Christ Covenant Church
11 August 2019
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost / Ordinary Time
Series — Acts: To the Ends of the Earth
Tonight we are going to look at Acts chapter 12 verses 1 – 24. If you have your Bibles, I think it would be helpful to have them opened to Acts chapter 12, although the text is also printed in the worship order for your convenience. As we go through this passage, we’re going to look at the situation presented in the text, the prayers of the church, and God’s response to the church’s prayers. As we look at Acts chapter 12, I also want to consider our own lives in light of the what we see here. This really isn’t going to be a multiple point sermon. Instead, my plan is for us to walk through the story here in Acts 12 and hopefully better understand God’s Word and catch a glimpse of the glory and power of the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ. That’s my goal tonight. Again, if you have your Bibles, we are going to be in Acts chapter 12, verses 1-24.
And now, brothers and sisters – if you are willing and able – please stand and join me in prayer followed by the reading of God’s Word.
Prayer for Illumination
The Word of God from Acts 12:1-24:
Many of you know that I used to be a deputy Sheriff. A few months after I left the Sheriff’s Office to begin seminary, I received a call from a deputy friend of mine one Saturday night. He told me about another deputy who had gotten into trouble and who he thought maybe I should call. I won’t name this man, but he was someone I had been praying about for quite a while before this call. I had worked with him a lot and had known him well even before I was hired on at the Sheriff’s Office. We had talked about Jesus and I had presented the Gospel to him on a number of occasions, but he had always rejected the truth that the blood of Jesus could atone for his sins. He thought he had done too much to be forgiven.
When I got off the phone, I called this man. He didn’t answer and so I left a message. The next morning, Sunday, I asked several of my brothers and sisters and the elders of our church to pray for this man’s salvation and we waited. I still hadn’t heard from him by that Wednesday, which was when our small groups met, and so we asked the Lord to draw this man to Christ and help him in whatever situation he was in.
The next afternoon, the man called me. He had gotten into some serious trouble, could see no way out and had come very, very close hurting himself and others. Instead, at the last minute, he had checked himself into the mental health unit at the Veterans Hospital. I asked if I could visit him and he said I could. I hung up the phone, prayed for this man, and drove out the VA.
Now, I’m going to press pause on my story for a few minutes. Hang on to it. Keep it in the back of your minds and we’ll come back to it. I think we will appreciate the story and its applicability more if we get into Acts 12 first.
So here we go…
God’s Faithfulness and the Prayer of His People
Chapter 12 of Acts, much like my last sermon on Acts chapter 8, takes place during a time of persecution. The “mega-persecution” at the hands of Saul is years in the past, but here in Acts 12 a new persecution begins. This persecution is different in that it comes at the hands of the Roman appointed authorities and has widespread public support.
Acts 12:1 tells us that “Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.” Now this is a different Herod from the other Herods mentioned in the New Testament, although they are all related. The Herod here in Acts chapter 12 is Herod Agrippa I. And the time period here is probably around AD 42 or 43. The exact date really isn’t super important, but I want to remind you that what we’re talking about actually happened. This is actual history.
So, Herod Agrippa “laid violent hands” on some from the church in Jerusalem, around the time of Passover, in the spring of AD 42 or 43. For starters, this meant that he had James the brother of John arrested and then killed. Now, there could have been others who were killed or mistreated by Herod who simply aren’t mentioned by name. The Greek seems to indicate this, but Luke doesn’t give us more detail. Regardless, we know that Herod killed James. He was executed by the sword as Luke tells us. So James was probably beheaded at the command of Herod, just as Herod’s uncle had beheaded John the Baptist.
The James who was beheaded, who was martyred for Christ, was one of the Boanerges… one of the “sons of thunder”… as Jesus called him and his brother John. James was also in the inner circle, so to speak, of the 12 Apostles. If you recall, at particularly significant times throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, He would take James, his brother John, and Peter apart from the rest of the 12. We see examples of this at the Transfiguration,and when Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead,and again in Gethsemaneas Jesus takes these three further into the garden to pray and keep watch with Him before His arrest, mockery of a trial, and crucifixion. So James was one of the Apostles – he was one of the 12 – but he was also one of the inner group of the 12, and I think this is important to remember. James’ death would have been a major blow to the church. In Acts 8, we talked about the “mega-grief” after Stephen’s death. Well, there absolutely would have been “mega-grief” here as well. One of the inner circle of the 12 chosen by Jesus has just been killed by the violent hands of Herod Agrippa I. James’ death is the first martyrdom of an Apostle. As you know it would not be the last.
