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Peace, Prayer, and the Sovereignty of God

We’ve been working our way through the book of Acts for the last several months and this morning, we find ourselves in Acts chapter 12. Now I know that the book of Acts is an action-packed account of the early church – with one exciting story after another –  and it seems like all of these events are happening in a matter of weeks or months. But in reality, by the time we get to Acts chapter 12, we’re actually about 12-14 YEARS after Christ’s death and resurrection. More than a decade has passed since the Holy Spirit’s first arrival on the day of Pentecost!

So a lot has happened since that time – and a lot has changed! 

You know for yourself how much the world can change in a decade! Just think about your own life – how much has change for you in the last 3 years – let alone the last 12-14 years!? You’re different, your family is different, the world different! A lot of stuff changes over a decade!

And so those same kind of changes had happened in the world between Acts chapter 1 and Acts chapter 12.

Kings & governors have come and gone – and there are new authorities in places of power. The church, which once enjoyed the goodwill of all the people (according to Acts chapter 2) – is no longer looked upon quite so favourably – as we are going to see today.

But despite all these changes, the purpose and the work of God remains the same. In fact, while the world’s authorities & rulers change on a frequent basis – the ultimate and sovereign authority of God never changes. God’s Word & God’s will will prevail! You can count on it. And that’s one of the key lessons that we’re going to see in our passage today.

Acts chapter 12 – starting at verse 1 – begins like this:

About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. 2 He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. 3 When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. (This took place during the Passover celebration.) 4 Then he imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover.

Acts 12:1-4

Now before we read on, let me clarify just a couple of things. First of all, who is this King Herod Agrippa and why is he persecuting the church?

There are a lot of King Herod’s mentioned in the Bible – this particular King Herod is the grandson of King Herod the Great. Herod the Great (or Grandpa Herod as we might call him) is the one who we read about in Luke chapter 2 who asks the wisemen to find baby Jesus and later goes on to murder all the young children in and around Bethlehem – trying to prevent any newborn “King of the Jews” from stealing his throne. Grandpa Herod would also murder his own son (who of course, was Agrippa’s father) – this happened when Agrippa was only 3 years old.

And so King Agrippa didn’t inherit the throne from his father, but eventually rose to power because of his friendship with some very influential people – namely Caesar! Caesar would name him as the King of Judaea – giving him authority over quite a large area – including Jerusalem, Samaria, and Galilee. His main job as King of Judea was to keep the peace on behalf of Rome.

The Roman empire had very little patience for revolts and uprisings, so if Agrippa wanted to keep his job, he needed to keep the peace! And he did pretty good at that actually!

Even though he was appointed by Rome, King Agrippa was actually part Jewish and He tried his best to be a friend of the Jews – rather than their enemy! He participated in the Jewish feasts and brought offerings to the temple and read publicly from the Scriptures. He worked with his superiors to keep Roman policies from interfering with Jewish beliefs and traditions. He even worked to build up the walls of Jerusalem.

As you can imagine, this made him a much more popular ruler among the Jews than most other Roman rulers.

This is also the reason why he chose to persecute the church. In his efforts to keep the Jews happy (particularly the Jewish leaders like the Pharisees and Sadducees), King Agrippa supported them in their opposition of the church. As we just read, He had the Apostle James, one of the leaders of this Jesus movement – put to death. Then, as we read in verse 3:

“When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter.” Acts 12:3

So for Herod, this wasn’t about religion – this was entirely about politics. It really was just one big photo op to make himself look good to the Jews – a publicity stunt to earn brownie points with Jewish leaders and hopefully stay in office for another year.

But as we’re going to see, Peter’s arrest wasn’t going to turn out to be the kind of publicity that King Herod Agrippa wanted.

But before we get to that, there’s one other thing I wanted to point out regarding Peter’s arrest. Notice what it says in verse 4:

“Then he imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each.”

Acts 12:4

To me, that seems a little excessive, doesn’t it? I mean, what kind of dangerous, criminal mastermind needs to be guarded by 16 men? 

Well, actually, this was a fairly prudent move by King Agrippa because, if you recall, Peter had escaped prison once before! Back in Acts chapter 5, we read about how Peter and the other apostles were teaching about Jesus and healing people in His name and we read in Acts 5:17…

17 The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, 20 “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!”

21 So at daybreak the apostles entered the Temple, as they were told, and immediately began teaching.

When the high priest and his officials arrived, they convened the high council—the full assembly of the elders of Israel. Then they sent for the apostles to be brought from the jail for trial. 22 But when the Temple guards went to the jail, the men were gone. So they returned to the council and reported, 23 “The jail was securely locked, with the guards standing outside, but when we opened the gates, no one was there!”

24 When the captain of the Temple guard and the leading priests heard this, they were perplexed, wondering where it would all end. 25 Then someone arrived with startling news: “The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple, teaching the people!”

Acts 5:17-25

It’s just a crazy and wonderful story of God’s supernatural intervention – insuring that the message of His Good News was being told to the people. And no doubt, King Agrippa had heard about this story – and so he wanted to make sure there were no repeat performances by Peter! And so he secured Peter the best He could. 16 men, he figured, ought to do the job!

