“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 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 and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Acts 12:1-11 ESV)
It is easy to read this story and see the contrast between James’ fate and Peter’s fate. One dies while the other is miraculously delivered. The contrast is very evident and quite stark. The church had just received word from Agabus, the prophet (see last week), that a great famine would soon decimate the world and leave many hungry. Luke then says, “at about that time” Herod arrested and killed James, the brother of John. His death so pleased the Jewish leadership that Herod also arrested Peter and planned on killing him, too. Luke uses these events as a means of drawing attention to the Church’s response, but also God’s response. Let’s take a look…
We tend to see the good things in our lives as evidence of God’s favor and blessing. We see an unexpected promotion or financial windfall as a sign of God’s favor. We see the narrow escape from a tragic accident or the unexpected but positive diagnosis that we are “cancer free” as God’s blessing. We look at our lives of relative ease and comfort as evidence of God’s pleasure with our life choices. All of these things are easy to see as God’s favor and blessings, but not necessarily true. We also see the opposite as a sign of God’s disfavor. When we lose our job, or get the cancer diagnosis we see them as signs of God’s anger with us or His disfavor upon our lives. But, are they really? Let me illustrate and explain what I mean.
As you read this story, you’ll notice that upon the murder of James the Jews are very pleased. In fact, so pleased and expressive of their pleasure that Herod decides to kill another of the Apostles. No doubt, the Jewish religious leadership believed that the death of James was a huge blow against these “blasphemers” and the one they call the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. I am certain the Jews saw the death of James as a positive thing and the favor of King Herod upon them as a sign of God’s favor. But the church, no doubt, sees the death of James as a huge blow against them and then King Herod arrests Peter, too. I’m certain they were asking, “Why God? What have we done wrong? Are you angry with us?” Is this a sign of God’s dissatisfaction with the Church?
So, we have two groups that view the same event differently. One sees it as a sign of God’s favor and the other sees it as a sign of God’s disfavor. We often make the same mistake. We view these same types of events in our lives as some indicator of God’s pleasure or displeasure with our life choices. Someone wins the lottery and they immediately credit God with blessing them with wealth while another receives a layoff notice and believes God must be angry with them. Are these events valid measures of God’s favor or disfavor? Well, scripture says…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48 ESV)
We’ve associated material wealth, physical and mental health, and certainly success and achievement are signs of God’s favor. In other words, we believe God “blesses” us because we DESERVE it. So, we would look at the events surrounding James’ death and wonder what James had done to anger God. By contrast, we would also look at the events surrounding Peter’s deliverance and assume that Peter must have been more pleasing to God. In other words, good things in our lives means we must be living right and bad things in our lives means we must be doing something wrong. Simple logic, right? Wrong.
In fact, the other Apostle James (the brother of Jesus, not the brother of John) says: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.” (James 2:1-8 ESV)
So, just what is Luke trying to tell us through this story in which James is martyred and Peter is miraculously delivered? First, don’t measure God’s power and presence in your life or church by man’s standard. God is present and at work in both of these situations and outcomes. The blessings of God are never to be measured by man’s standards. By man’s standard, James must have had hidden sin and Peter was truly and deeply loved by God. By man’s standards, the guy who won the lottery must really be righteous and holy and the one who lost his seven year old to cancer must have been a horrible sinner. But, even we can see that our “simple” logic simply doesn’t work in these circumstances. Life doesn’t work that way… It didn’t work that way in the Jerusalem church or the lives of the Apostles, and it doesn’t work that way for us, either… for He sends rain to fall on the just and the unjust (see also Gal. 2:6).
Next, Luke wants us to see that God’s power and the work of the church will not be thwarted by evil intentions nor by the cruel and unjust actions of men or Satan. God’s power and presence are in the good days as well as the bad days. In fact, I will go so far as to state that God was just AS present and close to James when the sword fell across his neck as He was with Peter when he was led by an angel out of the prison cell. James knew God’s powerful presence in his death as much or, perhaps, more than Peter did in his escape from prison. How can I be so sure? Because of these words:
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:5-7 ESV)
Jesus doesn’t abandon us in the darkness of death or the darkness of the prison cell. In fact, Jesus told the Apostles that He was going to prepare a place for them (and us) and that He would return for them (and us – see John 14:1-6). As the sword fell across James’ neck, Jesus gently but firmly took his hand and led him into eternity and the very presence of God, the Father. Peter may have been led out of the prison, but James was led into the presence of God.
Finally, notice Peter’s response to the circumstances. James has just been murdered at the hands of Herod and Peter has been arrested and kept in prison until the feast is over. While the text doesn’t tell us how long Peter has been held, it appears to have been for several days during the Feast “days of Unleavened Bread.” Peter’s rescue doesn’t immediately occur, but God waits until the execution is imminent. Luke says, “on that very night” when Herod was about to bring him out for execution (on the following day) and then God acts.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly certain that I would have found it hard to sleep that night. But notice Peter… he’s sound asleep. He’s sleeping so soundly that the angel has to “strike him on the side” to wake him up. That’s the slumber of absolute trust in God. No worries. No fears. Just relaxing in God’s peaceful presence. I don’t think Peter is sleeping because he expected to be rescued by God, I think he’s sleeping because he trusted God regardless of the outcome. That’s faith. That’s the kind of faith you and I should have. That’s the kind of faith we can have, when we trust God. You see, you can trust God with tonight and tomorrow if you trust Him with eternity.
Let me close with this final observation… Luke makes note of the fact that this occurred during “the days of Unleavened Bread.” I don’t think he was just giving us a time frame for casual reference. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is all about the preparation and cleansing of our homes following the Passover in preparation for the Exodus journey. There are two basic ideas present in this process of cleansing; the haste of preparation and the effects of leavening. Both of these ideas need to be better understood by today’s church. We must make haste to be ready for our departure, and we must be diligent in purging the sin from our personal lives.
So, two questions… Do you have unconfessed sin hiding in your life? And, are you and your household ready for departure (death or Christ’s return)?
A little sin in our lives is like leavening in a lump of dough, it only takes a little to permeate everything. I’ve watched, with disgust and a sense of unease recently, as pastor after pastor of some of America’s megachurches have been removed due to “a little sin.” Little sins that eventually grew and infected their entire ministry. It is sad, disheartening and painful to see this happen. But, it doesn’t just happen to pastors of large, megachurches. It can happen in small churches and it can happen to anyone and, often, does. Many Christians today harbor some small, private sins that they think are not causing any spiritual harm in their lives. That’s simply not true. All sin kills and destroys. Take some time today to pray and ask God to reveal hidden sin in your life and don’t be surprised by why He reveals to you. When he does, confess it and repent of it and discover the freedom it brings.
Lastly, are you ready to face your departure, whether through death or Christ’s return? I hope so but if not, there’s no time to waste. Jesus paid the sacrifice for your sin, trust Him and let His death be applied to your debt (see Rom. 3:23, then 6:23). What about those in your household? Are they ready? If not, share these words with them. Encourage them to trust Christ. Let me know and I’ll be praying for them and you.