St Barnabas, May 16th 2010
Chapter 12 marks a transition in the story of Acts. Luke carefully constructed his account of the growth of the early church to show just how Acts 1:8 was fulfilled … You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
We read about the birth of the church in Jerusalem in Acts 2 … the rapid growth of the church in chapters 3-7, the spread of the church to Samaria in chapter 8, the first gentile converts in chapters 10 & 11.
But Luke doesn’t gloss over the more challenging features of this growth … we know that the Apostles were threatened in Jerusalem, that Stephen was stoned to death, that the word of the Lord only reached Samaria because the believers were scattered by a ‘great persecution’. We know, too, that the Jewish believers didn’t like it much when Peter went to the Roman Centurion in response to a vision and a calling. So Luke doesn’t hide the fact that this growth caused problems for the emerging church … internal stresses and external pressures.
Last week at the end of Acts 11 we read, that ‘those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.’
Yet Acts 12 starts with more news of on-going persecution in Jerusalem.
This wasn’t however, persecution based on principle but on political expediency. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent days … people seeking alliances to increase their own grip on power and authority. The Herod of Acts 12 was the David Cameron of his day … he had been given his position by the Emperor Caligula, but in order to maintain that position, both over the people he ruled and under the man who put him there, Herod chose to court the favour of the largest party within his jurisdiction … the Jews. He had an idea that he thought might please them and had James, the brother of John, one of the leaders of the early church put to death …
When Herod saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 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. (vs 3f)
If the death of James pleased the Jews and made them a little more compliant to his leadership, well, there were plenty more where James came from. And this time Herod intended to do it in style with a show trial … but he knew that timing was critical and that the feast of Passover was sacred to the Jews, so he had Peter held until after the feast was over.
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. (Acts 12:5)
What follows is both a thrilling adventure and something of a comedy, as on the eve of his trial an angel visits Peter and releases him from prison … although Peter doesn’t at first realise what’s happening to him. And when he does recover his senses, his first attempt to gain entry to the house where his friends are is thwarted by a servant girl who is too excited to open the door … and the disbelief of his friends that it could possibly be Peter at the door in any case!
Which raises an interesting question … if they weren’t expecting Peter to be released, what were they praying for?
Back in Acts 4, after both Peter and John had been before the Sanhedrin and ordered not to speak in Jesus’ name, the disciples had prayed, ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’
Not a word about protection or safety, let alone comfort or provision … just a heartfelt desire for the word of the Lord to reach as many people as possible in as many ways as possible for the sake of Jesus Christ.
I suspect however, that they had an expectation of how God might answer their prayers – Peter was going on trial, what better place to for him to preach Jesus and get a hearing! But God had other ideas. He knew that his purpose was better served by Peter’s release and future ministry, as well as knowing how much of an encouragement it would be to the church to know that Peter was safe … nor had Peter finished his work for the Lord as we read in later chapters.
There’s an interesting and rather gory end to Herod’s story … Herod left Judea for Caesarea where the situation was somewhat less stable than in Jerusalem – although saving face following Peter’s escape may have had something to do with his timing! While there, he had occasion to make a speech in front of the crowds who had come to see the ambassadors of Tyre and Sidon plead for mercy … the crowd, wanting to curry favour with Herod shout ‘This is the voice of a god and not a man!’ and because Herod doesn’t contradict them, he is struck down …
Isaiah 42:8 says, ‘I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.’
And the word of God continued to increase and spread. (v42)
We started Chapter 12 with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod’s persecution. We end Chapter 12 with Herod dead, Peter released and the church growing ever stronger …
Throughout the centuries and across the world there is this pattern of church growth, followed by persecution, leading to more growth. So what principles can we take from this episode some 2,000 years ago that still apply today?
I think there are three … and we can see all of them at work in Acts 12 … persecution, prayer and the promise of God.
Jesus warned his followers that persecution would be part of the life of his disciples … we heard Jesus in our reading from John say ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.’ (John 15:20) I hesitate to say that persecution has any purpose other than to destroy the church, but there is no doubt that opposition has some benefits … Peter talks about our faith being refined by fire to reveal how genuine it is, James says that we are blessed when we persevere under trial, because endurance leads to maturity … persecution, indeed opposition of any kind, both weeds out the uncommitted and builds the faith of the remnant. Why is that important? For two reasons. First, because it clarifies our priorities and the purpose of what we do together as a church. If there is one main reason why the wider church in the western world is so weak, it is because we’ve forgotten what we’re here for. And secondly, because we stop relying on our own resources and abilities and find we can do nothing but pray.
And we need to learn to pray like the early church, to pray earnestly for the growth of the church, to pray for God’s glory to be revealed to the world, to pray for those in the front line to have courage and strength to speak, for hearts to be challenged and changed.
But we know from our own experience that we can do all the right things yet see little in the way of growth. And that’s perhaps the hardest lesson of all … in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote ‘neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.’ (1 Corinthians 3:7) There is no secret formula to growth, it’s never a matter of doing all the right things and praying all the right prayers. The growth of the church, of the kingdom of God on earth, is entirely in God’s hands. We have to faithfully do our part … the sowing and watering … preaching, praying and persevering …in faith, in trust. And if you think about it, that is the only way in which God will get what he deserves, the glory and the honour, the credit and the praise.
Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:18) and throughout Acts Luke marks the progress, not of the church but of ‘the word of the Lord’ as in 12:24 – time and time again, each time the church moved forward, each time people were added to the kingdom of God, Luke gives glory where it is due. He spells it out in Acts 2:47 ‘And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’
Persecution, prayer and promise … we can do nothing about the first or the last, they are beyond our control … but we can pray.