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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Against All Odds


"So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Acts 12:5

Acts 11 finishes with the ‘Christians’ (v.25) at Antioch sending a financial gift to the churches in Judea. There was no PayPal! These were the days of real coin carried by real people. Barnabas, and his friend Saul/Paul are sent, not on a money-making mission – it was a money-taking mission! Then, at the end of Acts 12 we have them returning from Jerusalem to Antioch. The rest of Acts 12 makes no mention of Barnabas or Saul, but this account happens ‘about this time’ - these are the first words in chapter 12. It was a time of persecution. The church in Jerusalem has a new adversary - ‘King Herod’.

The name Herod belongs to a royal dynasty. In the Bible, there isn’t just one Herod, who reigned for a long time and did loads of beastly stuff. Actually, there are several Herod’s, who are all related, and who all seemed to enjoy doing beastly stuff! ‘Horrible Histories’ could run a whole series on this family. Probably the most famous Herod, is Herod ‘the Great’. He is the one in the Christmas story who tries to deceive the wise men. Today’s one, in Acts 12, is his grandson, called Herod Agrippa I. He was a dangerous enemy with dangerous intent. He was ‘intending to persecute’ ‘the church’ (v.1), and Simon/Peter, one of the early church leaders is his target. Why?

If we take the Bible, as a whole, then we should take a step back to answer that question. One of the most helpful books is the book of Job, which Tim has just started a series on. The first couple of chapters offered us a backstage pass. We saw Satan’s desire to bring turmoil to the life of God’s servant. He was granted permission to bring great evil into that man’s life. He was given license to take life – members of Job’s family die. This devilish desire, and the request which he makes to God, ties in with Simon/Peter’s life. He was one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. Jesus said to him (Luke 22:31-32), ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.’

Satan wants everyone – ‘Satan has asked to sift all of you’. I read a lovely illustration recently, where the holes in this sieve of Satan, were said to be in the shape of every unbeliever - they just fall through. But believers are a different shape. They are wrapped in something – faith surrounds them. They don’t fit through the holes in Satan’s sieve. But the material of that sieve has jagged edges. When the devil shakes believers with the turmoil of life’s washing machine, their faith can start to be stripped away. The more that faith is eroded, the closer they come to slipping through – to dropping out of the Christian life altogether. Is that what is going to happen? It will if their faith fails. Then they will be the same shape as everyone else and return to Satan’s pile. But what Jesus promised Simon/Peter, he promises to all his faithful people – I have prayed for you… that your faith may not fail’. It is a truly wonderful promise. Let’s see what happens to Peter – it is awesome, and should provide instruction and hope and comfort for all the Lord’s people.

So, should Christians gamble? Should we weigh up the odds, and have a flutter on the 3.30 at Epsom, now and then? There’s a debate for another day! However, this chapter is definitely inviting us to weigh up the odds. It is asking us to really understand how from an on-the-ground perspective, the odds are really stacked against Peter. Deliverance seems nigh on impossible!

There are two sides in this conflict. Satan’s agent, called Herod, is on one side. He appears so powerful. Have you ever heard the expression, ‘he/she has got the devil in him/her’? Herod certainly had the devil behind him. And he had other powerful backers. He was ‘King’. He had succeeded in procuring the backing of three successive Roman rulers, and each one had added to his sphere of influence. And, not only did he have the backing of the Empire, he also had the support of those with influence and control in that society, the Jewish Council, having shielded them from Roman excess. He was evidently ‘savvy’ – he had political wit. And, he had the support of mainstream public opinion. Verse 3, tells us that what he was doing, ‘met with approval among the Jews’.

It’s such a powerful tool, and Herod seems to have been able to do as he pleased. Herod has the authority to arrest, and the authority to convict and condemn. He had already murdered James, another of the original twelve disciples. He could call upon armed guards and supply them in ridiculous quantities – verse 4 has Peter being guarded by sixteen armed soldiers! One former fisherman against 16 men of war. I think Herod must have spent the previous Friday evening watching his box-set of Indiana Jones movies! And we are told something else about these soldiers which is significant. In verse 19 they were executed after Peter’s miraculous disappearance. Apparently this was not uncommon. What better way to ensure that guards stayed switched on, than for them to know that if their prisoner escapes from a sentence, they get a death sentence?! And, actually, that is what Peter himself faced. Herod, in deference to the Jewish crowd, had held up proceedings for Passover week. But let’s be sure of this – Peter, after his mock trial, was going the way of James. And all these things are added together into one word in verse 5. It’s the word ‘So’.

