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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART NINETEEN

SERMON DELIVERED ON 10-06-18

       Today we will continue our journey through the book of Acts.  Last week we covered in detail the conversion of the Roman centurion and his family as recorded in Acts 10 and then moved through Peter’s recital of this event before skeptical Jewish believers in Jerusalem in Acts 11.  We concluded our review of Acts Chapter 11 which ends with a prophet from Jerusalem coming to Antioch predicting a famine would spread over the entire Roman world.  The disciples at Antioch are seen as sending gifts to the brothers in Judea to help them deal with the famine.  We will now begin with Acts 12.

       Acts 12:1-3: It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

       The King Herod mentioned here is Herod Agrippa 1, a grandson of Herod the Great who was the Herod in power when Jesus was born. His original name was Marcus Julius Agrippa. He was named in honor of the Roman statesman Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.  He lived 10 BC to AD 44.

       The Herod family originated in Idumea and were descendants of Esau the brother of Jacob.  Idumea was another name for Edom which was located southeast of Judea.  Over time the Herod’s endeared themselves to the Roman rulership and were appointed as client kings over the Jews. It is believed the events recorded here in Acts 12 occurred around AD 42 or 43. 

       These events occurred during the Feast of Unleaven Bread. This would have been a period of time when many Jews would have been in Jerusalem and surrounding areas to observe this festival.  Herod may have developed a dislike for the Christians but more probably he was simply trying to look good to the Jews who were persecuting the Christians. Historically Herod Agrippa is seen as having a good relationship with the Jews.

       When it is said that Herod persecuted the Christians, it is apparent he was out to harm them. The Greek word rendered “persecute” actually means to injure or harm someone.  

       Well he certainly harmed James.  James becomes the first Apostle of Jesus to be put to death. Putting James to death with the sword probably meant beheading.  That is the way the Roman authorities did things back then.  The Jews, of course were very pleased with Herod’s actions and Herod apparently felt he could gain some additional brownie points with the Jews by arresting Peter.   

       Peter is arrested and put in prison and guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. So we have 16 soldiers guarding Peter. Additionally, we are told Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, with sentries standing guard at the entrance to the prison.  While Peter was a rather high profile leader of the Christian community, it is rather curious that Peter was treated as though he was a very dangerous criminal.

       Apparently it was felt there may be some attempt by Christians to break Peter out of Jail.  Maybe Herod was aware of Paul’s escape from the authorities in Damascus and wanted to ensure the same kind of thing didn’t happen with Peter.  While we are not told why, there must have been some reason for the high level of security surrounding Peter’s imprisonment. 

       The plan was to bring Peter out for public trail after the Passover.  We were already told Peter’s arrest took place during the Feast of Unleaven Bread. Passover and the Feast of Unleaven Bread were virtually considered one period and these terms were commonly used interchangeably to designate each other.

       We are told that while Peter was in prison, the church was earnestly praying for him. So the night before Peter was to be brought to trial, an extraordinary event occurred.

       Acts 12:7-10: 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. 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. 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. 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.

       We have all had dreams that seemed so real that we felt like we were actually experiencing what was in the dream only to be surprised to wake up and realize it was just a dream. With Peter what seemed to be a dream or vision turned out to be the real thing.  When Peter realized what had happened, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John Mark where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocks at the outer entrance, and a servant girl comes to answer the door.  She recognizes Peter's voice and, overjoyed, runs back without opening the door.  She shouts that Peter is at the door. Here’s the response: 

       Acts 12:15-17:  "You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel." But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 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 brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place.

       Let’s unpack this a little. Twice we are told in the narrative that the church was praying for Peter.  Acts 12:5 says the church was earnestly praying to God for him.  Verse 12 records that many people had gathered and were praying.  While they may have been praying that God grant Peter favor when brought up for trail, I would think God was also being asked to deliver Peter from the prison.  Yet when this actually happened, the prayer warriors didn’t believe it happened.

       The NET Translation shows the Greek verbs involved with the interaction between Rhoda the servant girl and the prayer warriors indicates it was a virtual shouting match that was occurring between Rhode and the prayer warriors. Rhoda kept insisting Peter was at the door and the prayer worriers kept insisting it could not be Peter.  It must be his angel.   

       This seems a bit strange.  There had been many answers to prayers in evidence in the NT Church. Acts 5:12 records that, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.”  We read in       Acts 5:15-16, that people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats hoping that Peter's shadow would fall on them as he passed by.  The indication is that just the shadow of Peter passing over someone would facilitate a healing.  It is recorded that crowds gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.

