Sunday, April 2, 2017

Acts 12 : “Herod versus God and God versus Herod“

Our story is that of a very unequal contest.  But Herod did not think so! This is the story of the human beings created in the image of God, but corrupted by the fall, who have gone in search of many schemes [Eccl. 7:29].  Our biggest self- deception is that we can be stronger or smarter than God. The ability of man to think that he can be the master of his destiny and that he can  think that he is invincible before his Creator is addressed in this text. The key players in our text are Herod, Peter, the church and God.  But the  contest at face value is essentially between Herod and the church of Jesus Christ, the bride of the Lamb of God. It is , I say , an unequal contest.


The name ‘Herod’ will be familiar to a Bible reader. There are, however at least four Herod’s who need to be   distinguished.  Herod is a name used by several kings belonging to the Herodian Dynasty of the Roman province of Judaea.

(i) Herod the Great (born c. 74, ruled 37–4 B) [FOUNDER OF  THE DYNASTY]:   Builder of the second temple.  He was ruling in Jerusalem when the 3 wise men came looking for the one who was born “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1-17).  He was the killer of the baby boys, seeking to destroy the newly born “King of the Jews.”

(ii)  Herod Antipas (born 21 BC, ruled 4 BC–AD 39), tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea [SECOND GENERATION] :  He beheaded John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29) and he is the one before whom Jesus stood trial (Lk. 23:7-12).

(iii) Herod Agrippa I: (born c. 11 BC, ruled AD 41–44), king of Judaea.[THIRD GENERATION]  He is the Herod of our text, who killed James and who put Peter in prison. He is this Herod who was eaten by worms and died.

(iv) Herod Agrippa II: (born AD 27, ruled 48–c. 92), ruled Chalcis, then parts of Herod the Great's kingdom  [FOURTH GENERATION] :  This is the one before whom Paul will stand trial  in Acts 25:13-32.

The introductory words, About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (12:1)    provide a link  with  the preceding chapters.  The gospel is beginning to make its presence strongly felt, following the stoning of Stephen (Ch. 7), the powerful preaching of Philip in Samaria (Ch.8),the  conversion of Saul (Ch. 9) and  the  spreading of the gospel into gentile territories  (Ch. 10,11), the highlight being the wonderful work of God reported upon  in the Church at Antioch in Syria.

It was about  that  time that James, the brother of John (part of  the inner circle of Jesus) was  killed by Herod in Jerusalem [12:1] , and  when Peter was imprisoned  with the intention to have him killed after the Passover.   The reason why Herod did this, we are told, is that he saw that it pleased the Jews [12:3].  The growing influence of the church of Jesus Christ   began to  unnerve the leadership of the Jews, and they decided to turn this into a political  game, accusing Christians  of all sorts of things, and mainly claiming that they were opponents of the Roman government, by  maintaining that in Jesus   they had chosen another King to rule over them.   When Herod began to buy into their  game, by having James executed, Herod’s political popularity suddenly increased,   and Herod was very pleased about that. He was a politician after all.  

Peter’s fate was soon to follow, but there was one problem.  The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows Passover, had begun.  Being a religious holiday, this was not a good time to execute Peter. They would have to wait until the feast was over.   Remember, that Peter had been in prison before   [5:17-25], and had escaped. So, now extra cautionary measures were taken to insure that this would not happen again.  Four squads of soldiers guarded him! There were first and second guards, to make sure that he were kept securely [12:10]. In addition he was chained to two guards.  Humanly speaking Herod made sure that there would be no escape for Peter.

2. THE CHURCH AND HER  GOD  [ 12:5b-17]

In the meantime the church was not idle.  “Earnest prayer for him  was made to God  by the church”  [12:5,12]. God will have to do something extraordinary to get Peter out of this prison.  And He will, and He  does so by means of an angel !  The guards seem  to have no  awareness  concerning what is happening . In the midst of this  the angel gives Peter  instructions to get dressed , put on his sandals and wrap his cloak around him,  just like a man who gets out of bed in the morning, and he walks out of this heavily guarded prison, unhindered! In fact it all seemed unreal to Peter, until he came to himself  [12: 9-11]. It all seemed like a dream, like a vision (see also 10:9ff).   So, Peter left the prison unhindered, and when it all dawned on him, we are told “ … when Peter came to himself, he said, now I know that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from  the  hand of Herod.”  Only after he was out of prison  did Peter understand  that his experience was real.  And Peter knew himself to be in the hand of a sovereign Lord who had  orchestrated the  escape from beginning to end. He was delivered by the Lord’s angel, not only from Herod’s hand, but also from what the Jewish people were expecting. It is not just Herod who has set himself in opposition to the church, and thus to our Lord; it is the Jewish leadership as well.

