READ – Acts 12:1-24
Before Acts makes a major shift in the story away from the church at Jerusalem (Acts 1-12) to the gospel going out all to the ends of the earth (Acts 13-28), there is one more story that Luke wants to tell us about this church. It’s the story about how Jesus built this church (and how he builds a life) to be prepared for and able to withstand disaster. What do we need to see, believe in and hold on to when our lives are shaken? When our faith is shaken? What makes for strong, enduring faith? Acts 12 shows us it is the firm conviction that Jesus has no rivals.
1. THE ATTACK OF RIVALS (v1-4)
After Saul’s dramatic conversion, the church of Jerusalem experienced a long season of peace and growth (see Acts 9:31). More and more people from varying backgrounds were coming to faith in Jesus and joining the church. But this time of peace didn’t last. Acts 12:1 says King Herod (also known as King Agrippa I) began to violently attack the church. He executed James. He put Peter in prison intending to kill him after the Passover. After many years of peace and coexistence with Judaism (and other religions), the natural question is, “Why did Herod attack the church?” The answer is that these Christians were living like Jesus was really king. Not Caesar. Not Herod. Not anyone or anything else but Jesus. They weren’t protesting. They weren’t being obnoxious and drawing attention to themselves. They weren’t trying to take Herod’s political power. They were simply yet consistently living like Jesus was King of kings and Lord of lords.
The principle we see here applies to all times and places. When Jesus is given supreme authority and leadership in a life or in a church, the rival kings, authorities, leaders of a culture and of a person’s life will be challenged. And rivals don’t go down without a counter attack.
2. THE REPSONSE TO THE ATTACK (v5-18)
What was the response to this violent attack of such a powerful and vengeful king? The church did the only thing they could. In their powerlessness and helplessness, they turned to “fervent prayer” (10:5). We see two things about their prayerful response in the story. First, we see it was the right thing for them to do. Though they were powerless to do anything, God was sovereign over it all. God’s power was greater than Herod’s, greater than the 4 squads of 4 soldiers, the 2 soldiers sleeping next to Peter, the chains that bound Peter and the sentry at the door. None of that stopped God from rescuing Peter in response to the prayers of the people.
But we also see it was a hard thing for them to do. It was fervent prayer, but it was also fragile prayer. It was prayer that was a mixture of belief and unbelief. How do we know this? They didn’t expect God to answer them! When they were told Peter stood outside their door, they responded, “You are out of your mind!”. We can understand why it was so hard for them to pray. James had been killed. Peter was in prison. Their faith was shaken. Fear was settling in. Here we can draw great encouragement in times when our lives and faith our shaken and we feel we can barely pray. The sovereign power of God + the power of faithful yet fragile prayer is greater than the power of anything that might shake us.
There’s even more encouragement for us here. When we take a closer look at God’s response to this attack, we see the powerful statement God is making to a shaken church. Luke makes very intentional and specific connections between this attack on the church and the attack (and death) of Jesus:
Both happened at the same time - during Passover, the feast of Unleavened Bread (see Lk. 22:1, 7)
Both led to “fervent prayer” (22:44, the only other time this phrase is used in the bible)
Both attacks happened under the reign of a rival King named Herod (Lk 23:6-12)
Both attacks happened for the same reason. The claim of Jesus to be King (Lk 23:3, 38)
What is Luke trying to show us? He wants us to read this story as the story of two kings. He wants us to read this as the story of the response of the True King to all other rival kings. On the one side we have Herod (and Pharaoh, and all rival kings before and after). On the other side we have Jesus. There are the rival kings who kill, do violence to humanity and put people into bondage. And there is the One True King who deserved life yet was killed for us, who was innocent yet absorbed violence in our place, who was arrested and bound that we might be set free from bondage. This is our choice. Every rival king will demand you to give your life for them and put you in chains. Jesus is the only king who gives his life for you to set you free. When our lives are shaken, when our faith is shaken, we can trust Him. We don’t have to flee from or to any of the rivals. The King who was shaken for us won’t ever abandon us to his rivals. In suffering, trials, even martyrdom - He will bring us safely into his kingdom (2 Tim 4:18).
3. THE DEFEAT OF RIVALS (v19-24)
This story not only tells us rivals will attack and God will respond; it tells us all rivals to the True King will be defeated. After seeing Peter slip out his grasp, King Herod takes his wounded ego to Caesarea. There his pride and arrogance is re-inflated as delegates from two cities beg for his favor. He puts on his kingly garments (which we know from history were woven of silver), he sat on this throne and delivered a speech. The people praise him as a god and he gladly receive their praise. This was the day of his defeat. Why? “Because he did not give the glory to God” (v23). Herod had gone too far. This isn’t just a “Herod” thing. This is an everyone and every rival thing – God will not give his glory to another (Isa 42:8, 48:11). Rival kings we look to for life, peace, security and meaning can seem so powerful, glorious and indestructible – but none of them can compare to the glory of the true King. In the light of the glory of God we see all rival kings for what they really are.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. One of core questions we ask when our lives and faith is shaken is “Why?” This story from Acts teaches us there will be seasons of peace for our growth but there will be (there must be) seasons of shaking for God to reveal his rivals and show us his supremacy over them. What’s your response to this? How might it encourage you in times when you feel shaken?
3. Do you agree that the human heart can only have one supreme value and authority at a time? How does this play out in your life? What other “rival kings” do you look to for security and power? (Examples: Money, control, success, achievement, relationships, comfort/pleasure, approval). Why do you look to these things instead of Jesus?
4. How is it comforting for you to see that it’s possible for God to answer prayers that are fervent yet fragile; a mix of belief and unbelief? Is there something shaking your life now that you struggle to believe whether God is “big enough” to address?
5. The gospel is that “Every rival king will demand you to give your life for them and put you in chains. Jesus is the only king who gives his life for you to set you free.” How have you found it to be true that every other thing we look to for life ends up taking life from us?
6. In the sermon, 3 final lessons were shared.
a. Personal Lesson- Jesus’ loving plan for us is to defeat all His rivals in our hearts. What rivals do you need to allow Him to defeat in your heart?
b. Political Lesson - No political party, country, leader can have our ultimate allegiance. How can this help in a time of political turmoil?
c. Missional Lesson- Nothing is more powerful than or can ever stop the word of God, the gospel from flourishing and increasing. Read v24. How can this ease our fears and give us boldness in going “public” with our faith in Jesus?