Roberto Benigni’s excellent film “Life is beautiful” tells the story of an Italian Jew who is taken, with his son, to a concentration camp during the Second World War. To help protect his son, Guido convinces him that the camp is just a game where the aim is to get 1,000 points and win a tank. Despite being surrounded by cruelty and hardship and poverty and many obvious signs that he was in a place of death rather than a holiday camp the little boy manages to live with an unreal, fictional view of the world.
I think that many of us are exactly like that little boy. We live with an unreal, fictional view of the world.
The reality of our world as the Bible describes it is that everyone is heading for hell. Our only hope of avoiding that is to believe the truth that Jesus died so that our sins can be forgiven. God has made it very clear that his ultimate purpose is to make this message of salvation known to everyone in the whole world.
However the devil stands, with all the forces of evil, against God’s plan and although they have no hope of winning the battle, they are putting up a fight. He aims to convince us that we are not in danger and so don’t need saving – hoping we will neither save ourselves or join in with God’s plan of making the message of forgivness in Jesus known to others.
The book of Acts shows us that this battle is real and, whether we like it or not, we are caught up in this spiritual war zone. However so much of the time we live – like Guido’s little boy in ‘Life is beautiful’- as if we are living in a holiday camp, rather than a war zone.
Today’s passage should help wake us up to the spiritual realities in which we live, so please turn with me to Acts 12 which we will look at under 3 headings:
1. The Persecuting King (v1-4)
2. The Praying Church (v5, 12-17)
3. The Powerful Lord (v6-11, 18-19a)
The Persecuting King (v1-4)
As this chapter begins the church in Jerusalem faces severe religious discrimination from the government. Persecution was not new for the early church, but at this point it had only come from the religious leaders. Now we see the King himself and the civil power of the Roman government joining in, with the aim of executing the most senior church leaders. I’ll read from v1:
1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
My wife and I are expecting a baby soon and so are looking out for good names. Herod is not on our short list! King Herod, like his grandfather Herod the Great, was ruthless man who had a single goal in life: to hold onto power. He arrested various Christians and executed James, the apostle.
The public reaction to this confirmed his suspicion that killing Christians made him popular. So he came up with a plan. He arrested Peter, a well known leader of the Christians, and picked the largest Jewish festival for a public trial and execution. He wanted this to be a very public event.
Peter, of course, had previously been imprisoned and escaped so Herod was taking no chances! We are told that 16 soldiers in 4 teams were allocated to provide very high security. This emphasises how powerful King Herod was and how bleak the situation was for Peter. There was apparently no possibility whatsoever of Peter escaping. After all, how could the believers win against the might of Rome and the King? It is all pretty straightforward - one leader already killed. Peter was the next to go. And it’s all, potentially, very depressing.
How do we face similar opposition? Examples from this country appear mild in comparison, but are no less real and the anti-Christian hatred that exists in the UK is becoming more common and more acceptable in the media and government.
There are of course the obvious and widely reported cases such as Shirley Chaplin, Lillian Ladele and Caroline Petrie and the former government’s proposed Equalities Bill, which would have made it illegal to insist on church employees believing in God and the teachings of the Bible. Many will also know examples of school and university Christian Unions being openly and systematically opposed. Maybe closer to home for many of us is the nervousness we feel when speaking about our faith and what we believe about fundamental issues such as marriage and sanctity of life, for fear of being branded as a bigot or offensive.
Across the globe, Christians often face more severe persecution. For example, In Mosul (Iraq) at least fifteen Christians have been murdered since Christmas, including eight killed in the space of just ten days in February, and seven bomb attacks on Christian targets left many injured and property damaged. Over 300 Christian families have fled from the city in fear.
Jos in Nigeria, experienced three horrific incidents of large-scale anti-Christian violence in January and March, in which hundreds of people died. Inaccurate international reporting of the first outbreak unfairly cast Christians as the aggressors, and they suffered savage “retaliation” at the hands of armed Muslim mobs.
Some of our own mission partners are facing just this kind of persecution right now.
