Firstly my apologies, until last week, when Dave stood up to speak, I was under the impression that we were doing a series on lesser known figures in the bible… I didn’t know it had to be a male character.. So this week is going to be slightly different and we are going to look at the lesser known girls in the book of Acts… count yourselves lucky because I was considering speaking on Balaam's donkey.
I don’t need to tell you, anyone paying the slightest attention to current affairs will know that we are living in a time of ever increasing darkness.
A five-minute glance at the headlines is enough to confirm this.
It's evident in the corruption that infects almost every level of society nevermind the government.
It's evident in movies we watch and social media we digest.
We often hear that this is a cultural or Ideological battle… BUT it is not!
Ephesians is very clear on this.. "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. . ." It is a spiritual battle.
But there is GOOD NEWS, there is something that we as believers can do about it!
The passage that we are going to look at this morning and the unsung hero on whom we will focus stand out as an example of a remarkable story of how the early church combated the growing darkness.
This morning's message is going to about a young servant girls in Acts chapter 12, but before we dive into the story, it is really important that we understand the context, we need to set the scene.
To do this what I would like you to do is to page back through the book of Acts reading the headings. The first thing you will notice is the prominence of Peter, but this should not come as a surprise, because it was Christ himself, before he departed into heaven, who commissioned Peter, despite his failings, to “feed his lambs” and to “care for the sheep”. To continue in the pattern he had established of teaching, performing miraculous signs and training, as he had done with the disciples.
The second thing you will notice is the unity in fellowship of the body of believers.
The Fellowship of the Believers
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.
The third thing you will notice is the ramping up of the persecution and hardship for the young church.
First there were the persecutions from the Jewish religious authorities in Acts 3-4, where Peter and John are held and called before the Sanhedrin. The persecution of the Apostles in Acts 5, to the open hostility and stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. By Acts chapter 8 there is a great day of persecution and the church is scattered throughout Judea.
BUT as you page back through Acts, right back through the day of Pentecost, till the departure of Jesus back into heaven… One will be forgiven for thinking that the period of time from Jesus’ ascension till Peter's imprisonment in Chapter 12 is a couple of months… a year at the most.
This is not the case, in fact as best we can determine, Jesus was crucified in 29 AD and this event takes place some 12 years later in 41 AD. And in those 12 years the Jewish authorities had tried as best they could to stamp out the young church and all they had succeeded in doing was to drive the spread of the gospel. However, now the eyes of the state turn towards them… things are ratcheted up.
Now one will also be forgiven for thinking that the King Herod that is mentioned here in Acts 12 is that same Herod as mentioned in Matthew 2… which would make him a very old King and a long reign, but it is not.
- Herod Agrippa (AD 41 to 44), grandson of Herod the Great (Matthew 2), Nephew of the Herod (Antipas) whom Jesus had appeared before (Luke 23)
- After the death of his father, Herod the Great sends Marcus Julius Agrippa to be raised and educated in Rome
- There he befriends an number of prominent people and lives an extravagant life and amounts great debt
- He then sends time in exile and prison because of these political affiliations
- It is only with the rise of his friend Caligula to Roman Emperor in AD 37, that he is set free and he is made king
- Why mention all of this, because it is important to point out that Herod probably didn’t really care about the early church nor did he see them as a political threat, rather they were a tool, by openly persecuting and pursuing the church he was gaining favour in the eyes of the Jewish people
- Herod was a ruthless man, a political beast, who would quite willingly engage in murder to further his political aims
- The full weight of the state was now to bare down on the church
So with this in mind let's read the first couple of verses of the passage.
Peter’s Miraculous Escape From Prison
1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 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.
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
In these opening couple of verses the intentions of Herod are very clear. In order for him to gain favour with the Jewish people and leaders he rounds up some believers, and he beheads James the brother of John.
Herod looks to strike at the very head of the church.
