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The Triumph of the Gospel (Acts 12)

Intro

We have been going through the book of Acts and the book of Acts has been going through us as well. We have been seeing that the Gospel is one where God pulls you into Himself, but never as an end in itself, but to propel you out to pull others into the heart of God. So far we have seen the Gospel pulling in and pushing out these early believers into greater and greater degrees of uncomfortability. God pushes them out to their own people (Jerusalem and Judea), then to people kind of like them (Samaria) and finally to people totally not like them (uttermost parts of the world).

The Gospel is moving everywhere! People are getting saved. The church is being built up. These are exciting times as we watch the gospel triumph and by the time you get to Acts 12, your heart is full.  But you might also feel like, “I don’t see the gospel moving like this in my life though. For me, I have a hard time getting out of bed. How come the gospel doesn’t triumph in my family like this? At my workplace?” Lest you think everything was rosy and peachy for the early church, Luke stops to tell us just as God was pulling people to Himself and pushing them out to mission, the Enemy was trying to pulling people away from God and pushing them out of mission.

Acts 12 shows us the believers were scared. There was uncertainty. A main church leader gets killed and another gets imprisoned getting ready for execution. Is this going to be the end of the church?  Sometimes we feel the same way. We see only failure around us and in us. We see our families moving further away from the gospel. We feel our prayers are hitting the wall. Christians are seen more and more in this country as the problem makers. Here at LH, we prayed for years for our church to grow. One year we went from 19 to 17 people. Finally we see answered prayers, but now after the retreat, in a good way, there is a new fear of the future. There are lots of unknowns. There is restlessness. So what can we bank on as a church and individually as Christians, during times of uncertainty, fear and doubt? This is the big idea for today:

The Gospel will always triumph, no matter the obstacle.

Let’s look at some of these obstacles that can cripple us. The Gospel will always triumph, no matter the obstacle:

II. …Though it will not always make sense (vv.1-5)

In Acts 12, we meet Herod the King, also known as Herod Agrippa I. This is the grandson of Herod the Great, the baby killer when Jesus was born. Agrippa’s father, Aristobulus, had been executed in 7 b.c. by his grandfather for fear that he might usurp his throne.[1] The apostle Paul would one day stand trial before his son, Herod Agrippa II.[2] The Roman emperor, Caligula, gave him rule over the Jews and he tried very hard to get them to like him. Perhaps as ministry to the Gentiles was starting to happen, the Jews were getting even more upset at this “new religion” taking over their own people.

Violence is in this guy’s blood as he arrests a bunch of Christians, grabs and kills James, the brother of John. This is James, the son of Zebedee, one of the three in the inner circle along with Peter and his brother John. These two brothers were the first and the last apostles to die. This is a different from James, the brother of Jesus (who wrote the Epistle) and different from James, son of Alphaeus, another member of the Twelve. The James here is one of the earliest disciples.

Before the apostles were taken to prison, beaten and threatened. Now we find out James was actually killed. He was the first apostle to die (apart from Judas), and the only one whose death is recorded in the New Testament. “With the sword” probably indicates that James is beheaded.[3] Herod is a people pleaser, so when he saw that the Jews were happy with his decision, he went after Peter as well and arrested him. This also means Peter is going to be brought before the people and also to be executed. And being a time of the festival and a large number of Jewish visitors in town, what a greater opportunity to win the favor of the people than to execute this troublemaker and major church leader.

Herod has heard stories of apostles miraculously disappearing from prisons, so he beefs up the security. Peter was placed under heavy security, being guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. This was the usual Roman practice, changing guards every three hours throughout the twelve night hours to assure maximum alertness.[4] At any given time, two were in the cell with him, chained to him, and two more were stationed outside the cell door (v. 6). Peter was definitely in the maximum security wing of Agrippa’s prison.[5]

This is great trauma for the church. They are defenseless. Their major leader is leader and another one about to be dead. So what do they do? They pray earnestly. “The angel fetched Peter out of prison,” said the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, “but it was prayer that fetched the angel.”[6]  They pour out their hearts to the Lord to deliver Peter. It’s not wrong to pray out of tough circumstances, but be ready to deal with a lot of unknowns in how God answers your prayer. We know what’s going to happen. Peter gets delivered, but don’t forget: James does not. It doesn’t make sense. Why deliver one and not rescue the other?

