GOD INTERVENES Acts 12
“Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches” (Acts 12:11).God is involved with His people everywhere.
The Apostle James was executed by Herod Agrippa (12:1–2) and Peter was imprisoned, awaiting trial (vv. 3–5). An angel released Peter (vv. 6–11), who was welcomed by stunned Christians hardly able to believe their prayers had been answered (vv. 12–19). God struck Herod down (vv. 20–23) and the Judean church continued to grow (v. 24). Luke now returned to Paul, to begin the story of his mission to the Gentiles (v. 25).
Understanding the Text
“King Herod . . . had James, the brother of John, put to death” Acts 12:1–2. The king named here is Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. Agrippa worked actively to win the loyalty of his Jewish subjects, and even resisted the mad Emperor Caligula’s plan to put an idolatrous statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple. The Mishna, which includes rabbinical writings of this period, speaks favorably of Agrippa, and reports one incident in which the people shouted enthusiastically, “Our brother art thou!” When Herod realized that persecution of Christians would enhance his popularity, he executed James the brother of John and arrested Peter. Agrippa intended to try and execute Peter just after the Passover, when that act would have maximum impact on the great crowds of Jewish pilgrims gathered for the festival. The character of Herod Agrippa’s actions remind us of how easy it is to fall into the trap of using others for our own ends. Herod made the mistake of all such “users.” He neglected to consider the possibility that God might intervene. Peter was given double the normal guards and kept in chains in an inner prison cell. Acts 12:3–11 tells the story of his miraculous release. The divine intervention reminds us that God kept on working actively in the original Jewish church, even though the rest of Acts will emphasize missionary expansion. “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord . . . rescued me” Acts 12:11. Peter never doubted that the Lord could rescue him. But there was a question as to whether the Lord would rescue him. After all, James, the brother of John, was an apostle too, and he had been executed by Herod Agrippa. You and I live with a similar tension between faith and uncertainty. We know that the Lord can deliver us from whatever danger we face. But we never know “without a doubt” that the Lord will deliver us. It’s important to remember that God loved both James and Peter. Both were important to Him. Yet one was permitted to die, and the other miraculously released from prison. Whether you and I have the role of James or of Peter in this life, let’s rest assured that we are loved by God, and important to Him. Today both James and Peter are at home with the Lord, rejoicing in His presence. It is this, not the brevity or length of life on earth, that counts. “Peter knocked at the outer entrance” Acts 12:12–19. The story is so delightful. We can see it now, Peter pounding on the door. The flustered and “overjoyed” Rhoda, running first to the door, then back into the house, so excited she doesn’t know what to do. And the folks inside, praying earnestly for Peter, all unaware that God has already answered their prayers (see DEVOTIONAL). Answered prayer has a tendency to excite any Christian. We go to prayer sensing the terrible pressure of our need, and when the answer comes, and the pressure’s relieved, we’re buoyed up with joy. One of the best ways to hold on to that joy is to keep a prayer record. All it takes is a simple notebook. You jot down what you pray for on one page, and on the facing page, you leave space to record God’s answers. As the list of answered prayers grows, read them over. You’ll feel the same joy and excitement that filled the group meeting that night in Mary’s house to pray so successfully for Peter’s release. “What could have happened to Peter?” Acts 12:18–19 Even Herod should have known better than some modern critics who, eager to rid the Scripture of the supernatural, suggest that some early Christian drugged the guards and bribed the jailer to let Peter go. In Roman times, a jailer who let a prisoner escape was subject to whatever punishment the escapee would have suffered. So Herod did nothing unusual when he marched the guards off and had them executed (v. 19). What is amazing is the question everyone asked: “What could have happened to Peter?” Chained to his guards, locked inside a cell guarded by yet more sentries, inside a prison barred by a locked iron door, it should have been clear that Peter had not just picked his locks and hidden in some broom closet. The inescapable conclusion was that something supernatural had occurred. God had intervened, or Peter would not have been gone. Herod apparently didn’t even consider the supernatural option. He was as much a materialist as modern folks, who can look at a sunset, or examine some complexity of nature, and say, “Isn’t evolution wonderful.” Even today the evidence of God’s intervention is everywhere. But only the eyes of faith seem able to see. “He was eaten by worms and died” Acts 12:21–24. Both Luke and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus report Herod’s death inA.D 44, shortly after the release of Peter. Josephus tells us Agrippa died “exhausted after five straight days by the pain in his abdomen.” Luke, the physician, describes symptoms that suggest an infection of intestinal roundworms. These grow up to 15 inches long, and when bunched can obstruct the intestine. The infested person experiences intense pain, and often vomits up worms before he dies. Strikingly, both Luke and Josephus attribute Agrippa’s death to the king’s impiety, and see it as a judgment of God. God had intervened to remove a ruler who had proved to be a persecutor of His people, and a danger to His church. With Herod gone, “the word of God continued to increase and spread” (v. 24). “They returned from Jerusalem” Acts 12:25. Luke now left the Judean scene, and his report of Peter’s ministry, to focus on Paul. Verse 25 is a transition statement that effectively shifts our attention to the coming mission to the whole world. While Luke would say little more of events in the Jewish homeland, his vivid portrayal of Peter’s release and the death of Agrippa reminds us of a vital truth. We may not be aware of what is happening in Judea. But God is there, active, still intervening on behalf of His own. What a comfort this is for us, as our children grow up and move away. We’re not there to watch out for them. But God is. He is actively, lovingly caring for His own everywhere. We can trust our own to His care.
Believe It or Not (Acts 12:1–19)
God must have a sense of humor. You and I can’t read the account of Peter’s release from prison, and the furor at the house of Mary in Jerusalem, without seeing how funny it all was. There’s Peter, pounding on the door, while inside the house a whole group of despondent Christians is praying desperately for his safety. And when the servant girl runs in the room, shouting that she’s heard Peter’s voice outside, nobody believes her. “You’re out of your mind,” they tell her. Peter was in prison, about to be executed. If the girl really heard his voice, “It must be his angel [ghost].” If you ever thought that getting an answer to prayer depends on firmly believing the answer will come, well, this story ought to raise a few doubts. The gathered church certainly hoped that God would save Peter. But believe it? Why, they didn’t even believe it when the prayer was answered! I suspect that God must have been chuckling over the scene with something like delight. “Surprise!” you can almost hear Him shout. And as the gathered Christians realized Peter really was free, and jumped for joy, the Lord may well have laughed an infectious, happy laugh, right out loud. Oh, yes. God can answer prayer, even when our faith is weak and doubts are strong. So when you pray don’t worry if you’re not totally positive about what God will do. Just remember the folks in Acts 12, who told a servant girl, “You’re out of your mind,” when she reported that Peter stood at the door. Just pray. And expect to be surprised.
Answers to prayer depend on our great God, not on our jumbo faith.
“I never prayed earnestly for anything but it came sooner or later, and oftentimes in the way I least imagined. But it came.”—Adoniram Judson