Surprising Rescue, Sobering Retribution, Sovereign Redeemer
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 12:1–12:24
As I’ve been preaching through Acts, Ben has been preaching through 1 Samuel. One theme Ben emphasized is that God destroys the proud and exalts the humble. We’ll encounter that theme today in Acts. The Lord will kill a prideful king to advance his gospel through the persecuted church. Let’s read together in verse 1…
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.
18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there. 20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. 24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
We’re on the cusp of a new section. Luke’s narrative will soon shift to King Jesus advancing the gospel among Gentiles. Right before this shift, however, Luke gives us one further report of the gospel’s success in Jerusalem. But it’s in the face of a new and greater obstacle—Herod the King.
A New Obstacle: Herod the King
To this point, the opposition largely consists of a small group of religious authorities. They’ve tried to squash the church’s testimony. But the gospel proves unstoppable. Now we meet a Gentile king named Herod. He too opposes the church. But he’s no small, religious authority; he rules all Judea, Galilee, and Perea.
A couple of other Herods appear in Scripture. Herod the Great was the king who tried to kill Jesus in Matthew 2. Herod Antipas was the king involved in Jesus’ trial—he also wanted to kill Jesus (Luke 13:31). This is Herod Agrippa I, grandson to Herod the Great. He too opposes Jesus and his kingdom. Something to keep in mind is that Christianity poses a serious political threat, because its followers pledge allegiance to Jesus alone. Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not.
Herod has political motivations. Verse 2 says that “he kills James the brother of John with the sword.” But notice verse 3: Herod wants to kill Peter also, “because he saw that [James’ death] pleased the Jews.” In other words, he does whatever he wants to gain more popularity. He flaunts his power to gain glory. He’s the most powerful earthly authority we’ve met so far; and this new obstacle raises questions.
Will the gospel reach the ends of the earth when power-hungry rulers stand in the way? Will the church’s mission endure when evil rulers behead its leaders? Will God hear our prayers and act for us? God’s answer for us is a big Yes! Yes, the gospel will march on. Yes, Christ will build his church. Yes, God will answer and act for his people…and in some pretty surprising ways.
Earnestly pray in the face of great obstacles
Before we get to Peter’s surprising rescue, though, notice the church’s response. Peter isn’t just in prison; verse 4 says he has four squads of soldiers to guard him. That’s sixteen soldiers total—four at a time rotating different shifts day and night so everybody stays alert. In verse 6, Peter has to sleep between them chained down. A first and second guard in the way. They must have heard of what happened before in 5:19—Peter’s other escape. They’re ratcheting up the security.
From a human perspective, Peter’s situation is hopeless. But in the face of great obstacles, notice the church’s response. Verse 5: “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” Earnest prayer. That’s the same way Luke describes Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his sweat became like great drops of blood…”[i] The church is pleading with God to act on Peter’s behalf. Verse 12 indicates that many had gathered together and were praying throughout the night.
We’re not told exactly what they prayed. It could’ve been for Peter’s rescue; it could’ve been for Peter’s perseverance—and that seems more likely since they’re so surprised by his escape later on. Whatever they prayed, though, the point is that they prayed. Again, Luke stresses the power of prayer. In his book Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper illustrates prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie. He writes,
Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission. It is as though the field commander (Jesus) called in the troops, gave them a crucial mission (go and bear fruit), handed each of them a personal transmitter coded to the frequency of the General’s headquarters, and said, “Comrades, the General has a mission for you. He aims to see it accomplished. And to that end he has authorized me to give each of you personal access to him through these transmitters. If you stay true to his mission and seek his victory first, he will always be as close as your transmitter, to give tactical advice and to send air cover when you need it.”
But what have millions of Christians done? We have stopped believing that we are in a war. No urgency, no watching, no vigilance. No strategic planning. Just easy peace and prosperity. And what did we do with the walkie-talkie? We tried to rig it up as an intercom in our houses and cabins and boats and cars—not to call in firepower for conflict with a mortal enemy but to ask for more comforts in the den.
There’s no question that the church here understands that life is war, that the kingdom of Christ is undermining the kingdom of Herod, and Herod doesn’t like it. Herod wants the apostles dead, so he can build his own kingdom for his own glory. But the church takes hold of that “walkie-talkie” and pleads for their King to act.
