RPM, Volume 17, Number 28, July 5 to July 11, 2015

To the End of the Earth: The Great Escape

Acts 12:1-19a

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me if you would in your Bibles to The Acts of the Apostles. We began last Lord's Day evening to pick up once again our exposition of Acts that had been on a Wednesday evening for a few months, and last week we were looking at what was a transitional passage, as it so happens, in the closing verses of Acts 11, in which the apostles — or Luke — is in one sense looking back and particularly picking up the thread of the martyrdom of Stephen, and in another sense, a very real sense, anticipating what is to come, and that is of course the ministry of the Apostle Paul and the beginning of the missionary journey that will be the focus of the rest of The Acts of the Apostles.

Now in chapter 12, you can see Luke isn't giving us a very clear time reference: "Now about that time...." Commentators spend a great deal of time trying to piece together the chronology of exactly when this took place in relationship to the visit of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem; but now we find, before these missionary journeys actually begin in earnest, two very significant, very important, unexpected events (from one point of view) take place: the death of James, and the imprisonment and the consequences of the imprisonment of the Apostle Peter

Now turn with me to Acts 12. We're going to read the first nineteen verses together. Before we do so, let's look to God in prayer.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We bless You for this extraordinary provision of a book with its unified coherent theme of creation and redemption and judgment. We bless You for the hand of the Holy Spirit in maintaining the purity of Scripture for us. We thank You that we may hold a Bible in our hands and call it the words of God. We bless You that You have given to us in the Scriptures all that we need to know. And we pray this evening once again for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten our minds, give us understanding, and give us the grace of obedience, and bless us, we pray. And all of this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear now the word of God:

Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, "Get up quickly." And his chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, "Gird yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he said to him, "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me." And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street; and immediately the angel departed from him. When Peter came to himself, he said, "Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting." And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter's voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate. They said to her, "You are out of your mind!" But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, "It is his angel." But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, "Report these things to James and the brethren." And he left and went to another place.

Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution.

Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

It was Tertullian, the great North African Christian of the second/third century, who said and wrote that "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." And we have already witnessed something of that, of course, in the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7—as a consequence of which the church spread. It left Jerusalem. It went into Judea, it went into Samaria, and to the ends of the earth — at least, as far as Antioch; and from Antioch will spread to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus in His resurrection statement before His ascension to the disciples had commissioned the disciples so to take the gospel (Acts 1:8).

Now. Some ten years now have passed by. We are at a point where yet another martyr faces us — the martyrdom this time of James. And perhaps not immediately as a consequence, but certainly soon after the death of James, the church will spread again, and the ministry of Paul and Barnabas and John Mark and others will see the church expanding to Asia Minor and to some of the great cities of the ancient world.

Augustine, in a sermon on the forty-first Psalm—writing much later, of course, towards the end of the fourth/beginning of the fifth century —"The martyrs," he says, "were bound, imprisoned, scourged, racked, burnt, rent, butchered...and they multiplied." And they multiplied...and Luke is deliberately, I think, telling this story on the one hand of enormous trouble and difficulty, setbacks; and on the other hand, of tremendous advances of the gospel, and how in the providence of God the one is often related to the other.

Now four scenes come to the surface in this tale that Luke tells of James' death and Peter's imprisonment.

I. The first is of a crisis in the city, the city of Jerusalem.

The year is possibly 43 A.D. It could possibly be early 44 A.D. It's just before the end (or the death) of Herod Agrippa I, which we will look at next week. It's what Luke records at the end of Acts 12.

Now, it's one of those party tricks, sorting out the Herods of the Bible! It's one of those things that you don't particularly want to be asked. It's not an easy thing to sort out the Herods, and certainly not an easy thing to sort out the Herods' wives and the children of the Herods. There are three Herods mentioned in the Bible. Of course there is Herod the Great: this is the Herod that's alive at the birth of Jesus, the Herod who dies in 4 A.D., the Herod who instigates the pogrom - the massacre of the innocent children in Bethlehem.

Then there's Herod Antipas. This is the Herod, one of the sons of Herod the Great...and Herod Antipas is referred to by Jesus as "that fox." He is the Herod, of course, who is involved in the trial of Jesus, the Herod who reigns for the greater part of Jesus' ministry.

