Opposition and Advancement


Opposition and Advancement

Acts 12:1-24

Main Idea: King Herod launches a public assault on the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, killing James and imprisoning Peter, but he ultimately cannot stop the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

  1. Scene 1: The Evil Attack (12:1-5)
    1. Opposition is inevitable.
    2. God’s sovereignty is inscrutable.
    3. Prayer is effectual.
  2. Scene 2: The Lord’s Rescue (12:6-19)
    1. The Lord’s peace is phenomenal.
    2. The Lord’s grace is astonishing.
    3. The Lord’s power is immeasurable.
  3. Scene 3: The Final Word (12:20-24)
    1. Herod’s idolatry
    2. Herod’s obituary
    3. A word of warning and a word of hope

Rivalries exist everywhere. In politics it’s Democrats versus Republicans. In computers it’s Mac versus PC. In sports it’s Auburn versus Alabama. In superhero movies it’s Superman versus Lex Luthor. In the home it’s kids versus vegetables! And in the kingdom of God, it’s the kingdom of darkness opposing the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col 1:11-12). Importantly, in this last example in particular, the rivals aren’t equal. Not even close.

In this narrative Luke provides a vivid example of the folly of opposing the King of kings. I agree with John Polhill, who says it’s “one of the most delightful and engaging narratives in all of Acts” (Acts, 276). It’s told with brilliant artistry.

Here we see the church’s mission taking significant steps forward. Before Luke tells about the major advancement of the gospel with the first missionary journey in chapter 13, he provides us with a story about opposition in the Jerusalem church. It reminds us that kingdom advancement doesn’t come without a significant cost.

The tyrant leading the assault on the church is Herod Agrippa I, who killed the apostle James then imprisoned the apostle Peter. Such conflict isn’t unusual. John Stott notes the following pattern, providing great hope for believers in the midst of conflict:

Indeed, throughout church history the pendulum has swung between expansion and opposition, growth and shrinkage, advance and retreat, although with the assurance that even the powers of death and hell will never prevail against Christ’s church, since it is built securely on the rock. (Message of Acts, 207)

In other words, we can relate to this story. Christians from every age will face conflict if seeking to advance the gospel. But we can face such conflict with unshakable assurance that Christ will win!

Scene 1: The Evil Attack

Acts 12:1-5

“About that time” (when the Antioch church prepared the relief offering, 11:27-30) King Herod (Agrippa I) launched a violent assault on the church (v. 1). If you’re familiar with the Bible, then you’re familiar with the name Herod, but it’s easy to get the Herods confused. This Herodian dynasty was notorious for attacking the people of God. They ruled Palestine with the delegated power of Rome. Herod Agrippa I’s grandfather was Herod the Great, who was responsible for slaughtering the babies after the magi’s visit (Matt 1:16-18). Herod Antipas, a younger son of Herod the Great, and uncle of Herod Agrippa I, beheaded John the Baptist in a moment of arousal (Matt 14:1-12). Here in Acts 12 we read of Herod Agrippa I. His son, Agrippa II, appears in Acts 25–26.

Herod Agrippa I bears many of the characteristics of his evil family. As a child he was sent to Rome and was reared among Roman aristocracy. He developed childhood friendships that eventually led to his ruling of the Jewish kingdom—nearly to the same extent as his grandfather (Polhill, Acts, 278). One of his classmates was the emperor Claudius, who extended Herod’s rule. Herod was a political chameleon. When with the Romans, he lived in a Roman fashion. When around the Jews, he lived for their favor. He was a people pleaser, a glory seeker, and a Christ hater.

Herod Agrippa uses an approach different from Saul’s house-to-house, one-by-one method of eliminating followers of Christ. Herod instead opts to put to death the leaders of the church, consequently destroying the morale of the church. He starts with James (son of Zebedee and brother of John, not to be confused with James, half brother of Jesus and author of the book of James, who became a leader in the Jerusalem church). This James, along with Peter and John, was a member of the innermost circle of Jesus. Herod kills this important leader “with the sword” (v. 2), which may imply beheading. So following the violent martyrdom of Stephen, the church grieved over the first martyred apostle, James.

