God is Greater
Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-25
Sermon Theme: As we face opposition to Jesus and His Word, remember God. No one is greater or stronger than God almighty.
James was one of the sons of Zebedee, whom Christ told that they should drink of the cup that he was to drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that he was to be baptized with, Matthew 20:23. Now the words of Christ were made good in him; and if we suffer with Christ, we shall reign with him. Herod imprisoned Peter: the way of persecution, as of other sins, is downhill; when men are in it, they cannot easily stop. Those make themselves an easy prey to Satan, who make it their business to please men. Thus James finished his course. But Peter, being designed for further services, was safe; though he seemed now marked out for a speedy sacrifice. We that live in a cold, prayerless generation, can hardly form an idea of the earnestness of these holy men of old. But if the Lord should bring on the church an awful persecution like this of Herod, the faithful in Christ would learn what soul-felt prayer is.
A peaceful conscience, a lively hope, and the consolations of the Holy Spirit, can keep men calm in the full prospect of death; even those very persons who have been most distracted with terrors on that account. God’s time to help, is when things are brought to the last extremity. Peter was assured that the Lord would cause this trial to end in the way that should be most for his glory. Those who are delivered out of spiritual imprisonment must follow their Deliverer, like the Israelites when they went out of the house of bondage. They knew not whither they went, but knew whom they followed. When God will work salvation for his people, all difficulties in their way will be overcome, even gates of iron are made to open of their own accord. This deliverance of Peter represents our redemption by Christ, which not only proclaims liberty to the captives, but brings them out of the prison-house. Peter, when he recollected himself, perceived what great things God had done for him. Thus souls delivered out of spiritual bondage, are not at first aware what God has wrought in them; many have the truth of grace, that want evidence of it. But when the Comforter comes, whom the Father will send, sooner or later, he will let them know what a blessed change is wrought.
God’s providence leaves room for the use of our prudence, though he has undertaken to perform and perfect what he has begun. These Christians continued in prayer for Peter, for they were truly in earnest. Thus men ought always to pray, and not to faint. As long as we are kept waiting for a mercy, we must continue praying for it. But sometimes that which we most earnestly wish for, we are most backward to believe. The Christian law of self-denial and of suffering for Christ, has not done away the natural law of caring for our own safety by lawful means. In times of public danger, all believers have God for their hiding-place; which is so secret, that the world cannot find them. Also, the instruments of persecution are themselves exposed to danger; the wrath of God hangs over all that engage in this hateful work. And the range of persecutors often vents itself on all in its way.
Many heathen princes claimed and received Divine honors, but it was far more horrible impiety in Herod, who knew the word and worship of the living God, to accept such idolatrous honors without rebuking the blasphemy. And such men as Herod, when puffed with pride and vanity, are ripening fast for signal vengeance. God is very jealous for his own honor, and will be glorified upon those whom he is not glorified by. See what vile bodies we carry about with us; they have in them the seeds of their own dissolution, by which they will soon be destroyed, whenever God does but speak the word. We may learn wisdom from the people of Tyre and Sidon, for we have offended the Lord with our sins. We depend on him for life, and breath, and all things; it surely then behooves us to humble ourselves before him, that through the appointed Mediator, who is ever ready to befriend us, we may be reconciled to him, lest wrath come upon us to the utmost.
His crime for which he was executed (A.D. 44) was that he did not give God the glory, the very crime for which all the unregenerate who reject God will be condemned (Romans 1:18-23).
