April 21, 2008

The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail Against Christ’s Church – Acts 12:1-24

Posted in Ecclesiology, Prayer, Redemptive history at 2:10 pm by Dan Lowe

The following is a summary of the sermon preached at Maranatha Baptist Church on the morning of April 20, 2008…  

From the very beginning of human history there has been opposition to God and His people from the devil.  Although we aren’t told exactly how this battle began, Isaiah 14:12-17 and Ezekiel 28:11-17 may give us some insight into the fall of Satan.  It seems as if he became puffed up with pride and wanted to be what God is.  He wanted God’s glory for himself and for this God cast him out of heaven.

So began the war between God and the devil… a war which makes all the other wars of this earth look like a playground scuffle.

It was the devil that brought mankind into this conflict.  I’m not trying to shift blame away from Adam and Eve… they are responsible for their sin, just as we are… but it was the devil that brought this fight to our doorstep.  The first man and woman were without sin, living a life of perfect fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden, until Satan, in the form of the serpent, came along and tempted them to rebel against the God who had given them everything.

What did he tempt them with?  The same temptation which had led to his fall… the desire to be like God… the desire to be glorified as God is glorified.

Why would he do this?

Because of his hatred for God and his hatred for God’s people, a hatred which God promises will continue until the creation of the new heavens and the new earth…

Genesis 3:15 (ESV) – 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

God promises here that there will be a constant hostility and warfare between the devil and the woman… and between the devil’s seed (sinful men and women apart from Christ – cf. Jn 8:44) and the Seed of the Woman (which is a reference to Jesus Christ.)  By extension, there will be an ongoing hostility between the devil and his seed and those who are in Christ Jesus (i.e. His Church – see Rev 12.)

We see the first fruits of this enmity in Genesis 4, when Cain (who was of the devil – I Jn 3:12) murders his brother Abel (who was a man of faith whose worship was pleasing to God – Heb 11:4.)  Furthermore, we see this ongoing hostility played out all throughout Scripture, for example:

1)      Joseph (Gen 37-50) – hated by his brothers because he was blessed by God.

2)      The Israelites in Egypt (Ex 1-14) – hated and oppressed by the Egyptians because they were blessed by God.

3)      David (I Sam 18-31) – hated by Saul because he was God’s anointed.

4)      The Old Testament Prophets – as a general rule, they were persecuted because they were God’s messengers.

This battle continues all throughout Scripture and reaches its culmination at the cross, when the “Seed of the Woman”… Jesus Christ… the only begotten Son of God willingly sacrificed Himself upon the cross in order to deliver His people from the power and consequences of sin.

John tells us that Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8)… and that is exactly what He did when He died upon the cross.  The heel of Christ was crushed at His death, but in the process, He delivered the death blow to Satan and his forces.  He crushed the head of the serpent.

Yet the battle still rages on.  Though Satan is defeated and cast down… he still has that last bit of life in him and he has turned his fury against God’s people (Revelation 12.)

We are in the midst of this conflict right now.  The devil and the world, which marches according to his will (Eph 2:2), is seeking to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ.  And sometimes it looks as if he is doing a pretty good job.

1)      Morality is at an all-time low among professing American Christians.  Studies have shown over and over again that, as a general rule, those who identify themselves as Christians in this country live lives that are virtually the same as the world around us.

2)      Christian families are falling apart.  Marriages are crumbling inside the Church.  Children raised in Christian homes are being lost to the world every day.

3)      Heresy abounds in the Western evangelical church.  More and more so-called Christian pastors are rejecting the orthodox teachings of Christianity for that which tickles the ears of their hearers.

4)      There have been more Christians martyred for their faith in the last 100 years than at any other time in the history of the New Testament church.

5)      Even in the United States, we seem to be losing more and more religious freedom all the time. 

There is a battle raging and if we look on the outside, it might appear that we are losing.

But we must remember that the battle has already been decided.   The war has already been lost and no matter how many casualties may come, Jesus Christ is building His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:18.)

This is seen very clearly in Acts 12:1-24

In this passage of Scripture, we see the persecution of the church reach a new high in Jerusalem.  Up to this point, the Roman political machine had pretty much left the New Testament Church alone.  Pilate had consented to the death of Jesus, but it certainly was not his intent to persecute the church.

