I was reading the Book of Acts recently and as I read the twelfth chapter, I was struck by one of those big "Why?" questions that Christians so often face. "Lord, why do you allow some to die, and others to live?"
Here's how the story of Acts unfolds: At the beginning of the book, Jesus tells the disciples to gather in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit arrives right on time and sparks a wave of empowered evangelism in the city, causing thousands to convert to the faith. However, as the commotion grows in Jerusalem, the Temple priests begin to crack down on these new Christians, until eventually there's a wave of persecution, beginning with the stoning of Stephen, that causes the believers to flee out of the city and into the surrounding regions. As they spread outwards, they continue to spread the gospel in all directions. Philip makes sure it will go south and reach Africa while others are taking it north towards Asia Minor. Paul meanwhile is being readied to take it still further to the Gentiles in Europe.
As you read the account of these early years for the church, there's an overriding sense of excitement that radiates from the pages. There are tales of candlelit prayer meetings and reports of breakthroughs in various towns. Azotus. Caesarea. Lydda. Joppa. One can imagine the Christian messengers hurriedly rushing through the night from one place to the next to breathlessly inform the apostles of some great need or miracle. The church undoubtedly have many challenges to face and risk persecution at every turn, but they're driven by a sense of purpose to fill the world with Jesus' glory. There's much to be done and all must play a part.
In the middle of this excitement, we turn over to Chapter 12 and there's an abrupt and sobering interjection: "About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James killed with a sword." (Acts 12:2)
It's a very matter-of-fact statement and the Bible doesn't elaborate any further, but putting myself in the shoes of the believers hearing this news, I imagine I'd have had a lot of questions. "Lord, you gave us this great commission and we're just getting started here. Why did you allow James to be killed so quickly? There's so much to be done at the moment, all these regions still to go to. We could have used James, he still had so much more to give. He was one of the original 12 disciples, he was privy to direct conversations with you when you were here on earth. Think of the insights and wisdom he could have continued bringing to our work. Surely it would be better to keep all your original disciples alive as long as possible! And he was still so young too. It's 44AD - James was only in the middle of life. He still had energy to give. This makes no sense!"
What makes it even more perplexing is what happens immediately afterwards. The Bible says, "When Herod saw how much [killing James] pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. (This took place during the Passover celebration). He imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover." (Acts 12:3-4)
Killing James had gone down so well with the people that Herod decided to immediately do the same with Peter. However, this time there's a completely different outcome. God sends an angel to break Peter out of jail. The Bible reports that after Peter's chains had fallen off, he and the angel "...passed the first and second guard posts, came to the iron gate leading to the city, and this opened all by itself. So they passed through and started walking down the street, and then the angel suddenly left him." (Acts 12:10) Peter then goes to a nearby meeting house and much to the astonishment of those present, is allowed to continue with his kingdom work for many more years.
And that's the puzzling thing. James was killed, but Peter was spared. Why? God clearly could have spared James in the exact same way, but he didn't. Peter lived, James died.
As I read the chapter and wondered why God would do this, I was reminded that I'd had the exact same thoughts a few years ago when my dad died, aged 67. At that time, we had all asked, "Why did you allow him to die this early, Lord? 67 is no age at all these days. Others his age will live for 10-20 more years. Think of the accumulated insights and wisdom he could have brought to the church in his latter years. There's more he could have given. This makes no sense!" I guess in this context we were asking, "Why was he a James and not a Peter?"
Of course, underpinning these questions is the idea that it's better to be a Peter. That James was hard-done-by. That it's better to live as long as possible on earth. That this life is something to be clung to at all costs because once we lose it, we lose everything. But what if all that is simply not true? What if that's a flawed premise based on a limited perspective?
Jesus spent a lot of time in his ministry trying to get us to change our perspective on death and encouraging us to see it from a heavenly viewpoint. He told us that through him, he was going to fundamentally change what death was: "Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Those who live in me and believe in me will never, ever die." (John 11:25-26) In short, death was to become an illusion. Though we would still leave this world behind, we would merely continue living elsewhere.
