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Acts 12:1-25: But the Word of God Increased and Multiplied Print E-mail

By Gary Belcher (audio not available)

I. Introduction: The recurring Theme in Acts - The ever-expanding Kingdom of God

Chapter 1 of Acts a small group of disciples is addressed by the risen Lord and commanded to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jesus then ascends to heaven and they are left gazing upward.

In Chapter 2 - at Pentecost the promised Spirit falls upon the disciples, they witness to the crowds about what they had seen and heard declaring the One who was crucified is now risen and is both Lord and Christ. And 3,000 are saved. At the end of the chapter they were "praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."

But in chapter 4 the apostles are arrested, yet even then "...many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of men came to about five thousand!" The apostles are threatened to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus and released. "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word the word of God with boldness."  Later in chapter 4 "And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women." Then the apostles are arrested again and put into a public prison, which an angel of the Lord turned into a "drive- through" and the apostles go right back to preaching in the temple. They are arrested again and this time they are beaten and ordered NOT to speak in the name of Jesus. And the apostles "left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus."

Again in Chapter 6 "And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. THEN the opposition increases exponentially and by the end of chapter 7 Stephen becomes the first martyr and a great persecution arises scattering the church throughout Judea and Samaria.  - Just like Jesus said in Chapter 1.
Chapter 8 - In the midst of great persecution led by Saul of Tarsus"...those who were scattered went about preaching the word." , then the persecutor encounters the risen Christ in chapter 9 and becomes an apostle. By the end of the chapter "...the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied." The church continues to expand and reach further into the world and the first Gentiles are converted in chapters 10 & 11.  After Chapter 12 the focus moves to the missionary journey's of Paul and the extending of the gospel to the ends of the earth. But before he moves on to that focus, Luke opens chapter 12 with the ramping up of persecution of the church.

II. God's Sovereignty in martyrdom, rescue, and judgment

A. Sovereignty in martyrdom (12:1-5)

12 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. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

"About that time.." refers to the closing verse of chapter 11 with Paul and Barnabas bring drought relief funds to the Jerusalem Church from the Church at Antioch. So we can assume they are present in Jerusalem during the events that Luke relates.

King Herod is Herod Agrippa I who had made deals and used his associations with boyhood friends in Rome, who happened to become Ceasars, to gain territories in Judea and surrounding areas to the equivalent size of the kingdom of Herod the Great, who Luke mentions in his gospel and who was Agrippa's grandfather. He was also of Hasmonean descent, which put him in partial good stead with the Jews, although his Rome connections did leave some doubt in their minds. Which may explain why he choose to attack the fledgling sect called Christians, since any minority which was troublesome to the Jews could bring about unrest, which would not be tolerated by Rome and could cause
Herod to lose his little kingdom.
It seems that, for whatever reason the Jewish people and not just the religious leaders had now turned hostile toward the church. One wonders if the full inclusion of Gentiles into the church may have brought this about, at least in part. This time it is not the religious leaders, but the civil authority that persecutes the church. The prophecy of Jesus in Luke 21 is continuing to unfold: " they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 1

It would appear that the score at this point is Herod 1 and God 0. But, since God is sovereign, Herod did not pull off anything that God did not allow him to. Peter had already preached in chapter 3 that although the people and religious leaders had crucified Jesus, it was God's sovereign plan for Jesus to die. It is a mystery to us and beyond our feeble, finite minds to comprehend how God's sovereignty and man's responsibility coexist, but they do. And what assurance and comfort to us that NOTHING happens to us outside of God's control and gracious, loving plan for us who are in Christ. Easy to understand - no, glorious to know and believe - YES!

There is no indication here, or elsewhere in scripture that I know of that shows how James' death fit into God's plan, there are some things that will just have to wait until all is revealed at Christ's return. There is plenty of evidence in scripture and church history of the persecution of the church and even death of some believers as producing unprecedented growth and the extension of the gospel into unreached people. One example would be the story of the Auca Tribe in Equador, who murdered Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian as they were trying to reach them with the gospel. What began as a horrible massacre resulted a few years later in the salvation of nearly the entire people group, including the men who murdered the missionaries.

Paul wrote in Philippians 1: 12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.  We are also reminded of Jesus' words to Peter about the church, built upon the Rock - the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Peter is arrested and Herod plans the same outcome for him that was given to James. The Jewish festival of Unleavened Bread, which by this point in Jewish practice had been combined with Passover, caused him to have to delay because it was against Jewish law to have executions during the festivals. Ironic that they were observing a festival of God's great deliverance of His people out of Egyptian slavery and yet miss the greater delivery, from and sin and death, and the greatest deliverer, Jesus, that it pointed to!

B. Sovereignty in rescue (12:6-19)

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. 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. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 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. 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.”

