(The following sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church of Benbrook on December 13, 2009)
Over the last couple of weeks, we have been looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of some very unlikely witnesses, the members of the Herodian ruling family. In various ways, the kings of Judea who bore the name of Herod witnessed the life of Christ. As far as I know, none of them were believers in Christ; in fact, most of them used their earthly power to oppose His teachings or to persecute His followers. But each of them witnesses the Christ in a unique way, and I am interested in seeing Christ through their eyes that I might learn more about the Savior.
I have also been playing off of the basic storyline of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge met the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The reason I like Dickens’ motif is that as the various Herods met the Christ, they met the Eternal Christ, the One who was, and is, and is to come. For example, Herod the Great ruled Judea during the birth of Christ, and he experienced the One who was becoming the One who is. He experienced the incarnation. His son, Herod Antipas, experienced Christ as the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. He experienced the One who is. Today, our attention turns to yet another Herod who experienced the eternal Christ, and so we turn our attention to Acts chapter 12.
Herod Agrippa was born in 10 BC into the family of Herod the Great. His father was one of those unlucky souls who were executed by Herod the Great during the last years of his rule. After his father was executed, Agrippa was sent to live in Rome with his mother Bernice. He grew up among the imperial family, making lifelong friends and enemies. These family connections would both help him and hinder him for the rest of his life.
As a young man, he played the part of the irresponsible and spoiled rich child, and he went so heavily into debt that he had to flee Rome in his early 30s to get away from his creditors. Fortunately for him, his uncle, Herod Antipas, offered him asylum in Tiberius. But after a few years, he returned to Rome and quickly managed to offend the Emperor and was put in prison. A year later, that Emperor died, and Caligula took over the empire. When Caligula became Emperor, not only did the new Emperor release Agrippa from prison, but he also made him King over two territories in Palestine. Later, when his uncle Antipas was banished into exile, Agrippa was given his territories, too. When Caligula died in 41 AD, the new Emperor Claudius, who just so happened to be a childhood friend of Agrippa, added Judea and Samaria to Agrippa’s territory. Eventually, at the height of his rule, Agrippa ended up ruling the entire kingdom of his grandfather, Herod the Great. However, this would not last long, as he died three years later at the age of 54 (44 AD).
So, to put Agrippa’s rule in context, Jesus was crucified in 31 AD and Agrippa became King of all Judea ten years later. Which means, that when Agrippa became King of Judea, the church was about ten years old.
As a ruler of Judea, Agrippa knew the Jewish masses basically hated the Herodian family line, so he worked very hard to curry their favor. He was credited with sparing the Jewish people a major catastrophe. Caligula had this awful plan to put a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple, Agrippa talked him out of it. Agrippa also embraced the Jewish customs and actually participated in their festivals. For example, according to one Jewish tradition, the king was supposed to read a particular text from the book of Deuteronomy during one festival. Of Agrippa’s participation in this festival, the Jewish traditions say,
King Agrippa received the scroll standing and read it standing (signs of respect, contrary to the practice of previous Roman rulers), and for this the Sages praised him. And when he reached, “Thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee which is not thy brother” (Deuteronomy 17.15), his eyes flowed with tears (because of his Edomite ancestry), but they called out to him, “Our brother art thou! Our brother art thou! Our brother art thou!”
As the Christian movement within the Jewish population began to grow, Agrippa viewed it as divisive and felt their activities could only disturb the peace. So, he aggressively persecuted the Christians, arrested believers, and had James, the brother of John, executed. Seeing how this please the Jewish leaders so much, he arrested Peter with similar plans, which brings us to Acts chapter 12.
Before we get to our text today, I want to put it in context. Herod the Great was an eyewitness to the incarnation. Herod Antipas was an eyewitness to the life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. But Herod Agrippa was an eyewitness to the Exalted Christ. The Christ that Agrippa is about to experience in Acts 12 was no longer on this earth in human form. These events are over ten years after the ascension. The Christ that Agrippa would experience had returned to heaven and was sitting at the right hand of God the Father. And at first glance, we might thank that Agrippa did not experience Christ at all because Christ is no longer on the earth, but that would be a theologically shallow understanding of the events of Acts 12. Christ, while no longer in the form of a human, was still very much alive in Judea. Agrippa will experience the risen Christ and bear witness to the continued working of the Exalted Christ.
