RPM, Volume 17, Number 29, July 12 to July 18, 2015

To the End of the Earth (29) Church Growth�"New Testament Style

Acts 12:19b-25

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me in your Bibles to The Acts of the Apostles, and we pick up this evening the concluding section of chapter 12. Last week we were in the opening section of chapter 12 and the voracious appetite of Herod Agrippa in persecuting the Christian church, and in the martyrdom of James�"the son of Zebedee and brother of John the apostle, and James the first of the disciples to become a martyr�"loses his head by a sword. And then, because as you remember this pleased the Jews (Herod Agrippa was himself Jewish, of course) ...because this persecution of the Christian church pleased them, he had Peter imprisoned awaiting a similar fate; only God in His providence took Peter out from under Herod's nose, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Peter has gone back...you remember the story with Rhoda...he's gone back to the house where they have been praying for him...knocking on the door...Rhoda doesn't answer the door, but recognizes his voice...the disciples say she's a crazy woman to think that Peter would be standing outside the door when he is in prison. It's a very amusing (from one sense, from one angle) story. And then when Peter has eventually told the disciples what has happened, how an angel brought him out of prison through the three doors out into the street, Peter then disappears and goes, Luke says, "...to another place."

And now we pick up Herod. Herod has the soldiers who are guarding Peter executed, and it is at that point now we pick up the rest of the story of Herod. Before we read God's word together, let's look to Him in prayer.

O Lord our God, we come to You again this evening. You prefer before all temples the temple of the upright heart, and the pure heart, and we pray this evening that through Your word, through the illumination of Your word, through the truth of Your word�"the word which You caused to be written and kept pure through the ages that we this evening might read it as the word of God�"that You would instruct us; that You would encourage us; that You would hide Your word within our hearts, that we might not sin against You. And bless us, we pray, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Hear now God's word. We pick it up in the second half of verse 19 of Acts 12:

When Herod had searched for him [that is, Peter] and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.

Now he was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one accord they came to him; and having won over Blastus the king's chamberlain, they were asking for peace, because their country was fed by the king's country. On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. The people kept crying out, "The voice of a god and not of a man!" And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give God the glory. And he was eaten by worms and died.

But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.

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

John Calvin says about this passage:

This memorable story shows as in a mirror the end that awaits the enemies of the church. It also shows how greatly God hates pride.

Well, of course the story is in part the demise, the death, the grisly death, of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great. Herod, having had Peter taken out from under his nose, having failed to find him, having executed the soldiers who were meant to be guarding Peter, has gone off to his palace in Caesarea.

Caesarea is a magnificent coastal city — port city. It was built in honor of Caesar Augustus, enlarged by Herod the Great into a magnificent harbor port that could have at least 300 ships docked at any one time. It was a magnificent port. There was an amphitheater in which the games (the Olympic games) would be held, seating somewhere in the region of 2,000-3,000 people. It was covered...the seats were covered...with a kind of skin, a kind of velour. There was a promontory palace that jutted out into the Mediterranean Sea — magnificent, according to the Jewish historian Josephus. It had right in the center of it an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with fresh water from an aqueduct that had been specially built, bringing water from the foot of Mount Carmel, and brought all the way down to Caesarea by gravitation. The skill involved in that was breathtaking. Paul will be imprisoned in this palace in Acts 22, so we're coming back to this magnificent palace again.

Three things I want us to see tonight. First, that tyrants are nothing to a sovereign God. Tyrants are nothing to a sovereign God. There have always been tyrants. Herod Agrippa was a tyrant; the Herodian family dynasty were tyrants. But there have always been tyrants. You open your Bible, and what do you find? The Pharaohs of Egypt. You traverse the center of your Bible, the prophets, what do you find? You find the tyrants of Babylon and Assyria: Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Shalmaneser, Ashurbanipal, Sargon; the great emperors of Rome: Nero, Diocletian, Caligula. They're all tyrants. They all had their way, some more than others, in persecuting the church, putting Christians and others...Jews, men and women of faith...to death.

