Studies in Acts
One of the biggest questions in the Christian life is, “Why?” We ask why God did this or that thing, Or we ask why He didn’t (or hasn’t) done this or that or the other thing. But the common denominator of every question that we ask about something that seems to us to be unfair, or inconsistent with God’s character. And one of the things that Christians most often ask about is something that we find for the fifth time as chapter 12 opens: the persecution of Christians. This is the fifth “round” of persecution that we find here. The first round was by the religious leaders back in chapter 4. Then there was persecution from the Sadducees because of the preaching of the resurrection. Then third, there was persecution of the members of the Synagogue of the Libertines brought Stephen to trial in chapter 6. Growing out of that, Saul headed up the intense persecution of the church in chapter 8. Ironically, this fifth round of persecution here in chapter 11 begins just about the time Saul (not yet known as “Paul”) is heading out on a missionary journey himself!
By way of outline this chapter falls into three parts:
- The Harassment of the church – verses 1 through 17
- The Haughtiness of Herod – verses 18 through 23.
III. The Health of the Ministry – verses 24, 25
So the first thing we want to think about is this Harassment of the church in verses 1 through 17.
And the first thing we see in that regard is the intensity of the harassment brought out in verses 1 and 2
Now about that time Herod the King stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. (2) then he killed James the brother of John with the sword
Verse 2 is quite an understatement if you think about it. If we read verse one by itself we might think of “hazing “like they do in college fraternities. And we might think, “what a waste! Why would God allow this kind of thing to happen? But it is obvious from verse 2 that Herod is going to play “hardball” with these Christians.
Now the intention in the persecution is found in verses 3 and 4
And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the days of unleavened bread (4) So when he had arrested him he put him in prison and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after the Passover.
Notice the first line of verse 3 – that’s where we find his intention: “because it pleased the Jews!” To understand a ridiculous reason for murder like this we have to know something about Herod and about Israel. First, we have to remember that Israel had been taken captive by the Roman Empire. And even though Rome allowed the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governmental organization) to continue to have power over religious matters (even to the point of the death penalty) all of the civil authorities were appointed from Rome. And that is where the Herod family comes into the picture. It helps to remember that there was a whole family of Herods in the days of the New Testament. This particular Herod was Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod Antipas, who had killed all of the male babies at the time of Jesus’ birth (and nephew of another Herod). Secular history tells us that he was fascinated with two things: the Jews and royalty. And his philosophy of government was that if you wanted to keep being a member of “royalty” you had to please the Jews (and particularly the religious Jews (although the Herod “family” was not even Jewish.
And as we have been seeing in the past few chapters the thing that would please the Jews the most would be to Harass the Christians.
Now when we come to a passage like this we are prone to ask “why?” Why did God allow James to be put to death for such a sniveling reason? And why did he allow Peter to live? Why didn’t He rescue James like we are going to see that He rescues Peter in a few verses? And the only answer is one that sounds like a cop-out, but it is actually in the Bible: Deuteronomy 29:29 –
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever.”
One of Satan’s favorite tricks is to get us to ask questions for which there is no human answer. But notice carefully: that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer, it just means that God has chosen not to tell us the answers to some things. But notice, too, that He reminds us in that verse that there are plenty of things that He has revealed. And he has also promised that He is working all of those things together for our good (even the things that He hasn’t chosen to reveal to us.) So whatever happens, as puzzling as it may seem to be to us will always be within the parameters of those promises – in His mind whether we can see it His way or not.
Fortunately, however, verses 5 through 11 bring out the interruption in the harassment. The prelude to the interruption is in verses 5 and 6
Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. (6) And when Herod was about to bring Him out, that night Peter was bound with two chains between two soldiers, and the guards before the door were keeping the prison.
Here is an impossible: situation: Peter was in prison – verse 5, and not only that, but “bound with two chains” “between two guards” and two guards at the doors – verse 6. But notice his attitude – sleeping in the midst of it all. Peter’s Maturity had come a long way since the night he cut “Malchus’ ear off. For one thing, he had been through this before, back in chapter 5. And for another thing he may have been remembering Jesus’ promise to him in John 21:18 that he would live to be an old man.