NOTE: The hypocrisy of the Jews stands out, they pious observance of the Passover and the festival of the Unleavened Bread, while plotting evil against God’s children.
So what did the church do in the face of this incredible crisis?
What did they do when the entire world was seemingly stacked against them.
The church got down on their knees and they prayed!
The early church was a praying church.
When danger came, they prayed.
When dissention came, they prayed.
When they were desperate, they prayed.
And when they didn't know what to do, they prayed.
The early church was a praying church.
They knew that GOD is our ever-present source of help.
They knew that despite the overwhelming odds, PRAYER HAS THE POWER TO CHANGE!
Verse 5 is just the most profound verse!
So what is it that the early church got right, what can we learn here?
Well verse 5 lays out 4 key characteristics of powerful prayer:
- The Believers prayed UNTO GOD
- I know that this might sound very simple, but as revealed in scripture the motives of peoples prayers can often be misguided
- An all too often as believers our prayer is a last resort, we will try to do everything in our own strength first, and then pray
- Not so with the early church, to them Prayer is an act of complete surrender
- An acknowledgement through God all things are possible and that we can trust HIM
- Nor is their prayer, like the religious people, for show
- Here the believers were very definite, neither the object of their prayer, as we will see, nor the subject of their prayers is in any doubt
- The believers were UNITED in purpose
- The house of Mary could not have held more than 50-60 people… tops, and yet the words here in v5 are very clear “the church was in prayer…”
- In other words the believers, no matter where they were, gathering together in people's homes or by themselves, they were ALL praying
- It was a collective effort
- There are lots of things that the believers could have prayed for.
- They could have prayed for Herod, that God would deliver justice, that he would defeat their enemy
- But they didn’t, they prayed for Peter
- The believers were EARNESTLY in prayer
- Other version tell us that they were praying without ceasing or that constant prayer was offered
- In each of these translations what is very clear is that their prayer was URGENT, SINCERE & INTENSE
- It could not wait! They knew that Peter needed their prayer right now!
- I have on a number of occasions felt the overwhelming feeling that I needed to pray for someone… and I am embarrassed to say so but I sometimes ignored it… but on other occasions I have prayed… I have not know the outcome, but I have prayed
- I get this vision of them wrestling with God and they were not going to stop until their prayers had been answered
- It is not a halfhearted, casual or blasé prayer. It is prayer that pours forth from a burdened heart. That kind of prayer reaches heaven and moves the hand of God.
- Their prayer was one of FAITH
- God had delivered them before and he would do it again
- A hallmark of the early church was their dedication to prayer and their faith that God would provide
- However, in this case, the extent of the miracle took them all by surprise, and found them wanting
6 The 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.
Now not to distract us here but a quick note… I am not sure what you would be doing the night before your trial and most assured execution… but would you be getting a solid night's sleep… maybe in a feather bed… but sleeping on the hard ground between two soldiers…. I don’t think so…
Was this a consequence of the prayers of the believers, undoubtedly, but what I did find interesting is that this is not the first time Peter had fallen asleep.
Mount of transfiguration (Missed experience), Mount of Olive (unfaithful in his service), BUT this time, this time is different, it is also as though he sleeps soundly because of this unquestioning trust in our Saviour…. There a maturity to his slumber.
7 Suddenly 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.
8 Then 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. 9 Peter 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. 10 They 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.
11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”
12 When 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. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When 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.”
16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.
WOW, what an incredible account, what an astonishing miracle.
At first not even Peter believed what was happening. He thought that he was having a vision.
Our hero this morning is only mentioned once in the bible and she only last a couple sentences, but her story has a profound impact.
Peter knocked—Rhoda was shocked &--;The saints mocked.
What do we know about her:
- She was a young servant girl, probability no more than 12 years old and yet, she is mentioned by name
- Which implies that she was known to Peter and the believers
- It is clear that she was a believer who was not only participating in the pray gathering but she was involved in the life of the church in Jerusalem
- How do we know this?
- She knew Peter’s voice!
- The homes in Jerusalem had an outerwall facing the street with a door in it. The door had no windows or peepholes, and was kept shut for safety.
- Rhoda would not have been able to see who it was
- And yet she knew exactly who it was
- You see Rhoda knew his voice because she, even at this tender age, had listened to him, she had heard him teaching
- OWEN: Dogs
- You see being able to identify someone purely on their voice, implies an intimate knowledge of them
- Rhoda was a servant girl, but was not just a servant girl, this was not just her job
- She was a believer, she had spent hours listening to Peter, hanging on this every word, she could in the dead of night know his voice with conviction
- But that is not the only voice she knew, she also knew the voice of the Lord
- She cannot contain her excitement!
- She immediately knows that this is an answer to prayer!
- And she is so excited, thrilled and eager to share the news with the rest that leaves poor Peter out on the step.
- She forgets herself—and her duty—and runs inside to tell them all
- We can imagine how excitedly she shouted, “Peter is free! Peter is knocking at the door!” ACT OUT
- She is persistent!
- Her enthusiasm is met with what can only be described as mockery!
- “You must be mad!” they say
- BUT she is unperturbed, she is sure in her belief
- Although only the maid, she was not to be subdued by the sarcastic criticism
- Her young heart believed in God and in the power of prayer, and knew definitely that her prayer and the prayers of the believers had been answered
- She knew it was Peter, and nothing could move her from that belief
- Incredible, it is in her persistence that her FAITH is tested and revealed
Even though Rhoda is mentioned only briefly, we learn so very much from her.
But at the heart of it, this is the most valuable lesson. Our reactions reveal our true intent.
In order words it is easy to fake a lots of things, you can fake meeting together, you can fake urgency & earnestness with which you tackle something, you can fake unity, but what you cannot fake is your reaction to answered prayer.
You know the question that I have been contemplating is why did they not believe Rhoda? And not, not once… but multiple times… why did they mock her and say she was mad… why did they then try to make excuses, like it is an angel… why were they Astonished! They were surprised to see him.
I mean I get the circumstances, I get that they had been badly hurt by the murder of James and the arrest of Peter, I get that they were worried about Peter, I get that they did not understand what was going on...
But they had been praying for hours, they arguably had been through worse and yet when Peter stood at the door they did not believe it, and it is revealed in their response.
RHODA on the other hand stands in stark contrast!
Her reaction is also comical, her joy at the sight of answered prayer is complete and utter joy, beautifully child like in its exuberance, but in doing so her faith and trust in God is plain for the world to see.
The early church stands as a remarkable example to us as a praying church, they were not perfect!
On this occasion their Lack of faith was mingled with their prayers, and so they were surprised at the miracle God had performed in Peter’s escape from prison.
I am reminded here of the disciples in the boat on the sea of Galilee during the storm and Jesus was sleeping… they are afraid, they wake the Lord and he calms the seas… he rebukes them “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”
The outcome of the story is very different for James and Peter. One is miraculously set free while the other loses his head.
The severity of the situation, the enormity of the opposition must have been overwhelming, but the lesson Rhoda teaches us is that FAITH CONQUERS FEAR.
Why because her faith was not in the outcome, rather her faith was in God….
Faith isn’t a blind hope in a positive outcome, rather it is placing our trust in a God who is mighty.
We can always trust Him to do the right thing, even when we don't understand what He's doing. We can always trust God to do the right thing!
So how does this account end… happily ever after? Is this the end of the persecution of the early church… NOPE
For Herod, he doesn’t last too much longer, he is devoured by worms
As for Peter, well we know that Peter suffered for the Lord and was crucified, because that's what Jesus said would happen. But what I really want you to notice here is that Peter kept following the Lord. He kept going where the Lord wanted him to go. Peter kept serving the Lord.
24 But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.