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"The Sound of Chains Falling"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
June 25, 2008
Theme: Luke shows how the gospel of Jesus Christ was not stop in its spread by the opposition of its adversaries.
No sooner is the story told to us of the spread of the gospel to the Gentile world, than we read of the intensified opposition of its adversaries. It's a pattern that is repeated in the book of Acts; and that has been repeated throughout the church's twenty-centuries of history on this earth.
But the Holy Spirit has included this very serious story in the sacred text for us in order to remind us of the greatness of the power of God with respect to His gospel. Our Lord has promised that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14). And this passage God is able to deal with those who seek to stand in opposition to our Lord's promise. It's not our place to deal with them. It's only our place to proclaim the gospel faithfully and prayerfully. But we can do so in the confidence that as we do so, God will deal with the opposition (1 Thess. 2:14-16; 2 Thess. 1:3-10).
I. HEROD AGRIPPA'S CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE CHURCH (vv. 1-4).
A. Luke tells us that, about the time of the events of chapter 11, Herod Agrippa I "stretched out his hand to harass some from the church" (v. 1). There are five monarchs of the Herodian family that play a direct role in the narrative of the Bible:
1. The first is Herod the Great (who reigned from 37 to 4 B.C.). He was the son of Antipater (of Edomite descent). He was the Herod who sought to slay the Lord Jesus shortly after His birth (Matthew 2:1-8, 16-18).
2. The second is Herod's son Archelaus (who reigned from 4 B.C. to 6 A.D.). He is mentioned only briefly as the king whose ascendancy made it necessary for Joseph to move his family to Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23).
3. The third is Herod the Great's other son Antipas (who reigned from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D.). He is the king who reigned during the earthly ministry of our Lord. His brother was Philip; and this king put John the Baptist to death for rebuking him for having married his brother Philip's wife (Matthew 14:1-12). It was this Herod before whom our Lord stood (Luke 23:6-12).
4. The fourth is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great (who reigned from 37 to 44 A.D.). He is the king that we read about in our passage this evening.
5. The fifth is his son Herod Agrippa II (who reigned from 50 to 100 A.D.). This was the king before whom Paul will give his testimony in Acts 26. It was with this Herod's death that the reign of the Herods came to an end.
B. The king of Acts 12, Herod Agrippa I, was known to have sought the affection and support of the Jewish people. Though he behaved differently when he was away from Judea, he was very careful to show himself faithful to Jewish law—in part, no doubt, because he was self-conscious of the fact that he was not of pure Jewish descent. He made a public showing of regular sacrifices, and often openly sponsoring Jews who were under a Nazarite vow. And among the things that he did in order to win the favor of the Jews was to persecute the followers of Jesus. He killed James (the brother of the apostle John) with the sword—perhaps in fulfillment, to some degree, of our Lord's promise that they would 'drink' from His 'cup' (see Matthew 20:23). Seeing that the death of James pleased the Jews, he also sought to further bring himself in their favor by seizing Peter (vv. 2-3).
C. God's providential hand was evident, however. It was "during the Days of Unleavened Bread" (which followed after Passover; see Exodus 12:15ff; 23:15). It was intended that he would keep Peter in prison until he could bring Peter out before the people (probably for a public execution) after Passover. (The Passover and the Feast were together, as a unit, considered to be "Passover". In the King James, this is called "Easter"; but obviously Passover is meant.) To secure Peter, he was placed in the custody of four "tetrads" (squads of four). Perhaps word had gotten out about how Peter could not easily be kept in prison (Acts 5:17-21); and Herod wanted to take no chances of missing out on this great "public relations" execution (v. 4).
II. PETER'S RELEASE FROM HEROD'S PRISON (vv. 5-17).
A. The Holy Spirit wanted to make sure we can see that, though Peter was in prison, the "constant" prayers of God's people were going forth for him (v. 5). This assures us that our heavenly Father certainly hears our prayers for our persecuted brothers and sisters. It was apparently the night before Herod planned to bring Peter out to execution; but though he was bound with two chains between two soldiers—with guards before the door—Peter was sleeping (v. 6). No doubt Peter had learned to cast his cares upon the Lord (1 Peter 5:7); but whose to say that the prayers of God's people didn't also help give him peace?
B. He didn't get a full night's sleep though. An angel of the Lord stood by him—shining a bright light in the prison (v. 7). It doesn't seem that the guards were conscious during this time, since they later couldn't account for Peter (v. 18). The angel struck Peter on the side (although the word can mean "tapped"), and raised him up; saying, "Arise quickly!" As his chains fell off (apparently remaining on the guards, though), the angel then urged him to gird himself, put on his sandals, grab his cloak, and follow (v. 8). As they went past the first guard post, then the second, the iron gate that led to the city opened before them. And when they went down one street, the angel left Peter to go the rest of the way alone (v. 10).
