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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Church's Mighty Deliverer
Text:Acts 12:1-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 146:1,3,4                                                                                 

Ps 119:9,10

Reading – Acts 5:17-42

Ps 91:1,4,5

Sermon – Acts 12:1-17

Ps 122:1,2,3

Hy 52:1,2,3,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, I’d be worried if the church was a human effort. If it was up to us alone to defend the church, maintain her unity, or increase her numbers, we’d have reason to be concerned. For the church would certainly follow the path of so many man-made clubs and societies—for a while strong and united, but eventually weak and scattered.

Yet we give thanks that this church is not a human project. We believe that we are and will remain living members of a holy body being gathered out of all this world by the Son of God. The church’s unity isn’t built on our common background or shared opinions, but on God’s own Word. The church won’t ever fold or collapse, because it is a work of Christ!

This is a beautiful theme carrying through Acts. You’ve probably heard before that “The Acts of the Apostles” isn’t the best name. Because it’s all about the acts of the Lord Jesus, as gathers and grows his people. That’s how Luke introduces this, his second book: “In my former book…I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1, NIV).

That word “began” says a lot. In his Gospel, Luke wrote about the amazing deeds and words of Jesus. Now this is Part 2—the sequel. And the story’s main character is still the same. In fact, He’s even more mighty and majestic, now that He’s risen from the grave and ascended to his throne. The cross was only the beginning of Jesus’ work, for now the risen Christ continues. By his blood He has redeemed his New Testament church: redeemed us for life, and eternity.

Government hostility or persecution or internal weakness do not matter, because the church has a heavenly Saviour, and a heavenly King. We see this clearly in Acts 12, which I preach to you on this theme,

The Lord delivers Peter from prison. It is a deliverance:

  1. in power
  2. through prayer
  3. with purpose


1) it is a deliverance in power: Our chapter doesn’t start very well. In verse 3, Peter is arrested by King Herod. Peter is what we might call “a repeat offender,” well-acquainted with the inside of a prison cell. His first arrest is described in chapter 4, where the Jewish leaders are upset because the apostles are announcing the resurrection of Jesus. And after his release, just one chapter later—in Acts 5—Peter and the apostles are locked up again. 

Probably several years have passed by the time we arrive at our text, when Peter is arrested a third time. And this time it looked like the baseball adage is going to hold true: “Three strikes and you’re out.” Because both times before, Peter was detained by the Jews, who had no authority to execute someone. They had killed Stephen, but that was more like a lynching: a mob seized him and stoned him without due process. But now Peter is jailed by King Herod.

Just the name “Herod” should make us fear for Peter’s life, because wickedness has a way of running in the family. The Herod who arrested Peter is Herod Agrippa I. This is a grandson of Herod the Great, the king who killed most of his own family in paranoid jealousy, and who also ordered the slaughter of the young boys of Bethlehem. The Herod in our text is also a nephew to Herod Antipas, the one who beheaded John the Baptist. Now Herod Agrippa is the king of Palestine, and carrying on the family business of violence.

Herod was eager to win the people’s good will, because a stable region usually meant a long career for the Romans. He began persecuting the Christian church, because he knew they were causing trouble for the many Jews in his land.

And the time was right for it, because the church had just overcome a big hurdle. After several years of uncertainty, the church had accepted Gentiles as full members. Just before our chapter, Peter received a startling vision. The Lord told the church to extend the hand of fellowship to believers of all backgrounds, regardless of whether they kept the ceremonial law. This was good and right of course, but to the Jews, the acceptance of the Gentiles was too much. These Christians were becoming more ‘unorthodox’ by the day. So to win the Jews’ favour, Herod gets to work.

In his first attack, he kills the apostle James. Sounds like that went off easily, so Herod next nabs Peter—an even bigger catch than James, for Peter had the role of a chief spokesman. Silence him, and you silence a loud voice. There’d be a trial, but the outcome wasn’t in doubt. It certainly looked like Peter was soon to die.

It is now the night before the trial starts. Peter is likely in the tower of Antonia, which was a Roman fortress near the temple in Jerusalem. Peter was carefully guarded by four squads of soldiers—two soldiers were actually with him, and he may even have been chained to them. Just imagine Peter, locked away in the dark heart of a fortress, doubly chained, closely guarded, perhaps spending his last night on earth.

And what does Peter do? He sleeps! Peter slept before, in the Garden, during the anguish of his Lord, when he should’ve been alert and praying. But this slumber is different. Now Peter has courage, and he rests in God. Some of us can’t sleep well the night before a dentist appointment or a science test, but Peter has taken off his sandals and let down his garments—he's settled in for a good night’s sleep!

This reminds us of Psalm 4:8, where David praises God with confidence, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” God has given Peter this strength. It’s true whether we sleep or we wake: the Spirit of Christ can give a peace that nothing on earth can rattle. And the display of God’s power in that prison was only just beginning.

For suddenly an angel of the Lord appears and fills the cell with shining light. And when Peter stands up, the heavy chains fall from him like they weren’t even there. No explanation is given for this, and none is needed. Psalm 146 says our God is the one who “gives freedom to the prisoners” (v 8), and who sets the captives free. God delivers his own!

The guards are somehow prevented from seeing their prisoner leave. But still the angel acts quickly. Peter is told to tuck his robe into his belt, so he can move fast. Past one set of guards, then another, they hurry to the heavy iron gate of the fortress—a final, impossible barrier. But verse 10 says the gate “opened to them of its own accord.” This too, was the power of our God, “who opens and no one can shut.”

Walking through the gate, the angel escorts Peter down the street, and then he departs. Finally Peter understands what’s going on: “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and has delivered me” (v 11).

From beginning to end, this was a powerful work of the Lord that was accomplished through one his heavenly servants. We see this more often in Acts, that Jesus acts mightily for his church through the angels. This is the old promise of Psalm 91 which continues to be fulfilled, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (v 11).

Yes, angels are very busy in Acts! Think of how in chapter 1, the Lord sent two angels to comfort his disciples after He ascended into heaven. Then when the apostles were in prison in chapter 5, the Lord sent an angel to free them. And see what the angel does to this same Herod in 12:23, “He struck him down…he was eaten by worms and he died.” Again and again, the young church experienced the closeness of the Lord’s care through his armies of angels. The angels kept them safe, kept them alive, kept them working.

We confess that Christ is still preserving his church today. So don’t you wonder where all the angels have gone? Where are they when Christians in China and elsewhere are imprisoned and need delivering? Where are the angels when there’s enemies of the church who should be struck down and eaten by worms? Closer to home, are the angels of Christ busy with the care of our congregation too?

The eyes in our head don’t see them. But with the eyes of faith, we can! Today the angels are no less present or powerful, and they’re at work for the good of his people. We know that from God’s Psalm 91 promise, “He will command his angels concerning you.” We know it from Hebrews 1, which says that the angels are ministering spirits, sent to care for those who will inherit salvation. And we know it from Acts.

For Christ still preserves his blood-bought church by every means available. He preserves us by the hand of his heavenly Father, who governs all things. He defends us by his Holy Spirit, who gives peace to our hearts in the hours of distress. And the Lord protects us every day through his heavenly servants, the angels. It’s something to meditate on, that wherever you go, there the angels are, as surely as your Lord Jesus reigns in heaven!

The oppressed and fearful church will always be upheld, for Jesus our Head has all the power and glory. In this spiritual war, He commands vast armies of angels, and He cannot be threatened by the hosts of evil. Even the nations are under him, and the kings of the earth must submit to him. This is the great power of the Lord, and it’s a power that can even be moved by the church’s prayers.


2) It is a deliverance through prayer: When we recounted the story of Peter’s release, we skipped one brief but important verse. Verse 5: “Peter was…kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.” It’s easy to read over quickly, but this verse is actually one to underline.

Think about this: Peter was in a maximum-security prison, locked away by a tyrant who had a family history of violence. What’s more, his mock-trial was to be held the very next day—and no one would be surprised if it ended with Peter’s execution. In short, human hope was down to less than 1%. The believers couldn’t slip Peter out with the laundry, they certainly couldn’t storm the fortress, and they couldn’t count on mercy from Herod. At this late hour, realistically, what could they do? Start planning the funeral?

The church could pray—the least they could do is pray. That’s what we say at times. When there’s no human solution, when we see no way of getting out of this bind, when every treatment has been exhausted, when we’ve used up all our words to persuade a person toward repentance. Then we say, “I suppose all we can do is pray.” It’s like we finally accept that things are out of our hands: “Let’s pray—what can it hurt?”

But see what the church does in Acts 12. Even with the executioner’s sword being sharpened, they don’t resign themselves to empty prayers, petitions formed with hollow words that don’t really believe anything can change.

For the church prays “constantly.” The original Greek word in verse 5 combines the ideas of perseverance and intensity. The believers pray for Peter without letting up, and they pray with fervour. This is no half-hearted, already-defeated prayer floated up to God. It is true Biblical prayer: presented to God in true faith, with the certainty that—for the sake of Christ their Lord—God Almighty will hear and answer.

For prayer is not the least we can do, it is the most. Prayer is powerful and effective, Scripture says, because it calls on the Lord Almighty! Prayer brings us into the presence of the Saviour who has great strength and unfailing purpose. Prayer seeks the Lord who paid the highest price for his church—paid his own blood—so He will not sit on his hands when his believers go through trouble.

From our perspective, prayer sometimes seems like wasted words, like praying for the healing of someone who has chronic pain. Or it’s hopeless to always bring before God the needs of the same rebellious child, to remember before God the same shaky marriage, or the same needy person. We prayed about it so many times before—so why again? Or we simply get tired of praying for our nation’s leaders. Will any of this really make a difference?

But “pray continually” (1 Thess 5:17), Scripture exhorts us. And “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph 6:18). Pray with perseverance. Pray with determination, though you tire of the names and the causes, though you struggle to see the point. Pray, knowing this truth: our prayers are more than empty words. For we pray to the Lord of the church, for whom all things are possible!

