Sunday 25 August 2013

The Expendables (Acts 13:1-12)

What missions is not

Over the coming weeks we will be concluding our series from the book of Acts looking at a mission trip. Acts Chapters 13 and 14 record for us what is often called the first missionary journey of Paul. For the first time in history a church appoints two people, Paul and Barnabas, as its first missionaries and sends them overseas.

This was new. If you look back to the last verse of Chapter 12 - specifically, verse 25 - we find Barnabas and Saul completing a mission to Jerusalem. We might read that and go, “Didn’t they just come back from a mission?” Well, actually no; at least not in the sense that we are going to use the word “mission” in the coming weeks. There in 12:25, Barnabas and Paul are returning from a trip to Jerusalem to bring aid and money during a time of crisis. Back in Chapter 11 the church in Antioch raised money to help the church in Jerusalem because of a famine about to hit the region and they sent the money down to Jerusalem, verse 30 tell us, “by Barnabas and Saul.” The word used is diakonia, translated “mission” in 12:25, but is actually a Greek word that means service or ministry.

This is important because mission is not about visiting churches in other countries. The purpose of mission is not to expand your horizons, as if, missions were something good you could do in your gap year before starting university. Missions isn’t even about bringing aid or building schools in Third World countries. There is nothing wrong with building schools or sending aid, of course, but doing these things as a Christian in a faraway land does not make you a missionary.

Rather, the heart of missions has to do with the Word of God. You see, Acts Chapter 13 records the beginning of the very first intentional, church-ordained, Holy Spirit-empowered mission to the nations, and yet, the focus of this passage is not on the sending but on the speaking. It is not the sending of these missionaries that forms the basis of missions. It is the speaking of the gospel by these first missionaries - the proclamation of the word of God - that defines what biblical missions looks like.

I think we miss the point when we say things like, “The mission of the Chinese Church is to reach other Chinese people.” Or when we say, “Our mission is transform the city of Cambridge for Jesus.” Missions is not about our agenda. Missions is not about getting people to join the Chinese Church. Missions is God’s plan to bring all things under the authority of Jesus Christ and the way he does - and I dare even to say, the only way God has chosen to do this - is through the gospel.

Just in case you think I’m making this up, well, there is a passage where Jesus gives us his definition of his mission. We find this at the end of Luke Chapter 4, where Jesus is casting out evil spirits, he is healing lots of people and as a result everyone was looking for Jesus to help them with their problems. What does Jesus do? He leaves. I wonder if that surprises you.

Jesus leaves this large crowd so eager to seek his help because (he says this), “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And that word “sent” is the word for missions (The Latin word missio simply means “sent”). What is Jesus saying? The reason why he was sent; the purpose of his mission on earth - was not simply to heal people and gather huge crowds around him. The purpose of his mission was to speak the gospel. “I must preach the gospel … to the other towns also,” Jesus said, “because this is why I was sent.”

Acts 13 is here to remind us of the same purpose. The reason why these first missionaries were chosen; the reason why Paul and Barnabas were sent on this first missionary journey was to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations.

Prophets and teachers

1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.
Acts 13:1

The chapter begins with the church. Incidentally, if you turn to the end of Chapter 14, the first mission ends also with Paul and Barnabas returning to this same church. That is, the church in Antioch didn’t simply send out the first missionaries, they received them back as well. That was always the plan: to send Paul and Barnabas out to the mission field, not to forget them once they had gone, but rather, to eagerly receive them back as their partners in the gospel.

Verse 1 opens with a picture of what this church was like. It gives us a list of the “prophets and teachers” in this church at Antioch; a list of its leaders. We have Barnabas and Saul at the beginning and the end of the list. That is not surprising as they were, in effect, the founding pastors of this church. But what is surprising is reading the names of the other three leaders in this church.