‘So Peter was kept in prison’. Why was Peter in prison? Because of all Herod’s power. ‘So’ - because of all those things listed. Herod’s boundless resources are all lined up on one side of verse 5, where Peter is in on Death Row. Then there is a comma and on the other side is the resource of the church. It looks pathetic. What did the church have to set against Herod and his evil intent? They could close their eyes and say some stuff. That is all they have at their disposal. And yet, against all odds, they prevail.

Psalm 34:15 tells us that ‘The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry’. Hebrews 10:19-22 instructs us in this way - ‘brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water’. That was the situation that the church was really in. Herod seemed to hold all the cards. Peter was chained, and guarded and the iron gate of this maximum security prison was bolted. But, because of Jesus, heaven’s door itself – and the ear of God, stood wide open. These people weren’t just speaking words to the wind. They had an audience with a loving ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 6 9).

They prayed ‘earnestly’. In the original Greek language of the New Testament this is the word ‘ektenōs’. It is only found here and one other place. Peter himself uses it, in 1 Peter 1:22, and there it is translated, in our NIV, as ‘deeply’. He is instructing believers about how they should be with each other. He says, ‘love one another deeply’, and to clarify what he means, he adds this, ‘from the heart’.

There is a similar Greek word to ‘ektenōs’ found at Gethsemane, in Luke 22:44. It is ‘ektenesteron’. It describes the prayer of our Lord Jesus in that Garden. ‘Ektenesteron’ is like ‘ektenōs’ plus! And it is translated as ‘more earnestly’. How earnest is more earnestly. Again, it is clarified - ‘his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground’.

Hopefully, these things can inform our thinking. In verse 5, ‘the church was earnestly praying to God for (Peter)’. These were deep, heartfelt prayers, coming from ‘sprinkled’ hearts. These people prayed together. We may have an issue with public prayer. We may struggle. We may feel that we are just so inarticulate compared to some of our brothers and sisters. But, does our Lord really care whether we can order our thoughts and express them with outstanding sentence structure? I think Acts 12 is telling us that he cares a whole lot about where those words come from. If those words are wonderfully structured but they originate from 2mm behind our lips, then what is their real value? But, if our thoughts and language are muddled, but our words are, nevertheless, honest and earnest, coming ‘deeply… from the heart’ then they are of immense value.

One of the church’s great mistakes has been to believe that it has to fight its ground using the same craft and resource that everyone else does. Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, ‘we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds’. Unbelievers do not have this weapon. James, in his epistle, does not tell us that everyone’s prayers are answered – only those made ‘righteous’ by the blood of Jesus - his church - his people. Their prayers are always ‘powerful and effective’ (James 5:16). In Acts 12, all that the church had was words ‘to God’. And words to God won the day.

This account unfolds with Peter’s rescue by ‘an angel of the Lord’ (v.7). This happening may appear far removed from our own experience of life but there are real lessons. Peter thinks it is a vision (v.9). It is only afterwards (v.11) that he looks back over what has taken place and realises what has happened. Are we prepared to do the same? If we do, then we may find ourselves surveying beauty, even within trauma. When we are brought through – when we are maintained from day to day - in times of deep trouble, can we see that our Lord still operates in the same way in the lives of Jesus’ people? ‘What? Angels?’, we may ask? ‘What even are angels?’, we may well ask! Thankfully Hebrews (1:14), again, can answer that question – ‘Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?’ We should be able to review our recent, indecent, past and come to Peter’s conclusion – to ‘know without a doubt that the Lord has sent… and (the Lord) has rescued’ us in our own times of need.

There are lessons also in the finer details of Peter’s rescue. Hopefully, it isn’t a Greek word overload day, today! But this one is too good to miss! In verse 10 we read about the iron gate opening. How did it open? ‘By itself’. What does that mean? Well the Greek word is ‘automatos’. From it, we derive our English word ‘automatically’. The gate opened automatically. It’s a world first – the first automatic gate in history! It reminds me of my cycle commute to work. I regularly pass a large property with a really solid set of iron gates. Would it be easy to pass through them? No, for me, it would be pretty much impossible. But I sometimes see the landowner arrive. For him, it is effortless. He doesn’t even move from where he is sat in his 4x4. He just presses a button and they open automatically. The contrast between me and him is massive. So it is between us and our God.

The great landowner of heaven and earth (see Psalm 50:9-15) doesn’t have a problem getting through gates that appear firmly closed to us. He can get through with ease. He can get us through almost at the touch of a button, if you like. Every barrier in our lives is under his control. When he wills, immovable obstacles move. Why don’t we just ask him?

So, the released Peter arrives at Mary’s place, where the church are gathered and still praying for this release. What fulfilment we have here of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 65:24)? – ‘Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear’.

We are introduced in verse 13-15 to this wonderful servant named Rhoda. Have you ever done what she did? Someone rings the doorbell and you know who it is and therefore you run ‘back’ deeper into the house, ‘without opening’ the door! But this wasn’t over a moment of social anxiety – this was over joy! ‘She was so overjoyed’ to witness this extra-ordinary deliverance, that convention went out the window – and Peter still couldn’t get in the door!

And then we have something so striking. She believes – but no one else does. Their language is harsh. It’s almost as if they think that she is having some psychedelichallucination – ‘‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her’ (v.15). But then they try to explain away reality with this crazy suggestion that perhaps she has confused an angel with a Middle-Eastern fisherman. They’re the ones that end up sounding like they’ve overdosed on magic mushrooms! What a lesson for the church. The servant girl, on the lowest rung of the social ladder sees the truth of the present situation, but no-one else does. Society takes little notice of those with little voice. But often, they are the ones with much needed insight. May Christ’s church be delivered from that same error of judgement.

And there’s more! The believers were praying correctly and earnestly - but for something that they didn’t actually believe would happen. They were ‘astonished’ (v.16) when their prayers were answered. Their perspective was too ground-level. They had weighed up the odds and failed to grasp what an awesome weapon prayer is. I find this really instructive. Sometimes I have found myself surveying situations in the life of the church where, rationally, I know what the end will be. It is as if the Lord has already answered, and his answer is no. I have then been inclined to modify what I pray for, to pray for a lesser outcome. I’d be ‘astonished’ otherwise. But, while Peter was in prison, had God become chained too – was the Lord now lesser? No! So it should be for me and for you. Brothers and sisters – keep praying for nothing less than what you would have God grant.

The chapter finishes with the end result. Herod, the powerful and resourceful ruler, in the prime of his life, meets with God’s judgement and goes to meet his maker. What a contrast we find in those last few words of verse 23 and then into verse 24? Herod ‘died. But the word of God continued to spread and flourish’. Against all odds, Herod is dead, but God’s word is living and breathing – breathing new life into new hearts – as Christ’s unstoppable mission continues ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

Will this always be so? Yes! How? Why? Because this local victory, here in Acts 12, and all the other victories of the church through the ages, all stem from the greatest victory humankind has ever witnessed.

A few years before the events of Acts 12, the Jewish Messiah, God’s promised Son, had arrived on earth’s scene. He was expected to lead a people to deliverance but, now, he lay dead – buried in a tomb, executed like a common criminal, because people just couldn’t stomach the truth that he told them about themselves and their desperate need of him. How could he rescue people now? If ever something was against the odds, it was that Sunday morning in Jerusalem’s graveyard, when those ladies went to the tomb ‘looking for Jesus, who was crucified’, as described in Matthew 28. They were ministered to, in the first instance by ‘an angel of the Lord’. He had news for them. He said this of Jesus – ‘He is not here; he has risen…’

Jesus looked defeated. His mission looked as dead as he was. Death had won the battle in the same way that it had defeated every person before him. But, no. He had risen. Death was defeated. Jesus, the eternal ‘word’ of God lives for evermore. All our victories, as his people, stem from that moment in history. Whether we are delivered like Peter was to fight another day, or called home – delivered like James was, at the start of this chapter - we shall live and we shall triumph. Always – only – through him. Let our focus be there – Let us look back to the cross and the death there of all our shortcoming and failure. Let us remember resurrection news. Let us fix our eyes on him who died, for us, and now lives forever, for us, and is the sole reason (and our soul reason) that our faith will not fail.

Hebrews 12:1-3 says this, ‘let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart’.


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