Tim Keller says, “(I)f I go to Jesus, he’s not under my control.  He lets things happen that I don’t understand.  He doesn’t do things according to my plan, or in a way that makes sense to me.  But if Jesus is God, then he’s got to be great enough to have some reasons to let you go through things you don’t understand.  His power is unbounded, but so are his wisdom and love. If you have a God great enough and powerful enough to stop your suffering, you also have a God who’s great enough and powerful enough to have reasons you don’t understand. You can’t have it both ways.”[7]

There have been trials in my life where I have no idea why I had to go through them. And the call of the Christian life is always to a life of the unknown and we must continue to trust His heart when we cannot trace His hand and live by His promises and not by explanations.

But the truth is that God will move the gospel forward whether we have explanations or know what’s going on. I am comforted by that! Yet it does humble me that I cannot manage or control Jesus!

The gospel will triumph no matter the obstacle:

II. …Though His Timing Seems Off (vv.6-10)

I don’t know about you, but for most of the things that God has done in my life were done with what seems to me to be really bad timing. My wife gets pregnant and I get laid off. And I was bitter and angry in my heart as I was living with my in-laws. Why God? God seems to take His sweet old time to do things.

Look at v.6. Look at the timing here: “WHEN Herod was about to bring him out…” God waits until there is a couple of hours left before execution to do this prison break. Pastor Warren Wiersbe says, “This prison experience was different from the other two. This time, he was alone, and the deliverance did not come right away. The other two times, he was able to witness; but this time, no special witnessing opportunities appeared. Peter’s previous arrests had taken place after great victories, but this one followed the death of James, his dear friend and colleague. It was a new situation altogether.”[8] Bad timing!

But Peter is sleeping. Amazing! Peter has always been a heavy sleeper hasn’t he? Remember before Jesus was going to be arrested, Jesus asked him to stay up with him and pray, but he slept? It’s also amazing that he can sleep before he’s executed. Maybe he’s used to being locked up and Jesus did tell him that he was going to be martyred for him when he is old in John 21, so maybe he’s resting in God’s will for him to die for Him (Jesus never said how old) or resting in God’s will that it’s not his time yet (if he figured out old meant 75 or something). Maybe the prayers of God’s people filled him with peace in prison? No prison is stronger than prayer! Or he’s a deep sleeper no matter where you put him. We have no idea how he is able to sleep here!

So I imagine him resting his head and snoring on one of the soldiers who is chained up with him. This whole thing is humorous to me. An angel shows up and light shines and lights up the whole cell. I think it’s safe to say this is not a little firefly light or when your cell phone lights up at night, but very bright light that fills up the room. But Peter is snoring away. The angel must have been like, “How deep a sleeper is this guy?” He’s got on the angel light on full capacity and it’s not waking Peter up. This is why finally he had to strike, pretty much whack him upside the head to get him to wake up.

First the angel says, “Get up quickly!” and then tells him to get his stuff ready, get dressed, put on your sandals. Then wrap your cloak around you and follow him. Why all these details? Why not just scoop him up and whisk him out of there? I think this is showing us who really is in control of this story. Who is calling the shots? Certainly not the soldiers. Certainly not Herod! God is!

And they walk right out like they’re walking out of Walmart. Big chains tied up with soldiers? No biggie. Big bad squads of soldiers? No problem. Big bad iron gate? Nothing. This is the greatest prison break ever! It took Andy Dufresne 20 years to break out of Shawshank Prison, Michael Scofield of Prison Break an entire season and the inmates at Alcatraz a whole year, but God just walks people out, but in His time.

Peter groggily walks out thinking this a vision since he recently had a vision with the sheet and animals. So we see that this escape was not due to Peter’s brilliance or skill like in typical prison breaks. This was all God. But interestingly, they get out on to the street. Peter is a wanted criminal. He is a marked man. And just then the angel leaves. I’m thinking the angels don’t have much say in how long to help somebody. But why now? Tell him where to go at least then fly off? Give him some further instructions? Sometimes you will experience God doing the impossible, other times, you have to walk by faith though you’re confused and almost all of the time, the timing of everything is not what was in your google calendar.