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- What is the true theme of the Bible? Is it not the works of God, and not of man? The reason why the Acts of the Apostles kills off one of the first three apostles in this fashion is simply that the writer’s theme is: the Word was cast forth diligently and brought forth fruit. Since it is Christ who is the true actor, it matters uncommonly little what becomes of James or of the other ten. What is the reason why so disproportionate a space of the gospel is concerned with the last two days of our Lord’s life on earth? What is the reason why years are leaped over in silence and moments are spread out in detail, but that the death of a man is only a death, but the death of Christ is the “life of the world?” James wakes none the less triumphantly in heaven because his life and death are both so scantily narrated. If we self-reflect on our faithful service, then we need not trouble ourselves about its record on earth. But may we learn from this cursory notice of the apostle’s martyrdom on how small a thing death really is! Looked at from beside the Lord of life and death, death dwindles to a very little thing. We need to revise our notions if we would understand how trivial it really is. From a mountain top the country below seems level plain, and what looked like an impassable precipice has dwindled to be indistinguishable. The triviality of death, to those who look upon it from the heights of eternity, is well represented by these brief words which tell of the first death of an apostle.
- Prayer is a mystery. Why do we need to pray when God already knows our needs? A major part of the answer is, so that we will recognize that we are totally dependent on Him. And yet, He can work even if our prayers fall short in their form or in their faith. Sure, we should believe in Him with a strong faith. But even if our faith is weak, He is able to do far more than we can ask or even think (Ephesians 3:20). His answers do not depend on any merit in our prayers, but only on His sovereign grace and mercy. For we say prayer changes things, but actually God changes things — and not all things. The present world is full of injustice and pain, and we should expect it. The early Christians were real people with real problems — like us. When you can’t do anything else, pray. When you can do something else, pray first. So, at all times we should be a praying people! God is not limited by the prayers of His people nor dependent on their fervor or frequency with which they made them, but because God chooses to do so. Prayer is always a matter of “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
- Have we taken to heart that God’s children are never alone? Human experience is so full of enforced solitudes. Our recognized afflictions are not the hardest to bear but the tears we shed in secret, the disappointments of which we never speak, the sorrowful hearts which we hide under smiling faces — these are the things that test and strain the very fiber of our soul. It greatly helps us to bear troubles like these, to remember that God knows all about them. And yet how apt we are to limit the range of our petitions to the things which it seems to us can be done, and have no heart to ask God for what seems too hard for us. Our philosophies of prayer often ignore the fact that Omnipotence is at the head of the universe. The scientist argues the futility of all prayer, because inflexible laws of nature block the way. As though God were not more than nature, and His assurance, “Ask and you shall receive,” as much a factor in the conduct of the universe as gravitation! We have nothing to do with probabilities. The hand that holds all worlds is able to work beyond our thought and understanding. The questions for us are: Do we really pray? Do we pray to God? Do we pray with other Christians? Do we pray fervently? And do we have specific requests in mind?
- Are you bringing into remembrance that even today there are many people in prison only because they are Christians? “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them” commands Hebrews 13:3. In other words, pray for them as you would want them to pray for you if your situations were reversed. We ought to pray that God will give them grace to bear with suffering so that they might have a triumphant witness for the Lord. We should ask the Spirit to minister the Word to them and bring it to their remembrance. It is right to ask God to protect His own and to give them wisdom as they must day after day deal with a difficult enemy. We must ask God that, if it is His will, they be delivered from their bondage and suffering and reunited with their loved ones. Let us remember the truth that James was later to express: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
- Why should James be slain, and Peter miraculously delivered? A question easily asked; a question not to be answered by us. After all, both were dedicated servants of God, needed by the church. The only answer is the sovereign will of God, the very thing Peter and the church had prayed about after their second experience of persecution (Acts 4:24-30). In this story, we see mingled together the wickedness of an evil tyrant and the sovereignty of God who allowed this tyrant to operate on a leash. We would be greatly in error if we thought that somehow God could not prevent Herod from his evil deeds. As David says: “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!’ He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2:1-4). No wicked act, not even the slaughter of the righteous, takes place apart from the sovereign will of God. Those who teach that it is always God’s will to deliver us from sickness, tragedy, and death are false teachers. God does not love us less when He allows tragedy into our lives — we must always interpret our circumstances by God’s love, not God’s love by our circumstances. As difficult as it is, we need to view death from God’s eternal perspective, not from our temporal perspective. For we may not always understand His ways, but we know His sovereign will is best.
