POLITICAL PERSECUTION (Acts 12)
We are approaching another election, political tensions are running high. A friend of mine is doing a doctrinal thesis on immigration in South Africa and told me that there are more South African’s leaving the country than at any other time in our history. He said that immigration between Australia and South Africa has gone up 200% in the last year. I believe that more than ever before we need to understand and believe the message of Acts 12, how God is sovereign and working through the politics of every nation.
1: GOD’S PROVIDENCE (12:1-5)
2: GOD’S DELIVERANCE (12:6-19)
3: GOD’S JUDGMENT (12:20-24)
Humanly speaking, the condition of a country and the quality of life of its citizens depends largely on the character, integrity and capability of its leaders.
Now imagine for a moment what would be the condition of a country, who’s leader:
· Was more concerned with staying in power than using that power to benefit the people.
· Imagine a leader who was corrupt to the core and who surrounded himself with corrupt officials, who had no moral compass, who had multiple wives, whose word could not be trusted
· A ruler who would think nothing of having someone killed or put in prison just to shore up his political position.
· Imagine a ruler who would use inordinate amounts of tax payers money on to build personal residences for himself.
Imagine what it would be like to live in such a country, under such a ruler… Imagine that God himself would say, “enough” and just take that ruler out, literally take his life while in the middle of a parliamentary session. Imagine how much better off that country would be if that literally happened…
The good news I have for you this morning, is that you don’t have to imagine what I’ve described…. (some of you are sitting there saying yes, because we have experienced it).
But the ruler I have described actually existed and God did take him out in the midst of his rule and we have the inspired record of it in the book of Acts. So you can turn in your Bibles to Acts 12 as we continue our study through the book of Acts.
Acts 12 is all about Herod. Actually it’s all about God and the gospel. It shows us what happens when a powerful political ruler turns himself against God and His church. It serves as a warning to every political power that would try to silence the gospel witness of the church. But more importantly it serves as an encouragement to the church….though we might have no political power and little political influence, we have been entrusted with the most powerful message in the universe for transformation. The gospel cannot be silenced and the church cannot be stopped. Politicians may rise and fall, but the church marches on in triumph.
We are approaching another election, political tensions are running high. A friend of mine is doing a doctrinal thesis on immigration in South Africa and told me that there are more South African’s leaving the country than at any other time in our history. He said that immigration between Australia and South Africa has gone up 200% in the last year. I believe that more than ever before we need to understand and believe the message of Acts 12.
1: GOD’S PROVIDENCE (12:1-5)
2: GOD’S DELIVERANCE (12:6-19)
3: GOD’S JUDGMENT (12:20-24)
1: GOD’S PROVIDENCE (read 12:1-5)
HEROD The King (1)
Vs 1 tells us Herod was the king. Without boring you with all the details. Jerusalem was part of the Roman empire at this time and Rome appointed rulers, or kings to rule over certain regions on their behalf. Herod was Rome’s appointed king over Israel at this time.
It’s not the first time we’ve encountered this name. It was Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded, Herod who was the regional ruler at Jesus’ own trial, and Herod who would have Paul tried in Acts 26 - though it wasn’t the same person. The Herod’s were actually a dynasty or a family of rulers. This was kind of the family business and they all took on the family name.
Illustration – John MacArthur
I’m not sure how many of you know what John MacArthur’s fathers name was? You guessed it, John MacArthur…and he was also a pastor and preacher. It can get very confusing when fathers and sons share the same name and the same occupation.
Technically, this is Herod Agrippa, and it was this Herod’s uncle, Herod Antipas, who presided over Jesus’ trial and it will be his son Herod Agrippa 2nd, who will preside over Paul’s trial in Acts 26. So it was not the same person, but the same family of rulers and it was their job to keep the peace in Israel on behalf of the Roman emperor.
If you think about how much conflict and strive and war characterizes Israel even to the present day, you can understand vs 3 – anything that would keep the Jews happy was a good thing.
At this point, the Christians are viewed as an unwanted and unwelcome sect within Judaism. They were still a minority, but they were making big waves and unrest seemed to surround them.
