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Why We Don't Fear 'Herod'

May 28, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 12:1–24

INTRO: Do you ever fear for your life? Do you ever fear for your safety (and for the safety of those you love)? Do you ever fear concerning your comfort and overall well-being

Do you ever fear for your soul and eternity? Do you ever fear concerning your usefulness to the kingdom of God?

Today we look at a text in Acts 12 where, in Jerusalem, Herod Agrippa I is literally threatening the lives of the Apostles, the leaders in the Church. The presumption from an earthly perspective is that such would threaten the survival, let alone the success, of the progress of the followers of Jesus. But in the midst of a transitional phase even for the early church, the author Luke uses this section concerning Herod to continue putting the persecution of the church in perspective. He deliberately describes persecution and even martyrdom in the context of God’s providential care for his people and God’s providential power to use his people to advance the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So today as we progress through Acts 12, we’ll emphasize the answer to this question concerning fear, even fear of those who hold great earthly power and oppose the people of the Lord Jesus:

Why don’t we fear ‘Herod’?
God holds all the power and authority in his hands, and God is the one we trust and serve.

From Luke’s perspective, which should be ours as well, Herod doesn’t wield any power outside the will of God. And we’ll see that Herod’s own life and eternity are in God’s hands.

So as we observe what God allows with James, and what God decides to do in this instance with rescuing Peter, and God’s response to Herod accepting worship, let us solidify our personal and corporate conviction and practice that, through Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit, we trust in and serve the One True God, who holds all power and authority in his hands.

Let’s look briefly again at…

James’s Life in God’s Hands (vv. 1-5)

Acts 12:1–5 ESV

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

From an earthly perspective, it looks like Herod holds an immense amount of power, such that he can falsely accuse James and kill him. (of drawing people after false gods and cut off his head)

But what happens the moment James’s head is severed? His eternal soul is immediately ushered into the presence of God… bc he was given eternal life at the moment he trusted his life to Jesus Christ as Lord, repenting of sin and self and turning to God through Jesus Christ.

In fact, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” declares the Psalmist in 116:15. - We may hold some measure of fear or apprehension concerning the process or means that leads to our death, but God’s people do not need to fear death nor even those who might put us to death. (See Luke 12:4-5 [and context]) We do not fear death because we fear God… through faith in Jesus Christ. We fear God because we have come to know him. And what we know of God is that he is trustworthy, and that is worthy of our love—our adoration and admiration. To fear God is to know God, and to know God is to trust him, love him, and obey him.

But James, a member of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, has been put to death by the sword. That’s a lot for the church to reckon with.

To make matters worse (from an earthly perspective), Herod sees that this pleases the Jews, so he arrests Peter, presumably with plans to follow the same pattern as with James (once the festival of Passover, followed by the week of Unleavened Bread, is finished).

From an earthly perspective, if there were ever a time for the Jerusalem church to panic, it would be now.

But the church prays together to maintain a heavenly perspective of God’s providential work in the world and care for his people.

We must take a step back and realize: Why was Herod able to kill James and imprison Peter? Because God authorized him to do so. It was God’s will to bring James home at this time and in this way. None of this happens apart from God’s perfect knowledge & intentional will. God wasn’t napping when James was killed, but then that woke him up to defend Peter. No, Herod has no power here except for what God allows. - And God’s perfect justice means that ultimately Herod will be judged and the one who has faith in Christ will be vindicated just as Jesus himself was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead and exaltation to the seat of majesty—King of kings and Lord of lords.

The sad part for Herod, as we will see, is that he thinks he’s getting away with being an oppressive tyrant. But ultimately, even if God permits something, he sees all and judges all and one day justice will be served.

The context that gives further clarity to these conclusions I’m describing, so let’s continue.

Peter’s Life in God’s Hands (vv. 6-19)

From an earthly perspective, Herod holds all the cards and has Peter securely held captive.

Acts 12:6 ESV

6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison.

-Groups of four guards rotating in shifts (v. 4). (probably the four night watches according to the Roman custom with soldiers) Peter is chained between two of them, with two others standing guard.

And it appears to be the final night before he would be brought out for public trial. Talk about a rescue at the 11th hour!

Let’s read on about Peter’s unlikely, sleepy escape.

Acts 12:7–11 ESV

7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

An Unlikely, Sleepy Escape

There are some really amazing things happening in these verses: The angel has to thump Peter in the side to wake him. I’m not surprised that Peter’s a deep sleeper, I’m surprised that he’s asleep at all! He’s slated to be executed tomorrow.

Whom does Peter clearly know and trust? The sentiment of David in Psalm 4:8 must express Peter’s confidence as well: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” I love v. 7 as well, because it expresses that knowing God and having a relationship with him is of greater value than any joy the world can offer: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” - Herod went to bed undoubtedly drinking wine and carousing with his rich and important friends. He’d wake up to having lost his prisoner.

Now none of the other things that follow with Peter could have been quiet (except for maybe getting dressed), so the Lord must have put everyone else into a deep sleep (or at least cut off all their senses to what is happening). God can do whatever he wants. God does do whatever he wants. All of this is his.

This escape is all so unlikely, and Peter’s still groggy, so he thinks this is a dreamlike vision. (not surprising based on recent history) I believe that Luke wants us to understand that this escape is more than just improbably; it’s impossible.

He was probably imprisoned at the Tower of Antonia (also called the Antonia Fortress), a military garrison adjacent to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the whole Roman garrison for Jerusalem was likely quartered. But even with some sleeping, there are guards posted at positions in the night watch, and Peter walks right past one and then two. It’s no wonder he thought he was dreaming.