       We read in Acts 5 of some of the Apostles being put in the public jail but being brought out at night by an angel.  Acts 6 records that the deacon Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.  Peter had facilitated the healing of the paralytic in the town Lydda and raised Tabatha from the dead in Joppa.  

       With such a strong track record of healings and miraculous events having been experienced by the followers of Jesus you would think they would not have been all that surprised that Peter was at the door. Yet they didn’t believe the servant girl, said it must be Peter’s angel and are seen as being astonished when they saw Peter.

       This shows how we humans are often unable to see past the conditions of a situation even though we appeal to God for intervention to facilitate a way out.  While we have an intellectual awareness that God can facilitate a way out, deep down we feel nothing is really going to happen. The conditions of the situation we are facing just seem too daunting.

       The folk’s praying at the house of Mary all new of the conditions Peter was facing. He had been arrested by the Roman authority.  They knew what that meant.  He was imprisoned, well guarded and probably not being treated with a lot of tender loving care.  Even though they were appealing to God to perform a miracle, their knowledge of the situation Peter was in over-road their faith. They were not really expecting the miracle that occurred.     

       I think we can all identify with this scenario. The reality of a situation is often so powerful that even though we go to God asking Him to intervene on our behalf or on the behalf of someone else, our faith that something will actually happen is diminished by our awareness of the reality of the situation we are praying about.

       I am reminded of the account in Mark 9 were a man brought his son to Jesus who was possessed by an evil spirit.  The man tells Jesus that His disciples were unable to cast the demon out.  Jesus responds to this by chastising those around Him for their lack of faith.  The boys father them makes the following statement to Jesus:

       Mark 9:22-24: But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." "`If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

        "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"  Isn’t that the way it often is.  We believe and at the same time we don’t believe. I have to wonder how much that element of unbelief prevents prayers from being answered.  Some day I hope to put a sermon together on the subject of faith, belief, unbelief, miracles then and now and a number of other dynamics associated with these issues.

       I want to address one other issue that most readers probably just read over when reading the account of Peter escaping prison and appearing at the house of Mary. When the servant girl kept on insisting it was Peter at the door, the prayer warriors said it must be his angel.  What were they saying?  Did Peter have an angel assigned to him?  Do we have angels assigned to us?  Why did the prayer warriors think it was Peter’s angel?  Where did this idea come from?  Is it scripturally based?

       In Matthew 18 we see the disciples coming to Jesus and asking who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus proceeds to have a little child stand among them.  He proceeds to make the iconic statement that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus proceeds to make several statements about how we should be like children and treat children and after making several unrelated statements comes back to talking about what appears to be children and concludes with this:

       Matthew 18:10:  "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

       Is Jesus teaching that all children have an angel assigned to them?  Is He making a general statement as to there being angels that look after children?  Do such angels continue to be associated with these children after they become an adult?  Is Jesus even talking about children here?  Some commentators believe Jesus is talking about infants in Christ, new believers who are assigned angels to look after them.   We read this in Hebrews:

       Hebrews 1:14: Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

      There certainly are Scriptural examples of angels intervening in the affairs of man and providing assistance, protection and rescue.  We just saw this in the case of Peter.  We all have heard stories of what appears to be angelic intervention to protect someone from harm. The disciples apparently believed Peter had an angel assigned to him. David writes in Psalm 91:11 that God commands his angels concerning us to guard us in all our ways.

       Whether any of this can be construed to mean God assigns an angel to each and every one of us is uncertain.  There just isn’t enough Scriptural discussion of this issue for us to arrive at a definitive answer to this question.  But there is enough Scriptural evidence to show that God does have angels appear at times on our behalf.  Let’s now get back to Peter and his escape from prison.

       After the disciples at Mary’s house finally let him in, he described how the Lord had brought him out of prison.  He instructed them to tell James and the brothers about this and then he left for another place.  The James that Peter spoke of would be the brother of Jesus and not the apostle James, the brother of Apostle John.   As we saw, that James had just been put to death by Herod.

       As can be assumed, there was quite the hubbub when it was discovered that Peter was missing. It is recoded there was no small stir among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. There lives were on the line and they knew it.  It’s recorded that Herod had a thorough search made for Peter and when he could not be found he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.  I am sure Peter went into hiding until this whole thing would blow over and blow over it apparently did in a rather dramatic manner.