In Herod’s case he could not only quell this rising sect, but gain favour with the Jews as well. He probably doesn’t have anything against Peter or James personally, but persecution serves his political interests at this point.
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY – AT THAT time (1)
The text does an interesting thing here, it says in vs 1 “At that time.” The Greek word for “time” here is more about divine providence than chronological sequence. At God’s appointed time, Herod laid hands on the church and they were not the hands of blessing, but the hands of violence and persecution.
This was not just a chance event, this was God’s appointed moment, God’s timing, for this specific persecution to arise. This theme runs through the chapter vs 6 on the very night, vs 21 on an appointed day – all the events are unfolding according to God’s sovereign timing
Let’s just think about this for a moment…James and Peter apostles and leaders in the church – taken out, just when the gospel is beginning to take root among the Gentiles and the mission field is opening up…
There is a spiritual conflict going on here, and Satan seems to have the upper hand – but God is in control, this is all taking place at God’s appointed time, according to God’s appointed plan.
Do you believe that?
· James is killed and God is in control of that
· Peter is not killed, but imprisoned. Herod intended to wait until after the Passover feast and then have him tried and executed and God is in control of that too.
· Luke makes mention of the feast of unleavened bread in vs 3. He’s drawing our minds back to the trial of Jesus to show the parallel’s. At the hand of another Herod, also at the time of the Passover. Herod had also intended to wait until after the Passover to kill Jesus – but God had other plans and God’s plans prevailed over man’s – do you believe that?
· When Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish leadership in Acts 4 – the church understood that God was sovereign over the affairs of men – turn back to Acts 4:27-29 –
· All things that happen, even the terrible, wicked things that happen at the hands of proud, corrupt, evil rulers, happen according to God’s plan, God’s timing, by God’s hand.
· Do you believe that?
Fervent Prayer – Spiritual Clash
Evidently the early church did, and since God is in control we can and should speak to Him about what is happening.
What do they ask for in Acts 4:29? Boldness to keep preaching the gospel, which is what God is doing and what He wants us to do in everything that is happening.
In Acts 12:5 its says prayer was being made for him “fervently” by the church.
· Continual, intense, earnest prayers.
· The same word is used in Lk 22:44 to describe Jesus intense agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
· This is not just a quick WhatsApp with praying hands
· Acts 12:12 it says many had gathered in Mary’s house and were praying. This was an all night, week long prayer vigil that was well attended.
· That sounds like an oxymoron to our modern ears – all night, week long, prayer vigil that is well attended. (BY THE WAY, DID I MENTION THAT ITS OUR MONTHLY PRAYER MEETING TONIGHT AT 5PM?)…
· That’s exactly why we don’t see the kinds of powerful, divine interventions that we see here.
· God delights to work in response to the prayers of His people. God has not only ordained the outcome of all things, but He has ordained the means toward that outcome and fervent, persevering, earnest, faithful prayer is one of those means.
As John Stott explains in his commentary:
Here then, were two communities, the world and the church, arrayed against one another, each wielding an appropriate weapon. On the one side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the only power which the powerless possess.” (Stott, Acts, 209)
Application: prayer for church
We must remember that behind all of our political, historical, tribal conflict is a spiritual battle. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and authorities and powers in the heavenly realm” (Eph 6 tells us). Behind every king is THE King and it is to Him we must pray, that His purpose and plans will prevail.
2: GOD’S DELIVERANCE (12:6-19)
That Very Night (12:6)
Again, Luke is making the point that God is in control of everything. It was on that very night, the night before Peter was to be tried and executed, that he was rescued and released. Herod had planned one thing, God had planned another and God’s plans prevailed over Herod’s.
· 12:4 tells us that Herod had appointed 4 squads of soldiers to guard him. Four teams of four soldiers personally guarding him day and night.
· This was a maximum security situation, Herod was not taking any chances.
· 12:6 tells us that Peter was sleeping between 2 soldiers. Bound. Behind prison doors which were guarded by 2 more soldiers…and time has run out
· You get the point. Humanly speaking the situation is hopeless!
