A Short-lived Victory
Let me show you a few verses from the Bible:
LORD, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you. So let me bring you this complaint: Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?
Why do the wicked prosper, growing old and powerful?
And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!
But as for me, I almost lost my footing. My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone. For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.
Why do the wicked prosper?
When troubles, hardships or persecutions come, we all have questions. Why is this happening? How can we make it?
With these questions comes the challenge of survival. Can we make it or even continue to go on? In the account of Acts 12, we find great hope. This hope is for believers. If you have not asked Jesus Christ to be your Savior, I hope that today’s study will encourage you to do so.
First, some background as we set the stage for the story of Acts chapter 12.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus chose 12 apostles to be with him. Peter, James and John were the leaders of these 12. When the new Church started, Peter took the lead along with James. The leaders of the Jewish nation were jealous of the success of the early Church. Beginning with the stoning of Stephan, they persecuted the Church to try to stop its growth. In the person of Saul, they found a champion, a fierce persecutor. However, their champion met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and was converted. Saul the persecutor became Paul the evangelist.
As we come to the beginning of Acts 12, for some reason, Herod the king has decided to begin persecuting the Church. The chapter starts by telling us that Herod had James put to death. James was the brother of John. Jesus had nicknamed James and John “Sons of Thunder.” Before following Jesus, they were members of the political party known as “Zealots.” The Zealots tried to move the Jewish nation to rebel against the Romans and drive them out by force of arms. Thus, James and John were men of action and displayed this in their character earning themselves the title “Sons of Thunder.”
Peter, James and his brother John were the inner circle of the Apostles. These three were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and in the garden when Jesus prayed. James was one of the main leaders of the early Church. His death pleased the Jewish people.
Herod was a power-hungry, evil man. When he saw that he could increase his influence and power with the Jews by persecuting the Church, he immediately went after the most notable Christian around, Peter. The Church had lost one important leader, and now Peter was in jail. To the Church, it must have seemed like the opposition was winning. Persecution was quickly getting worse.
How do we respond to trials? How do we respond when things are quickly getting worse? At times, we can lose hope.
Initial success in persecution encouraged Herod to intensify his efforts. It seemed to him that he was getting what he wanted, so he continued down that path.
Suffering and trials tend to do this. They tend to get worse before they get better. Acts chapter 12 shows a pattern that persecution and troubles follow. The pattern is 1) early success, 2) the Lord intervenes and 3) vanquishing.
“Early success” means success for the trouble or persecutor. The Jewish leaders were encouraged at the stoning of Stephen and a vigorous persecution started that day. In the same way, Herod was encouraged by killing James and so his intention to persecute the Church solidified. Herod was serious. He set four squads of four soldiers each to guard Peter. He set the trial for the next day. Since this was during the Passover feast, we can assume he wanted to execute Peter while the huge crowds of Passover were in Jerusalem. This was an aggressive, politically-significant move.
The Church was troubled. The text tells us they prayed very earnestly for Peter. Acts chapter 12 verse five says, "But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.” The words "very earnestly" mean to pray with intensity without letting up. The opposition of the Jewish leaders was now joined with the opposition of the powerful Roman civil government. There was cause for alarm.
Troubles, hardships and persecution teach us fervency in prayer. Troubles, hardships and persecution force us to turn to the Lord for help. Psalms 9:9 tells us, “The LORD is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.”
In Isaiah 62, the Lord says:
O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD. Give the LORD no rest until he completes his work, until he makes Jerusalem the pride of the earth. Isaiah 62:6-7
Hebrews 5:7 says, "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” ESV[ii]
God wants us to pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) He instructs us to make our request known to Him.
In chapter 12, God sent an angel in response to the prayers of the Church. This angel led Peter out of the prison. At first, Peter thought it was a dream. He could hardly believe this was happening. He went and knocked on the door of the place where believers were gathered in prayer for him, and they also could hardly believe this was happening.
This is the second part of the pattern. God intervenes. Following the early success of the trouble and in response to the pleas of His people, God intervenes. God is in control of all circumstances. Isaiah 45:7 says, “I create the light and make the darkness. I send good times and bad times. I, the LORD, am the one who does these things.” Since God is in control, all schemes against God and his Anointed will fail. All persecution eventually fails. Romans 8:37 assures us, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (ESV)
What Satan means to destroy us, only strengthens us. As Jesus hung on the cross, He said, “It is finished.” It certainly appeared as if Satan had won. However, Jesus’s words, “It is finished” signaled a complete victory. Satan was not in control as Jesus went to the cross. God’s purposes were being accomplished. All our troubles, all our trials are used by God for our good. Even the last and greatest persecution that we call “the tribulation” will fail. The seeming victory that Satan holds in the world today will certainly be short-lived. Ultimately, God wins a total victory, and He will set up His Kingdom here on Earth.
In Acts chapter 12, the story continues with the events immediately following the escape of Peter. It tells the story of Herod's relationship with the people of Tyre. The people of Tyre and Sidon flattered Herod by calling him a god. Acts 12:23 tells us, “Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness, because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. So he was consumed with worms and died.”
Every empire that has persecuted the church has fallen or will fall. This was true of Herod. When he raised himself up against God, in the end, Herod was vanquished. Herod enjoyed success at the start, but God intervened and Herod was defeated.
This pattern is so sure that James says:
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:2-4)
There are a couple truths here that we need to stress. First, this is for those who know the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord causes all things to work together for the good of those that love him and are the called according to his purposes. (Romans 8:28) Things did not work out well for Herod because he set himself up in opposition to God.
Many people set themselves up against God. Why would a person say, “If God sends people to hell, I do not want anything to do with Him?” God gave His only son to save people from hell. Why would a person say, “I cannot believe in a God who let my loved one die?”
Let’s talk about Stephen and James whom we mentioned earlier. They were both put to death. Did God not care? Psalm 116:15 says, “The LORD cares deeply when his loved ones die.” However, Stephen and James went to heaven to be in the presence of the Lord. Paul said:
For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. (Philippians 1:21-23)
Notice he says, “I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.” Stephen and James got that far-better result. Their death was not a defeat for them, and although it seemed like a defeat for the Church, it ended with a victory.
My conclusion is “Call on the Name of the Lord.” In trusting in the Lord, there can be no defeat. I will repeat Romans 8:37, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (ESV)
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
[ii] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.