And now there's this Herod, Herod Agrippa, the nephew of Herod Antipas. Governing Judea was never an easy thing to do. Currying the favor of the Jews on the one hand (the Jews were not an easy people to govern), making sure that everything was kept in order, as far as Rome and the Emperor was concerned. It was a difficult task to perform, and Herod Agrippa I, to curry the favor of the Jews, to insure their obedience and subservience, begins to persecute this sect (as far as the Jews were concerned) latterly...recently referred to as Christians in the city of Antioch, and he has James killed. Executed. Beheaded.

Now again, just as there are three Herods in the Bible, there are three James' in the Bible.

There is James the just...James the Lord's brother, or perhaps half-brother... James the author of the Epistle of James...James who rises to an important level in the church in Jerusalem. He's the James who is referred to right at the end of this story when Peter in Mary's house says to the disciples "Tell James and the disciples what has happened." This James: James the just, James the brother of our Lord.

Then there's James, one of the twelve disciples, James the son of Alphaeus. We know almost nothing about James the son of Alphaeus, even though he was one of the twelve disciples—an extraordinary thing in itself.

And then there's this James, the James who is killed here: James the son of Zebedee. James and John, the two brothers...John, the Apostle John; John, the author of the Gospel of John, the author of the Book of Revelation. James and John—the first and the only disciple martyred in the pages of the New Testament...mentioned as being martyred in the pages of the New Testament. He comes from a well-to-do fishing business in Galilee. We read in the gospels how this fishing business had a number of hired servants. We know that John, James' brother, knew the high priest in Jerusalem personally. It's this James who's part of that inner band of disciples, part of the trio within the twelve taken with Jesus at the time of the raising of Jairus's daughter, taken with Jesus and Peter and John up to the Mount of Transfiguration to behold the glory of the transfigured body of Jesus; taken again with Peter and John to a separate location within Gethsemane and asked that they might pray with Him in His final hours. It's this James. And James, who must have been a tremendously gifted person...James, who is nicknamed by Jesus (along with John) Boernerges, "Sons of Thunder."... a passionate man, a man of zeal, a man of courage, a man of tenacity, a go-getter, a man who could accomplish things, a gifted man, an endowed man by the Holy Spirit...and it's this man. You remember it was his mother Salome who had asked that the two sons, James and John, be given positions in the kingdom, one on the left hand and one on the right. And you remember that Jesus had said it was not in His power to so grant, but of the cup of suffering they would indeed partake—a reference, of course, to the death of James. A young man, possibly in his thirties. John, his brother, lives possibly into his nineties; and if this is 44-43 A.D., it's altogether possible that this James was merely in his thirties...with extraordinary usefulness...30, 40, 50 years of usefulness in gospel ministry ahead of him, and God takes him away.

We'd be asking all kinds of questions. "Why? Why take this man? Why not take James the son of Alphaeus, of which we know nothing? Who'd miss James the son of Alphaeus?" [I'd like to meet James the son of Alphaeus one day and tell him I just said that!]

I've been so impressed recently as I've been thinking about the lives of famous missionaries: David Brainerd; Henry Martyn; Jim Elliot; all of whom died in their late twenties or early thirties; men at the height of their power, at the height of their ability, who could have accomplished so many things for the kingdom of God. Why, Lord? Why this man? Why James, the brother of John? Why Boernerges? Why take him away?"

The church could have made so many plausible arguments that 'We need men like this.'

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Luke doesn't spell out for us the spiritual lesson that lies behind the martyrdom of James. We're left to do that for ourselves. And it will necessitate faith to draw out those implications, to resolve once again that God is sovereign, that God knows what He's doing, that God is in control, that He knows the end from the beginning, that He makes no mistake, that the future is open for God, that all things have been ordered according to the counsel of His own will—even this beheading of James. God took him home to be with Himself for purposes that are known to Him, and were not spelled out to the disciples or to us.

Hudson Taylor, when he was making his journey as a young man of 23 or so...he was making his journey on a clipper by the name of Dumfries. And in the six-month journey that took him from England to China, he's caught in this tremendous storm. The captain of the ship abandons hope, and at one point says to Hudson Taylor (he's the only person on board who's not part of the crew)...he says to Hudson Taylor, "What of your plans now of being a missionary in China?" To which Hudson Taylor replied, "It is enough that He finds me obedient. It is enough that He finds me faithful."

Ours not to reason why.... God takes James home, and undoubtedly the effect of James' death must have brought resolve to the rest of the disciples, and especially, I think, to Peter. We'll see that in a minute. A crisis, then, first of all, in the city.

