Saturday, October 31, 2015

Who Will Come to the Rescue?

Scriptural Reading: Acts 12:1-11
Devotional Reading: Psalm 18:1-9

When I was young I would sit on the edge of my seat or on the floor with my eyes glued to Mighty Mouse. He was just one of my superheroes. And I would jump up and sing the Mighty Mouse theme song because he was on his way to the rescue. “Here I come to save the day. That means that Mighty Mouse is on the way. Yes sir when there is a wrong to right. Mighty Mouse will join the fight. On the sea and on the land, He gets the situation well in hand.” Although he was a superhero, Mighty Mouse was a figment of man’s imagination. In reality, there is nothing mighty about a mouse to rescue anyone or anything from any situation. But as David wrote when God delivered him from King Saul, ”The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies…The pangs of death surrounded me, And the floods of ungodliness made me afraid. The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple. And my cry came before Him, even to His ears”. (Ps 18:1-6 NKJV) Who would you prefer to be your deliverer? A figment of man’s imagination for entertainment and without the power to work wonders in both your physical and spiritual life? Or would you prefer the LORD whose powers are known to come to your rescue without an expiration date and throughout eternity? The choice is up to you.

We are in Unit III – “Spreading the Gospel” of the three units of the quarter. This is the first lesson of a five-lesson study of the further growth of the community as the Gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem and in faraway places. (Acts 1:8) In the lesson today we are reminded how the Christian community must come alive and pray sincerely and in confidence for our church leaders and believers who face persecution around the world. We must believe the LORD will come to the rescue!

In the lesson we are looking at a time of persecution in the early church. Agabus, the prophet who left Jerusalem for Antioch, had prophesied a great famine throughout the world. (Acts 11:28) The disciples then went into action sending relief to the poor in Judea, even some to the elders by Barnabas and Saul, before the famine hit. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, records at Acts 12:1, “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church.” (NKJV) The Herod in this case was Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great who killed all Jewish babies two and under in an effort to wipe out the Christ child. The great famine had to have presented a problem for Herod. Perhaps Herod decided he needed to divert the attention of his Jewish subjects from the famine. He must oppose what pleased God and stretch out his hand and give himself power to harass the church. He had some of the members of the Jerusalem church arrested and harassed. We do not know how many or any other statistics. What we do know is that the church faced enormous opposition from the political power system versus the earlier opposition from the Priest and Levitical structure under Mosaic Law. We also know that most of the church members persecuted were poor.

As Herod’s political desire to oppose Christians and ultimately God grew stronger we see at Acts 12:2, “Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword.” (NKJV) Herod courted the favor of the Jewish hierarchy. The Apostle James was honored with a favored position by Jesus Christ as one of three men in his inner circle. The others were James’ brother, John, and Simon Peter. Herod now killed James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, and makes him the first Apostle to die for Jesus. However, this fulfills the prophecy of Christ at Matthew 20:23 when James and John came to Jesus with their mother, Salome, inquiring whether they could sit on His right Hand and left Hand of His Kingdom. The prophecy of the LORD states, “So He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.”(NKJV) He also explained to Peter at John 21:18-19 that he too will drink of the cup. Whether they sit at the LORD’s right or left Hand or the timing of the baptism is God’s Will and does not belong to Christ.

Also, you will note that not much is known whether James had a public trial or was simply executed to make it appear that a legal trial had occurred. It simply says that he was killed with the sword. Because he was ordered to be killed by King Herod suddenly, it was probably private. The Romans regarded beheading with the sword to be most disgraceful. Beheading was not ordinarily used by the Jews. Does that mean he was beheaded like John the Baptist, received the sword in his side and bled to death, or some other manner? The manner Herod killed James seems vague and we have less of an account of his martyrdom than that of Stephen. The fact is that he did it to please the Jewish hierarchy and oppose God. Even further, to be killed by the sword is a quicker death than through crucifixion. As a martyr James was slain with the sword ,(Heb_11:37), and Christ came not to send peace, but a sword (Mat_10:34), in preparation for which we must arm ourselves with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and then we need not fear what the sword of men can do unto us.

As his father, Aristobulus, and grandfather, Herod the Great would have done, Herod Agrippa I seized upon the opportunity to continue to oppose God. Luke records this historical event at Acts 12:3-4, “And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover.” (NKJV) He seized and arrested Simon Peter, another of the apostles favored by Jesus to be in His inner circle. Luke made it known that Peter was arrested during the Days of Unleavened Bread after the Passover. Herod held him in prison under the watch of 16 solders. The Roman procedure called for a high-valued prisoner to be guarded by four squads of soldiers to be changed every four hours. Herod also respected the Jewish religious festivals. He would not hold a public trial and public execution until the weeklong celebration of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which includes the Passover, is over. Herod Agrippa I intended this to be one of his greatest accomplishments. It was one of the three annual Jewish celebrations when every Jewish male who lived in Israel must come to Jerusalem.

Why, might you ask, did Herod take the life of James and place Peter in prison with the intent to have a public trial and public execution after the week long celebration of the Festival and Passover? Although we are not given the amount of time James had been in Herod’s custody, it is not for us to question. It is the Sovreign Will of God that things occur in life to one person as opposed to another. The church’s reaction to opposition was strengthened as they interceded for Peter to God. Luke records at Acts 12:5, “And Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.” (NKJV) Prayers and tears are the arms of the church. When we unify in our prayers and tears, we lift the LORD up and the church fights against enemies and for friends. In this instance the church offered constant prayer to God for release of their leader, Peter, from the prison.