And we hate that about God. Why? Because our view of God is skewed. There is an episode of a sitcom where one character tries to hire a secretary, but there was a mix-up in communication as he accidentally calls the gym and they send him a personal trainer. The very first thing in the morning, she walks on in, and he’s eating a croissant. He looks up and says, “Hi,” and she grabs the croissant, “None of that!” This isn’t the way a secretary is supposed to act. You’re supposed to say, “Can I get you something?” Not, “Give me that!” Of course for about five minutes everything is very hilarious, because she thinks she is in his life as a trainer, somebody to get him into shape. He thinks she’s in his life to do his bidding.[9]

A lot of us want a God who is our secretary, to do our bidding, to fetch us what we want WHEN WE WANT IT and make our lives easier. The secretary must be timely in the tasks that need to get done. But God comes as a father and trainer, who knows how and when to give just enough pain to wake us up and grow us. Just like your body doesn’t grow, your faith doesn’t grow unless it’s taxed. Your patience doesn’t grow unless it’s tested. Your compassion, your courage, your commitment doesn’t grow unless it’s challenged, unless it’s threatened, just like your limbs don’t strengthen unless they’re pressed, unless they’re resisted against. That’s what weightlifting is.[10]

Some of us already feel like the clock ran out for us to get married, to have a child, to get the dream job or career. You are looking a clock that’s broken. God’s keeps taking the croissant from you. And the best people can do is console you: “There, there. I’m sorry.”

You keep hearing the raven like in Edgar Allen Poe’s story saying, “Nevermore.” There is a sense that things are irreversible. That girl you had your eye on or your close friend gets married and you’re still single. When that loved one dies, he/she’s gone in this life. You feel that sense of so-and-so will never get to do this or that. As you get older, you feel your body is breaking down and you’ll never have that energy you used to. There is that sense of irreversibility and irretrievability and loss. It can really suck the joy out of your life. If I lose something, it’s lost. But the Gospel triumphing in the end means, we have as Tim Keller says, “…a resurrection—not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.”[11] In other words, you won’t get your life back, you’ll get the life you never have had and always wanted back. You won’t just get your body back, you will get the body you never had and always wanted back! You will miss nothing.

The Gospel will triumph in your life and in this church, no matter what the obstacle is, but it will not always make sense and neither will be according to our timetable. Thirdly, the Gospel will triumph no matter the obstacle:

III. …Even When Our Faith is Shaky (vv.11-17)

We are not the source of our success. We are witnesses to it. Look at v.11. God likes to do things were the only explanation is that God got the glory and God got us out the way. Peter finally realizes God has brought him out of prison yet again. But it suddenly dawned on Peter that it was not wise for a well-known, easily recognizable escaped prisoner to remain standing there in the street.[12]

He goes to the only place where he knows to go: where God’s people are. Supposedly, their common place to meet was Mary’s house. This Mary is not Mary Magdalene or the mother of Jesus, but the mother of John Mark. John Mark is the guy who wrote Mark’s gospel and who is also Barnabas’ cousin.

This is also comical. The believers are all praying, “Lord, get Peter out of prison. Send him an angel. Do something!” Sometimes God answers our prayers as we are praying. There Peter is knocking. A servant girl goes to the door and says, “Who is it?” Peter says, “It’s me, Peter.” Of course she recognized Peter’s voice, he’s a famous preacher. But in her joy, she runs off to tell everyone, leaving Peter outside!

Peter must have been like, “Really? An angel gets me out of maximum security prison and I can’t get into the prayer meeting?! This would be a really dumb way to die.” Notice no one believes this girl. It’s like a lot of us. We pray with passion, but our hearts keep saying, “Probably not.” We pray with cynicism. Our faith is so shaky. They don’t really believe. What an encouraging picture of the early church! Yes they were bold. They were prayerful. They were generous, but they were also dumb, unbelieving and scared. Their theology is also messed up as some in their day believed that each person had a guardian angel and sometimes the angel took form of the person they guarded. They’re debating this instead of going to check the door.

Peter keeps knocking, insistently but quietly. And to his relief, they finally open the door and they can’t believe it. It’s Peter! Why can’t they believe it? Because they really didn’t think God would deliver Peter, but God brought Peter to them anyway to encourage them. Jesus’ brother, James was the head of the church in Jerusalem at the time, so Peter tells the believers to share this story with him and everyone else, as he goes into hiding.

The Gospel will triumph even through our faithlessness. It is not about the size of your faith, though I believe God rewards it, but in the end, it is the size of our God. He will come through in ways it will not make sense and in His time and we can never say, “It was because I had such amazing faith!” No, we will always end up saying, “It was because I have an amazing God!”

Lastly, the Gospel will triumph no matter the obstacle…

IV. …And God Will Have the Last Word (vv.18-25).

The last few verses here show us that though the Enemy might have a good inning, Jesus will ultimately win the game. Herod is furious and kills the soldiers who were supposed to watch Peter. He takes a vacation to cool off and then we find the futility of being a glory thief. He was always about himself and winning the glory and even willing to hear people call him a god.

