Scripture: Acts 12:1-25
Sermon by Rev. Jerry Hoytema. Pastor emeritus in Grimsby, Ontario
Dear people of God,
One of the foundations of the Christian faith is a certain belief in the sovereignty of God.
We live in a world that seems in many ways to be out of control. There is a lot of frightening stuff happening in our personal lives, and all around us. We just need to watch the daily news, read our newspapers, or become aware of bewildering circumstances in our own lives, or the lives of those we love.
And yet we sing:
This is my Father’s world
and though the wrong seems often so strong:
God is the ruler yet.
Bible believing Christians have always believed in the sovereignty of God.
Today we are going to look at a story that happened in the early New Testament church.
The story has a wonderful teaching for us that reminds us that God is still in control in our world and that He will workout his Sovereign plan and will
The story will help to reinforce our faith in the sovereignty of God, which is one of the main tenets of the Christian faith, and a teaching which Reformed people have cherished.
My sermon title this morning: “GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL”
One family stands out in the New Testament as a particularly cruel, and representative of the powers of darkness.
It is the family of Herod.
It was one of the Herod’s who had the children of Bethlehem murdered while trying to kill Jesus who had been born, he was called Herod the Great.
What a misnomer that was.
He was so cruel that he not only murdered the children of Bethlehem but he also executed one of his wives, and three of his sons.
Now Herod Agrippa in this chapter was the grandson of this Herod the Great.
He wanted to curry the favour of the Jewish people and particularly the rulers like the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
And he did that by observing Jewish law and all Jewish observances.
This made him popular with the Jewish people.
In order to advance his popularity with the people he had James arrested and killed.
Chapter 12 begins by saying, “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the feast of Unleavened Bread.” Acts 12:1-3
Note that Peter is put in prison rather than immediately executed because it is the Feast of unleavened bread which followed the Passover.
During this time Jewish law, which Herod meticulously kept to gain favour with the people, permitted neither trial nor sentencing.
This was the third time that Peter was arrested.
Herod was not going to make any mistakes in safeguarding Peter since had escaped prison before.
So he had 16 soldiers guarding Peter in prison.
More than likely two soldiers were shackled to Peter.
Talk about maximum security
Reminds you of Pilate securing the grave of Jesus.
But Herod Agrippa would soon learn that he was foolish to fight God.
That God’s power is greater then any other power.
And that God’s sovereign plan will prevail.
But in that prevailing of God’s power and plan God uses the prayer of his church.
As soon as the church heard about Peter’s imprisonment they gathered for prayer.
Acts 12:5 reads, “So Peter was put in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”
The people who gathered for prayer had witnessed the death of James.
James, who had been one of the leaders of the early Christian church.
And now Peter appears to be next.
They cry out to the Lord:
“Lord, not Peter too.”
The text says that “The church was earnestly praying to God for him”.
When the church faced trouble and persecution, they turned to God.
Herod had the power of the sword, but the church had prayer “which is the only true power the powerless possess” says John Stott.
You see that’s finally the only place that you can sometimes still turn.
When you find yourself in a crisis, how do you respond?
When you are up against stuff in your life, then maybe all you can do is pray.
I am sure you have been there.
But what a power!
That word earnestly in Greek is the same word that is used of Jesus when he prays in the garden of Gethsemane that God might show him another way than the way of the cross.
It refers to being in deep agony of soul.
It’s like when you the doctor comes and tells you have cancer and there is no cure.
The police comes to your door late at night to tell you about an accident.
And you cry out tot he Lord in anguish of soul.
That’s how the people prayed.
We should learn to pray more like that.
The people must have cried out to the Lord:
“Lord, free Peter, spare his life!”
“Why don’t you protect us Lord?”
“Why don’t you send fire from heaven to destroy godless Herod?”
“God, answer us!”
Something like Psalm 17:13: “Rise up O Lord, confront them, bring them down, rescue me from the wicked by your sword.”
They do not know what God’s plan is.
James had died.
Would Peter be next? It sure seemed so.
We still pray even when we do not know the outcome of certain events.
We pray because we trust that God loves us and believe God to work out his purpose in our lives. We pray because we believe that God will work all things for the good for those who have faith in him and love him.
Even if James had to “to walk thought the valley of the shadow of death”, God was still with him.
This teaches us that prayer does not first of all change God, though sometimes God does change because of our prayer, but that prayer changes us.
Prayer changes us to trust that God is good and that God is sovereign.
And what is the picture of Peter in these dire circumstances?