Where would we then live? Jesus said, "I am going to prepare a place for you. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am." (John 14:2-3) The Bible continues to explain that this world is a comparative wilderness to that one. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) The Bible says that there, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Revelation 21:4) Here is a place of pain, disease, war, suffering, trials and disappointment. Ahead is our promised land. Our prize. Our finish line. With this in mind, we have no reason to want to cling to this life anymore. In fact Jesus said, "...whoever would cling to his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25) We don't lose something when we give up our lives here anymore...we gain.
We're sojourners then. That's what we are. "Temporary residents and foreigners", Peter calls us. Jesus has invoked within us excitement for our true home, and by the light of it, this earthly life starts to grow dim. Paul grasped this excitement and wrote about his desperation to get there: "I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live." (Philippians 1:23-24) Later he writes, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Philippians 1:21) And again he writes, "I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us." (Philippians 3:14)
Few of us think of death like that. Few of us "long to go", think of dying "as gain", and press on to "finish our race". Few of us really maintain that heavenly perspective on life that Jesus said we should have. We're still often clinging onto this life as much as we can. I guess perhaps doubt creeps in. Perhaps we don't really believe Jesus and if we had more faith we'd be more eager. Perhaps we just feel like we've got too much left to do here. I think that would still be my first instinct. If the Lord told me he was coming to get me today, I would think, "Lord, why are you taking me so soon? I could do so much more. I'm just getting started. The Fuel Project is bearing good fruit and I'm still young. I still don't want to be a James, I want to be a Peter."
But this is where we need to bow the knee before God in all humility and understand that he knows what he's doing. The church grew just fine without James - in fact it grew like wildfire. And if God didn't need James to advance his kingdom, things will be just fine without us too. God is sovereign. His plans will prevail. We're privileged if he uses us in some way for his kingdom, but when our time is up, he will raise up others. And what's more, the sooner we finish our race, the sooner we'll be home to claim our reward. From heaven's perspective, the difference between James and Peter isn't nearly so pronounced.
The reason I'm writing all this today is because of Nabeel Qureshi's latest vlog. For those of you who aren't aware, Nabeel is an ex-Muslim who became a Christian apologist, working for Ravi Zacharias Ministries. He's written books, spoken in important public spaces, and done some really good work in educating the world about the true nature of Islam. A few months ago he was diagnosed with cancer and just last week, he released this vlog saying the doctors have given up treatment and are switching him to palliative care.
As I watch this video I find Nabeel's dignity, courage and continued faithfulness in these difficult times extremely moving and inspiring. Watching him talk in the knowledge that death may be only a matter of days away is heartbreaking from an earthly perspective, and honestly my first instinct again is to ask God the same old questions: "Lord, why? Why take Nabeel so young? He's just 34 years old. There is so much more he could do for God's kingdom if he were allowed to live. It's a time of such challenges, especially from the Islamic world. We could use him and his wisdom. Think of all the Muslims he could reach. Think of what he could give to his family. Why would you let him be a James and not a Peter?" It's still not easy to accept from a limited human perspective. But as this situation has gone round my mind over the past few days, I've found God reminding me of the same old truths.
Nabeel isn't dying at all: "Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Those who live in me and believe in me will never, ever die." (John 11:25-26) Nabeel's going home: "I am going to prepare a place for you. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am." (John 14:2-3) That home is going to be wonderful: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) It's a place where he'll be free of pain. Where Jesus "...will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Revelation 21:4) Nabeel is going to claim his heavenly reward.
Today then, I pray along with Nabeel that God might spare him for a while longer, only for his family's sake and for ours, so that he can continue helping the church in these difficult times. But I also pray that if it's God's sovereign will that he should he go now, we can celebrate a faithful life well-lived in the knowledge that he has not ceased to be; he's just gone home. I further pray that should Nabeel be taken, God in His sovereignty will raise up more like him who will continue his work. And lastly, I pray that we can all live with a more persistently heavenly perspective on this life, not clinging to it, but holding to it lightly, living by faith and the knowledge that 'to live is Christ, and to die is gain.'