This decision “pleased the Jews,” and because it did, Herod proceeded to arrest Peter also (v. 3). There was no reason to execute James or to arrest Peter—the two weren’t political revolutionaries—but Herod wants to play to the Romans and the Jews. In taking such drastic actions, he can assure the Romans that this little sect called Christianity isn’t violating the ways of Rome, and he can also appeal to the Jews by showing that he is standing up for their traditions (i.e., the temple, the law, and separation from Gentiles). Herod loves power. He loves glory. He loves to please people.

We don’t have to look far to find modern examples of the beheadings of those who claim the name of Christ. The images of ISIS beheading professing believers on the coast of Libya will never leave my mind. But Christians can die with confidence because our King can put heads back on.

Herod may have started with James and not Peter, who seems the more outspoken of the two, in order to gauge the crowd’s reaction to his cruelty. When they were pleased with the death of James, Herod decided to go all the way to the top of the Christian movement’s human leadership in making an attack on Peter. (The evil one always loves to attack those in leadership.)

One thing stood in the way of his beheading this second disciple: it was Passover season (v. 3). It was time for the Jews’ annual celebration of the exodus, when God freed his people from Egyptian tyranny. During this time neither trials nor the carrying out of sentences was permitted. So Herod sends Peter to prison guarded by “four squads of four soldiers” (v. 4). That’s a lot of soldiers for one guy, suggesting that perhaps the Sanhedrin informed Agrippa of the previous jailbreak (5:19). Herod intends to bring Peter out to the people for a show trial following Passover. No doubt Herod thought this would curry great favor with the Jews and bring him much public glory.

Don’t miss that when Herod attacks with the sword, the church counters with prayer (v. 5). This should always be the church’s response during times of great trial and agony. We’ve seen the earliest Christians model it previously in the book of Acts (cf. 4:29-31).

Allow me to point out three applications.

Opposition Is Inevitable

The Bible gives accounts of battles within the broader context of one great battle. Various people lead assaults on God’s people, using various means of warfare. Pick your tyrant: Pharaoh, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod. God’s people have always faced persecution. Already, in eleven chapters of Acts, we have observed opposition in the form of threats, intimidation, physical beatings, and stoning. Now the sword turns against God’s people. We shouldn’t be surprised when we face opposition while living on mission; we should be surprised when we don’t.

Jesus told his disciples, “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). While Jesus told us the honest news, he also reminded us of the great news! Christ crushed the head of the serpent at the cross. He triumphed over death as he vacated the tomb. He ascended into heaven where he rules and reigns over all. And soon Jesus Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. In light of this bigger story, we can live out our little stories with faith, knowing that the King will always win. He’s in control.

The King was in charge when James died and in charge when Peter went free. He could have saved James, but he didn’t—for his own sovereign purposes. (And let’s remember, the moment James died, Jesus was there to meet him in heaven.) The King can use miraculous deliverance or martyrdom for gospel advancement.

We see examples of the power of persecution throughout church history, and yet neither persecution nor death can ultimately stop the mission. Jesus just replaces martyrs with other missionaries. When Paul was in prison, he rejoiced in the ways the sovereign One was working in the midst of his imprisonment (cf. Phil 1:14). Jerome said,

The church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it. (Letter 82, in Piper, “Execution, Escape, and Eaten by Worms”)

Opposition is inevitable, yet we don’t engage in this war as victims but as victors. Our King rules and reigns.

God’s Sovereignty Is Inscrutable

God’s ways are fathomless. We can’t ultimately comprehend the works of God (cf. Rom 11:33-36). Hymn writer William Cowper said, “God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.” Why does James die and Peter live? We aren’t told all the reasons. We know that Jesus promised James’s death in Mark 10:39, but we’re not told why. Surely the church was praying for James, like Peter, yet he was put to death. John, James’s brother, lived to be an old man. Sometimes believers suffer terribly, and sometimes God delivers miraculously (Schreiner, “God’s Inscrutable Sovereignty”). We can’t predict the ways of God.

Sometimes those who would be great parents can’t have biological children. Sometimes those who are terrible parents keep having babies. Sometimes God answers prayers for healings, and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer—at least for a season (Ps 73).

While such trials bring much grief and pain, we must not be angry with God. Trials are not necessarily a sign that he’s displeased with us. God calls us to trust him, even when life hurts. His ways are wise, good, and just. And we must remember this: God has given us his Son. God doesn’t promise to give us an explanation for everything, but he has given us the promise that changes everything: he will raise us from the dead. We will dwell with him in the new heaven and new earth, where sin and suffering can’t touch us. God doesn’t explain everything, but through Christ, God has entered into our suffering, has taken the ultimate injustice at the cross, and has risen triumphantly so that all who call out to him may have eternal life. Latch on to this reality in suffering. Glory is coming. It’s not here yet, but keep looking to God in faith. He gave his Son for sinners like us, and soon all suffering will end.