On the night before the trial and execution likely designed by Herod, God now steps in to open the door of escape for Peter. Acts 12:6-7 lets us know “And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison. Now behold, an angel of the LORD stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, ‘Arise quickly!’ And his chains fell off his hands.” (NKJV) It was night and Peter was heavily guarded. Perhaps Herod thought Peter would attempt to escape or his followers would attempt a prison break. But the prisons, at that time, were dark and miserable. The floors would have been hard and damp. It was not a place of cleanliness, smelling of waste and urine and sometimes death. Most prisoners were not happy and their noise of dissatisfaction could be heard. Yet Peter lay chained between two soldiers and with two at the door deep in sleep. They were placed under a divine stupor for they possessed an unwillingness to hear or see the Will of God. (Rom 11:8) Peter, on the other hand, was at perfect rest. Keep your mind stayed on Jesus in all circumstances. God will give you a blessed assurance that everything will be alright in that precious Name of Jesus. While Peter was enjoying this blessed quietness in this otherwise dismal situation, an angel of the LORD appeared along with a light to assist Peter in his human frailties within the dark prison. The angel had to strike him on the side first, though, because he was in such a peaceful rest. The guards were not awakened by the presence of the angel, the light, nor the movement of Peter and the angel. The angel told Peter to rise up immediately. Peter obeyed and he was delivered from the chains that were bound on his hands.

He was still in the prison and had more instructions. Had Peter not obediently followed the commands of the angel after his chains no longer bound him, he might have remained a prisoner and faced an uncertain future. Acts 12:8-9 records Peter’s obedience as follows, “Then the angel said to him, ‘Gird yourself and tie on your sandals’; and so he did. And he said to him, ‘Put on your garment and follow me.’ So he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.” (NKJV) All the guards are sleep and Peter is still probably half-sleep. This is not a time to ask questions. This is a time to trust in God and follow the angel’s instructions. Peter was to girdle himself up and put on his clothes. ‘Put on your shoes.’ that you might walk in the preparation of peace (Eph 6:15) in the battle God was fighting. The angel was getting Peter out of his sleep mode and into action. Peter is obedient because he has a relationship with Jesus Christ. He follows the angel, but thinks the experience could not possibly be real but must be a vision. He has already experienced both a vision (Acts 10:9-16; 11:5-10) and an actual angelic rescue from prison (Acts 5:19). The difference between this experience and Peter’s previous experiences is that he was not in a divinely-induced form of sleepiness during the experience, not believing himself able to awake.

The angel continues to lead Peter out of danger through the prison maze, past two other security levels with sleeping guards, to the Iron Gate which leads to the city street. Acts 12:10, as recorded by Luke, indicates, “When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and they went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.” (NKJV) The Iron Gates leading to the city, the last barrier to freedom, is finally reached. There is no guard there, and they opened of their own accord. With God fighting the battle, He will always be the Victor. Remember the guards are under a divine induced stupor, unable to awake themselves. If they could, perhaps they would be able to catch Peter before he got beyond the Iron Gate. However, at least Pharaoh was able to march before the Red Sea opened for the Israelites to be delivered from danger. In this instance the guards never recovered from their love of slumber while Peter was in danger. They were not given the opportunity to catch him as the Iron Gate opened just as the Red Sea opened for the children of Israel. The Iron Gate opened and Peter was free again! With his task complete, the angel departed.

Have you ever asked God if something really is in response to prayer or whether you are still dreaming for it to come to pass? Peter activated the church’s prayer and this is his moment to realize it is no longer a dream or vision. Luke records his realization at Acts 12:11, “And when Peter had come to himself, he said, ‘Now I know for certain that the LORD has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.’” (NKJV) Peter looks up and says, “This is not a vision. I am awake. Look what the LORD has done for me.” He gives God all the glory. He knows he could not have delivered himself from the evil intentions of Herod.

Chapter 12 of Acts is an interesting chapter. After he was freed Peter went to the home where the church was continuously praying for his release. Although the young girl, Rhoda, recognized his voice she did not open the door, but went to tell the others. Why didn’t she open the door? They did not believe her but kept praying. She insisted it was he, but the church admonished her and said it was his angel. Did they not believe the prayers they were submitting to God? Finally they went to the door because Peter was persistently knocking. They were astonished. He did not go in because he did not want to bring danger upon them, but told them to go tell James and the brethren (other disciples). Then he went on his way. Peter cared enough for his friends in the church that he left for another place.

Chapter 12 also presents the death story of prideful Herod Agrippa I. It began with his searching the prison in and out for Peter. When Peter could not be found in prison and they did not believe he could get past the Iron Gate, Herod ordered all the guards involved be executed for their dereliction of duty. Afterwards he moved to Caesarea. There he made friends with the people of Tyre and Sidon. One day while sitting on the throne, arrayed in his royal apparel, he gave a speech. The people shouted that he sounded more like a god than a man. An angel of the LORD struck him, because he did not give God the glory. He was then eaten by worms and died. So unfortunate that Herod always believed he was god and never learned who would come to his rescue.

Written by Deborah C Davis

No comments: