Last week we were looking at verses 19 to 30 of Acts 11 and the planting of the church in Antioch. First of all, some believers, scattered because of the persecution, ended up in Antioch and proclaimed the good news of the Lord Jesus to Greek-speaking Gentiles. A great many believed and turned to the Lord. Barnabas then came from Jerusalem to see the work that was going on. Since the church was growing, he went to Tarsus to fetch Paul to help him. The two of them then continued to work in Antioch for another year. And so the church grew and was strengthened. And chapter 11 ended with the account of how these Gentile believers in Antioch decided to send practical assistance to Jewish believers living in Judea who were suffering because of a famine. And so, we were able to see the communion of saints in action, with the believers in Antioch sharing what they had with the needy believers in Judea.
Verses 1 to 5
In verse 1 of chapter 12 we read that about this time King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. Now, this isn’t the King Herod who tried to kill the infant Lord Jesus. That was Herod the Great. Nor is this the Herod who ordered the execution of John the Baptiser and who was involved briefly in the trial of the Lord Jesus. That was Herod Antipas. This is Herod Agrippa I. Now, Judea was, at the time, part of the Roman Empire. But the Emperors allowed these men to rule over the land of Judea as a kind of vice-regent. Well, this King Herod started to persecute the church. And, verse 2, he had James, the brother of John, one of the Apostles, put to death with the sword.
There are two things to notice here briefly. First of all, the Lord Jesus had predicted that this would happen. Back in Mark 10, he warned James and John that they would both suffer persecution for his sake. And sure enough, the time had come for James to suffer and even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. John, his brother, would live on and though he escaped being killed like his brother, nevertheless because of persecution he was exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation. But while John was exiled, his brother John was executed.
Secondly, we should note that no effort was made to replace James. After Judas killed himself, the Apostles agreed that it was God’s will for them to choose a replacement for Judas. And so, Matthias was chosen. On this occasion, however, an apostle was killed but not replaced. And this shows us that it was not their intention for the apostolic office to continue forever. The time would come when all the apostles would die. And the apostolic office would die with them. And the leadership of the church would be transferred from the apostles to the elders. And so, when Paul was writing to Timothy with instructions about how to run the church in Ephesus, he didn’t say that what the church needed was more apostles. He said that what the church needed was elders to oversee the Lord’s people. The message of the apostles was to be passed on through the ages, but the office was not to be a permanent one in the church.
Back to verse 2. Herod had James killed. And since this pleased the Jews, Herod next had Peter arrested. The fact that he targeted James and Peter, both apostles, suggests that he was hoping to destroy the church by getting rid of its leaders. And having seized Peter, he had him put in prison. And in prison, he was to be guarded by four squads of soldiers. And each squad comprised four soldiers each. So, 16 men to guard one prisoner. Luke is showing us that Peter was being held securely. And, we read in verse 4 that Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. Now, that’s not exactly what Luke wrote. He didn’t mention the words ‘public trial’. That’s just the NIV translators trying to interpret what Luke wrote. All Luke said was that Herod intended to bring Peter out to the the people. And given what happened to James, it’s more likely that what he intended to do was to bring Peter out for a public execution.
When the whole world is against us, what should we do? We should do as the church in Jerusalem did. Look at verse 5: While Peter was in prison, awaiting his execution, the church was praying earnestly to God for him. And, of course, we’ve seen this before. Back in chapter 4, the Jewish Sanhedrin had warned Peter and James never to preach about the Lord Jesus again. They made all kinds of threats against them. But once they had released them, James and John joined the other believers and they prayed to the Sovereign Lord who rules over all and asked him to help them to preach the good news despite the opposition they were encountering. And at that time, the building shook, and the Lord filled them with his Spirit who helped them to preach the word of God boldly. And so, here again, facing persecution, we see the church turning to God in prayer, seeking his help. Now, we don’t know what they actually asked for. Since they’re surprised by Peter’s release, perhaps they hadn’t thought to pray for that. Perhaps they were praying that God would strengthen Peter so that his faith would not give way while he waited to die. Or perhaps they were praying that God would prevent Herod from arresting any more of the believers. Perhaps they were simply asking God for help in the face of the opposition they were facing. We don’t know what they prayed for. But whatever they asked, they were doing the right thing by seeking the Lord’s help in prayer.
Verses 6 to 19
Look now at verse 6. Just in time, just in time, the Lord intervened. And it seems that’s often the way the Lord works. Just when it seems that time is running out and there’s no hope left, the Lord steps in and puts things right for us. So, on the night before his execution, the Lord sent his angel to free Peter. Peter, we read, was being guarded by two soldiers in his cell. And he was bound with two chains. And sentries stood guard at the entrance to the cell. Luke, once again, is telling us that Peter was being kept securely and it would take a miracle for him to be released.
But we should also note carefully that Peter was sleeping. And the fact that he was sleeping perhaps says something about how he thought about death. You see, for the believer, death is not something to fear. It’s not something to be scared of. For the believer, death is not the end and it’s not a disaster. It’s the entrance into the presence of the Lord. Now, Peter would have known this. After all, this is what he preached. And so that’s perhaps the reason why he was able to sleep soundly that night. He wasn’t afraid to die, even to suffer a cruel death at the hands of King Herod, because he knew that after his death, he would live for ever with his Lord and Saviour in glory. Believers are not afraid to die.