Then in verses 7 through 10 we see the actual perpetration of the interruption
Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up saying, “arise quickly!” And the chains fell off his hands. (8)Then the angel said to him “Gird yourself and tie on your sandals,” and so he did. And he said to him, “put on your garment and follow me (9) So he went out and followed him, and did not know what was done by the angel and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. (10) When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and they went out and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
There are a couple of things to notice in those verses. First of all, notice in verse 7 that the angel had to wake Peter up – another indication of his relaxed attitude. Then notice that the angel did the impossible – verses 8 through 10 – Peter had to do the things that he could do for himself, such as putting on his coat and sandals in verse 8. This is a microcosm of the way God always treats His children. He will do the impossible for us if necessary, but He expects us to do for ourselves (after salvation)
And so in verse 11 we see the praise which Peter gives:
And when Peter had come to himself, he said, Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the Jewish people”
Verse 9 tells us that he thought he was seeing a vision, but now he knows the truth. And notice that the soldiers apparently didn’t hear a thing. Even in our day angelic activity may not be recognizable. Hebrews 13:2 says that “some have entertained angels unawares”
So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying (13) And as Peter knocked on the door of the gate a girl named Rhoda came to answer (14) When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness, she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate (15) But they said to her, “You are beside yourself! “Yet she kept insisting that it was so. So, they said, “It is his angel.” (16) Now Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.
Actually, of course, their amazement was in the fact that God had answered their prayers in the way he did. But there are a couple of lessons in that: First, here is an example of a situation in which God let conditions deteriorate so that He could demonstrate His power. Just think: if He had not allowed Peter to be imprisoned they would have never had the experience of seeing the power of God up close. And this is exactly what James says about trials – to the point that we should – “count it all joy” when they come along. Along the same line, Paul writes in II Corinthians12 that because God would not remove his “thorn in the flesh” he had learned the grace of God in a way that he never would otherwise have learned – to the point that he said “most gladly therefore will I suffer infirmities,”
But another lesson to learn from these verses has to do with how we pray. Verses 5 and 12 tell us that Peters friends were praying, but they don’t tell us the content of the prayers. But we can assume that they weren’t praying for Peter’s release – they were mature enough not to be surprised by an obvious answer to prayer. They were probably simply praying that he would have grace and courage in the face of death. And the lesson in that is that it never hurts to pray for exactly what want in a given situation. Sometimes we are too proud to tell God what we really want, so we ask for something that He would be more impressed with. But if the matter is in His hands in the first place, why not just tell Him what we want and be prepared for Him to do something else if He chooses to? The scripture does tell us to “ask according to His will,” but if we are not sure what that is, it is all right if we ask what we want. The key is is just not to be angry or disappointed if He does something else.
In the midst of his friends’ amazement, Peter calms them down in verse 17 with his explanation of what happened (“authentication”)
But motioning to them with his hand to keep silent, he declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison and he said, “Go, tell these things to James and to the brethren and he departed to another place.
So that is how this instance of “the harassment of the church” came to a close. But the last few verses of the chapter tell us the haughtiness of Herod and how his life ended. His pride. First it is demonstrated in the callous execution of the prison guards in verses 18 and 19
Then, as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers about what had become of Peter. (19) But when Herod had searched for him and not found him, he examined the guards and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
It is true that under Roman law guards were responsible with their lives for their prisoners. But Herod had to have known that his was no ordinary “jailbreak.” But the real indication of his haughtiness is in the last line of verse 19 – he just “went down to Caesarea.” As though nothing had happened. But the most serious indication of his pride- especially in God’s sight – was his acceptance of praise and glory
Because of what is about to happen, Luke thinks it is important to give all of the background, which he does in verses 20 and 21
Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; but they came to him with one accord and having made Blastus, the king’s personal aide, their friend, they asked for peace because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country. (21) so on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. (22) And the people kept shouting “it is the voice of a god and not a of a man!
Evidently the “set day” mentioned in verse 21 was an official announcement of the settling of the disagreement between the two countries. When Herod gave his speech the people who were going to be benefitted by the treaty were low enough to shout out this ridiculous flattery, and Herod was vain enough to believe that they really meant it! (politicians never change, do they?) And the result is described in the next verse: Having seen “his pride” in verses 18 through 22, verse 23 describes his pain
Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God, and he was eaten with worms and died.
Of course, the key to the whole thing is the words “he did not give glory to God.” The scripture is full of statements of God’s protection of His glory. But this is one of the few places where he actually punishes it in this part of history. But Psalm 2 shows how the day will ultimately come when he will pour out His righteous anger on all the kings of the world who have had this kind of haughtiness.
Finally, verses 24 and 25 give, by contrast, the health of the ministry:
But the word of God grew and multiplied (25) And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their ministry; and they also took with them John whose surname was Mark
Here is another of those subtle reminders that we find throughout scripture of the fact that God is not frustrated when Satan’s workers appear to have the upper hand. Developments in our own day with the failures of communism in the health of the body of Christ in the health of the body of Christ under the worst kinds of oppression. Even while the “herods” of this world occupy the places of “gods” in the hearts and minds of men, God’s program moves ahead. And ultimately, of course, He will be magnified as the only “King of kings and “Lord of Lords.