Speak to us, Lord, and give us ears to hear your word. In Jesus name. Amen.
When you see someone who is an obvious enemy of the gospel doing well for themselves, and going up in the world, what do you think? When politicians and rulers of nations have policies and issue directives that do deliberate damage to the cause of Christ, but seem to come well out of it, what do you make of it? When you see followers of Christ under pressure and being attacked – even physically attacked in some parts of the world – and their attackers not only seem to get away with it scott free but even seem to benefit from what they're doing, how do you respond? When the enemies of Christ seem to be winning, what's God up to?
When life is comfortable for us, these kinds of questions are not very pressing. But for many Christians around the world, to say that life is very uncomfortable as a direct result of their faith in Christ is an understatement. If we identify with them as we should, or if we end up finding ourselves under that kind of pressure – which is coming closer and closer to home – then those kinds of questions become very pressing indeed. How do we answer them?
Well, our passage from Acts this evening can be a great help if we understand its implications. My title is 'Still Unstoppable'. The passage is Acts 12.19b-24. It's the section headed in the NIV 'Herod's death'. And as we think about this I have four headings that attempt to draw out those implications for us. They are these. First, the enemies of Christ might prosper for a while. Secondly, prospering leads to idolatry and arrogant pride. Thirdly, the proud will be brought to judgement and removed. And fourthly, the Kingdom of Christ will keep on growing. Let me go through those one by one and show you where they're coming from.
First, THE ENEMIES OF CHRIST MIGHT PROSPER FOR A TIME
Take a look at Acts 12.19b-20:
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. He had been quarrelling 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.
Here is a classic piece of political manoeuvring and mutual back-scratching, with Herod coming out on top. But let me clarify a few things before we go any further.
Which Herod are we talking about here? Because there are at least three different Herods we need to be aware of. The first Herod was Herod the Great who tried to kill the new born Jesus. That was the grandfather of this Herod. The second Herod was called Herod Antipas, and he was the one to whom Pontius Pilate sent Jesus for so-called trial about ten years before this. He was the son of Herod the Great and the uncle of this Herod. Thirdly, there was this Herod, called Herod Agrippa.
All three of them were nasty pieces of work. The first, Herod the Great, murdered the children of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The second, Herod Antipas, beheaded John the Baptist and colluded with the crucifixion of Jesus. The third, Herod Agrippa, was no better. This family had a bad track record. Think Saddam Hussein and his sons in Iraq.
Let me tell you a bit more about Herod Agrippa. It's clear that he's an enemy of Christ. We saw that in the first part of Acts 12, which was about Peter's miraculous escape from prison. But of course it wasn't just about Peter's escape – it was about the persecution that put Peter in prison in the first place. That persecution was a deliberate policy of Herod. Look back to Acts 12.1:
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.
Herod had a deliberate policy of persecuting Christians. Why? Quite possibly to curry favour with those Jews who also hated the Christians and wanted to be rid of them. What does he do next? He kills the apostle James. Verse 2:
He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
This seems to work well from his vicious, brutal and calculating point of view. Verses 3-4:
When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After 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.
Clearly the purpose of the trial was to sentence Peter to death, to generate excitement and acclaim from the crowd. But God acts to rescue Peter and free him from prison. Then Herod demonstrates his even-handed brutality by his response. It's there in Acts 12.19a – just before our passage:
After Herod had a thorough search made for [Peter] and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
It's clear that Herod is a brutal enemy of Christ, the gospel and the church. But Herod is also prospering. A word here about his earlier life. Herod Agrippa was brought up in the household of the Roman emperor Tiberias, along with the boys who would later become the emperor Caligula and the emperor Claudius. As a young adult he'd had a tempestuous time and even spent time behind bars. But after a while he was able to milk his long-term friendship with Caligula and then Claudius and, to cut a long story short, he became more and more powerful, richer and richer, and ruler of a greater and greater territory. All his dreams of wealth, power and glory seemed to be coming true. Even his persecution of the Christians was improving his poll ratings.
Now the point is this. That happens. The enemies of Christ might prosper for a while. You can see it over and over again. So when we do see it, we shouldn't be surprised. Our faith must not be shaken. The Bible warns us over and over again – not least right here in Acts 12 – that this is going to happen in these last days. There will be times when the church is going to get hurt, and those who do the hurting will seem to do well by it, and will be in the ascendant for a time.
We help to support a couple involved in Bible translation in Indonesia. Ten years ago they used to live in a place called Ambon in Indonesia, from which they would travel to the islands where they were working. But a persecution broke out. I have a copy of a press release from that time. Let me quote parts of it:
"The terrible ordeal of Christians in Ambon looks set to end in their complete annihilation," says Dr Patrick Sookdheo, director of the Barnabas Fund, who is receiving daily reports from sources in Ambon… The militant group Laskar Jihad have been announcing by loudspeaker their intention to exterminate all Christians in Ambon.. A deadline of 31 July was given for all Christians in Ambon city to leave, or be killed. The militants are systematically cleansing area by area of Christians, ransacking and burning their homes… Inadequately clothed for the rainy season, [the Christians] are wet, hungry, sick and terrified. [Some of them] despair of finding safety anywhere… thinking they will be attacked whereever they go, including out at sea. "They assess the risk of drowning as higher than the risks of being killed. What a terrible choice!" commented one source… Other reports describe Christians who are so traumatised by the killings and destruction that they cannot make decisions but just sit and stare… President Abdurrahman Wahid refuses to allow the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers.
I also have a copy of an email sent out by that missionary family, who were away on the islands at the time. It reads (in part):
… we heard by Sat Phone that our house in Ambon .. has been burned down along with all the other houses in that part of the village.. There have also been snipers shooting people dead in the Christian areas of the city… We have come to accept that the house we have rented for 16 years.. (and which our children think of as their primary home) has been burnt down along with most of our possessions… Our plight is nothing compared to that of our Indonesian friends many of whom have had to flee for their lives from their houses, losing everything they own.
I know this family well. This is just ten years ago. Similar things happen regularly in different parts of the world. How do we react? The first thing to be clear about is that these things will happen, with apparent impunity for the perpetrators. They will even seem to succeed in their aims. Like Herod, the enemies of Christ might prosper for a while.
Secondly, PROSPERING LEADS TO IDOLATRY AND ARROGANT PRIDE
Herod is throwing a party. He's up on the coast at Caeserea, his alternative sea-side capital, full of his new, grand and impressive building developments. Tyre and Sidon are two independent city-states further up the coast in what is now Lebanon. They'd been in a dispute with Herod, but they've knuckled under, for the simple reason that Herod controlled their food supply, and they didn't want to go hungry. They wanted peace, and they'd turned up to the party too. So Herod was on a high. Look at verses 21-22:
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man."
Does Herod immediately shut them up and make clear that he is indeed a mere man? No such thing. He accepts this latest promotion to divine status. He rather likes it.
Now as it happens there's another account of just this incident from outside the Bible, written by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus. He says that, on the second day of Herod's great festival in Caeserea…
… [Herod] put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful fabric, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment, illuminated by the reflection of the sun's rays upon it, shone out in a startling way, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked closely at him; and his flatterers began to cry out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, "Be merciful to us; for although up to now we have respected you only as a man, from now on we will know you as more than merely human." On hearing this, the king neither rebuked them, nor did he reject their impious flattery.
[Josephus: Antiquities, 19.8.2]
So not only are others idolising Herod, but also he is accepting their adulation and idolatry. That makes him guilty of self-idolatry – the ultimate in godless pride and self-glorification. That incident makes a striking contrast to the transfiguration of Jesus, which Luke recorded earlier in his Gospel. Then, as he says, up on the mountain…
As [Jesus] was praying , the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him."
In other words Jesus is glorified by his heavenly Father, because he is the glorious Son of God. Herod, though, tries to usurp the place of God on the throne, and glorifies himself, though he is a mere proud man.
The warning about such behaviour is there in Proverbs 16.18:
Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall.
When we see such behaviour in others, we need to be aware that God will not overlook that kind of dangerous self-exaltation for ever. Pride comes before a fall. But we also need to look to ourselves. We might not claim to be divine. But we all too easily try and push God off the throne of our lives. We need to take note of what the apostle Peter himself says (this is 1 Peter 5.5):
All of you, clothes yourselves with humility towards one another, because "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand…
Those who do well in life very readily take all the credit for that and ignore God's grace. They begin to put themselves on a pedestal, especially if other people do the same. That is very, very dangerous. Prospering leads to idolatry and arrogant pride. That's point two.
Thirdly, THE PROUD WILL BE BROUGHT TO JUDGEMENT AND REMOVED
Back to Acts 12, and to verses 22-23:
They shouted, This is the voice of a god, not of a man. Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Herod's death also features in Josephus's account. He says:
A severe pain … arose in [Herod's] belly, and began in a most violent manner… And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life...
[Josephus: Antiquities, 19.8.2]
Luke is looking behind the curtain, as it were, to see what God is doing in all this. And he is clear that Herod's sudden and fatal illness is to be seen as God's judgement on him because of his idolatrous pride.
As Peter said, God opposes the proud. God might allow them to flourish for a while, and even cause severe harm to God's faithful people. But they will not in the end be allowed to stand. All who try to rule in the place of the living God are brought low. All who glorify themselves will be humbled.
That means that when the church is suffering, we can trust God to deal with our persecutors in his own way and in his own time. We don't need to be afraid of them. We don't need to be afraid that God has forgotten us. He hasn't. He is working out his mysterious purposes, as he was through Herod's persecution of James and Peter and the others. The proud will be brought to judgement and removed. Point three. Which brings me to my fourth and final heading.
Fourthly, THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST WILL KEEP ON GROWING
There in verse 24 is one of those marvellous little summary statements about what's going on in which Luke specialises. Take a look:
But the word of God continued to increase and spread.
In the end, however fierce the opposition – even the violence – against the church and the message of Christ, nothing and noone can stop the gospel.
One apostle has been killed. Another has been imprisoned. But the church prayed. The cause of God went forward. The enemies of the gospel come to nothing.
That doesn't mean the church's suffering ends. It won't end until the glorious day when Christ returns. In some situations we will have to be ready for some becoming martyrs. So this is a very realistic, down to earth message. But nonetheless – however bleak things look, and however dominant and successful the enemies of the gospel seem to be – this is a message bursting with hope.
I mentioned that email from our friends and misson partners in Indonesia whose house in Ambon was burnt to the ground, and who were reporting on the suffering of their Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters. As I said, although they were away working on Bible translation in the outlying islands, it was written in the midst of the crisis. The email goes on:
We are grateful that the area we work in .. is peaceful. So much so that we are actually able to be here at present and are continuing our work.
Or as Luke puts it:
But the word of God continued to increase and spread.
And the email finishes like this:
We are immensely comforted and supported by God's presence with us. He has helped every member of our family in dealing with the emotions and sense of loss connected with what has happened. Despite the war, and the horrible things happening in Maluku, He remains the Sovereign Lord of history, and the time will come when "The earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea."
And it is signed off: "In his grip." The living God of the Book of Acts is the same God today. The enemies of Christ – like Herod – might prosper for a while. Prospering will lead to idolatry and arrogant pride. But we need not fear. The proud will be brought to judgment and removed. And the kingdom of Christ will keep on growing. As John Stott puts it, looking back over Acts 12:
The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place.