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Study Notes:

Acts 12:1-24

Why Do Christians Suffer?

Summary: Christians suffer from spiritual attacks, personal choices, our fallen world, and the sinful choices of others, but Scripture teaches us to work hard, trust God, and rest well.

If you have been with us through our study of Acts you know one of the things we’ve seen is a cycle of the church facing external opposition and then threats of internal conflict.  It seems like there’s always something threatening the growth of the early Church.  But after each cycle we’re told the Word of God continued to advance and the kingdom continued to expand. 

On and on the cycles go, alternating between outside opposition and internal conflict but in each case, the church leans on God, trusts Him, and the kingdom continues to expand.

Well, it’s time for another cycle, this time in the form of external opposition. We’ll see one apostle executed and another arrested as we ask the question: why do Christians suffer?  It seems like a relevant question in light of our present conditions, so let’s dig in and see what we can learn.

Acts 12:1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. 2 Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3 And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. 4 So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover.

Let me give you some background here to help put this in context. Herod was a title, something like a governor more than an actual king.  In this case, we’re talking about Agrippa I, who grew up partying with Caligula in Rome.  When Caligula became emperor, he appointed Agrippa king to help him keep an eye on Israel.  So, Agrippa arrives in Jerusalem and he needs to start making friends and gaining political allies, and one of the fastest ways to do that is to use your power and position to help others with their problems.

Well, Jesus and His followers have been one of the biggest headaches lately for the local authorities.  They arrested Jesus and put Him to death, but then He resurrected and now His followers have been working miracles and won’t stop talking about Him.  The leaders in Jerusalem have arrested some of the church leaders and questioned them, but had to them go.  One was murdered in an act of mob violence.  They’ve run others out of town.  But the problem just won’t go away, in fact, it seems to be getting worse because now some of the priests and even members of their own party are reporting radical conversions to follow Jesus.

So, it’s a perfect opportunity for Herod to use his power, establish trust and favor, and earn some political points with “the Jews.”

Now, the term “the Jews” is not meant to imply all Jewish people, after all, Peter and James were Jews and so were most of the people in the early church.  No, “the Jews” was a way of referring to the leadership in Jerusalem – in the same way we speak of negotiating with “the North Koreans” we don’t mean everyone in the country, just the leaders. 

Jesus had twelve main disciples, and three of them – Peter, James, and John, seemed to have more of a leadership role.  So, Herod goes right for the top. 

He takes James into custody and has him beheaded with a sword.  If he has James crucified, there’s a chance people will show up and protest, crucifixion takes time, that’s the point – it’s a long, agonizing, public way to die – it’s a show.  Beheading with a sword is much faster, and therefore, politically expedient.  He can put the man to death without making a scene.    So he orders a snatch and grab operation with a quick execution.  The deed is done and over before anyone can complain.

And then, notice what it says, because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also.

But there’s a problem – the timing isn’t right.  They’ve got some religious holidays coming up, so the plan is to let the celebrations pass and then kill Peter when everyone has gone home and there are fewer people around.  Plus, who wants to be dealing with the drama of a political execution when there’s a party to attend?  Party first, murder later.  Do you see how sick and cunning human beings can be?

Here’s the first point I want to make this morning, and to be honest, it’s not good news, but: Christians have, do, and will suffer in this life, just like everyone else.

Now, I know that’s not what you want to hear.  In fact, some people may have told you that Christianity would save you from suffering.  And, in some ways, it does.  But in other ways it adds suffering to your life.  Jesus is not like some magical cloak that you put on and suddenly you’re immune to pain.

In fact, it was their relationship with Jesus that brought pain into the lives of James and Peter.  They were both arrested, and James was beheaded, because of their role in the church.  So, if you feel like your life is hard right now, even as you try to follow Jesus, know that you’re not alone.  And don’t assume that means you’re doing it wrong.

