Date: 18 Jun 2023
Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-25
An egomaniacal King persecutes the church. The apostle Peter, the spokesperson for the Twelve, the pillar of the fledging church, is arrested and thrown into prison.
The Christians pray fervently to God on behalf of Peter. God sends an angel to rescue Peter from jail. And the word of God increased and multiplied. And everyone lived happily ever after.
It seems obvious doesn’t it, how to preach this text? It almost preaches itself.
Point 1: The Power of a Sovereign God.
Point 2: The Power of Praying Church.
God is able to send his angel to deliver us from the most dire, most hopeless, darkest situation that we find ourselves trapped in. And all we have to do is fervently pray.
Because such an idea from today’s text is at the same time so seemingly obvious, yet so completely wrong, that I would like to start today’s sermon, by telling us what the text is not saying, before getting into what it, in fact, says.
It’s not about God’s power to deliver his people from prison. Why not? Because James died in prison.
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,
The death of James the Apostle. It’s literally how the narrative opens. Any conclusion, therefore, that we draw from today’s text mustn’t simply account for Peter’s deliverance, it must also make sense of James’s execution.
The passage is not written to grant us confidence that God will rescue his faithful people from prison because James was not rescued.
Nor is can this be about the power and efficacy of prayer because although the text highlights the church in fervent prayer for Peter, Peter’s rescue from prison is not framed as an answer to the their prayers.
From the text, Peter’s rescue, instead of being anticipated by the church, is depicted as being the most unexpected, most surprising thing to have happened. Not only to the church, but to Peter himself.
9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.
11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."
Even after all the commotion of the angel appearing in his cell, waking him up, loosing his chains, talking to him, and leading him out of prison, in his mind, Peter believed it was a all a dream, or a vision. It wasn’t real.
Only after he was led out to the main street did he realise what had just really happened. Why? Because Peter couldn’t believe it, and he couldn’t believe it because he didn’t think it would happen, he wasn’t expecting it to happen. Did Peter pray while in prison, he most certainly did. But he did not appear to have prayed for a prison-break.
Nor did the church.
12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.
14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!"16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed.
The servant girl saw Peter at the door and interrupted the prayer meeting, which was held on account of Peter’s imprisonment, and she told them, he is here, right outside.
And what did the praying church say to her? Hallelujah, God has answered our prayers! No. They said, “Siao ah?” “You’re out of your mind!” Rhoda, the servant girl, was like, “no, he’s there!” She kept insisting, “he’s right there!” And they kept saying, “It’s his angel!” It’s an apparition, it’s not him, it can’t be him! They kept saying.
And all the while, Peter was outside the gate, going “Erm, guys, I’m a fugitive, there might be guards looking for me, could I maybe come inside? You are going to undo everything God did tonight.”
Now, the only logical reason why the church was not expecting Peter to be rescued, and cannot believed that he had been rescued was because they weren’t praying for it. If they had, they would have put two and two together like that.
To be sure, the church was praying for Peter, but given what recently happened with James, they were probably praying that Peter will be found innocent at this trial in the morning, and be officially released, or that he will remain faithful unto death. The only thing we can be certain of, is that they were not praying for his miraculous prison-rescue operation by the angel in the middle of the night.
Which is to say, this text does not so much teach us about the power of prayer, as it does the power of God, whose ability surpasses our petitions, whose sovereignty transcends our pleas.
So we’ve covered what this text is not saying. It’s not saying we can be confident of being rescued by God from a bad and unjust situation if the church prayed fervently for deliverance. What is it saying then?
The first thing the text is telling us, is that the pride powers that oppose the Gospel will ultimately perish. The prideful powers will perish.
Notice how today’s passage opens and closes with a focus on King Herod. Which means that the author Luke wants us to learn something from the example of Herod. So let’s see.
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.
The text opens with king Herod exercising his sovereign will over the church, doing as he pleased, to whoever he wanted.
