Note: We read Daniel 3:19–28 before the Sermon's passage and message.
When the Odds Are Against Us
When you look through our Bible, and through history, one thing is clear. The world and the devil are always working to stack the odds against the church and her mission.
Even right now, it’s no secret that we are living in difficult times. When you drove into town today, what did you see on some of the signs as you were coming in? $4.35, $4.45? The gas prices are sky-rocketing as it might seem that our culture and world is crumbling underneath us. Perhaps some of you are feeling the effects of the economy at your workplace. Politics and world events are creating all sorts of anxiety for people right now. Needless to say, paying the bills and putting food on the table is getting a bit more challenging—and, I imagine we’re all feeling it in one way or another. It’s times like these when we quickly recognize we are at the mercy of God’s provisions. As the Lord taught us to pray to our heavenly father, “Give us this day, our daily bread…”. These are difficult times.
Then on top of this—there’s the problem of Christians quickly becoming more and more marginalized and disowned by our culture. To stand up for God’s truth means you could easily get persecuted, in one way or another. Many Christians are losing their jobs. Some western governments are trying to shut churches down. The colleges and universities are teaching the next generation that our views are bigoted, hateful—and, it’s frightening to imagine what that will mean four our children as they follow the Lord as the next generation takes their positions of leadership. It’s times like thesewhen we earnestly pray against persecution, and against opposition to the Christ’s kingdom. As the Lord taught us to pray to our heavenly father, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
These are real matters which I trust we are all feeling in fresh ways. More than this—these are real matters which the church faces. Economic troubles, cultural marginalization, persecution—they’re bog obstacles to overcome. I’ve heard many Christians complain and say “the church no longer have any influence, resources, or respect in America!” Or, “those bum liberals have all the power in Silicon Valley and Hollywood!” Or, “we’re being censored!”. Or, “the kids these days just don’t want to go to church anymore.”
What should we do, as this church is called to be on mission for Christ’s kingdom?
Our passage has answers to that for us, this morning. Look at where our passage begins and ends. It begins with two massive obstacles for Christ’s kingdom—economic troubles due to the famine in 11:28, and then Herod’s political oppression that took the life of James, and it almost took Peter’s life. For a small movement that was just beginning to get its footing, here in Acts—those are massive, deadly obstacles. Yet, the where does this all take us? Chapter 11, verse 24—“But the word of God increased and multiplied”. Something happened to turn the tides for this young, vulnerable church.
God’s Pattern, Provision, and Power for Churches on Mission
Acts 12, here, is a big moment in the story of Acts (and, in the history of God’s people). Remember that in last week’s passage, the church had just received the gentiles into their membership, based on Peter’s report. Then next week, the church begins it’s mission to the nations, when Paul and Barnabas are sent out on their first missionary journey throughout the Roman empire. Between these two passages—between formally giving the gentiles a place in the church, and sending Paul on mission to the gentiles—we find the impetus for missions. The hope, the goal, the power, the engine which drives missions forward. Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Luke—they’re all going to find serious opposition when they go out into the world to advance Christ’s kingdom. Who is going to fight for them, and give them success? That’s what our passage is all about, this morning, as we look ahead to next week when Paul is sent out on this conquest for Christ’s kingdom. Here, before us this morning, is a lesson for church’s on mission. We’re going to take this in three steps, this morning—
First, we’ll see God’s Pattern for his Mission.
Second, we’ll see God’s Provision for his Mission.
Third, we’ll God’s Power for his Mission.
God’s Pattern For His Mission
So, let’s take a moment to consider God’s pattern for his mission. What do I mean by that—God’s pattern for mission? We love to talk about God’s ways, as God’s redeemed people. There’s Psalms written about it. Psalm 111, “great are the works of God, and studied by all who delight in them!”. The Bible commends us to study God’s works of old. So the question, then, is why?
Why are God’s great works of old “studied by all who delight in them?” One reason is because God has a way of repeating his works of old. He is a faithful God, keeping his covenant forever. When enemies confront his people, he’s going to respond with the same protection and deliverance that he’s shown before. We can look to history and say we have that God on our side—and, the gold-star pattern of God’s salvation in the Old Testament is the Exodus. There, God displayed how he works when he’s on mission. At the exodus, God showed the world what he looks like when he’s on mission to claim his people, and establish his kingdom. He overcomes the most powerful forces of evil as he claims his people, feeds them, rescues them, and fights for them. Is that something which repeats itself in Scripture—perhaps, here in Acts as Paul is about to be sent out to the nations?
