“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 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. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread” (Acts 12:1–3).
Not much is told to us of the ministry of James the brother of John. Part of Jesus’ inner circle of three, James isn’t spoken of much in the book of Acts. Luke’s mission in writing Acts wasn’t to recount the ministry of every apostle, but primarily the ministry of Peter and then Paul, for they were major players in advancing the gospel to the Gentile world.
A major detail we do get from James’ life, however, is of his death.
Herod, keeping his family tradition alive, killed James during a time of sweeping persecution against the church. It seems James was to drink of Jesus’ cup and be baptized with Jesus’ baptism, just as he’d asked for a decade earlier. It is the placement of James’ death in Acts that is notable to me today, though. Immediately following the single verse about it in Acts 12, Luke goes on to describe, in detail, God’s angelic deliverance of Peter from prison. Herod, it seems, wanted to kill Peter too. But God saved Peter. He lived.
So James died, but Peter lived. One apostle dead, the first to die, while another survived. One apostle crushed like incense, another with additional life given.
Some suggest the only difference between the two were the prayers of the church. Perhaps the church failed to pray for James, believing the apostles immune to death. The apostles had, after all, already been miraculously delivered from prison. Perhaps they thought God would always set all apostles free. Not so, after all. Maybe James’ death kicked the church into prayer mode once Peter was arrested. Maybe they realized they had to cover even Apostles in prayer.
Maybe this happened, but I doubt it is the reason God allowed Peter to live while James died. I doubt anyone knows the reason for that, except the Lord. He alone knows His mysterious purposes.
I think Peter would say the same. Do you remember the conversation He and Jesus had on the shores of Galilee after Christ’s resurrection? Jesus had just restored him to his post - Peter would feed the sheep and tend the lambs of Christ - when Jesus announced to Peter the kind of death he would experience in his old age. Peter then asked about John. Essentially, Jesus told him it was none of his business how John would die. What was that to Peter? He had his own race to run (see John 21:15-19).
So I think Peter would tell us it doesn’t matter why James died and he lived. Each man had a course to run. There is no point in comparing them. God’s judgments, as Paul wrote, are unsearchable. His ways are past finding out (Romans 11:33).
James’ race was done; Peter’s was not. And only God could see the total length and contour of their courses.
Let us run the race Christ has for us. Comparison is an easy game but a fool’s game. We have a testimony to finish, and we will not die before our time (Revelation 11:7). Both James and Peter lived beautiful lives before God for God. Let the same be said of us.