Study 14: Deliverance versus judgment – Acts 12
Acts 12:1-19. This chapter is exciting for a number of reasons. First, it marks the watershed between local and international evangelism. The end of this chapter clearly draws the line under Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and sets the stage for Acts 13 – the transition into taking the gospel into the rest of the world. Secondly, it demonstrates to us the power of prayer: something that we have either ignored or forgotten in our busy, everyday world where we compete in every area of our lives. Thirdly, it demonstrates the absolute authority of God over human and personal structures, power kingdoms and all other authority. Nothing in this world happens either by chance or without the knowledge of God. Nothing takes Him by surprise!
He knows everything about us and every single thought we have. (Psalm 139:4) He is well aware of the problems we are going through and He is waiting to help. However, He needs us to take a step towards Him. We cannot manage on our own – in isolation, so we need to give up and ask God to step into our circumstances. He will do just that, and at the end of our life when we look back, we will be surprised at just how far He has carried us and supported us.
First it was the Jewish religious authorities, who moved against the Believers, then it was Saul with their backing, and now we find King Herod himself taking up the cause against those who follow Jesus. First he killed the apostle James, John’s brother, and in typical bully-boy tactics, when he discovered that it pleased the Jews, he thought he would do the same to another “important” believer: Peter. (Acts 12:1-4)
The first death had been at the hands of Herod. This time, Herod intended that the Jews would execute Peter.
This King Herod was Herod Agrippa I, the son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great (who reconstructed the Temple). His sister was Herodias, who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist, Mark 6:17-28.
Herod Agrippa I was partly Jewish. The Romans had appointed him to rule over most of Palestine, including the territories of Galilee, Perea, Judea, and Samaria. (See the map of political boundaries in Lesson 10.) He persecuted the Christians in order to please the Jewish leaders who opposed them, hoping that would solidify his position. Agrippa I died suddenly in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:20-23). His death was also recorded by the historian Josephus.
But God had other ideas, and He let the other believers have a hand in His work. While they were praying for Peter, amazing things happened. (Acts 12:5-10)
First, note that this was not just a one-off little prayer or even a one-off powerful prayer. The believers prayed for Peter ALL the time he was in prison. They prayed for his safety and they prayed in earnest. They knew that the only Person Who could help was God Himself.
Prison is not a very pleasant experience today. It was even less so in those days and, more especially, as Peter was on death row. Don’t forget that word had gone around the authorities that some mighty strange things happened when believers and prisons were put together. When we studied Acts 5, we read that: “the apostles did many remarkable miracles among the people… and more and more believers were added to the Lord.” The High Priest and his relatives and friends among the Sadducees reacted with violent jealousy and arrested the apostles. They put them in the public jail. But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail and brought them out. Then he told them, “Go over to the Temple and preach about this Life!” (Acts 5:12-20)
So this time, Herod had taken no chances. He placed Peter under the guard of sixteen soldiers. On the night before his execution, Peter lay between two of them – asleep! If that had been us, would we have been asleep? Not only was Peter asleep, but when the angel came to wake him up, he had to slap him on the side to get a response! Peter had long since ceased to worry about what man could do to him. He had seen the glory of the risen Lord, and he was convinced that what was in store for him was far greater than anything any man could do to try to destroy him, Matthew 10:28-31
When Peter awoke, he thought he was dreaming. He heard the angel say, “Quickly! Get up!” and he obeyed.
It is in obedience that God chooses to work with us. We cannot expect Him to operate favourably in our life if we are opposing what He has asked us to do. Remember Jonah. He is a good example of what God will do with one person who chooses to go in the opposite direction to the way that He has asked them to go.
Jonah went through a storm, then had to own up to the sailors that it was because he was running away from God that the storm had come and was in the process of wrecking their boat. (Jonah 1:8-12)
He was thrown over the side, swallowed by a “large fish”, regurgitated on to the beach (Jonah 2:7-10) and then returned to do what God had asked him to do in the first place. (Jonah 3:1-3)
As Peter was obedient to the word of God through the angel, the chains fell off! Even if we are in the prison of our circumstances, as we are obedient to the word of God, the chains that bind our heart, mind and circumstances will fall off. We may not be physically released from prison, but the real us, our spirit will be set free to worship God and to communicate with the Holy Spirit, and as we follow His leading, we will be amazed at the different way we approach things.
The angel then gave him more instructions and again Peter was obedient. When he was ready and equipped to go, the angel and he left together. The prison, which just a few minutes before had been so secure, opened up before them. Nobody stopped them as they walked out! As we continue to be obedient to what God instructs us to do, amazing things will begin to open up in our life, and we, like Peter, will be able to look back over what God has done in our life and see the amazing things He has done for us. Peter’s experience was like this as he realized what had happened! Acts 12:11
What experiences of God’s mercy, protection and deliverance have we had? Perhaps we are in a place that we would rather not be because we have not done what God asked of us in the first place; if that is the case, go back to God, repent, ask Him to forgive us, and start living our life expecting Him to respond in our situation!
Why did Jonah not want to give God’s message to Nineveh to repent? The Jews did not want to share God’s message with Gentile nations in Jonah’s day, just as they resisted that role in Paul’s day. They had forgotten their original purpose as a nation – to be a blessing to the rest of the world by sharing God’s message with other nations:
“Then the angel of God called again to Abraham from heaven. 16 ‘I, the Lord, have sworn by myself that because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your beloved son from me, 17 I will bless you with incredible blessings and multiply your descendants into countless thousands and millions, like the stars above you in the sky, and like the sands along the seashore. They will conquer their enemies, 18 and your offspring will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth-all because you have obeyed me.”’ Genesis 22:15-18 LB.
Jonah thought that God should not freely give his salvation to a wicked pagan nation. Yet this is exactly what God does for all who come to him today in faith.
The angel did not just leave Peter alone once he had walked through the gate, instead he walked with him a little way away from the danger point, so that when Peter finally realised what had just happened was real and not just a dream, he did not have to concern himself immediately with what was going on behind him – that would come just a little later – he could plan what he was going to do next, Acts 12:12.
John Mark was the disciple who wrote the Gospel of Mark, and his mother’s house was large enough to accommodate many believers as they met together. These believers were praying and even as they prayed, their prayers were answered, but when the answer arrived at the door, they didn’t believe it, Acts 12:13-15.
We should be people of faith who believe that God answers the prayers of those who want to do, and are doing, His will. When we pray, believe we will get an answer. And when the answer comes, we should not be surprised but be thankful! If we are praying about all the little things in our life and seeing answers and keeping a log of our answered prayers then we can encourage ourselves in the Lord when a circumstance imprisons us. ‘Let us then fearlessly and confidently and boldly draw near to the throne of grace (the throne of God’s unmerited favour to us sinners), that we may receive mercy [for our failures] and find grace to help in good time for every need [appropriate help and well-timed help, coming just when we need it]’, Hebrews 4:16 AMP. We can bring all things to the Father who loves us and only has our good in mind. As our prayers are answered our faith will increase and we will draw closer to Him and know Him better. If there are certain prayers that we cannot see being answered there is always an opportunity to ask the Father if we are not praying according to His will and for His perspective on the situation. Check out if there is any sin blocking our communication and anyone we have not forgiven. ‘For this reason I am telling you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe (trust and be confident) that it is granted to you, and you will [get it]. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and let it drop (leave it, let it go), in order that your Father Who is in heaven may also forgive you your [own] failings and shortcomings and let them drop’. Mark 11:24,25
Do you think the believers praying for Peter were remembering what Jesus had said about prayer? ‘Keep on asking and it will be given you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking [reverently] and [the door] will be opened to you. For everyone who keeps on asking receives; and he who keeps on seeking finds; and to him who keeps on knocking, [the door] will be opened’. Matthew 7:7-8 AMP. They certainly got the expected result!
Peter was left out in the cold while the believers discussed the possibility of what Rhoda had seen being true! But Peter was persistent, and eventually someone went to check! Maybe he was remembering what Jesus said about keeping on knocking! Acts 12:16-17. After they had got over their shock, can you imagine the time of testimony as Peter shared what had happened to him? The joy and excitement of seeing God do such amazing things would have been astonishing.
We should really expect God to answer our prayers when we pray. If we do not ask because we dare not believe that God would answer such challenging prayers, then we should remember what the Lord has said to us in His word. He actually wants us to pray – He encourages us to use His Name because all authority in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth has been given to Him: ‘At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything, for you can go directly to the Father and ask Him, and He will give you what you ask for because you use My name. You haven’t tried this before, but begin now. Ask, using My name, and you will receive, and your cup of joy will overflow’. John 16:23-24 LB. So what are we waiting for?
Meanwhile, Peter left for safer accommodation – somewhere where the Jewish and Roman authorities would find it hard to track him down. We need to be practical in our Christian lives also. There are times to be outspoken and times to remain quiet. When the disciples were imprisoned the first time (Acts 5), after the angel had released them, they went straight back on the street to preach. This time quiet was the requirement.
At daybreak when it was discovered that Peter was missing from the jail, there was a great commotion. No doubt they searched everywhere with no result. Finally, the worst happened. Herod sent for Peter. There was now nowhere for the guards to hide! They had to admit that he had escaped. Under Roman law, guards who allowed a prisoner to escape were subject to the same punishment the prisoner was to receive. Thus these 16 guards were sentenced to death. (Acts 12:19)
Although Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, the Romans made Caesarea their headquarters (see the map), so Herod left to live there for a while.