And there always will be tyrants. Out of the prophecy of the Book of Revelation, in Revelation 13, the two beasts...do you remember the beast of the sea? Thought to be a beast of political and civil power, a beast that lives and breathes in order to persecute and attempt to destroy the Christian church. Revelation 13, of course, comes immediately after Revelation 12. And in Revelation 12, you have that picture of the great red dragon, the serpent figure that crawls upon the ground in Genesis 3 has grown now into a great red fire-breathing dragon arraigned against the church.

There have always been tyrants. There always will be tyrants. And Luke, unusually, describes the demise of Herod Agrippa. He dwells on Herod's death, describing it. Why? Because he wants us to see in graphic color that tyrants are nothing before a sovereign God. Herod has had a quarrel with the adjoining countries...states, self-governing nations...of Tyre and Sidon to the north. Tyre and Sidon, hill country in the main, were totally dependent on Judea, the bread basket. We don't know what Herod has done; probably something to do with the ports. But there's no grain coming up to Tyre and Sidon, and they are grieved, and there's a quarrel, there's a dispute. And the men, the delegates of Tyre and Sidon, have come now cap in hand to Herod Agrippa, to his palace in Caesarea (bad move to begin with), and Herod makes the most of it.

Now Luke only describes half of it here. Josephus, in his interesting Antiquities, describes the event in detail (perhaps more detail than is historically true, as Josephus could). He describes how Herod comes into the amphitheater (the amphitheater faced west), and he comes in in the dawn, just as the sun is rising, so that the sun is shining directly upon him. And he's dressed in silver from top to bottom, and as the sun shines upon him, there's this aura and glow. And then he begins to speak in a marvelous oration, and the crowds are saying, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man!" And because, Luke says in verse 23...because he did not give glory to God, God struck him down. And he's dead. Luke says he was eaten by worms. Josephus adds a little bit of color...took five days, apparently, for him to die...peritonitis...some tapeworm issue in his intestines. My daughter showed me pictures of tapeworms yesterday. It's not pretty. They grow to 18", 24"...it's not a pleasant death. But Luke wants us to see: God did this. God struck him down. There was an intervention of the sovereign holiness of God.

I. God is sovereign over all tyrants.

Doesn't it remind you of the story of Belshazzar? Remember the story of Belshazzar's feast, made famous of course by Edward Fitzgerald in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam? "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." and so on? The writing on the wall...here's Belshazzar. The enemies are at the gates of Jerusalem, and what is Belshazzar doing? He's having a party, an orgy. And a hand appears to be writing on the wall: Mene, mene, tekel, parsin... "You've been weighed in the balances and found to be wanting." God sees; God hears; God intervenes.

We live in a supernatural world. It's no different today than it was then, and Luke wants us to see it, a point of enormous importance, that tyrants like Herod Agrippa...who could behead James the disciple, who could threaten to do the same to Peter, and who knows what he would have done had he succeeded...but they're nothing before God. God has already taught Herod a lesson by taking Peter from under his nose, and now because he refuses to give glory to God, God strikes him down. God hates pride. A fearful lesson on a Sunday evening...God hates pride.

You know, Thomas Hooker, the New England Puritan, said that

Pride is a vice which cleaves so fast to the hearts of men that if we were to strip ourselves of all, one by one, we should undoubtedly find that it would be the last garment to be cast off.

Pride. Herod was a religious man. You know, when he was in Jerusalem, he went every day to the temple and engaged in the purification rites. He was of Jewish descent, you see. He was a religious man, but it availed him nothing. All his religion has availed him nothing. God struck him down.

Just as God came down in judgment upon Adam and Eve in the garden and brought flaming swords, guarded by seraphim, to guard the entry back into the Garden of Eden...just as He came down in the days of Noah and obliterated the whole world except for eight souls...just as He came down upon Nadab and Abihu for offering strange fire...just as He came down in The Acts of the Apostles upon Ananias and Sapphira... God is holy. God is not to be toyed with. God is not to be mocked. It is a serious thing to walk in fellowship and communion with God. It is a serious thing. God is holy. That's the lesson Luke wants us to see here, and tyrants like Herod Agrippa are nothing before a sovereign God. And He can do it again.

II. The church has nothing to fear.

The second lesson — and it's a much more comforting lesson — that lesson is necessary, but there's a much more comforting lesson here, too. It's the other side of the coin, of course. There is nothing for the church to fear.

