A Shocking Start (12:1-5)
It must have been shock when it happened. I would expect that no one expected an outcome like this. Yes, the people of God had been persecuted. The people of God had been scattered from Jerusalem as the persecution intensified. Even Saul had been traveling around trying to arrest Christians until he saw the risen Jesus himself and became a follower of Jesus. Herod, who had been granted authority by the Roman Empire, ruled over Judea and Samaria from 41-44 BC and had joined in on this persecution. Acts 12:1 says that he was having followers of Jesus arrested but we are not told why. Perhaps he is trying to get his area of rule under control as this Jewish persecution perhaps threatened the stability of the area. But here is the shocking moment. It is not that Christians were being arrested. No, the shocking part is that the apostle James was arrested and executed by Herod. An apostle that had been personally chosen by Jesus was executed by a wicked ruler.
If this was not shocking enough, please notice that there is no outrage in the community. The people of Judea are not upset or mortified at the execution of James. Rather, this execution pleased the Jewish people. It seems that there has been a change of societal opinion regarding the followers of Jesus over the past 10 years. We were told in Acts 2:47 and Acts 5:14 that the Christians had favor with all the people. But that is not true any longer. Now the execution of Christians is finding favor with the people. Seeing that the Jewish people approved of Herod’s decision to execute James, Herod arrests Peter also. Verse 4 tells us that he is assigned four squads of soldiers to guard him, with the intention to bring him out to the people for trial and execution after the Passover.
So what were the Christians to do? Another miscarriage of justice is about to occur. Another apostle is about to be executed. It appears to be a completely hopeless situation after hearing that James had been killed by Herod. What is the response of God’s people? Look at verse 5. The response of God’s people is to pray. What could the church do? The church did what is the most important thing they could do: pray. The did the most powerful and most effective thing they could do: pray. They are not petition Rome for a new ruler over Judea or being defiant to the authorities. Christians handle mistreatment and injustice through prayer. They are intensely praying for Peter. I would like for us to consider this response of God’s people. Do we think of prayer as too little of a thing to do for Peter at this moment? Or do we think of prayer as the most important thing to be done for Peter at this moment? I hope that we would see that prayer was the most important action they could take. Prayer was not the last resort when all else failed. Prayer was the only resort for this moment.
Followers of Jesus understand that God is glorified when we depend on him by intensely praying. God is not glorified if we think we are going to be the solution to the problems we are experiencing. God is glorified when we ask God to do his work and look for his response to the trials and problems we face. God’s people are a praying people. God’s people handle the turning of the cultural tide by praying even more intensely.
But let me ask an important question that we need to consider at this moment. Do you think the followers of Jesus were praying for James while he was imprisoned? Do think they were only praying intensely for Peter? I want us to think about a very hard reality that is given to us in these first five verses. God said no the earnest prayers of the church and allowed James to be executed. Did this mean that the prayers of God’s people were worthless? Did this mean that the church now understood that they should not depend on prayer for these kinds of difficulties in society? No, they continue to use prayer as the only resort and are now praying for Peter and his deliverance. We do not know why God allowed his apostle to be executed. It is amazing how concise the first two verses are. The reasons are not given. But God does say no to things that we would think are a clear “yes.” So the people of God continue in prayer for Peter and God is glorified as they depend on him yet again for help and rescue.
A Shocking Result (12:6-19)
Verse 6 reveals that Peter has been in prison for days. He was arrested during the days of Unleavened Bread and Herod was waiting for Passover to conclude before bringing Peter out for trial and execution. The Lord waits till the night before he would be brought out for his trial. Please notice that Peter did not avoid being arrested nor was he immediately released. With Peter sleeping between two guards, bound in chains, with guards at the door, an angel of the Lord comes to Peter, wakes him up, tells him to get his clothes on and follow him. The chains fall off his hands and he follows the angel out of the prison without any of the guards being alerted. In verse 9 Peter thinks that this is all a vision that he is seeing about himself. After passing the various guards stationed to keep Peter secure, they come to the iron gates that would set him free and lead him into the city. But the gates suddenly open by themselves, and the angel disappears. At this moment Peter realize that this is not a vision. He declares in verse 11 that the Lord has rescued him from Herod’s grasp.
Peter then makes his way to the house of John Mark’s mother, named Mary. Notice what we see in verse 12. The followers of Jesus are gathered there and are praying for Peter. Peter knocks at the door and a servant girl named Rhoda comes to answer. She recognizes Peter’s voice but in her joy leaves the door locked and ran back to tell everyone that Peter is at the door. They all tell Rhoda that she is out of her mind. Peter keeps knocking and eventually they open the door and are amazed to see Peter standing there. Peter tells everything that happened to bring out his release and says to tell all of this to James, the brother of Jesus, and the other followers of Jesus. Peter then leaves and goes to another place.
This is going to make things interesting for the next day. Remember that this was supposed to be the day of Peter’s trial and execution. The soldiers wake up only to find that Peter is missing (12:18). A search is made for Peter but no one can find him. All of the guards are put to death by Herod for their failure and Herod leaves Judea to stay in Caesarea.
I love the people of God are surprised by how God answered this prayer. Do you supposed that anyone was praying that Peter’s rescue could come like this? Send an angel who will shine with a bright light in the prison but keeping all the guards asleep. Next, have the chains fall off his hands, have him get dressed, and lead him to the prison gate. Then, have the gate open by itself and lead him into the city without anyone waking up or knowing any better what happened. Finally, have Herod so confused by what happened that he leaves Judea and goes to Caesarea. This is probably not what they were praying. In fact, I think we can be sure of this since no one believed that Peter was knocking on the door outside. There was no denying that this was God answering the prayers of God’s people. Peter understands that this is clearly the Lord’s hand in verse 11.
A Shocking Ending (12:20-25)
This leads us to focus our attention on Herod in Acts 12:20. The people of Tyre and Sidon come to Herod asking for peace because they depended on him for their food supply. So Herod put on his royal robes, sat on the throne, and delivered a message to the people. The people then repeatedly shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down and he was eaten by worms because he did not give glory to God. This declares to us the theme of this chapter. God must be glorified. This message is taught in a very powerful way. Herod did not stand up and ask the people to call him a god and not a human. We see other leaders ask for this and act like this. They declare that they are the best thing in the world for you and have come to rescue you. We may think of people like Nebuchadnezzar who looked upon his land and declared all the great things he had accomplished by his own hand. Remember that the Lord had to humble him for thinking that he was in the position he was in or hand accomplished anything except by the Lord’s will and power.
Here we see the people praising the greatness of Herod. Herod does not stand up and say what Peter said to Cornelius in Acts 10, “I am just a mere man.” Rather, he receives the glory. He accepts the praise. He does not turn that praise toward the Lord but allows it to terminate on himself. Not giving God the glory is a huge issue throughout the scriptures, revealing to us what a terrible sin it is. Think about the life of Moses. There is only one sin that is recorded about him. We know that being a human Moses would have committed many sins throughout his life. But the scriptures want to tell you about one sin that he committed that was so serious that it kept him from entering the promised land. The context is that the people of Israel are complaining again about having no water in the wilderness and charge Moses with bringing them into this wilderness to die. The Lord told Moses to take the staff of the Lord and command water to come out of the rock and thus provide water for the people. But here is what Moses did.
So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:9–12 NRSV)
God tells Moses that you did not trust me. He did not trust him enough to show God’s holiness before the people. Moses decided to make a more violent display by striking the rock. But more importantly, the scriptures show us that what Moses and Aaron said was the problem. They ascribe this miraculous ability to themselves. “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” The glory did not go to the Lord. They took the glory on themselves and were condemned.
So we need to think about how we do not give God the glory he deserves. The text has revealed three ways that we do this. First, we do not give God glory when God says no to our prayers. God said no and the apostle James died. But do we give God glory even when we God says no to our prayers? We glorify God when we accept that God has a purpose and is at work in our lives and in this world. Then we can accept when God says no and still praise him for what he is doing. Take a moment and think back to the times that God has said no in your life. Are there times where you are glad he did? I can think of a number of occasions where I am glad that God said no. This is not to say that we will always understand why God says no. But trusting God means that I can praise him and give him glory even when he does not respond with the answer that I am looking for.
Second, we can fail to give glory to God when he does answer our prayers. It is so easy to forget to be thankful for the way he answers our prayers. We need to be looking for how God is answering our prayers, even in ways that we did not expect and give him glory for it. There is so much God does in our lives that we fail to thank him for doing. What requests have been answered that we forgot to give him glory for doing in our lives?
Finally, we can fail to give glory to God when we accept praise rather than turning that praise to the Lord. Anything we have and do is only because God has given it to us. If you are good at your job, it is because God has given you the intellect and physical ability to do it. God should be praised for what you can do. If we have wealth, we should be praising God because he is the one who gave it to us. The Lord warned Israel about thinking it was their own intellect and abilities that put them where they were in life.
“Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 ESV)
Whatever recognition we may receive, we need to turn that to God’s glory. There is nothing that we have and nothing that we enjoy that does not come to us by God. If we forget this, then we accept glory that belongs to God alone. As you go through this week, observe where you are not giving God glory as he should receive. Look at where we may be missing opportunities to praise him for what he had done in the day. I think you will be surprised how often you will be stopping and praising him when you look at your day through this lens. Take a day like today. Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to wake up. Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to feel well enough to be here. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me safe as I traveled here. Thank you, Lord, for giving me the mind so I can focus on you today. Thank you, Lord, for giving me voice and breath to sing praises to you. Thank you, Lord, for my eyes and my intellect to look at your word and understand what you are saying to me today. In a matter of hours you can be giving God glory repeatedly. And he deserves that glory.