The In-Between Years - Part 57
Series: The In-Between Years
December 05, 2021
The In-Between Years — Part 57
Everything is in place now for phase three of God’s witness projection plan to begin. From here on out Luke will focus more or less on the Gentiles and the man set apart to evangelize them, Saul who will become Paul. But before things really get going there’s another wave of persecution back at church headquarters in Jerusalem…
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. Acts 12:1 (ESV)
Herod was the king of the Jews politically at that time, well liked by the common folk and in the good graces of the Romans. But politics are politics whether it’s 2021 or the 1st century AD. Attacking the church was a good move for him on two fronts.
1. Those of the party of the Messiah, Christians, would have represented a threat to the Jewish traditions and the elders who enforced them because Christ-followers betrayed the cleanliness laws by eating with Gentiles and allowing them to forego circumcision. Attacking the church made Herod look good among his Jewish base.
2. The Romans weren’t too keen on folks who worshipped Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah because the Anointed One was expected to come and overthrow the Jews’ Gentile overlords. Taking this strange cult down would make him look good in the eyes of his Roman benefactors.
Herod decided to take it even further, with horrible consequences…
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. Acts 12:2–3 (ESV)
James was executed and Peter was arrested with Herod likely intending to do the same.
James was an original disciple like Peter and the brother of John. James and John’s nickname was the sons of thunder perhaps because they were pretty brazen back in the day. James’ brother John was the the disciple who later went on to write the gospel of John, three letters, and the book of Revelation. The three of them — Peter, James, and John — made up the inner circle of Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Herod’s wicked antics happened during the feast of unleavened bread, part of the passover celebration still observed by Jews to this day. The city of Jerusalem would have been full of Jews from all over. A good time to play politics.
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. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Acts 12:4–5 (ESV)
When trouble came, God’s people prayed. Note they prayed earnestly. They got down on their knees and asked God to intervene, praying with all their hearts.
And look what happened…
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. 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.” Acts 12:6–11 (ESV)
My translation of that is “You rock, God!”
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. Acts 12:12–14 (ESV)
Every time I read this I think of a song original to Smiley Lewis in 1955 but also sung by Fats Domino called “I hear you knocking but you can't come in.”
Before we go to verse 15 look back at verse 5…
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Acts 12:5 (ESV)
Not long after an intense prayer meeting including some of the most gifted and spiritual people ever to be live, the one they prayed for is standing at the door When Rhoda tells them their prayers have been heard…
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. 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 [the brother of Jesus] and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place. Acts 12:15–17 (ESV)
I think Luke intended for us to snicker a bit here. This story was probably told often. Young Rhoda had no idea when she went to answer the door that night she’d be talked about for 2,000 years!
This is yet another indication Luke’s account of what happened is accurate.
Now most pastors read this text and make an automatic application, just like they do when covering the story of Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. The story of Philip and the Eunuch is almost always seen as an example of how to be evangelistic. Rightly so, but there are things you’ll miss if you don’t look a little closer. The story of Peter’s imprisonment and miraculous deliverance in Acts 12 almost always produces a sermon on the power of prayer. That’s appropriate for sure, but there’s more if you look closer. Look back at …
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. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Acts 12:1–5 (ESV)
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.” Acts 12:11 (ESV)
James and Peter were arrested, with James not making it out alive and Peter being miraculously delivered. The implication is surely Peter was delivered because earnest prayer was offered. But is it safe to assume, up until when the church got word James had been executed, earnest prayer went up for him as well? Yes, of course.
Okay, then here’s a question begging to be asked:
Why Peter and not James?
Once you see this you can’t unsee, can you?
Was it because Peter was more important? I don’t think so. They both were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Was it because they prayed harder for Peter? I highly doubt that.
How do we reconcile this? I’ll talk about that in a minute, but for the moment think about how this conundrum reflects reality, the way things really are. Daily experience shows that for every person able to say God protected them, there’s another able to say he didn’t. For every person able to say God healed them, there’s another able to say he didn’t. For every person able to say, “God answered my prayer,” there’s another able to say he didn’t.
And yet, the books written, the movies made, the articles published, the testimonies given concern the deliverance stories, the striking answers to prayer. Those denied their heartfelt prayer requests are rarely given a platform. It’s as if we are saying, whether we mean to or not, if you have enough faith or whatever, you can expect to be delivered, healed, and the like. But I think James would beg to differ.
