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May 6 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

April 24, 2016 – Acts 12

Prison Breaks and Prayer Meetings

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. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 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. Acts 12:1-5

Intro: If I made up chapter titles for Acts, this one would be “God’s Comical Church”

Three scenes in this story are funny (four, perhaps, if you’re into dark humor)
– ever since Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of An Illness, research has confirmed that humor is healthy
• this is especially true if we are able to laugh at ourselves
• in this chapter, I see a church doing this very thing; laughing at itself

Vv. 1-5 The story doesn’t begin like a comedy

In fact, “put to death with a sword” was very serious and not at all funny
– it is almost shocking how Luke streamlines James’ death
• there is none of the detail he provided in recounting Stephen’s death
• the execution of a martyr is a “good death” — a noble way to die
◦ in the early centuries of Christianity, many believers considered it a privilege
– however, martyrdome should not be overplayed
• like Luke, we can take note of the death, grieve the loss, be inspired the individual’s heroism, and move on
• ours is a resurrection religion — it is about life, not death
◦ the specter of death has been greatly diminished for us (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:54-57; Heb. 2:14-15)

Herod’s assault on the church was a new development
– until now, the religious institution launched was behind the sporadic attacks
• this new wave of government-sponsored persecution:
◦ significantly increased the threat level
◦ made it more widespread and aggressive
◦ enlisted a new set of trained agents to carry it out
◦ had both the authority and the means to imprison and harm more people
• King Herod was in a position to criminalize Christianity
– rounding up believers, Herod happened to arrest James
• not only the first apostle to be executed, but one who with, Peter and John, belonged to Jesus’ inner circle
• Herod found that James’ death pleased those he wanted to impress and win over
◦ So he went after Peter–an even bigger fish

Meanwhile, the church was fervently praying for Peter

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 woke him up, 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.
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. Verses 6-10

Peter was in an impossible situation

Four squads of four soldiers took shifts guarding him
– Peter was chained to two guards around the clock
• there was no way out of this
– incredibly, Peter was sleeping – not wringing his hands or writhing in fear
• is it possible he accepted this situation and his impending death?
• he knew that one day this would happen (Jn. 21:18-19)

And behold – imagine hearing this story being told rather than reading it
– the “behold” is an invitation to use our imagination, to visualize what is happening
• an angel appeared and light filled the cell
• the angel struck Peter’s side to wake him up (this works! Barb, uses this technique when I snore)

Richard  Longenecker, “Then the angel, like a parent with a child awakened from sound sleep, carefully instructed the groggy apostle to get dressed.”

– the angel did not do everything for Peter — for example, he had to get himself up and dressed• angels never did what people could for themselves
• the angel that appeared to Cornelius did not deliver the message he needed to hear
• angels assisted mostly by doing what people could not do for themselves

Peter goes along with the anger quite casually
– because he didn’t think it was real
• remember, this was not his first experience with a vision
• the voice that spoke in that vision began with the same word the angel speaks here
anasta, “Get up”
– Peter was probably wondering, “Okay, so what’s message this time?”

Luke adds a detail that is not absolutely necessary: the prison gate was “iron”
– this intensifies the atmosphere of impossibility
• this unbending, unbreakable metal was not going to yield to Peter’s strength
• in fact, Luke refers to the gate with a repetition of the definite article “the”
“the gate, the iron one, the one that leads to city”
◦ as great an obstacle as it was, the gate opened by itself

Now comes the first funny scene
– the angel disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared
• and Peter is left standing alone on a cold city street
◦ now, without the angel directing or leading him, Peter came to himself
• “Huh? What? This is real?!”
◦ he had not taken his liberation seriously until this moment

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. When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer. 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. Verses 12-14

The next funny scene comes immediately

The servant girl is so excited to hear Peter’s voice she doesn’t think to let him in
– he could easily walk out of prison–the iron gate opened by itself–
• but he couldn’t get through the door into a prayer meeting
• and they were praying fervently for him!
– comedy frequently plays out in tense moments
• this moment is tense, because Peter’s escape would be discovered at the changing of the guard
• if Herod’s soldiers were roaming streets, he’d soon be caught
◦ but there he is, knocking at a gate and calling to those inside

This reminds me of my three year old grandson, Calum, when he gets up in the morning. He goes to the top of the stairs and calls, “Granpa!” If there is no answer right away, he calls, “Somebody?” And then, “Anybody?”
Peter stands at the gate calling for anyone who might here him and be kind enough to lift the latch and let him in.

And the comedy doesn’t end there

They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, “It is his angel.” But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed. Verses 15-17

When Rhoda ran back into room and announced, “It’s Peter! He’s here!” they don’t believe her
• at first, they thought she had flipped out
• remember, to them she’s only a young servant
“Don’t interrupt us with this nonsense. Can’t you see we’re in fervent prayer–for Peter!”
– Rhoda’s insistance that it is Peter forces them to draw another conclusion
• “Well, it must be his angel”
– all this discussion is going on, when what they needed to do was get up and go open the gate
• meanwhile, Peter continued knocking
• when they finally opened the gate and saw Peter, they were amazed
“Yes, we were praying for this, but we didn’t think it would actually happen!”

In verses 18-25, Luke wraps up the story

Two times in this chapter someone was “touched by an angel”
– Peter woke up when he was struck, Herod collapsed and within a week was dead when struck by the angel
• and in contrast to Herod’s ignominious death, the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied
• it was never “the king versus the apostle”
◦ but “Herod versus the word of the Lord”
◦ it was inevitable that Herod would lose
– the chapter break could have easily been made before verse 25
• but the point is that Luke is determined to keep John-Mark in our sites
• we will learn why a few chapters further on

Conc: There are other themes braided into this chapter

For example:

  • Thresholds: Peter crossed two of them
    – the first threshold was the prison gate, when he was inside wanting out
    • the second was the gate at Mary’s home, when he was outside wanting in
    ◦ the first gate opened for him; the second gate had to be opened by the community
    ◦ we are responsible to respond to those who knock at the gate of our community
    • the church was also crossing a metaphorical threshold
  • Hands:
    – Herod laid hands on members of the Christian community (v. 1)
    • the chains fell from Peter’s hands (v. 7)
    • Peter realized he had been rescued from Herod’s hand (v. 11)
    • then Peter motioned with his hand in Mary’s home to signal he was about to speak (v. 17)
    ◦ and maybe Luke also uses that to signal the reader
    ◦ that we would see how hands are used to communicate a message in this story
    (consider also the instances when a hand is implied, though not mentioned specifically, as when the angel struck Peter–and Herod–, or when Peter knocked at the gate, or when they finally opened the door)
    – the hand of Herod, no match for him who sits at right hand of God (Acts 2:33)

During the years I lived in a depressive state, three persistent ideas defined my personal reality
– for most of that time, I was not even conscious of these entrenched convictions
• namely, that I was powerless, helpless and hopeless
– we have invisible allies and dyanamc spritual resources

Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them. (2 Kings 6:16)
Amaziah said to the man of God, “But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the troops of Israel?” And the man of God answered, “The LORD has much more to give you than this!” (2 Chronicles 25:9)

We are powerless sometimes, yes; helpless sometimes, yes — but we are never hopeless

One of the blessed benefits of contemplative spirituality, is that through it God rewires our brains
Some of us need that desperately
We need to have our minds reconfigured to the truth, to Reality
We are never without hope


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  1. Don Eliot Stewardson / May 9 2016

    Recently I took the time to learn the HA TIKVAH anthem, mostly for the beauty, though its theme of hope came to me when all hope seemed lost for restoration of enjoyments from my younger years. An old friend at the end of her hope rope was encouraged when I sang it to her, without knowing the meaning of the Hebrew words. The remarks here make me think that the nation today hoping to restore past glory could let the greater hope of unity around Jesus Christ bring them the joy of hope resting, not striving . “Hands On” has a two-sided meaning for teacher and student, as each enjoys trusting the Savior Who wants as much for us to walk depending on Him as seeing us walk independently.

  2. Chuck Smith, Jr. / May 9 2016

    Don, the music of Ha Tikvah enchanted me before I knew anything about its lyrics, history or that it was Israel’s National Anthem.
    Thank you for the reminder that ours is a much greater hope than the restoration of this nation’s former greatness. “Unity around Jesus Christ” was exactly his prayer for us (Jn. 17:20-21).

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