He killed James, arrested Peter and appears to have free reign over Peter’s fate. He seized him, put him in prison, delivered him to soldiers and intended to bring out to the Jews for judgment.
King Herod is one acting, having his way, his will is being done. Peter, on the other hand, is completely passive, he is powerless at the hands of Herod.
But the very next time we encounter Herod in verse 19, we see this:
18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.
Wait a minute. Things isn’t going to plan here. King Herod, who was so in charge, so much in power, able to do as he pleased to Peter, now as it turns out, has lost his prisoner. And he can’t find him.
And his response was to kill his soldiers. King Herod went from killing Christians and arresting Peter, to now losing Peter and killing his soldiers. He is not as fearsome as he was when we were introduced to him in the opening verses. We see now that Herod is not sovereign, his will is not being done, his power is being overcome, by forces beyond his understanding and control – namely, God.
But this is not the end of Herod’s story. The worse is yet to come.
20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!”
Herod put on his royal robes, sat upon this throne and spoke.
The historian Josephus records that Herod’s royal robe that day was woven with silver, such that when the rays of the sun reflected off his robes, Herod sparkled and shone, giving off the look and aura of a deity, inspiring fear and awe who gazed upon him,
The Roman Empire were accustomed to regarding their emperors as divine, so the people of Tyre and Sidon transported that understanding onto King Herod.
“The voice of a god, and not of a man!”
And King Herod embraced that acclaim. Herod Agrippa was a Jew. He knew the law of Moses, the first commandment – that thou shall have no other God apart from God. But Herod accepted that blasphemous acclaim without complaint.
Which is a foolish thing to have done, not only because it’s a violation of the first commandment, but because we already know that he isn’t sovereign, he couldn’t execute Peter as planned, because God himself thwarted his plans. God was opposing king Herod.
And so, we should not be surprised at Herod’s end.
23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.
The King who persecuted God’s church was prevented by God. The King who tried to be God was punished by God. The killer of Christians was killed by God.
The lesson here is this:
Prideful Powers will Perish.
Every power that sets itself up in opposition to God will perish, ultimately, definitely, inevitably. No matter how powerful they appear to be, no matter how well they begin, no matter how lofty they are in the eyes of man, they will be brought low, their plans be thwarted, they will ultimately bend the knee to the King of Kings.
And this truth, my friends, is of greater comfort to the Christian than temporal freedom from the bars of a prison. Because we know that the prideful powers of the world will eventually perish before God, that gates of hell will not prevail against the church, we can boldly bear witness to Jesus regardless of the circumstance. Victory is assured, we win in the end.
As Justin Martyr, so named because of his martyrdom, declared to Emperor Antoninus Pius, “we are convinced that you can inflict no lasting evil on us. You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.”
Why? Because no matter how things may appear at the time, at the end of the age, Rome loses, and the Church wins. They will perish and we will live eternally. They can kill us, but they cannot harm us.
That’s our first point. Prideful Powers will Perish.
But they can kill us. After all, they killed James. And that brings us to our second point:
The Persecuted Proclaimers Will Persevere.
Why will they persevere? Because God is on their side, or more importantly, they are on side of God.
6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison.
Luke deliberately paints a picture of Peter’s imprisonment which makes any hope of escape practically impossible. Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, his left arm bound to one soldier, his right bound to another, all locked together in a cell. And if that’s not secure enough, there were sentries stationed just outside the door, keeping guard.
This level of security surpasses even that of maximum-security prisons today. The effect is that escape is impossible.
But in the verses that follow, this takes place:
7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him.
The larger narrative, as we have seen, is bookended by the actions of King Herod. But the story within the story, that of Peter’s freedom from prison, opens and closes with the actions of the angel of the Lord.
The angel does everything here. He stood next to Peter, he struck and woke him, and he gives Peter instructions. Peter doesn’t say a word, he is passive, he simply follows the angel until the angel leaves him.