But King Herod had different plans.

Who is Herod?

There are 3 men in the New Testament called “Herod.”

1)      Herod the Great –

He was an Edomite appointed by Rome to rule over the Jews.  Because he was a foreigner, he was never really accepted by the Jews.  He attempted to placate the Jews in part by building the temple in Jerusalem.  He was always suspicious and was quite violent, murdering several of his own family members because he believed they were seeking to usurp his throne.  He was the king who ordered the death of all the male children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus.

2)      Herod Antipas –

He was the son of Herod the Great.  He was a wicked and immoral man and not a very astute ruler.  He was the king responsible for murdering John the Baptist… and he was the one involved in the trial of the Lord Jesus. 

3)      The Herod spoken of here is Herod Agrippa I –

He was the grandson of Herod the Great and the nephew of Herod Antipas.  He grew up in Rome and was well-acquainted with the current emperor of the day… Tiberius Caesar. 

History tells us that, at least while he was in Israel, he was something of a pious Jew. The Mishnah (a collection of Jewish rabbinic writings) describes a time when Herod Agrippa stood up before the people at a Jewish feast and publically read the law of kingship from Deuteronomy 17 and wept because of his own Edomite heritage.  The people were moved by this and it is said that they cried out repeatedly, “Be not dismayed; you are indeed our brother!” (citied by F.F. Bruce, NICNT, 233.)

His desire to live in Jewish fashion may have provided motivation for him to lash out against the early church, especially as they began to branch out and incorporate the Gentiles into the church.

But the text is clear that his motives were not entirely theological.  After he sees that the people were pleased with the execution of James, then he determines to continue to the persecution by arresting Peter.

Why is it so significant that James was murdered?

James was one of Jesus’ three closest apostles.  He saw things and experienced things that only Peter and John saw and experienced, including (1) the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Lk 8:51), (2) Jesus glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration (Lk 9:28) and (3) Jesus’ prayer of agony within the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal (Matt 26:39.)  It is not a stretch to say that he knew Jesus better than virtually anyone else on earth.

Yet God allowed him to be put to death here by one of the devil’s seed.  Why?

We don’t know the answer to this question.  With our limited human wisdom, we can’t understand why God would deliver one of the apostles and not another.  But when we see these casualties of war, we can rest securely in that fact that “…God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:28 (NASB95).)

In fact, God often brings great things out of terrible tragedies.

Consider Joseph who was sold into slavery and wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He was put in prison, cast away and forgotten.  But God used this event to bring about the deliverance of His people in a time of famine (Gen 37-50).  Those who persecuted him meant it for evil, but God meant it for good (Gen 50:20.)

This is even more clearly seen in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Though He is eternally perfect in every way, being very God of very God, Jesus chose to chose to take upon Himself humanity and to humble Himself to walk upon this earth among sinful men and women.  He lived a life of perfect righteousness, always doing the will of His Heavenly Father, so that He might merit eternal life for His people.  He willingly suffered and died upon the cross, bearing our punishment in His body in His death, so that our sin might be forgiven.  There is no greater horror in all of human history… the Righteous One dying for the unrighteous. Although those who killed Jesus meant it for evil, God meant it for good (Acts 2:22-24.)

“…God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:28 (NASB95).)

The devil and his seed seemed to strike a crippling blow to the early church in the death of James and Herod was intending to murder another of Jesus’ apostles, Peter, yet nothing could stop the expansion of the church.

Peter was placed under lock and key, guarded by four squads of four soldiers each over the course of four shifts.  He was kept in this state by Herod until the Feast of Unleavened Bread was completed because it was unlawful to execute a prisoner during the feast.

During this time, what was the church doing?

They prayed.  “…earnest prayer for him (Peter) was made to God by the church.”

There are several things we can see here about the manner of their prayer:

1)      They prayed corporately (It was the “church” that was praying.  Verse 12 states that “many were gathered…”)

2)      They prayed earnestly and continuously (verse 12 tells us that they were still praying when Peter arrived at the house in the middle of the night.)

