Chambersburg, PA
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

Sermon Text – “Prisoner & Prince”

Acts 12:1-24

Prisoner & Prince

As we’ve seen in the book of Acts: the faithful Church always encounters – at one time or another – opposition from the world.

We saw in chapter 9 that Saul as enemy of the Church had been subdued, conquered, and the Church enjoyed a time of peace.

But, that time of peace was short-lived; and a new tyrant arises here in chapter 12 to fill the role of opposition; and that is King Herod.

The Church – the faithful church – which follows it’s call to live faithfully to Christ rather than in conformity to the world – will always have it’s opposition.

And if that’s true, then it’s at the same time true that faithful followers of Christ will always bear some cost when they live as disciples of Christ in the world. And the question that these passages and this theme in Acts forces us to ask, is, “what am I willing to endure as the cost for faithfulness to Christ? Is the prize, worth the price? Is the prize of knowing Christ, serving Christ, obeying Christ, glorifying Christ – worth the price of suffering with Christ, suffering for Christ.

because the reality is that we probably have much less to endure than they did: Peter is imprisoned; James is executed; but if we aren’t willing to endure the smaller costs that we face, then we’ll never be prepared to endure the greater costs when they come.

Even if the cost is simply, not gaining the approval, admiration, applause of the world around us.

And the contrast of this passage is between that of the prisoner and the prince (King, but prisoner & prince was a better-sounding title): the prince who has all the worldly recognition and admiration – and lives for that – but that’s all he gets, who is is rejected & destroyed by God; and the prisoner who is rejected by the world, but who is accepted & vindicated & delivered by God.

And, we’ll be looking mostly at the contrast between the prisoner (Peter) and the prince (King Herod);

But there’s a third character in this chapter, who is so briefly mentioned that he might be easy to overlook, but we certainly shouldn’t forget James – who like Stephen earlier – pays the ultimate price for his faithfulness to Christ.

v2 – James is put to death; and though we’ll see that that was clearly Herod’s desire for Peter as well, Peter is delivered.

There is no explanation in the text as to why one is delivered and the other isn’t; as to why the church’s prayers for Peter are answered and why they aren’t for James (safe to presume that the church had prayed for James’ deliverance just as they did for Peter’s in v5).

because that’s the case with life. We often don’t get answers as to why God’s providence unfolds in one way or another – in one way for one person, and another way for someone else;

and we may be tempted to envy how God’s providence has unfolded for someone else;

or we may be tempted to doubt God’s goodness as we look at how life has unfolded for us;

But what God calls us to do, as we face the mystery of his providence, is to trust him.

And that’s exactly what Peter does: isn’t it amazing that v6 – the night before this trial – Peter sleeping – he was calm enough – free enough from anxiety and fear – trusting God enough with his future – to sleep while in prison awaiting likely execution (safe to assume that Herod’s intention for Peter was the same as his intention for James).

But he is sleeping – in what seems to be a deep sleep – and it’s a picture of his trust – He is, even, defiant of death because of his faith in Christ and Christ’s ultimate deliverance.

When i think about the things that can cause me sleeplessness, they pale in comparison to Peter’s ordeal but he is sleeping!

The only explanation: he is looking behind the uncertain circumstances of life and trusting God.

God calls us to trust him: To look behind the seemingly indifferent circumstances of life and recognize that there is not just a cruel indifferent fate ruling the universe; or that there is not a cold distant arbitrary God who doesn’t care about his children; or that there is a weak powerless God who is unable to help his children. But:

Behind the sometimes ugly, mysterious, often unexplained circumstances of life is a God who is our Father; a God of goodness and love and power, whom we can trust.

And we might like an answer to some of these things; But we don’t get one. And like the early church did – we have to live with and trust in the mysterious providence of God – who certainly has a reason for all that he does – a good reason; and that’s where our hope lies – not that we know or understand all of God’s reasons but that he tells us that he has them – that he works all things for his glory and for the good of those who love him.

God often doesn’t answer the “why” question – but he does answer the “who” question – he doesn’t always tell us why he does the things that he does but he tells us who he is who stands behind the mysterious and sometimes frowning circumstances of life – that he is good, trustworthy, all-wise all-powerful and all-loving – that he always knows what is to his glory and our good; that he is always able to do what is to his glory and our good; that he always wants to bring about his glory and our good.

and that ought to be enough – to trust him who declares himself and proves himself to be trustworthy. But we need faith.

Peter is delivered; James dies. And it’s not because James was any less of a beloved child of God than Peter.

But that all of us in this life await our death – and God alone knows and is sovereign over the timing and circumstance of it. And even Peter’s miraculous deliverance here is only temporary. He lives another day, but follows the path James walked and goes on to die.

None of us are guaranteed another day; and God isn’t obligated to deliver us from the trials we face as a result of our faith; or from the death that enshrouds our existence as a result of the fallen world in which we live.

Because, even though in the temporary short-term sense, one is put to death and the other is delivered to live another day; the greater truth is that both of them are delivered in the ultimate sense – in contrast to Herod who gets all he can out of this life but misses out on the ultimate deliverance – the only one that really matters in the end.

Because you can’t escape physical death in this life; but you can be delivered through it, through faith in Christ the one who conquered death. 

Peter lives another day; but James enters into the presence of his savior for all eternity: his pilgrim days are done, and he enters his eternal rest.

Paul: “To live is Christ, to die is gain!”

to live one more day, is another day to serve Christ; and to not live another day, for the believer in Christ is gain – it is the day in which we enter into the fullness of his presence.

Christians remember that this world is not our home, and this life is a journey – not a destination – and a short journey at that!

Calvin: “God does not bestow the honorable title of his children on any but those who acknowledge that they are strangers on the earth, who not only at all times are prepared to leave it but move forward in an uninterrupted course towards the heavenly life.”

But we can only have that perspective if we live for Christ; instead of living for the world and loving what the world offers.

Because just as it’s important to remember that both are delivered; it’s also important to remember that both are rejected by the powers that be – they are rejected by the world.

The world’s estimation of these – is that they deserve death and imprisonment.

As I said: we can only assume that Peter’s fate – at least according to Herod’s plans – was to be the same as James’ fate: b/c v4 – he intends to have a trial – a public trial – before the same people who approved of James’ execution – and we can only assume this trial would be just a formality for Herod to put Peter to death as well; but he doesn’t get that opportunity.

It’s clear what Herod’s plans for Peter are.

But God had other plans for Peter.

Other plans that all the might and strength of the King couldn’t prevent or counteract.

Despite all his plans and precautions and worldly strength, God has other plans.

You see the grimness of Peter’s situation, because Herod is really going overkill in exerting his worldly strength to guard Peter v4 – Herod has Peter guarded by 4 squads of 4 soldiers each

And not only that; but in v6 we’re told that he’s bound by not one, but two chains; v10 – there is a locked iron gate at the entrance to the prison;

v6 there’s a guard on each side of him while he’s sleeping and guards standing watch at the entrance of his prison cell.

And, Herod isn’t taking any chances – I mean Peter did escape from Prison once before; So Herod isn’t taking any chances; but all of this serves to highlight the miraculous nature of Peter’s escape –

the church was not any kind of military or physical force that it could bust Peter out – all it could do is what it does in v5 – pray.

All the church can do is pray – but that turns out to be the best thing it could do.

Because their prayer – at the same time as it expresses their helplessness and powerlessness, it taps into divine power: it is the most powerful act of weakness in the world –

because it looks to God – and God is not prevented by all the soldiers and all the chains that all the kings in all the world could cram into and around a prison cell;

Stott: “On the one side was the authority of Herod, the power of the sword and the security of the prison. On the other side, the church turned to prayer, which is the only power which the powerless possess.”

And Peter’s deliverance happens so easily, and calmly, and effortlessly – to show the infinitely superior power that God has compared to Herod;

it happens so easily and effortlessly that Peter doesn’t even realize it’s really happening – he thinks it’s another vision – just a dream! He isn’t fighting his way out with God’s help! He’s sleep-walking!

And that’s another thing that demonstrates the unexpected, impossible, miraculous divine intervention – is the responses of those who experience & witness it:

Peter who experiences it isn’t even expecting it – and it’s only after the escape that he has to conclude “without a doubt” – v11 – that he was rescued by God – because there’s no other explanation for it!

And when he appears to the other believers – they don’t believe it either! v13 – Peter knocks at the door, Rhoda goes to answer the door and hears Peter’s voice – and she is so overjoyed that in her excitement she forgets to open the door! – and goes back to tell everyone and they tell her – v15 – “you’re out of your mind!”

