Withering Grass, Fading Flowers & the Enduring Word of God

Acts 12:20-25   |  Sermon Resources  |  24 May 2020


Acts 12 begins with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing – a bleak state of affairs to say the least. But by the end of the chapter, Peter was free, Herod was dead, and the word of God was triumphing.  In the space between, we learn that appearances can be deceiving.  To the persecuted believers in the early church, Herod must have seemed unbeatable and the situation unchangeable.

In retelling this story, Luke (the author of Acts) had a message of hope for the politically powerless Christians living under Roman rule.  There was an invincible power greater than Herod or even Rome itself.  This is the subversive message of the gospel which confesses Jesus Christ to be Lord of all (c.f. Acts 10:36).  Herod flourished like a flower of the field, but the wind was about to blow over him and he would be remembered no more.  Believers in the early church and indeed in every age will thrive when they rely not on sword of the state but on the sword of the Spirit.  This story illustrates the reason why.


#1 The Predicament of the People

The people of Tyre and Sidon (v.20) found themselves in a difficult spot.  Their country could not produce the food their people needed and so they depended on the king’s country (v.20) for help.  Luke does not provide us with all of the background details, but it seems that some sort of dispute arose, which led Herod to become angry with Tyre and Sidon (v.20), and apparently he subsequently ceased selling them food.

This had the potential to be disastrous for the people of these cities.  If this had happened in our day, it certainly would have been the hot button political issue.  The question on everyone’s mind would have been, what should the governments of Tyre and Sidon do about it?  Look elsewhere for food sources?  Declare war?  Pursue some diplomatic resolution?  You can be sure that there were lots of people with lots of strong opinions as to exactly what should be done.  In the end, the leaders chose to take a diplomatic approach, going through Blastus, the king’s chamberlain (v.20), to gain an audience with Herod in order to plead their case.

While this seems like a reasonable approach, it contrasts strongly with the situation the church in Jerusalem had just faced.  Remember this chapter began with Peter being unjustly arrested and thrown into prison.  Like the people of Tyre and Sidon, Peter was at the mercy of Herod.  But unlike the people of Tyre and Sidon, the church did not pursue a diplomatic solution at all.  What did they do?  While Peter was kept in prison, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church (c.f. Acts 12:5).”  Similar predicaments.  Two very different responses.


#2 The Pride of Herod

The appointed day (v.21) arrived that Herod would meet with the leaders of Tyre and Sidon.  He put on all the outward displays of his power and authority – dressed in his royal robes he sat upon his throne and delivered an oration to the people (v.21).

The Jewish historian Josephus recorded the events of this day and adds some interesting details for us.  For instance, Herod’s royal robes were said to be “made wholly of silver” and this created the effect that when he stepped “into the theater in the early morning,” his garment became “illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it [and it] shone out [in] a surprising manner” (c.f. Antiquities, 19.8.2).  Picture Donald Trump or Joe Biden standing on the steps of the White House wrapped in aluminum foil and you’ll have a good idea of what was going on.

Whether or not the people were deceived or just attempting some excessive form of flattery is not clear, but they began to call out, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (v.22).  All eyes were on Herod to see how he would respond.  Herod was not the first man in the book of Acts to be worshipped as a god.  Just a couple chapters earlier, Luke told the story of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, who fell down at Peter’s feet in worship, but Peter quickly rebuked him and got him back on his feet (c.f. Acts 10:26).  Herod, on the other hand, apparently did nothing.  Whether he reveled in their adoration of him or actively encouraged it is unknown, but at the very least he did nothing to correct the crowd.  Perhaps he had come to believe it was true.


#3 The Power of God

With Herod still arrayed in all his splendor before the adoring crowd, the Lord sent an angel to remind him (and others) that he definitely was not divine.  The scene forms an interesting word play.  Earlier in the chapter, an angel of the Lord came into Peter’s prison cell and “struck” him on the side to wake him up and break him free, and now an angel of the Lord came and struck Herod dead (v.23).  Herod was immediately in agony, and being eaten by worms, he breathed his last (v.23).

Josephus’ account is not at odds with the biblical account.  While he is silent on the presence of an angel (who may have acted invisibly anyway), he recorded that Herod observed “an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings.”  He was said to have suddenly felt “a severe pain” that began “in the most violent manner” and “accordingly he was carried into the palace…[and] when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life” (c.f. Antiquities, 19.8.2).

The reason for Herod’s downfall was not in what the crowd had said, but in how he had responded.  Luke tells us that because he did not give God the glory (v.23), he was killed.  Herod was a glory thief, taking for himself what belonged only to God.  The psalmist says it best:


3Put not your trust in princes,

in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;

on that very day his plans perish.

Psalm 146:3-4


Herod once held Peter’s life in his hands, but in one moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he was brought to nothing.  His plans came to nothing.  His power and his prestige proved only temporary.  But the word of God increased and multiplied (v.24).  The reversal is complete.  As we said, the chapter began with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing, but by the end Peter was free, Herod was dead, and the word of God was triumphing.  Isaiah was right when he declared, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever (c.f. Isaiah 40:8).”

This is a good reminder for us regardless of where we find ourselves today.  Whether we are, in these present moments, suffering terribly from our current pandemic, or somehow flourishing, we are reminded of the shortness of life—that this world really and truly is not our home.  In the midst of the good times, we are reminded that the best is yet to come.  Don’t let your heart rest in the pleasures of this life and so be blinded from the inheritance that is kept in heaven for you.  Likewise, in the midst of the bad times, we are reminded that better days lie ahead—that Jesus has secured for us an eternal home that stands ready to be revealed in the last time.  Put not your hope in the blessings of this world and neither be crushed by its difficulties.  We have a home in glory that outshines the sun, so let us lift our eyes to that place and see the Savior in whose life, death, and resurrection is our ultimate hope.


Discussion Questions

  1. What predicament did the people of Tyre and Sidon find themselves in? How was their situation similar to Peter’s situation in verses 2 to 4?  How did their response differ from the response of the church in verse 5?
  2. What evidence is there in this passage of Herod’s pride?
  3. The people were likely telling Herod exactly what he wanted to hear. Why was this so dangerous for Herod?  How can this be dangerous for us as well?
  4. What lessons do you think the believers in Acts learned from the events of this passage? How does this passage illustrate the truth of Isaiah 40:8?
  5. Why is it important in our current circumstances to seek to have an eternal view of things rather than just an earthly view?

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