Sunday 18 August 2013

Eaten by worms (Acts 12)

Acts Chapter 12 is a strange way to round off a major section in the book of Acts on mission. It comes at the end of a tremendously encouraging record of how God uses the persecution of the church (Acts 8) as an opportunity for mission: to send Christian believers out of Jerusalem into the neighbouring countries to tell the nations about Jesus. Acts 8 to 11 is the beginning of worldwide cross-cultural missions; and in Acts 13 - which we will look at next week - Luke, the author, show us how a cross-cultural church becomes the centre of cross-cultural missions. No longer is Jerusalem the exclusive centre of missions responsible for sending missionaries out to the nations. Now the nations are responsible for reaching the nations with the message of the gospel.

But wedged in the middle of all this is Acts Chapter 12 - a record of how the Christians do nothing and God does everything; a record of how that cycle of persecution might start up all over again and yet how God can simply snap his fingers, extinguishing the threat without any need of help or assistance from us.

What Acts 12 shows us is how missions is God’s work not ours. That’s really important. Missions is God’s plan not ours - to grow his church; to proclaim his gospel.

At the end of a two-week mission a few of us have been involved with (Judy, Howai, Winnie and myself) when we have seen so much and done so much and experienced so much, let me just say that Acts Chapter 12 is a humbling reminder that everything that God does in his mission is for the glory of his Son. It is his plan, his work for his glory. We are privileged to be partners with him; to be used by him. But at the end of everything, missions points us to the worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. Or as John Piper puts it: The reason missions exists is because worship doesn’t.

1. Death of an apostle

1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
Acts 12:1-2

The chapter begins with the death of an apostle. James, the brother of John - we remember him as one of the two Sons of Thunder, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ himself, one of the twelve apostles based in Jerusalem - who is killed by the sword. He is executed by King Herod because the Christian church has grown to a stage that it is perceived as a political threat.

That expression “put to death with the sword” reminds us of another Christian leader who was killed - John the Baptist - who was executed during the time Jesus by another King Herod (his grandfather). Meaning, in a sense, this was to be expected - it has happened before. Meaning, this was a beginning of yet another round of persecution on the church; another cycle of opposition. Acts 8 was happening all over again. As the world continues in opposition to God, it continues in opposition to the people of God.

That is why the persecution didn’t end with the death of James, the apostle. No, it led to the arrest of Peter.

3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
Acts 12:3-4

Herod arrested Peter with every intention of doing to him what he did to James, only this time, it wasn’t because of politics. It was because of popularity. “He saw that this met with approval among the Jews.” Hence the timing: he locked Peter up till after the Passover when Herod planned to execute this great apostle in public.

So we see Herod’s motives. We have the general public’s response, which was approval. Yet Luke writes this account to focus on the church’s reaction; to look at our response in the face of such setbacks. Imagine your pastor being locked up for preaching the gospel. Imagine that after being on mission at CIO the past few weeks and seeing tremendous fruit and encouragement from telling people about the gospel, your team leaders were killed in a tragic accident.

You need to remember that the previous weeks in Acts have been about the gospel going out to the nations. The Samaritans turn to Jesus. The Ethiopian eunuch gets saved. Saul becomes a Christian. Peter preaches to Cornelius the Gentile army officer and he and his family all become Christians. Barnabas brings Saul to Antioch which is full of Greeks and there they were first called Christians.

The past week weeks in Acts have been about growth in the gospel, growth in church planting, the expansion of the kingdom of God. Then suddenly James gets killed and Peter gets arrested.

Acts 12 is teaching us that God is still in charge. All that growth we saw in the previous chapters? That was God’s work and in the process of that work, some of his workers will be put in prison. Many of them will be killed. But the work carries on. Charles Wesley once said, “God buries his workmen but God carries on the work.”

2. A miraculous answer to prayer

That’s what we see in the next section which is, surprisingly enough, focussed on an angel of the Lord. The bible is not shy about angelic beings who do God’s will. If you are, you’re going to have a big problem with this chapter because it is all about how an angel is responsible for everything to do with Peter’s escape from prison.

6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
Acts 12:6-10

The angel causes a bright light to shine in the cell and the chains to fall off Peter’s wrists. Miraculously, the doors open by themselves. The angel talks to Peter, tells him to put on some clothes, walks with him out of the prison, past the guards who don’t seem to be able to see them or could possibly have been made unconscious, I don’t know.

And the surprising thing is, even Peter doesn’t realise what is going on. Not until he’s in the city safe and sound away from the prison and the guards. He thought he was dreaming the whole thing, or as it says in verse 9, “he thought he was seeing a vision.” It just seemed surreal. Yet remember how the angel tells him to put on his clothes and sandals, even reminding him about a jacket (probably because it’s chilly outside). I really love that because opening doors and breaking out of prison is no big deal for an angel of God, it’s a nothing really. “Right, off we go!” But still, the angel is thinking, “It’s going to be cold outside. Peter had better put some layers on him. The silly guy thinks it’s all just a dream!”

And it was only when the angel disappeared that Peter went, “Wait a minute. That really happened! Wow!”

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”
Acts 12:11

In verse 12, it says, “When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” And back in verse 5, we learn that all the Christians, the moment they heard about Peter being arrested by Herod, “they prayed earnestly to God for him.”

They had met together for this meeting, “many people” we are told were there. They were praying earnestly, “God please help Peter. Please save him. Please do something.”

Yet even as they said these prayers, the Christians didn’t expect God to do something about those prayers. Now to be fair, even Peter couldn’t believe what had happened - it was just that unexpected. But this teaches us that God does hear our prayers, even when at times we might not realise that he does, and that the truth is: God always does something about our prayers. They are not always the answers we want to hear. We don’t always see those answers immediately. But God always hears any prayer and every prayer spoken by his people in Jesus’ name in accordance with Jesus’ will - in this case, it was: the release of Peter - and God does amazing things in response to our prayers.