This new persecution also had widespread public support. We know this because the public’s response to James’ beheading was joy. They were pleased. They weren’t revolted… they weren’t angry at the shedding of innocent blood… they didn’t have a bunch of protests and demand that Herod be held accountable. No, they were pleased. And so, as we read in verses 3 – 4, Herod, who was nothing if not a politician – focused on retaining power and public approval – also seized Peter. As you know, Peter was also part of the inner 3 of the disciples. Herod was targeting the leadership of the church here. He was trying to destroy the church. So, Herod seized Peter, put him in prison, and planned to “bring him out to the people” after the Passover. In other words to execute him publicly as a spectacle for all to see.
A quick word about Peter here – for those of us charged with shepherding God’s people or those who maybe feel called to shepherd. Peter knew that Herod the wolf was coming and that he would not spare the flock. And Peter probably could have fled Jerusalem after James was seized. Or at the very least gone into hiding. But Peter, who the risen Lord Jesus Himself had charged to feed and tend His sheep,saw the wolf coming to attack the flock of Christ and he stood fast. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, Peter was no hired hand who fled from the wolf. He didn’t flee Jerusalem during the “mega-persecution” after Stephen’s death and he didn’t flee now. Instead, Peter stayed to tend the flock of Jesus, even though it would likely cost him his life. The same charge stands for us today by the way. This is a weighty thing to consider. And as a result of his faithfulness to the charge of Jesus Christ, Peter was seized and imprisoned, his death at Herod’s violent hands all but certain.
So how did the church respond? Well, their response was prayer. “Earnest prayer” in fact. The word translated “earnest” here in Greek implies a constancy in the prayers of the church to God. A variation of this same word is used in Luke’s Gospel when he describes Jesus praying “more earnestly”as He was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. As I mentioned earlier, both Peter and James had been with Jesus in Gethsemane. And in Gethsemane, they would have heard Jesus pray to the Father, asking that if possible the cup pass from Him, but if not that the Father’s will be done. We know that Peter, James, and John had been asleep in Gethsemane at times, but our Lord’s prayer is recorded in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke so they would have known Jesus’ petition. They would have heard His prayer that the Father’s will be done above all things, even if the cup of wrath could not pass Him by. And so, Peter and James and John would have told the church about the Lord’s earnest prayers to the Father in Gethsemane.
And so when James was imprisoned the church would have prayed for his deliverance, but more importantly they would have prayed for the will of God to be accomplished on earth as it is in heaven, even if it meant the cup of martyrdom could not pass James by. Their prayers would have been in accord with 10 years of apostolic teaching and based on the example of Jesus Himself in prayer. And when the cup did not pass James by, and when Peter was seized, they again made earnest prayer for him and for his release and for the will of God to be done over and above all else. But they didn’t just give up. They realized that God works through means. He doesn’t just ordain the ends, but also the means, and one of the means which He ordains is prayer. Earnest prayer. So the church made, as Luke tells us, earnest prayer to God for Peter.
The earnestness of their prayers may have had something to do with the impossibility of the situation. I mean it did appear impossible that Peter would be delivered. Verse 6 tells us that what happened next occurred the night before Peter was to be brought out to die. And remember, James hadn’t escaped. And I think this is important for us to consider because, if this is AD 42 or 43, both Peter and James had been serving and teaching the church for approximately 10 years. And, if you recall, Jesus told both James and Peter that they would be martyrs for His sake. In Matthew chapter 20 and Mark chapter 10, Jesus told James and John that they would drink the cup that He himself drinks. And, then after His resurrection in John chapter 21, Jesus told Peter that when he was older someone else would carry him where he did not want to go. So, it seems almost certain that the church would have been familiar with Jesus’ prediction of their deaths. And Jesus’ prophecy about James had just come to pass and now Peter was awaiting the same fate the very next morning. But instead of resigning themselves to what seemed like Peter’s certain death, the church made earnest, constant intercession for him in prayer to God.
Now, while the church was engaged in prayer, Peter was being guarded by four squads of soldiers. These four squads would have been on rotating shifts every three hours so that none of the guards would ever be tired enough to fall asleep on duty. Two of the soldiers would have been inside the cell with Peter, one chained to each arm. The other two would have been outside the door to the cell. And it seems likely that the cell was inside the Fortress Antonia on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There would have been soldiers galore. Not just the ones guarding Peter. Peter was really, really, really well guarded. If you recall, Peter had a history of prison breaks and Herod wanted to make sure he didn’t get away this time. So while the church was making earnest prayer for Peter’s deliverance and for God’s will to be done, Herod was making his own earnest efforts to keep Peter confined. I think Luke probably includes these details to highlight the power of God over the power of man. If you think about it, there is really no way Peter could have escaped. That is… without a miracle.