Simeon called Niger was Simeon the Black. That is what “Niger” means: Black (or Blackie)! It means he was probably of dark-skinned and of African descent. So, too, was Lucius who came from Cyrene, a region in Africa. Then, you have Manaen who was brought up with Herod the tetrarch. That’s like saying he went to university with Prince William. This guy, Herod was royalty (different from the Herod who got eaten by worms last week in Acts 12, who was his nephew). In other words, Manaen came from a rich family and had lots of powerful connections.

Together with Barnabas and Saul, these five men were the key leaders in the church. They were the “prophets and teachers” in the church. Now why do you think the bible record these names for us? Because it tells us something about what this church was like. It was mixed-up! What is mean is: the people who came to this church were from all kinds of background. Some were rich and some were poor. Some were Jewish but most of them weren’t. Some were local, as in Greek, but many like Simeon and Lucius were from Africa, and looked different from everyone else, and sounded different from everyone else whenever they went up front to do the bible reading.

And I think it says something about how God chose to use this church to send out the first missionaries, as opposed to say, the church in Jerusalem. The church in Antioch was a mixed-up church chosen to reach a mixed-up world. That’s a good thing. The term we tend to use here in the UK is “international”. If you’re studying in Cambridge as someone who has come from Hong Kong, China, Lithuania, America, Italy or Spain, you are an “international” student; and churches have “international” ministries like “international” cafes to reach such “international” students. But don’t you see, God wasn’t using a local church to reach internationals. He was using internationals to reach internationals.

It is one thing for churches in the UK to have international ministries; for the minister to stand up on a Sunday and say to the congregation, “Isn’t it wonderful that the nations are represented in our gathering here this morning.” It is quite another to have that reflected not just in the laity but in the leadership. Acts tells us nothing about who was attending the church; Acts tells us a lot about who was leading that church in Antioch. People like Barnabas, and outsider to Antioch who had come from Jerusalem; people like Simeon nicknamed “Blackie”, people like Lucius who was from a totally different region in the world, people like Manaen who went to Cambridge and even people like Saul who used to try and kill Christians. It is one thing to run an international ministry or even to support international missions. That’s easy. What made this church “international” was its leadership: faithful men of God who came from different backgrounds, cultures and nations.

I wonder when will local churches which boast of large numbers of Chinese students coming to faith in their congregations start employing their first Chinese pastor? I wonder when will Chinese Churches which have been in the UK for fifty years start recruiting their first local pastor? Don’t mishear me: I’m not saying, “Look outside and import them in.” I’m saying, “Open your eyes and see who’s there.” It is about training leaders within our congregations and entrusting them with responsibility and opportunity within our churches.

But more importantly, it is recognising men who speak God’s word faithfully and clearly. These men were “prophets and teachers”, verse 1 tells us. To such men, God chose to speak clearly and powerfully, saying, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul.”

2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 13:2-3

(I know some commentaries say that God spoke to the church as a whole at this point. I think that is very possibly the case. However, given that Luke has just introduced the five key leaders in Antioch, I do think it would be more natural for the focus to still be on these five leaders. Now if this so, what makes these verses so remarkable for me is how these leaders who are all entrusted with teaching the church and leading the church had committed themselves to worshipping God together as the leadership of the church. I think this is absolutely marvellous: Leaders who fellowship with one another in service [the words leitourgous and proskuneus have elements of priestly service and ministry] also fast together and commit one another to God in prayer. What wonderful fellowship! What amazing partnership and accountability amongst leaders of God’s people!)

So as they are worshipping together and fasting together, God speaks to these five men saying, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul.” Notice this, God’s calling is for these two men, yes, but is made clear to the church as a whole. Why is that? Why doesn’t God just tell Barnabas and Saul, “Hey, you two! I want you on the next boat to Cyprus!” Why doesn’t God just make it clear to the two men he wants to be on the mission? Why does God impress this calling upon the other leaders in the church?