In the meantime, we  find  the church at prayer for Peter. This story   has a humorous side to it.Notice the ironic contrast between the ease  with which Peter seems to get  out of prison, and the difficulty of getting into the prayer meeting  at the  house of Mary ! He knocked on the door of the house, where the church was praying and Rhoda, a servant girl went to answer.  She immediately knew it was Peter, but left the door closed and locked and told the good news to those who had gathered for prayer, but could not convince them that their prayers had actually been answered!  They said to her, “You are out of your mind!”  [12:15].  This does make me wonder just what they were praying for, and what they were hoping  for  at this point in time?

Peter persisted in knocking until they let him in, at which time he explained how God had rescued him.  He then instructed them to inform James , i.e. James, the Lord’s brother who  was recognised as the leader of the Jerusalem church, [1]  and “the brothers”  (his fellow-apostles), and then he, too, went to another place, where no doubt they could not be found by Herod or the leaders of the Jews. 


So then, imagine the consternation of the soldiers and Herod the next day [12:18].  What conclusion did they come to, since nobody at this time was thinking that it was actually  God that was actually fighting against them?  They thought that this was an “inside job.” Peter’s empty cell was as impossible to explain as the empty tomb!  So, when  Herod could find no other explanation he had the guards all executed. This is very ironic! The guards who would have led Peter to trial, and then to his death, were now being led away to their death, while Peter was alive and free. You cannot fight against God.  Many people in history tried it, a and lost!  

And Herod left to go to Caesarea [12:19].  An deeply fascinating and awesome event follows now, all woven into the ordinary happenings of time and history. In   12:20-22 we read of the people of Tyre and Sidon on the coast of Phoenicia   with whom Herod had been angry. These people were dependent upon Herod for their food supply, and since the rift had occurred in their relationship they were eager to mend that  relationship with him. They had lobbied with Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, so that he persuaded Herod to give them a hearing.  Herod appeared before the people with royal  pomp and ceremony, at  which time he also gave a speech. The people of Tyre and Sidon, desperate for reconciliation began to  flatter the king  with inappropriate language.  The people were shouting,  “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” [12:22]

How different is the situation later in Acts 14:8-18 where  we find a similar situation. Here   Paul and Barnabas  are proclaimed to be gods, but what a very different response  do we find from these servants of God!  Paul and Barnabas immediately calmed them down and explained that they were merely men and not God, and  drew their attention  to the true God who made the Heavens and the earth, whose spokesmen they were.   Herod, by contrast  revelled in the  praise given  to him. And so, he  who was trying  to  receive worship  and praise  from men, he who opposed God by opposing His church was now struck  by an angel of the Lord with an illness, so that he was eaten by worms and died.  And that was the end of Herod.   Dr  A. Rendle Short, professor of surgery at Bristol  University  wrote a book  entitled, ”The Bible and modern Medicine” .  He said , “  a great many people in Asia harbour  intestinal worms, which can form a tight ball and cause acute  intestinal obstruction.” This may have been the cause of Herod’s death.

SUMMARY : Acts 12:24-25

Our story began with  a very real threat  and some terrible consequences against the church of our Lord  Jesus  Christ. For a little  while we thought  that  Herod might  finish  off the church by killing her leadership. But God, not Herod had the final word. The final words of our text tell us that the Word of God triumphed. Herod could not stop the progress of the gospel. He could not destroy the progress of the church. In fact, the next few chapters of Acts will demonstrate an even greater spread of the gospel as the gospel  expands  into the Greek and  Roman world and beyond.

Last time I mentioned  the name of  Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD), so called because he was killed  for his faith. He   wrote concerning the spread of the Christian faith,  “…We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
Jesus said  to  Peter, "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"  [Matt 16:18]. Our text powerfully illustrates that God is sovereign over history – His story!  He is sovereign over His church. This is one of the great themes of Acts, and indeed of the Bible.  
Listen to these words written by John Stott: “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.” [2]


What about James?  Why was  James was executed while Peter was  allowed to live? After all, Peter, James, and John were all  a part of the “inner circle”  of Jesus. [3]  James died first. John died last. Each of these three had the same exposure to Jesus.Why would God “waste” His efforts on James by allowing his premature death? The  answer is that no one  dies prematurely!  James’  death at this  time was instrumental in the progress of the gospel, as we can see in the case of Stephen’s death. In the final analysis, we must rest in the sovereignty of God, knowing that He purposed this for His good pleasure. God is God, and thus He can do as He sees fit. The explanation may only be revealed to us in heaven.

[1]  Acts 15:13; 21:18 ; Gal. 1:19, 2:9,12
[2] John Stott : Acts , BST series , p. 213
[3] Matthew 17:1; 26:37: Mark 5:37

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