C. Luke makes the point that Peter didn't know any of this was really happening at the time (v. 9). He thought that he was seeing a vision (which he already had some experience with; see 10:9-16). But standing out in the street in the early morning hours—and perhaps feeling the cool air blow around him—he suddenly realized that it was all really occurring (v. 11). He responded by praising God for His hand of deliverance. The fact that Peter said, "Now I know . . ." may indicate that this was what he had been trusting God for. Peter prayed in confidence; knowing that he could not have died. The Lord had already promised that his death would occur when he was "old" (John 21:18). Until God's time for us comes, we are indestructible!
D. It says something about Peter that he didn't immediately run away. Instead, he went to those who were praying for him. The saints had gathered at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark (author of the Gospel of Mark; v. 12). She was, most likely, the sister of Barnabas; and that makes John Mark to be Barnabas' relative (see Colossians 4:10). Apparently Mary and her household were dear to Peter (1 Peter 5:13). As they prayed for Peter's life, Peter himself came and knocked on the door. The girl, Rhoda, heard Peter's voice; and was so excited to tell everyone that she forgot to open the door for Peter (which, by the way, left Peter in a dangerous situation; since he was an escapee from Herod's prison). Peter kept knocking; but probably with great care (vv. 12-16a).
E. They didn't believe Rhoda at first. They said, "It is his angel". Some suggest that this refers to a person's "guardian angel" that they believed appeared when someone died. Others suggest that it is a reference to a person's spirit that then goes to be with the Lord. Whatever it meant, they were wrong—both in thinking of what was standing at the door, and that Peter was dead. And Peter was eager that they believe it was him, because he was in a bit of a hurry! Once they let him in, he had to calm them down (probably so as not to cause such a disturbance as to bring more trouble from Herod). He told them the story of what had happened, and then instructed them to tell James (the half-brother of the Lord, who was increasingly becoming a leader in the church), and the brethren (a reference to the other apostles). And with this, he went away from there to another place—no doubt in order to avoid bringing the other saints under Herod's suspicious eye (vv. 16b-17).
III. HEROD'S SEARCH FOR THE MISSING VICTIM (vv. 18-19).
A. Daylight came; and Herod then sent for his victim—who was not to be found (v. 18). "[N]o small stir" occurred among the soldiers; because they were responsible to keep their prisoner under custody at the cost of their own lives. It must have been that the soldiers were all at their posts the whole time and even until morning; because no one could explain what happened to Peter.
B. Herod himself searched the prison for his prize prisoner. It must be that he felt a desperate need to execute Peter in order to secure the favor of the Jews. When he couldn't find Peter, he responded by putting the soldiers to death; and then, he left for the port city of Caesarea (v. 19). Why it is that Peter was kept alive while James was not—or for that matter, the soldiers—isn't told us. But it isn't us to judge the ways of God. His servant James was ushered into glory; and he could not have been happier! Peter was set free from prison; and as a result, the work of the gospel went on. Just are all the ways of God.
IV. HEROD'S GROTESQUE END (vv. 20-23).
A. Herod was in a sour mood! He lost his victim; and what's more, somehow—we're not told how—the people of Tyre and Sidon had made him angry (v. 20). This was particularly upsetting to the people of those two cities; because they needed the favor of Herod's realm in order to obtain their supply of food. So, they befriended the keeper of Herod's bedchamber—a trusted position occupied by a man named Blastus—and through him sought to win back Herod's good graces.
B. On a set day, Herod sat on his throne and spoke to the crowds (v. 21-22). The first century Jewish historian Josephus gives us some fascinating details: "Now, when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival, a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a texture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent at to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god; and they added, 'Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature'" (Josephus, Ant. 20.8.2). As a consequence, an angel of the Lord makes another appearance—not to let anyone out of prison this time, but rather to execute divine judgment (v. 23). Because Herod received the inappropriate praises of men, and did not give glory to God, he went from being called "a god" to being eaten by worms and dying.
V. THE CHURCH'S ONGOING PROGRESS (vv. 24-25).
A. Thus ended this particular adversary's opposition to the gospel. And the gospel still went forth. We're told that the word of God "grew and multiplied"—obviously meaning that the spread of it, the hearing of it, and the response in faith to it were not in any way hindered (v. 24), but rather increased.
B. What's more, we're told that at the same time Barnabas and Saul returned from their ministry in Jerusalem (see 11:27-30), and added John Mark to their wider ministry team (v. 25).
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This passage reminds us that men cannot stop what God commissioned to be proclaimed. It's a call to us today to remember Paul's exhortation in Philippians 1:27-28; ". . . that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries . . ."
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