It was the year 44, and the church had grown in and around Jerusalem. Christians faced persecutions, to be sure, but in general, the church was able to grow and to flourish. Reigning over the region of Judea was King Herod Agrippa I, a generally kindly man who had a strong affinity for the Jews. It was Agrippa I who persuaded Caligula not to put his statue in the Jewish temple in 41.
Perhaps to please the Jews, Agrippa I did two things that would have terrified the early church in Jerusalem.
Acts 12:1-4 – 1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 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.
Consider what you would have felt like had you been a Christian in that young church in Jerusalem. Yes, things had looked good for a while. But, now, for whatever reason, the government has really turned against you. James, one of Jesus’ 3 best friends, was put to death. Then the king had Peter arrested. Clearly he intended to kill Peter as well.
Acts 12:5- So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
On the night before Peter was to be executed, God sent an angel into Peter’s cell. The angel removed Peter’s chains, led him past the guards, and brought him out of the prison.
Acts 12:11 – 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.”
God had done a miracle. God had guarded one of the early church’s leaders. God had preserved Peter’s life, a life that God would use for another two decades before Peter’s martyrdom.
If you know the funny part of the story, you know that, when Peter arrived at the home of Mark’s mother, Mary, the people did not believe the servant girl when she said Peter was at the gate.
Acts 12:13-16 – 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed.
Many a sermon has been preached here on the faithlessness of the people in the house. Why would they not have believed that Peter was there? Why would they not believe that God could rescue one of his apostles from the hand of a political ruler bent on his destruction?
But, dear Christians, how well would we have believed? How well do we believe in the power of God to overcome rulers today? How well to we believe that powerful political plots are as nothing in the sight of God? How well do we believe that the hearts of kings are as redirectable as water in God’s hand (Prov. 21:1)?
We are living in a hardened and hardening culture. No, the government is not on our side. In general, we face the kinds of things that are scary. We know that laws are being changed to restrict religious freedoms. Powerful cultural voices are speaking out against any who will not celebrate the supreme autonomy of mankind over any biblical commands. And, yes, it seems likely that things will get harder.
But, as I was reminded when listening to Michael Reeves’ presentation from the 2017 Ligonier National Conference, “After Darkness, Light,” the decline of our culture is not inevitable. God has checked the decline of western culture in the past. God did a work 500 years ago in the reformation that we simply would never have believed possible had we lived in that time. An. In Acts 12, God rescued Peter from certain death at the hands of a powerful king. God is not defeated by cultures or by politics.
We cannot guarantee that our culture will turn. We cannot be assured of rescue from our own prison cells should we be thrown into them. But, may we not be so foolish as to assume that anyone who believes that God can change our culture and check our slide into depravity is out of their minds. May we live confidently in the reality that, if suffering comes our way, the Lord will sustain us. But may we not assume that victory is impossible. If God could walk Peter out of that cell, he can walk us out of any cultural decline.