Faithful Unto Death; Acts 12:1-5

Main Point: Knowing Jesus and making him known are worth dying for.

W. S. Armstrong served this church as a deacon in the 1890’s. The words on his gravestone are words of faith, “God calls away when He thinks best.” It is true that some die young and some die old. It is also true that God is in control. God calls away when He thinks best.

Another tombstone near W. S.’s marks the grave of Gertrude Perry Armstrong. Her epithet reads, “She died as she lived – a Christian.” I imagine that Mrs. Armstrong modeled the truth that to live is Christ and to die is gain. Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s; he is the greatest treasure and the trustworthy King.

The deaths of these saints, like the death of James in Acts 12, call us to consider the worthiness of Christ. Is Jesus worth dying for? If Jesus is worth dying for then isn’t he worth living for? If Jesus is worth living and dying for shouldn’t we be telling our friends and family? Seeing the glory of Christ makes witnesses out of us.

The witness, arrest, and execution of Christians in Acts 12 makes us pause to consider the worthiness of Christ. Is Jesus worthy dying for? Is Jesus worth living for? Let’s find out. Read Acts 12:1-5

Looking at these Christians, we understand that

I. Jesus is the disciple’s treasure (Philippians 3:8-11)

I want to be clear that my goal here is more than showing you the words and explaining the words so that you understand the words. My goal here is to press into the realities that empower the words. Digging into the depths and riches of Christ will reveal to us a Jesus who is worth living and dying for. Let’s take the words of Philippians 3:8-11 and dig into the riches. Let’s connect some dots. The reality of Philippians 3:8-11 is fueling the witness of Acts 12:1-5. Read Philippians 3:8-11.

When we talk about Jesus our treasure, we are talking about

  • Knowing Christ

What it means to be a Christian, to be a son or daughter of God, is profoundly simple. To believe in Jesus for life is simple but the all-encompassing reality of our union with Christ is wonderfully profound. We have simple commands like repent and believe and follow Jesus; a child can understand these commands. We also have complex metaphors like becoming light in Christ, He is the vine and we are the branches, Jesus is the head and we are his body, and our relationship to Jesus is like marriage.

I think the body and marriage help us grasp what Paul is after when he holds out the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. In Ephesians 5, Paul uses the body and marriage to grow our experience of the knowledge of Christ.

Do you know someone who takes care of himself? I’m not talking about someone who is worldly or vain but someone who knows the value and needs of his/her body? This person likely nourishes and cherishes her body. The way an athlete nourishes and cherishes his body is the way a husband is to tend to his wife. The way an athlete tends to his body is the way a husband tends to his wife, is the way Christ tends to the Christian. Jesus nourishes and cherishes the believer.

When Paul writes about the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, Paul is writing about his experience of being nourished and cherished by Christ. Jesus is the trustworthy and glorious king! By studying the Word of Jesus and by investing in the church of Jesus, Paul grew in his appreciation for Jesus (Col 2:1-3). The surpassing worth of knowing Jesus is the experience of loving the Jesus who nourishes and cherishes us.

So, how do we know this Jesus? Philippians 3:8-11 show us a dedication and devotion to focus our hearts and lives on Jesus. Colossians 2:1-3 show us a dedication and devotion to help others focus their hearts and lives on Jesus. You will not experience the surpassing worth of Jesus while chasing after the world. We will grow in our experience and knowledge of the riches of Christ as we focus on him and as we struggle to help others focus on him. Christ is most often found by those devoted to the Word, prayer, and witness.

These Christians in Acts 12 lived lives in pursuit of satisfaction in Christ. Nothing compares to knowing Jesus and making him known. Jesus is the disciple’s treasure.

From Philippians 3, now in quick succession, are the Christian’s priorities. We want to

  • Gain Christ

The Christ we know is the Christ we want more of. Athletes make great sacrifices in order to gain the prize. Christians make great sacrifices in order to gain Christ. Christian, what are you giving up or laying aside in order to make more room in your heart and schedule for Christ? Through the Word and witness we find the Jesus worth living and dying for. We want to gain Christ, so we are ruled by

  • Faith in Christ

According to Philippians 3:9, Christians reject the idea of making themselves righteous before God. We reject our own righteousness in order to focus on the righteousness of Christ. The primary way Jesus nourishes and cherishes us is by washing us and giving us his record of righteousness. Jesus takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. Jesus’ goal is to present us to himself without sin. Is your goal, upon your death, to be presented to Christ without sin? Do you hope in the holiness that only Jesus can provide?

You know Jesus is your treasure when you despise the sin that will keep you from him. You know you treasure Jesus when you rejoice over the righteousness he gives you. It is the very righteousness of Christ that makes us acceptable to Christ. We want to gain Christ, so we put our faith in the work of Christ. We treasure his righteousness and this means

  • Sharing in Christ’s sufferings

I think it is common knowledge that you find an animal by following it’s tracks. If you want to get to the animal, you have to follow the path the animal is on. Here is a profoundly simple question: how do we get to where Christ is? How do we get to Jesus? We get to Jesus by following his tracks. We get to where Jesus is by walking the path Jesus walked and Jesus walked a path of suffering. Jesus picked up his cross, the very means of his death, and Jesus commands us to pick up our crosses daily. We are called to daily pick up the means of our deaths in order that we may gain Christ. Jesus nourishes and cherishes us so that we are able to carry the cross.

So let’s be clear that following Christ will be costly. Let’s be equally clear that in light of the fullness of the presence of Christ, every cost will be finally and fully felt as the tossing away of garbage. Where are you sharing in Christ’s suffering? Where are you paying the cost? Where are you laying down your life? Remind yourself this is Jesus’ path, and in the end, when you see Jesus face to face, the costs will all be worth it and finally no cost at all.

The disciple’s treasure is not found in old age, abundant wealth, or great accomplishments. The disciple’s treasure is Christ and Christ is found through resurrection. Our desire is to be

  • Resurrected with Christ

Maybe you’re like me and you forget that these are cross-carrying days. Our path moves towards death so that ultimately we will rise again unto eternal life with Jesus. These days are supposed to hurt and be hard, but these days are supposed to be marked by the nourishing and cherishing knowledge of Christ. Knowing the all-surpassing worth of Christ, according to the Word and in the everyday realities of life, we press on toward death in order that we might attain the resurrection from the dead. The path to ultimate joy is through dependence, death, and resurrection. It is profoundly simple that those who protect their lives will lose them but those who lose their lives will find them.

Jesus is the disciple’s treasure and Jesus is worth dying for. In fact, gaining Jesus requires death. So, why do Christians not commit suicide? Why not end the suffering and go straight to glory? What the life of Christ and the book of Acts show us is that the way to knowing Christ is by sacrificing so that others know Christ. My joy in Jesus is directly tied to your joy in Jesus. Building your joy in Jesus builds my joy in Jesus. Ignoring your joy in Jesus decreases my joy in Jesus. We live in pursuit of greater joy in Jesus. We don’t commit suicide precisely because we are truly and really after joy. We want others to rejoice with us.

Underneath the threats, arrests, beatings, and executions in the book of Acts is this truth

II. Our neighbors meeting Jesus is worth dying for

It is crucial for us to understand that our brothers and sisters were not suffering because of their private devotion to Jesus or because of their commitment to excellence at work. These did not suffer because of their morality or ethics.

  • Christians were persecuted because of their witness

Look again at Acts 12:1, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.” Herod Agrippa was dedicated to inflicting physical pain on Christians because they were telling people about Christ the treasure and calling people to repent, believe, and worship Jesus. A faithful church is gathers, worships, and goes out to witness so others will join in the gathering and the worshipping and go out to witness. Disciples make disciples. Christians make Christians, Worshippers make worshippers. Herod targeted these people.

Who was this Herod? This is the grandson of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born. It was Herod the Great who had all the three year old boys killed. It was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who had John the Baptist executed and who conspired with Pilate to have Jesus executed. The nut has not fallen far from the tree now when we see Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great and nephew of Herod Antipas, persecuting Christians. Violent hands refer to arrest and beating.

Herod Agrippa was courting favor from Jewish leaders in order to solidify his rule. The way to win favor with the Jews was attacking the enemy of the Jews. Who did the Jews despise? The Jews were after those people who were witnesses to the righteous life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus. Christians were not being persecuted for what they did in the privacy of their own homes. Christians were being persecuted because they were urging their neighbors to repent and worship Jesus. In Acts 12, James is next.  

  • James was martyred because of his witness

Look with me at Acts 12:2, “Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword.” Luke is painfully succinct on this point. It is a fair assumption that as Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist with the sword so also Herod Agrippa beheaded James with the sword.

Who is this James? This is James the brother of John. So, this isn’t James the brother of John the Baptist. This is James the brother of John, the sons of Zebedee. These are the same James and John who ask to have the two seats of honor at Jesus’ right and left (Mt 20:21). Jesus doesn’t promise those seats because it belongs to the Father to assign those seats. What Jesus does promise, however, is that James and John will drink Jesus’ cup of suffering and death for the salvation of others.

Now, James and John do not die to atone for anyone’s sins. James and John die as witnesses to Jesus who atones for the sins of the world. You and I may do the same.

Connect the dots. James found the treasure of life with Jesus and James rested in the promise of resurrection with Jesus. Therefore, James was devoted to increasing his own joy by introducing others to joy in Jesus. It was this joy, it was this witness, that got James killed. James followed in Jesus’ steps. James shared in Jesus’ suffering becoming like Jesus in his death. James’ soul is now with Jesus in paradise and someday soon his body will be resurrected and then body and soul James will enjoy the fullness of the presence of God.

Christians were persecuted because they were witnesses. James was killed because he was a witness. And,

  • Peter was arrested because of his witness

Acts 12:3, “and when Herod saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.”

It was Passover that started the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. Like Jesus who had to be executed before the feast, so now Peter must wait to be executed after the feast. Herod and the Jewish leaders had enough awareness to not commit their grievous sins on holy days.

Herod also must have known the story of Peter’s previous miraculous escape from the temple prison in Acts 5. Therefore, Acts 12:4, “when Herod had seized Peter, 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.” Peter is being guarded by four sets of four soldiers spending his hours chained in between two soldiers. The soldiers would rotate to stay fresh and alert. Herod wants to prove his power and keep Peter for death. As we will see next week, God has other plans for Peter.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Why was Peter arrested? Peter was arrested because he was a witness to Jesus. Here now is our inescapable point and trouble for our consciences

  • Christians are witnesses

In Acts 1:8, Jesus promised his disciples the power of the Holy Spirit. But what is Jesus’ purpose in giving Christians the Holy Spirit? Is Jesus merely after hard workers who do excellent work? Is Jesus merely after moral people who do what is right? The way we work, and the product of our work, are important to Jesus but not everything. Jesus gives his Holy Spirit to Christians in order to empower our witness. By work and words we witness to Jesus. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Friend, why are you dejected or depressed? It may be that you have been drawn away to love and serve another master. Your joy in Jesus has grown cold, your witness has stopped, and so you’re in a downward spiral. It may be that you have given yourself to work, but you have left off the witness. Jesus is saying to us, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:4-5). Love and works are distinct but inseparable. Love must have works and works must have love. The key is not to give up the work or the witness. The key is to fan love into a flame for work and witness. Knowing Jesus fuels our love. Sharing that love increases our joy.

One final thought from Acts 12 before we launch from this gathering out into the world for witness.

III. God is in control

Imagine, your friends are being arrested. Your elders and teachers are being executed. What should you do?

  • Earnestly pray to the God who is in control

Acts 12:5, “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”

This should not imply that earnest prayer wasn’t made for James to God by the church. The church’s consistent devotion to prayer defeats this idea. Look again at verse 5. What did the church do? The church prayed for Peter. Who did the church pray to? The church prayed to God. How did the church pray to God? The church prayed earnestly. The church labored in unceasing prayer.

The church who knew the Ephesians 5 all surpassing worth of Christ also knew the Ephesians 6 call to unceasing prayer. Ephesians 6:18, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” Keep at prayer.

The world, the Romans, and the Jews attacked the church with arrest, persecution, and execution. The church responded with worship gatherings, joyful witness, and unceasing prayer. This is a call to be less of a keyboard warrior and more of a prayer warrior. This is a call to consider that our ministries may be weak and fruitless because that is all our own strength can provide. It is God who controls kings (he will strike down Herod). It is God who controls jails (he will set Peter free). It is God who resurrects the dead (the gates of hell will not prevail against James or us). Cry out to the God who rules over all.

We are going to respond to God’s Word with the commitment to follow Jesus through life and death. The commitment to follow Jesus is the commitment to seek our joy in him. The commitment to follow Jesus is the commitment to be a witness to him. The commitment to follow Jesus is the commitment to be faithful unto death. May our joy in Jesus surpass our sorrow in this world. Let’s commit together to follow Jesus.  

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