What Luke records here is how life really works even for believers, contrary to what’s being preached in football stadiums and printed in books you see displayed on shelves at Walmart. At times God moves according to our prayers exactly the way we want him to. And though he often does so for reasons we’d expect — great faith, exemplary obedience, a mass of prayer warriors — at other times he doesn’t respond to our prayers how we’d like, and it has nothing to do with with our faith, obedience, or prayerful friends. Again, if you doubt this, just ask James.
Luke and the early Christians didn’t see a problem here. Somehow they were able to mourn James’ death and rejoice over Peter’s spared life without missing a beat. How, though?
I think it’s because they knew something lost on the church today, something hard to grasp, something that takes you deep into the ways of God, so deep you eventually give up trying to figure it out and just surrender to it. What Luke and the early Christians believed about God that allowed them to process Peter’s salvation and James’ death is hinted at and alluded to all over the Bible. It’s actually something demonstrated in one of the most familiar OT stories.
In the book of Daniel we learn about three Jewish nobleman exiled in the court of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who refused to to bow down and worship an idol made in his image. The king gave them an ultimatum: get on their knees and comply, or be thrown into the fiery furnace to face a horrible death. Here’s how they responded…
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16–18 (ESV)
Let’s read that text again in the NIV…
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:16–18 (NIV)
They knew beforehand this showdown was coming, and I have no doubt they prayed, hard, and what they said to the king reveals what they prayed. It’s not what we might think…
Oh, God, we know you are able to deliver us from the King: nothing is impossible for you. Our fate is in your hands, not his. But even if not, no matter what, we will trust you and let you be God.
This was NOT a lack of faith, but an abundance of understanding who God is and how he works. I believe that was the Spirit of the prayer meeting the early church had for Peter and James.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew; Peter and James knew; Luke and the early church knew God is SOVEREIGN and he works PROVIDENTIALLY in all things to accomplish his will, good or bad, prayers answered according to our desires or not. They did not see God as a genie in a bottle you rubbed every time you needed a miracle. They allowed for God to just be God; they allowed for the LORD, in his sovereignty and providence, to let them perish if he so chose.
One theologian explains God’s sovereignty this way:
“God has the rightful authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to bring about everything that he intends to happen. And therefore, everything he intends to come about does come about. Which means, God plans and governs all things.
When he says, “I will accomplish all my purpose,” he means, “Nothing happens except what is my purpose.” … nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.” — John Piper
This means that God is sovereign over all creation, so that whatever happens in the universe couldn’t have happened unless he purposed it. It means God is sovereign over all human actions too, so that nothing anyone does happens unless he directly purposes it or allows it. And somehow, I don’t know how, God’s sovereignty leaves room for us to have a free will, the ability to make choices.
The Bible is full of direct and indirect references to this truth. The prophet Isaiah declared…
Isaiah 46:5, 8–11 (ESV) — 5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? … 8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.
This is what’s behind a verse we all know and often misapply…
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (ESV)
I love the implication one pastor draws from this verse:
“All things” [can] happen to Christians (random things, daily things, powerful things, life and death things, bad things, and evil things).
Christians’ circumstances are no better than anybody else’s. … this tells us … terrible things happen to people who love God. Many Christians explicitly teach (and most Christians implicitly believe), ‘If I love God and if I serve God, then I will not have as many bad things happen to me. There are terrible things that can happen, you know. There are horrible things that can happen, but they’re not all going to happen to me. No, I believe. I serve. I love God. So these things are not all going to happen to me. By and large, my circumstances will be better.’ This text tells us and experience shows us that’s just not true. All the same things that happen to everybody else will happen to people who love God.”
James’ execution was bad, but God worked it together for good in his sovereignty. Peter’s deliverance was good, and God worked it together for good in his sovereignty too. Either way, God is God, God is good, and he is sovereign.
Conclusion: As we close, I’m guessing you may be thinking: I’m not sure I completely understand this. I’m not sure I do either, friend! God is so much higher and bigger and more mysterious than we could ever imagine, so much so that pretty much anything we learn about him is just touching the hem of his garment.
This truth seems downright scary. Just ask James and even Job for that matter. But when you really think about it, I wouldn’t want to live in a world God wasn’t sovereign over (a world where things could happen outside his will). I’ve had to come to terms with this.
Sovereignty means God can choose Peter over James, he can choose to let his servants burn in a fiery furnace, he can choose to let suffering into our lives, he can choose not to answer our prayers the way we want, and he’s still just as much God, blameless and just and right and good, as he ever was.
The sovereign God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Luke, Peter, and James, promises to save you if you call on him…
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)
 Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
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