You see, there’s this whole team of people out there in the world who have this positive and uplifting view of faith.  That it’s all rainbows and unicorns and Your Best Life Now.  And people want to hear that.  I want to hear that.  They tell you that if you just have faith, and understand your identity as a son or daughter of the king you’ll elevate right out of that pit.

Listen, I want to hear that.  I want to do that.  I want to know: what do I have to do to make the pain and frustration go away? I agree with CS Lewis who said, if there was really a way to escape the pain and suffering in this life, I would “crawl through the sewers to find it.”

But there is not.  Pain and suffering are part of our human existence on this broken planet.  So, as long as we live here, people, have, do, and will suffer.  Life will be hard.  And sometimes, it will be hard because you’re a Christian, as we see with James and Peter.

But it’s not always religious persecution that makes your life hard.  There are actually several causes of pain and suffering in our lives, and you need to know about all of them so you can understand them. 

The first is spiritual.  The Scriptures are very clear from the beginning in Genesis to the book of Revelation in the end, there are spiritual forces at work in the world, and they are able to impact human lives.  The book of Job is the classic example. 

Now, some people don’t want to believe that, they think everything is about science and natural explanations, but you can go all throughout history and all around the world today and meet plenty of people who have absolutely no problem whatsoever believing that spiritual forces are real – they’ve seen it and experienced it with their own lives.  And, it’s possible that spiritual forces are behind events and actions affecting us indirectly.

So, the first source of suffering and pain is spiritual.  The second is us.  Some times we are the source of our own pain and suffering.  If you make the choice to consume too much alcohol you eventually begin to cause irreversible damage to your liver and other organs resulting in cirrhosis and other conditions – it’s an ugly, painful, way to die. 

As of Friday, there have been nearly 35,000 deaths in the United States attributed to COVID-19.  But each year, in the United States, there are estimated 88,000 alcohol-related deaths, 2/3rds of them men.  88,000 deaths, each year!  It’s third place on the list of preventable causes of death in the United States, and that’s an important term – that’s why I’m bringing this up – it’s preventable, we’re talking about pain and suffering brought on by personal choice.

The number one preventable cause of death is tobacco, and the number two is poor diet and physical inactivity.  And I’m getting these numbers from the National Institute of Health. 

So there are choices we make – things we do, and things we do not, that can bring pain and suffering into our lives.  And we haven’t even talked about consequences for choices we in our relationships, how we treat other people, how we respond to them.  We make choices and they can bring physical and emotional pain and suffering into our own lives.

The third source of pain and suffering is the fallen condition of the sin-sick planet we live on.  This is where things like COVID-19 come in.  This disease is not God’s best plan for human flourishing.  It’s a consequence of us turning our backs on Him, collectively.  So, you can’t say, oh well that person must have been a sinner because they caught the virus, or God must have hated her because she got the virus, no, this flu is an indiscriminate adversary.  It’s like a hurricane or tornado that rips through a community.  Or a child born with special needs.  It breaks your heart, you cry out, “It shouldn’t be this way!” And you’re right.  It shouldn’t. 

And that is why God is at work fixing it – this is why He sent Jesus to deal with sin and to make a way for us to escape the consequences of sin in our lives.  It’s why He promises that there will be a new heavens and a new earth for all eternity.  And until that time, He is deploying His people as agents of justice, mercy, restoration, and healing all over the world.  We’re told to love God and love others, and that makes a difference.  We rush in when there is pain, when there is hurt, and we offer comfort, hope, help, and healing in Jesus’ name.

So, there is suffering because of spiritual forces, because of personal choices, because of the environmental impact of sin, and finally, what we see here in Acts – because of the choices of other people.  James and Peter suffer because Herod had a position of power and used it for his own good instead of the common good.  He pushed down on others to lift himself up.

And the sad fact is: it’s something you’ve probably experienced countless times in your own life.  People make choices to do things or say things that hurt you.  Sometimes you’re able to brush it off and move on, but if they have enough power, influence, or control over you, they can make your life miserable, or even end your life as we see with James. 

