Sometimes terrible things happen and we don’t know why, we just have to trust God that He knows, the situation isn’t out of His control and we can trust Him no matter how bad things get. And things were pretty bad.
You see, for some reason, King Herod Agrippa, the grandson of that awful King Herod the Great who’d wanted to kill the infant Jesus when he’d heard the ‘King of the Jews’ had been born in Bethlehem, got it into his head to follow his evil grandfather’s ways. He began to persecute the church, arresting some of the believers and causing them harm.
What we found particularly hard was what he did to James, John’s brother. Herod Agrippa had James killed with a sword, cutting off his head. It was one of those times when we just had to say to the Lord, ‘We don’t understand, but we do trust You’, as we mourned his death. But our enemies, the Jewish leaders, and many of the Jewish people who’d refused to accept that Jesus is the Messiah, were delighted when they heard that Herod had killed one of the apostles; one of those who’d lived with Jesus, walked and talked with Him and seen all the amazing things He’d done and heard all the wonderful words He’d spoken. A man, no less, who’d met the risen Lord Jesus and was a witness to His resurrection.
And, when Herod realised the Jews were happy that he’d had James killed, and because he needed the Jews to like him because of some political trouble he was having with Rome, he decided to do more terrible things to the church, to fight against it, just like Saul had done. So, he had me, Peter, arrested. He didn’t plan to give me a fair trial or allow me to put my own case forward. No, what he planned was a nice little show trial before I was to be publicly executed, no doubt to the delight of the Jews - because pleasing the Jews meant Rome was happy.
You’d have thought I’d have been terrified by the prospect of death as I lay chained to, not one, but two soldiers who slept in the cell with me - while more soldiers stayed on guard outside my cell. In fact, Herod had ordered four sets of four soldiers to guard me, to make sure no one could rescue me and that I couldn’t escape. But I had no plans to try and escape; in fact, I wasn’t terrified at all. You see Jesus Himself had told me that I would die a death that was anything but natural and maybe this was it? So, I had no need to worry, He was in control. And what made me even more certain was that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the church was praying for me, praying that the Lord would do … well, whatever the Lord felt was right. (PAUSE)
One of the things about being able to trust the Lord no matter how bad the situation is that you don’t have much problem going to sleep. So, the night before I was to be paraded before my enemies and put to death, I fell asleep knowing that, whatever happened, God was in control. There I was, sound asleep and chained between two guards, when I felt a sharp prod on my side. I opened my eyes to see what was happening. There was a really bright light in the cell and standing beside me was an angel from the Lord. Now, I ought to make it clear that I’d been so fast asleep, that I didn’t think I’d woken up properly! I thought it wasn’t real and must be some kind of vision from the Lord. Anyway, then the angel said to me, ‘Quick, get up!’ So I started to sit up, feeling extremely dopey. And, as I sat up, the chains that were holding me to my captors just fell off while they stayed sound asleep! And then the angel, with great patience, started to organise me. ‘Now get dressed,’ he said, and I got dressed. ‘Put your sandals on,’ he said, and I put my sandals on. ‘Now put your coat on.’ he continued. So I picked up my coat and put it on, and then he said, ‘Follow me.’ So I started to follow him, still not sure if I was dreaming!
Well, we walked straight out of the cell, past the first set of guards and then past the second set until we came to the iron gate leading to the street. Even though we’d passed all those people, no one said a word. Maybe they were fast asleep, I don’t know. But, whatever the reason, they just didn’t stop us. Anyway, when we reached the iron gate that led to the street, it just opened - all by itself! So we went through and started walking down an alley, with me still thinking it was all a vision when, as suddenly as he’d arrived, the angel left me!
It took a moment or two for it to all sink in … but then I realised that it wasn’t a dream, I even said it out loud – ‘It’s really true! The Lord’s sent His angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jews were hoping to do to me!’ Then I stopped for a moment to think. What should I do, where should I go? Well, the obvious place to go was where many of us had met and, quite possibly, the place where they’d be meeting again, at Marys, John Mark’s mother’s house. So, keeping to the shadows to avoid being seen, I made my way to the house and started knocking as gently as I could, all the while calling out quietly for someone to answer. As I’d thought, the house was full of people who’d gathered to pray for me, so it was Rhoda, a servant girl, who came to see who was knocking at the door and calling out quietly at that time of night.
Bless her! Rhoda knew me quite well and so the first thing she did as she came to the door was recognise my voice! I’m not quite sure what came over her; maybe it was because of the intensity of the prayer that was going on for me, or the shock of hearing my voice but, whatever it was, instead of actually opening the door and letting me in, Rhoda rushed into the middle of the prayer meeting and told everyone, ‘Peter’s here, he’s standing outside at the gate!’
And then, from what they told me later, this group of believers who were all praying for my release from prison and looked for God to do a miracle, didn’t believe Rhoda when she told them that God had actually done the miracle they were praying for - and set me free. Instead they told her she was out of her mind! But, when she carried on insisting it was me, while I was still standing outside the door trying to get in, instead of opening the door, they started to say it was my guardian angel or something. And, while all this was happening and they were having their discussions about whether I was really me or an angel, I just stood there gently knocking on the door, hoping that eventually someone, anyone, would let me in!
Thankfully, after their theological debate, it occurred to someone to actually open the door and settle the issue once and for all. And there I was! They were all amazed and started to express it a little too loudly for my liking. ‘Sssh!’ I said, motioning with my hands to quieten them down. I didn’t want to wake the neighbours and get them all suspicious and find myself back in prison again! I told them all that had happened to me and how the Lord had let me out of prison. And then I added, ‘Be sure you tell James, the brother of Jesus,’ (who was the head of the church in Jerusalem at that time) ‘and the other disciples what’s happened.’ And, with that, I went away and found a far safer hiding place. (PAUSE)
Well, you can imagine what happened at the prison the following morning, when the guards woke up from what was probably a very, very deep sleep to find that I’d gone. Herod Agrippa was furious and ordered a thorough search to be made for me and, of course, they didn’t find me. After that, Herod interrogated the guards and sentenced them to death! (PAUSE)
No doubt, after all this kerfuffle, Herod felt like he needed a break because, soon after, he went up north to stay at Caesarea for a while.
As it happened, Herod was having a nasty dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon. But it wasn’t in their interests to have Herod angry at them because their cities were dependent upon the area Herod ruled for their food supply. So they came up with a plan to win over Herod’s favour. Making friends with Blastus who was Herod’s personal assistant, they managed to get an appointment to see the man himself.
When the day for their audience with Herod arrived, Herod sat on his throne wearing his special royal robes and started to tell them exactly what he thought about the situation. As I said before, the people from Tyre and Sidon HAD to make peace with Herod whether they liked it or not. After all, they couldn’t live without food. So, when Herod finished his speech, the people stood up together and clapped enthusiastically, shouting, ‘This is the voice of a god, not a man!’
Of course, Herod should have told the people not to be silly, that he was a man just like them. But, instead, Herod simply smiled to himself and said nothing at all! Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a terrible sickness because he accepted the worship of the people instead of giving the glory to God. So, God punished this man who would not give glory to God and he was consumed with worms and died.
But, even after all the trouble Herod’d had caused, God continued to show He was in control as the Good News spread rapidly, and there were many new believers.