Prayer Is Effectual

One might wonder about the church’s response here. Why not take up arms? Why not protest? While force and outcry are appropriate at times, prayer is always the first and best response. Prayer is the church’s weapon, and using it isn’t passive. The believers in this passage essentially go to war through prayer. Prayer is “an act of defiance to opposition” (Azurdia, “The Pendulum of Gospel Ministry”). The band Rend Collective sings a catchy victory song in “More than Conquerors,” declaring, “We are more than conquerors, through Christ; You have overcome this world, this life; We will not bow to sin or to shame; We are defiant in Your name.” In that hope-filled spirit the church prays. Prayer isn’t retreat. It’s an act of holy defiance. It’s an act of placing dependent confidence in the sovereign God who hears the prayers of his people and rules over all. In the words of John Piper, prayer is a “wartime walkie-talkie” (Let the Nations Be Glad, 45). The church is at war, so they call up the Commander, who shuts lions’ mouths, humiliates pharaohs, breaks chains, and opens prison doors, knowing he will act in whatever way he knows is best.

How do you regard prayer? Is your initial response to conflict one of planning or petitioning? Learn from the church in Jerusalem. The kingdom of darkness uses physical weapons; the church uses the weapon of prayer. Wield your weapon!

Scene 2: The Lord’s Rescue

Acts 12:6-19

The longest part of the narrative involves a great escape. Just as the Lord delivered his people from Pharaoh during Passover, he delivered Peter from the hands of this political tyrant. This passage gives us an elevated concept of the Lord’s presence, power, and grace.

This story is wondrous, miraculous, and humorous. It displays the power of God and the human touch of a master writer. It’s easy to read the Bible and miss humor, especially in the midst of a serious story, but John Polhill says that Luke includes a “comic touch” at various places in the narrative (Acts, 276). Thomas Schreiner says, “Luke was surely touched by the humor in the story. . . . You sense the humanity of Luke” (“God’s Inscrutable Sovereignty”).

While Herod prepared to bring Peter out of prison, Peter was “sleeping between two soldiers” (v. 6). He isn’t biting his nails, pacing the floor, or trying to negotiate a deal. He’s sleeping! The passage provides no hint of any anxiety at work in him, a fact that reminds me of a later story in which Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison. Paul sings; Peter sleeps (Stott, Message of Acts, 209). Here we find a wonderful application.

The Lord’s Peace Is Phenomenal

The apostle Paul reminded the Philippian church of this wonderful truth:

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)

Peter was guarded by soldiers, but his heart was guarded by God. Know this peace. Live in this peace through the Prince of peace, who himself could go to sleep in the middle of a storm.

In verse 7 an angel comes in and stands next to Peter, and light shines in the cell, but that doesn’t wake Peter up! The angel has to strike Peter on the side to move him. I’ve got to believe Luke loved to tell this story. He had to get some details from several sources to write it, but I think Peter’s confession made him smile. Can’t you imagine Peter reporting, “An angel was kicking me in the ribs, saying, Get up!”?

When Peter wakes, the chains fall off. Our Lord specializes in breaking chains (see Ps 146:7). Peter follows the angel, thinking he’s dreaming. This detail is important because it tells us that Peter knew he couldn’t claim that the rescue was owing to anything he did or could do. He wasn’t freed because he was strong or fast. All he contributed to the event was walking dazedly through the prison area as told.

The “iron gate” opens the same way the stone was rolled away: by God’s mighty power. It opened “by itself” (automate¯ in Greek). Upon exiting, Peter enters the street, the angel leaves, and Peter finally comes to and becomes aware of the Lord’s great rescue.

The Lord’s Grace Is Astonishing

Just as Moses told Israel, “Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that he will accomplish for you today” just prior to the parting of the seas (Exod 14:13), Peter would receive grace as the angel led him out of prison. This story isn’t about Peter’s escape on his own; it’s about Peter’s deliverance by God. The Lord delivered Peter by sheer grace. He is the great Rescuer (2 Tim 4:17-18). Likewise, we’re saved by simply receiving God’s grace by faith (Eph 2:8-9). Consequently, all glory belongs to God (Rom 3:28). God’s grace here was so astonishing that even a praying church had a difficult time believing it!

