Beginning this week, I am moving my blog publication day from Wednesday to Monday. Hopefully, it will help give you a bright start to your week
I am hearing an abundance of persecution talk among fellow believers and I tend to dismiss it. I suppose depending on how we define “persecution” one could accurately say that Christianity in the United States is undergoing some light-duty persecution, but it does not rise anywhere near the level of persecution endured by our brothers and sisters in places like Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia.1 There, Christ-followers are beaten to death, forcibly raped, sold into slavery, or into marriages that are little more than sexually utilitarian.
Persecution of the church began early with its inaugural members.
Setting the Scene
The Herod family was despised by the Jews. They were a godless family, and to make matters worse, the Jews resented having Edomites rule over them. Herod Agrippa was well aware of this, so he persecuted the church to convince the Jews of his loyalty to their history and traditions. Add to this the fact that Gentiles were now being added to the church, Herod’s actions were applauded by the more nationalistic Jews who abhorred those they considered pagans. Anything Herod could do to win favor from the Jews was of interest to him.
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. – Acts 12:1-3a, ESV
With the murder of James, we have the first martyr of the church. You may recall the scene from Matthew 20:20-28, wherein the mother of James and John asked Jesus to have her sons sit on either side of Jesus on thrones of their own. Jesus’ response showed that true glory comes through suffering. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Their audacious reply was, “We are able.”
If I knew that a dear friend and companion in ministry had been put to death by the sword, and that this was done by the highest levels of government, I’d be concerned, particularly if that same government seized me and tossed me into prison. And this was no light-duty incarceration for Peter.
And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. – Acts 12:4, ESV
Four squads of soldiers . . . We know from verse six that Peter is chained to two soldiers in the prison cell, one on his left and one on his right. Beyond that, sentries were guarding the door to the prison. Herod Agrippa means business! This was the grandson of Herod the Great, the man who murdered all of the children in Bethlehem2 and the nephew of Herod Antipas who had John the baptist beheaded.3
Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. – Acts 12:6, ESV
Does anything jump out at you from that verse? Peter is in prison, chained, heavily guarded, most likely awaiting his execution, given what happened to James, and we know from verse five that “earnest prayer” for him by the church unto God. Yet Peter is sleeping!
This is not Peter’s first imprisonment for preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and that may account for the extensive security measures Herod put in place. Peter seems to have a habit of escaping captivity.
But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ – Acts 5:17-20, ESV
Peter seems well satisfied that “God’s got this.” Perhaps the lesson of Jesus sleeping in the back of the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee has taken root in Peter.4 Jesus is in control, and there was nothing Peter can do about his circumstance, so he went to sleep.
Not only was Peter asleep, but he was also sleeping so soundly that an angel sent from God had difficulty awakening him and had to whack him on the side to wake him up (Acts 12:7). Even then, Peter didn’t really “come to himself” until four verses later when he was fully dressed and outside the prison.
It seems there is a time to be alert and watchful in prayer, and a time when you have done all you can do, and prayer becomes little more than worry expressed in anxious words. Sometimes, we simply need to press on with life, leaving our wellbeing in the Lord’s hands.
For the Christ-follower, we know that times will be difficult. Trials will come; even persecutions. The news will be distressing. Through it all, God is on the throne, and therefore all is right with our world. We will not always understand what is happening around us, but will always know who ultimately holds the reins. He is, and will always be sovereign.
So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
– Hebrews 13:6, ESV
1 – International Christian Response is a quality organization worthy of our support, both financially and through prayer. Founded in 1969 by Tortured for Christ author, Richard Wurmbrand, ICR ministers directly to persecuted Christ-followers in countries that are hostile to the Christian faith. Ninety-four cents of every dollar received by ICR goes directly to ministry programs. Only three cents goes to administrative overhead, and the remaining three cents to fundraising efforts. Learn more here: https://christianresponse.org/
2 – Matthew 2:16-18
3 – Mark 6:14-29
4 – Mark 4:35-41