But there’s one thing that Herod didn’t take into account. And we see that in verse 5. It says…

“But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.”

 Acts 12:5

You know, there are no number of soldiers that can make up for a praying church! 16 men – 100 men – 100,000 men! It doesn’t matter – a praying church can overcome any adversary. Not through their own strength of course, but through the strength of God to whom they are praying!

And this church clearly believed that their God was able to rescue Peter from King Herod Agrippa’s hand!

But what’s even more interesting, is that they believed that God could rescue Peter even though God hadn’t rescued James earlier.

We read back in verse 2 that Herod had put James to death with a sword. You might wonder: Where was God then? Had the church NOT prayed for James? I can’t imagine that was the case – I’m sure they prayed earnestly for him as well! But for whatever reason, God saw fit not to rescue James and allowed him to be put to death.

But that certainly didn’t stop the church from praying for Peter now. They must have understood and accepted the fact, that while prayer is powerful and God often answers our prayers in amazing ways – God always reserves the right to say no. He loves to say yes, but there are times when He needs to say no.

Moms and dads: we do this all the time! Kids often ask for things that we know are not in their best interests (even though the kid is convinced that it is!) – and so, because we love them, we have to say no.

And it’s often hard to accept a “no” answer from God – especially when its something that we want so badly – like the health and well-being of a loved one…. We pray earnestly for those things – we pour our heart out to God… And still, sometimes God says no.

When that happens, we have to believe that God knows what He’s doing. That everything he does flows out of his incredible love for us! He never says no because he doesn’t hear or doesn’t care.  God only says no if He knows it’s ultimately what is best.

But then you might ask, “Well, then why pray?” If God is going to do whatever he sees fit anyway, why do we need to bother with prayer?”

That’s a fair question – and truthfully, prayer is a bit of a mystery! I can’t honestly say I fully understand exactly how it all works myself. But I do know that the Scriptures tell us that our prayers are powerful and effective. James 5:1 says..

“The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”

James 5:16b 

There is certainly power in prayer! There are enough stories in the Bible and stories throughout Christian history to confirm that over and over again. Somehow our prayers and God’s good will come together to produce wonderful results.

And so God invites us to pray! In fact, He commands us to pray. Philippians 4:6 says..

6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

And I think that last verse is a big part of the purpose of prayer – when we pray to God and express our needs and desires – trusting that He is good and will answer our prayers according to his good will – it’s like a huge weight is lifted off our shoulders. God may not necessarily say yes to all our prayers, but we can experience the incredible peace of God – knowing that He’s heard us, he cares for us, and He’s going to do whatever He knows is best for us – He’s got everything under his sovereign and loving control.

That kind of knowledge produces a peace that passes all understanding!

And so, to get back to our story, even though God had said no to the rescue of James, that didn’t stop the church from praying for Peter! They trusted that God would do what was best – and at this point, they hoped that would be a rescue for Peter! And so they earnestly prayed!

And of course, we know that God heard their prayers (as He always does) – and he had prepared an answer for them. Let’s read on to find that answer in verse 6.

6 The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate. 7 Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. 8 Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered.

9 So Peter left the cell, following the angel. But all the time he thought it was a vision. He didn’t realize it was actually happening. 10 They passed the first and second guard posts and came to the iron gate leading to the city, and this opened for them all by itself. So they passed through and started walking down the street, and then the angel suddenly left him.

11 Peter finally came to his senses. “It’s really true!” he said. “The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me!”

Acts 12:6-11

Now first of all, this is truly an incredible answer to prayer! What a miracle! An angel shows up to escort Peter out of prison – his chains just fall off and the angel walks him right out of the cell – past the 16 guards who somehow don’t notice a thing – and finally, the iron gate to the city just opens up for them all by itself! That’s incredible!

It’s like that verse in James we read – the earnest prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective! When God says “yes” to our prayers, the results are incredible!

But you know what I find perhaps even more incredible than the miracle of Peter’s escape? The miracle of Peter’s sleep! Did you notice that? Verse 6 says…

6 The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Acts 12:6

How in the world is Peter asleep? It is the night before his trial – and very likely the night before his execution! And here he is – sleeping! And not just a light, restless sleep… He is in a deep sleep! Verse 7 says..

7 Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. [And Peter keeps sleeping…] The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!”

Acts 12:7

Even the bright light in the jail cell and the angel suddenly standing before him didn’t seem to stir Peter from his sleep! The angel had to give him kick just to wake him up!

How can that be? How does a guy about to be executed, chained between two guards, and laying on the dirt in some stinking jail cell sleep so soundly?

It’s got to be that peace that we were talking about earlier! The peace that passes all understanding.The peace that comes from trusting that God’s good will will be done! Isaiah 26:3 says…

You will keep in perfect peace
all who trust in you,
all whose thoughts are fixed on you!

Isaiah 26:3

Isn’t that the kind of peace you want? Perfect peace that allows you just to rest in the arms of God in any situation! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Well, I’ve got good news for you! We can have that kind of peace! We don’t have to get stressed out or worked up! We don’t have to lose sleep about all the terrible things that are going on in the world or in our lives! 

We can sleep soundly because we have a God who never sleeps – and He has sovereign control over everything that happens in this world! What’s more – he loves us more than we can imagine! We are his precious children and if He was willing to go to the cross for us, then we can be assured that He will use his infinite power to do all things for his glory and our good!

Our job, as this verse tells us, is simply to trust in Him – to fix our eyes on him – not focusing on all our circumstances or dire situations – but focusing on Him. Remembering who He is and what he’s done for us in the past – and what He’s promised to do for us in the future.

When we do that – when we keep all those things in perspective (and by the way, prayer is a great way to do that) – that’s when we can experience his perfect peace. Or as we read earlier in Philippians….

7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

What a blessing to know and experience the peace of God! That’s the kind of peace that I believe Peter had! The peace that allowed him to sleep securely in the arms of God – even while chained between two prison guards!

Well, eventually as Peter work up – and came to his senses, He realized that this angel leading him out of prison was not just a vision or a dream – and that God really had rescued him! And so we read in verse 12…

12 When he realized this, he went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer. 13 He knocked at the door in the gate, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to open it. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the door, she ran back inside and told everyone, “Peter is standing at the door!”

15 “You’re out of your mind!” they said. When she insisted, they decided, “It must be his angel.”

16 Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking. When they finally opened the door and saw him, they were amazed. 17 He motioned for them to quiet down and told them how the Lord had led him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers what happened,” he said. And then he went to another place.

Acts 12:12-17

I always find it strange that even though they were praying earnestly for Peter while he was in jail, none of them could believe that their prayers had actually been answered – except for this servant girl Rhoda! The others couldn’t believe that Peter was actually there – and even when Rhoda insisted, they concluded that it must be his angel! They just couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that God had answered their prayers in an incredible way – even though the proof of it was standing right outside the door knocking!

But lest we point too many accusing fingers at them for their little faith, aren’t we prone to do the same thing?

I think a lack of faith in God is a typical human response. After all, how often in the Gospels do we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Oh ye of little faith”? God knows that we’re inclined to doubt Him – to doubt his Word – to doubt his willingness to answer our prayers!

Sure, we might pray very earnestly for a variety of things, but do we really have the faith that God is going to answer our prayers?

And maybe that’s another reason why God asks us to pray in the first place – to exercise our faith in Him. Our prayers are an expression of how we trust Him. And the more we pray, the more God can answer – and the more God answers our prayers, the more our faith in Him is strengthened and affirmed.

I would certainly think that for those who had been praying for Peter, their trust in God grew by leaps and bounds when they realize that God had answers their prayers and had rescued Peter in such an amazing way. And I’m sure Peter’s confidence in God grew as well – especially after what happened to King Agrippa later!

Let me show you how this whole thing ends! Verse 18

18 At dawn there was a great commotion among the soldiers about what had happened to Peter. 19 Herod Agrippa ordered a thorough search for him. When he couldn’t be found, Herod interrogated the guards and sentenced them to death. Afterward Herod left Judea to stay in Caesarea for a while.

20 Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they sent a delegation to make peace with him because their cities were dependent upon Herod’s country for food. The delegates won the support of Blastus, Herod’s personal assistant, 21 and an appointment with Herod was granted. When the day arrived, Herod put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and made a speech to them. 22 The people gave him a great ovation, shouting, “It’s the voice of a god, not of a man!”

23 Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness, because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. So he was consumed with worms and died.

Acts 12:18-23

Talk about a gruesome and very painful conclusion for a man who murdered James and also tried to murder Peter – and all for mere political gain!

But it does again confirm for us that God is sovereign – and he will deal with the sin and injustice in the world one way or another. It may not be in the way we expect or even in the timeframe we hope for – but God will carry out his good will to punish and remove evil – while at the same time doing good for all those who trust in him.

And I think that’s really the point we can take away from this passage. Throughout this story, we can see the sovereign hand of God at work. 

There are times when God allows the wicked to do their deeds of darkness – for a while.

And there are times when God supernaturally intervenes to rescue us from evil.

There are times when God says “yes” to our prayers – and there are also times when God says “no”.

But in all of these situations, even when we can’t see it or understand it – God is always working for his glory and our ultimate good. Romans 8:28 reminds us:

28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. 

Romans 8:28

And I know I bring up this verse fairly often, but if you can get to the point where you actually believe this in the deepest part of your heart – it will change your life!

When you know that the sovereign God of the universe – who sees everything and knows everything and has the power to do anything – when you know that He is working for your good because He has chosen you as His dearly loved child… (And He’s proven that by dying on cross for you!) then what in the world do you have to fear? What can you possibly be worried about? What’s left to keep you stressed out and awake at night? Nothing!

As we read from Isaiah earlier:

You will keep in perfect peace
all who trust in you,
all whose thoughts are fixed on you!

Isaiah 26:3

So my encouragement to you this morning is simply this: Trust in the Lord. Fix your eyes and mind on Him. Pray to Him – cast all your cares upon Him, because he cares for you! And then, just let God worry about the results. Let Him work out his good and perfect plan for your good and His glory.

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