Sometimes expecting the worst may prevent us from experiencing God's best. In this message Stephen reminds us why our faith in God should be a little more optimistic.
The 18th century poet, William Cowper, penned those famous lines:
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform,
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
I like those words because they remind us of the sovereignty of God - whether the story has a happy ending or not. Whether the waves are smooth and calm or raging wild and stormy.
Chapter 12 in the Book of Acts provides both scenes - both panic and providence; chaos and contentment.
The scene opens with
THE DEATH OF AN EARLY PIONEER
12:1 Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. 2 And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.
Now the main point of chapter 12 is the deliverance of Peter - it’s a footnote here - a brief obituary in the inspired record.
You’d think James, one of the 12 Apostles, would get a little more coverage than a one sentence obituary - only 7 words in the Greek text.
But as I thought about the abruptness of this, as with any obituary, it isn’t so much what is said about them as much as whether or not you knew them - if you did, nothing really needs to be said, except they’re gone.
For those who knew James - Luke’s brief statement would be enough to bring on tears and grief, felt around the entire church.
I know one man who surely grieved deeply - his brother John. If you’ve read the gospels you know that whenever one of these young men is mentioned, the other one’s nearby. James and John - James and John. They along with Peter formed the inner core of Christ’s friends - it was usually, Peter James and John.
You may remember how James and John coerced their mother into requesting that James and John be allowed to sit on either side of Christ in the coming kingdom - the other disciples didn’t like it - not because they thought it was proud, but because James and John thought of it first!
These two brothers were inseparable - now one is beheaded - James becomes the first Apostle to die a martyrs death. While the Bible doesn’t mention a trial, history does.
Clement of Alexandria, in the early second century wrote that as James walked from the courtroom to the place of execution, the soldier escorting him was so deeply moved after witnessing the trial and James testimony of his faith in Christ before the Roman officials - that the soldier confessed Christ as well - as a result he was let out to be executed together with James.
It was tragic news to the church - James, one of three closest Apostles to Jesus Christ had been killed.
It was only going to get worse - notice verse 3 And when Herod saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
Now whenever the Biblical record gives you such an obvious indication of a time period, you, the Bible student need to be alert - there may be something here - uncovered by those willing to dig.
Let me share two things I dug up and you can take it from there.
Two things about this time period that I believe are significant:
1) First of all, the days of Unleavened Bread are the days of the Passover Celebration - during the celebration all the faithful Jews searched their homes from top to bottom and threw all the leaven away - it was the symbol of evil, disobedience. They’re sweeping out the leaven from their homes.
Therefore, in a symbolic way, they are purging sin from their homes and yet at the same time they are allowing sin to remain in their hearts. There about to demand the death of another Christian.
The nation Israel is getting rid of the outward symbols of sin, yet the inward secrets of sin are welcomed.
The second thing that this brings to my mind is how this timing must have affected Peter. Earlier in John’s Gospel, the resurrected Lord had told Peter that he would die a martyr’s death - his hands would be tied and he would be taken where he did not want to go. Now the Lord did tell him that this would occur when he was old - he’s at least 15-20 years older at this point - also, when the Lord later indicated that Peter was to follow him - implying perhaps that Peter would die in a similar fashion as Christ did - I find it fascinating that Peter is about to be executed on the very anniversary of Christ’s own crucifixion - Passover!
I say all that to say - as far as Peter was concerned - I believe, he believed, this was his final night on planet earth. 4 And when Herod 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. 5 So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. 6 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.
Luke adds all these details to show Christians of all ages that this was a hopeless case; the executioner was sharpening his sword - only a matter of hours before dawn!
I encourage you to take your pen and underline, circle - highlight the hinge of this entire narrative - it is the two words found in verse 5 - But prayer!
The Holy Spirit, through Luke doesn’t want us to miss the contrast!
Peter has been intercepted - but the church is interceding.
Peter is in prison - but the church is in prayer.
Now, as we’ll discover in a moment, the church then and now has a lot to learn about prayer - but the church was praying.
The word translated “fervently” in verse 5 can be literally translated “stretched out”. Perhaps on their faces before God.
Herod thinks he’s bigger than the church - he doesn’t know the church - he thinks he’s more powerful than God - he doesn’t know God.
Herod didn’t kill James because God was caught off guard - James was killed because God wanted him home. I have no doubt that the church prayed for James’s release as well - God had other plans.
Now notice - 7 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. 8 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.”
Now stop here - why in the world would we have an entire verse on Peter getting dressed - the angel takes him through it step by step - kind of like I do my three year old - “Now Charity, put your socks on - that’s right, now put on your shoes - that’s the wrong feet . . . that’s right!
“Peter, put on your clothes - now put on your sandals - now wrap your cloak around you” . . . why?
Well, for one thing, Peter thinks he’s dreaming - it won’t be until he’s out of the prison that he fully realizes he’s just been involved in a miraculous escape.
Yet perhaps there is another point to be made - several commentaries I read make the point that even when God performs a miracle, he will not do what that person can do.
Think about it, why not just automatically dress Peter - God can slip chains off, surely he can slip a cloak on - why not? Because Peter can dress Peter. Peter can’t take off his chains, only God can do that, but Peter can put on his sandals.
I couldn’t help but think of Ephesians 6 where God provides for us all the armor we need to wear to fight the battles of spiritual life. The helmet, the shield, the shoes, the belt . . . God has provided every piece for every believer - yet the Apostle Paul tells us - “You put it on; take up for yourselves the whole armor of God”. The present tense indicates you don’t put it on once - you put it on every day.
By the way, this has nothing to do with becoming a Christian, but behaving like a Christian.
Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why doesn’t God just take away my habits, my addictions, my ungodly thinking . . .” He’s waiting for you to read the Bible - and throw away the magazine, videos, cd’s - He waits for you to dress yourself in certain ways - some of you need to put on the sandals and the cloak - no telling what deliverance you will experience.
Notice - 9 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. 10 And when they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city (by the way, this gate took several men to open - it was massive, made of iron with a huge bolt), . . . they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened
for them by itself; (the Greek word is automatos - which gives us our word, automatically!
Whenever I read this verse I think of the wonderful testimony of an African student I knew in Bible college - he’d been accepted in my university and was coming to prepare for the ministry. His village had little of the technology we take for granted - he would see sights and experience things he’d never dreamed possible.
When his plane touched down in the states, he had to gather all his bags and go outside the terminal to catch a taxi. His arms were loaded down and as he walked toward the exit he realized that getting through the doors would be a problem - he was afraid to take a few bags at a time and leave them on the sidewalk outside the airport while he returned for the rest of the bags for fear of someone stealing them. As he became a little overwhelmed about the whole thing, he breathed a quick prayer, “Help me Lord.” Just then, he stepped on the rubber mat and the glass doors swung open - he shouted out loud, “Thank you Lord!”
Our trouble is we so often explain things away - to chance or luck. There’s no telling what God does do in our lives every day and we miss seeing it.
go back to the text - 10b . . . it opened for them by itself and they went out and went along one street; and immediately the angel departed from him. 11 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.” (by the way, what happened to the angel? He disappeared as fast as he’d appeared! He didn’t stay and have a cup of coffee with Peter - tell him some interesting news from heaven; he didn’t offer Peter counseling on some issue or help him make a decision - that kind of stuff only happens on television - in real life, those things are the responsibility of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God - I don’t expect any prime time will be devoted to that.)
12 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. (now remember, they’ve been praying for Peter’s deliverance!) 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. (Rhoda is Greek for Rose - we’d call this servant girl Rose or Rosie today) 14 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. 15 And they said to her, “You are out of your mind!”
Get the picture - Rosie rushes back into the prayer meeting -
“Peter . . . he’s standing outside the gate.”
“I am not - I heard his voice”
“Well, then, you’re hearing things . . . now don’t you realize we’re in the middle of a prayer meeting here? Now let’s see, where were we?”
“Lord, we beg you to deliver our beloved Apostle!”
Isn’t it encouraging to know that people who hung around the Apostles who hung around the Lord hadn’t figured out how to pray either?
They were intense - but they were also convinced they knew what God would do or not do.
Isn’t that just like us? We know what God might do if He wanted to, but we’re convinced He won’t.
Now notice, “But she kept insisting (lit. leaning on them - nagging) that it was so. And they kept saying, “It is his angel.”
That is, “his guardian angel” - the Jewish Talmud rather superstitiously taught that a person’s guardian angel could assume the appearance of the person they protected and serve as a double.
It seems that since the believers won’t believe the truth - they are left with nothing other explanation than a superstitious answer.
Here’s the question? I have a feeling that Rosie might have even asked it because of what happened next - “Listen, if that’s an angel out there, then why in the world is he botherin to knock?” That quieted them down - because they were all able to hear . . . 16 But Peter continued knocking; (the answer to their prayers is knocking at the door!) and when they had opened the door, they saw him(notice the change to plural - they all went to the door together) and were amazed.
Rosie’s probably saying, “I told you so!”
They all began to praise God and shout and cry all at the same time - 17 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 (this is a different James than the Apostle who’s been executed - this James is the step-brother of the Lord who also wrote the Book of James) and the brethren.” And he departed and went to another place. 18 Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. 19. 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.
- In the midst of impossible circumstances, it’s possible to be content.
I found it interesting, that on the night before he was to die - he was asleep. There is no softer pillow than the sovereignty of God.
- Sometimes, God brings us to a dead end before He shows us the way out.
It’s as if He wants to make sure that we’ve exhausted everything we can try or think of, so that when deliverance comes - there’ no mistaking who the source is - there’s no opportunity to take any credit.
“Peter, what were you doing at the moment the angel arrived? Singing? Praying? Witnessing to the guards? What Peter!” Sleeping.
From the church:
- Prayer that focuses on the will of God does not depend on the faith of the one praying in order to be answered.
- Sometimes, expecting the worst hinders us from seeing God’s best.
To their credit, we have to remember, James was dead; Peter was in prison; Herod was on the throne - there’s going to be another funeral tomorrow.
They were so convinced that the story as going to have a sad ending, they refused to see the happy ending.
About the Lord:
- He is full of surprises
For Herod - the soldiers - sleepy eyed Peter - and a roomful of believers who had already concluded that Peter was a gonner.
Why not just whisk Peter out of prison and plant him in the middle of that prayer meeting? That would have been surprising - yes - but He chose to perform little surprises that added up to a big surprise. Guards unaware - chains falling off, doors opening automatically - instead of surprising the saints with one miracle (John Calvin wrote) - He gave the saints several miracles to talk about for generation after generation - up to our generation.
- He is fully in control
Oh yes, there’s a fresh grave outside the city with James name on it - the church has suffered physical losses - a Christ hating, Christian killing Herod sits on the throne.
In total control? Yes! His plans are unstoppable - His will is irreversible.
With this thought in mind, near the end of my study, I took another look - and overview of this entire passage - I couldn’t help but notice that no one is fully in control, except God. Herod isn’t in control, even though he’s flexing every muscle; the church doesn’t have it together - they’re praying with preconceived conclusions; Peter isn’t in control - he’s not even fully aware of what’s going on as he stumbles into the street - he’s made no request for deliverance - he’s dazed, in a fog -
God so clearly managing,
God controlling each step of the way
This is God in total sovereignty over the events of life.
In fact - if you want to underline a verse that summarizes that message, look at verse 24 - But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.
That’s another way of saying, the purposes of God for His children and His church are not in ruins - then and now! His plans are right on schedule.
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Tracy Daniels is a 16 year old daughter of a pastor . . . she wrote, "One winter night an unexpected sound woke our household at 3:00 a.m. My father dashed down the hall, sniffing the air. My sister and I scurried to our bedroom door. When Dad came back upstairs he said, "I don't understand it." He breathed a sigh of confusion, then returned to his room. I couldn't go back to sleep. I went to my parents' room and said to my father, who couldn't sleep either, "Are you sure? did you check -- ?" "Yes, Tracey, I checked everything," said Dad. I started back to my room, but as I reached the door my mother suddenly cried out, "The coffee pot! I think I left the coffee pot on at church." Earlier that evening my mother had served coffee at a church gathering. Now, in an instant, Dad was gone. Mom and I waited at home. I could tell Mom was terribly afraid that she might've been guilty of burning down the church. Ten minutes later my father returned. He let out a relieved sigh and said, "The coffee pot was on - it was burned empty and just beginning to smoke, now I understand." And what, a half hour earlier, had awakened us? The smoke alarm in our own house; a house that didn’t have any smoke.