3)      They prayed specifically (“for him”… meaning for Peter.)

4)      They offered up their prayers to God.  (This seems obvious, but how often are our prayers truly offered for the benefit of others?)

On the very night before Peter was to be executed, God intervenes supernaturally.  Peter is rescued by an angel and he immediately goes to the house where these Christians were praying.  The series of events which took place at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, is one of the most amusing in all the New Testament (Read Acts 12:12-17 and put yourself in their shoes… it really is humorous!!!)  Peter tells them what has taken place and instructs them to report these things to James (meaning the half-brother of Jesus and a key leader in the Jerusalem church) and the brothers (probably other church leaders?) and then he leaves town.

Where did Peter go?  We aren’t told, some speculate that he may have gone to Antioch (Gal 2:14) or to Corinth (I Cor 1:12, 9:5) or even to Rome.  We don’t know for sure, but we will see Peter back in Jerusalem in Acts 15.

The gates of hell had crashed against the early church and some had fallen and some had been delivered, but nothing could stop the growth of the church and those who tried will fall in judgment.

After putting to death the soldiers who were responsible for guarding Peter, Herod traveled to Caesarea, where he found himself in the middle of a dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon.  After a meeting has been arranged by the king’s chamberlain (something like a modern-day chief of staff), Herod meets with them in the amphitheater at Caesarea Maritima.  The events are recorded for us, not only in the book of Acts, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus.  Following is Josephus’ description of the events of that day…

“(344) On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent at to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; (345) and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” (Josephus, Antiquities, 19.344-19.345.)

Luke tells us here in Acts 12 that, after he had delivered a speech to them, they began to cry out, “The voice of God, and not of a man.  They began to praise him as being a divine being.

Given that Herod is described for us in history as being something of a pious Jew, there is no question that he knew better than to allow them to deify him.  Yet he makes no effort to stop them from praising him (contrast this with Peter in Acts 10:25-26 and Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14:8-18).  He likes the praise.  He delights in being glorified as god.

At that moment, God strikes him down.  He is eaten by worms (implying that this is a judgment from God) and he breathes his last. 

Herod fell prey to the same temptation as Satan… the desire to be glorified as God… and the judgment he received was horrible.

The same fate awaits the devil (Rev 20:10) and, also, every person who rebels against God, seeking their own glory, rather than God’s (Isaiah 66:24.)

There is a battle raging… an incredible cosmic battle… and you are on one side or the other.  There is no straddling the fence.  You are either trusting in Jesus Christ or you are of the devil.  There is no other option.  You are one or the other.

One day the battle between the devil and Jesus Christ will be finished forever and, in that day, those who are on the side of the devil will meet the same fate as Herod.  They will be judged by God, because they did not give him the glory… and their worm shall not die… their fire shall not be quenched (Isaiah 66:24)… and they will suffer the wrath of God in hell for all eternity (Rev 20:11-15.)

There is only one way to escape this destiny and that is to repent of your sin and trust in Jesus Christ.  God is a gracious God and He delights to save sinners, but He will only save those who are trusting in His Son who died for their sins.

Are you trusting in Jesus Christ?

One last verse deserves being commented upon.  In this passage, we see the gates of hell crash against the church, but notice how the passage ends in verse 24, “But the Word of God increased and multiplied.  No matter how hard the gates of hell crash against the church, nothing can stop Jesus Christ from building His Church!  Nothing can stop the spread of the gospel!

Suggestions for application:

1)      Expect opposition from the devil and the world in the spread of the gospel.  There will be enmity between the devil and his seed and Christ and His Church until Satan is cast into the lake of fire forever.  Read I Peter 5:8 and take it to heart.

2)      Pray.  Not just for physical needs, but also for the spiritual battles which are raging around us.  Pray for the spiritual battles taking place in your own family… in your church… in your community… in this nation… and all across the world.  Don’t just pray individually, but pray corporately.  Spend time in earnest prayer with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

3)      Be confident that the battle is already won!  Even when the days are darkest, remember that Jesus Christ is victorious!  The devil, despite all his thrashing around, is a defeated foe.  Nothing can stop the gospel!  Christ Jesus is building His Church… and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!





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