In the past week numerous websites have declared that Christchurch’s recent earthquake was God punishing the city for its sin. But as I explained elsewhere, God’s remedy for sin is not earthquakes, hurricanes or terrorism. God dealt with all our sin at the cross. If God used natural disasters to judge cities, that would be like saying that the cross was an insufficient remedy for sin. Sin is destructive, but it won’t lead to a holy smiting. God is done with sin (1 Pe 4:1). The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him (Is 53:5). The only sin that’ll send you to hell is unbelief in the goodness of God as revealed in Jesus and His work on the cross (Jn 16:8-9).
So if God is no longer in the punishment business, who killed Herod?
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)
If God is really done with sin, how do we explain this? Herod is a good test case for he is the only person in the New Testament who appears to have been struck or punished by God. Before the cross entire cities and nations were wiped out on account of sin. But after the cross, Herod is the only candidate. (If you’re wondering about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 or Elymas the sorcerer, see my note in the comments below.) So who killed Herod? I’m going to present the evidence for and against five suspects, then you can decide for yourself. This is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but I am going to make a serious point at the end.
1. God killed Herod
To prove a crime you need to demonstrate means, motive, and opportunity. God certainly had the means and opportunity to strike Herod but He had no motive. “What about Herod’s sin of pride?” I hear you say with indignation. “He had it coming and deserved to get whacked!” Maybe he did, but God does not treat us as our sins deserve (Ps 103:10). The truth is we all had it coming, yet God gave His Son as the ultimate sin offering for the whole world. Through Christ He has reconciled the world to Himself and is no longer counting our sins against us (2 Cor 5:19). If God was counting Herod’s sin, it would be bad news indeed for it would mean that the cross was not the perfect remedy for sin that the Bible says it is (Heb 10:12).
“What about God’s righteous demands for justice?” These were fully satisfied on the cross. God is no longer obliged to punish sin because He already has (Is 53:5). “But Herod never repented.” God’s grace does not depend on man’s performance. He still wouldn’t punish him. Remember, the Son of Man came to see and save the lost (Lk 19:10). He came to die for unbelievers like Herod. If Herod went to his grave unrepentant, then, yes, there will be eternal consequences. But men are appointed to face judgment after they die, not before (Heb 9:27). In this post we are talking about Herod’s first death, not his second (Rev 21:8).
God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). He had no more reason to strike Herod than He has to strike you. The fact that you’re still breathing despite all you’ve done is testimony to the grace of a good God. You are just one of six billion living witnesses of God’s mercy and grace. The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, including Herod. He doesn’t deserve grace any more than you do, but here we are.
Not only is there no motive, but God’s defense (as if He needed one) is supported by an outstanding character witness: Jesus. To interpret the heart of the Father we only need to look at the Son (Jn 14:9). Jesus met plenty of people who were proud like Herod. Some were so full of themselves that they warranted sober warnings: “Woe to you – how will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Mt 23). Yet every sinner that Jesus confronted walked away with the opportunity to repent. Jesus smote none of them and He died for all of them. Was God judging Herod? Jesus says no (Jn 5:22). Although many are quick to blame God for killing Herod, the facts are He had no motive and Jesus said He didn’t do it. Case dismissed.
2. An angel killed Herod
Luke wrote that an “angel of the Lord” killed Herod. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the phrase “angel of the Lord” sometimes referred to the Lord Himself (Ex 3:2, Jdg 6:22). But there are plenty of places in the New Testament where it simply meant an angel from the Lord (Mt 28:2, Lk 2:9). So one possibility is that an angel struck Herod. This is not to say that it was the Lord’s will for Herod to be struck. But if saints can act independently of God’s will, why can’t angels? Angels aren’t robots.
Have you ever heard of a Christian acting rashly and doing something dumb for Jesus? How about Peter? In a moment of passion Peter tried to remove the head of the high priest’s servant (Jn 18:10). If Peter can swing a sword in a misguided attempt to defend the Lord’s name, why not an angel? I admit it’s hard to imagine, but as far as I can tell there’s nothing in scripture to rule out this possibility.
3. A believer killed Herod
To be correct, Luke wrote that an aggelos or angelos of the Lord struck Herod. A full definition of that word raises the possibility that it could’ve been an angel, a messenger, a pastor or an ordinary Christian. For instance, Luke uses the same word angelos when describing John the Baptist (Lk 7:27), John’s disciples (Lk 7:24), and Jesus’ disciples (Lk 9:52). An angelos is simply a messenger. So now we’re looking for a messenger with a motive. Hmm. Maybe it was Peter – he certainly had motive. Afterall, Herod had tried to kill him so maybe it was self-defense (Acts 12:3). Or maybe Peter got riled when Herod started strutting like a god and he went berserk with a sword again. (This one was rusty, hence the infection that followed.) This led to a huge scandal and so as not to embarrass Peter further, Luke disguised his identity when re-telling the story.
No, I don’t really think Peter did it.
4. The devil killed Herod
I mention the devil simply because Jesus said he’s always a suspect whenever death and destruction are involved (Jn 10:10). Of course if it was the devil, then Luke, the author of Acts, missed the mark by saying it was an angel of the Lord. If Luke was ascribing to God something done by the devil, then he would be making a very Old Testamenty mistake (see Job). In olden times people used to attribute anything supernatural – good or bad – to God. If Satan did something bad, it was because God had allowed it to happen and therefore God was ultimately responsible. If Luke was thinking like this then he was making a huge mistake. But he wouldn’t be alone. To this day there are believers who claim that because God is sovereign everything that happens is His will. Jesus would strongly disagree.
A second way that Luke could’ve misread Herod’s death is by not fully understanding the significance of the cross. He may have been a little confused about what made the new covenant new. Perhaps he thought that God was still smiting people. If so, he wouldn’t be the only New Testament believer who was confused about the covenants. (Ananias, Paul’s healer, still thought you could wash your sins away with water (Acts 22:16)!)
5. Sin killed Herod
I don’t blame the devil for everything that goes wrong in this world. The fact is that sin is probably a far greater killer (Gen 2:17, Rm 6:33). Sin has a single purpose and that is to open the door to death (Rm 5:12). Sin can kill you quick or it can kill you slow but we are naïve if we think of sin as a purposeless thing. Paul warned that if we let sin reign in our “mortal bodies” we will become its slaves and it will lead to death (Rms 6:12-16).
Those of us who have received the gift of righteousness having nothing to fear from either sin or death (1 Co 15:55), but Herod had no such assurance. As a slave to sin he was fair game (Rm 6:16). You might say that sin was crouching at his door desiring him as it did Cain (Gen 4:7). According to Josephus, Herod knew that he was dying on account of the praises of his flatterers. I don’t put a lot of stock in what Josephus says, but his account does accord with Paul’s warnings about sin. Maybe it was Herod’s sin that killed him.
So who killed Herod?
We don’t exactly know and it doesn’t really matter. I didn’t write this to blame Peter, some Rambo-angel or even the devil. I wrote it so people would stop blaming God. My punch-line is this: If God punished Herod by killing him, then Christ’s atoning work on the cross was not perfect and you’re in serious trouble.
But the good news is that He didn’t, it was, and you’re not!
POSTSCRIPT: Check out this recent article on Herod and the Wrath of God.