You know, I love that rendition of Psalm 34 that when you fear God, you have nothing else to fear. When you reverence God, what are men? What are tyrants? What are persecutors? The church must have felt very small before Herod Agrippa. The church was several thousand, I'm sure...maybe ten thousand professing believers by this time. But in comparison to the mighty Roman Empire that stretched throughout the whole of Europe, and Eastern Europe and North Africa, the church was nothing. The church was a tiny pin prick. The skirmishes that the Herods had to deal with in Judea were barely on the map of consideration in Rome. They were no match to the Roman forces, but here's Luke saying when God is on your side, when the Lord of glory is on your side...you may be up against the forces of darkness, you may be up against the forces of civil powers and authorities, you may be up against the forces of philosophical systems that mock you and deride you....

You know, Voltaire said, in all his bombast, that within fifty years of his death Christianity would be forgotten. They wouldn't know the name of Jesus within fifty years. Isn't it a wonderful thing that in the very house in which he lived in Geneva, fifty years after his death they were printing copies of the Genevan Bible with the same presses that had printed his books!

Psalm 124 — we began our service tonight with Psalm 124. It was John Calvin's Call to Worship: "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth."

It has always been a Psalm of great reassurance to the people of God, especially in times of opposition and persecution. In the metrical version — or at least in one version of the metrical version:

Now Israel may say, and that truly,
That if the Lord had not our cause maintained,
If that the Lord had not our rights sustained
When cruel men against us furiously rose up in wrath
To make of us their prey,
Then certainly they had devoured us all
And swallowed quick, for ought that we could do.
Such was their rage, as we might well esteem;
And as fierce floods before them all things drown,
So had they brought our souls to death quite down.
The raging streams with their proud swelling waves
Had then our soul o'erwhelmed in the deep;
But blessed be God who doth us safely keep,
And hath not given us for a living prey
Unto their teeth and bloody cruelty.
Even as a bird out of the fowler's snare escapes away,
Broke are their nets, and thus escaped we.
Therefore our help is in the Lord's great name,
Who heaven and earth by His great power did frame.

Well, you've got to have a thousand people sing that in unaccompanied metrical verse, and it's stirring stuff! You should read some of the accounts of the Covenanters in "killing time," singing that very Psalm on the moors of Scotland...no matter what the opposition, no matter what the tyranny.

Of course, that opposition and tyranny may come in all kinds of forms. It may not be the opposition and tyranny of a dictator; it may be the subtle opposition and tyranny of the wicked one in causing us to doubt the goodness of God, and in causing us to doubt the sovereignty of God, and in causing us to doubt the purposes of God, that they will be accomplished according to His promise; that when Jesus says to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, "The gates of hell will not prevail against the church" that he'll cause us to doubt when sickness comes, when we lose a loved one, when terror knocks on our door; when we wake up in the night and all of our dreams and hopes and aspirations — maybe not for ourselves, but for our wives or our children or our families — are all shattered.

And Luke is saying it's still the same, you see. It's still the same. The purposes of God can never be thwarted. They can never die. The word of God will endure forever. It may not be God's purpose to keep us here on earth forever�"and it's not, because sooner or later He takes us all who love Him in Jesus Christ home to be with Himself. So there's nothing to fear, you see. There's nothing to fear. Not death; not the grave; not hell; not Satan; not tyrants — nothing!

"Who shall separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord?"

III. God builds his church trials.

But there's a third truth here, too, that God accompanies and accomplishes His purposes through trial. It's not just...and this is true, but it's not the truth that's been taught here.... It's true to say that God accomplishes His purposes despite the trials, that's true; but Luke is saying something much more than that here. Look at that verse 24. It sits out, you know? It's meant...if this were some sort of video presentation (Bibles are going to come like that one day, I'm sure!) this verse would be flashing out at you, because all these terrible things, bad things are happening. And at the same time and as a consequence of it, in the midst of it all, the word of God, "...the word of the Lord continued to grow and be multiplied." God's church continued to grow. God's purposes continued to be fulfilled. The word of the Lord was prospering, was growing, was multiplying in the midst of trials.

Isn't it interesting...a couple of things, briefly...isn't it interesting that Luke should equate... you understand, he means here the church; he means here the people of God, but he doesn't call it the church and he doesn't call it the people of God, and he doesn't call it the kingdom of God. He calls it the word of the Lord.

