Real power and true change

Sermon: Sunday, 21st April, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 12

A few months ago, we looked at the first Christian martyr, Stephen. At the time of his death, persecution broke out against the church, with Christians being scattered – forced to flee their homes. But God brings good from evil, as we read: ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ (Acts 8:4) Satan’s attempts to silence the church by persecution backfires. After that, the church enjoys a time of peace and prosperity, for around 10 years. However, it would not last long. A new king comes to the throne and he is intent on persecuting Christians once again: ‘It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.’ (Acts 12:1)

There are several king Herods in the New Testament. This one is the grandson of Herod the Great, responsible for the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, which we read about in Matthew chapter 2. The Herods were of mixed race – Jewish and Edomite. Essentially, they were politicians, who acted out of self-interest rather than principle. This king craved popularity and would do anything to curry favour with the Jews. Jewish opinion had turned against Christians, perhaps because of all the Gentiles who were becoming Christians, and the old prejudices against them resurfacing, or perhaps because of the number of Jews who were becoming Christians. The Jews felt Christianity threatened their customs and way of life. Herod murders James, one of the 12 disciples. We are told (verse 3) that this pleases the Jews so Herod continues on this course, by arresting Peter, fully intending to murder him also.

1. The real King

What sort of a man is King Herod? He is a puppet king of the Roman Empire, but nonetheless, does have considerable power. David Cook: ‘The Herodian kings… were men given to political expediency, a lack of integrity and no compassion’. This is a dangerous combination. Herod is murdering the Lord’s disciples, purely to keep the Jews onside. He will do anything to maintain his popularity. He is ruthless.

Imagine being a Christian at this time. It must have seemed to many that real power lay with Herod. After all, he has murdered James, one of Jesus’ closest friends, has arrested Peter and many other Christians too (verse 1). Where is God in all of this? Clearly, Herod is using his power to persecute the church. We see this power in action in Peter’s imprisonment. Peter is not only thrown into jail, but is put under maximum security, with sixteen soldiers responsible for keeping him locked up (perhaps his reputation for escaping goes before him). The situation for Peter seems hopeless. He is heavily guarded day and night, locked in a cell, and chained to soldiers. Within 24 hours, Peter would receive a ‘show trial’ and then be executed just like James had been. It looks and feels as if Herod is firmly in control. He seems to have the power of life and death. This is a dark time for the church. Even the apostles seem like pawns in Herod’s game.

Today, if we’re honest, it can often seem as if power of the world, whether political powers, enormous corporations, or particular rulers, are far more powerful than the power of God. The church seems so feeble when placed beside the power of a Kim Jong Un, Putin, Modi or the UK rulers. For example, in India, 12 out of the 28 states have anti-conversion laws, which makes sharing the gospel or becoming a follower of Jesus much more dangerous. Open Doors: ‘In May, ethnoreligious clashes in Manipur have shaken the region and the country, disproportionately impacting Christians; the violence left 400 churches in ashes and 50,000 believers displaced. This hostility in India is often driven by an ongoing belief among some Hindu extremists that Indians ought to be Hindu, and any faith outside of Hinduism is not welcome in India.’

In the UK, Christians don’t face such violence at the moment; however, as the years go on, anti-Christian forces in our media and government are on the increase. We are under enormous pressure as Christians to keep silent about our faith, and to go along with the majority on moral issues. Sometimes it seems as if celebrities have more power than God in Scotland. Each census seems to show Christianity in decline. We too might ask, ‘Where is God in it all?’

This is an enormously encouraging passage. God is showing us here that yes, the power of Satan is real and painful, but the power of God is supreme. Herod is no match for the Creator of the heavens and the earth. We see how effortlessly the Lord rescues Peter. The iron doors of the prison, the 16 soldiers and the chains – these things are as nothing to God. He is unimpressed at such puny efforts. The door opens by itself. God is on the move. I think this is meant to be amusing to read. It reminds us of Psalm 2: ‘The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed… The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.’

Herod is not in charge of human history, but God is. Satan is not in charge of human history, but God is. Sometimes, this side of Heaven, this is not obvious. Satan seems to have the upper hand. This passage is reminding us this morning that God’s good plans will always come to pass. Evil will not have the last word; God will bring evil down. And the Kingdom of God shall prevail. Make no mistake: there are only two sides we can be on, Satan’s and Christ’s. Only Christ will be victorious. He is the true King. Whose side are you on?