II. Secondly, a prayer meeting in an upper room. ?

I say an upper room...it's referred to as Mary's house. This is Mary, the mother of John...John Mark, that is, the author of The Gospel of Mark; aunt to Barnabas; a well-known home in Jerusalem, possibly (some will say probably) the location of the Last Supper. And there in that upper room are gathered men and women of faith — Christians, believers — because Peter has now been arrested.

In the wake of the death of James, Herod, having seen how it pleased the Jews, has Peter arrested. Because it's Passover and Unleavened Bread, where no trial and no sentencing could take place, Peter is imprisoned. He is imprisoned in a maximum security prison, with four squads of soldiers for the four watches of the night — two of whom are chained to the Apostle Peter. The sense of the passage seems to indicate that there are at least three gates that must be traversed to exit out into the street.

And what is the church doing? Praying. It's engaging in corporate prayer.

There's a wonderful little book written by Spurgeon that's called Only a Prayer Meeting. You have to understand Spurgeon's sense of humor. He didn't really mean "only a prayer meeting." It's what we sometimes think, isn't it: "It's only a prayer meeting." And we dismiss it. It's all right for those spiritual types, you know...the elect...the holy brethren...to attend the prayer meeting. Spurgeon was once asked if he were to disband any of the functions of the church, which one would he disband the last. And he said it would be the prayer meeting. Now, of course that's hypothetical and one can argue with it. He's simply underlining the importance of the prayer meeting, the importance of corporate prayer, of prayer together as the people of God.

You notice that it was earnest prayer. We read in verse 5 that "...prayer for him was being made fervently..." or, in some of your translations, "...earnest prayer." It's one of Luke's favorite words, by the way. He loves to use this word. There was a fervency, there was a zeal; it wasn't just prayer, there was a focus for this prayer. There was an intensity to this prayer.

One can imagine. The sense seems to be that Peter's been more than one night in prison, and the sense seems to be that people came and went. Some would have to go to work, and others would come and the prayer would be maintained. There was a constant vigil of prayer, earnest prayer ascending to God, praying on behalf of Peter; praying that either the Lord release him or that God would give him grace to testify boldly.

Peter's been in prison before twice...in chapter 4 and chapter 5. When he came out of prison the first time, he went to the disciples and you remember what he said. He said he was a Calvinist! This was all part of the determinate counsel of God! It was all according to the predestination of God; the church was not to be alarmed. And as a consequence, urged the disciples to take up the cause of the gospel with even greater boldness, praying that God would embolden them as a consequence.

It was a special prayer meeting. Now, I think Luke has a theology of prayer meetings. It would be wonderful on some occasion to actually traverse through The Acts of the Apostles, making note of every time Luke mentions times and seasons of prayer. But this one is a special prayer meeting. They've gathered together for one reason, for a specific reason.

I wonder what we would do if Ligon was arrested and threatened with execution. I wonder what we would do as a church. You know? Call CNN? FOX News, maybe. I wonder what we would do. There's an eloquence of lawyers here. But you know — and I don't mean to be facetious, but it's surely, surely instructive that the one thing that these disciples did is sometimes the very last thing that we do. They gathered for prayer. They saw that the solution to this predicament lay in beseeching the God of heaven with earnestness and zeal, and they gathered for prayer.

III. Deliverance in a prison cell.

We read in verse 4 of these four squads of soldiers, two of whom at any one time are chained to the Apostle Peter — a maximum security prison. Three doors to exit out into the street. And do you notice what Peter is doing? He's sleeping. I just think that's beautiful. He's sleeping. He is there because Herod Agrippa wants to do to him as he has done to James. Peter knew James well. James has lost his head by a sword, and Peter is fast asleep...sleeping, as we sometimes say, the sleep of the just. You know, he is so fast asleep that when the angel comes and fills the cell with light, Luke says that the angel has to prod him in the side to wake him up. Isn't that extraordinary?

You know, does this say something to you? That it's the Apostle Peter who says in his first epistle, "Humble yourself beneath the mighty hand of God, casting all your care upon Him, because He cares for you"? And you know, when you read that verse — that's in I Peter 5:6,7 — doesn't it have a certain poignancy that it's the man who was able to sleep in prison, with the possibility of being executed the next day, who says "Cast all your burdens and cares upon the Lord, because He cares for you"?