       After the escape of Peter, Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there for a while.  Herod had apparently been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon and they sought an audience with him to see if a peace could be established.  Such an audience was arranged and on the appointed day Herod appeared before the people sitting on his throne wearing his royal robes and he delivered a public address to the people.  Here is what happened.

       Acts 12:22-23: They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." 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.

       It may of interest to see what the first century historian Josephus writes about this event.  In his Antiquities he writes that a festival was occurring in Caesarea in honor of the Roman Caesar.  He records that at this festival a great number were gathered together.  On the second day of the festival Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment was illuminated by the reflection of the raising sun. His appearance looked so impressive that the people cried out that he was a god. Josephus quotes the people as saying,   "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature."

       Josephus records that upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings and he fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner."

       Josephus records that when he had said this, his pain became violent. He was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die soon. The multitude sat in sackcloth, men, women and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground he could not keep himself from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign.

       How accurate the account of Josephus is of this event we can’t know, but it certainly gives secular historical evidence to what we see in the Book of Acts.  History records that Agrippa the first was a practicing Jew and would have been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and their insistence on there being only one true God.  Yet Herod apparently does not reject the people glorifying him as a God. He fails to humble himself before God and instead appears to delight in the accolades of the people.  He appears to accept the worship of the people rather than direct their worship to the one and only God.   

        This wasn’t the first time God is seen as bringing judgement upon a human ruler for failing to give God credit for being given a position of rulership. In Daniel, chapter 4 we have the account of King Nebuchadnezzar having a dream were a tree grows large and strong and with its top touching the sky.  It had beautiful leaves and abundant fruit. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches and from it every creature was fed.

       Nebuchadnezzar then sees the tree cut down with only the stump and roots remaining. Daniel interprets this dream for the King and tells him the tree represents Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom and that his kingdom will be removed from him unless he repents and acknowledges the sovereignty of God      

       Daniel 4: 24-25: "This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.

       Verse 27: Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue."

      Well it is apparent Nebuchadnezzar didn’t take the advice of Daniel.  He didn’t repent and twelve months later we see the King walking on the roof of his e royal palace in Babylon and taking the credit for building this city 

       Daniel 4:30. "Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?"

       It is recorded that the words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven telling him his royal authority has been taken from him and he would be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals, eating grass like cattle until he acknowledges that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.  After being knocked off his throne and living as an animal Nebuchadnezzar came to realize the sovereignty of God      

       Daniel 4:37: Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

        The lesson here for us is that we need to consistently acknowledge the sovereignty of God and always recognize that God is the source of every breath of air we breath and sustains us and provides for us. As was the case with Herod, Nebuchadnezzar walked in pride and in so doing failed to acknowledge God as the source of his success.

         Our goal as Christians should be to walk humbly before God on a consistent basis so God doesn’t have to take measures to humble us.  Jesus taught that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exulted.  Jesus emphasized this principle throughout His ministry. Jesus made this very plain in one of his parables.

       Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'  "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

       The Pharisee in this parable didn’t have a clue about what it means to be humble. For him it was all about self exaltation.  For him it was all about drawing attention to himself and receiving accolades for his good behavior. Jesus didn’t deride him for his righteous behavior. Jesus certainly would have approved of this Pharisee not being a robber, evildoer or adulterer. Jesus would have approved of this man fasting and tithing.

       The problem was that this Pharisee did these things to exalt himself.  In order to exalt himself he had to look down in derision on those who failed to meet the lofty standards he had set for himself.  He compared himself with others and when he perceived those others as not measuring up to his standards he concluded he must be so much better that these others.

        Moreover, by looking at himself the way he did, he also failed to see faults he may have had.  He was so absorbed with himself that he did not see himself as a sinner in need of God’s grace.  By contrast, the tax collector, first and foremost, recognized he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. He wasn’t blinded by any good he did but clearly recognized his need for God’s mercy.

       Today we once again will take of the bread and wine which points to the death of our Savior Christ Jesus.  In essence, we are doing or should be doing what the tax collector in the parable did. The tax collector, first and foremost, recognized he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. He wasn’t blinded by any good he did but clearly recognized his need for God’s mercy.

       When we partake of the communion elements we in essence recognize our need for a savior.  We recognize we are a sinner saved by grace.  So as we come forward to partake of the elements, let us do so with a humble and thankful attitude in recognition of our need for a savior.  Let us acknowledge that we truly are sinners saved by grace.

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