In all those situations it is tempting to become depressed and believe that there is no possibility whatsoever of the situation changing. After all, what can we do against the might of the government and a majority of the population who are set against you?
Personally, how do we react when we face situations of persecution? Are we surprised? We shouldn’t be. God doesn’t promise to keep us from suffering. In fact 2 Timothy 3:12 promises us that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’. God didn’t keep James from being killed and we may face persecution as well. Are we depressed by that? We shouldn’t be. After all, death isn’t actually all that bad news for the Christian. And as we will learn, there are plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t feel as if all is lost.
So first we see the persecuting King, second we have…
The Praying Church (v5, 12-17)
The church was going through some dark days at the hands of the persecuting king. The church looks very weak and feels it. All they can do now is turn to God in prayer, which is what they do. Look at v5:
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
How do they react to this persecution? They could have become depressed and given up. They could easily have hidden. But no, they responded to the situation by going directly to the highest authority – the true King of Kings. They prayed. This was exactly the right thing to do.
In the early 1960s in Russia, the Baptist Christians were suffering badly. The story is told of how one day some Baptist ministers went to see Khrushchev, the Russian leader at the time. They wanted to appeal to him for help. So they got together a special group and managed to get a meeting with him. It's an incredible story. They went to his office and put their complaint to him: “why are we being persecuted and so on”. After they finished speaking Khrushchev opened his drawer and amazingly brought out a Bible! They were very pleased. He started to read to them from gospels where Jesus promised his followers that if they followed him they would face persecution. He then said, 'isn't what you are suffering what your master promised you?”. They said yes. Then he said these words to them, 'so why are you complaining to me? If you really believe this book, you should never have come to me. You go to Him.”.
And he's right isn't he! That is what the church in Acts did. Now, that is not to say that we should never do anything other than pray, but surely our FIRST and most important response to persecution MUST be to pray directly to God. If we don't then, maybe it is because we don't actually believe that he can do anything about it. Or because we doubt that he cares for us. But he is powerful and he is good.
Is that our first response too? Is that how we react when we face ridicule in the office or at school when we share our faith? Is that the first thing we do when we hear news that one of our mission partners is facing opposition? Do we respond by getting down on our knees and speaking about it to the one person who really is in control of everything?
These Christians were earnest and fervent and no doubt praying as hard as they had ever prayed before. But they are not perfect! We’ll see in a minute that their prayer was answered in a remarkable way – Peter was released from prison. Clearly their prayers were effective even though they weren’t perfect. We are told that so we keep our attention on the God who answers the prayer and not on the church doing the praying. Read from v12 with me, which continues the story after peter is rescued:
[Peter] 12…went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognised Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, Peter is at the door!
15You're out of your mind, they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, It must be his angel.
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. Tell James and the brothers about this, he said, and then he left for another place.
You cannot miss the comedy here, and we’re being invited to see how funny the situation is! Peter is miraculously brought out of prison and he heads to the place where the church was praying for him. Instead of a warm welcome he ends up waiting outside the door and knocking over and over again because they are so convinced that it’s totally impossible for him to escape from King Herod and his 16 high security guards. They don’t believe it is actually him.
Rhoda – now she’s a fantastic character, though I have to say that’s another name that isn’t on my list of potential baby names! She does recognise him but in her excitement forgets to let him in. Shame – because that would probably have been the best way convince them that it really was him. Instead he just waits and continues knocking while they accuse poor Rhoda of being crazy. They may have been earnestly praying to God for him, but we’re not told exactly what they were praying for. However, it’s pretty obvious that the one thing they were not expecting and believing God for was for him to be rescued from prison!
So what do we learn from this example of the praying church?
We should be encouraged that the effectiveness of prayer is not to do with how “good” the prayer is, but rather with the God who listens to it. Maybe you sometimes worry that you don’t know to pray. Remember; prayer is not a technique but a relationship. So just go to God and speak to him! God honoured their earnest prayer because they showed faith in Him just by praying to him, even if they clearly lacked the expectation that he would answer.
However, we are to remember that God works as his church prays and so we must be a church that prays expectantly! We can expect God to answer because of who he is. This brings us to my third point...