Isn't that interesting? It's the word of the Lord that multiplies, because what is it that they see when the church is spreading? What they see and what they hear is the word of God being preached, and the word of God being taught, and the word of God being sown, and the word of God being prayed. So as the church grew and multiplied, the word of God was spreading�"the promise of God, the purpose of God, the kingdom of God. It's all the same.

You know, I love this passage. (I mean, in one sense; who wants to preach on the death of Herod being eaten by worms?) I love this passage because this is New Testament church growth. You know, this is church growth, New Testament style! How does the church grow? Well, there are no conferences here. No great famous names here being brought in to help the church here. You know, the church grows when everything is going smoothly, or the church grows when the nation is on your side and we live in a so-called Christian nation�"whatever that means. None of it. These men and women are living in the teeth of terror and hell, and the church is growing in the midst of the opposition, in the midst of the tyranny, when there can be no such thing as nominalism. You can't be a nominal Christian these days. You are either with Christ and for Christ and living for Christ, or else you're a pagan. And the church was growing. No great training schemes...I'm not opposed to training schemes, but there are no training schemes here. You don't have to have training schemes to speak about Jesus, because for these men and women it was a life or death thing. They loved Jesus so much they didn't care what happened, because it was the most important thing to them in all the world.

This is what Jesus calls the law of harvest. You remember what He says in John 10: "Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains alone."

There has to be death in order for life to come. It's the same principle that Paul says when he writes to the Corinthians and he describes all of his sufferings, and he says 'Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. I'm prepared to suffer all the tyranny that's going, so long as life is coming to you, and blessing is coming to you.'

We've got our mockers and vilifiers. We're got the Richard Dawkins's of the world with his so-called "God Delusion." It's nothing. You don't have to be afraid of the God delusion. It is nothing. The Richard Dawkins's of this world, they are nothing before a sovereign God.

I was thinking today...not so much of what Michael Oh was speaking to us about earlier�"about Korea and Japan, as interesting as that story is...I was thinking about Zaire, or what used to be called the Belgian Congo. In the 1960's the newly formed State of Zaire, formerly known as the Belgian Congo, was in the grip of Communist insurgency, and they had been planning this rebellion for years, and the fighting was widespread. One Congolese chief of the Checonga area was murdered in cold blood. His wife and children were killed. Corpses were strewn about the streets. You could go to the markets and purchase human flesh in Zaire in the 1960's.

No less than 31 evangelical missionaries were martyred in Zaire in 1965. Hundreds of the most devoted Congolese pastors and leaders and thousands of their members were killed. And Helen Roseveare, a dear, dear, dear friend of mine who lives in Belfast, was a missionary in Zaire, and in 1964 was captured by a rebel group and brutalized and raped for several days. And after her release and furlough she went back to Zaire for seven years. She wrote in Christianity Today a little while later: "I want people to be passionately in love with Jesus so that nothing else counts," she said. "The world thinks I'm foolish for going there, but if God sent me to Africa with my family, He's going to look after us. If I get AIDS, it's because He wants me to witness to others who've got it." How's that for success? I'm a fanatic. Nothing counts except for knowing your sins are being forgiven by the blood of Jesus. We only have this short life to let others know the same truth.

You see, once God ignites that fire -Holy Spirit fire- in the hearts and lives of His people, there's no quenching it. You can't put it out. And despite - no, because of this tyranny - and because of this opposition the Christian church was emboldened to speak with even more urgency the truth that is in Jesus.

Ah, my friends, I feel that we luxuriate, you and I, so much, in the ease and comfort of our Western lives, and here is Christianity 101. Here is Church Growth 101. You want the church to grow; you want the church in America, you want the church in the West to recover its moorings once again. Be careful what you pray for, because often that recovery will come in the wake of the fiercest of opposition and tyranny. And we must never, ever forget the tyrants like Herod Agrippa are nothing before a sovereign God.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for this word of Scripture that convicts us. It makes us feel so guilty. You've been so good to us in many ways, and yet we count that goodness so often in ways that perhaps is misleading; because sometimes You teach us in Your word that the really good things are when You wean us from this world, rather than allow us to luxuriate in it. So teach us what it means to be Your disciples tonight, and bless us we pray, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.