Main Point: The sovereign God always does what is right
Last week, in Acts 12:1-5, we looked at the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters. The reason for the witness is explained in Philippians 3. We talk about Jesus because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus our Lord. It is our knowledge and experience of the worth of Jesus Christ that fuels our witness. Jesus is better!
Back in the day, Christians like you and me were being arrested and beaten because they shared the gospel with their neighbors and urged them to repent of their sins and worship Jesus. Still today, many of our brothers and sisters are being arrested and beaten because of their witness. Some witnesses were arrested and beaten; others, like the apostle James, were arrested and executed. Continuing in Acts 12, we will see that some like Peter were arrested and then miraculously delivered from death.
How should James’s family respond to his execution? How should James’s family respond to Peter’s escape? How should the church think about the execution of one leader and the escape of another? Why is that one beaten and released, that one executed, and that one freed? Why does this person get Covid-19 but is asymptomatic? Why does that person get Covid-19, suffer for 10 days, and then recover? Why does yet another person get Covid-19 and die? I want you to see that Acts 12 raises questions about God’s sovereignty.
Maybe you have asked the “Why me?” question. Imagine James is your husband, brother, parent, or child. You are reeling over his execution just a week ago. Now you are gathered with your brothers and sisters praying for Peter and he miraculously appears with a wonderful story of God’s supernatural rescue. Why does James die and Peter go free? Is this fair? Why me?
Let’s look to the text and try for some help with these questions. Read Acts 12:1-19
I. An unexpected deliverance (6-11)
Peter is sleeping, on the night before his execution, chained to two soldiers. But he’s not just sleeping; this is a good deep restful sleep and it requires some effort to rouse him. What’s going on and how do we learn to sleep like this?
- Remember the storm
Luke wrote the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 8, he tells the story of Jesus calming a storm. Read Luke 8:22-25. Jesus’ trust in his Father’s loving sovereignty gave him the ability to sleep in the storm.
In Acts 12, Peter looks a lot more like Jesus than he did his old self. Instead of the panic, Peter is enjoying sleep. The situations are equally terrifying. What has changed? What has changed is Peter now has faith in Jesus so that Peter looks and acts like Jesus. Peter has the Holy Spirit and the Spirit is working peace and giving comfort. Peter knows and trusts his loving sovereign Father. The angel doesn’t show up and ask a frantic Peter in the jail cell, “Where is your faith?” Peter has learned to rest in Christ by studying the history of God’s faithfulness. Peter has learned to rest in Christ by daily trusting Christ with the small things. History and experience come together to put Peter to sleep.
If you are frantic today worried about so many things, remember your history. Think of Jesus sleeping in the storm. Think of Peter sleeping in the cell. Their God is your God and God hasn’t changed. God is loving. God is sovereign. Remember the storm and
- Remember the promise
Remembering the promise makes Peter’s deep sleep even more glorious. After Jesus’ resurrection he promised Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you were you do not want to go.” Then we get the explanation, “This Jesus said to show by what kind of death Peter was to glorify God” (John 21:18-19).
Remember the promise, means remember that Jesus told Peter he will be taken where he does not want to go; he will lose the freedom to care for himself, and ultimately he will be killed. Jesus essentially told Peter, “You will be arrested and men will kill you.”
Fast forward to Acts 12 and Peter is preparing for death. It is highly likely that Peter is thinking to himself, “This is it. This is how I go out following Jesus.” So, what does Peter do on the night before his death? Peter gets a good night’s sleep. How? Tasting the surpassing worth of Jesus Christ, Peter counted his own life as rubbish. This is Paul saying, “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:23-24).
When we say, “We exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ who love God and love others,” we need to understand that we are seeking to transform one another into a woman or man who treasures Jesus Christ and seeks to make him known. We don’t want decisions for Jesus. We want disciples who are daily dying in the pursuit to know Jesus and make him known. Remember the storms, remember the promises, and
- Celebrate the grace
Put your good eye on Acts 12:6 and we’ll work through verse 11 celebrating God’s grace. This is a wonderful story. Verse 6, it’s the night before Herod plans to kill Peter and Peter is sleeping. Peter is chained to two soldiers and likely the other two are guarding his cell door. Between Peter and freedom are two more guard posts and a heavy iron gate. This does not look good, until the angel of the Lord shows up.
