We tend to associate suffering with punishment or a curse but Acts chapter 5 presents a bold idea: that suffering is somehow a higher calling.
Acts chapter 5 details an early persecution where the disciples are thrown into prison. This appears to be the first recorded incident in the entire Bible of the jailing of the disciples—something that would later become a frequent experience. As the story goes, the disciples left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer” (Acts 5:41).
Worthy to Suffer
This phase in Acts begs the question: so what does it mean to be “counted worthy to suffer”? Is the text literally suggesting that the more worthy you are, the more likely it is that God will have you suffer?
These are tough questions but fortunately there is a lot of material across multiple related New Testament narratives that can help us get closer to some understanding.
Suffering of the Disciples in Acts
The books of Acts details the suffering of the disciples at a number of time points. One of the most striking sections is Acts chapter 12, which details the execution of James and the arrest and deliverance of Peter.
With regards to suffering, Acts 12 raises some interesting questions, namely: why did James die while Peter was saved?
There’s a lot to explore here, but first, the passage:
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. (Acts 12:1-4)
There are some key details here to begin with.
First of all, it’s important to note that James’ death is a milestone as it’s the first fatality from persecution among one of the original disciples.
Second, the events here seem to be a rapid escalation from the early days of Acts; suffering now becomes very real for the disciples, there will not always be escapes and “success” stories.
And lastly, note from the text that Peter is arrested during “the days of Unleavened Bread” and the Passover. Let me explain what’s happening here: Peter is arrested just after James is killed, but his arrest happens during a Jewish festival period, so he cannot be put to death until after the holy days are past. Peter spends these days waiting in prison, no doubt thinking frequently about death as the festival winds down. Death as a possible reality was now very real to Peter for he had just seen James die and now knew that God was not intending to spare his disciples from such a fate. Peter, furthermore, is in prison over not just any holiday, but during Passover, the very time of year when Jesus himself was executed.
The Backstory – James and Jesus
Now before we continue on with trying to understand what happens in Acts 12 it’s important to note that there’s a relevant history for both James and Peter to consider.
Much earlier, prior to the crucifixion, James approached Jesus with a naïve and selfish question—asking for an elevated position of power in Jesus’ kingdom (Mark 10:35-38). Here is the exchange:
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
As commentators have noted, James asks for a preeminent position and for status in the kingdom of God and he indeed receives those things—he is the first to follow Jesus in martyrdom. James would come to see that a position of great glory is marked by suffering and death rather than fame, wealth, power, or whatever James initially assumed.
Peter and Jesus
James, of course, is not the only one to have a discussion with Jesus about position, power, and suffering. John 21:15-23 records the story of Peter conversing with Jesus and John about the future.
The story takes place after the resurrection, when Jesus spends time teaching and providing final instructions to his disciples. In John 21:18-19, Jesus alludes to Peter’s death:
18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Although there’s some confusing elements to this passage, the author makes it clear that when Jesus says “Follow me” to Peter, he’s asking Peter to follow him in death.
Peter apparently is caught off guard and instinctively recoils at this idea. Peter looks over to John and attempts to redirect attention by asking what will happen to John.
21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
Jesus’ response to Peter is simple: don’t worry about other people, you must follow me. It’s a still relevant reminder—we can’t let our comparisons of who is suffering and who is not get in the way of us following Jesus.
Peter in Prison
In Acts chapter 12, these early stories about James and Peter now take on immense relevance. James wanted the position of highest honor and he was given it—being the first to suffer and die by martyrdom among the disciples. And given what had just happened to James, along with Jesus’ very clear words to Peter to “Follow him” in death, Peter would have absolutely been expecting to be executed.
Peter’s death, however, was not to occur at this juncture. An angel would appear, freeing him from prison. Of note, I do find it interesting that when the angel comes, Peter is sound asleep and the angel has to strike him to wake him up. Is it possible that Peter was fully at peace in jail—in spite of knowing he would be executed soon like James—having finally accepted the way of suffering that Jesus taught?
The Meaning of Glory
So, now with a little more context from Acts and the Gospels, what can we say about this episode where the disciples rejoice for “being counted worthy to suffer”? What does it mean to be “worthy to suffer”?
It’s hard to know exactly, but I have found clarity in exploring the word “worthy” and the notion of worth. The Greek word “kataxioó,” which is behind the English translation of “counted as worthy,” connotes a sense of weight. After all, that which is tangible reality, that which has substance and mass, is more precious than the ephemeral.
And so, relatedly, this concept of worth and weight, bring to mind the most commonly used word for glory in the Bible—“kavod.” Kavod is a Hebrew word also meaning something which has weight.
I’ve always wondered what it means for “God to be glorified” (oft-used Christian parlance seems to be particularly difficult to define) but meditating on “kavod” makes it clearer. God is glorified when he develops “weight” in our lives and those of others, when He moves from being ephemeral and intangible to having substance, mass, and real presence. And how do we make God real? How does the world know that God is truly present? Many times it’s only through suffering and our response to that suffering. Suffering reveals God’s weight in our lives, his kavod.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of suffering as a positive thing. After all, there is so much that is evil and undesirable about suffering in this world. But this idea of weight, worth, and glory helps to make a little more sense of it. When we suffer we get to participate in making God real on the Earth. That is what the disciples ultimately rejoiced in, and that is what we have the opportunity to do also.