13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
Acts 12:13-17

Even their attitude about angels says something about what they expected God to do. “It must be his angel.” Finally they open the door; they are surprised to see Peter. He shushes them because remember, Peter is there for a reason: to remind the church that God was still in control. In a moment, Peter would have to run off and be a fugitive (look at the end of verse 17, “he left for another place”) but it was important for him to get word back to the church that he was OK, and also, I wonder if you noticed, to James.

This is James who wrote the book of James in the bible. He is Jesus’ brother and is now leader of the church in Jerusalem. It is interesting that with Peter leaving the city and with the other James dead, the advice was not appoint new apostles. Rather, James together with the remaining apostles now led the church with the help of elders (we see this in Acts 15) who, together form a council of leaders. That is just to say that as important as the two apostles Peter and James were, the church was now to be led by other men - elders - who were godly, faithful and able to teach the Scriptures; not apostles. Peter left Jerusalem in good hands.

The workers have changed, the work continues because it is God’s work. And here we see that God did the work of rescuing Peter - in response to the earnest prayers of the church, of course - but in such a way that was beyond anything they could have imagined or expected so that they would recognise that God was still in charge; that God would receive the glory.

Just a thought I had about Peter standing outside the door, knocking and knocking, wondering, “When are these guys going to let me in!” The servant girl was so excited to hear Peter’s voice she just ran back without opening the door and Peter must have been going, “Come on!”

But contrast that with the situation back in the jail cell. What was Peter’s reaction then? Verse 6 tells us he was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. I wonder if Peter slept thinking, “This is finally it. Tomorrow, Herod’s going to bring me out and then he is going to take me out.” Peter obviously didn’t expect to be broken out of his cell. But you see, that’s amazing because Peter could rest, he could sleep, knowing that if that really did happen and he was killed the next day, he would see Jesus.

And when he was frantically knocking on the door of Mary’s house, he wasn’t trying to break out of some prison, instead he was so eager to share with his brothers and sisters the good news of God’s rescue. We often get it the other way around. We get so anxious to get out of trouble. We toss and turn all night. We cry out in anger and frustration. But when God does bless us at times with help and blessing, we think it’s no big deal.

Peter’s first instinct was to tell his church, “God did this. Keep trusting in this God! Keep praying to this God!”

Which brings us to our final point: Only God is God.

3. The death of Herod

18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
Acts 12:18-20

We get such an insight into Herod’s mind because he is simply acting out of pride or out of a desire to do horrible things and oppress Christians. He isn’t even doing what he does just to be popular, though that’s obviously very important for Herod. No, Herod is someone who wasn’t be to seen as king. He wants to be treated like a king. In essence, the bible is saying that Herod wanted to be treated like God.

In the way he could order the death of guards in verse 19. In the way the two nations, Tyre and Sidon had to come begging to him for food, kowtowing to his authority in verse 20. Herod wanted to have the last word - whether someone lived or died.

And in the way he loved to be adored. I wonder if that is something that some of us need to take special notice of.

21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Acts 18:21-23

Verse 23 is rather shocking isn’t it? “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down.” I mean, if God had to strike Herod down for anything, it should have been for killing the apostle James! Or for acting like a bigshot in front of the rival nations.

No, Herod was struck down because he didn’t give praise to God; because he assumed the place of God. Friends, that is the essence of what the bible means by sin: I want to be God over my own life. I want to call the shots. I don’t want to give him the praise, I want to receive the praise. We hear the name King Herod and think: dictator, cruel manipulative overlord when actually we should be thinking: X-Factor or American Idol.

That phrase where it says “the angel of the Lord struck him” is the exact same phrase back in verse 7 where the angel struck Peter on his side and woke him up. Herod’s death is actually a wake-up call. There is such a thing as a God. There is such a thing as God’s rescue, God’s salvation. And there is such a thing as God’s judgement over our sin. Wake up!

But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.
Acts 12:24

That is, God’s work continues on. No breaks. Not even a Herod can put a dent in the gospel. The word of God expands and more and more people hear about Jesus and respond to him in repentance and faith.

Conclusion: God buries the workmen

Three lessons we learn from Acts 12:

Firstly, God buries the workmen but he carries on the work. The apostles James is killed. Peter is rescued but he has to leave Jerusalem. The workmen are gone but the word of God grows. That is always the pattern in a mission like CIO, in the life of the Chinese Church. God is gracious is using us to preach the gospel but don’t ever let it get to your heads. We are claypots. We fail. We lose heart. Jesus is still Lord and his gospel will still be preached to the ends of the earth.

Secondly, God does immeasurably more than anything we could ever ask or imagine. And that’s just an encouragement to pray. Pray when you’re in trouble, of course you should, and pour out your heart to God, he knows it anyways, so tell it to him. But remember as well, who you are praying to. He is God. We come to him bowing before the throne of God in heaven above, surrounded by his angels and we trust in a God who is able to do much, much, much more than we could ever imagine because he loves us much, much, much more than we could ever deserve!

Finally, God is the one and only king. Do you need to be in the spotlight? Even in doing something noble and sacrificial like running an international cafe for language students: Do you need to be recognised for the time you’ve put in and the contribution you’ve made? We serve a God who deserves our all our worship and praise. It is about him, not us. We owe him, he does not owe us. And when we have spent this life in service of Jesus, I promise you, we will look back at those sacrifices, at those bruises, at all those circumstances and say, “It was worth it!”

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