Peter must be terribly upset.
He must also be crying out in anguish to the Lord.
“The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.” Acts 12:6
Did you hear that?
Peter is sleeping.
Some years before he also slept during one night when Jesus came to him and said:
Peter could you not stay awake with me for one hour?
At that time Peter slept because of the weakness of his faith,
but now he sleeps in the power of his faith.
How is that possible?
And I would think that Peter prayed too.
His soul came to be at rest in a sovereign God, believing that God was with him.
A peace that passes all understanding must have come into his soul, and he falls asleep.
How is it that Peter could sleep so soundly knowing that he probably would soon die as a martyr for his faith?
And I would think that he could sleep because he knew what he believed.
He knew his faith and the truth of his faith.
Later he writes in the letter called 1 Peter:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish or spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you , who trough faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer all kinds of trials....” 1 Peter 1: 3-6.
A preacher once illustrated the importance of what we believe by painting a mental picture of an iceberg.
More then 2/3 of an iceberg is under water and what you see is less then 1/3.
Now write on the very bottom of the iceberg which is under the water the word “beliefs” or “Biblical truths”.
Then above the word “truths” write the word “values”. What values flow from the truths that you believe?
Then write on the part of the iceberg that rises above the water the word “Behaviour”.
The way we behave and live comes from the truths we believe and the values we hold.
We only see the behaviour of the child of God, but that behaviour comes from the beliefs we treasure and the values that come from truth.
As God’s people we need to know the truths we believe, and the doctrines we hold dear.
One of the reasons we come to church is listen to God’s Word to learn the truths the Bible teaches.
That’s why reading and studying the Bible is so important.
In the New Testament letters of Paul then the first part if always doctrinal.
He tells us the truths we must hold such as original sin, grace, justification, sanctification etc...
But then the second part of the letter is always practical. He writes about marriage, work, relationships, and how the truths we believe affect the way we live. How we live flows from what we believe to be true and the values we hold.
Well you see Peter knew the truth of what he believed.
He knew that if he was to die he would go to be with Jesus in heaven, and so he slept soundly.
The truth he believed gave him the values he held and that resulted in a behaviour of resting in God.
Yes, Herod may have his plan but he had not figured on what God would do in response to a praying church.
“Quick, get up,” the angel says.
Peter is so amazed at what is happening that he thinks he is having a dream or a vision.
This can’t be happening.
He is still half asleep and is not sure wether he is dreaming or not.
I love the story.
You can see it happening.
Peter is bound by chains, and shackled to two soldiers.
Two more soldiers keep watch.
Talk about security.
There were 12 more soldiers who would spot the others throughout the day and night.
An angel strikes Peter on the side and wakes him up.
Peter gets up but he does not understand what is happening wether he is asleep, or awake, or seeing a vision.
The chains fall of his wrists and he follows the angel.
They pass by the guards and as they come to an iron gate it opens up by itself.
Something like when you come to the doors of the grocery store, or Walmart, and the doors just open up.
You see that’s what happens when the Lord comes to set you free.
Chains fall off, bondage is broken, and doors open without you touching them.
There is a whole sermon right there. Some of us are held in chains because of an addiction; others are shackled by events of the past. And then God’s voice comes to you and says like the angel did to Peter, “Follow Me.” It may seem like you are dreaming, but as you come to your senses you begin to realize that as you follow you are free.
John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Peter comes to the house where the church is praying and he knocks on the door.
The door is locked you see, for fear of the persecutors.
Rhoda a servant girl comes to the door and realizes it is Peter. In her excitement she does not even open up the door and leaves Peter standing there as she turns to the others and shouts, “Peter is at the door!”
But the people don’t believe it.
But when Peter keeps on knocking they realize that it is Peter and that God had freed him from prison.
Peter then leaves, and for some 2 years we hear nothing about Peter, except again in Acts 15 when he is at the Jerusalem Council.
He probably went into hiding or like the apostle Paul was prepared for his work to come.
The power of prayer.
Peter was free.
That means congregation that we need to be faithful in prayer. Prayer is the strength of the powerless. Prayer changes things. What a blessing for our if we fervently and earnestly pray for them.
Pray for the church.
Pray for the persecuted church.
Pray for the church to accomplish it mission in the world for Jesus.
Yes James died, they must also have prayed for him.
But God still had a purpose for Peter.
God’s purposes can not be frustrated.
Herod is not the victor but God is.
There are no closed doors for the Lord, not even if 16 soldiers guard Peter.