Is this Patterned After the Exodus?
When I first glanced at this passage a few weeks ago to begin preparing for this morning, I saw the Exodus written all over this passage. Consider how that might be the case here, in Acts 12.
Just as Israel’s experience in Egypt began with a famine (remember how Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for relief?), this story begins with reference to a famine. Then, there’s reference to “the days of unleavened bread” (verse 3)—so, this is during the time of Passover. There’s another connection to the Exodus.
Then like Pharoah, Herod begins to oppose God’s people. He “laid violent h ands on some who belonged to the church” (verse 1)—he killed James, and put Peter into prison. What happens next?
God rescues Peter. An angel of light led him right out of his bondage. The details in this story are oddly reminiscent of the Exodus. Look at verse 7. The angel says, “get up quickly!” and then verse 8, “dress yourself and put on your sandals”. The swift rescue, and the reference to the sandals are both very reminiscent of the Exodus. Then, of course, the angel is described as a bright light, guiding him directly out of the cell. It sounds a bit like the pillar of fire that led Israel out of Egypt. Or, you might think of the angel of God’s army that led Joshua into the promised land. Then, we read verse 11. I love this. “When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod…”. This happened so quickly that Peter thought it was a dream.
By the way—we might see another subtle reference to the Exodus, there in verse 11. “The hand of Herod”. If you read the Exodus story, you’re going to see “the hand of the LORD” delivering his people from “the hand of Pharoah” written all over the story. That’s a very common way to describe a king’s rule and power. Perhaps you remember Exodus being referred throughout the Bible as when the Lord delivers his people “with a might hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 4:34). That’s a way our Old Testaments consistently describe God’s hand of war and protection.
Referring to a king’s “hand” like this is rare in the New Testament—but, it’s here in Acts. In last week’s passage at the end of chapter 11, “the hand of the Lord was with [the church], and a great number who believed turned to the Lord”. Then here, Peter recognizes that God’s angel rescued him “from the hand of Herod” (12:11). And then in next week’s passage, in chapter 13 verse 11, “the hand of the Lord” strikes a demonic enemies of Christ with blindness. I think it’s significant that the Lord’s hand is brought up, here, at this point in Acts. His hand will fight for his people, and deliver them from the hand of Pharaoh, or the hand of Herod (this week), or even the hand of the devil (next week). “Rulers, be wise… kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way” (Psalm 2:10–11).
So, you have all these connections to the Exodus—and of course, to cap all this off, Herod dies as he parades himself like a god before the people, just as Pharaohs did in Egypt.
So, the Exodus pattern for God’s mission to fight for his people and his kingdom is here, right? That’s what I was thinking. Then I checked the commentaries, and virtually no one made a big deal out of these connections. Two people made some passing references. That’s it—and, this was after contemplating on these connections and thinking for a few days about why they matter for the Christian life and for our understanding of what God is doing at this point in Acts. This sort of thing drives preachers crazy.
Looking at Other Stories
Then something connected this story to a number of other stories about God’s deliverances in the Bible. Just for an example—think about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3 (which we just read). They refused to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s’ statue, so they were thrown into a furnace. What happened in that furnace? “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?... But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!”. Then, Nebuchadnezzar exclaims “Blessed be the God… who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted him.” (Daniel 3:38). Do you remember what Peter said when he came to his senses in our passage? “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod…” (Acts 12:11).
What’s The Big Pattern of Mission?
What are we to make of these connections? Are they intentional, here in Acts? Why does it matter?
At the very least, I can tell you this. God has a way of delivering his people, conquering his enemies, and advancing his kingdom when the odds might appear to be stacked against his kingdom. His strong hand and outstretched hand will provide for and protect his marginalized people. He will subdue rebellious hearts to himself, giving his people faith and repentance and salvation. He will subdue his enemies, and deal with sin—through the cross in his mercy, or in through judgment in his wrath. We see it over, and over, and over again throughout the entire Bible. This goes back to Psalm 111—“great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them”. Whether or not Luke is intentionally making these subtle connections to the Exodus or other stories in our Bibles is, in some ways, beside the point. What is clear is that God is on mission, and he always has been. He’s on mission for the glory of his name and for the salvation of his people. As fools oppose him with the same kind of folly as Herod and Pharoah, so he thwarts them with the same show of power—all for the good of his people. As this world presents the same kinds of obstacles to his kingdom, God will continue to advance his kingdom as he pleases. May it be so, here at Covenant, as we preach Christ’s forgiveness in the power of his Spirit.
So generically, we’ve considered God’s pattern for his mission. Let’s not consider God’s provision for his mission as we look closer at our story.
2. God’s Provision For His Mission
Look at chapter 11 verse 27—the first paragraph in our passage, this morning.
27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
Here, we see an affliction which the church faced along with the rest of the world. A famine spread across all the Roman world, presumably. But this was an affliction which I imagine didn’t help the church’s cause in her infancy. To use a modern example, a blow to the greater economy is often the death blow to small businesses or business start-ups. This famine—and the economic turmoil it brought—could have really hurt this young church had the Lord not provided.
God Provides his Gospel
How did God provide for the cause of his mission? First, he gave the church the gospel. You may not think that this is explicit in the passage—but it ought to be. That’s a big point which this detail of the famine is making. Antioch—a gentile church—supported and sent relief to the Jewish church in Judea. This was voluntary! “The disciples [in Antioch] determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea” (verse 29). That’s significant. That means that these gentile Christians loved their Jewish brothers in Judea.
The Christians in Judea are called brothers there for a reason. In Christ (as the Jewish church just discovered in the previous chapter) there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. His blood atoned for Jewish sins, for Roman sins, for African sins, for European sins, for American sins—and, all have received the same Spirit of Christ. If the Lord hadn’t been revealing this so clearly to the church, I hardly believe this voluntary show of generosity would have ever occurred.
Remember, Paul describes the Jew-Gentile divide in Ephesians as a “dividing wall of hostility”—think enmity, hatred, strife, desiring harm. Now, in Christ, the church in Antioch actively desires goodwill toward their brothers. That’s how Christians act when they’re effected by the gospel. Here’s a prime example of how the Lord can break down a deep hostility between people. To quote Paul at length—
13 now in Christ Jesus you [gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
He killed the hostility through his blood. So, there’s peace, support, brotherhood. That’s what God provides. So today—if you’re holding hostility against another brother or sister, turn from that hostility as you remember who your brother is in Christ. It’s good for the mission of Christ’s kingdom. A kingdom that’s divided against itself cannot stand—much less a house, a family, a church. Instead, let Christ’s blood kill the hostility and bring in comradery in the gospel.
So, God provides for his church on mission by giving them the gospel which unites believers together under Christ’s mission. The church in Antioch sent relief, the church in Jerusalem thrived through a rough famine. Christ’s kingdom was built up.
God Provides his Word
What else did God provide in this passage? Look at verse 28, were we’re told that God gave a prophet named Agabus foresight concerning this famine. Verse 28 say, “Agabus stood up and foretold by the spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world”. Just so we’re clear—he “foretold by the Spirit” whose word of revelation? God’s word. God sustained and advanced his kingdom through the means of his word, while the rest of the world suffered under a famine.
We’ve seen that God has always been on mission for the glory of his name, and the salvation of his people. Although, the detail we often miss is that the fundamental means God uses to advance mission and kingdom forward is his word.
On mission, God spoke the world into existence for the sake of his glory. On mission, God spoke to Abraham, and called him out to be the father of his people. On mission, God spoke out of the burning bush, and told Moses what to do. On mission God sent his Son—the “Word became flesh”, to die for our sins and establish his kingdom peace and righteousness. On mission, the risen Christ sent his apostles and prophets to be his spokesmen to his church—to help his people grow to from infancy to maturity in those first several decades. Today, his mission through the word continues, as his word comes to you through Christ’s Spirit, and through this message in Acts 12. Here, God is showing you his blood-earnest commitment to save his people, and to provide for them through his word and Spirit (as he did through Agabus). That’s good for a church on mission to know.
