A cryptic account of what was, perhaps, a great incident. Nothing in this is at all inconsistent with what is known of this Herod, also known as Herod Agrippa. He was the grandson of Herod the Great, the Herod who was king when Jesus was born and the father of the Agrippa before whom Paul will make his defense in Acts 25-26. Eusebius, the great historian of early Christianity, relates some wonderful history regarding the martyrdom of James (this is the James of Peter, James, and John).
Eusebius, quoting Clement, tells us that the man who led James to the judgment seat, was so impressed by James’ bearing and by the witness he bore to his faith that he became a Christian himself. Both of the men, therefore, were led away to die. The new believer asked James to forgive him, which the great man readily did with a kiss and a benediction. Those are the sorts of things that have happened through the history of Christian martyrdom!
You remember, the Lord Jesus had promised James and John that they would drink from his cup and be baptized with his baptism (Mark 10:39). It is possible that the Apostles were now under special attack by the Jewish leadership because of their example and their leadership in fraternizing with Gentiles.
The elaborate security perhaps a measure of the number of Christians now in Jerusalem (who, Herod would suppose, might try to spring Peter!).
Sleeping the sleep of the just the night before his death. Someone, I once read, asked D.L. Moody what he would do if he were to learn that the coming night was to be his last on earth. Moody replied, so the story goes, along these lines: I would say my prayers and go to sleep like I always do. Live as you ought each day and then you can go to bed with a clear conscience.”
This is an eyewitness touch. Only Peter knew what the angel had said to him.
There is, of course, in this a revelation of the mystery of divine providence. Why was James taken and Peter miraculously spared? How often God takes promising lives so early! McCheyne, Pascal; Keith Green; the young PCA man on TWA Flight #800, etc. Isa 55: “God’s thoughts are far above…and his ways past finding out.” But, what we have here also is the truth that Christians are simply invulnerable until God, for reasons of his own, chooses to bring them to heaven. James was easily taken but nothing Herod could do could keep Peter under his control. They used to describe St. Francis of Assisi as “The Man who could not get Killed.” He even went, in connection with one of the Crusades, into the headquarters of the Sultan to plead for mercy for captives and for the Sultan to have faith in Christ, and left unscathed. It is an important thing for Christians to remember. We live at God’s pleasure, we are invulnerable until our God sees fit to bring our lives to an end — that should strengthen the fainthearted and remind us all that we are responsible to make the most of the time God gives us and have no excuse for seeking to do so.
Our first introduction to a figure of great importance in the NT: John Mark: first with Paul and Barnabas on the 1st missionary journey; then the cause of a quarrel between Paul and Barnabas; then, later, according to early Christian sources Mark was Peter’s assistant and secretary in Rome and reproduced Peter’s teaching in the Gospel that bears his name. Early Christian tradition has it that afterwards Mark went to Egypt and founded the Christian church in Alexandria.
What follows is full of humor and romance: reminds me very much of a few scenes in Giancarlo Menotti’s operetta “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
Note the “wave of the hand;” another eyewitness touch. Did Luke get his information from Mark? From Peter himself?
Note the importance of James, this, the James who was the brother of the Lord and Jude, already a major figure in the early church. Almost primus inter pares in a group that included at least some Apostles!
Note also that Peter goes into hiding: he had no thirst for martyrdom, neither did he assume that if an angel had delivered him he must be immune from all harm. He didn’t even suppose that obedience to Christ required him immediately to resume his public teaching and preaching and so expose himself to arrest again. [After all, no one really knew back at the prison, how he had escaped!] Apparently he left Jerusalem altogether for a while.
God protected his servant from harm, not his jailers, even though the Lord’s intervention on behalf of Peter was the cause of their trouble. Don’t forget the larger perspective of life and the reality of divine judgment for everyone. The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish.
Josephus gives this account of the death of Herod Agrippa.
“…when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea…and there he exhibited shows in honour of Caesar…. At [the] festival, a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver…and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god: and they added, — ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’ Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But, as he presently afterwards looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood, that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings…and [he] fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. …he was carried into the palace; and the rumour went abroad everywhere, that he would certainly die in a little time. …the multitudes presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children…and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. [But] when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly, for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age…” [XIX, viii, 2, p. 412]
“Eaten by worms.” The exact cause of Herod’s death is not known. Scholars have suggested a cyst produced by a tapeworm; appendicitis leading to peritonitis; any condition exacerbated by round worms, made much more common in the ancient world by the lack of hygiene. On the other hand, “eaten by worms” appears also to have been a stock phrase in the ancient world for the death of tyrants.
Now, I want to elaborate only one point from our text this evening and it concerns the early church’s life of prayer. We have already noted that the early church was a praying church and that it did not simply pray in its individual isolation, in the closets of its members, each alone with God, but it prayed together. We read that the early church began praying together as soon as the Lord ascended to heaven (1:14) — for both the kingdom of God in general and for specific matters (e.g. the replacement of Judas among the 12, 1:24) — and in 2:42 we read in a summary that prayer was a part of the life and work of the church. They prayed in times of trial and persecution (4:29), they prayed over the choice of the first six deacons (6:6). And as the narrative proceeds from here, we will find only more of the same: prayer as Paul and Barnabas are sent away for missionary work, and so on.