Verse 7, “And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell.” This is like what happened at Jesus’ birth except when Jesus was born it was the angel of the Lord plus thousands of thousands of angels. Thinking about the angel of the Lord and the light in the cell, it looks like the light is the glory of God shining forth (Lk 2:9). There is an angel and glorious light and still Peter sleeps! The angel strikes or smotes Peter on the side. This is the word used to describe how Moses killed the Egyptian (Acts 7:24). It’s the same word used to describe how the angel of the Lord kills king Herod in Acts 12:23. This is a strong blow delivered to Peter’s ribs. Get up!
The chains fall off Peter and it’s like he’s in some sleepy fog. The angel has to tell him to get dressed, tie his shoes, wrap up in his cloak, and let’s get going. Verse 9, Peter went out and followed the angel, but Peter thinks it is all a vision. Peter is not looking for or expecting a jail break! This is not a perfectly timed well-orchestrated escape; this is a miraculous deliverance. This is God to the rescue.
They pass the first and second guard posts. When they come to the heavy gate between the prison and the city, the gate supernaturally opens for them of its own accord. After Peter and the angel get enough distance from the gate the angel leaves him. It’s at this point, verse 11, that Peter finally comes to his senses and realizes what is happening is real; this is no dream! James is dead and Peter is free.
The Lord has done this. The sovereign Lord has overruled Herod and the people. This is an unexpected release. Now,
II. An unexpected answer (12-17)
We are told in verse 5 that while Peter was in prison the church was praying
- The church was praying for Peter
Now, if Peter wasn’t lying awake expecting to be released and if this prayer group doesn’t believe it when Peter shows up at their door, what exactly are they praying for?
The church’s instinct was to pray Psalm 2 after Peter and John were released from prison in Acts 4. The heart of Psalm 2 is the affirmation of the sovereignty of God over the Gentile’s rage and the people’s plots. Just as God’s sovereign hand and predestined plan had ruled over the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, so God’s sovereign hand and predestined plan ruled over the church in Acts 4. So also, I think this group of believers in Acts 12 is resting in the sovereign hand and predestined plan of God. They continue praying for God to grant his servants boldness to preach the word. They pray for signs and wonders to be done in Jesus’ name. The church was praying for Peter.
Look back at Acts 12:12-17 with me and let’s
- Celebrate the grace
Peter apparently knows the house of Mary is a regular place for Christians to gather to break bread and praise God (Acts 2:46-47). Peter is not disappointed because many are gathered together and are praying. He begins to knock and a servant girl, a slave girl named Rhoda, came to answer the door. Verse 14, Rhoda, who had spent a great deal of time listening to Peter preach and teach, recognizes Peter’s voice and in her joy runs to tell the others. The problem is she leaves Peter standing outside exposed to rearrest. When Rhoda brings the report that Peter is standing outside, she is accused of being crazy. But she won’t give in and keeps insisting that Peter is really standing outside knocking on the door. Their best explanation, verse 15, is it must be Peter’s angel.
Now a quick word about angels. What are angels? A good definition is found in Hebrews 1:14. Angels are ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation. Angels are created beings meaning they have not always existed; the eternal Triune God created angels at a point in time. Angels are created and they are spirits meaning they don’t have physical bodies. We need to understand that angels and humans are different. Angels can look like humans and act like humans, but angels do not become humans. It is also true that humans do not become angels. When you or your grandma die, heaven does not gain an angel; heaven gains a human.
Angels are ministering spirits sent out by God to serve those who will be saved. Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps round those who fear him, and delivers them.” Psalm 91:11 says, “God will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” Psalm 103:20 commands the angels to bless the Lord. Angels are his mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word.” Angels are commanded by God to accomplish God’s will and angels have the strength to follow through.