An angel comes and delivers him from prison. Now, you either believe that or you don't. You either believe that the angel prods him in the side and says, "Come quickly, and follow me," and as they dart through these doors, the door opens by itself and they're out in the street, and then suddenly the angel disappears. Now you either believe that or you don't. There is no more difficulty in believing that that believing in the incarnation.

There is no more difficulty in believing that than in believing in the resurrection. There is no more difficulty in believing that than in believing the ascension of Jesus. There is no more difficulty in believing that than in believing in life after death.

You know, there's a story about John Patton, John Patton the missionary to the New Hebrides. Extraordinary man with extraordinary wives...he had two wives...not at the same time, you understand, but in succession...and John Patton with his first wife is in the New Hebrides, and the natives are threatening to burn down the house in which he and his wife are living. And all night long John Patton and his wife spend the evening on their knees praying to God for deliverance. And by the morning they've disappeared. A year later, the chief of this tribe is converted, and John Patton asks him about this incident. He says to him, "Why didn't you burn the house down?" and the chief says to John Patton, "But who were all those men with you in the house? And around the house? With shining clothes and drawn swords?" And there was no one there, of course, except perhaps the ministry of angels. And you either believe that or you don't.

And Luke is giving you the bare facts of the story here, and saying this is the God we believe in, the God who can do extraordinary things, the God who can move mountains, the God who can open prison doors and deliver the Apostle Peter.

IV. And then, fourthly, a failure of a servant-girl.

Well, at least the failure of a servant-girl, but too the failure of the praying Christians in the upper room. It's a wonderful, wonderful story. I think it's my favorite story in all the Bible. They're in Mary's house, in the upper room. They're praying. They've been there for many days, perhaps. And all of a sudden — [knock, knock, knock] — there's a knock on the door, and the servant-girl, Rhoda, goes to the door. I don't know whether she looks through a grating of some kind, or whether the door was made of iron, or whether she simply, as Luke seems to suggest in the text, she simply recognizes his voice: "It's me, Peter!" And she doesn't open the door, she just goes running back to the disciples and says to the disciples, "Peter is outside!" [Knock, knock, knock!] And they say, "You're out of your mind. You're a crazy girl." {Knock, knock, knock!] And back she goes, eventually, and opens the door and brings Peter in. It's an extraordinary story because what have they been praying for? That Peter be released. And when he is released and is standing outside the door, Rhoda recognizes his voice, but the disciples inside can't believe that it's Peter. "It must be his angel," they say — which may be a reference to a servant, perhaps, that is sent from the prison with the last words of Jesus, rather than some kind of guardian angel, as history has interpreted that passage.

You have to smile. You have to smile, because you recognize yourself. How many times have you prayed for something with great fervency and with great zeal — and then immediately afterward say to yourself, "That can't possibly happen"? I find great reassurance in this passage, that even in this extraordinary time in which these disciples were living, there's still the mixture of faith and unbelief. "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief." It's a tale, it's a narrative in which one disciple is taken away in his youth, in his usefulness, with so much before him that he could have done for the church; and another, spared, but spared in a different way than you might think, because Peter tells the disciples now, "Tell James and the rest of the disciples" [James that is the Lord's brother], and then disappears. This house was not, of course, a safe place to be in. He disappears and it almost sounds as though Luke himself didn't know where he went.

And you know, as you read The Acts of the Apostles, where is Peter? He'll pop up again at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and that's about it. In Galatians 2, you'll infer that he's at least in Antioch; in Paul's letter to the Corinthians you'll discern that he's at least been in Corinth, and of course we all know that he ends up in Rome, and there will be crucified upside down by his own request. Because God spares him the limelight, the glory, if you will, is not going to be Peter's now. You know, you can imagine that this Lord's Day he would be on every news channel and every religious channel from now until his death, and doing and saying all kinds of things, and selling his book (!) and making a million. And instead, God has something different for Peter, and he must decrease now. Although there will be usefulness for Peter, he will decrease, that Paul may increase and be given the glory. And it's all about forgiveness. Are we willing to be that putty in the hands of a sovereign God to mold and fashion in a way that He desires? May God make it so.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You once again for this passage of Scripture. Teach us, instruct us; write it upon our hearts. Help us to realize afresh tonight that Your ways are not our ways, and Your thoughts are not our thoughts. And bless us, we pray, and encourage us in the gospel. And hear our prayer once again; for, Lord, we do believe, but help our unbelief. And all of this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.

May the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you now and forevermore. Amen.

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