Now let’s just think about this for a moment again…God could have prevented Peter from getting arrested, He could have changed Herod’s mind, He could have rescued him on the first day of the week long feast, but instead He waits until the last day, the last moment, until the situation is completely hopeless from a human standpoint. Why?....
· So His church could have the opportunity to seek God and see God. That they would seek God in prayer and see God work in response. This way, God gets the most glory!
Angelic Deliverance (6-10)
Everything about the account says breathes of supernatural, divine intervention. God alone could do something like this, and God alone gets the glory.
· But again, God is working through means, His plans are carried out through divinely appointed agents. In vs 7 an angel of the Lord, a messenger sent from God. A heavenly servant.
· The chains fall off, Peter walks out of the prison, the guards don’t see a thing, the gates open up on their own – no wonder Peter thought he was dreaming!
Peter comes to his senses ( read 11-12)
· At some point he realizes that he is not waking up, and when he realises what has happened – who does he go to first? The church.
· He probably knew that was where his wife and family would be, with the other leading women in the church, comforting her, praying with her. This is what a church does in times of crisis, we gather around and pray – at least that is what we ought to do….
· When last have we had an urgent, all night, week long prayer vigil?....
When he comes to the church, they of course are not surprised at all – this is exactly what they have been praying for and they have seen God miraculously deliver Peter from prison before in Acts 5.
Shocked Church (read 13-16)
The church is shocked and amazed, they can’t believe their eyes.
· Again, let’s stop for a moment and think about this. Here is church that has seen the dead raised, the lame walk, the blind see and they’ve seen an angel miraculously deliver Peter from prison before. Why are they shocked?
· Well they’ve also seen Stephen and James be killed. God doesn’t always rescue and deliver. It’s not a question of whether he can, but of whether He will.
· Of course here is Herod, this is a whole new level of power and control and evil at work here. The Sanhedrin were like featherweights compare to this king.
· And then too, it’s been a week already and no news. If God were going to deliver him miraculously, surely it would have been done already.
· Or maybe they were praying for his deliverance through some more ordinary means – for Herod’s favour during the trial tomorrow.
We struggle to believe
Aren’t we just the same! Let’s not flatten the account out and simplify faith.
· God was faithful to provide for us last month, and the month before that, and the month before that – but the month that lies before us, is another matter and we are as anxious as someone who has never seen God provide before.
· This problem, this issue that looms before me now seems, somehow to be much bigger than the ones before, much too big, even for God…
· God helped me then, but I don’t know if He will help me now. I literally don’t know because God is not a magic genie that can be summoned to do my will whenever I want.
· And I don’t know how God will work out His purposes. Sometimes He intervenes in supernal ways with angelic messengers and fire from heaven – sometimes He works in much more ordinary ways through lawyers who defend my case and doctors who prescribe medicine to heal my sicknesses.
We don’t know exactly what the church was praying, but they were probably praying much like we would pray.
· God comfort the family, strengthen Peter, help him to be a good witness and not to be afraid to share the gospel.
· Lord we pray the trial would go well and you would give him favour before Herod.
· Lord please, as a church we’ve Stephen and many other good men and women already and only last week James - please don’t let us lose Peter as well, not now Lord when there is such great need among your church.
They certainly never expected that the story would unfold as it does here. But faith doesn’t have to see with that much clarity or it wouldn’t be faith. Faith seeks God, faith prays according to God’s will revealed in the Scriptures, faith presents our requests, our desires before God and it leaves them there in God’s good hands.
Peter Hides (read 17-19)
VS17: The people at the prayer meeting are making such a commotion at this point that Peter tries to quiet them down. Shhh… you’ll wake the neighbours and this is the first place they’ll come looking for me when they discover I’m gone.
You can’t help but sense the parallels between this account and Jesus’ own trial, death and resurrection. That is exactly what Luke intends to do, to show us that the power of Jesus which was at work in the resurrection, is still at work in His church and for His church. God is evidently not done with Peter yet…
In this context vs 17 is interesting. He instructs them to report the incident to James, who was not the James who was killed in vs 2 but James, the Lord’s brother. Evidently Peter was going to lie low for a while, get out of Herod’s jurisdiction, or at least out of the public eye.