From passages like Acts 12:15 and Matthew 18:10 we get the idea of guardian angels. Jesus said, “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Looking at what the Bible says about the angels of churches (Rev 2-3), and maybe the angels of kingdoms (Dan 10:20), we need to understand that our Father is keeping close watch on each of us his children and he always delivers what we need. Oftentimes, God uses angels to help us. Do each of us have an individual angel assigned to us? I’m willing to say maybe. Does each Christian have the constant and careful watch of our heavenly Father? Beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Back to Acts 12. These brothers and sisters doubt Rhoda and claim its Peter’s angel outside. Peter keeps knocking, the people stop arguing, and they open up and let him in. Verse 16, the people are amazed. Peter calms them and quiets them so he can tell them all that happened. Notice verse 17; it is the Lord who brought Peter out of the prison. We should take our clues from Peter; Peter is far more concerned about God than he is the angel.
Peter’s final instructions are to tell James and the brothers all that has happened; that is James the brother of Jesus. Peter then departs and goes to another place. We don’t know where he goes exactly. Possibly he goes to Antioch. Possibly he goes to Corinth. We know in Acts 15 that Peter is back in Jerusalem. Peter takes flight in Acts 12 like Saul took flight in Acts 9 like many Christians did in Acts 8.
So, Peter receives an unexpected deliverance from jail and the church receives an unexpected answer to their prayers. How do we make sense of this?
III. God does more than we can ask or think
Ephesians 3:14-21 record a powerful prayer and a powerful truth. Turn to Ephesians 3:14 with me. (Read Ephesians 3:14-21).
We pray for one another to be filled with the fullness of God. When the Spirit of God and the Son of God fill a person then that person experiences the depths of the love of Christ. The love of Christ is bigger, better, and stronger than we can imagine. We need the Holy Spirit so that we can understand and handle the power of Jesus’ love. That’s a big prayer request, cause us to be filled with the knowledge of Jesus’ love, but there’s more. God is able to not just fill a person with powerful love; God is able to do more than we can ask or think. The all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God is not limited by our asking. So grab onto this
- God is not bound to our plans
If you were God, what would you do to the soldiers who were guarding Peter? Verses 18 and 19 tell us the soldiers were interrogated and executed because of Peter’s escape.
If you were God, what would you do to James the brother of John? Would you secure his miraculous deliverance like you did for Peter? Would you do better than god the fool and make sure that everything is fair and right according to you?
Church, before we suffer, before our hands are bound and our heads are severed from our bodies, we need to wrestle with and submit to the sovereignty of God. God is not bound to our plans or to our prayers.
Listen to Psalm 115:1-3, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Ajith Fernando tells the story of John G. Patton, a Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific. One night hostile tribesmen surrounded his mission headquarters, intent on burning it and killing Paton and his wife. The two of them prayed all through that terror-filled night, asking God to deliver them. When daylight came they were surprised to see the attackers leave. A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Christ, and Paton had an opportunity to ask him what kept them from burning the house and killing them. The chief replied, “Who were all those men who were there with you?” Paton said, “There were no men there; only my wife and I.” But the chief said that they had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They seemed to circle the mission station, so the tribesmen were afraid to attack. Paton realized that God had sent his angels to protect them.
But John Paton did not always experience God’s provision in that way. His first wife died as a result of problems during childbirth. Seventeen days later the child also died. That happened early in his missionary career, and he had no one to comfort him. He even had to dig the graves for his wife and child. But he writes about that difficult time: “I was never altogether forsaken. The ever merciful God sustained me to lay the precious dust of my loved ones in the same quiet grave. But for Jesus, and the fellowship he [gave] me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave. Jesus was there and he gave sufficient grace—grace enough for him to stay on working among those people and reap a great harvest for the kingdom (NIVAC, 370).
Think about it, Peter, these Christians, and James were all faithful. Sometimes we are like Peter and we receive a miraculous gift of help. Sometimes we are like these Christians in Jerusalem and we receive a beating. Sometimes we are like James and we die for the sake of others hearing the gospel. In every situation we are called to trust the God who rescues and praise the God who does all that he pleases.
In your dark night, in your suffering and loss, may you fight the desire to turn away from God. I pray you fight because your brothers and sisters are with you and we help bear the burden. I pray you fight because you experience the loving powerful presence of Christ in your difficulty. God is glorious. Whatever God does is right. God does whatever pleases him. Let us set our hope on God.