The Powerful Lord (v6-11, 18-19a)
At the end of the day we are not to focus on the persecuting King or the praying church. Instead our focus should be on the powerful Lord. This is repeatedly emphasised in this account– Peter gets out of prison and it is God who does it, miraculously. Read with me from v6:
6The 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. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists.
8Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating." …
Don’t miss the significance of Peter being asleep - even though it was the night before his trial and almost certain execution. What another wonderful reminder that death isn’t actually all that bad news for the Christian and we see here Peter had no fear in death. How often we find ourselves consumed with worry that robs us of our sleep about much more trivial things than being killed in the morning!
However we are told, in great detail, exactly how Peter got out of prison. The clear conclusion is that only God could have done it. Peter was asleep and chained to 2 guards. There were more guards at the door. Peter was sleeping and the angel struggled to wake him, directed him how to dress and led him out of the prison. v11 is a good summary by Peter – “now I know without a doubt that the LORD... rescued me”.
All of this helps us to see that God is in total control. However bleak or hopeless the situation looks God is at work in it and in control. This was the case from the beginning to end, throughout the whole story, not just the rescue of Peter. It was true even in the death of James. When we see how faithful God is, we should be encouraged to trust him that he is active everywhere, in everything, all the time. So we are to trust him, even in dark days. God, not man, is in charge.
That contrast between the powerful lord and the persecuting king is made very clear in this chapter. Look with me at v18:
18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Herod had a plan and it seemed unbeatable Here we see him the morning after the rescue, frustrated, looking for Peter, who was nowhere to be found. It’s an almost unbelievable turn around from what was expected. Who could have ever imagined that Peter – waiting to be killed, guarded by sixteen soldiers - should go free and that instead the guards would be the ones to die? Soon we will also see King Herod, who seemed so unbeatable, die.
But our God a powerful Lord and like Herod he has a plan: that all people everywhere would hear about his rescue plan for mankind and be saved. Unlike Herod however, God is a Powerful Lord and his plan really is unbeatable.
All of this means we should pray expecting him to act because of his great power. Ephesians 3:20 tells us the Powerful Lord ‘is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us’.
This theme of a great miracle that revealed that God was always in total control, even when all appears hopeless, is not a new one. The central event of the Christian faith – and the greatest day in history - is of course Jesus’ resurrection after his death on the cross.
Herod’s grandfather Herod the, great, Pontius Pilate, the Jews and he devil himself (who is the ultimate Persecuting King) thought they had won when they killed Jesus on the cross. It seemed like a bleak, hopeless day for Christians. But God was not taken by surprise. God took their opposition and 3 days later Jesus appeared – alive again! The cross where he was crucified was empty and the grave where he was buried was empty. God showed himself to have been in control all along - it was part of his plan to defeat sin and its consequences, including death. He had a plan – to rescue us from hell and give us eternal life. If you have not accepted his offer of salvation – then do it today! He is indeed a Powerful Lord!
God turned what was apparently a defeat into a victory, and we need to remember that no opposition can possibly stop his purposes from being carried out. The whole church could be imprisoned but God will not be defeated. That is why in v24 at the end of this section we read ‘But the word of God continued to increase and spread.’
The spread of the gospel cannot be stopped, because behind it is an unstoppable, powerful Lord who is totally committed to saving all people. The big question is: are we committed to that as well?
We’ve been reminded that there is a battle going on and we will be opposed by the Persecuting King and those who cooperate with him. We need to expect such opposition. We also need to make sure we do not allow it to depress us or make us feel that God has lost control. Instead we must respond by praying and by praying full of expectation that God will work through our prayers. But most of all we need to trust our powerful Lord and take our part in his unstoppable plan that all people everywhere would hear about his rescue plan for mankind and be saved.
Father. Help us to be those who endure hardship and turn to you when it comes our way. Help us to trust that you in control and that your plan is unbeatable. We long to be wholehearted and undistracted from the task you have given us to make your offer of salvation known to people everywhere, so please make that happen by your spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen