Jail Cells, Prayer Cells and Hungry Worms

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 15, 2015

Acts 12 But God… Jail Cells, Prayer Cells and Hungry Worms

Rise of the “Nones”
You may have heard that the largest growing religious group in America is the “nones.” No, not the lovely little ladies in black habits and wimples, not “N-U-N-S”; but “N-O-N-E-S”. Those who, when asked to mark their religious affiliation on census data or similar surveys, mark “NONE.”

At the beginning of the 1990s about 7 percent of Americans considered themselves non-religious. By the end of the 90s, that had doubled to 14 percent. And by the 2010s, the number had risen again to where about 20 percent of Americans now mark “NONE” on religious affiliation questionnaires. The trend is especially strong among young people aged 18-30, where 30 percent consider themselves non-religious. (Source: Pew Forum on Religion)

The trend seems to be anti-God. More and more it appears that America is going the direction of Western Europe, where Christianity seems increasingly marginalized and irrelevant.

It’s not an entirely new trend. Throughout history there have been those who have opposed Christianity and resisted its spread. Those who would rather be outside of the Church than in it. In fact, as early as the book of Acts, which chronicles the earliest years of the church, there were those who aligned themselves against God and His purposes. And yet, as we will see, God did not let that stand in His way.

Our text this morning is Acts 12. We’ll be considering the entire chapter. It’s the story of a dramatic contest between God and King Herod.

The section heading in my NIV Bible says this is about “Peter’s miraculous Escape from Prison”, but the story really isn’t about Peter. His story only serves here as a manifestation of the competition that is taking place between God and the king.

Luke has put this chapter together—that is, he’s chosen to record these historical events all in the same place—so that we can see what happens when the would-be powers and authorities of this world choose to oppose God. The point of this chapter is that no matter how much prideful man seeks to limit or destroy the spread of Christianity, God’s purposes will not be frustrated.

Setting The Stage
Verses 1 through 3 introduce us to King Herod. The King here is King Herod Agrippa I, and verse 1 makes it clear that he has set himself in opposition to God:

1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.

The first thing we learn about this King is that he “intend[s] to persecute” the church. He sees this movement of God and he desires to stop it. He wants to make life difficult for those who have aligned themselves with Jesus. In verse 2, we read that he found a permanent way to silence believers:

2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.

James and John were the disciples Jesus had nicknamed the “sons of thunder.” Along with Peter, they were the disciples closest to Jesus: the disciples whose mother requested seats of honor for her sons, the disciples who accompanied Jesus to the Mount of Transfiguration. And now, James is dead, the first (though certainly not the last) of Jesus’ band of 12 to be executed for believing in Him.

The beginning of verse 3, then, gives us a key insight into King Herod’s character:

3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.

Herod’s motivation in having James beheaded is not some deeply held theological conviction that Christianity is wrong or some belief that this new movement poses a threat to the stability of his government—in fact, you don’t get the impression that Herod had anything against Christianity at all. Instead, he does it because it pleases the Jews. He’s willing to arrest, and execute, Christians because it makes him a more popular ruler.

We need to pause here, a moment, and do a little history. One of the more confusing things in the Bible is all the Herods who show up. This is not the Herod that was around when Jesus was born and who had all the babies killed—that was Herod the Great, and he died while Jesus was still an infant. Neither is this the Herod that had John the Baptist killed—that was Herod Antipas (this Herod’s Uncle) and he was banished shortly after the crucifixion. Rather, this Herod--Herod Agrippa I--is the grandson of Herod the Great—the son of a man named Aristobulus, who Herod the Great had executed in a fit of paranoia. After spending his youth in Rome this Herod was appointed ruler over Judea when his childhood friend Claudius became the Roman Emperor.

The thing that is interesting about this Herod is that—whereas all of the rest of his family was more or less despised by the masses—the Jewish people actually liked him. He went to the temple and participated in the religious rituals of the people. He acted like—pretended, really—he was one of them. And yet, the historical reports of his lifestyle when he was away from Judea make it clear that his religious observances were all an act. (Longnecker, p. 407-408)

And here’s the insight into his character: Herod is a slick politician. His goal is whatever is going to make him look good, keep him in power, and grow his fame. His arrest and execution of James—and the subsequent arrest of Peter—is nothing more than a publicity stunt. He is acting to please men, and—in the process—exalt himself.

In John 5:44 Jesus said to the glory-seeking Pharisees, "How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (NASB) In other words, you can't be right with God when you are devoted to seeking glory from others. John Piper writes: “Faith is God-exalting. Glory-seeking is self-exalting. They can't go together. If you are seeking the praise of men you are on a collision course with God.” (Piper, Dec. 1, 1991)

So, not only has Herod set himself in opposition to God by opposing the church, his motivation for doing so is to exalt himself to the position that God alone can occupy. This is going to become vividly clear at the end of the chapter, but it is already hinted at here. Herod is after glory. Herod is after the glory that belongs to God alone.

This is what I mean when I say this chapter is about Herod vs. God. Prideful man seeks to limit or destroy God’s work on earth, and yet God’s purposes will not be frustrated. God’s purposes will stand.

The rest of verse 3 through verse 5 set the stage for the drama that will follow:

He proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

Here’s the context in which God and Herod’s contest will play out: Peter is in prison, awaiting the public show trial that will end in his death and earn more praise for Herod; while the rest of the believers are earnestly praying to God for him. The drama unfolds in three scenes.

God Rescues Peter
The first scene is God’s rescue of Peter from Herod’s clutches. Verses 6-11:

6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”

You get a sense of just how important Peter was to Herod by the fact that he was chained to two guards at the same time. The typical practice would have been for a prisoner to be bound to just one, but Herod is taking no chances, and so he doubles the guard.

And yet, if God is determined to do something, no amount of human precaution is going to stand in His way.

There are several details about this escape which we might have liked Luke to fill in for us: is the angel visible? Are the guards asleep? Why doesn’t anyone notice that Peter is leaving? But one thing is clear: God is engineering the escape, not Peter. Peter is like a child awakened from a sound sleep, gently being reminded of the clothes he needs to put on to go outside. This is a miraculous work of God.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had an out-of-body experience like this. I sort of had one last week. I went with some friends down to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference Men’s Basketball tournament (which was won by UNI by the way, go Panthers!) Problem was, I ended up with a really bad cold, possibly Influenza A. I had a terrible cough, it hurt to talk, it especially hurt to laugh (which was hard, because I’m a funny guy.) My nose was running constantly. In fact, I went to the game (probably should not have, but I did because that was the point of the trip) and I had to constantly go down to the men’s restroom to get more paper towels for my nose. I was a mess.

So, we were at the games on Thursday night, and I think I had an out of body experience. Every time out, I’d sort of fall asleep in my seat. I knew I was at a basketball game, I was vaguely aware of the score, I could see my body sitting in the arena seat, but I also had a sensation of floating around in the arena rafters. Ushers kept coming up to me to see if I was O.K. It wasn’t good.

So I can relate, at least a little, to the sensation Peter must have had as the angel led him out of jail.

And so, God shows Herod Who is more powerful by snatching his prize prisoner right out from under his nose. God demonstrates that His purposes will not be frustrated by those who attack His people.

Now, we need to be careful here. The application of this truth is not that anytime one of God’s people is threatened that God will send a guardian angel to spare us from harm. I’ve heard people compare what happened with Peter and the angel here to their own narrow escape from a terrible car wreck or some other calamity. I do believe that God watches over us, and that He does sometimes intervene to spare us from physical danger, but that is not the reason for this story being in the Bible.

For one thing, we need to remember that the danger to Peter was not just a random threat to his well-being. Peter was in jail and on his way to the executioner’s block because of his allegiance to Jesus Christ. He was being persecuted for being a Christian.

But, more importantly, we need to remember that just days before Peter walked out of jail, James didn’t. For His own reasons God chose to save Peter and not James. Clearly, He could have saved James, but He didn’t.

So, there is no claim here that nothing bad will ever happen to a Christian—or, indeed, that the enemies of the gospel will never get the upper hand. But, whatever happens, God’s purposes will not be frustrated.

God can rescue, or God can sustain and empower through martyrdom. That’s the point of releasing Peter and not James. God is in control of Herod in either case. Peter is set free to continue to lead the church while James goes to his reward, serving as a model and inspiration for those who will follow in the crucible of faith. As another early Christian martyr told those who would take his life: "We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is [the] seed [of the church]." (Tertullian, Apololgeticus 50; quoted by Piper).

“So it isn't as though God fumbled the ball with James and scored a touchdown with Peter. God never fumbles the ball. If he turns it over to the other side for a few downs, it's because he knows a better way to win.

“So the first thing God does to put Herod in his place and bring him down from his self-exaltation is to take his prize prisoner right out from under his nose.” (Piper, Ibid)

God Astonishes the Church
So, now we turn to the second scene, where God astonishes the church. Verses 12-17:

12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!"

15"You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel." 16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place.

There are few truly comic scenes in the Bible, but this appears to be one of them. The Christians are all gathered together. Some scholars believe that the house they were at, owned by Mary the mother of John Mark, may have been the location of the Upper Room. This might have been their primary meeting place in Jerusalem. And they’re praying. Prayer is “the natural atmosphere of God’s people and the normal context for divine activity.” (Longnecker, p. 409) They are earnestly praying for Peter’s rescue. But it doesn’t appear they really expected it to happen.

Imagine the scene. First, there’s Rhoda, so excited to hear Peter’s voice that she forgets to open the door to let him in. She practically slams the door in his face!

Then, when she hurries to tell the others, they are so intent on praying for Peter that they can’t believe Peter is really there. “Shhhhh! We’re praying for Peter’s release…” “But it’s Peter! He’s at the door!” “Peter can’t be at the door, he’s in jail, that’s why we’re praying for him…” You can imagine it going on like this for quite some time, the Bible’s version of a Laurel and Hardy routine.

It’s funny, but it also stands as a reminder to us. Prayer really is powerful. Not that there is anything magical about our prayers, but they are directed to a truly powerful God. And He is capable of astounding us with His answers to our prayers.

And, apparently, God is willing to respond to our prayers even when there is not a full conviction that He will do so. Clearly, these early believers wanted God to protect Peter. They were praying “earnestly” (v. 5). But to think that He would actually break Peter out of jail? That was more than they could really allow themselves to hope for.

And here, God demonstrates that His purposes will not be frustrated by a lack of conviction from His people. God is more than willing to surprise His people by doing abundantly more than they could ask or even imagine. Whether they believe Peter will get out or not is beside the point, God’s purposes will stand.

God overrules Herod
The contest between God and Herod—if you can really call it that, it is rather one sided—comes to a close in the third scene. This is where God overrules Herod. Verses 18-23:

18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.

20Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king's country for their food supply.

21On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." 23Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Several months have now passed since Peter’s escape, but Herod, apparently, has still not learned that he cannot fight God.

There are some politics taking place here that don’t really concern us, except to say that Herod was showing off. He wanted the people of Tyre and Sidon to know just how dependent they were on him for getting their food supply. So when their ambassadors showed up to visit him he made sure to put on his finest robes and sit on his highest throne and make his grandest speech to impress them.

This scene is confirmed by a source outside of the Bible. Josephus, a Jewish historian, says that Herod was dressed in a garment made wholly of silver and as he walked out in the early morning sun he blazed like a walking torch. The whole point was to impress: self-exaltation, self-glorification. Herod wanted the people to respond to him as though he were divine.

And he got his wish. Verse 22 says the people shouted: “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Josephus notes that Herod “did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.”

This is, as it were, the final straw. When Herod fails to correct the people but actually receives their praise (more than that, I’d say he probably encouraged it) God immediately strikes him down. Now, this doesn’t mean he keeled over dead right there on the throne—Luke actually indicates that his death was more protracted and gruesome than that. Probably, he had an attack of pain which landed him in bed where (according to Josephus) he suffered for 5 days before dying. Most likely, his was a case intestinal tapeworms.

The description I read said that if Herod were infected by tapeworms, the first he would have known of it would be when a cyst on his liver or in his abdomen would have burst. This would have released several million more worms into his system. The whole process would have been acutely painful and devastating.

But whatever its physical details, both Luke and Josephus attribute Agrippa’s death to the king’s impiety and God’s judgment.

God is greater than any earthly ruler. And He will not suffer to have glory—the praise and worship that belong to him alone—given to another. And so, God demonstrates that His purposes will not be frustrated by those who seek to rule in His place.

The contest between Herod and God is now over. The lesson is plain: if you oppose Jesus, you will lose. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. John Piper writes: “If a man lifts himself up against God, he becomes weaker than a worm. It is insane to commit treason against the Creator of the universe. You can't win.”

But God…
Verse 24, then, is the postscript on the whole episode. It is the “But God” in the passage. It’s Luke’s main point in telling us this story of Herod taking on God:

24But the word of God continued to increase and spread.

We’ve been saying throughout this chapter that God’s purposes will not be frustrated, now we see precisely what His purpose is—to continue the increase and spread of His Word. The whole point of the book of Acts is to show us how the early church began and how the good news of Jesus spread from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Herod inserted himself into this story and tried to oppose the spread of the word. He thought he could win glory for himself by taking the place of God and persecuting the church. But God’s purposes will not be frustrated by a puny king. God will be exalted, not Herod. Jesus’ fame will spread, not Herod’s.

This would have been important to the earliest readers of the book of Acts. When Luke first wrote this book, by all earthly standards, the future of the church looked hopeless. No provincial puppet king like Herod, they faced the persecution of Roman emperors like Nero. They were small and insignificant and weak. But Luke wants them to know that, despite long odds, God’s plans will not be frustrated. He wants the church to grow and He’s going to see to it.

The lesson is the same for us, though our situations are different. We don’t face self-exalting, glory-seeking, murderous despots; but, we do have a tendency to become discouraged about the church. More and more people are claiming “NONE” as their religious affiliation. More and more the public discourse appears to marginalize Christians and scoff at Biblical values. More and more it seems that Christianity is losing ground.

But God’s plans will not be frustrated. The Word of God will continue to increase and spread.

I don’t know exactly what that means for the United States of America. I don’t know if that means we will continue to become a post-Christian culture like Europe or if we will experience a massive spiritual reawakening. I don’t know if that means great growth for Hope Church or if God intends for us to continue with the ordinary work of the church.

But I do know: God’s plans for the growth of the church and the glorification of His Son will not be frustrated, and that’s what matters.