It appears that for some reason, Herod had fallen out with the authorities in the cities of Tyre and Sidon (see the map on the previous page). These were coastal cities, free and self-governing but economically dependent on Judea. We don’t know why Herod had quarreled with them, but now representatives from those cities were trying to appease his anger and had contacted his personal servant, Blastus, Acts 12:20-22
Herod was a politically motivated and self-opinionated man. He had to be in order to survive under the Roman occupation of the day. Whilst the Romans were prepared to delegate some authority to the local people in the form of ‘Kingships’ it was always on the proviso that strict control was kept. If there was insurrection, then the ‘King’ was called (or recalled) to Rome – and that was not a pleasant thing to happen.
This was the situation that Pontius Pilate found himself in at his trial of Jesus, when he was faced by the Jewish authorities and the people threatening to riot. ‘Then Pilate, afraid of a riot and anxious to please the people, released Barabbas to them, ordered Jesus flogged with a leaded whip, and handed him over to be crucified. Mark 15:11-15
So this day Herod made a speech to the delegation from Tyre and Sidon. For whatever reason, they treated this very proud man as a ‘god’. He believed it anyway; they really did not have to tell him. But when he heard their adulation, he received it with pride. Never, ever take the glory that is due to God alone. No man or self-proclaimed god or thing that people proclaim as a god could ever compare in any small way at all with the majesty and glory of the One True God, the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Herod’s problem was that he believed that he was every bit as in control of people’s destinies as God. And he suffered for it.
From a purely worldly point of view, Herod died a horrible death accompanied by intense pain; he was literally eaten alive, from the inside out, by worms. To be eaten by worms was considered to be one of the most disgraceful ways to die. Pride is a serious sin, and in this case, God chose to punish it immediately. God does not immediately punish all sin, but he will bring all to judgment Hebrews 9:27.
From a spiritual point of view, if you have not already done so, accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness today. No one can afford to wait! The Church grew rapidly because people saw the difference Jesus made to their lives. Acts 12:24
The imprisonment of Peter didn’t stop the growth of the Church one scrap. On the contrary, the Church was now being moved into a position where it would step out into the greatest challenge yet – the evangelisation of the Gentiles. Barnabas and Paul visited Jerusalem, and as soon as they had finished their business they took John Mark with them to Antioch.
From this point on, the explosion of Christianity knew no bounds. It crossed national and continental boundaries. The Church then could never have anticipated such a massive challenge. We are in a similar position in the Body of Christ in these days. We are on the edge of a revival so great that though you were told about it, you would never believe it. Be prepared for the greatest opportunity – ever!
Study 14: Deliverance versus judgment – Challenge Questions
Please complete all questions marked with * and then complete the rest of the study. The more you look in God’s word the more you will get out of it.
Read the chapter at the beginning of the week then you have time to meditate on it, rather than rushing! Make God’s word your number one priority.
1. *Read the Notes and the Bible Verses referred to in them. Highlight the points that ‘speak’ to you and share one with your group.
2. What do you think the believers would feel about Herod now coming against them? What do you think about his end?
3. *What is your overall impression about Peter’s time in prison and his miraculous deliverance?
Read Acts 13:1-15
4. *What changes in the location of outreach occur from Chapter 13 onwards? Apart from Jesus, who is the person who takes up the main role in the Book of Acts from this point? What happens to his name?
5. Describe who is in the Church in Antioch and where do they come from?
6. The disciples were told to preach the Gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth, but they were given the instruction to wait in Jerusalem until they were filled with the Holy Spirit. How do you think this relates to Christians in the Church today?
7. *Do you think it is possible for people to be called only to the local church, and for those who have been called to the wider church to worship in the same location? Give reasons for your opinion.
8. Why is it important that the Leaders of every Church are walking in their giftings of the five-fold ministry? (Apostles, Prophets, Teachers, Pastors and Evangelists – Ephesians 4:11-12). How did this work for the good of the Gentiles when practised in the Church at Antioch? Has God given you one or more of the five-fold ministry gifts?
9. *God called Paul and Barnabas to set out to places that the Holy Spirit guided them. How were they set apart by the Church at Antioch?
10. *Where did Paul and Barnabas go first? Did they experience any problems on the island they first visited?
11. *Elymas was a sorcerer. What is a sorcerer, and why did what Elymas professed not fit in with what Paul and Barnabas were preaching?
12. *What did Paul do about it, and as a result, what happened to Sergius Paulus?
13. What happened to John Mark? Read more about John Mark in Acts 15:36-41. What trouble did he cause and what was the outcome?
14. *Sum up in a short sentence what you have learnt from this passage.