How natural, in any case, that the early Christians should have lived together the life of prayer. Their master had just ascended to the Right Hand of God and, before he left the world, had promised to hear them just as he had heard them when he was with them in the flesh. And he had made specific promises to corporate prayer: “Where two or three agree touching anything…”
Some years have passed between Acts 2 and Acts 12, but the praying is the same. And, of course, for the same reasons. Christ is still at the Right Hand, he still has made promises, and, what is more, has answered them already so often and so wonderfully, as, indeed, he did in this case.
We miss the entire point of the narrative if we miss the connection that Luke clearly intends us to make between v. 5 and v. 7a! True enough, we see the mysterious side of the life of prayer here; no doubt the church had prayed for James as well and with equal fervor. But Luke wants to show us that the church moved forward to the sound of prayer and corporate prayer in particular. Remember, Luke is concerned to give us representative facts, the data that will teach us how Christianity is to be lived, what the church is to be and do and how. And here, smack in the middle of Luke’s account of apostolic Christianity, is the prayer meeting! You can almost bet that Peter was freed from prison on a Wednesday night!
These Christians had no doubt about the sovereignty of God — they expressed their certainty of his absolute rule often in their prayers — their prayer in 4:24 began, “Sovereign Lord…”, but this conviction had not made them fatalists; it had not led them to consider prayer a dispensable part of the Christian life. Nor had the fact that all of their prayers had not been answered in the affirmative — prayers for Stephen, for James, etc.
Some things we may note about the prayer of the ancient church.
- It was specific. They prayed for Peter. v. 5: “for him.”
- It was corporate. It was not enough that all Christians were praying; they came together for prayer (v. 12). As I said we find this often in Acts. It comes from the emphasis placed on corporate prayer in the teaching of the Bible and of the Lord himself. He teaches us to pray alone, to be sure; but he also teaches us to pray together.
- It was earnest. v. 5 (It was no formality, but “earnest and familiar talking with God.”)
Now, you are all expecting from me a harangue regarding Prayer Meeting. But not tonight. I will leave it to you to do with all of this what you will. I only want to remind all of us together that apostolic Christianity places corporate prayer in the center of the common life and work of the church. Not just prayer meeting conceived of as a stated service of the church, but Christians gathering to pray for this or that — revival, for particular people and their salvation, for the persecuted church, etc.
We know from our experience how hard it is to be faithful at corporate prayer. And how hard it is to do this work well even when we are at it.
What I want us to carry away from this text in Acts 12 is a reminder of prayer’s power and effect. We have not because we ask not. And there is a special sense in which that is true of corporate prayer.
Listen to some testimonials:
“Single prayers are like the single hairs of Samson; but the prayers of the congregation are like the whole bush.” (Thomas Manton)
“Separate the atoms which make the hammer, and each would fall on the stone as a snowflake; but welded into one, and wielded by the firm arm of the quarry man, it will break the massive rocks asunder. Divide the waters of Niagara into distinct drops, and they would be no more than the falling rain, but in their united body they would quench the fires of Vesuvius, and have some to spare for the volcanoes of other mountains.” (Thomas Guthrie)
The Death of Mr. Still reminds me to speak in praise of that prayer meeting at Gilcomston South Church once again, though perhaps some of you have tired of hearing me speak of it. But, honor to whom honor is due. It was the closest thing to such a prayer meeting and such a spirit of prayer that we find here in Acts 12 that I have seen. Nothing like the prayer meetings of my youth — moribund, dull, conventional, of little expectation. Fiery, hopeful, expectant, outward looking. And what did that church accomplish!
We have come far. Others tell us so. But not so far! We need more heat, more length — not of individual prayers (Spurgeon: “Long prayers injure prayer meetings. Fancy a man praying for twenty minutes, and then asking God to forgive his shortcomings!) — more people (greater power in greater numbers of real prayers!) and more answers (to excite and confirm). And for the latter we need more of all the former. And what is all of that to say but that we need more faith!
And the wise believers of the past who have learned the lessons of the life of prayer tell us that to increase our faith we need, besides prayer for greater faith, to be more specific in our prayers. Here is Spurgeon again:
“Suppose you go into a banker’s office, and stand at the counter and say, ‘I want some money.’ The clerk says, ‘How much do you want, sir? Please put the amount down on this cheque.’ ‘Oh, I do not want to be specific; you can give me a few hundred pounds, I do not know to a sixpence how much I want, I am not sure that I could put it down in black and white.’ You will get no money that way; but if you put it down in black and white exactly how much you want — spell it in letters, and put it down also in figures — the clerk will give you the money if you have so much in your account at the bank. So if you have an account with the great God…go and ask for what you want.'”
Ask that way, is Spurgeon’s point, and you will watch for the answer. You will be so excited when God responds as Rhoda was, that in her joy she forgot all about Peter in order to announce his presence to the praying company. Imagine them lifting their heads from that prayer they were just then listening to, to hear that Peter was at the door. They couldn’t believe it themselves! That was, perhaps a failure of faith on their part, but a small failure, one very easy to forgive in those who are praying hard enough to get such an answer. Or you will be like Elijah, who prayed for rain and then sent his servant to check the horizon for clouds!
You and I know what our problem with prayer is. It is a lack of faith, it is the unbelief that lurks in our hearts. But, if we are Christians, we know too that that doubt is foolish and untrue. And if we wish to be people of faith, where better to show it than at that point where our faith will do us and the church and the world the most good!