Before we read the text, let us do just a bit of theology. First, we know that Jesus is going to return on some appointed day in the future. What is Jesus doing right now as He is waiting for that day? Is He taking a cosmic nap? Is He sitting on the throne playing Sudoku’s? Remember, Jesus is the Eternal Triune God, and He was active in creation, He was active during the Old Testament as The Angel of the Lord, He was active during the days of the incarnation, and He continues to be active even today.
To illustrate this, listen to the words of the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 8. Listen as Paul describes the experience of the Christ today. He wrote,
9You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Romans 8.9-11)
In three verses, the Bible teaches us that the Spirit of God lives in us, and the Spirit of Christ is in us, and Christ is in us, and the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is in us, and God’s Spirit is in us. Paul is either theologically schizophrenic, or He is right on the money. The Spirit of God indwells the believer, and the Spirit of God is the Spirit of the Father, the Spirit of Christ, and the Holy Spirit because the Three are One and the One are Three. This is what we mean when we speak of the Eternal Triune God. This is why Paul can say with confidence, God has “chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1.27).
The reason I take the time to go through all of that is the Exalted Christ that Agrippa experiences is not just sitting on the throne twiddling his thumbs, waiting for His time to re-enter the stage of salvation history. The Exalted Christ indwells the believers that Agrippa is about to meet in Acts 12. Or to put it more directly, the Exalted Christ is at work in, through, and around the believers of Acts 12. And this is the Exalted Christ whom Agrippa experiences, even though Agrippa probably did not know what he was seeing. But he is going to meet the Exalted Christ through James, Peter, the church, and even through an angel of the Lord. With that being said, let us read together the text of Acts 12.1-24
1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. 20He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
21On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
24But the word of God continued to increase and spread. (Acts 12.1-24 NIV)
Herod Agrippa experienced the Exalted Christ at work in, through, and around those who believed up Christ and who followed Christ.
The first thing that Agrippa should have experienced is that Christ is at work, accomplishing His eternal plan, and there is nothing that the rulers of this world can do that can hinder his work. Christ is the Eternal Creator, the Sustainer of All Things (Hebrews 1.3), the Eternal King, and the Righteous Judge. His plans and His work cannot be thwarted by even the most powerful of humans nor their schemes. Pharaoh, the most powerful military ruler on the planet couldn’t keep God from Redeeming His people from Egypt. And this Herod Agrippa would be no different. Which is exactly why the book of Acts quotes from Psalm 2 when considering the attempts of Pilate and Herod Antipas to stop the life and ministry of Jesus by arresting Him and putting Him to death.
“Why do the nations rage and the people’s plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One? (Acts 4.26).
Agrippa experienced the Exalted Christ who was at work, and try as hard as he could, Agrippa could not put a stop to the plans of God. And in the context of Acts 12, the work of God is spreading the good news of the gospel.
But, O how Agrippa tried. He persecuted those who belonged to the church (Acts 12.1). He executed one of their key leaders, James the brother of John (Acts 12.2). And now he had arrested the other key leader, Peter. All Agrippa had to do was to wait until the festival was over, and then he would bring out Peter for a gripping show trial that would be tweeted about around the world. And then, Agrippa would have Peter executed, and the Jewish population of Judea would love him even the more. To make sure this nasty plan of his would work out, he doubled the guard on Peter.
But none of that really bothered the Exalted Christ, and it was not going to keep Christ from doing His work in and through and around the believers. Agrippa doubled the guards, putting one on each side of Peter. No matter to the Exalted Christ, He just put them to sleep. Agrippa doubled the chains on Peter’s wrists. No matter to the Exalted Christ since He created the element of iron anyway with its atomic number of 26, “Fe” on the table of elements. That didn’t bother the Exalted Christ. He simply spoke, and the iron on the shackles parted like the waters of the Red Sea. Agrippa put three levels of guards around Peter. No matter to the Exalted Christ. He just walked right past them and the eyes of the guards, which were created by Christ, didn’t see a thing. Agrippa locked Peter away in the most secure fortress of the land, the Antonia Fortress which butted up to the walls around the Temple mount. No bother to the Exalted Christ, He just spoke and the big iron gates opened wide.
