KINGDOM GROWTH CANNOT BE HALTED BY DIFFICULT PHYSICAL CIRCUMSTANCES OR BY INTIMIDATING PERSECUTION
Sometimes we get discouraged in the spiritual warfare and forget that we are on the winning team. God is Sovereign. Even when it looks like circumstances are against us and the wicked are prospering, God is still accomplishing His Kingdom agenda. One conviction we should bring away from studying the Book of Acts is that God’s Word, His Gospel message is unstoppable. Look at the small beginnings of just a handful of ordinary people – people without any wealth or worldly power and influence – and look at how God worked to advance His Kingdom.
The key verse in our story for today is another one of those progress reports that Luke gives –
12:24: “But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”
This will be even more surprising and impressive when we see the difficult circumstances facing the church.
TWO POTENTIAL OBSTACLES TO CHURCH GROWTH:
Our section is bracketed on the front and back end by references to the missionary team of Barnabas and Saul (11:30, 12:25). They are providing the connectivity between the Jewish church in Jerusalem which is in need of financial assistance and under intense persecution from King Herod and the new Gentile church at Antioch which will become the center of missionary operations from Chap. 13 onwards. Two different stories are told in this long section – we cannot even be sure if Luke is presenting things in strict chronological order or with more of an emphasis on thematic structure. But these two stories relate two potential obstacles to church growth.
I. (11:27-30) WORLDWIDE POVERTY —
KINGDOM GROWTH CANNOT BE HALTED BY DIFFICULT PHYSCIAL CIRCUMSTANCES BECAUSE BRETHREN UNITE IN CARING FOR THE PHYSICAL NEEDS OF THE CHURCH FAMILY
A. (:27-28a) Prophetic Alert – Hard Times on the Horizon
“Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world.”
Remember aloofness of Jewish believers towards Gentiles earlier
Toussaint: Though going north, they went “down” because Jerusalem is on a much higher elevation than Antioch.
Increasing interaction between church at Jerusalem and new church at Antioch; becoming more of a unified community of believers
Bock: we see the emergence of another key community, engaged in mission, instruction, discipleship, and caring for other communities in need, Word and deed again are side by side. The summary could hardly do a better job of showing a vibrant church at work, performing the essential tasks of a community so visibly that outsiders note who its members are. As always, it is responsiveness to divine direction and vision that leads to this effective ministry.
Gift of Prophecy – where are the prophets today? Harold Camping?? Included prediction as well as proclamation of Word of God
Needed in terms of progressive revelation
Agabus — good biblical name that no one seems to have picked up on and used; not a one trick pony – played another big prophetic role in 21:10 – object lesson using Paul’s belt – “In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”
Serious global (“inhabited earth” = Roman empire) calamity approaching – how will people respond??
– Scoffing and ignoring the warning – overlooking that these prophets were inspired by the Holy Spirit – that’s what the bulk of people do every day with God’s inspired Word
– Trying to escape the trial by human means … but this will be a worldwide problem – no place to run and hide
– Natural response would be hoarding – now that you have put me on alert, I will make sure to protect myself and my family
B. (:28b) Poverty Actualized – Promised by way of warning; now fulfilled
“And this took place in the reign of Claudius.”
A.D. 41-54 = reign of Roman emperor Claudius
Fulfillment of this prophecy stated very matter of factly – but must have been the occasion of much difficulty for the saints – especially those in Jerusalem that were already endangered by persecution
Down through history the saints have experienced many difficult trials. Look at the personal physical struggles of people like Joni Eareckson Tada – where her circumstances became her platform for bringing greater glory to God. That is the message of James 1 that we are to count it all joy when we fall into various trials ….
Trials are not the excuse to retreat from the spiritual battle; to close our mouths; to sit on the sidelines and refuse to give testimony to the providential grace and wisdom of our wonderful God and Savior Jesus Christ
C. (:29-30a) Personal Action – Unselfishly sacrificing to meet the need
“And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did,”
A number of principles stand out in this portion:
– Disciples had varying amounts of resources – not as if all had donated all their worldly possessions to some common pool for distribution by the leaders
– Proportionate response was what was appropriate (2 Cor. 8-9) – 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:7
– Personal commitment on a voluntary basis – not group coercion
– Principle of those who have been blessed in a spiritual fashion have the responsibility to share in physical sense of support – Gal. 6:6 “The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him”
– Also the principle that in general we are to bear the burdens of each other to move towards a situation where no one is in desperate need – Gal. 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.”
– Shows the genuineness of the conversion of the Gentile believers
– Intentions alone don’t get the job done; you have to have the implementation and follow through
D. (:30b) Presbyterian Administration – Oversight of spiritual leaders
“sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.”
Confidence the young church had in Barnabas and Saul – equally comfortable fulfilling role as verbal communicators of truth and as social workers to meet practical needs of the people
Development of a ministry team that would travel all over the region in the years ahead
– Preparation; building of confidence; would pick up John Mark
First mention of governing structure of Jerusalem church being structured around elders
Toussaint: Though there is some question about it, this famine visit in 11:27-30 is probably the same one referred to in Galatians 2-1-10.
Some circumstances are beyond the resources of the church to provide any assistance; need to use our weapon of fervent prayer to have an impact
II. (12:1-23) WORLDLY PERSECUTION –
KINGDOM GROWTH CANNOT BE HALTED BY INTIMIDATING PERSECUTION BECAUSE ANGELIC INTERVENTION SHOWS WORLDLY POWERS WHO IS REALLY IN CONTROL – IT IS FOOLISH TO FIGHT AGAINST GOD
A. (:1-5) Man-Handling Man-Pleasers Resort to Powerful Persecution = FUTILITY OF OPPOSING 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. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And 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.”