Peter has been in prison for many days, possibly a week, and the next day Herod plans to put him on trial and execute him. Humanly speaking it appears to be his last night on earth and yet instead of being in distress Peter is sound asleep. Just as the prophet Isaiah declared:
3 You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
4 Trust in the LORD forever,
for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock

Herod wasn't taking any chances with this prisoner. He may have heard from the Chief Priest and Sannhedrin that Peter had a tendency to disappear from prison. Generally a prisoner might be chained to a soldier, but two soldiers was rather extreme. The 4 shifts of 4 soldiers would change every 3 hours during the watches of the night. This was a maximum security setup. Herod intended to keep Peter where he put
him! But God had other plans! As it says in Proverbs:

21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

The sequence of the story is almost comical at this point. An angel of the Lord shows up in the jail cell with a bright light and has to strike him on the side to rouse him up. The chains fall off - no need for keys and hack saws when an angel is involved! Peter has to be given step, by step instructions on what to do! Dress yourself, put on your sandals, now wrap your cloak around you... sounds like trying to get a child awake and
ready for school when they are only semi-conscious. In fact, Luke tells us that Peter thinks he is having a vision.

They go past the first guard, then the second guard. It is an incredible set of
events that all four of these well trained and battle hardened Roman soldiers are asleep on duty and NOT disturbed by the light,  noise of falling chains, iron doors swinging open - not exactly quiet activities. The hand of God is obviously all over this rescue! Finally the last gate, the heavy iron main gate of the prison swings open - of its own accord! The Greek word is automatos - where we get words like automatic. There can be no doubt that this is not Peter's escape from prison, but God's deliverance of Peter from prison.
Peter finally gets fully awake when the angel leaves him - immediately, just like he came. And Peter understands that God has delivered him from Herod and all that he had planned for him.

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. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 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. 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.

The next sequence of event gets even more comical. Rhoda is so excited that Peter is at the gate that she leaves him standing outside - in danger of being spotted by his enemies, while she runs in to tell everyone he is there. And even though they have been fervently praying, the Greek word indicates a continual, passionate, crying out to God, they don't believe that Peter is indeed at the gate. They first accuse her of being crazy and then tell her she must have seen his angel. It was a commonly held belief at that time that people had guardian angels that took on their appearance at times.  The last thing these praying Christians would believe was that God had actually answered their prayers! NO doubt they were probably afraid that it was the authorities who were at the gate, having come to hall them off to prison too. One commentator made this observation:

"With all due respect to these sincere praying Christians, it may be worthwhile noting again that the danger when people do not believe the truth is not that they will believe nothing, but that they will believe anything."
We should check our own hearts on this. How much like those believers are we when it comes to believing God's answer to prayer. And do we even come close to the ongoing, intense, fervent prayer of these believers?   We must not miss the message from this story and many others in scripture, that The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.  When they finally let Peter in the celebration was apparently so loud that Peter has to motion for them to quiet down. He knew that he was still in danger and that such commotion could give them away. He wants them to deliver word of his rescue to James, the brother of Jesus who Paul would later describe as one of the pillars of the Jerusalem church, and the other brothers, possibly the elders of the Jerusalem chuirch. We don't know where Peter goes at this point. We will hear about him in Chapter 15 at the Jerusalem council, but he fades from the picture in the book of Acts from this point. The focus is shifting from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth!
Meanwhile back at the prison...

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.

"No little disturbance" is an understatement. Losing a prisoner was huge for a Roman soldier because the law said that they would assume the sentence of the prisoner. And they did - Herod put them to death. From the text we can imagine Herod turned Jerusalem upside down looking for Peter. But He could not be found.! In humiliating defeat Herod heads off to Caesarea - the  Roman capital of the province.

C. Sovereignty in judgment (12: 20-23)

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!” 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.

Luke bookends this account with Herod, in the first part of the account Herod is wrecking havoc on the church, but in the conclusion of the account Herod is dead and the church is moving forward.
The 1st century historian Josephus gives a similar account of Herod's death with some additional detail. Herod appeared in a robe made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent at to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; (345) and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” (346) Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.

Whereas Peter, Paul and other faithful followers always gave God the glory for the miracles performed and refused to allow people to worship them declaring, "we are men just like you," Herod gladly accepts the declaration of the crowd and God judges him immediately. Josephus' account says he was overcome with belly pain and died 5 days later. Luke's account compresses the details to a summary statement. Both Luke and Josephus' accounts agree on that God judged him because he did not give God glory, but exalted himself.

Luke concludes the account with one of his summary verses:
24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed
their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. 8

Tyrants may strut and destroy for a time, but their end will always be the same! They will become dust and the Word of God will continue to stand and increase. As the scripture says: "God is not mocked whatever a man sows that will he also reap!"

III. Conclusion: Lessons Learned (12:24-25)

24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed
their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
A. The Word of God and His Kingdom are unstoppable.

B. God uses suffering, trial, and even martyrdom to advance His kingdom and bring glory to His name

C. Fervent prayer is a means God uses to unleash His power

D. God exalts the humble (Peter) and humbles the self-exalting (Herod) D. When you oppose God, you lose.

E. Because of the cross and the resurrection we can be obedient whether facing death or deliverance. Our response, along with a long list of the saints before us, should be like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

James, Peter, the church through the ages has endured and persevered because their  faith  was  in  the  Solid  Rock,  Jesus,  the  Rock  of  Ages  who  is  the  One Foundation of  the church. He is the exalted risen Lord who alone is worthy of praise and glory and honor and power. He is mighty to save all who will turn from their sin and trust Him alone.

Are you trusting Christ and following Him? Are you standing on the Solid Rock, trusting in the Rock of Ages?

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 August 2014 )

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