Anyway, he was asleep and fastened securely in his cell. And then suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared. And a light shone in the cell. And the angel woke Peter from his sleep and told him to get up. And then, as soon as he stood up, the chains fell off him. Just like that. And then, once he was dressed, they walked out of the prison. Just like that. It seems so simple and easy. Verse 10: They passed the first guard. And then the second guard. And then they arrived at the main gate, made of iron. And it opened up by itself. None of the guards intervened. None of the locked doors stood in their way. They were able to walk right out of the prison, and into the city. Just like that.
Luke tells us in verse 9 that Peter didn’t realise that this was real. He thought he was seeing a vision. But once the angel left him, he came to himself and realised it was real: he really was free.
According to verse 12, he went to the home of Mary the mother of John Mark. Many people had gathered there and were praying. Peter knocked on the door. The servant girl, Rhoda, didn’t open the door, but presumably she called through the locked door to see who it was. Since the believers were being persecuted, they had to be careful who they let in. The girl recognised his voice and, in her joy, forgot to open the door. Instead she ran back inside to tell the others who was at the door. They couldn’t believe it. She must be out of her mind, they thought. And when she insisted, they suggested that it must be Peter’s angel.
Now, that’s an interesting thing to say because it implies that they believed that Peter had a guardian angel, one particular angel assigned to help him. Are there really guardian angels, assigned to help us? It’s not clear. The Bible says very little about this, but it does say a few things which are relevant. For instance, there’s the angel who shut the mouth of the lions in order to save Daniel from being eaten. And in Matthew 18:10 the Lord tells the people not to look down on little children because ‘their angels in heaven’ are standing before the presence of the Lord in heaven. And then there’s this verse which refers to Peter’s angel. It’s not very much to go on, but the Jews apparently believed in guardian angels and they also believed that such guardians angels resembled the person they were protecting. Therefore, if Rhoda thought Peter was at the door, the others assumed it must be his angel, who looked like him, because, after all, they all knew that Peter was in prison.
Only, Peter wasn’t in prison. He was standing at the door, knocking. And finally, they opened the door and saw it for themselves. And they were astonished. Clearly, this wasn’t what they were expecting which suggests, as I’ve already said, that perhaps they weren’t praying for his release, but for God to help him to stand firm right to the very end. But, of course, God is able to do immeasurably more than we’re able to ask or even imagine. And while we may ask him for many things at our prayer meeting, God is able to answer our prayers in ways we never dreamed of.
We can imagine them (can’t we?) with a hundred questions to ask Peter. And all of them, asking him at once. So, once he got them to be silent, he explained what had happened. And he instructed them to tell James and the other brothers. This James, of course, is not the James who was killed by Herod. This is James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, who soon became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Tell him and the other believers, Peter says. Well, of course, he didn’t want to be re-arrested and so he made his escape.
The next day, Herod discovered that his prisoner had gone. No one knows where or how. The soldiers don’t seem to be able to explain it. And since the penalty in those days for letting a prison escape was death, these soldiers were executed instead of Peter.
Verses 20 to 25
Verses 20 to 25 are interesting because they remind us that the Lord Jesus is the true King and he’s enthroned in heaven, where he rules over all for the sake of his church. And we see this in two ways. First of all, in the way that Herod dies. Herod was a Jew. And as one commentator puts it, adulation of kings was common in the ancient world. People used to heap praise upon their leaders. But no faithful Jew could accept being honoured like a god the way Herod accepted the praise he was hearing in verse 22. And since he didn’t honour the Lord, the Lord sent his angel to strike him down. The historian, Josephus, wrote about this event. He says that Herod came out to the people, wearing a silver robe which gleamed and shone in the sun. And so the people shouted that though the once considered him mortal, they now saw they he was more than mortal. But then, Josephus wrote, Herod was seized by internal pains, was carried home, and died five days later. And so we see who the true king is. Herod had wanted to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. And after James was killed, it might have seemed that he was going to succeed. But the Lord Jesus, the true King, has promised to build his church and he has promised that he will not let the gates of hell prevail. And so, the Lord sent his angel to destroy the one who tried to destroy his church.
That’s the first way we’re reminded that the Lord Jesus is the true King who rules over all for the sake of his church. But we also see this in verses 24 and 25 as well. Luke tells us in verse 24:
The word of the God continued to increase and spread.
In other words, as God’s word was preached more and more people believed in the Lord Jesus and the church grew. And then we read in verse 25 how Paul and Barnabas, with John Mark, returned to Antioch. And as we’ll see, from Antioch, they were sent out as missionaries to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ throughout the Roman Empire.
So Christ the King destroyed Herod which reminds us that the gates of hell will not prevail. And the word of God continued to increase and spread through the ministry of men like Paul and Barnabas which reminds us that the Lord, from his throne in heaven, is building his church here on the earth. And so, we look to him to bless the preaching of his word in our day.