As Peter makes his way down the darkened streets, the church is gathered in prayer at the home of a generous woman of means named Mary. “Confusion and joyful humor” abound in what happens next (Hughes, Acts, 169).

First, there’s Rhoda. She is the servant on guard duty. Peter arrives and knocks outside the gate that leads into the courtyard. Rhoda recognizes Peter’s voice, and in her astonishment she goes back to tell the church about his arrival, but she neglects to open the door to let Peter enter! The last place Peter needs to be at this time is in the middle of the street, exposed to possible recapture (Polhill, Acts, 282).

Then the church enters into the poor decision making. They don’t believe Rhoda. They tell her she’s crazy! Here’s a picture of a people who are praying but are struggling with believing that God actually works miracles! I don’t think Luke included this insight as an indictment on the church. These men and women were ordinary humans who knew God doesn’t promise a miracle every moment. Maybe they were praying conservatively: “Lord, just help Peter be strong in suffering. Cause Herod to give a lighter sentence.” In any case, you can imagine them saying to the flustered servant girl, “Oh, be quiet. We’re all stressed here. You’re going to lose your mind if you aren’t careful. We need to get back to prayer.” Nevertheless, Rhoda insists Peter is truly outside. And here, surprisingly, some of the Christ followers take the time to theorize about whether the man at the gate could possibly be Peter’s angel. In other words, they stand around discussing theology while the answer to their prayer is waiting outside!

And there, out in the darkness and exposed to danger, stands Peter. He just keeps knocking, perhaps pausing to whisper with more intensity: “Rhoda! Let me in!”

Thankfully, the church eventually opens the door, and Peter enters. Apparently the group then erupts with such astonishment and joy that Peter has to tell them to be quiet. He is a wanted man, after all, in the middle of a city. Once they calm, he goes on to tell the church “how the Lord had brought him out of the prison” (v. 17). He tells them about the Lord’s grace.

The church’s reaction to Peter reminds us of an important lesson.

The Lord’s Power Is Immeasurable

God “is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20), yet the church here is surprised by God’s ability. Let’s elevate our concept of what God can do. “Thou art coming to a King, large petitions with thee bring for his grace and power are such; none can never ask too much,” said John Netwon (“Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare”). Trust in his power as you pour out your heart to him.

Two other pieces of information are relayed in the last part of verse 17. Peter instructs the church to “tell these things to James and the brothers.” This is a small detail, but it speaks to the leadership of James in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15). Then Peter “left and went to another place” (v. 17). Peter uses practical wisdom here. He doesn’t rely on a miracle for everything. He flees from Agrippa’s wrath. He doesn’t run back to the guards singing MC Hammer’s, “Can’t Touch This.” He uses wisdom.

Herod, of course, wasn’t happy with the turn of events. He proceeds to cross-examine the soldiers, probably torturing them. Convinced that only an inside job could free Peter, he eventually puts the soldiers to death (v. 19) in accordance with Roman law, which specified that a guard who allowed a prisoner to escape must receive the same penalty that the escapee would have received (Polhill, Acts, 283). After these executions, Herod went to Caesarea.

Such violence aside, I am struck by the tenderness and childlike wonder this story elicits. Should this passage not remind us of the need to live with joyful confidence in our King, under the care of our great Father? We need to believe like trusting children. To pray like children. To go to sleep like children. We need to laugh like children, trusting that our Abba is the sovereign Father over all things. He breaks chains. He frees prisoners. He humiliates bullies. We can trust him. We should petition him. We must rest with the peace that comes from him. He is amazing.

Scene 3: The Final Word

Acts 12:20-24

What happened to Herod, this earthly king that opposed Christ’s kingdom? He was eaten by worms and died. Or to say it another way, the Lord judged him. The lesson here is clear: those who oppose the Lord will lose. When they oppose his kingdom, they lose. When they oppose the truth, they will eventually lose. Though the Lord doesn’t always settle accounts immediately, he will.