What did Jesus say?
In the world we shall suffer persecution, but be of good courage I have overcome the world.
But we also need to note that though God had answered the prayer of his church in releasing Peter, they at first did not believe it.
Someone suggested that the title of a sermon on this passage could be: “How not to have a prayer meeting.” When the Lord answered their prayers they did not believe it.
You may have been praying that your mission of reaching the lost may be blessed. Praying that you might understand that lost people matter to God and that they may be found and discipled.
God is busy answering your prayers. Maybe seekers and visitors come to our church from time to time.
Possibly God has brought you into contact with people that need the Lord -- a friend, a neighbour, or an associate at work.
Maybe they are looking for a church home, a place to be loved and belong.
A place where they might meet Jesus in fellow worshippers, find purpose for their lives, come to believe that their sins are forgiven, and to know that they will go to heaven one day.
But no one is inviting them in.
And some of us keep praying, “Lord make us effective.”
And God says I have been sending all kinds of people to you, don’t leave them standing at the door.
Invite them in.
Build a relationship with them.
Invite them to your homes and make them truly a part of our church family.
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20.
Maybe God is answering your prayers but you don’t believe it.
Just one more thing in conclusion. John Stott writes: The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. The world opposes God in vain.
And those who oppose God, who are on Satan’s side do so at their own peril, their eternal peril.
Notice what happens to Herod. He dies an awful death
One day Herod sits on his throne and as he addresses the people, they shout:
“This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”
Herod relishes the glory.
But the Lord strikes Herod,
“AN ANGEL OF THE LORD STRUCK HIM DOWN, AND HE WAS EATEN BY WORMS AND HE DIED.”
Here was Herod in all his glory.
Her was dressed in a garment that was made of silver.
But inside of his body worms were destroying him.
That’s a picture of some people.
They look good on the outside, but on the inside worms are eating them up
Outwardly some people seem to have it all together. They look great. But inwardly they are consumed by anger, hate, jealousy, pride, lust, addictions, and greed.
Josephus the Jewish historian who lived during this time, but who was not a Christian, records that Herod died in great pain.
He did not give God the glory. God’s punishment cannot be avoided. John MacArthur illustrates this truth by giving us some historical examples of people who were foolish enough to oppose God and his church. The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche despised Christianity as the religion of weaklings. Fighting God eventually pushed him over the brink, and he spent the last several years of his life insane.
Novelist Sinclair Lewis, winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for literature, also though he could fight God. His novel Elmer Gantry mocked Christianity. It’s leading character was an evangelist who also was an alcoholic, and un unceasing fornicator. Lewis’ fight against God cost him his sobriety, and he died a hopeless alcoholic in a clinic near Rome.
Another Nobel Prize winner author, Ernest Hemingway, considered himself living proof that one could successfully fight God. He boasted of fighting in revolutions, taking women at will, and leading a life of sin without apparent consequences. His sins eventually found him out, however, and he put a shotgun to his head and killed himself. Fighting God cost him his life.
But notice again Acts 12:24: “THE WORD OF GOD CONTINUED TO INCREASE AND SPREAD”
What a contrast with Herod who thought he was in control.
People come and nations go, but the Word of God continues to increase and spread.
It always does and will until Jesus returns. Be comforted as God’s people. God sovereignly works his plan until the day comes “That every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:10-11.
Also pray and work to be used by God that through us and our church the Word of God continues and spreads
Welcome and Announcements
WE GATHER FOR WORSHIP
Call to Worship :
As we gather today, let us prepare ourselves for worship.
Let us be open to receive God’s Spirit.
Let us be open to understand God’s Word.
Let us be open to accept God’s love.
Let us be ready to do God’s will.
Opening prayer followed by silent prayer and Hymn # 424
It is good to come and worship, Lord.
We seek a greater sense of your power and glory.
We seek a greater assurance of your love.
Open our ears Lord, to hear your wisdom. Amen
We pray for God’s grace and peace to sustain us, and the love of Jesus Christ to enfold us, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Opening Hymn # 239
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
Prayer or Hymn of Confession
God’s promise of forgiveness1 John 1:8-10
Hymn of Assurance # 489:3
God’s will for our lives.
Prayer for Understanding
Scripture: Acts 12
SERMON: GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL
Hymn # 408
The prayers of God’s people
WE LEAVE TO SERVE
Hymn # 436
May the Lord bless us and keep us;
may the Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
May the Lord smile on us and give us peace. Amen
Doxology Hymn # 470