Interestingly, Peter was asleep in the midst of all of this. In fact, he was sleeping so well that when an angel of the Lord comes, the angel has to “strike” Peter just to wake him up. I think we see here the great peace that Peter had in Christ. He knew that Jesus is Lord over the storm and he was at peace with whatever the Lord had in store for him. Peter also knew that he would eventually die for Christ and he very well may have thought that it would happen the next morning. But his deep sleep between the two soldiers on the eve of his public execution shows us that Peter found his true comfort in Christ. He found his true comfort in the fact that, as the Heidelberg Catechism would put it, “with body and soul, both in life and in death, Peter was not his own, but belonged to his faithful Savior Jesus Christ…” I imagine James also slept peacefully on his last night. What an amazing gift to have peace in Christ in any situation. To know that in life and in death we belong body and soul to Him – our faithful Savior – and that not one hair can fall from our heads apart from the will of the Father who loves us. What a precious truth for all times, and especially in hard times. And secure in this truth, Peter is stirred from a deep sleep by the prodding of an angel of the Lord and to a light shining in the deep darkness.
It’s easy, I think, to take for granted some of the details that Luke gives us about Peter’s encounter with the angel and his rescue. For one, the chains fell off his hands. Think about that for a moment… chains are loud folks. If you’ve been around chains at all, you know they aren’t quiet. Even today, chain handcuffs, and leg irons, and chain waist belts are really loud. And these loud chains fell onto a stone floor, right next to well rested soldiers who had been at work for a maximum of 3 hours, and with other guards right outside the cell, and in a fortress loaded both with soldiers and with other prisoners. This was a loud thing. This is not a small detail. Even had Peter been by himself, which he was not, this should have at the very least woken other prisoners. And, if you have spent any time around jails, you know that misery loves company. If the other prisoners weren’t being freed, they wouldn’t want Peter getting away either. These chains falling off should have sparked a storm of noise with Peter being captured immediately. But it didn’t. All was quiet in the Fortress as an angel of the Lord freed Peter from certain death at the violent hands of Herod.
Another important detail that we mightmiss is what the angel tells Peter. He tells Peter, “Dress yourself.” These words would have been reassuring, because, as you remember, Jesus told Peter that when he would be martyred, someone else would dress him and carry him out. The Greek word (ζώννυμι) translated “dress” here is only used twice in the New Testament. Once when the risen Lord Jesus tells Peter about his future death in John 21:18 and here in Acts 12:8 as an angel sent from the risen and reigning Lord Jesus tells Peter to dress himself. I think the words of the angel are more than just instructions about clothing. They would have been reassuring to Peter that he wasn’t going to die. “You’re going to dress yourself today Peter, not someone else, and you’re going to follow me out of here walking in your own sandals. Today’s not the day. The Lord has more for you.” That would have been reassuring, I think, even in a vision, which was what Peter initially assumed… until the Fortress doors opened up by themselves, Peter and the angel walking out, no one alarmed, stepping out into the cool night of Jerusalem, turning down a nearby street to get out of sight. And then… the angel vanishes. Gone. And Peter is left standing in the street alone. And then he realizes that this is real… the Lord has rescued him by sending an angel! Can you imagine? You go to sleep, secure in Christ, waiting for the events of the morning and at peace. And you have a wonderful dream of deliverance by an angel sent from the throne of the risen Lord Jesus, and then you wake from the dream and suddenly realize that the dream was no dream at all. It was real! This had really happened!
And so Peter does what I think any of us would do. He goes to his brothers and sisters in Christ to tell them. What else could you do? And, interestingly, at the very hour of Peter’s deliverance, late at night… very early in the morning… many… many had gathered and were praying for him. While God’s people were busy lifting their voices to Him in earnest prayer on behalf of Peter, God had been busy granting the very thing His people were praying for. Both things they were praying for actually. Because, like I said, I think that they were praying both for Peter’s release and for God’s glory to be shown as His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And while they were still praying, the very brother whom they were lifting up to our Father knocked on the door of the house where they had gathered. Here was Peter, free and unharmed. A walking testimony to the power of God over the power of man and to the fact that God answers the prayers of His people.
As Luke details Peter’s reception at Mary’s house, I don’t think we necessarily need to see weak faith on the part of the church in Jerusalem. Again, their prayers would have been for more than just Peter’s release. And at this point, a few hours now before he was to be led out to the people, their prayers may well have been that he be sustained as a faithful witness for Christ in death as in life. I’m inclined to agree with Calvin, who writes of their amazement, “we gather by this, that they did not hope or look for Peter’s deliverance, and yet we will not say that they prayed without faith; because they looked for some other success, … that Peter being armed with power from heaven, should be ready, whether it were by life or death, to glorify God, that the flock being terrified with the violent invasion of wolves might not be scattered abroad, that those that were weak might not faint, that the Lord would put away that whirlwind of persecution. But in that the Lord granted them more than they hoped for, he surpassed their desires with his infinite goodness. And now that which was done seemed to them incredible, that they may be the more provoked to praise his power.”
