Trying to Stop the Unstoppable

Acts 12:1-24

Read Acts 12:1-19

In these middle chapters in the book of Acts, Luke goes back and forth between what God is doing in Judea with the Jewish church and what is beginning to happen among the Gentiles as the gospel is carried abroad by those who have been scattered by persecution. These two final vignettes surrounding the Jewish church are Luke’s way of saying God’s activity among the Gentiles doesn’t mean God has ceased working among the Jews.

The first scene brings us to an increasingly hostile situation for the church in Jerusalem. The Herod we read about here in ch. 12 is Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great who slaughtered the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to assassinate the newborn Messiah he had heard about. He is the nephew of Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist to please his wife Herodias. Herod Antipas was also the friend of Pilate, and during Jesus’ trial, Pilate sent Jesus to that Herod to be ridiculed and tortured. So, Herod Agrippa comes from a long line of despotic rulers who used their authority in arrogant and ungodly ways.

Herod was intensely hated by his own Jewish people. He was a sell out to the Romans. You know how the Jews felt about the tax collectors – Herod was worse. Herod was a pragmatist. What he did was never out of noble motives, but out of self-promotion or self-preservation. He saw that the Christians were upsetting the local peace and if unchecked would lead to imperial investigations, so he rounded up some of the Christians to persecute them and bring them back into subjection. He even had the apostle James beheaded with the sword. James was John’s brother, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Much to Herod’s delight, this pleased the local Jews, and he thought, if one’s good, two will be even better, so he has Peter arrested.

Luke notes that this happened during Passover, and because of the stigma of bloodshed during this sacred holiday, Herod put him in prison until after the feast was over. You have to admit, Herod understood the importance of his prisoner. This would be a huge public relations coup if he also executed Peter, so he made sure that he was kept under a secure guard – 4 sets of 4 guards – 2 chained to him at all times. The night that all this happened, Peter was asleep between two guards, chained to both of them, with 2 more guards posted outside the cell keeping watch. Peter was going nowhere. “But,” Luke tells us, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (vs. 5).

What happened next surprised everyone, but no one more than Peter. He’s asleep, chained to guards, locked in a prison cell, awaiting trial and certain execution the next day. Suddenly he feels a tap on the side and opens his eyes to find an angel standing over him. “Quick, get up!” And then the chains fall off of his wrists. Peter thinks he’s having a dream or a vision – don’t forget his recent encounter back in Joppa with a sheet from heaven. Peter stands up, puts on his sandals and wraps his cloak around him and heads for the door. The door opens and he walks right past the two sentries and heads for the iron gate leading out into the city. It flies open and he walks through that and when he looks around the angel is gone! He probably pinched himself to make sure he was really awake, and Luke says, “Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.’ When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” (vss. 11-12).

If you think Peter was surprised, imagine what happened when Peter shows up on the doorstep. They’re already in hiding for fear of Herod’s city-wide search for Christians. Their leader is in prison and they are praying for the impossible. And suddenly there’s a knock on the door downstairs.

They all hold their breath while a servant girl named Rhoda goes down the steps and whispers at the door, “Who is it?” Peter whispers back, “It’s me Peter.” Now, what does Rhoda do? It sounds like Peter, but it can’t be Peter – Peter’s in prison. She runs back upstairs. “Who is it?” “It’s Peter.” “Peter! You’re out of your mind – Peter’s in prison.”

Don’t you love the irony of the story? The very thing that they are upstairs praying for, God delivers. But they simply can’t believe it, because some things are just impossible (even for God.) But Rhoda insists and Peter keeps on knocking and finally they answer the door – and it’s… Peter! “And when they saw him, they were astonished.”

Suddenly, they are all talking at once, and Peter calms them down and tells the story of his miraculous escape. Apparently, the church is scattered in different hiding spots around town, because Peter tells this little group hiding in the house of Mary, the mother of John-Mark to pass the word along to James (this James is the brother of Jesus) and the other apostles, and Peter leaves to go to another place.

Peter is surprised, the church is amazed, and as dawn breaks – guess what – the guards are about to find out, too! When the two guards who had been chained to him wake up and look at each other, and no Peter between them, they holler out, and the sentries at the door unlock the cell to find one less person than they locked in the night before. And they look at each other and say, “When Herod finds out, heads are going to roll.” And when he did, they did.

Luke’s not done with Herod – Acts 12:20-23 Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply. On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 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.

Luke is a great storyteller. Every good story has to have someone you love to hate – and Herod is it. Herod decides he needs a vacation to the sea, and heads to Caesarea for a working vacation. While he is there, he allows the people of Tyre and Sidon, neighboring cities to the north, to have an audience with him. Tyre and Sidon have been arguing with Herod’s government, but they are dependent on Judea for their food supply, so they have come to make peace.

Herod plays it to the hilt, coming to the meeting dressed in his royal robes, and sitting upon a throne. He delivers a royal oration to the gathering, and you know how there are always a good 60-70 standing ovations during a presidential State of the Union address? They go one better – they are falling all over themselves to win his approval – and they start shouting, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Herod makes a fatal error. He believes it.

Flattery is always a deadly poison – but only if we swallow it. People say lots of nice things to preachers, and I always try to accept them in the spirit with which they are offered, but when a sweet sister tells me that’s the best sermon she’s ever heard, I hear her say she appreciates the way my words spoke to her that day, not that I’m the best preacher who ever lived. When Peter showed up at Cornelius’ house and Cornelius fell at his feet and started worshiping him, Peter immediately said, “Get up! I’m only a man like yourself.”

No person who had any shred of humility or godliness could have listened to those words, “This is the voice of a god and not a man” and not shouted them down in rebuttal, “I am only a man!” But Herod didn’t, because that’s really what Herod wanted to hear. He craved the applause of people – he wanted their admiration and their fear. And when they flattered him by calling him a god, was it really any less than he deserved?

We all know that there are consequences to those kinds of attitudes and actions, but the immediacy of God’s response sends a shiver down our spines: “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” (vs. 23).

It’s like when Nadab and Abihu offer unauthorized fire at the altar and the fire comes out from the presence of the Lord and consumes them, or when Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark of the covenant and the Lord struck him dead. We all understand that the wages of sin is death; we just shudder when it’s so immediate. Herod’s arrogance and ungodliness are so offensive to God that he strikes him dead on the spot.

And I love the contrast, and Luke’s sense of irony in the very next statement: “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” Herod’s intention was to crush the church and destroy it, but instead, Herod is the one who dies and the word of God increases and spreads.

The theme of Acts is not the greatness of the church or the exploits of the apostles, but the power of God. It is God, through his Holy Spirit who is changing the face of the Roman Empire. It is God who protects his church and strikes down rulers. The book of Acts is the story of God who is redeeming a lost and dying world through ordinary people in extraordinary events.

The story of Acts doesn’t end at chapter 28 – because God is still redeeming a lost and dying world through ordinary people. We are living out Acts chapter 2010, as God works in his church through people like you and me to go out as a living witness to the power of God to change lives – standing up to the power of Satan, breaking down the barriers which divide us, trusting God when it looks like everyone is against us. God is powerful and you are the ones he has chosen to tell it.

But don’t ever forget – this story isn’t about you – it is about God from beginning to end. The Pharisees learned it when they tried to stop the apostles. Herod learned it when he tried to crush the church. You cannot stop the unstoppable. The question is – when will we learn it?