Do you pray earnestly for God to act? When you see great obstacles to the gospel—false worldviews; the allure of earthly riches; the bondage of men and women in the porn and sex-trafficking industry; popular voices who dismiss Christianity; countless idols controlling people; false teachers confusing the church; government officials denying visas to Christians; even our own sinful choices and there consequences—when you see these obstacles, how do you pray? Is it earnest?
Folks, powerless as we may be when compared to the movers and shakers of our day; weak as we may be before the armies of people who hate Jesus; small church as we may be when facing multi-billion dollar corporations that have moral agendas totally opposed to Christianity; unheard as your voice may be against corrupt governments and institutions; vulnerable as we may be in the face of temptation—we can pray to God. The most powerful person in the universe, Jesus Christ, is on our side. Our Father stands ready to listen. What can you do in the face of great obstacles opposed to Christ? You can pray. The church prayed for Peter.
A Surprising Rescue
God then answers their prayer with a pretty surprising rescue. I say it’s surprising because both Peter and the church are surprised by what God does. Peter is sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; sentries guard the prison. Notice that only Peter is sleeping; it says nothing about the soldiers sleeping. Then suddenly an angel appears in verse 7, strikes Peter on the side, and says, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell off his feet. Verse 8, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals…Wrap your cloak around you…follow me.” And Peter follows him. He doesn’t even know what’s going on, verse 9 says. They get by two levels of guards. The iron gate opens. He’s free. Angel leaves. Peter is rescued!
A lot of similarities exist between the great Exodus deliverance and Peter’s rescue. It’s Passover time.[ii] It’s at night.[iii] An arrogant king wants God’s people dead.[iv] Impossible odds.[v] An angel is involved.[vi] They have to get their sandals on and flee quickly.[vii] The sea opens there; the gate opens here.[viii] God rescues his people without them doing anything; and then he kills the arrogant king.[ix] The God of the Exodus still acts for his people. Here we see him acting to rescue Peter from Herod.
We forget how much God controls things? We forget his power. Sometimes our prayers are limited by what we believe is possible only from a human perspective. But God isn’t limited to what we believe he can do. What does Ephesians 3 say? God does far more abundantly than anything we can ask or think!
God upholds the molecular structure of iron gates by the word of his power. If he wants the iron gate to disintegrate, he can do that. The soldiers are guarding Peter; yet they see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing. That’s how much God controls things: he controls what you’re able to see and hear and comprehend around you.[x] He works in surprising ways. Even Peter really doesn’t get it until verse 11—“When Peter came to himself, he said, ‘Now I’m sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me…’”
The church wasn’t expecting this either. It’s really hilarious. They’re praying earnestly for Peter. Peter knocks on the gate; and it takes them forever. In verse 14, Rhoda hears Peter’s voice, and she’s so excited she forgets to open the door. She runs to get the others. Then they say, “You’re out of your mind!” Then they argue for a bit about it—“she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, ‘It’s his angel.’”
You can imagine what Peter’s thinking outside? “An angel just got me out of prison, but my own people won’t let me inside. Gee whiz! There’s a real easy way to figure this out guys! Just open the door!” He kept knocking, it says. Finally, they open it and it’s him! Surprise! He has to quiet down the excitement to explain what’s next.
God is able to do the impossible; pray that way!
We learn a couple of things from this rescue. One is that we must remember in our prayers that God is able to do the impossible. What is impossible with man is possible with God. He does far more abundantly than anything we can ask or think.
That should give us even greater confidence to pray for God to overcome great obstacles. No matter what you see standing in the way of his work—are you more likely to complain about it or pray about it? Pray for God to work wonders. And remember when doing so that your prayers don’t have to be perfect for him to act. Sometimes he’s going to do the totally unexpected. He’s going to answer your prayers far beyond what you thought. The church wasn’t expecting Peter to get out like he did—that’s why they’re so stunned. But they still prayed earnestly.
God controls everything to achieve his purpose; trust him in suffering too.