Herod’s Idolatry

The coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon were on the inland areas that Agrippa ruled, and he controlled their food supply (v. 20). A guy named Blastus served as a mediator between Herod and representatives from these areas; he apparently helped negotiate an agreement suitable to everyone. On an appointed day, on which the agreement would be formally announced, Herod prepared to make a glorious entrance. He put on his royal robes, took his seat on the throne, and delivered an oration (v. 21).

The historian Josephus recounts this event in great detail. Herod presented himself in the famous arena in Caesarea and wore a glistening silver robe. He was hailed as a god. Of course the crowd’s words were empty flattery, but Herod still received the praise gladly. The event reminds me of the scene in the first Avengers movie. Natasha, the Black Widow, makes a comment about the battle between Loki and Thor right before Captain America leaps out of the Quinjet: “I’d sit this one out, Cap. . . . They’re basically gods,” she says. To this he replies, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” And he doesn’t dress like Herod either!

Herod loves the crowd’s worship. When Cornelius bowed before Peter, Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up! I myself am also a man” (10:26). When the people of Lystra lauded Paul and Barnabas as gods, the pair replied with garment-tearing passion: “We are people also, just like you, . . . turn from these worthless things to the living God” (14:15). Peter and Paul point everyone to the glory of God, never to themselves. Herod’s approach to life is quite the opposite. He’s a self-exalting glory hog.

Herod’s Obituary

Previously an angel “struck” Peter to wake him (v. 7); here, an angel “struck” Herod to kill him. Josephus provides a natural, human explanation of what happened: “A severe pain . . . arose in his belly, which became so violent that he was carried into his palace, where five days later he died” (Stott, Message of Acts, 213). No matter the precise diagnosis of Herod’s condition, Dr. Luke tells us the ultimate reason for it: God judged him.

In contrast to Herod’s demise, Luke summarizes events connected with the church of that day: “But the word of God flourished and multiplied” (v. 24). A great opponent to the work of Christ died, but the word goes marching on! Jesus continues to build his church. This reminds us that there’s only one sovereign, and I’m reminded of Luther’s triumphant hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” in which he says, “The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”

According to the opening verse of chapter 13, one of the leaders of the church in Antioch was “Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch.” This is a reference to Herod Antipas, not Agrippa, but the men belonged to the same family. Even in the middle of this godless, Christ-hating household, the kingdom of Christ was advancing. It’s remarkable!

A Word of Warning and a Word of Hope

John Piper summarizes this chapter of Acts well: “If we stay with Jesus, we win, and if we oppose him, we lose” (“Execution, Escape”).

Indeed, there’s both warning and hope here. The warning is this: Don’t be a self-exalter. You may oppose Christ for a season, but God will have the last laugh. Daniel said, “He changes the times and seasons; [God] removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan 2:21). When Nebuchadnezzar boasted like Herod Agrippa, “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?” (Dan 4:30), a voice from heaven said, “You will feed on grass like cattle” (Dan 4:32), and God humiliated the self-exalter. The wicked may prosper for a season, but judgment is certain. The axiom of the kingdom holds truth: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). All who oppose the King will face his wrath. Herod’s death anticipates the great and final day of the Lord’s judgment.

Self-exaltation fills the hearts of all kinds of people, not just leaders. In our fallen nature we want to be God. And we certainly don’t want God to tell us what to do. But this text serves as a warning: we must humble ourselves before God; we must not try to be God.

This text also provides us with this great hope: the King’s mission is unstoppable. While we will inevitably encounter opposition as we seek to advance the gospel through prayer and proclamation, we can engage in the war with boldness and courage. Our King is triumphant. He has paid the price for our sins, and he is the exalted Lord of glory. Unlike King Herod’s, our King’s body wasn’t eaten by worms because he didn’t stay in the ground for them to do their decomposing work! No one can overcome our King, and nothing can separate the believer from his love—not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword (Rom 8:31-39).

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Why should Christians expect opposition when seeking to advance the gospel?
  2. How does God use martyrdom to advance the kingdom?
  3. How does this passage illustrate God’s inscrutable sovereignty?
  4. How does this passage illustrate the importance of prayer?
  5. What does this passage teach about God’s peace?
  6. How does this passage encourage us to bring large requests to the King?
  7. What does it mean to be a self-exalter? How can we fight against the temptation to be one?
  8. How does Herod’s death highlight the centrality of the glory of God?
  9. How does this passage provide believers with hope?
  10. Read Romans 8:31-39 in light of this passage. Spend a few moments in worship and prayer.