Over the last couple of weeks, we have looked at the conversion of the Ethiopian, Saul and the Gentile, Cornelius. We have studied just exactly what Cornelius’s conversion represented and the importance of his conversion. Which, if you recall, was the fact that God loved the Gentiles too and was offering His amazing grace to them as well as to the Jews. God’s love was available to all people of all nationalities. We also briefly looked at the vital role Barnabas played in assimilating Saul into the leadership of the early church.
Today we are going to look at the last big story surrounding Peter in the book of Acts. The outline of Acts can be roughly divided into two parts: the mission under Peter, centered in Jerusalem and the gradual spread of the gospel beyond the Jewish limits, which comprises chapters 1-12; and the mission to the Gentiles all the way to Rome, under the leadership of Paul, which comprises chapters 13-28 . Thus, next week, beginning in chapter 13 the book will focus primarily on Paul and his missionary journeys.
Truthfully, I’m kind of sad that we won’t be hearing much more about Peter in Acts as I love him – he has a special place in my heart! However, Paul is every bit as interesting and we can learn so very much from him too.
As chapter twelve opens, we hear some very distressing news. James, the brother of John, son of Zebedee, and one of the three beloved disciples of Jesus, was arrested and martyred by King Herod. Four generations of the Herod family are mentioned in the Bible. Each leader left his evil mark. Herod the Great murdered the baby boys in Bethlehem during the time of Jesus’ birth; Herod Antipas was involved in Jesus’ trial and John the Baptist’s execution; Herod Agrippa 1 murdered the apostle James which we will learn more about today. And later we will hear about Herod Agrippa II who was one of Paul’s judges.
Herod’s decision to have James martyred was a purely political move. He knew that he would gain favor with the Jews who were alarmed at the rapid growth of the Gentiles being accepted into the church. And just as he thought, the Jews were quite pleased with James’ death, so he determined to take down Peter next. Herod had Peter arrested during the Passover celebration. This was a highly strategic move, since more Jews were in the city than usual, and Herod could impress the most people by arresting him at that time. Herod’s plan was undoubtedly to execute Peter just as he had James. However, he didn’t count on the prayers that were being lifted up on Peter’s behalf, nor on God intervening as He did.
While in prison, Peter was guarded by four squads of soldiers. Remember, the Romans were aware that Peter and the rest of the apostles had been arrested once before and somehow had escaped! They were rescued by an angel of the Lord as we heard back in Acts chapter five. So, consequently, they had one company of four soldiers for each of the four watches of the night guard him. Extraordinary precautions were also taken by chaining him to two soldiers instead of one which was the norm. The other two soldiers kept watch outside of Peter’s cell.
Again, God intervenes on Peter’s behalf and sends an angel to rescue him. Listen, “That night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison. Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him” (6-7). I think there is something really important we need to look at here. Did you see it? This appears to be the night before Peter’s impending execution, and he is sound asleep!!! Hello! He is going to be murdered the next day and he is sleeping for Pete’s sake! I don’t know about you, but I find that extraordinary! I don’t think I would have been able to sleep a wink! However, apparently, he was not anxious at all. Which just goes to show the depth and breadth of His relationship with Jesus, and how totally and completely, at this point in his life, that he trusted in God.
Now of course, it doesn’t matter how many prison cells, how many guards, or how many chains needed to be broken through – as nothing is impossible for God. Nothing is too hard for Him! As far as He was concerned, Peter’s rescue was a piece of cake. The angel wakes him up, tells him to get up and as he stands his chains literally fall off. Peter is then directed to get dressed, and to follow him. Now we are told Peter is not exactly sure what is going on. As a matter of fact, initially he thinks he’s seeing a vision. But he does not question the angel. He does what he is told. He knew enough to sense that God was doing something, and the explanation could come later.
Now we all know that wasn’t necessarily the norm for Peter – for him to obey without questioning God, but in this case, he did, and it went well for him! I think life would go a lot better for us if we did what God told us to do the first time around without question! Don’t you?!
The angel then leads him past the guards outside of the cell and out of the prison. Next, they come to an iron gate that leads to the city and it opened automatically. They went through the gate and down the street and then the angel disappeared. Peter proceeds to go straight to Mary’s house as she often opened her home to the apostles. Now this is not Mary Magdalene, nor the Mother of Jesus, but rather Mary the mother of John Mark, who wrote the Gospel of Mark. John Mark was Barnabas’s cousin so John Mark would have been exposed to most of the great men and teachings of the early church. Luckily, we will hear more about John Mark in the next chapter.
Many believers had gathered at Mary’s house to pray on behalf of Peter, so he wanted to present himself to those who had been praying for him. And just as an aside, some scholars speculate that an upstairs room in her house may have been the location of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.
We are told that constant and earnest prayer was offered to God on behalf of Peter. Constant and earnest prayer has power not because it in itself persuades a reluctant God. Rather, it demonstrates that if our heart cares passionately about the things that God cares about, it fulfills Jesus’ promise, “If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
Their prayers were answered, even as they were praying. But when the answer arrived at the door, they didn’t believe. Rhoda, a servant, was the one to answer and was so excited to see Peter that she shuts the door basically in his face and then goes and tells the others that Peter has been freed. And just as stated, they don’t believe her, much like the apostles didn’t believe Mary Magdalene and the women when they reported that Jesus was alive. Peter is persistent, however, and continues to knock. They go to the door once again and see and believe. He then directs those present to go tell James, the brother of Jesus. James had become a leader in the Jerusalem church. Peter then leaves most likely to go somewhere safe.
Now I have a question for you. How many of you believe that your prayers actually have power? I mean really believe that? Do you expect to hear from the Lord when you pray?? It is imperative that as people of faith we believe that God answers the prayers of those who seek His will. When you pray, believe you’ll get an answer. And when the answer comes, don’t be surprised; be thankful! And if the answer doesn’t come, remember we need to always be praying in God’s will, then trust that His plan is better even when it seems like it is not. For example, the story I just read about a young pastor and his wife being killed in a head-on collision while their three young children ages 6, 4, and 1 were in the back seat of the car – all of which are okay. That just doesn’t make sense does it? I mean we simply don’t know how to process that one do we?
Now if you were paying attention at all when you read this chapter, most likely you stopped and asked yourself, why did God save Peter and not James. Certainly, as far as I’m concerned, it would seem that God’s will would be for all the apostles to live long and fruitful lives! Don’t you agree? After all, James was one of the three beloved disciples of Jesus too, just as Peter was, so surely it wasn’t a question of God’s preference of one over the other. And God doesn’t play favorites anyway, as we learn in Romans 2:11. So why? Why James and not Peter?? And by the way, we know that James was not the first to be martyred for the faith – Stephen was. But he was the first of the original 12 to be martyred. Actually, only John would not be martyred for his faith – all of the rest of the apostles would be.
And then of course there is the even deeper question of why does God allow pain in the first place?!?! I wish I knew! I’m not going to pretend to know the answer. But what I do know with certainty is that our God is a good God. He has a good plan for each one of us. He takes the bad that happens to us and uses it for His glory and our good when we love Him. He uses pain to transform us, to prune us, to develop perseverance within us, which leads to character, and character which leads to hope. But most importantly of all, pain can be used by God to stretch us and grow us into the image and likeness of His beloved Son Jesus!
Church family the bottom line is – pain has the ability to be transformational. As such, it can be an extremely powerful motivator in our lives if we let it. However, transformation will only occur when we work to move through the pain. Unfortunately, most of us do everything in our power to avoid the pain – we will deny it or numb it or just barely skim the surface of it, rather than allow it to teach us about ourselves and to literally transform us. Consequently, we wind up carrying the pain around with us, it becomes stored in our hearts, our minds, and yes even our bodies. Trauma experts have begun to conduct serious research looking at how our pain is stored within the cells of our physical bodies.
Thus, unresolved pain becomes toxic within us and it impacts our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and wellbeing. I know that this has been a tough year for many of you. Might I encourage you to consider taking a serious look at the pain you carry within. To allow yourself to feel the pain, to walk through it, remembering in the process that God is with you.
“When we pass through the waters, He is with us; and when we pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over us. When we walk through the fire, we will not be burned; the flames will not set us ablaze” (Is. 43:2). I want you all to know that this all applies to me as well and I have determined to take a good hard look at all the pain I’ve been carrying around for most of my 60 years of existence. I am going to allow myself to feel the pain, instead of numbing it or avoiding it, I’m going to talk about it with the Lord, learn from it and then give it to Him as He desires us to cast our burdens upon Him (1 Peter 5:7). I hope you will join me on this quest to allow pain to transform me! I know that Jesus is calling to each one of us to be the very best we can be on His behalf! A good bit of the transformation process is walking through and processing the pain of our lives.
And don’t worry, we won’t be alone in this quest. As billions of Christians around the globe have experienced pain in their lives. You simply cannot live life without pain. Much of which most likely has gone unaddressed. And today we join all of them, all of our fellow believers, as we do throughout the year, we simply don’t focus on it, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper on this World Communion Sunday. Which is always the first Sunday of October every year. A day in which several Christian denominations come together to observe Holy Communion while promoting Christian unity and cooperation. And certainly, we can pray for unity around the globe, but particularly here in the US as we’ve been torn apart this year by racial inequality, the covid 19 epidemic and political beliefs. That is most definitely not God’s plan for His people. Rather Jesus tells us they will know we are Christians by our love. How well are we loving each other??Let us pray, Holy and Gracious God thank you! Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to die for us. Thank you for offering us the gift of remembrance through Holy Communion. Thank you for the constant presence of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for your great love. Please watch over all of us around the world who call you Father. Please protect us from all evil. Please help us to walk through the pain that we have endured during our lives. Help us to process and learn from it and then give it to you to carry in our place. We love you Lord. And now let us pray the words our Father taught us. Our Father……
Remember Jesus loves you and so do I. Hope to see you soon!