But I doexpect that some doubtedand that some lacked faith. They were after all sinful humans. Saved by grace and new creations in Christ to be certain,but with the weakness of remaining sin. And as you know, prayer is hard and their hearts were weary and it was very late – both in time and with respect to events. And so, Luke here highlights our feebleness, even in very earnest prayer for a very beloved brother. But even more than this, Luke highlights God’s great faithfulness and His goodness and His power to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or think,as the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding with groaning too deep for words according to the will of God.
Luke finishes out this passage by telling us the fate of both Herod and his soldiers. The soldiers were struck down by Herod when Peter couldn’t be found. And Herod, who stands in a long line of those opposed to Jesus Christ and His kingdom, Herod was struck down by an angel of the Lord and eaten alive by worms. God’s servant Peter is “struck” by an angel and delivered from death to life while God’s opponent Herod is “struck” by an angel and delivered from life to death. Peter is delivered from chains and bondage and certain death, while the king who stands opposed to Jesus and His kingdom is destroyed along with his soldiers. There are some echoes of the Exodus here if you look closely. And in stark contrast to God’s enemies who are destroyed, Luke tells us in verse 24, that “the word of God increased and multiplied.” God’s plan to save a people for Himself continued unhindered by the best efforts of His enemies. And the means which God used to accomplish this was the earnest prayer of His people.
I want us to come back now to the story of my friend. Like I said, I had been praying for him. Some within the church had been praying for him. And when I got off the phone, I prayed for him again and then drove out to the VA hospital. When I got there we talked for a long time. And over the course of our conversation, I was able to highlight the promises of God in Jesus Christ and to hold out the hope of the Gospel when there were opportunities. And the Lord provided many opportunities that night. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked my friend to really give some thought to our conversation. To consider the claims of Jesus and what God’s Word says about Him. And to trust in Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the Gospel. And you know, as I stood up to leave, the most amazing thing happened. He looked up from his chair and asked me, “ Hey Rob… Is there any reason why I shouldn’t just trust in Jesus right now? I want to trust in Him now.”
Just as God had answered the prayers of His people in Jerusalem, delivering Peter from chains and certain death at the hands of Herod, so too, on a cold December night outside of Helena Montana, God answered the prayers of His people, delivering my friend from the bondage and certain death of sin. And just like the believers in Jerusalem so long ago, I was caught off guard. I was surprised. And many of you can probably relate to this story.
But thinking of my friend for a moment, I want to ask you a question. Which was more of a miracle, his conversion or Peter being rescued from prison? Of think about yourself. Your conversion, my conversion, or Peter being rescued? I ask this because so often we pray for the salvation of friends, children, parents, brothers, sisters, co-workers as if this is some small thing. Rescue from prison, guarded on all sides, chained to soldiers… now that is a miracle. And it is! But is it less of a miracle that the Spirit breathes new life into a dead soul? Is the conversion of an enemy of God into His friend less of a miracle? No. Both are miracles. Both are impossible apart from the direct working of God. And in both instances, God answered the prayers of His people in accordance with His good and perfect will, bringing great glory to Himself as He advanced His kingdom.
Like the saints in Jerusalem, let us approach our Father in our weakness, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, relying on the help of the Holy Spirit and earnestly ask for His name to be praised, for His kingdom to expand and to come, for His will to be done in all things, for our preservation and perseverance and growth in faith in Christ, for forgiveness, for protection and deliverance from temptation and from all evil. And, as we come to him in our weakness, asking Him for what is humanly impossible, let us do so knowing that He is good and that He loves us and that He will answer in accord with His good and perfect will. And let us remember that His will isgood and perfect always, whether the answer looks like James’ or Peter’s. And while we wait for His answer in times of uncertainty, let us not fear, but let us rest at peace, safe and secure in Jesus Christ our Lord, and let us be unsurprised when we hear a knock at the door.
Let us pray.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 12:1–24.
Cf. Mark 3:17.
Cf. Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36,
Cf. Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56.
Cf. Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42.
Cf. John 21:15-17.
Cf. John 10:1-18.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Lk 22:44.
Cf. Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46.
Cf. Matthew 20:22-23, Mark 10:35-40.
Cf. John 21:18-19.
Cf. Bock, Acts, 426.
Paraphrase of Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1, Lord’s Day 1.
John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles, volume I, 486–487. (Note: Some words modified for modern English)
Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17.
Cf. Ephesians 3:20.
Cf. Romans 8:26-27.