Kingdom of this world pitted against kingdom of God – battle rages
Saul knew what it was to fight against Jesus = the futility of it all; also knew what it was to be forgiven
Eight day combined feast: Passover plus 7 days of unleavened bread –
Herod Agrippa I = ultimate politician – “the fool who fights God” – characterized thus by MacArthur
– Sensitive to the popularity polls and tried to gain favor however he could
– Driven by expediency in his actions
– No problem abusing his power without concern for justice and righteousness
– Cruel in his treatment of those who posed any type of threat to his status
– Puffed up in the pride of his own power and importance to think that he could oppose God
Stott: He must have been well informed about Jesus and his followers, for his uncle Antipas had known and tried Jesus (Lk 23:7ff).
Wiersbe: This evil man was the grandson of Herod the Great, who ordered the Bethlehem children to be murdered, and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded.
Kent: This was Peter’s third arrest (4:3, 5:18), and remembrance of his previous deliverance from prison (5:19), may have caused extra precautions to be taken. He was put in the care of four squads of four soldiers each. Usual procedure would call for them to serve three-hour watches, with two soldiers chained to the prisoner and two guarding the door.
Matt. 20:22 – Jesus prophecied that James and John would drink of the cup of suffering in identification with their master
MacArthur: And so it fulfilled the prophecy. Isn’t it interesting of all the apostles he picked out to kill he picked the one that Jesus said would suffer. Men think they’re so smart. All they’re doing is just carrying out the plans of God.
Longenecker: Agrippa’s policy was the Pax Romana through the preservation of the status quo. He supported the majority within the land and ruthlessly suppressed minorities when they became disruptive. He viewed Jewish Christians as divisive and felt their activities could only disturb the people and inflame antagonisms. So he arrested some of the believers in Jesus and had James, one of Jesus’ original disciples, beheaded by the sword.
B. (:6-11) Angelic Assistance Provides Divine Deliverance = FULFILLMENT OF GOD’S SOVEREIGN PURPOSES
“And 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 roused him, 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. And 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. And 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.’”
Note how soundly Peter slept the night before his expected execution
He knew that Jesus had promised him that he would live to be an old man and end his life crucified on a Roman cross (John 21:18-19) – should have been expecting deliverance in some fashion
More angelic activity today than we realize
– God’s ministering spirits to protect us and minister to our needs (Heb. 13:2)
– Are we to imagine that they are inactive and not fulfilling their role today??
– Certainly involved in praise and worship – but interested in how the church goes about submitting to authority and worshiping the Sovereign God
– Song “Jesus take the wheel” – God cares for us
Stott: the destructive power of Herod and the saving power of God are contrasted . . . The situation looked extremely bleak, even hopeless. There appeared to be no possibility of Peter’s escape. What could the little community of Jesus, in its powerlessness, do against the armed might of Rome?
Wiersbe: This deliverance too place at Passover season, the time of year when the Jews celebrated their exodus from Egypt. The word delivered in Acts 12:11 is the same word Stephen used when he spoke about the Jewish exodus (Acts 7:34). Peter experienced a new kind of “exodus” in answer to the prayers of God’s people.
C. (:12-17) Powerful Praying Brings a Rejoicing Report = FUNCTION OF FERVENT PRAYER
“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. And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. And 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. And 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.’ 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 departed and went to another place.”
Combat Powerful Persecution with Powerful Praying
Kent: The church used its only available weapon – prayer. The praying was fervent and continual, even though the church as a whole was astonished when God answered. Nevertheless the spiritual power which prayer unleashed was more than a match for Herod.
Wiersbe: Never underestimate the power of a praying church! “The angel fetched peter out of prison,” said the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, “but it was prayer that fetched the angel.”
D. (:18-23) Pompous Pride Leads to Tables Turned – FURY OF GOD’S PUNISHING WRATH
“Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. And when Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. And 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. And on an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. And 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.”
Remember Haman’s plot in book of Esther
Remember lesson learned by Nebuchadnezzar in book of Daniel
Kent: Josephus has a parallel description which agrees in essential points. He describes how Agrippa was struck with severe abdominal pain and was carried into the palace where he died five days later. The expression “eaten of worms,” is similar to Josephus’ description of the death of Herod the Great, and of the death of Antiochus Epiphanes mentioned in II Maccabees 9:9.
Wiersbe: The world still lives for praise and pleasure. Man has made himself his own god (Rom. 1:25). The world still lives on the physical and ignores the spiritual (see 1 John 2:15-17). It lives by force and flattery instead of faith and truth, and one day it will be judged.
(:24-25) CONCLUSION / TRANSITION
“But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”
Keep preaching the Word, in season and out of season – whether people have a favorable reaction or whether they reject the gospel – whether we are a fragrance of life unto life or of death unto death.
“And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.”
Stott: One cannot fail to admire the artistry with which Luke depicts the complete reversal of the church’s situation. At the beginning of the chapter Herod is on the rampage – arresting and persecuting church leaders; as the end he is himself struck down and dies. The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place. Tyrants may be permitted for a time to boast and bluster, oppressing the church and hindering the spread of the gospel, but they will not last. In the end, their empire will be broken and their pride abased.
cf. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden – look at how they functioned as cruel tyrants for a time and abused many people but came to such shameful deaths – to say nothing of the judgment faced by the God who says “Vengeance is Mine.” Some people complain about that aspect of God’s character – but it would idolatry to make god after our image or thinking – learn who God is and what He hates and appreciate Him and glorify Him for that.
KINGDOM GROWTH CANNOT BE HALTED BY DIFFICULT PHYSICAL CIRCUMSTANCES OR BY INTIMIDATING PERSECUTION
God is still on the throne, Almighty God is He
And He cares for His own through all eternity
So let come what may – Whatever it be – I can only say
That I have God on my side!