Thursday, June 5, 2014
Acts 12:1-5 "Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. 2 And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. 3 When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. 5 So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God."
Today's post will feature the empowering graces that God gave to the early church in Acts 12 to get her through an intense time of persecution and hardship. Such graces, as we will discover, are still available to the church today. Much had been going on in the world at large and in the specific regions of Judea and Samaria where the early Christians worshipped and lived.
For starters, God through a prophet named Agabus predicted that a worldwide famine would occur in those days, which the Bible said did occur. (see Acts 11:28). Secondly, the Herod in power over the realm of Judea during the time of Acts 12 was Herod Agrippa I, a self-serving, self-exalting ruler who aimed to curry favor with anyone who could advance his political schemes. Thirdly, the church had experienced many persecutions during the nearly ten year span of time that passed between its beginnings in Pentecost in Acts 2 up until Acts 12. Much water had passed under the proverbial bridge and now a new flood was quickly on its way.
Through famines, persecutions and hardships, the now ten year old Christian movement and the disciples who occupied it were running as high as an estimated 20,000 strong. God was getting ready to take the church from being a regionally effective church (in Jerusalem/Judea/Samaria) to a world-wide phenomenon. Peter's ministry was going to be fading out, and the up and coming Saul of Tarsus was going to be launching out on his 1st missionary journey in Acts 13.
Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 were literally coming true: be my witnesses in Jerusalem (Acts 1-8), Judea and Samaria (Acts 9-12) and the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 13-28).
For the early church to handle the increasing pressure and to make the transitions necessary to be used by God, the Lord gave to her three graces mentioned here in Acts 12. Grace of course is God doing what you and I could otherwise never do for ourselves. The three graces that we are going to briefly cover in today's post are found throughout Acts, however they are all included again the backdrop mentioned above. Here are the graces of which we speak:
1. Prayer 12:1-5, 12-19
2. Angelic Assistance 12:6-11, 20-23
3. Scripture 12:24-25
The grace of prayer. Acts 12:6-11, 20-23
Acts 12:5 says all that is happening here in the chapter - "So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God." Now as we noted earlier, persecutions, famines and hardships were hitting the church. The famine was already mentioned, but the persecution has not yet been discussed. In the first two verses we read of Herod executing the Apostle James with a sword.
Meet the 3 James of the New Testament
To remind the reader of which James is being referred to in the passage, this is James the brother of the Apostle John. In the New Testament we run across at least three men who are named James. There is James the son of Alphaeus, also called "James the Less", the brother of Matthew, mentioned in Mark 15:40. Then there is another James, the brother of our Lord Jesus in the flesh, seen in Acts 1 gathered with the 120 and then later presiding over the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, as well as the author of the Epistle of James. The third "James" is who is mentioned here, called by some "James the Greater" to distinguish him from the other apostle James, James the Less. James the Greater in Acts 12 is the brother of the Apostle John who was predicted by Jesus in Matthew 20:23 that he would suffer some sort of suffering or martyrdom.
See the church praying, and the grace given by God to pray
Herod's radar screen of persecution lit up when he saw James and Peter. So he decided to execute James and had designs on doing the same to Peter. Peter, the leader of the church was cast into prison. One would think such an action would cause the church to close up shop. Hardly!
Instead the church held an all-night prayer meeting, seeking God in prayer. As they were praying, God dispatched an angel to set Peter free in Acts 12:6-11. By the time we get to Acts 12:12-19, Peter is seen knocking at there door and getting to tell them what all happened to him!
Prayer is an amazing grace given by God to His people that sadly we don't use. Prayer has often been described as the slender nerve that moves the mighty muscles of omnipotence. Prayer is like a rail that God has ordained to parallel His Sovereignty to bring about His locomotive of Heavenly purposes here on the earth. So we see the grace of prayer given to the church, but notice the second grace....
The Grace of Angelic Assistance 12:6-11, 20-23
We read of two angelic interventions in Acts 12. The first deals with an angel aiding Peter out of prison in Acts 12:7 "And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands." That same angel had the ability to loosen chains and get Peter past four powerful Romans guards. After he finds himself outside the prison, we find these words about Peter in Acts 12:11 "When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
Passages throughout the scriptures speak of God's holy emissaries (angels) aiding His people in different situations. (Psalm 91; Hebrews 1:14) Even the Lord Jesus in the days of his sojourn here on earth was aided by the angels. (Luke 22:43)
But now just as we saw angels assisting believers like Peter, we also see angels defending the church through the judgment of her enemies. Acts 12:20-21 records what happened to Herod - "On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22 The people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died." The first century Jewish Historian Josephus records this event wherein Herod wore a silver garment and was heralded by those who saw him as immortal and like a god. Without prohibiting them from such blasphemy, Herod is suddenly struck with severe stomach pains and, as Josephus records, Herod Agrippa I dies five days later. I only mention this to show the reader that the account written here by Luke really happened. The angelic intervention here against the enemies of God on behalf of the people can be compared to how one angel prevailed against a mighty enemy army on behalf of a Godly King and the people of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 19:35. God uses angels to aid His people, even when they least expect it. (Hebrews 13:2)
So we have seen two graces given by God to his church: prayer and angelic assistance. But notice one final grace here in Acts 12....
The grace of Scripture 12:24-25
Acts 12:24-25 closes out the chapter with this postscript: "But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied. 25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark." Every single advance in the life of Jesus' disciples individually or corporately never happens without the grace of the scriptures. Of all the graces conveyed in this chapter, scripture alone can convert the soul of a man (Psalm 19:7) and carry for believers in growth and Christ-likeness. (Ephesians 5:22-25) During this intense of season of persecution, the early church came to regard the scriptures in the fashion expressed in Psalm 119:71 "It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes." Acts is punctuated with these statements of the church advancing forward in both boldness and passion for the Word of the Lord. (Acts 6:7; 8:4). What one would think would be the cause for neglect of the scriptures - persecution, hardship - produces opposite results. God's grace of the scriptures feeds the flock of God.
The three graces that were observed in today's post were these:
1. Prayer 12:1-5, 12-19
2. Angelic Assistance 12:6-11, 20-23
3. Scripture 12:24-25
May we ever look to the Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom such graces come, and to the Father, from whom such grace come, and to the Spirit, who applies such graces in accordance to the Sovereign pleasure and design of almighty God.