So in this initial story of our passage this morning, the Lord overcomes the economic obstacles for his church. He did it through the gospel which unites believers together, and he did it through his word of revelation through the prophet Agabus. The gospel of Jesus’s salvation, along with the whole Word of God—are the fundamental provisions for the mission and growth of Christ’s church. As Jesus reminded us, “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.
So we first saw God’s pattern for his mission, and now we’ve seen God’s provision for his mission. Now, let’s look at the rest of our passage to see God’s power for his mission.
3. The Power for God’s Mission
When you first look at this story, it doesn’t look like Christ’s kingdom is all that powerful at all. The first two verses open with James beheaded, and Peter imprisoned. It looks like the church is losing at the hands of Herod and the Jews who were opposing the church.
Now, we already saw that this story fits the pattern of other stories in the Bible where God delivers his people from prideful, haughty leaders. Again—I can’t be certain if there are intended references to the Exodus or other stories, here. At the very least, it fits the pattern. So, what do we know about God’s power and mission from those other stories? We know that God is committed to displaying his power through these moments. So, God’s power is on full display, here, for us this morning.
Just take theExodus story, for example. Many people get troubled by the idea that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Over, and over, and over again—God hardened Pharaoh's heart to a point that the story of the exodus is painful to read. Plague after plague, and the Pharaoh won't bend his neck even at great cost to his kingdom. Why didn't he let Israel go? The Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart. Peopled died and suffered, you know, because God hardened Pharaoh's heart. That opens up all kinds of questions for many people. But, why did he do it? What does the Exodus story tell us about God's puropse behind it all? The clearest answer is found in Exodus 9:16—
For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.
Did you hear that? God raised up Pharoah, and hardened his heart, so that he might display his power through Pharaoh. God destroyed Pharoah—the king and divine ruler over the great superpower of Egypt. The message for all the earth is clear—Israel’s God wields a power that ought not be trifled with. If your with God, you win. If you’re with Pharoah, you lose (as John Piper said about this passage). God is jealous for his reputation—no one can claim power over him.
That’s what these stories of God’s deliverance are all about in our Bibles. God loves to display his power. Do we see that power at work in our story? Look at how this story begins. It’s textbook.
The Power of God’s Jealousy, and the Folly of
In all the stories where God is delivering his people from sinful tyrannical rulers like Pharaoh, the battle often begins with the tyrants firing the first shot against God’s people. Pharaoh began to oppress the Israelites. Nebuchadnezzar oppressed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Here, Herod lays violent hands on the church, and he killed James.
By the way, God was in full control over James’s death. You may remember Jesus saying to James in Mark 10:39, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus was referring to his death, there—he was telling James and John that they’d die a martyr’s death like himself. Here, Jesus fulfilled that promise—and, it was for the good of his church. It’s no secret that martyrs invoke courage, prayer, and growth within the church.
But why do these tyrants who defy God and his people do it? The common thread though all of Scripture is self-exaltation, pride, ego-itching. I just quoted Exodus 9:16 where God says he raised Pharoah up to show his forth his power. That’s telling of God’s intent in this battle with Pharoah. The next verse tells us about Pharaoh’s intent, with his hard and stubborn heart. God says to Pharoah,
“You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.” (Exodus 9:17)
Pharaoh’s heart was hard because he was exalting himself. There’s no easier way to harden your heart than that, folks. Here's a great example—Pharaoh was telling himself he’s a bigger god that Israel’s God. He’s got the Israelites in his hand—so, who has the upper hand?
God hates self-exaltation. He’s a jealous God, jealous for his fame and reputation—and you don’t want to mess with the power of his jealousy, when he’s on mission.
Like Pharaoh, Herod faced God’s jealousy for the same reasons. He first sought the praise of man—even the praise of the Jewish people. That’s why Peter was thrown into prison. Herod killed James, saw that it pleased the Jews (verse 3), and then “he proceeded to arrest Peter also”. Herod was obsessed with his fame and reputation—that’s why he arrested Peter.
