament (eg Gen 17:2; 22:17). Together they are used in God’s command to the first human pair: “Grow and multiply” (Gen 1:28). The growth and multiplication of the word of God is both natural and a fulfillment of God’s command. In the return of Barnabas and Saul to Antioch we will see how the church continues to grow throughout the world.
What shall we take from this passage as application to our lives? Firstly, that God’s church will continue to grow and flourish no matter how earthly rulers try to suppress his people. For those of us who live in areas where Christians are persecuted, this is an enormous encouragement. Secondly, let us beware that we never become like Herod, seeking power and the praise of people, and taking the glory that belongs to God. It might seem impossible that you or I could ever come to such a tragic end, but power and self-seeking corrupt slowly and secretly from the inside, like worms (or viruses) which seem so small and yet are able to destroy something much larger than themselves.
Prayer: Lord God, please reveal to me the subtle ways that I am being devoured by my own pride and self-seeking. Forgive me for times that I take honor for myself instead of giving glory to you. Thank you that your church grows because of your word and command, and help me to be humble and obedient.