Why do the nations rage and the people plot in vain? The eternal plans of the Exalted Christ cannot be thwarted by even the most powerful of earthly forces. And Agrippa was catching the live show. There is a word of encouragement, isn’t there, in knowing that the work of the Exalted Christ cannot be thwarted by even the most powerful.
But there is something else that King Agrippa experienced about this risen and exalted Christ. This Christ was working His plan in, through, and around His people. Not only was Christ at work, but Christ was at work in partnership with people who faithed in Him.
And this confounded the powerful elite of Judea. Earlier in the book of Acts, these two leaders of the Christian movement, Peter and John, were brought before the ruling elite. The Exalted Christ was at work through them preaching and teaching about the resurrection. Thousands were coming to faith in Christ in the city of Jerusalem. The elders and the Sanhedrin had Peter and John arrested hoping to squelch the work of Christ. When they brought these two before them, to intimidate them and to question them, they were astonished to realize that God was at work in and through such unremarkable people. The book of Acts tells it this way,
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4.13)
How can God work through people like this? They have not been properly educated. They don’t have the right connections. They don’t belong to the right groups. They don’t have the right credentials. These are ordinary working stiffs, fishermen no less. Which is why the Scriptures say,
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1.26-29)
Agrippa experienced that not only is the Exalted Christ at work, but He is at work in, through, and around the unworthy, unlikely, unlearned, common, and ordinary believers. And much of the time, these common, ordinary believers have very common and ordinary faith.
Did you like the prayer meeting that took place at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. When the church found out that Peter was in prison and scheduled to be executed, they immediately gathered in prayer. And they were “earnestly praying” to God for Peter (Acts 12.5). And as they are gathered in prayer, earnestly praying for God to help Peter, for God to protect Peter, for God to somehow do something miraculous for Peter, there is a knock on the door.
Poor little Rhoda. She recognized Peter’s voice and was so overjoyed that Peter was no longer in prison, she left him standing on the front stoop. She must have burst into the prayer room sounding like a crazy woman because that’s what the people said, “You are out of your mind.” That can’t be Peter. Peter is locked up in a secure location. Peter is guarded by two soldiers on each side. Peter is locked up under heavy irons. That can’t be Peter.
What kind of prayer meeting is it when the people who have gathered to pray are totally astonished when their prayers are answered? Sounds like the kind of prayers meetings that I attend. By that, I am not casting judgment on you. I am casting judgment on me. I am that prayer meeting. I am the guy earnestly praying for Peter, and then is totally astonished when God actually answers the prayer.
This is encouraging to me. The Exalted Christ is at work in, through, and around the believers, even the believers whose faith is imperfect and weak. Christ accepts the prayer of the guy who says, “I believe but help my unbelief.” And if Agrippa knew about this prayer meeting, he would have been aghast. “You mean, the Exalted Christ answered the prayers of this weak, common, and ordinary group of people who really didn’t even believe in the very thing they were praying for?”
The Scriptures are true. God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. The Exalted Christ was at work, in, through, and around the believers accomplishing the eternal plan of God.
And did you notice the angels. People love angels. For most people, angels are powerful spirit beings who help us humans when we have need. But that is such a simple, worldly, Oprah Winfrey definition of angels. We have always misunderstood angels. Peter thought the angel sent to help him was just a dream (12.9). The people at the prayer meeting had some crazy notion that we each have our own angel and our angel looks like us (12.15). The Bible does not tell us very much about angels. The simplest of all biblical teachings about angels is found in Hebrews.
“…angels are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1.14)
Though a simple statement, we learn something very important about angels: angels are sent. Angels are not independent spirit beings who wonder through the netherworld helping those with good intentions. Angels are sent. And the sender of angels is God. Angels do the bidding of the God who sends them. Behind every angel is God, the Savior and Redeemer. Which means we can never divorce the ministry of angels from the eternal plan of God which is to liberate us from sin and conform us into the image of Christ.
And the ministry of angels, thank goodness, is not dependant upon my understanding of angels. The Scriptures say that we often encounter angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13.2). God is at work, in, through, and around me even when I don’t understand what He is doing or how He is doing it. By the way, this is exactly the definition of faith given to us in Hebrews 11.1, “being sure of what we hope for and confident of what we cannot see.” And all I can say to that is thank God that His plan is not dependant upon my ability to understand it.
I am involved in stuff I don’t understand all the time. I have no clue how a combustible engine works, but I have been driving one everyday for the last 26 years. I have no idea how ibuprofen works, but I know my achy muscles feel better after a long run if take two of them. I have no idea how a little black box that can fit in my pocket is able to take my voice, convert it into invisible waves that bounce through the air, land in a little black box in my wife’s purse, make a ringy dingy sound, and then let’s me talk to her as if I am standing face to face with her. I have no idea how that works, but that doesn’t keep me from talking to her through my cell phone about ten times a day. One day I will understand everything there is to know about angels, but for now I rejoice that God is carrying out His eternal plan within me, through me, and around me even though my faith and understanding is often incomplete and so very weak.
And speaking about incomplete understanding, there is one last thing we need to mention about Agrippa’s experience with the Exalted Christ. He came to learn that the Exalted Christ is at work even today. The Exalted Christ is carrying out His eternal plan, in and through and around ordinary and common believers whose faith and understanding is not always what it should be. But Agrippa also came to know that many times, it can appear that the Exalted Christ is not at work at all.
When we read the story of Acts 12, what catches our eyes is the story of Peter and the miracle that brought him to freedom. But let us not forget about poor, little James. Peter, James, and John were the elite core of the apostolic Twelve. Several times during the ministry of Jesus, Jesus would have the Twelve wait for Him but He would take Peter, James, and John along with Him for a special experience. For example, it was Peter, James, and John alone who were with Jesus at the transfiguration (Luke 9.28). On the night of His arrest, Jesus took with Him Peter, James, and John for a time of anguished prayer (Mark 14.32). These three were the inner circle, and the Exalted Christ sent an angel to deliver Peter. But where was the Exalted Christ when James was in prison?
Surely when the church heard of James’ arrest, they must have gathered in prayer. It might not have been at Mary’s house, but surely they gathered in earnest prayer for James. And yet, in one brief sentence, James was put to death with the sword. At that moment, where was the Exalted Christ?
The Exalted Christ is at work carrying out His eternal plan in, and through, and around those who faith in Him. But, His final work will not be completed until after He returns in all of His splendor. Where was the Exalted Christ when James was executed? At the same place where He was when Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7. And at the same place where He will be when the blood of the saints will be poured out in the future as prophesied in the book of Revelation. He sits on the throne of all creation, patiently waiting, not wanting any to perish but all to come to faith in Christ. And so the Exalted Christ is waiting for the fullness of time to cause every knee to bow and every tongue confess. And in the wisdom of the Exalted Christ, sometimes He intervenes in the plans of the wicked and sends His angels to deliver His saints. And other times, in His sovereign wisdom, He does not. But we must remember that Christ is at work in, through, and around our lives carrying out His eternal plan, even when we don’t understand how His actions, or lack thereof, is accomplishing His divine plan.
One day the Exalted Christ will return in full splendor. And the whole world will see His working, and there will be no doubt as to His sovereignty. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John had a vision of the return of this Exalted Christ. John, brother of the executed James, saw the Exalted Christ in all His glory, and He was given a vision of what Christ would look like on the great day of His return. The apostle John wrote,
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19.11-16)
Why doesn’t the Exalted Christ return today? I do not know; its beyond my understanding. Why didn’t the Exalted Christ intervene and rescue Stephen or James? Again, I don’t know. Why did Peter, even after his miraculous deliverance from prison have leave for another place and hide from Agrippa (12.17)? Why would Peter later become one of those saints martyred for their faith? I don’t know. But I do know that the Exalted Christ will allow nothing to hinder His eternal plan.
Remember, the Exalted Christ has an eternal plan for your life. You were not born for this world, you were born for eternity. Stephen was not born for Jerusalem; he was born for eternity. James was not born for Jerusalem; he was born for eternity. Peter was not born for Judea; he was born for eternity. And you and I were not born for Benbrook; we were born for eternity. And nothing can hinder the Exalted Christ from working out His eternal plan in His sovereign wisdom in your life.
Agrippa experienced first hand the continuing work of the Exalted Christ, carrying out the eternal plan of God in and through and around those who faithed in Him even with common and imperfect faith. The power of the Christmas story did not end when the shepherds and magi returned to their homes. The work of God, where angels guide and deliver, where prayers are answered, where God does miraculous and great things, that work continues even today. And in His sovereignty, the Exalted Christ is at work in and through and around us each and every day. I leave you with the words of Christ,
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16.33)