It’s impossible! And even after she persists – they then conclude “it must be his angel” – in other words – there isn’t any way Peter was getting out of that prison alive – the only way, was death; and so they conclude maybe Herod didn’t want to wait for the trial, got things done with early and so an angel is here to appear to them or bring them a message or something!

And, I haven’t even told you the funny part yet: that what they don’t believe – what Rhoda is trying to tell them – is exactly what they had been praying for!

And when God answers their prayers they are surprised, caught off guard, and doubting that it could be true!

“The answer to their prayer was literally standing right outside the front door, but they were not ready to believe that God could answer their prayer so dramatically and so quickly.”

Sometimes answered prayer can catch us off guard – b/c most times, we probably don’t pray as though we believe that an answer to that prayer is even possible!

And Isn’t it good news, that God answers our prayers out of proportion to our faith, or expectation, of his ability to do so?

And finally they see him, and realize it’s him – not an angel – and v16 they are astonished!

Because the only explanation is divine intervention. It’s 100% divine deliverance.

This little story about Peter shows us how God delivers – how divine deliverance works: that it begins with the initiative of God; it occurs in what would be humanly impossible – only by the power of God; and it ends with God getting all the glory.

Human effort or strength could not have done it – and that’s the case with how God rescues.

Peter was asleep; he was bound in chains; he completely helpless to deliver himself; and he was completely hopeless apart from God’s deliverance.

Peter contributes nothing to his escape except “incomprehension and incredulity”; It’s is God’s initiative, and God’s power alone that saves him.

It is not divine assistance but divine deliverance

Charles Wesley, And Can it Be:

“Long, my imprisoned spirit lay

fast-bound in sin and nature’s night

thine eye diffused a quickening ray;

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

my chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

Because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t just deliver us from prison or a worldly circumstance – but from sin, death and eternal condemnation

and when God’s deliverance came into our lives –  we were more bound and more helpless than Peter – bound by the devil, captive in sin and rebellion and death – but against all explanation or expectation or probability or possibility, deliverance. Not by human effort; only by God’s power; and he gets all the glory.

no human explanation; only divine intervention:

set free. delivered from death to life; slavery to freedom; condemnation – under God’s wrath & rejection – to righteous – under God’s favor and acceptance and blessing.

Peter – thrown in prison – rejected by the world but accepted by God.

This is in sharp contrast to Peter’s persecutor – Herod – applauded by the world – living for the applause of the world – but missing out on the only applause that matters – God’s.

All Herod’s “gain” is only loss: because he has no approval of God – only God’s wrath, judgment, rejection.

And, we see as we put together the stories of Herod and Saul – that no opposer to Christ and his Church will stand. They will either be brought low to humble repentance – and turned into an instrument for his glory; or they will try to stand firm in their pride and rebellion but be brought to destruction.

And that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church but even the strongest of these opposers and enemies will be conquered by God – and v24 – the word of God will continue to spread and flourish.

Calvin: “This story shows the end that awaits the enemies of Christ; and how greatly God hates pride.”

living for human praise: v3, v22 – and of course, from the background info we know that they are only flattering him to get what they want and need from him; but he doesn’t care because he lives for the approval and praise of men.

And Herod’s attitude – commonly called “peer pressure”, called “the fear of man in the bible”; or living for the praise of other people – or living for self-glory and self-exaltation; is not only foolish but sinful – because it elevates people’s opinion’s and evaluations and acceptance over and above God’s opinions and evaluations and acceptance; and not only does it exalt other people over God – but it exalts self pre-eminently; it is self-idolatry – by living for the praise and exaltation and glory of self – the glory that belongs only to God.

And Herod lives in utter delusion – that he is a “god”; he lives blinded by his pride and God’s judgement eventually comes upon him.

John 5:44 – seeking glory from other people is antithetical to seeking God’s glory.

God hates pride. God hates self-exaltation.

And this story should catch our attention in a culture that promotes self-promotion and exalts self-exaltation – in a culture that is obsessed with self-obsession and encourages loving yourself above all else.

Because he is the one who is above all but lowered himself – entered the world as a baby – became a servant; Phil 2.

“What we must learn to do is to give glory to God. We have no talent that God has not given. We have achieved no success that God has not made possible. We can do no good of which God is not the source.”

And, so we must not act like, think like, we are the source of what is good in us – and we must acknowledge God as that source.

Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:14-18

And when we learn the significance of the Christmas Story; we learn to follow the example of Christ’s humility; our pride is put to death; and we live a new in the humility of Christ.