The activity of the angel of the Lord, set within the activity of King Herod, is meant to taken together. The point is this: the angel of the Lord delivers Peter from prison, in order to undermine the plans of Herod.
Herod’s plan is to discontinue the proclamation of the Gospel, by killing its key guys, the apostles James and Peter, two of the inner circle of the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry. Herod plans to persecute the main proclaimers of the gospel, to put a full stop, a period, to Gospel proclamation. God has different plans. He plans to preserve the proclamation of his Son.
Then why didn’t he preserve the life of James? Why did he let James die?
Sir Alex Ferguson was knighted in 1999 by Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to British Football. Widely regarded as the one of the greatest mangers of all time, he made Manchester United one of the biggest clubs in the world.
You may say, maybe, he won because he had good players in his team. Well, he did. Most notably, he had David Beckham playing for him. But in 2003, at the prime of his career, Beckham left Man United for Real Madrid. But Sir Alex Ferguson continued to win the league after Beckham’s departure. Ferguson also had Cristiano Ronaldo playing for him. But in 2009, once again, at the height of his prowess, Ronaldo left Man U for Real Madrid. But Sir Alex Ferguson continued to win the league after Ronaldo’s departure.
In 2013, he won the league once again, and he retired. The very next season, Man United finished a lowly 7th place in the league, the club’s worst premier league finish ever in their history. The team was largely made up of the same group of players who had won the league with Ferguson just the previous year. Since his retirement, Man U has never won the league again. Next year.
Now, simply by laying out these facts before us, the point emerges: It’s not the players that won Man United the league titles; it was Sir Alex Ferguson. Players can come and go, but so long as Ferguson is at the helm, so long as he is in charge, trophies will come. He’s the one indispensable person. He’s the ingredient for success. That’s why he gets the glory, that’s why he’s knighted, and not his players. That’s why he has a stand in the stadium named after him, but no player has it. Because Ferguson is the man.
Luke is painting the same picture for God. In the mission of the church, success is dependent not on the church, but on God. He is the one; he gets the glory.
17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.
James is killed, and Peter departs. But it’s okay. The success of the church’s mission was never dependent on them anyway. They are not the people we pin our gospel hopes upon.
“Tell these things to James and to the brothers”.
This James is not the apostle James. That James is dead. This James is the brother of Jesus, who wrote the letter of James in the bible, and who we will see presiding over the Jerusalem council in Acts chapter 15.
This instruction signals, therefore, a shift in church leadership, from one that apostle-centric, to one that is elder-led.
Do you see, the great commission doesn’t end with the death of James and the departure of Peter. It doesn’t even suffer a blip.
Right after that, we read of three other names:
25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
Barnabas and Saul and John Mark.
The persecuted proclaimers will persevere. The chain of evangelists will be unbroken. Proclamation will endure. The Great Commission will be fulfilled. Because God is the one behind it all. He is the indispensable, almighty, sovereign Lord. And his will will be done.
And so the chapter, which opens with the persecution of the church King Herod, concludes in the only way possible.
24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
Earthly powers may rage and persecute, apostles may die and depart, but the word of God will prevail.
Why? Because God is at the helm, he is in control, he will ensure the success of the church’s mission. He brings down earthly kings, he breaks open prison chains and he calls new names into his team, for the sake of the Gospel and the salvation of the world.
And he continues to do so today. He continues the ministry of the word today, right here in Mt Hermon BP Church. And he is calling us to carry on Great Commission, this gospel proclamation, this unfinished task in the world.
And I pray that we will heed the call, we will carry on the faith of others who have gone before us, we will continue the work of gospel proclamation to the ends of the earth that began with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And I pray that we will accomplish it with encouragement and confidence, knowing the outcome is secure, and no power on earth can ever prevent the victory of the Gospel. We may be killed, but we cannot be harmed.
We may be bound in prison, but the Word of God cannot be shackled. Gifted preachers may come and go, but the gift of the Spirit remains upon all who believe and is sufficient to empower each one of us for proclamation.