Up to this point, it must have been tough for God’s people. I am sure we all felt it before. We struggle and give to God’s work and we still keep struggling financially while unbelievers we know keep getting breaks and good jobs and prospering. God doesn’t always do this, but here, to encourage God’s people, uses perhaps the same angel that can strike Peter to wake up, can strike an unbeliever in judgment. No my people, Herod’s not in control, I am. I will have the last word. Keep going. It’s not over. And the church continues to grow in v.24. “Christianity is like a nail, the harder you strike it, the deeper it goes.”[13] The Gospel triumphs over every obstacle! Even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when God’s timing seems off. Even when our faith is shaky. God has the last word.

Conclusion

In C.S. Lewis’ classic, the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a little boy named Shasta. His life was full of misfortune. He was almost dead on a boat when a fisherman found him. When he ran away on a talking horse, a lion was chasing him. He meets a girl named Aravis, who is also running away. Along the way, the four face more and many dangers, including several fearsome lion encounters, one of which wounded the young girl.

Eventually, Shasta was separated from the group and forced to press on alone. He ends up in a fog. Now he sat, lost, cold, and hungry-weeping over his many misfortunes. Suddenly, panic filled Shasta’s heart as he heard loud breathing coming from the brush. “What’s that? Who’s there? I know you’re there somewhere. Who are you?” Shasta called to the darkness. “One who has waited long for you to speak,” came the majestic reply.

Unable to see anyone, wondering if he had encountered a mountain giant or ghoul, Shasta’s wavering voice pleaded with the mysterious creature to go away and leave him alone. “I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.” Walking with him in the dark was Aslan, the great lion. But then Aslan, his breathing now a soothing sound to Shasta, invited the boy to share his sorrows. “If only you knew what my life has been like,” began Shasta. “I’m no better than an orphan. I’ve never known my real mother or father, and I was brought up by a cruel fisherman. And then finally, I was able to escape. But for what?” Shasta went on to describe his many trials.

“I do not call you unfortunate,” Aslan interrupted. “But what about all my trouble? If nothing else, it was had luck to meet so many lions,” argued Shasta. “You met only one lion,” Aslan corrected. “But he was swift of foot.” “How do you know?” “I was the lion! I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the tombs. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach king Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

At that moment, Shasta’s self-pity and fear dissolved into a mysterious recognition. Had it not been for the fisherman, he would not have fled to Narnia. Had he not fled, he would never have stumbled onto a conspiracy that revealed his place as future king. And had he not been chased by the lion, he would have quit too soon for success. As it turned out, the scenes of Shasta’s story he would have preferred to avoid were the ones most important to the larger drama and to his own honored destiny.[14]

Every actor wants to know the full story. But the problem with us is that we want to direct the whole thing, dictating what scenes will and won’t make it onto life’s stage. The good things-adventure, romance, enjoyment-we’ll keep. The bad-pain, sorrow, confusion-we won’t. That’s how it would be if we were in charge. But that’s not how it is.[15]  Someday, like Shasta, we will meet the great King and Author of history. Only then will our eyes be opened to the moments in which He was “the Lion” orchestrating events toward a greater purpose-a greater good. Only then will we better understand how and when the grand drama of providence intersected the smaller scenes of our lives.[16]

As we wait for that day, the Great Aslan comes to you today and says, “Tell me your sorrows.” Lay your sorrows down in my nail-scarred hands. There in His eyes, you will see that He suffered misfortune too. Hear his heart share the story where it makes no sense. The apple of God’s eye, the wonder of Heaven, left it all to suffer…for me. At any moment He could have had the angels come and deliver him, but He held them back. He didn’t get any angel. In his suffering, He even lost His Father’s hand, so in your suffering, you can have your Father’s hand. If He can take the worst thing man has done and turn it as  the greatest demonstration of grace and mercy this world has seen, how will not take your life, the ups and downs, and transform them to His glory and grace? If He faced your ultimate adversity of having to answer and pay for your sin, will he not give you grace to handle smaller ones?


[1]Polhill, J. B. (1995). Acts. The New American Commentary (Vol. 26, p. 277). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[2]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (p. 319). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3]Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 2: John,

       Acts. (p. 325). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4]Polhill, J. B. (279).

[5]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (320).

[6]Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Ac 12:5). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[8]Wiersbe, W. W. (Acts 12:5).

[9]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

[10]Ibid.

[12]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (323).

[14]Taken from Kurt Bruner; Jim Ware. Finding God in the Land of Narnia (Kindle Locations

1113-1128). Kindle Edition.

[15]Ibid. Kindle locations 1131-1132.

[16]Ibid. Kindle locations 1147-1149.

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