And, notice the crazy thing here: it’s not even personal.  There’s no indication Herod knew James or Peter personally or really understood what they were up to or what they were all about.  They just suffered collateral damage as he pursued his other goals.  And that can feel infuriating: “You’re messing up my life and you don’t even know me, you don’t even care.”  Yep.

So, what can we do about it all?  Well, we can work hard, trust God, and rest well.  In a sense, the source of your pain and suffering doesn’t matter – if it’s a result of your own choices, then work hard to change by God’s grace and with His help.  If it’s a result of anything else, do what you can to avoid it.  Be wise.  Take action when appropriate, but don’t make avoiding pain and suffering your primary goal in life – do the good work God has laid out for you. 

Work hard in whatever He has given you to do and trust Him, even if it leads you into pain and suffering like it did with James and Peter.  Serving God, working hard for Him, landed both of these men in jail and led one of them to death.  They didn’t ask for it, but they trusted God when the trials came and as we’re about to see, Peter was able to rest well knowing God is sovereign.

Acts 12:5 Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant [earnest, strenuous,] prayer was offered to God for him by the church. 6 And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison. 7 Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, “Arise quickly!” And his chains fell off his hands. 8 Then the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and tie on your sandals”; and so he did. And he said to him, “Put on your garment and follow me.” 9 So he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and they went out and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.

11 And when Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.”

12 So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.

When the church learns that Peter has been arrested, they begin to pray, constant, earnest, strenuous prayer.  They know they can’t do much about the situation here on earth so they storm the throne room of God in Heaven and ask for Him to intervene.

And my friends, here is the glorious opportunity we have been given today – people are suffering from this disease and many, many, more are suffering from its effects.  We’re shut up at home, feeling depressed, worn out, worn down, thin in our souls, the adventure of it all has worn off, and now we’re feeling the economic impact, relationships are beginning to be strained – but we can pray. 

We can pray others to sleep in their prisons at home.  We can pray for them to have a sense of rest.  And we can pray them out of prison, we can pray for deliverance.  We can pray that God would lift this pandemic.  We can thank Him that it hasn’t produced millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths in America like some of the early models suggested.  We can pray constant, earnest, fervent prayer for researchers and medical providers to provide treatment and find a cure.

We can pray for our neighbors as we’re out on a walk – ask God to bless that family.  Ask God to make Himself known in that house.  Smile and wave and pray for the people you pass and if you get the chance, say hello. It might lead to a conversation where you can tell them, you pray for the neighborhood as you walk or drive through and is there anything you could pray for them?

And then, pray for our decision makers.  In the Scriptures we are told:

1 Tim 2:1 … supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks [should] be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.

We need to be praying for our elected officials, and “all who are in authority,” for all of those who are making decisions that affect our lives.  Personally, I know I need to pray more and grumble less.  So, maybe you could pray for me about that?

Friends, it is so easy to pick up your phone and so hard to pick up your Bible.  It’s so easy to complain and so hard to cry out.  And yet, we have the opportunity to be heard by God.  He listens and He hears when we pray and He speaks – through His Word and through His Spirit impressing truth on our heart.  He speaks through circumstances; He reveals Himself to us as we pray.  And sometimes, we see Him act.

13 And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate. 15 But they said to her, “You are beside yourself!” Yet she kept insisting that it was so. So they said, “It is his angel.”

16 Now Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to keep silent, he declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Go, tell these things to James [this is James the brother of Jesus, not the brother of John who Herod killed] and to the brethren.” And he departed and went to another place.

18 Then, as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers about what had become of Peter. 19 But when Herod had searched for him and not found him, he examined the guards and commanded that they should be put to death.

And he went down from Judea to Caesarea, and stayed there.

