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The First Gentile Church (Acts 11:19-12:25)

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1 About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too. (This took place during the feast of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him. Herod planned to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him.

6 On that very night before Herod was going to bring him out for trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the prison cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly!” And the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went outside and walked down one narrow street, when at once the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people were expecting to happen.”

12 When Peter realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many people had gathered together and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the door of the outer gate, a slave girl named Rhoda answered. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she did not open the gate, but ran back in and told them that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 But they said to her, “You’ve lost your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was Peter, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 Now Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were greatly astonished. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be quiet and then related how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” and then he left and went to another place.

18 At daybreak there was great consternation among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and did not find him, he questioned the guards and commanded that they be led away to execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 Now Herod was having an angry quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they joined together and presented themselves before him. And after convincing Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, to help them, they asked for peace, because their country’s food supply was provided by the king’s country. 21 On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them. 22 But the crowd began to shout, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying. 25 So Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem when they had completed their mission, bringing along with them John Mark. 1

Introduction2

Some time ago a friend was diagnosed with incurable cancer. He knew the Lord and was prepared to “go home” to be with Him. In what seemed to be his last days, he received correspondence from many who wished to express their sympathy. One such friend wrote to say his good-by’s. Not long after this, my “dying” friend received word that his friend has just died of a heart attack. My friend, on the other hand, was cured and lived for a number of years.

I am reminded of this saying that we find in the Old Testament:

“Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off” (1 Kings 20:11).

Things don’t always end the way they begin, especially for the Christian. Our text begins with Peter in prison, awaiting his execution, guarded as if he were “Israel’s Most Wanted” man. King Herod appears to be in control, having already put James to death, he waits for the Passover week to end so that he can execute Peter. By the time our chapter is over, Peter will not only be alive, but free, while Herod will have died a terrible death.

Our text marks an important turning point in the Book of Acts. From this point on, Peter virtually disappears, except for a brief moment in chapter 15, while Paul dominates the remainder of the book. The gospel is on its way to the “uttermost parts of the earth.” Our text is filled with important lessons for us to learn, so let us ask God to illuminate our hearts and minds through His Spirit as we study this text.

Crucial Questions

There are several questions one must answer in order to grasp the message of this chapter. Let me begin by listing them:

    1. What happened?

    2. What would have happened if God had not intervened?

    3. How do the events of this chapter affect the progress of the gospel in Acts?

    4. How does this text and its message affect me?

Herod vs. God
Acts 12:1-5

1 About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too. (This took place during the feast of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, handing him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him. Herod planned to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him (Acts 12:1-5).

The name “Herod” should sound familiar to anyone who has read the New Testament. The fact is that there are a handful of “Herod’s” in the New Testament, and thus we would do well to distinguish one from another. We will consider four “Herods.”

The first Herod we meet is “Herod the Great.” This is the “Herod” who was ruling in Jerusalem when the magi came looking for the one who was born “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-17). This would therefore be the Herod who killed the babies of Bethlehem, seeking to destroy the newly born “King of the Jews.”

The next Herod we encounter is Herod Antipas. This is the one who beheaded John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) and before whom our Lord Jesus stood trial (Luke 23:7-12).

The third Herod is Herod Agrippa I. This is the “Herod” of our text, the Herod who killed James and sought to kill Peter (Acts 12:1-23). This is the Herod who was eaten by worms and died.

The fourth Herod is Herod Agrippa II. This is the “Herod” before whom Paul will stand trial a little later in the Book of Acts (Acts 25:13-32).

With the introductory words, “about that time,” Luke links the events of chapter 12 to those of chapters 10 and 11. You will remember that Peter and John were sent to Samaria (Acts 8:14), where they remained for some time, and then visited other believers on their return to Jerusalem (Acts 8:25). It may have been that while Peter and John were absent, James was arrested and put to death. Herod may have seized Peter shortly after his return to Jerusalem. It appears that after Peter’s arrest, the other leaders went underground (see Acts 12:17).

We are not told why this Herod suddenly turned against the church. Perhaps it was growing too large and was becoming too influential. Perhaps it was because Christians had a higher allegiance to God than to governmental authority (see Acts 4:19; 5:29). Herod appears to be opposing the church by systematically executing its top leadership. James was arrested and executed first, then Peter was arrested, with the intent of executing him as well (Acts 12:4). You will remember that our Lord’s “inner circle” was composed of Peter, James, and John (see, for example, Matthew 17:1; Mark 5:37). One cannot help but think that John is Herod’s next target, perhaps to be followed by the rest of the apostles.

It would appear that Herod put James to death for his own reasons, and without pressure. But when he did so, it soon became apparent that this action won the favor of many of the Jews. Herod’s popularity suddenly increased – and Herod was all about popularity (he was a politician after all). His decision to arrest Peter and put him to death was influenced by the favor he had gained by executing James with the sword (no crucifixion for him).

James was with His Lord, and it appeared that Peter would soon follow, but there was one problem – the Feast of Unleavened Bread had begun. This is the feast which immediately follows Passover and lasts one week. This would not be a good time to execute Peter. He would have to wait until the feast was over – a couple of days or more. Herod must have heard about Peter’s earlier escape (Acts 5:17-25) because he took extreme measures to insure that this did not happen again. Peter was, for all intents and purposes, in maximum security. Four squads of soldiers guarded him, four men for every six-hour shift, twenty-four hours a day. Peter was chained to two guards, one on each side. Besides, there were the normal gates and (I suspect) guards.

Luke makes a point of putting all the obstacles and dangers right alongside the statement that “those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him” (verse 5). Once again, God has raised the level of difficulty to the maximum, so Peter's escape will testify to His power and thus glorify Him. James has already died, so that Peter’s death seems a certainty. Peter cannot possibly escape, and it is just hours before his trial and death. It is only now that God acts to deliver him.

The Great Escape
Acts 12:6-11

6 On that very night before Herod was going to bring him out for trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the prison cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly!” And the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. 8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” Peter did so. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and second guards, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went outside and walked down one narrow street, when at once the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from everything the Jewish people were expecting to happen” (Acts 12:6-11).

Only a few hours were left for Peter. There seems to be little hope left. Besides the normal prison security measures, four guards are assigned just to make sure that Peter does not slip away from prison again, as he did earlier.

One might think that Peter’s escape would be done in a most secretive manner. The guards are fully anesthetized in some miraculous way, something like Saul’s men were given a “sound sleep,” enabling David and Abishai to slip into Saul’s camp, past all of his guards, and take the king’s spear (see 1 Samuel 26:5-12. These fellows would not have awakened no matter how much noise Peter made. And there was noise, I believe.

An angel of the Lord appears, accompanied by a bright light (verse 7). He strikes Peter on the side, and this probably prompted a protest from Peter – at least a few groans. The chains fell from Peter’s hands and this, too, would not have been free from noise. Having been in a good many prisons (as a Prison Fellowship instructor), I know that when prison gates open and close, they are noisy. But most interesting is the fact that the angel spoke to Peter three times, yet not one word is recorded about keeping silent (such as whispering). The angel was fully confident that they had nothing to fear from these guards, who were “out like a light.” It was a bold escape, completely fitting for an escape accomplished by a sovereign and all-powerful God.

The other thing that strikes me about our text is the passivity of Peter. Peter is not one to take a passive role, but in this account, it is very clear that God is the One taking action. Peter was asleep when the angel appeared, and Peter had to be awakened. Peter was not wide awake (with fear), nor was he seeking to find some way of escape. He did not force the front gate open, or even push it open; it opened by itself (or at least by an unseen hand – verse 10). For the whole time he was being released, Peter was not even aware that this was really happening. He assumed that it was a vision (which wasn't unreasonable, given the fact that he recently had a vision – see chapter 10). In Peter’s mind, he was asleep throughout the entire escape. Only after he was completely liberated did Peter comprehend that his experience was real.

Verse 11 is significant because it informs us that Peter finally grasped what had happened. He was delivered by the Lord’s angel, not only from Herod’s hand, but also from what the Jewish people were expecting. It is not just Herod who has set himself in opposition to the church, and thus to our Lord; it is the Jewish people as well. Once again, opposition to our Lord has spread to the general population and not just its leaders.

Informing the Faithful
Acts 12:12-17

12 When Peter realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many people had gathered together and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the door of the outer gate, a slave girl named Rhoda answered. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she did not open the gate, but ran back in and told them that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 But they said to her, “You’ve lost your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was Peter, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 Now Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were greatly astonished. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be quiet and then related how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” and then he left and went to another place (Acts 12:12-17).

I think I enjoy this part of the story more than any other, probably because I can identify with the believers and their lack of faith. Notice the contrast between the ease of getting out of prison, as opposed to the difficulty of getting into the house of Mary. My son-in-law, Jeff Hayden, drew this cartoon, which aptly expresses the contrast in the ease of Peter’s escape from prison and the difficulty of his entrance into Mary’s house.

Peter knew that the church would be concerned about him and that he alone could explain what had happened to him (neither the soldiers nor Herod ever arrived at any satisfactory explanation). And so before he went underground, Peter made his way to Mary’s house. There he was confronted with an outer gate. We are hardly surprised that it was securely locked. No doubt the Christians who had gathered may have expected soldiers to come and arrest more of their number.

While the church continued to pray, Rhoda, the servant girl went to answer the knock she heard at the outer gate. She immediately knew it was Peter, but left the door closed and locked out of sheer joy, not out of unbelief. She reported the good news to the saints who had gathered for prayer, but could not convince them that their prayers had actually been answered. This does make me wonder just what they were praying for at this point in time. Were they praying for a supernatural escape, or were they praying for a quick and painless death? We are not told what they were praying for, but only that they refused to believe it was really Peter at the gate. They thought that Rhoda was out of her mind or that what she had seen was his angel (was this something like his ghost?).

Peter persisted in knocking until they let him in, at which time he explained how God had rescued him. He then instructed them to inform James and “the brothers” (whom I assume to be his fellow-apostles), and then he, too, went to another place, no doubt where he could not be found by Herod. It is interesting that the angel did not instruct Peter to go to the temple and preach in a very public way, as was the case with his earlier escape (see Acts 5:20). Has the time for preaching and evangelism in Jerusalem come to an end? Is this what must happen before the gospel can be proclaimed broadly to the Gentiles?

No Explanations
Acts 12:18-23

18 At daybreak there was great consternation among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and did not find him, he questioned the guards and commanded that they be led away to execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 Now Herod was having an angry quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they joined together and presented themselves before him. And after convincing Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, to help them, they asked for peace, because their country’s food supply was provided by the king’s country. 21 On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them. 22 But the crowd began to shout, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:18-23).

One can hardly imagine the consternation of the soldiers and Herod the next morning. We are not told whether the prison gate and the cell door were open or closed the next morning. We don’t know exactly when the guards became fully aware of the escape. But what we do know is that there was every appearance of an “inside job.” That is, there seemed to have been no way for Peter to have escaped without active participation on the part of the guards. How could you explain the loosened chains, the extra security, and yet the absence of Peter?

Herod made a very thorough inquiry into this matter, but found no other explanation than negligence (at best) or a conspiracy (at worst). And thus he had the guards all executed. How ironic! The very guards who would have led Peter to trial and then to his death were now being led away to their death, while Peter was alive and free.

Herod decided it was time to leave town. I would have left town as well. The people of Jerusalem had to have known about Peter’s arrest and pending execution. Peter’s empty cell was as impossible to explain as the empty tomb. If Herod was seeking to abolish the church by arresting and executing it leaders, he was not doing very well at it. He had succeeded in killing James, but Peter and the others had disappeared. Herod was not doing well at opposing the church, or at pleasing the Jews who hated the church. Maybe it was a good time to be needed elsewhere. But then things would not go well for Herod in Caesarea either.

The people of Tyre and Sidon were dependent upon Herod for their food supply. Some sort of rift had occurred in their relationship between the people of Tyre and Sidon and Herod, and they were most eager to mend their relationship with him. They managed to win over Blastus, the king’s personal assistant, so that he persuaded Herod to give them an audience, at which time they would ask for reconciliation. On the appointed day, Herod appeared before the people in all his royal splendor, at which time he also gave a speech. The people of Tyre and Sidon seized on the occasion to heap inappropriate praise upon the king: “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” they shouted.

Later on in Acts, similar praise will be offered to Paul and Barnabas by the people of Lystra. They could not have responded more quickly or fervently to silence such words, which were completely inappropriate (Acts 14:14-18). Herod, on the other hand, hesitated. No doubt, he relished the praise. He who opposed God by opposing His church now was playing god, and it cost him his life. An angel of the Lord (was it the same angel who spared Peter from death by releasing him from prison?) struck Herod with a miserable illness, so that he was eaten by worms and died. It was not a dignified death. For all of his royal pomp and circumstance, and for all the adoration as a god, his death was hardy regal.

Final Assessment
Acts 12:24-25

24 But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying. 25 So Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem when they had completed their mission, bringing along with them John Mark (Acts 12:24-25).

I return to the verse I cited at the beginning of this message:

“Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off” (1 Kings 20:11).

In our culture we say, “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.” Things sometimes end very differently from the way they began. In our text, it appeared as though Herod might annihilate the church by executing its top leaders. The final words of our text tell us that the Word of God triumphed. Herod could not stop the progress of the gospel, nor could he destroy the church. The Jewish religious leaders could not stop it, and neither could Herod, with all the support of Rome. Its progress could not be stopped; indeed, the next chapter sees an even greater growth of the gospel.

The last verse takes us back to Barnabas and Saul, who will play a dominant role in the advance of the gospel in the remaining chapters of Acts. Apparently, they return from Antioch just after Peter’s escape and Herod”s death. Thus, they were out of Herod’s reach and kept from harm. If this is so, then they escaped from Herod’s grasp in a providential way.

We are also told that they brought John Mark with them. He will accompany them on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5) and then abandon them when the going gets tough (Acts 13:13). Disagreement over taking Mark with them on their second missionary journey will produce two missionary teams (Acts 15:36-41).

Conclusion

At the beginning of this message, I listed some questions, the answers to which would be the key to understanding our text. The first question was, “What happened?” Hopefully, we have answered this question. The last three questions are very important:

“What would have happened if God had not intervened to save Peter and to remove Herod?”"
“How do the events of this chapter affect the progress of the gospel in Acts?”
“How does this text and its message affect me?”

It is now time to answer these questions.

Up to this point, the Roman government has been reluctant to resist or oppose Jesus or those who followed Him. Herod Antipas (the predecessor of Herod Agrippa in our text), was actually eager to see Jesus, hoping that He might perform some miracle (Luke 23:8). Like Herod Antipas, Pilate found no guilt in Jesus, even though the Jewish leaders accused Him of inciting the people to rebellion (Luke 23:13-16). Indeed, Pilate knew the real reason the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus (Matthew 27:18). Pilate actually dreaded condemning Jesus and sought to release Him, especially after his wife informed him of her dream (Matthew 27:19-26).

All this is to show that the Roman government did not see Christianity as a dreaded foe, as the Jewish leaders did (see John 11:48). Herod’s actions in our text could have set a precedent that would have branded the church as the enemy of Rome, thus making Christians criminals. Humanly speaking, this would have hindered the spread of the gospel for many years to come. Peter’s escape and Herod’s death returned things to the status quo, facilitating the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in Acts 13.

Thus, when Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten for proclaiming the gospel in Philippi, the city officials ultimately reversed their actions, leaving the new believers in Philippi free to practice their faith (see Acts 16:35-40). In Acts 18, the Jews again opposed Paul and Silas and the gospel, accusing them of preaching a gospel contrary to Judaism and to Rome. Out of Gallio’s disdain for the Jews, he refused to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, thereby maintaining the assumption that it was really a Jewish faction. This meant that Christianity was deemed a legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman government.

In Acts 21, Paul follows the counsel of the Jerusalem church leaders and takes four men along with him to the temple to offer sacrifices. His Jewish opponents misrepresent Paul’s actions and seek to kill him for allegedly defiling the temple (by bringing Gentiles into an area forbidden to them). The Roman army intervened, sparing Paul’s life. This began a process by which Paul would proclaim the gospel to Gentile leaders, all the way to Rome. It was under Roman protection that Paul and others advanced the gospel in Acts.

Were he allowed to persist in his intended course of action, Herod would have changed the course of history. He would have established a new precedent, namely that Christianity was an illicit religion. Christians would have been dealt with as criminals, and the apostles would have been hunted down as revolutionaries. By the events of our text, the God of all history spared Peter and removed Herod (who was playing god). Thus the advance of the gospel (Acts 13 and following) was assured.

Our text illustrates the sovereignty of God over human history, as well as His sovereignty over His church. One of the themes that runs throughout the Book of Acts is that of the sovereignty of God. The eleven apostles chose Matthias as the replacement for Judas, yet we hear virtually nothing of him in the rest of the Book of Acts. God sovereignly chose Saul (Paul), and he dominates the last half of the Book of Acts. The church chose seven men to oversee the care of their widows, so that they (the apostles) could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-7). God chose two of these seven men to powerfully preach the Word and to be key leaders in the advance of the gospel (Acts 6:8--8:1).

Now, we find Herod opposing the church and seeking to kill its leaders. God will turn this situation completely around in Acts 12. Listen to these words written by John Stott:

“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.” 3

I cannot help but remember the response of the Jerusalem saints to the opposition of the Jewish leaders:

23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather,

‘Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot foolish things?
26 The kings of the earth stood together
and the rulers assembled together,
against the Lord and against his Christ.’

27 “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen. 29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:23-30).

How foolish for men to set themselves against God and against His church! God is sovereign over His church and over all history. No matter how great and powerful a king or a nation may be, they cannot thwart the purposes of God. And no matter how few, how weak, or how precarious a position we may find ourselves in, we will prevail because God’s purposes will always prevail.

Our text presents us with a mystery. In this text, we read that James was executed while Peter was delivered from death. We would do well to recall the relationship between Peter and James. Peter, James, and John were a part of the “inner circle of three” that we read about in the Gospels (see, for example, Matthew 17:1; 26:37: Mark 5:37). Jesus invested more in these three disciples than the others. One of these three (James) died first; another (John) died last. Each of these three had the same exposure to Jesus, the same intensive training. Why would God appear to “waste” His efforts on James by his premature death?

The first answer must be, “We don't know, because God has not told us why James died first.” We must assume that his death somehow was instrumental in the progress of the gospel, as we can see in the case of Stephen’s death. In the final analysis, we must rest in the sovereignty of God, knowing that He purposed this for His good pleasure. God is God, and thus He can do as He sees fit. The explanation may only be revealed to us in heaven.

The second answer may reveal something about us. We tend to look at things pragmatically. It would appear that James was at the pinnacle of his productive life. For him to die (seemingly prematurely) appears to be a senseless loss. But this assumes that God “uses” people only for what they can produce. This assumes that God’s only interest in His saints is what they can do for Him.

This kind of pragmatism is often revealed by our choices and actions. Why is it that we spend more time evangelizing and discipling on the college campus than we do in the retirement homes or in an AIDS hospice? How is it that our homogeneous seeker-friendly churches seem to be found in the better parts of town, and they appeal to the upper middle class? I fear we may tend to minister to and among those whom we perceive to have the most promise, who seem to have the most to offer our Lord in service.

And yet this does not seem to square with the people to whom our Lord ministered, or even those He chose to be His disciples. Suppose that God chose us because He desired a relationship with us, more than because He saw how much we had to offer Him in service?

I was recently reading through the Book of Genesis and came upon Enoch in Genesis 5. There I read that Enoch walked with God, and he was no more, because God took him (Genesis 5:24). Did God take Enoch because there was nothing left for Enoch to do, or did God take him to heaven because He desired to have a more intimate relationship with him?

It is true that Herod was the instrument by whom James was executed, but we could just as easily say, “And James walked with God, and he was no more, because God took him.” Why do we think that James was short-changed and that Peter was the fortunate one? If we believe Paul’s words in Philippians 1 correctly, then must we not say that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)? For His own purposes, God took James, and He spared Peter, but we should not feel sorry for James. He is the one who saw Jesus face to face first, while Peter and John had to wait.

Our text is but one of many texts which teach us that our God is the God of great reversals. He is not just the God of revisions, but the God of reversals. Israel was held captive in Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time. Pharaoh was not about to let this people go, but after ten plagues he did. Then Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the Israelites. The Israelites found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the approaching Egyptian army. It looked as though they were finished. “But God . . . .” God made a path in the midst of the sea, and the Israelites passed through, walking on dry ground. When the Egyptian army sought to follow them, they became mired in the mud, and they all drowned in the sea. God is the God of reversals. We can see this over an over in the Old Testament and in the New.

We were dead in our trespasses and sin. Our actions were not those of men who were free (though we thought so), but rather the actions of those who were held captive by Satan. We could not live up to God’s standard of righteousness. We could do nothing to save ourselves. We were helpless and hopeless – lost in sin. “But God . . .” (see Ephesians 2:1-10). We who were dead in our sins were made alive. We who were separated from God and from our fellow man were reconciled to Him, and to others. We who once were in darkness have come to the light. God is a God of reversals.

God often waits to act until the last moment, until it would appear that all hope is lost. And then when He acts in a dramatic way, it is obvious that only He could have done it. When He acts when all hope is gone, He receives all the glory. And we, like the saints gathered in the home of Mary, are not inclined to believe it.

These past few weeks we have been praying for a very young child named Courtney. Courtney’s body is riddled with cancer. At first it appeared that medical science might offer some hope, and we prayed that it would work. Now, all medical hope is gone. All that can save Courtney is a class A miracle from God. I fear that our prayers at this moment may be like the prayers of some of those gathered in Mary’s house. I don't know this for a fact, but from their response to the appearance of Peter, I can’t help but wonder if some were not praying for a quick and painless death for Peter: “Lord, make the sword sharp and the execution effective.” I fear that we may be faltering in our prayers for Courtney at the time when they are most needed.

I want to tell a story about Hugh Blevins, a fellow elder for many years. One of our elders was diagnosed with cancer when he was in his 30’s. We prayed, and Dan was in remission for five years. Then the cancer came again with a vengeance. We prayed fervently at first, but when death seemed inevitable, the tone of our prayers began to change. One day our brother Hugh had something like this to say to us. “Men, I don't know whether God will heal Dan or not, but I do know that He is able to heal Dan, even now. I cannot stop praying for Dan’s healing until Dan is healed, or until he dies.”

That is the way I want to pray for little Courtney, and for every other situation that seems impossible. I don’t want to be found doubting God’s power, or the fact that He can and does heal today. On the other hand, I do not know whether Courtney is a “James” or a “Peter.” If God takes Courtney home, it will be a blessed thing. And if He heals her and has many years of life for her, it will also be a blessing from God. But let us not cease to pray in faith until God’s purposes for her are known.

If you are reading this message and your life is in utter chaos and ruin, let me assure you that our God is a God of reversals. He can turn your life around, just as He did Saul (now known as the Apostle Paul). He alone can save; He alone can reverse your life. Trust in Jesus, who was put to death for your sins, and who was raised from the dead. He can turn death into life, darkness to light, hopelessness into hope and everlasting joy.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 17 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 19, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1990), p. 213.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life