But God is powerful enough to deliver us at any time and in any way he sees fit. So if we are not delivered, then such is God’s definite will and plan. We can trust him.

So Peter finally wakes up enough to realize that God just delivered him from Herod’s hand from what the Jewish leaders wanted, which was his death.

Let’s continue.

Acts 12:12–14 ESV

12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

A Surprising Knock at the Gate

This is funny. No trouble escaping the prison, no trouble with the iron city gates (evidently also shut at night for safety). But getting into Mark’s mom’s house proves the more difficult task on this night.

[image] When Bob Deffinbaugh was teaching this passage, he had his (cousin/nephew?) create this little comic strip.

On a more serious note, we find a large group of disciples praying together on this night.

We pray because we trust God, not because we can manipulate God. God is not beholden to us. - “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” - In heaven God’s will is perfectly obeyed. That means this prayer is not just for God’s power to accomplish his will, but that people’s hearts will be wholly submissive to God, including and especially the very ones praying these dependent words.

Another side note, although it isn’t the main point here, it informs our understanding of the life and situations of the early church. Mark’s mom, with his dad probably deceased, would have been pretty well-to-do to have such a large house (and servants) in the upper city of Jerusalem. She hospitably used her large home as one of the meeting places for believers in Jerusalem, which historically seems to have been the case for the first 2 or 3 centuries of the church wherever the gospel spread (Ex. Rom 16:5a).

Back to the action: How does the prayer meeting respond to Rhoda’s enthusiastic announcement?

Acts 12:15–16 ESV

15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed.

I’m not at all shocked at their disbelief and then amazement at seeing Peter well and at the gate. They were probably praying for courage if Peter was killed like James. And they probably prayed for God to miraculously rescue Peter, knowing that God could do so if it was his will. But like me, they still marvel at God when he does it. We say, I shouldn’t be surprised, but man! God is truly amazing.

Acts 12:17 ESV

17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.

Peter apparently came to them on this night at this location because he expected some of them to be there. He wanted them to know of God’s deliverance, but he couldn’t stay. Peter, and presumably all of the Apostles, will now have to be more careful about their public presence. But this won’t slow the spread of the gospel!

As I mentioned last week, the James Peter speaks of here is James the Elder in the Jerusalem church, who is the half-brother of Jesus and author of the letter of James in the NT cannon.

Let’s read on to see how Herod reacts to losing Peter, his prisoner.

Acts 12:18–19 ESV

18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19And 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.

A Disappearing Prisoner

No little disturbance - No kidding! Bc look what happens to soldiers who let prisoners get away.

Follows Roman custom - If soldiers lost a prisoner, they’d suffer the same penalty that the prisoner was due. So here’s further evidence that Peter, in Herod’s plans, was about to be beheaded just like James.

I think Herod leaves the area to let the frustration of the Jewish leaders settle down. Somehow he let Peter slip right through his hands.

Compared to God’s eternal and limitless power and authority, Herod’s power and reach is exceedingly feeble and limited. - Jesus to Pilate in John 19 “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above.” (Jn 19:11a) - Not only is his authority contingent upon God, but Agrippa’s very life is in God’s hands. (which is our final section for today before Luke’s patented summary sentence)

Herod’s Life in God’s Hands (vv. 20-23)

Arrogant Herod suffers the consequences of self-glorification instead of giving glory to the one true God. Let’s see how it happens.

Acts 12:20 ESV

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food.

Herod didn’t rule Phoenicia, with Tyre and Sidon as its major cities, but he was hugely influential in the region and these Greek cities were dependent on the territories Agrippa ruled for vital food supplies. (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Ac 12:20.)

We don’t know what had come between them, but they had convinced Blastus, a close personal assistant to the king, to put in a good word so they could have an audience with Agrippa.

How did that interaction go, and what was the result?

Acts 12:21–23 ESV

21 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!” 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.

Unlike what Peter did when he immediately rejected worship from Cornelius (Ac 10:26), and as Paul and Barnabas would do at Lystra (Ac 14:8-15), Herod receives and relishes this praise. We are told about the condition of his heart and why God has an angel strike him with deadly sickness: “because he did not give God the glory.”

The manner of his death is corroborated by the Jewish historian Josephus. Though not inspired, he reported “that [Agrippa had to be] carried to the palace, where he died at the age of fifty-four, after five days of [agonizing] stomach pains caused by worms.” (Keener, IVPBBC NT, Ac 12:22–24.)

In the end, what is the result of Herod’s arrogance and self-glory? Judgment from God. And what is the result of all his efforts (and those of the Jewish leaders) to put a stop the continued spread of more and more people following Jesus? 

God’s Gospel Goes Forward (v. 24)

As Luke frequently does, he adds a summary of how the Spirit continues to grow the church in the midst of all these occurrences.

Acts 12:24 ESV

24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.

How much of a dent did Herod put in the progress of Christ’s Church? Therefore…

We need not fear ‘Herod’ because Herod wields no power apart of the perfect will and intentional authorization of God.

No harm will come to us apart from the deliberate providence of God. We are always and only as safe and prosperous as God desires for us to be.

We do not fear ‘Herod’ because God holds the life of Herod in his hands. God holds all the power and authority over even the most powerful person, entity, spiritual being, and spiritual forces.

Psalm 118:6 ESV

6 The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?

Or Paul in Rom. 8:31b:

Romans 8:31 (ESV)

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Our Eternal Life Is in God’s Hands

Have you trusted in God through Jesus Christ to save your soul and to bring you into his presence forever?

Prayerfully trust in God to gain an eternal perspective.

- An eternal perspective means knowing the eternal God. An eternal perspective means

Do you trust God to use you as you invest yourself in his purposes?

 

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