- Are you doing your part in God’s plan within your own powers and opportunities? God often joins the miraculous with the ordinary just to encourage us to keep in balance. Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, but then commanded His disciples to gather up the leftovers. He raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, then told her parents to give her something to eat. Even in miracles, God is always practical. Just as Peter followed the angel, God opened the way, and when Peter was free, the angel vanished. The angle’s work was done, and now it was up to Peter to trust the Lord and use his common sense in taking the next step.
- Are we taking care not to seek glory for ourselves and thus to declare war against God? God will not give His glory to another (Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 46:11). If we seek to exalt ourselves, the Lord will surely humble us. We must all beware of the temptation of pride, of taking credit for ourselves when it is God alone in His mercy who deserves the praise. To declare war against God is to commit eternal suicide, because God always wins. Herod’s glory was short-lived, and his misery is eternal. All who never submitted to God will be thrown into the lake of fire, to be tormented day and night forever and ever (Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10). For God’s power cannot be contested, His punishment cannot be avoided, and His purposes cannot be frustrated. Solomon expressed the hopelessness of fighting God when he wrote, “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). Though sinful men often hail those who fight against God as wise, in reality they are fools. True wisdom lies in being on God’s side. Such a foolhardy course of action is dangerous because God fights back. In Jeremiah 21:5, God warns His enemies that “I Myself shall war against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm, even in anger and wrath and great indignation.”
- The enemies of the cross have always opposed the gospel. But in spite of them, the good news spreads. Why is it that the gospel continues to spread when so many other messages flounder and become relics of the past? Let us see some reasons. 1) The Word of God is Effective: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The key word is useful, because it teaches that one reason the Word of God continues to spread is that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished. It is a practical thing. The Word of God is not useless — it is effective. We need to be taught, and it teaches us — about God, ourselves, and the way of salvation. We need to be rebuked, and it rebukes us — about our sin and unrighteousness. We need to be corrected, and it corrects us — showing us the way we should go, the way of blessing. We need to be trained in righteousness, and it trains us — through daily application of its teaching. 2) The Word of God is Penetrating: “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This means that the Word of God gets through to us as no merely human words do. 3) The Word of God is Life-Giving: Isaiah 55:10-11 tells how the rain and snow that come down from the sky water the earth so it can begin to produce fruit conducive to life, and that is the way the Word of God operates. It not only saves people from sin, but it also makes them fruitful so from that time on they can contribute to the world and be a source of spiritual blessing in it. 4) The Word of God is Eternal: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The only things that last are those that are invisible. And these come about only as God works through his Word to transform the hearts of men and women. That is why Christians are so anxious to teach the Word of God and why they are anxious to have men and women believe it. It is only then, when they do believe it and are born again, that something of lasting value occurs in their lives.
Mr. Muller, of Bristol, believes in God for the support of his benevolent institution, and God supplies him with all his needs; but whenever you speak about him you say, “What a wonderful thing!” Has it come to this, that in the Christian Church it is accounted a marvel for Christians to believe in the promises of God, and something like a miracle for God to fulfill them? Does not this wonderment indicate more clearly than anything else how fallen we are from the level of faith at which we ought constantly to live? If the Lord wants to surprise His people, He has only at once to give an answer to their prayers. No sooner had they obtained their answer, than they would say, “Who would have thought it!” Is it really surprising that God should keep His own promise? Oh, what unbelief! Oh, what wretched unbelief on our part! We ask and we receive not, because we do not believe in God. We waver; we must not expect to receive anything at His hand except what He chooses to give as a gratuity; an act of sovereign mercy, not a covenanted blessing. We do not get what we might have as the reward of faith, because we have not got the faith that He honors. I like that story of a godly old woman, who, when told of God’s answering prayer, supplemented with a reflection, “Is not that wonderful?” replied, “No, it is just like Him. Of course He answers prayer; of course He keeps His promise.”
[C. H. Spurgeon]
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