But something else we learn is that God doesn’t always overcome obstacles in the same way. We can’t forget that while Peter was rescued, James was not. God had different plans for James and Peter, as he does for all of us. We’re not told why God allowed James to be killed and Peter to live longer. By placing these two accounts beside one another, Luke shows that we’re not always guaranteed a divine rescue like this. So don’t turn this passage into, “Well if we just pray this and this, he’ll get so-and-so out of jail, so-and-so out of suffering.” That promise isn’t here.
What we are guaranteed is that God controls everything to advance his purpose. The death of James wasn’t outside of God’s control. King Herod isn’t outside God’s control. The soldiers aren’t outside God’s control. The rescue of Peter clearly shows that God could’ve done the miraculous for James also, but he chose not to. Peter’s rescue becomes a comfort to the church who just lost a beloved leader. It says to them, “Don’t think for one second, church, that God isn’t in control here. He’s got this. Watch what I do next!”
Even here, we’re forced to remember the theology of God’s sovereignty that comes out of the cross in 4:28. See, there was another King Herod who once gathered against Jesus, along with Pontius Pilot, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel, “to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.” King Herod wasn’t in control when Jesus died on the cross. This King Herod isn’t in control either when he puts James to death. God has a good purpose in the death of his beloved ones, just as he had a good purpose in the death of his beloved Son.
We can trust God. Whenever supernatural rescue is necessary for the gospel’s advance, we can trust that God will do it. But if he chooses not to rescue, he’s still on the throne, working his sovereign will. That means that when we encounter the martyrdom of other Christians, or when we face suffering for the gospel, we should never think that God is losing ground. His kingdom marches on with or without us, because Jesus is alive never to die again; and one day he will raise James and the rest of us from the dead.
We can also trust that God will deal with evil rulers and replace their kingdoms with his own. This leads us to the sobering retribution in verses 18-23.
The arrogance of King Herod continues. The soldiers are confused about the escape and fear for their lives. For Romans, it was customary to charge a soldier with capital punishment if he neglected his duties. Luke gives us every reason to believe the soldiers are innocent. But Herod doesn’t care. He kills them because he lost face. He had already announced his plan to execute Peter after Passover.[xi] But with Peter missing it makes him look weak. Herod kills the soldiers to preserve his glory.
He’s also angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, verse 20 says. Tyre and Sidon depend on Herod’s country for food. He capitalizes on weaker countries for his own political glory. Don’t miss the connection between sinful-anger and self-glory: Herod gets angry when others get in the way of his glory.
Also, don’t miss the Satanic nature of Herod’s dealings. In Luke 4:6-7, Satan tempts Jesus. Satan says that he’d give to Jesus authority over all the nations if Jesus would just fall down and worship him. Satan offers political favors if Jesus would just worship him. What does Herod do here? He offers political favors to gain the people’s worship. It’s Satanic to the core. Verse 21 even shows him propping himself up on a throne in his royal robes, and the people shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Herod loves it when people make much of him.
But God alone deserves worship. The consequences for ignoring God’s glory are severe. Verse 23 says, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” God doesn’t tolerate glory thieves.
I remember having my stereo system stolen when I was in high school. Walking up on a twisted door handle and cut wires laying everywhere. You feel a level of disgust when someone steals what was rightfully yours. If that’s how we feel toward our fellow man, what do you think the most holy God feels toward us when we steal glory that rightfully belongs to him? All glory and honor rightfully belong to God. He will not tolerate glory thieves. God punishes those who refuse to worship him.
On the one hand, this should bring some level of sobriety to all our attempts to rob God of his glory. Man-pleasing, false humility, the need for approval from others, always feeling the need to explain yourself to preserve a certain image, fishing for compliments, getting envious when overlooked—these are just different forms of the same pride we see in Herod. Let your disgust with a Herod drive you to a new level of disgust with your own pride. It deserves God’s retribution. Then look again to the cross, where God’s retribution for you was taken by Jesus…and worship him for his grace.
On the other hand, this gives us great hope. God will condemn all evil rulers who seek their own glory and who oppress the church. We can rest assured that God will vindicate his suffering church. How else can Peter sleep when he just lost a best friend, two soldiers beside him, execution coming? How do you sleep? By knowing that Jesus is risen and he will vindicate us over our enemies. If God will punish his enemies, we don’t have to. We can leave that in his hands and lay down our lives in love, while entrusting our souls to a faithful Judge. The safest place to be is doing God’s will.