It’s a great mystery of prayer that our words can somehow move the Triune God to action. It’s beyond our understanding how our lowly petitions can effect anything at all in God’s purpose. Yet this mystery shouldn’t keep us from being constant before him. He tells us to speak with him. He tells us to tell him. And He promises that He hears, He listens, and He answers!

When you read through the book of Acts, you’ll notice that the church is often praying. It’s a great example for us. We hear the believers praying earnestly for growth, for wisdom, for strength, for guidance. They knew that if the church was going to increase through the spread of the gospel, then they needed to pray. They knew that if they were going to be preserved in true doctrine, they needed to pray. They knew that if God would bring unity out of their diversity, they needed to pray. So today: a church that lives in dependence on her Lord doesn’t just say it but lives it—and she will be a praying church.

Even so, we need to notice too, how the church receives God’s answer. When the servant girl rushes back to say that Peter is at the door, the believers don’t believe her: “You are beside yourself!” (v 15). They conclude it must’ve been the Lord’s angel, maybe sent to comfort Peter in his final night. They can accept that God will send angels to defend his believers, but to free them the prison? That’s too much. The church prays for Peter, but with expectations that don’t match the Lord’s greatness.

Do we see ourselves in that? Can’t the same attitude be found in our prayers? We hold back, or we pray with a pre-formed idea of how God will answer us; “I will pray, though I’m pretty sure God is going to do something different. I’ll ask, but this situation likely won’t change one bit.” We have low expectations, and we hate to be disappointed. But is this praying with faith? Is this the kind of praying Jesus described, when He said: “Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find”?

When we know the Lord’s greatness, his power and generosity, then our prayers can slowly begin to change. Because we know—we trust—that the Lord is able to do what we ask! God can make the chains fall. God can open iron gates. God can surprise us in his grace. We can pray with a faith that knows the Lord will hear and answer. And his answer will be according to his good purpose.


3) it is a deliverance with purpose: The Lord Jesus looks down from heaven, and knows exactly what his church needs at any given moment. This is why He sent an angel to that fortress. Peter was an apostle, an eyewitness to the risen Christ, and he had just received that important vision about accepting Gentiles into the church. If Peter had been killed at this moment, the young church would’ve suffered in serious ways. For the long-term good of his people Christ answers them here in Acts 12.

And this teaches us something else about prayer, that we should remember to pray for the needs of our church. We probably tend to think of the church as 250 or so individuals, largely separate people with their unique struggles. There’s truth to that. But in Acts 12 we see prayers for the church, as church. Peter wasn’t just a friend who was in trouble, one brother among many. They prayed for him as a leader and apostle. They prayed for him, because Christ’s church was at the forefront of their concerns.

So it should be for us. We pray not just for the individual needs and concerns around us, like an elderly member or a struggling sister. Pray also for the church’s leaders, for the deacons in their work, and the elders as they visit, and for me as minister as I preach and teach the Word. Pray also for the communion of saints in this church, that it would be strong and genuine and active. Pray that we would be faithful in the truth, and in sharing the truth.

And pray not only for our local church, but our whole bond, and the catholic church everywhere, that it would be preserved and increased. We see in Acts that it’s by the prayers of the believers that the church is built—and so today. Pray for those who suffer under wicked governments. Pray for those who are crying out for Bibles in their own language, and pray for workers to be raised up for the harvest. Pray widely and broadly for the church.

I’d like to step outside the text now, and imagine the believers looking back on the events of this chapter. Imagine them wondering: “So why was Peter released from prison, but James was not?” After all, James had also walked with the Lord for three years, he too had received the Spirit and was ready for a life of service. Yet James was cut down by Herod’s sword, while Peter was delivered. Couldn’t God have done more with James and Peter both? And what about Stephen, that bold witness—why was he killed just a short time into his ministry, instead of living to preach the gospel?           

We might ask similar questions. What is the Lord doing when He takes away a church’s leaders through disease or death or sin, or when He allows Satan to have success through false teaching and division? Isn’t God caring for us like He said?

But we trust that the Lord of the church knows exactly what He’s doing. Remember that it is his church. He may use a strong leader for only a short time. He may let a wicked government to prune us through their hostility. He may allow Satan to inflict severe damage. Yet the Lord Jesus is still doing the good work that He has begun, doing it unstoppably.

Back in Acts 5, the Pharisee Gamaliel spoke at the trial of the apostles. And at that time, Gamaliel urged the council to leave the apostles alone. For this is what he said about the church, “If this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing. But if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—you might even be found to be fighting against God” (v 39). So true, his words: “If this work is of men, it will come to nothing. But if it’s from God, you cannot overthrow it.”

That describes what’s going on in our chapter, and what continues to happen in Christ’s church today. The church is weak in herself. If it was merely the work of people like you and me, it would surely collapse. But by God’s steadfast grace, his believers cannot be overthrown.

So after all this, there comes a wonderful conclusion to chapter 12. We find it often in Acts, and we see it throughout the world to this very day: “But the word of God grew and multiplied” (v 24). His Word will continue to grow and multiply—we can be sure of it, for it’s God’s Word, about God’s Christ.

Will you join God’s beautiful work by praying for the church? Will you commit to pray often for his people here and elsewhere? For then Christ will continue to build his church, for the glory of his great name!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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