Persecution, Prayer, and the Power of God

Persecution, Prayer, and the Power of God

Persecution, Prayer, and the Power of God
Text: Acts 12:1-25

Main point: Faithful Christians may face every manner of danger but those who oppose God are facing a far greater danger.

Primary Application: Christian, you have access to the infinite power of God in prayer. Therefore, bring your every need to him in Prayer. Remembering, though, in his providence he might not always respond as we wish.

Sermon Outline:

I. The Persecution of Herod (Acts 12:1–4)
II. The Prayer of God’s People (Acts 12:5)
III. The Omnipotent Power of God (Acts 12:6–25)
IV. Application

Good morning church. To be honest, when I laid out my preaching schedule months ago, I was not really sure if I was going to preach Acts 12. After all we have already seen God deliver Peter from prison, we have seen God answer his people’s prayer, and it can be hard to grasp how the gruesome death of Herod in Caesarea contributes to the storyline of Acts.

Well, the fundamental key to our text, this morning, is that we need to recognize that the paragraph breaks in our Bible can occasionally obscure the author’s intention. What I mean by this is that we are supposed to read this chapter as one story (one narrative account) that has a conflict, a climax, and a conclusion. The chapter opens with Herod’s violence against the church, the death of James, and the imprisonment of Peter. But how does it end? It ends with the surprising deliverance of Peter, the supernatural death of Herod, and the unstoppable spread of God’s word in Jerusalem and Judea.[1]

And when we see this, we are able to grasp Luke’s message to the church of every age. He is saying, Christian, you may feel small and insignificant; you may think that God has forgotten you and that the church is doomed when some of your best leaders are imprisoned or even killed by the state. But hold fast to this truth (main point): Faithful Christians may face every manner of danger but those who oppose God are facing a far greater danger.

So be encouraged. Pursue the Lord in prayer for your every need and anxiety and fear. And spread the gospel with all courage and boldness, convinced that outcome belongs to God and God alone.

The Persecution of Herod (Acts 12:1–4)

The Man

As we turn to the opening lines of our passage this morning, we are presented with a brand-new character in the story line of Acts, king Herod Agrippa I (The grandson of king “Herod the Great” who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth. And the son of Herod the tetrarch who beheaded John the Baptist). And one thing comes through loud and clear in this account today as the story unfolds: king Herod Agrippa I is not only walking in the footsteps of the “Herods” before him— he is the antithesis —the exact opposite— of a good and faithful king.

He is not concerned with the overall good of his people and their ability to thrive under his rule. Nor is he is concerned with the truth, with justice, or with due process. No. He is a small, impotent, conniving politician who is leveraging his position of civil authority for his personal sense of self-worth and social advancement. A man who is driven in this chapter by one overarching desire and motivation —the praise of men— whether that be the Jews in Jerusalem here at the beginning of the story or the leaders of Tyre and Sidon at the end… what does Herod want in life? He wants to be seen as big and powerful in the eyes of his people.

This is important because it helps us get underneath Herod’s behavior to the underlying desires and motives that are driving his persecution of the Church.

The Motive

See, while Luke does not tell us what drove Herod to “lay violent hands” on the church and execute the apostle James in cold blood. Scholars suggest that Herod’s violent attack was most likely driven by political pragmatism not outright hatred of the church or the gospel of Jesus Christ, because his fundamental duty to Rome was to preserve the peace Palestine.

Every ruler of Palestine knew, the easiest and most direct way to propagate peace in Palestine was to placate the Jews and their leaders. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Herod launches his initial attack especially at this stage in Acts. The church is growing leaps and bounds and the Jewish leaders are at their wit’s end… and Herod hears about the conflict and thinks to himself, “what better way to elevate my status and secure peace in the land than launching an attack against this religious minority that is a growing source of conflict and consternation among the religious majority.” And according to verse 3–4, it worked. He launches a violent attack against the church and kills the apostle James (the brother of John). And when he hears that it “pleased the Jews” he quickly arrests Peter that he might kill him as well because he knows it will make him even more popular with the leaders and people of Jerusalem.

But, “it just so happens” that he has to delay his plans for just a few days because the Jews were celebrating the Passover, a week-long celebration that commemorated their supernatural deliverance from slavery in Egypt, their founding as a nation, and their covenant relationship with God.

The Prayer of God’s People (ACts 12:5)

The Situation

In human terms, the situation appears to be utterly hopeless for both Peter and the church.