The clue lies in that phrase, “Set apart.” You see, Barnabas and Saul were key leaders in the church. They were the founding pastors. When you think of mission, chances are you think of, well, missionaries. You think of someone specifically trained to go into the mission field. Do you see what God is telling the church to do? “Send your pastors out on mission.”

That is what they did. Verse 3 says that they laid hands on them and sent them off, but to be more accurate, what they did was cut them loose. (Apelusan means to untie something; to let it go).

I think that means it wasn’t the easiest thing for them to do. We want to keep our best people serving with us. It is tempting to worry about our own church health and our own search for a pastor. Mission? We’ll deal with that when we have a surplus of leaders; when our church is growing and we have more than we need, why then, we’ll send some leaders out on mission. We’ll make sure they’re competent, of course. But essentially, what we do is send in the Expendables; the people we can do without.

Who did God pick to be on his mission team? The two most senior pastors in the church. The two most able teachers in the church. Humanly speaking, God picked the two most essential leaders of the church.

The call was not for their benefit, it was for the church’s, do you see? “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” I suspect that God had already impressed upon Barnabas and Saul this call to missions, that is why he says, “I have called them.” Past tense. It was a done deal. But God then impresses this same calling upon the whole church for their benefit: so that the church would let them go. Therefore when it says in verse 3 that they placed their hands on Barnabas and Saul, it was their way of saying, “We’re with you in this mission that God has called you to.”

If you asked someone from Antioch, “What is your church’s mission?” I think they would have said, “To make Jesus known, especially… especially in parts of the world that have never heard of Jesus before. Our mission is to speak this gospel to the nations.” For them, mission was not about their church agenda. Mission was getting the message of Jesus out to the world. Not all of them could do this. Not all would become missionaries - only two were sent. But the reason why Acts 13 begins with the church as whole is because the whole church was committed to God’s mission.

A false prophet

4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
Acts 13:4-5

The heart of God’s mission is the good news about Jesus. Now when Barnabas and Saul arrive in Cyprus, the didn’t have any doubt as to what they were there to do. They didn’t sit down and think, “Hmm, I wonder how I can get people interested in Jesus. Maybe I’ll start an international cafe. Maybe I’ll take out a guitar and start singing some worship songs in Market Square.” From the get go, Barnabas and Saul went straight to the Jewish synagogues; opened up their bibles, and spoke about Jesus. (We’ll see that next week in verse 13 onwards where Acts gives us the text to an actual sermon Paul in one of these Jewish meetings).

That is, Barnabas and Saul were in no doubt whatsoever what it meant for them to be missionaries. Why? Because it meant doing the exact same thing they did back in their home church of Antioch: “They proclaimed the word of God.” Now isn’t that interesting? God chose two bible teachers to be on his mission team. Many people study Paul to get some kind of special insight into evangelism. What illustrations did he use? Who did he talk to? Friends, what he did and all he did was teach the bible and tell people about Jesus. Paul did this as boldly, as clearly and to as many people as he could as a pastor, as a bible teacher and as a missionary.

That is the reason why verse 1 begins with a list of “prophets and teachers.” The moment you read that phrase, the question that immediately pops into your mind is, “Who was the prophet and who was the teacher?” The answer is: It doesn’t tell us. Which of the five were the prophets and which of the five leaders were teachers? It doesn’t tell us. Why? Because that isn’t the question that bible is answering. We are asking the wrong question. The question that verse 1 is answering is: Who are the leaders of the church? Answer: The prophets and the teachers. It is a way of saying: The leaders are those who are entrusted with speaking God’s word to God’s people, do you see?

A prophet in the Old Testament was someone who said, “Thus saith the Lord!” Or in modern English, “This is what God is saying to you.” That is, a prophet speaks on behalf of God to his people as his spokesman; as his representative. The teacher is someone who does the exact same thing - he speaks on behalf of God - but he does this by pointing his hearers to the bible and says, “Thus saith the Lord!”

In both cases, the prophet and the teacher are speaking on behalf of God. Neither one of them are giving their own opinions or ideas. Both of them are entrusted as messengers, to speak on behalf of God as clearly and as accurately as is possible. Therefore, when Acts points to these prophets and teachers and says, “Here are the leaders of the church,” what it is saying is: Here are leaders whose authority lie in God’s word. What it is saying is: Here are men entrusted with authority over God’s people, who themselves, are under the authority of God’s word. But most importantly, what Acts is saying is this: when these men spoke from God’s word, God spoke.

Barnabas and Saul did in the mission field what they had always done in the church: They spoke God’s word with all of God’s authority pointing to the salvation that comes through God’s Son.

When you see that, you begin to see how these first few verses in Acts 13 are there to set us up - to get us ready - for an explosive encounter with a false prophet, a man named Bar-Jesus.

6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? ”
Acts 13:6-10

Bar-Jesus is a man with many names! First of all, Bar-Jesus literally means “Son of Jesus”. Yet in verse 8, he is also called “Elymas” which apparently means sorcerer or magician. On top of that, Paul calls this guy a child of the devil in verse 10. The combination of these names (Bar-Jesus, Elymas) and descriptions (sorcerer, child of the devil) might make us think of some dreadful evil character like Voldemort or Gargamel, you know, someone who looks dark and sinister and dresses in a long black robe with horns sticking out of his head.

But remember that this guy is an advisor to an important politician, in verse 7, the proconsul whose name was Sergius Paulus, a man who is described as someone who is intelligent. By the way, the proconsul was a very important and senior position within the Roman Senate (the highest in fact). You didn’t get to this rank by being a dimwit.

Furthermore, look back to verse 6 and see how Elymas was first described as a Jewish sorcerer and a false prophet. This description, together with his close association with the proconsul tells me that Elymas, if anything, was more sneaky than he was sinister. He was intelligent. He must have spoken well, with an air of great authority, in order to have the ear of the proconsul. I wonder if Elymas, in appearance, was actually rather respectable and conservative - the way a political advisor today would be dressed in suit and tie.

You see, that’s the false prophet. The false prophet is false because of what he says, because of what he teaches, not because of what he looks like. If anything, he might look altogether quite genuine in order to perpetuate his false teaching. And that’s the rub. The encounter between Elymas and Saul is in reality a showdown between the true prophet of God and the false imitation. Both Saul and Elymas were Jewish. Both of them spoke with authority about matters of great importance and both had the attention of the proconsul. Which one was true?

So you see, what Paul does, when he calls Elymas the child of the devil and the enemy of the truth and a perversion of God’s way of truth, is expose Elymas for who he really is. He might be known as “Bar-Jesus” - a son of Jesus - but in reality he is a son of the devil. He might go to the synagogue on weekends and call himself a Jew but in reality he is a sorcerer.

But the most damning statement that Paul makes is at the end of verse 10 where he says, “Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” The ESV has, “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”

What is a false prophet? He is someone who takes something straightforward about God and makes it hard to understand. That’s what Paul is saying. Do you know anyone like that? Someone who sets up roadblocks to people come to know Jesus.

The proconsul invites Barnabas and Saul to talk about the gospel but in verse 8, Elymas opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Elymas’ job was turning people away from trusting in Jesus. Friends, that’s the false prophet. Someone who uses his influence to distract his friends from becoming a Christian. And Paul says to him, “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths,” meaning, the way that Elymas does this is through distraction; is through manipulation; is through coercion. Christianity is pretty straightforward: Trust in Jesus. He died for your sins. You receive his reward. He now lives as your risen Lord. You are forgiven and reconciled to God. It’s a pretty straight-going straightforward message. What the false prophet does is complicate things with the intention of turning people away from this simple message.

The true prophet

And what Paul does next is show him what a true prophet is about. He says to him...

