A sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church, West Melbourne, FL on March April 19, 2015 by Pastor Dale Raether
Who would have thought that there would be persecutions today like there were in Bible times! I know this world is evil. But I always thought Satan’s main attack against Christians would be to get us so focused on the here and now, that we wouldn’t care that much about God and His Word. Satan has also been attacking the reliability of the Bible through evolution and modern science. Satan’s tactics are working. The 1800s were known as the great missionary century. Christians all over the world were convinced that the only way to heaven is through faith in Christ. Since there were many who hadn’t even heard of Christ, Christians would sacrifice every spare dollar they could find in order to send out more missionaries. I know this is an idle question, but if Christians had continued to send out missionaries in the 1900s the way they did in the 1800s, would there even be an ISIL today? Maybe, but if Christians were in the majority in many of those countries, ISIL wouldn’t have the power to do the things they’re doing. So now what? In our text this morning we see how the early Christians dealt with persecution. They did three things: 1. They prayed. 2. They trusted. 3. The kept spreading the Gospel.
1. How to Deal with Persecutions – Pray
We read in our text: It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. – Acts 12:1-3 The year is 44, a little more than 10 years have passed since Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s been a change of governors. Pilate was removed for incompetence and exiled to a tiny island, where he committed suicide. In 41 Herod helped Claudius become the new emperor of Rome, and as his reward was Herod given Pilate’s old territory to in addition to his own.
Like Pilate before him, Herod wanted cooperation from the Jewish leaders. These were the same leaders, who had Jesus put to death, and then a little later, Stephen, who was the first martyr. Herod, it says, was intent on persecuting the Christians. He would give them a choice. Deny Christ or be executed, just like ISIL is doing today. Anyway, it had to be shocking when Herod had James run through with a sword. James had been one of Jesus’ closest apostles, and had witnessed His Transfiguration as well as His agony in the Garden. If Jesus would let James die, when there was still so much more he could have done for the Kingdom, then no one was safe. In fact the next person to be arrested was Peter.
We read on in our text: This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. Acts 12:4 This was the same time of year Jesus was crucified. That had to be on everyone’s mind, and there was no doubt about the outcome of this trial. Peter would be publically executed. Also, just to make sure nothing went wrong, Herod ordered 16 Roman soldiers to guard Peter. I think it’s safe to assume, that these 16 would have been the best of the best.
We read on: So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. – Acts 12:5 In the original Greek they prayed intensely, without ceasing. Maybe you’ve prayed like that at times too, because you were going through something that was especially serious. If only we would pray like that all the time! For example in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, Hallowed be your name, we’re asking God to cause His Word to be taught in its truth and purity throughout the whole world, and that Christians everywhere would live their faith. In Your Kingdom Come, we’re asking God to bless His Word in the hearts of people, so that they grow in faith and in the fruits of faith. I suspect that when Peter was in prison, the church was praying, Lead us not into temptation, extra hard, that God would protect Peter in his faith, and that he not cave as he had done in the past. They also would have prayed, Your will be done, and, deliver us from evil, that if would be best for the Kingdom, that Peter would be rescued. From the Christians’ reaction later on when Peter came to their house, I don’t think any of them expected to see Peter again this side of heaven. So, now, what’s one way to deal with the persecutions that we’re hearing about in the news lately? Pray! In answer to our prayers, God still works miracles. Things may seem impossible, but with God all things are possible.
2. How to deal with persecutions – Trust!
Our text reads: The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. Acts 12:6-10 Did you catch how impossible it was for Peter to escape? Chained to two soldiers. Two guard stations with seven soldiers each, and three sets of iron gates. Did you also catch what Peter was doing the night before he was to be executed? He was sleeping like a baby! Would you be able to do that? Wouldn’t you be scared? Wouldn’t you be wondering, why isn’t God rescuing me? And when I do die, is Jesus really going say to take me to heaven?
Peter, the sinner and the denier, had no doubts about that. He had witnessed the perfect life Jesus lived in his behalf. He had watched as Jesus paid for his sins on the cross. And He saw the Father’s acceptance of all Jesus had done for Him, when He raised Jesus bodily from the dead. Peter could sleep like a baby because of the faith God had given him. God wants to give you and me a faith that’s just as strong. We might wonder, then why doesn’t God let us see the Risen Lord as Peter got to? God doesn’t work that way. God gives us confidence, and takes away our fears through His Word. And so, as you come to services, and as you attend Bible classes, and as you read your Bible or Meditations as home, God is working the miracle of a strong faith in you also, yes, even strong enough to face persecution, should it ever come to that.
We pray it doesn’t here. But may the persecutions others are suffering in different parts of the world wake us up so that we stop taking God’s Word for granted, but that we keep putting on the full armor of God for ourselves. Also, because there are so many, who are perishing and they don’t even know they’re perishing:
3. The best way to deal with persecutions – Keep spreading the Gospel
Our text reads: Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.” When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” – Acts 12:11-15 There was a superstition in those days that when a person was about to die, the family might see his guardian angel. They were sure Peter was going to be executed. Incidentally this John Mark is the same Mark, who would later write the Gospel of Mark, and had spent many years on missionary journeys with Paul and also with Peter.
I wonder if Peter caught the irony of what was going on that night. When he denied his Lord 10 years earlier, a servant girl had let Him in. Now, Peter stands firm in his faith and a servant girl won’t let him in. We read on: But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place. – Acts 12:16-17 What affect did this night have on the early church? They were encouraged. They were encouraged to keep praying. They were encouraged to leave all things in God’s hands. And they were encouraged more than ever to keep spreading the Gospel. That same night Peter left to preach and teach in other places, because God doesn’t want us to be stupid, and staying in Jerusalem with Herod looking for him would have been stupid. So, for the next 20 years Peter continued doing mission work through out Asia Minor, and was finally martyred in Rome by being crucified upside down. That did not happen because God couldn’t stop it, or because He didn’t care about Peter. This was God’s way of bringing Peter home. But just as God used Peter’s miraculous rescue 20 years earlier to strengthen many in their faith, we can count on it that God worked through Peter’s death to save even more.
And now here are the people I really feel sorry for in our text. Remember those 16 soldiers? We read: In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.Acts 12:18-19. I hope those 16 had had a chance to hear the Gospel before they died. They might have, but if not, they’re in hell with Herod. So also today, all those suicide bombers we read about, they’re in hell, and so will be all those who convert to Islam, because they’re afraid or because they don’t know any better. Finally this much I have to say about the persecutions that are going on today. They have woken us up. They have made us realize more than ever that God is real, and Satan is real, and the war between God and Satan is real. But let’s not be discouraged. Rather let’s keeping praying, trusting, and spreading the Gospel, until we see all the angels in their heavenly glory! Amen.