Summary: In his church, the Lord Jesus is still doing the good work that He has begun, and He is doing it unstoppably.
Beloved in Christ, I’d be worried if the church was a human effort. If it was up to us alone to defend the church, maintain her unity, or increase her numbers, we’d have reason to be concerned. For the church would certainly follow the path of so many man-made clubs and societies—for a while strong and united, but eventually weak and scattered.
Yet we give thanks that this church is not a human project. We believe that we are and will remain living members of a holy body being gathered out of all this world by the Son of God. The church’s unity isn’t built on our common background or shared opinions, but on God’s own Word. The church won’t ever fold or collapse, because it is a work of Christ!
This is a beautiful theme carrying through Acts. You’ve probably heard before that “The Acts of the Apostles” isn’t the best name. Because it’s all about the acts of the Lord Jesus, as gathers and grows his people. That’s how Luke introduces this, his second book: “In my former book…I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1, NIV).
That word “began” says a lot. In his Gospel, Luke wrote about the amazing deeds and words of Jesus. Now this is Part 2—the sequel. And the story’s main character is still the same. In fact, He’s even more mighty and majestic, now that He’s risen from the grave and ascended to his throne. The cross was only the beginning of Jesus’ work, for now the risen Christ continues. By his blood He has redeemed his New Testament church: redeemed us for life, and eternity.
Government hostility or persecution or internal weakness do not matter, because the church has a heavenly Saviour, and a heavenly King. We see this clearly in Acts 12, which I preach to you on this theme,
The Lord delivers Peter from prison. It is a deliverance:
1) in power
2) through prayer
3) with purpose
1) it is a deliverance in power: Our chapter doesn’t start very well. In verse 3, Peter is arrested by King Herod. Peter is what we might call “a repeat offender,” well-acquainted with the inside of a prison cell. His first arrest is described in chapter 4, where the Jewish leaders are upset because the apostles are announcing the resurrection of Jesus. And after his release, just one chapter later—in Acts 5—Peter and the apostles are locked up again.
Probably several years have passed by the time we arrive at our text, when Peter is arrested a third time. And this time it looked like the baseball adage is going to hold true: “Three strikes and you’re out.” Because both times before, Peter was detained by the Jews, who had no authority to execute someone. They had killed Stephen, but that was more like a lynching: a mob seized him and stoned him without due process. But now Peter is jailed by King Herod.
Just the name “Herod” should make us fear for Peter’s life, because wickedness has a way of running in the family. The Herod who arrested Peter is Herod Agrippa I. This is a grandson of Herod the Great, the king who killed most of his own family in paranoid jealousy, and who also ordered the slaughter of the young boys of Bethlehem. The Herod in our text is also a nephew to Herod Antipas, the one who beheaded John the Baptist. Now Herod Agrippa is the king of Palestine, and carrying on the family business of violence.
Herod was eager to win the people’s good will, because a stable region usually meant a long career for the Romans. He began persecuting the Christian church, because he knew they were causing trouble for the many Jews in his land.
And the time was right for it, because the church had just overcome a big hurdle. After several years of uncertainty, the church had accepted Gentiles as full members. Just before our chapter, Peter received a startling vision. The Lord told the church to extend the hand of fellowship to believers of all backgrounds, regardless of whether they kept the ceremonial law. This was good and right of course, but to the Jews, the acceptance of the Gentiles was too much. These Christians were becoming more ‘unorthodox’ by the day. So to win the Jews’ favour, Herod gets to work.
In his first attack, he kills the apostle James. Sounds like that went off easily, so Herod next nabs Peter—an even bigger catch than James, for Peter had the role of a chief spokesman. Silence him, and you silence a loud voice. There’d be a trial, but the outcome wasn’t in doubt. It certainly looked like Peter was soon to die.
It is now the night before the trial starts. Peter is likely in the tower of Antonia, which was a Roman fortress near the temple in Jerusalem. Peter was carefully guarded by four squads of soldiers—two soldiers were actually with him, and he may even have been chained to them. Just imagine Peter, locked away in the dark heart of a fortress, doubly chained, closely guarded, perhaps spending his last night on earth.