I wanted to consider the whole of chapter 12 this morning, as the end of the chapter clearly highlights just who the real King is. In verse 22, we find Herod in Caesarea, receiving praise as if he himself were God. Herod’s pride is enormous here. The historian Josephus also records this event and informs us that Herod is wearing a magnificent silver robe which glitters in the sun. Clearly, his power has gone to his head. Herod takes the glory which belongs to God, and so God brings him down. There is now justice for James and for the Christians Herod has persecuted. It did not come immediately, but nevertheless it arrives in God’s time. Herod might look good on the outside, but on the inside, he is being eaten by worms.

I believe there’s a warning for us here. Sure, we might never have actively killed or persecuted someone like Herod. But we can be more like him than we think. If we live our lives as if we are in charge, and not God, and if we ignore God and fail to honour him, then in that sense we are just like Herod. We have dethroned God. We have placed ourselves upon the throne instead. God is unlikely to bring us to justice immediately for this folly and pride. His justice is likely to be delayed, but it will come, at the end of the world, when we will all stand before God to be judged: people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. (See Hebrews 9:27)

2. A real mystery

What mystery is there in this passage? Well, God allows one apostle, James, to be put to death by the sword, but miraculously steps in to save another, Peter. This is the mystery of God’s providence. We believe God is good and that God’s plans are perfect, but from our own limited, human perspective, it can be hard to understand the ways of God. He lets one die and spares another. This is far from easy for us to accept when our own circumstances are dark.

And yet, it is important that we think about these things. Here’s an interesting question – is Peter better off than James at the end of chapter twelve? That might seem like a stupid question, but it is not. James is called to be with God in Heaven. The Lord’s time for him to be on earth has come to an end. James’ work has come to an end, and the Lord knows it is now the right time to take him. ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’ (Psalm 116:15)

Spurgeon, reflecting on this verse says that Christians: ‘… shall not die prematurely, they shall be immortal till the work is done; and when their time comes to die then their deaths shall be precious. The LORD watches over their dying beds, smooths their pillows, sustains their hearts, receives their soul.’

Even as we face death, may this passage help us to keep on trusting in God’s timing and God’s ways. We need to step back and see the big picture, the eternal picture. And we need to keep trusting that God is good. Does God know what he is doing?

“The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing.” (J Stott)

‘But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.’ (Acts 12:24)
This is the big picture.

3. Real power

If you gather on a Wednesday evening to join us at the prayer meeting, from one point of view it might seem like a small, insignificant meeting. You might even see it as a waste of time. What difference is it going to make to the towns and villages in Fife, or to our own lives? But let me tell you this: the prayer meeting is the place of power.

We see that in this passage. Peter looks to be in an impossible situation, guarded by 16 highly trained soldiers. There’s no escaping. He will end up like James. Yet, what do we find God’s people doing? ‘So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.’ (Acts 12:5)

I love this prayer meeting! Why? Because it tells us that while the situation seemed impossible, these Christians have great faith, believing that no situation is impossible for God. Prayer is never a waste of time. This is doubly impressive if we consider the fact that they had probably prayed for James too, and that seemed to make no difference. It would have been easy for them to have said: ‘We’ve tried praying and it didn’t work.’ Perhaps that’s where you are at today. You tried prayer, and it didn’t bring the change you wanted, so you’ve given up. They do not give up. Don’t give up!

We are in a spiritual war. Satan’s weapons include the persecution of God’s people, violence, intimidation, false accusations, mockery and the like. What is our weapon? How do we respond? With prayer. We don’t look on life’s circumstances ignoring what God might do. Rather, the eyes of faith look beyond our current circumstances, and factor in what the Lord is able to do.

How can we respond as a church? We need to copy the example of the early church. We need to pray earnestly. This word earnestly also describes the way in which Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Prayer is often hard work. But prayer is also part of the chain of cause-and-effect which God uses to run the universe. In other words, prayer does change things. Not always when we want or how we want, but God does use our prayers to bring about his purposes.

Do you believe this? If so, it’s more likely you’ll meet with other Christians to pray. It’s what Christian families do. After Jesus ascends to Heaven we read: ‘They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14) After Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit, what do we read? ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ (Acts 2:42) We must not treat prayer casually in this church. We must pray with devotion and passion and earnestness. That’s what Spirit-filled Christians do together. May God help us to do this more and more.

This is an encouraging passage. Sometimes life looks a mess and it hasn’t worked out the way we would have wanted. Sometimes the church seems so feeble and ineffective. Sometimes so little seems to be happening. Think about this passage. Rub it into your hearts today. Jesus Christ is the true King, not the Scottish or UK government. Yes, life is full of hard mysteries, but we can trust that God knows what he is doing. And when you see circumstances which look bleak, instinctively get on your knees and pray with faith and fervour. This is where true change comes from.