The preacher's temptation

One of the pastor's most pressing public temptations

John McVay, Ph.D., is the president of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

I have a sovereignty problem. In the morning, I ponder God's Word, where I see clearly that God is the Lord of all things. I confess His sovereignty and bow the knee, ceding all my domain to Him (as if I really had one!).

As the day unfolds, though, I begin to annex territory. Perhaps just a hamlet here and a house there. I may even lay quiet claim to a county or two. No invasion or revolution, mind you; just quiet, subtle incursions into the sovereign realm of God. Such moves can, of course, lead to something more to storming God's citadel and planting the angry banner of my own rule where only the ensign of the King belongs.

This is what I call "the preacher's temptation."

Sin of omission?

In Acts 12:19-24, Herod (Agrippa I) has a sovereignty problem. 1 It is not that some barbarian tribe is gnawing away at his southern border or that the Romans are threatening to discount his authority. He has the same kind of sovereignty problem you and I have as ministers. Because he bears the title "king" (or, in our case, "pastor," "leader, "elder," "president," "dean," "chair," "father," "mother"), he thinks he really is king.

He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king's country for their food supply.

The hungry citizens of Tyre and Sidon have grown weary of their running feud with Herod. So through the mediation of Herod's chamberlain, Blastus, a conciliation session is arranged. But because they know the kind of man Herod is, they are in a "bow and scrape" mood.

The day arrives and the conciliation session begins: "On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people" (verse 21). Herod's oration his sermon, if you will receives strong praise. The deputation from Tyre and Sidon shouts, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man'" (verse 22). Herod does not dispute the statement, and the divine response is as devastating as it is instantaneous: "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" (verse 23).2

It seems curious that Herod is struck down as the result of a sin of omission, of failing to give praise to God. In fact, one could argue that the judgment comes, not for his own sin, but for the sin of others the people of Tyre and Sidon who offer him blasphemous praise. Herod must have committed many sins of commission. Did he not needlessly kill people? Did he not misuse his power and authority to mistreat his subjects? Even in the account we are looking at, does not the sin of starving or at least threatening to starve the citizens of Tyre and Sidon amount to anything? Why is this sin of omission so egregious the sin of not giving praise to God? From a human perspective, it may seem a victimless crime.

Other examples

It may help to notice that in Acts others have been struck down because of their failure to acknowledge God. Ananias and Sapphira die because they "lied to the Holy Spirit" (5:3), lied not "to men but to God" (5:4), and tested the Spirit of the Lord (5:9). Herod shares a common flaw with these two who also are struck down: Herod paints God out of the picture. His mute response would be appropriate only if there were no God in heaven.

Likewise, the story of Simon the Sorcerer inActs 8:9-25 presages the account of Herod's death. "And all the people, both high and low, gave him [Simon] their attention and exclaimed, 'This man is the divine power known as the Great Power'" (verse 10). Simon himself seems to counter such thinking by being baptized, accepting "the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (verse 12). However, Peter pronounces judgment on Simon ("'May your money perish with you . . . .'" verse 20), when Simon tries to franchise the Holy Spirit, an attempt that shows a continuing hunger for blasphemous praise (cf. verses 20-23).

With the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and that of Simon the Sorcerer, Herod's death illustrates the wrong of failing to give God His due. If one looks at the themes of the book of Acts, it could be strongly argued that Luke, the writer, sees this as no minor sin, but the worst of all.

The contrast

If there are those in Acts who behaved similarly to Herod, there are also those who did differently: the true followers of Christ. In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the Council in response to the healing of the crippled beggar. When released, they go to their fellow Christians and report what happened. A prayer meeting ensues.

"'Sovereign Lord,' they said, 'you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them'" (verse 24). The prayer recounts how Gentiles, kings, rulers, Herod (Antipas), and Pontius Pilate all sought to exercise their own sovereignty in executing Jesus. But behind the human machinations, the Christian community sees the sovereignty of God. In fact, all these only "did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (verse 28). They conclude the prayer by requesting God's intervention as they seek to carry forward the story of Jesus. "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (verse 31).

One more story, likely intended by Luke as a foil to the story of Herod's death, helps us understand and apply the strange narrative. In Lystra, Paul heals a crippled man and the citizens respond by shouting, "The gods have come down to us in human form!'" (Acts 14:11).

Believing they have experienced a theophany (in which gods appear to be human), they dismiss the opportunity to know the Incarnation (in which God did become a human). They identify Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes, "because he was the chief speaker" (verse 12). A worship service complete with sacrifices of bulls is choreographed quickly by the priest of Zeus. It doesn't take much imagination for us to sense the temptation that Paul and Barnabas might have felt: to accept this mistaken belief and these misplaced accolades ... all for the sake of the shortcut spread of the gospel, of course. But they did no such thing.

The parallels with the earlier story of Herod's death are clear. Here, citizens of a city respond blasphemously to mere humans and include praise of the speaker in their false worship. The response of Paul and Barnabas could not be more different from that of Herod. While Herod accepts the blasphemous praise of the citizens of Tyre and Sidon, Paul and Barnabas signal their dismay by tearing their clothes and running into the crowd shouting, "'We too are only men, human like you'" (verse 15).

Resisting the blasphemous worship with every decibel they can muster, they shout the message of God's sovereignty: "'We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them'" (verse 16).

The preacher's temptation

Again, the parallels are clear: Success in mission (and in life) is founded on acknowledging the sovereignty of God. Behind every political force, we see the hand of God. Operating through our own meager efforts at mission inconsequential in themselves we trace the effective actions of God. He is sovereign. What appears, on the human plane, to rep resent failure may be reconfigured by God as stunning success. Our first task is not to be successful. Our first and most important duty is to praise God and acknowledge His sovereignty.

The contrasting results of acknowledging God's reign and ignoring it are made explicit in the conclusion to the story of Herod's death: "But the word of God continued to increase and spread" (Acts 12:24). Herod dies because of ignoring God's sovereignty. The Christian community thrives because they acknowledge it.3

In many churches the minister sits on a throne much like that of Herod. Sovereignty problem and all, he faces the preacher's temptation. His congregation flatters at the church door, "What a sermon, Herod! That was great teaching! That was not a mere human message! That was divine!"What if the minister chooses not to respond, if he instead chooses to annex the territory of the King of kings?

While I do not believe Luke includes Herod's story simply to strike fear into the hearts of Christian ministers, sovereignty problems such as Herod's can be fatal. We preachers who experience applause for our words from week to week have a special need to cede our rule to the Sovereign Lord. Along with those early Christians, we must pray and live those sacred words, "'Sovereign Lord . . .'" (Acts 4:24).

1 All citations are from the New International Version.

2 Josephus provides an alternative account of the event in /ewi/7 Antiquities 19.343-352.

3 Obviously, I do not agree with David John Williams' who dismisses the stoiy of Herod's death as "a kind of footnote to the previous section, adding nothing to the main thvust of the narrative, but giving a point of reference to secular history" (Acts, Good News Commentary [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985], 205J. I would argue, instead, that the story poignantly develops "sovereignty issues," which play a central role in the narrative fabric of Acts.

 

 

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John McVay, Ph.D., is the president of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

July 2003

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