Then, consider what Herod was doing when he died in verses 20–23. Due to a political conflict that we don’t know anything about, the folks in Tyre and Sidon needed to make amends with Herod because (verse 20) “their country depended on the king’s country for food”. So Herod, seeing that the folks of Tyre and Sidon were ready to make amends, took full advantage of the situation. He didn’t simply say “send me some money and we’ll call it good”. He wanted them to worship him. He appointed a day for the people of Tyre and Sidon to gather around him, and he delivered an oration. He made a point to put on his “royal robes” to woo the crowds. The people got the message. They shouted, “the voice of a god, and not a man!”. Verse 23, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory.” Then, we’re told that he was eaten by worms.
The point is clear. God shows his power through self-exalting fools who don’t give him glory. It’s that simple. John Piper say on this passage—“if a man lifts himself up against God, he becomes weaker than a worm.” That’s God’s power, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the power of God’s jealousy.
It’s a warning to us, no doubt. Don’t lift a finger against God—not even for a moment. If you oppose him, he’ll oppose you.
But this isn’t just a warning to us. Remember—this passage is here to give us hope! We’ve been called to be on mission for his kingdom, and he’ll fight for us! God will fight for his people, and he has every ability to destroy anyone who opposes his people if he chooses to do so. He may not choose to—he often shows his power by growing his church through persecution. That’s salt in an open wound—kill us, and we’ll grow!”. It’s “a sure sign of their destruction”, according to Philippians 1:28. Either way, he fights for his people, for his kingdom, for his glory. So long as he’s fighting with jealousy for his name, we can rest assured that his kingdom will come according to his plan.
So, given that God fights for his people, and advances his kingdom according to his power—what do we do? We pray, and we trust. We pray, and we trust.
The Power of Prayer
This passage is soaked with references to prayer. Verse 5, right at the beginning—“so Peter was kept in prison, but [see the contrast, there?] earnest prayer for him was made to God by the whole church.” Prayer is powerful, folks. It’s more powerful than we can imagine—it’s really a hard thing to understand why God uses the prayers of his people when he’s all sovereign. He’s even sovereign over when we pray, and what we pray for. Yet, he is pleased to hear and act upon the beckoning of his people. When the Pharoah began to oppress the Israelites, they cried out to him in Exodus 2, and God shows up in the burning bush in Exodus 3. Prayer moves mountains, folks. It did the same in our passage as well.
I love how this story unravels after Peter is delivered. A group of Christians were together at Mary’s house, praying (most likely) for Peter’s deliverance. Then, Peter shows up at their front door. Mary’s reaction of pure joy and excitement is almost humorous—she forgets to let him in! When she tells the rest, they think it’s his angel (a strange detail we don’t have time for this morning). In a word—these Christians didn’t believe Peter was at their door even when that’s what they were praying for! This would be like a mother praying for her prodigal son to return to the Lord, when at that moment he knocks on the door with a Bible in his hand. Don’t stop praying for the unthinkable.
Pray for this church—here at Covenant. I’ve heard many passing remarks about how “we’re getting older”, and “I just don’t know how we’re going to start seeing visible, long-term growth again”. Or, “the town of Amsterdam is dying—you can’t grow a church here!”. Sound like an economic obstacle? We’ve seen God take care of those this morning, haven’t we?
Even if that’s what you’re feeling, commit yourself to prayer. Pray big—that we would be the biggest and most fruitful church in town after a few years. Pray small—that the Lord would bring in just one new family. Pray for internal growth—for maturity and a deeper love. Rest in the power of prayer, for the cause of Christ’s mission.
So this morning, we’ve beheld a number of pieces that go into God’s mission. We’ve seen the pattern of God’s mission—God has always fought for his people when the odds are stacked against them. Are the odds against you, brothers and sisters? Your sin, the world, and the devil are ever fight against you. I’d say those are big odds against you. God is fighting for you, and for this church.
Then, we’ve seen the provision of his mission—he provides his gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as his word. Without those two blessings, Antioch would have never sent relief to Judea during the famine. God provided. Are those blessings available to us—his gospel of forgiveness, together with his Word and Spirit? Through Christ, we have 66 books, and the Spirit of the risen Christ, folks.
Then, we’ve seen the power of God’s mission. God is jealous for his name—he’ll keep his covenant forever; his promises are sure. Therefore, we ought to pray, claiming his name and his glory as our ultimate appeal for our good.