11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
Acts 13:11

Paul speaks directly to Elymas with a judgement that comes directly from God. “Now the hand of the Lord is against you.” Remember, a prophet is not someone with super-powers. No, the prophet of God is simply a spokesman who speaks on God’s behalf. Paul was merely conveying the truth of God’s judgement on God’s behalf.

I can’t help but sense though that Paul was saying something to the effect of, “Enough is enough!” and I think you can see why. The greatest frustration and enemy to the gospel is not persecution but false teaching. It is false teaching that obscures the truth about Jesus to the point that it makes it hard for people to understand who he is and what he did on the cross. It is false teaching that makes much about our own intellect and wisdom instead the reality of our sin and God’s grace. It is false doctrine like the prosperity gospel which makes it about what we can get from God rather than making God our true and greatest treasure.

And this judgement from God that results in Elymas going blind - notice, for a time - is a reflection of the blindness that comes from listening to such false prophets and teachers. The reason I highlight that phrase, “for a time,” is because, such judgement is also God’s provision for repentance, something Paul would have been familiar with from experience, having himself been struck blind on that road to Damascus.

Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, sees what happened, and verse 21 tells us, believed. That is, he became a Christian. But notice why? “For he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.” It wasn’t what Paul did that made him a Christian, it was what Paul said about Jesus that truly amazed him and made him want to give his life to Jesus.

In the midst of this showdown with Elymas, with him being struck with blindness; and with the conversion of this powerful politician, Sergius Paulus; we might have missed one important development in this record of Paul’s first missionary journey. A turning point occurs in verse 9 where Saul is now introduced with his new name, Paul. What is going on here?

From this point onwards in Acts, Saul will ever only be known as Paul. Furthermore, the mission team is no longer referred to as “Barnabas and Saul” but will from this point onwards be introduced in Acts as “Paul and Barnabas” (notice verse 13, “Paul and his companions” and verse 42, “Paul and Barnabas”). From this point onwards, Paul took the lead. No longer would he be known by his Jewish name, Saul. He is now Paul, a Roman name he now used as he travelled the Roman world on his mission to preach Christ.

And I think that Luke, the author of Acts, highlights this transition for our benefit as the reader, as if to say, this is what the true prophet looks like. It is Paul who speaks the gospel as the word of God. Revelation 19:10 tells us what prophecy looks like, “It is the spirit of prophecy that bears testimony to Jesus.” The prophet is not someone who is able to predict the future - that’s not what prophecy means. No, the true prophet is someone who “bears testimony to Jesus.”

Last week, I spent an hour speaking to two people who were so convinced that what the church needs most today are prophets. The two of them were Mormons. According to them, the church has strayed from the teaching of Jesus by rejecting the place of prophets in the leadership, to such a point, that the church today is no longer the true church. Why? Because it has lost the voice of the prophets.

Friends, what Acts 13 teaches us is that this world is full of prophets, but more importantly, that most of them are likely to be false. From the way my two Mormon friends described the prophets they had in church, to me, those prophets sounded a lot more like Elymas than they did Paul. These guys who took something as simple and straightforward as the gospel and made it about something other than Jesus. I found myself saying to my two friends, “What you need are not more prophets. What you really need is Jesus.”

The true prophet points to Jesus. He does that by preaching the gospel. That is what Paul and Barnabas did in verse 5, “they proclaimed the word of God,” and in verse 7 with Sergius Paulus who wanted to “hear the word of God” and in verse 12, when he was amazed with the “teaching about the Lord.” Again and again, all they did was open up the bible and tell people about Jesus. Acts says: That’s prophecy, right there! These are not two guys going around doing bible study with a whole bunch of people. No, these two men, Paul and Barnabas are chosen by God to speak his words to his people and bring them to life.

That is what they did the church in Antioch where they were prophets and teachers. That is what they continued to do in the mission field. By God’s grace, that is what we hope to do here in the Chinese Church.

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!”