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CHURCH’S PRAYER AND HEROD’S SWORD

Acts 12:1-12:25
Key Verse: 12:5

In chapter 11 the good news about the Lord Jesus entered into the Gentile land and a church of God was established in Antioch. In chapter 12, the author Luke tells the story of an event related to Jerusalem church. This happened right before the Antioch church sent missionaries, in chapter 13. Today’s passage, chapter 12, begins with Herod’s persecution to the church and ends with Herod’s death and church prevailing. In this incident Peter was imprisoned, but when the church prayed earnestly, he was rescued by the power of God. This is the end of the story of Peter and Jerusalem church in Acts, other than the council at Jerusalem in chapter 15. Then the book of Acts takes the step into the story o f Paul from chapter 13 all the way to chapter 28. In today’s passage we see that the church overcomes the power of the world through prayer.

First, God rescuing Peter from Herod’s clutches while the church was praying (1-17). Look at verses 1-2. “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.” Here “about this time” refers to the Gentile church being established in Antioch with great numbers of people brought to the Lord and disciples called Christians raised up. While the church was moving forward for its expansion to the whole world, Herod attempted to get rid of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem with the power of the sword. So far persecution came from religious authorities and the church was able to withstand it. Now it was from the political power, at the king’s direct initiative. This Herod was Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great. As the first step, he had James put to death with the sword. James was one of the three among the twelve disciples of Jesus. How could Herod have him put to death so flippantly? When he killed James with the sword, it was likely that the power of his sword was unyielding and no power would stop it. What did he do next? Look at verse 3. “When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” As the next step Herod seized the top leader Peter. He wanted to please the Jews more and consolidate his position. It was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the time when the Jews were commemorating God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the bandage of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. In that joyful special occasion King Herod was doing a terrible thing against God. It was none other than the power of Satan. What did Herod do further? Look at verse 4. “After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.” Four squads were assigned to keep Peter in the prison, each squad of four soldiers taking six hours shift or three hours only during the night, with two soldiers inside and two others outside of the cell. This was a thorough clutch with no way to escape. Having a wicked plan to kill Peter publicly, Herod waited until the Passover was over, for the Jewish law permitted neither trials nor sentencing during the feast. A dreadful day was approaching.

What could the church do in that dreadful situation? Look at verse 5. “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” When Peter was kept in prison, the church could have been in sorrow and despair or bitter toward God, questioning, “Why…why?” and feeling helpless. Never such a thing did the church do. The church knew that this was a spiritual warfare. The church knew who their enemy was and how to fight the battle. The church knew that while Herod wielded the sword to kill James and was going to kill Peter with the same sword, they had to exercise their weapon of prayer. The church also knew that the Almighty God is (was) their fortress. So the church prayed earnestly to God for Peter. Even that very night they were praying.

We remember the church’s prayer when Peter and John were released from the hand of the Sanhedrin and reported their threatening. The church members raised their voices together in prayer to God, saying, “Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them”, and quoting Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One” and clearly presenting their prayer topic, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” When they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Acts 4:23-31). The church experienced the power of prayer that brought the power of God. So this time also they prayed earnestly to newly experience the power of God.

From Genesis 1, the first chapter of the first book, the Bible declares that God is the almighty God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. He divided the Red Sea. He made the walls of Jericho fall. He raised Jesus from the dead. God wants his people to depend on him and pray for anything and everything. He wants us to overcome any fear and confront any situation fearlessly through prayer and experience his help. When the LORD delivered David from the hand of all his enemies, David said, “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of salvation, my stronghold” (Ps 18:2). Peter said in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” To some of us studying a certain subject can be like the sword of Herod. To others, repeated and unfruitful job applications may also be fearsome. Or job performance in a competitive company environment would be a formidable situation. As we serve summer ministry and prepare for the ISBC, we face one obstacle after another. To establish a true Christian community with discipleship is a vast task given to us. Yet, “we cannot, but God can” should be our motto. Our God wants us to pray earnestly to God with a clear prayer topic, individually and collectively.