Now, we have to talk about this, because Peter was released from jail, miraculously, as the church prayed.  There was no human way to explain what happened.  And God still does that.  Miracles do happen.  The problem is: they don’t happen as often as we want. 

But you see that here too. Yes, Peter was released, but James died.  What does that mean?  Does God love Peter more?  Does it mean God wasn’t paying attention when James was arrested, He was off doing something else and came back and went, “Oh no!  Not James!  I liked him…”  Does it mean the church wasn’t praying enough for James?  No.  We don’t know exactly why James died and Peter was released.  There are many, many things we won’t understand in this life.

But you see, here’s what happens: when suffering and pain hit, we often want to look back and look inside to understand what’s happening, to find reasons why.  But we rarely find them. 

Instead, we need to look up and look out – to ask, what does God want to accomplish through this?  What does He want me to learn from this?  How can I serve Him and trust Him in this?  How can I work hard, trust God, and rest well whether it ends in death like James or deliverance like Peter?

Because, sooner or later, He will take action, He will right every wrong.  He is a God of justice and vengeance and nothing escapes His sight.  Nothing, absolutely nothing goes unpunished – either Jesus absorbs the penalty for us, or we face the wrath of God ourselves.  Yes, James may have perished from this earth, but He went immediately into the presence of God.  Peter escaped prison, but will face years of suffering and trials in the remainder of his life on earth.  So you tell me, really – who got the better deal? 

I can tell you who it wasn’t – Herod.  Because notice what happens next to the man who used his power and authority to persecute others – the wrath and judgment of God finally came for him:

Acts 12:20 Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon [Think modern Lebanon]; but they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus the king’s personal aide their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country.

21 So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. 22 And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God grew and multiplied.

Now think about this – how many of you knew anything about Herod before this morning?  How many of you knew that this is actually Agrippa I not Herod the Great, or Herod Antipas?  How many of you knew he grew up with Caligula?  How many of you knew Caligula was an emperor of Rome?  How many of you know where Tyre and Sidon are?

But how many of you know the names of James and John and Peter?  How many of you have read their writings in Scipture?   You know they were fishermen.  You know they were from Galilee.  You’ve built your life on things you learned from the Scriptures they wrote. 

It seemed, for a moment – a very intense, visceral, and real, moment – that Herod had power and influence.  And he did.  He was able to put Peter and James in jail and to murder one of them.  But his power and influence were transient – they were fragile and temporary – the only reason you know this Herod’s name is because he plays a tiny, background role in the story of the expansion of God’s kingdom.  He only shows up to show us what God can do – what He can overcome as we work hard, trust God, and rest well. 

Herod died and was eaten by worms:

Acts 12:24 But the word of God grew and multiplied.

My friends, the word of God continues to grow and multiply.  Right now we face the threat and the frustration of COVID-19.  It is as real as Herod.  But it will pass.  And the word of God will grow and multiply

It will claim lives, just like Herod, but it will pass, and the word of God will grow and multiply

It will take some people hostage temporarily like Peter – some will actually catch the virus and get sick, countless others will experience the pain of the shutdown and staying at home. 

This disease has real power, it causes real effects, much like Peter felt the real power of Herod.  But it’s only for a moment compared to God’s kingdom.  It feels like it’s everything right now, but it’s only a footnote to eternity.  God will deliver you, the disease will be conquered, we will all go out again, and the word of God will grow and multiply.

In the meantime, let us be the church.  Let us pray.  Constantly, fervently, strenuously.  Let us confess our sins, let us ask what we should learn from this. Let us not waste this trial through mere endurance, let us be shaped, molded, improved by the challenge. 

Let this pandemic produce in us a better reflection of our Lord.  Let us remember that He is with us and let us ask Him how we can worship Him and love others, right here, right now, in the middle of the trial, because the pain and suffering, the boredom and frustration, the restrictions will all pass.  But the word of God will grow and multiply and we will rejoice in the presence of God our Savior – that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will always be.

Let’s pray.

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