One the one hand, Herod was openly attacking the church. The apostle James was dead. And the apostle Peter was being held captive under the tightest security by four squads of four soldiers. One soldier chained to each of his arms, with two others maintaining a constant guard at the cell door. With the other squads rotating shifts every three to six hours to make sure that Peter’s supporters could not overpower the guards and that no one would fall asleep on the job.[2]

And on the other hand, given the fact that Peter was imprisoned during the feast of Passover, it would have been impossible to ignore the reality that Peter’s situation reflected the imprisonment and execution of Jesus Christ himself. And at least for Peter, he must have thought that Jesus’ disclosure of his future death was finally coming true.

John 21:18–19 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

But as we turn to verse 5, we see that this utterly hopeless situation drives the church to its knees in prayer (not dispair) so that they can bring their impossible need to their infinitely omnipotent God.

The Church’s Response

See, the church knows something Herod doesn’t— God is able to do far more than his people could ever think, hope, or imagine. They have seen him do it! And on account of this, they are convinced that he is more than able to rescue his servants the most impossible circumstances. We see this in that they do not organize an escape attempt OR try to assemble a defense team for the up coming show trial. No, they gather together for a prolonged period of passionate prayer.

Don’t miss this, they are not sending out “good thoughts” to Peter. They are not shooting up a quick little prayer to the big man upstairs. Nor are they standing stoically on the sidelines in the conviction that God is going to do what he is going to do. No. They are pouring their hearts out to God in what is most likely a multiday prayer meeting filled with nonstop prayer. We see this in the text in that:

The Greek verb “praying” in verse 5 is in a tense that implies a continuous activity.[3]

The Greek adverb “earnestly” helps us see that their prayers were filled with deep passion and anguish, in that, Luke used this very same adverb to describe Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, when his sweat fell like great drops of blood to the ground (Luke 22:44).[4]

And how does God respond to the prayer of his people? He reveals but a glimpse of his limitless power as he turns Herod’s self-exaltation into utter futility and shame in a series of three escalating events. The deliverance of Peter, the death of Herod, and the dynamic growth of the church.

The Omnipotent Power of God (Acts 12:6–25)

The Deliverance of Peter (Acts 12:6–11)

Notice, first of all the timing of Peter’s deliverance. God did not rescue Peter the moment the church began to pray. And I can only imagine that the intensity of the church’s prayer meeting increased as the feast of Passover was coming to an end as they wondered why God had not answered their prayer.

But this very delay is a central part of the story, in that, Peter’s deliverance happens at the very moment that Herod was ready to put his plan into action. Herod is at the height of his hubris. He has killed one apostle. And he is certain that he will secure the undying praise and fealty of the Jews for his imminent execution of Peter. Nothing in this world can stop him from fulfilling his evil plans… BUT God and God alone. The very one who sends an angel to rescue a very confused Peter from prison. In fact, for everything we can see in the text Peter isn’t even expecting to be saved; he is humbly resigned to his death as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

Yet, in this supernatural deliverance what is God doing? He is magnifying his omnipotent power and exposing Herod’s true powerlessness. This is important, because even though much of the story revolves around Peter and the church; the primary conflict is between Herod and God.

This is helpful because it helps us realize that the death of James in verse 2 was not because the Church did not pray or that God could not deliver him from death. But, because in the providence and sovereign plan of God, James’ work on this planet had come to an end… Some bear witness through their death (like James) and others through their life (like Peter).

And in the case of Peter, his deliverance serves two key purposes in the book of Acts.

First, it enables him to continue preaching and teaching for about 15–20 more years.

Second (and more important to this account), God used Peter’s last-minute deliverance to rob Herod of the two things that he most desired: the praise of man and the appearance of power.

Acts 12:18–19 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.

Luke may only give us two verses at this point of the story, but it is clear that Herod is deeply affected by Peter’s escape because he does not just kill the guards who were guarding Peter and return to his normal routine. No. He runs as far away from the scene of the crime as he can (to Caesarea) so he can escape the ever-present reminder of what might be the most public and humiliating failure that he has ever faced.

The Death of Herod (Acts 12:20)

So, as we turn to the second way that God turns Herod’s self-exaltation into utter futility and shame, we are presented (in many ways) with a very ordinary day in the life and rule of king Herod. The leaders of Tyre and Sidon show up on his doorstep (in Caesarea) in the hopes that they can somehow patch up their relationship with their temperamental king and secure an ample supply of grain for their cities. They are in a desperate situation and willing to do anything they can to please Herod, so their citizens don’t starve.

So, what does Herod do? Once again, he arranges an environment where he can receive the thing that he desires the most, the appearance of power and the praise of man.

Acts 12:21–22 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!”

And it’s here that we see the true heart of Herod. He’s delivered his long oration to his captive audience. In the moment it looks like has finally attained the recognition and glory and acclaim that he has been always looking for. His audience is openly declaring the secret truth that he believes in his heart— There is no one like him. He’s more than a man, he is more than a king, he is a living god. After all, he has the power to end life by killing his enemies and the power to grant life by providing food to needy cities…

Acts 12:23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

I know this sounds almost unbelievable, but the first-century Jewish historian Josephus records the very same account. “Immediately his flatterers called out … using language which boded him no good for they addressed him as a god … He did not rebuke them or repudiate their impious flattery … He was seized by a severe pain in his belly … He was carried quickly into the palace and when he had suffered continuously for five days … he died.”[5]

Notice, both Luke and the Jewish historian Josephus point us to the same truth, Herod didn’t die of natural causes. He died as a direct act of divine judgment. He committed cosmic treason against the creator of the universe and gracious redeemer of mankind. He not only persecuted his church; he claimed to be God.

And what was the ultimate result of this judgment? The dynamic growth of the Church.

The Dynamic Growth of the Church (Acts 12:24–25)

This is the third way that God reverses Herod’s every victory in this chapter and proves that no one in this world can match his power or blunt his purposes. “The word of God increased and multiplied.” And it did so because (as we have seen through this entire book) God is actively empowering it’s advance through his Spirit-empowered witnesses for his glory among the nations.

This is the goal of all God does—he magnifies his wisdom and power and spreads the fame of his Son so that hell-bound sinners might be saved and glorify his great name.

The Gospel is God’s plan. The Church is God’s people. And while his people may face any number of persecutors like Herod and witness the martyrdom of faithful saints like James and Steven; this chapter is here to remind the church of every age that: Faithful Christians may face every manner of danger but those who oppose God are facing a far greater danger.

Application: Two takeaways.

One: Don’t be impressed or overwhelmed when the world makes temporary triumphs against the gospel and the people of God.

Yes, powerful people will wage war against the people of God. Yes, they will win any number of victories against God’s people. But that does not mean that God has forgotten his people or that the gospel has stopped working.

This account reminds us of this, because for all of his pomp and power and pride, Herod was nothing more than an impotent man in the hand of an infinitely omnipotent God.

Two: PRAY. Because you and I have access to the infinite power of God in prayer, though in his providence he might not always respond as we wish.

Let’s consider the second half of this statement before we turn to the first. Because we can read this chapter and take it to mean if you pray hard enough and long enough and earnestly enough God will answer your prayer. But what do we see in this text? James is murdered in cold blood and Peter is set free. Are we to assume that God loved Peter more than James OR that the church only prayed for Peter? I don’t think so.

First of all Jesus told James that he would die as a martyr at least 10 years before Herod killed him (Mark 10:39).

And secondly, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, how did he teach them to pray? He taught them to pray confidently and earnestly and constantly. But most of all he taught them to pray with open handed trust and humility, knowing that God’s good and perfect plans may not align with our particular request.

Matthew 6:9–10 Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.

But, in the midst of this mystery and the sovereign counsel of his will, God doesn’t call us to merely resign ourselves to fate. NO, as the first half our statement reminds us, God beacons us and encourages us to pray!

Luke 11:11–13 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Friends, God is calling us to pray. And not just about the mundane things of life, but the seemingly impossible things in life as well.[6]

Just think about it, in our passage today, Herod seemed utterly unstoppable. He’s the king. He has the power to do as he pleases. But the church prays and in the face of what seems to be impossible odds, God answers. And even when he answers they still think it’s impossible!

Just think your prayer life. Do, you pray impossible things? Things that if God answered, you’d still think, “that’s impossible”!

What I want you to see is that God is calling us to pray for impossible things and for ordinary things. To pray for little things and to pray for big things— both of which might seem impossible.

  • God reconcile our broken and shattered relationships.
  • God heal the broken hearted among us AND the ones who are trapped in cycles of never-ending weariness and depression.
  • God grant humility to the prideful who cannot see their error or their need.
  • God save our children. Save our marriage. Save our family members and friends from their current path of sin and unbelief.
  • God bring about peace and justice and unity to our polarized nation. Bring about peace in the war-ravaged nation of Ukraine. Bring peace to countries like Venezuela, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Syria… and bring peace to the impossible situation I am facing in the workplace or at home as I homeschool my children tomorrow.

Friends, God is calling us to pray for small things, for big things, for messy things, for painful things, and for the things that we think are utterly impossible. So that we might grow in our faith and that he might make known and magnify the glory of his name.

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 213.

[2] Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 272.

[3] “It is prolonged prayer, the tense of the verb praying is imperfect (ginomene), as is that referring to Peter’s imprisonment, implying continuous activities: both lasted several days;” (Milne, The Acts of the Apostles, 272).

[4] David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 362–63.

[5] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XIX.8.2 cited by Milne, The Acts of the Apostles, 276.

[6] This section was greatly influenced by a sermon on Acts 12 by Kenny Stokes, one of my former pastors at Bethlehem Baptist Church.