It seems that the church knew this well, because they continued to spread the word of God without fear. Verse 24 says, “But the word of God increase and multiplied.” You’ve got to love that contrast: “Herod was eaten by worms and breathed his last, but the word of God increased and multiplied.” Here Luke reveals the sovereign Redeemer.
Who’s the true King by the end of this chapter? It’s Jesus. King Herod is dead. But King Jesus is still alive, advancing his kingdom through his word. The word increased and multiplied. Evangelism, discipleship, new churches formed and equipping more to evangelize, disciple, and so forth.
Jesus is the true King; his kingdom will prevail
If you were a significant government official in the first century—if you ranked high in society, maybe you’re even part of the king’s army, maybe you’re just a rich supporter of the king’s politics—and let’s say you happened to pick up and read the book of Acts. You’re intrigued: “This gospel keeps overcoming one obstacle after another. Unbelief can’t stop it (Acts 2). The religious authorities can’t stop it (Acts 3, 5). Persecution can’t stop it (Acts 7, 11). Demons can’t stop it (Acts 8). Conflict within can’t stop it (Acts 5, 6). Cultural and ethnic barriers can’t stop it (Acts 10-11). The death of its leaders can’t stop it (Acts 12). Not even my powerful king can stop it (Acts 12).”
That realization wakes you up: “What’s the word of God saying? What message could be so compelling, so powerful? Who is this King Jesus? If his kingdom prevails over all, I want to join.” This is the apologetic value of Acts. It paints such a compelling picture of the gospel’s success that people ask to know more of this Jesus. Jesus is not just another earthly king who comes and passes away. No, he lives forever, therefore, his kingdom is forever. One day it will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Therefore, repent and believe the gospel, for the kingdom of heaven is near!
Jesus’ kingdom spreads through prayer, the word, and the humble sacrifice
But something else you would notice about Jesus’ kingdom is this: it doesn’t spread through power-hungry kings and military might; it doesn’t spread through the rich and important people of society; it doesn’t spread by violence and economic oppression for political gain. It doesn’t spread through government and its laws. It spreads through the weak and the humble, who pray, speak the word, and sacrifice their lives for others. James’ martyrdom wasn’t in vain. Peter’s sufferings weren’t in vain. It is the price the church willingly pays to get the message out.
You would also notice that this story falls right between Barnabas and Saul carrying generous gifts to the churches in Jerusalem who are suffering because of a famine. Brothers and sisters are without food, and they send as much relief as they can. By contrast, Herod strangles Tyre and Sidon’s food supply until he gets what he wants. Jesus’ kingdom spreads through sacrificial love and generosity for the glory of God—versus the kingdoms of the world that spread through violence and oppression for the glory of man. How does the kingdom advance through your life? Be servant of all.
Why does the kingdom spread that way? Because that’s how our King defeats the world and saves his people—through the cross to resurrection glory. What then is our role as a church? We earnestly pray. We speak the word of God. And we sacrifice our lives in humility and generosity toward others. I’m saying nothing new today. But repeating what Acts seems intent to repeat. The Spirit wants these things worked into the life of our church. Pray earnestly. Speak the word. Sacrifice for others. Prayer, the gospel, and sacrificial love—these are the weapons of our warfare. Jesus’ kingdom will prevail, and that means every sacrifice you make will be worth it.
[i]Luke 22:44, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
[ii]Exod 12:11; Acts 12:4.
[iii]Exod 11:4; 12:8, 12; Acts 12:6; cf. 12:18.
[v]Exod 14:1-18; Acts 12:4, 6.
[vi]Exod 12:23; 14:9; Acts 12:7.
[vii]Exod 12:11; Acts 12:7-8.
[viii]Exod 14; Acts 12:10.
[ix]Exod 14-15; 18:8-10; Acts 12:11, 23.
[x]It happens on the Emmaus road as well. Jesus appears to two disciples, “but their eyes,” it says, “were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). If God doesn’t want you to see something, he’ll do it.
[xi]Acts 12:4, 11.