Vs 19 tells us that Herod searched for him, but couldn’t find him. He hid so well that nobody to this day knows where he went, and he disappears from the book of Acts.
· Peter’s name occurs 56 times in the book of Acts. Only 1 more time in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem counsel.
· So Peter’s not dead, and God is definitely not done with him – but the narrative certainly is – this is basically the last we hear or see of Peter in the divinely inspired narrative.
Again, we have to pause for a moment and think about this. Here is this impressive miraculous deliverance and we would expect to be told all that God went on to do through Peter, who had been preserved from death by the hand of God. But Peter disappears from the scene and is hardly heard of again….
Because this inspired account is not about Peter and all the great things God is still going to do through him. This is about God and what God is doing to strengthen and establish his church.
Do you see how different God’s perspective is than ours! We are so prone to focus on man and what man is doing, to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, to put ourselves at the centre of the universe and then try to understand what is going on with ME at the centre. Yet if we would just put Christ and His church in the centre – the picture would make so much more sense!
Which brings us to the last point… God’s providence, God’s deliverance, God’s judgment. The narrative continues to follow the fate of Herod as the judge becomes the judged.
3: GOD’S JUDGMENT (12:20-24)
Luke paints the scene for Herod’s final days
· Ceasarea was the provincial capital and Herod was spending some time there – this was Herod’s multi-million rand seaside “administrative” residence built with tax payers money.
· He is a man of great importance and authority, even the people of Tyre and Sidon cannot afford to be on bad terms with him.
· In modern terms these are the Gupta’s trying to establish an alliance with the president of the country in order to secure long term trade agreements for their own benefit.
· When you put it in modern terms you can see why Luke paints the setting – has this man got no shame, is there no end to his political influence and power!
· But all this wealth and importance and authority goes to his head.
Vs 21 – on an appointed day – again pointing to God’s sovereignty and in this case His timely judgment. On the day that Herod appointed to exalt himself, on that same day God had appointed to bring him down. There were undoubtedly many other incidents when Herod exalted himself rather than giving glory to God and many other rulers who did the same – but God had appointed a day to judge this king and a day to judge every king and ruler and on that day – no man will stand. It is God alone who will be exalted and every man will be humbled.
As James 4:6 puts it – God arrays himself in battle against the proud, but gives undeserved favour to the humble.
When we exalt ourselves before man – we disgrace ourselves before God. When we seek to make man our friend, we make God our enemy. When we exalt ourselves we invite God to humble us - and we can be sure He delights to do so.
Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, also records the event in his annals and his description accords well with the account here.
· Both describe how Herod was dressed in fine clothing
· Both describe him being called a god by the people.
· Both describe how he was instantly struck BY GOD as judgement for his pride and died.
So Luke is clearly recording actual historical events – but he is putting them into a divinely inspired narrative context.
· Herod died and was eaten by worms vs 23
· But the word of God continued to grow and flourish – vs 24.
In this clash between human and divine king, between the power of man and the power of God, the praise of man and the glory of God, between the plans of man and the purposes of God, the judgment of man and judgment of God, the word of man and the word of God – it is God who had unequivacally triumphed.
God’s judgement, God’s Word, God’s power and God’s glory alone had prevailed.
Friends, after Herod was taken out here by God, who do you think replaced him? Herod. Herod Agrippa 2nd and he was not much better than Herod Agrippa 1st.
I like the way that Charles Carlson puts it – as Christians, “ Our hope is not in who rules this country, or what laws are passed, or what great things are accomplished. Our hope is in the power of God working in the hearts of people.” Our hope is that the gospel will prevail over every political power and scheme of man.
Let me close with this summary from John Stott:
“Indeed, one cannot fail to admire the artistry with which Luke depicts the complete reversal of the church’s situation. At the beginning of the chapter Herod is on the rampage – arresting and persecuting church leaders; at the end he is himself struck down and dies. The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place. Tyrants may be permitted for a time to boast and bluster, oppressing the church and hindering the spread of the gospel, but they will not last. In the end, their empire will be broken and their pride abased.” (Stott, 213)