Then what happened when they prayed? God did a miraculous work and rescued Peter. Their praying is written simply in one verse, verse 5, but God’s work of rescuing Peter is written in detail, stressing the truthfulness of this event. Look at verse 6. “The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.” How could Peter be sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains? It showed Peter had no anxiety and no fear at all, although it was the night before his trial that would be most probably followed by his execution. We can admire Peter’s faith and courage. However, we believe that when the church prayed, God strengthened him in faith enough to have such a peaceful sleep in that situation. When the church prayed, God rescued him from Satan’s fear before rescuing him from Herod’s clutch.

Next, what happened? Look at verse 7. “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.” This was a super natural power. 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. This was a limitation of human understanding. When our human idea and thought fails, we must believe God and his work. With faith we can overcome human limited understanding. Look at verse 10. “The 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.” In this way the angel of the Lord brought Peter out of the prison to the street. The angle helped Peter as much as needed, and let him stand on his feet and walk out by himself to the next destination.

Then what was Peter’s realization of this supernatural event? Look at verse 11. “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.” Human beings seem to be slow in understanding what God is doing. Even the apostle Peter was not an exception. Yet, this was Peter’s sincere and unambiguous confession that the Lord rescued him through the angel from what no one could rescue him from.

The next six verses are about the encounter between Peter and the church. Look at verse 12. “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.” Peter was a blessed man, for there was a group of people praying for him. Peter went to the house of prayer and knocked at the outer entrance. Now a very funny thing is written. At Peter’s knocking at the door, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door.” It is unbelievable that she ran back without opening the door when she recognized Peter’s voice. Probably she wanted to deliver the good news as quickly as possible and then forgot opening the door. Yet, it had to be an unforgettable event. So the servant girl’s name is written, Rhoda. Also, the next story is funny and unbelievable. At the Rhoda’s exclamation, the church members said, “You’re out of your mind.” When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” Again, how slow human beings are to catch what God is doing, even the praying people. Anyway, these funny stories add the factuality of the event of God’s rescuing Peter out of the prison.

It was likely that though Peter was rescued out of the prison, the church could not welcome him immediately because of their slowness of spiritual sense. It was night and Peter kept on knocking. They finally opened the door and saw him. How was their response at this? Were they overjoyed and did they welcome Peter wholeheartedly right away? No, that was not their response. They were astonished. In their astonishment they could not praise God right away for answering their prayers. They were unbelieving doubting their eyes for a moment. We remember that when God answered the prayer of the priest Zechariah who had been praying for a son throughout his life, he could not believe it. He said, “How can I be sure of this?” Because of his unbelieving words, he had to receive dumb training for nine months. Human beings are basically unbelieving. We also need faith training to the end of our lives. Look at verse 17. “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.’” Peter’s motioning with his hand, not speaking and leaving for another place indicates how frightful the social atmosphere was.

In this part we clearly see that when the church prayed earnestly, God did his miraculous work in rescuing Peter from Herod’s clutch. The power of the church’s prayer was stronger than that of the Herod’s sword. Their prayer is written in one verse, but how God rescued Peter in response to their prayer and how the church and Peter met again in astonishing joy are written in twelve verses, verses 6 through 17. We are reminded of what Paul said Ephesians 3:20 that “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” May we believe this and become praying men and women, and as a whole, a praying church.

Second, an angel of the Lord striking Herod to death (18-25). Look at verses 18,19. “In the morning there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.” This is a sad story. Yet, this is how Satan deals with his followers in the end.

After executing the guards, how does the story go with Herod? Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there awhile. Look at verse 20. “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.” We can understand this verse better in ESV, which translated, “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 (in NRSV ‘reconciliation’), because their country depended on the king’s country for food.”

Then finally what took place to Herod? Look at verses 21-23. “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.” Webelieve that this is the end of all those who oppose God seeking their own glory and praise. It is said that in his last days the arch persecutor Antiochus Epiphanes, in his arrogance, had thought to grasp the stars of heaven, but was seized with an incurable pain in his bowels and with excruciating internal torture until he died. Look at verse 24. “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” Herod died, but the word of God and the church that stands on it never die but prevail to the end of the age.

May we pray to God earnestly for anything and everything and rely on the word of God.

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