The Word of God Increases and Multiplies

Sermon by Billy Dempsey on August 15

Acts 12:1-12

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And now, let’s give our attention to God’s Word. Let me ask you to turn with me to Acts chapter 12. We want to walk our way through this chapter. We’ll begin with reading the first twelve verses, I think is what I said – yes, the first twelve verses of this chapter, and see what it is that God would have us learn about His Word that multiplies, or rather that increases and multiplies. Before we do anything more, let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Father, open our minds and open our hearts. We need to hear from You this night. We need the food of Your Word, so Spirit, teach us. Be our Teacher tonight, and not just tonight in this moment, but let this Word teach us this week. Draw our minds across it again and again and again as we remember what Luke records for us here, and do our souls much good. We give You thanks, Father. We give You thanks, Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Spirit of Christ, teach us now. We make our prayer in Jesus’ name.

And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

Acts chapter 12, beginning with verse 1:

“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. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 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. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

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. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, ‘Dress yourself and put on your sandals.’ And he did so. And he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’

When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”

The grass withers and the flower fades but the Word of our God stands forever. Amen. Thanks be to God.

Well, this passage represents a turning point in the life of the church and the history of the persecution of the church. We’ve had persecution before; we’ve had the apostles beaten in Acts chapter 5 by the Sanhedrin. They were brought together, brought to the Sanhedrin, they were targeted and they were beaten there. They left the room rejoicing that they had the privilege of suffering for Christ. Acts chapter 8 – Saul’s persecution following the death of Stephen. The church was scattered. It was a grim and terrible time in so many ways, and yet as they scattered, they talked about Jesus. They, as Derek Thomas says, “They gossiped the Gospel” in all the places that they scattered to. All the persecutors did was make the church larger; all they did was spread the Gospel more evenly throughout, not just throughout Judea but even to Antioch, 200 miles north in Syria. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem through that difficult persecution. But now here we’ve got a situation in which for the first time the apostles become targets, and not just targets of harassment or beating but their lives are at stake here for the first time.

I want us to look at the church’s resolve, unyielding resolve. I want us to look at God’s unfailing vengeance as we’ll see as we walk our way through the chapter. And the Gospel’s unhindered progress.

The Church’s Unyielding Resolve

But first of all, before we go any further, we’ve got to get our Herods straight. We’ve got too many Herods floating around in these Bible narratives. Let me take a minute so we can get our Herods all straightened out and know which Herod we’re talking about here. Herod the Great, the king of the Jews, at Jesus’ birth and tried to have Jesus killed in Matthew 2. Herod Antipas, his son, was king during the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Antipas had John the Baptist executed and he later declined to pass judgment on Jesus, sending Him back to Pilate. Herod Antipas is mentioned as the one who is guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus. Our chapter, Acts chapter 12, speaks about Herod as the persecutor of the apostles, but this is Herod Agrippa I, a different Herod. This is the nephew of Herod Antipas and the grandson of Herod the Great. Herod Agrippa was ruling as king and so he has, as history tells us, he took a little territory that the Roman government gave him to be a client ruler of and he called together really a kingdom and he bought that title, “king,” from his friend, Emperor Claudius; a territory almost as large as his grandfather ruled. So he was a man to be reckoned with. Ruling mostly in Jerusalem, very often he would go to Cesarea where he actually died, as we’ll see later, because that was the administrative capital of Judea. But he loved living in Jerusalem because he was the one who was particular about the law. His grandfather had not been; he was very careful about the law and the Jews appreciated that about him. They were inclined toward him as they had not been his uncle and his grandfather.

But I want us to see the role of prayer here. We’re beginning to talk about prayer. A great beginning of a sermon series on prayer and a great beginning of a year thinking about prayer. You see the role of prayer right here. That’s where there is an unyielding resolve that we find on the part of the church. Here, Herod Agrippa I comes to lay violent hands, he is renewing a persecution, a general persecution of the church. I would think that since the days of Acts chapter 8 when Saul began his persecution that there has been some quiet, but there has been mounting tension among the Jewish community in Jerusalem as the Gospel continues to be preached, as Jesus continues to be talked about as the Messiah and Savior of sinners, the one whom God sent. There has got to be rising tension in the city of Jerusalem among the Jews in Judea in general and if Herod is going to do anything, he has got to keep that population quiet and happy. So how is he going to do that? Well he’s going to put pressure on the church. He is going to put pressure on those who follow the Way to be quiet about it. He is going to put pressure on those who follow the Way to forsake the Way and go back to the faith of their fathers. And so he is laying violent hands on some who belong to the church. He is renewing a persecution.

And also, he is ratcheting up because he collects James who is apparently with Peter as a more vocal person, yet James seems to be the one in whom people recognize, “This guy is one of the pillars.” Paul calls him one of the pillars; one of the pillars of the church. And so it becomes helpful to Herod’s purposes to grab someone who is a generally acknowledged leader. He puts him to death with the sword and the people are pleased and so Herod, knowing it’s his job security to keep the people pleased, makes the decision, “Well we’ve got to go one better. Let’s go after Peter. Go one better than James – Let’s go after Peter.” And that’s exactly what he does. Peter then is arrested, is jailed, and since we don’t have trials and we don’t have executions or anything like that during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, we’ll hold Peter on ice as it were. And so Peter is waiting.

Now let’s go back to James. Are we to assume that there is no reference to prayer when James is arrested and killed? There is a reference to prayer as Peter is arrested and kept in prison. Are we to think that James didn’t get the benefit of the church’s prayer and therefore his life wasn’t saved? I don’t know that we can say that. I don’t know that we can say that at all; the church no doubt prayed with the arrest and persecution of that renewed persecution that Herod brought and prayed for James’ life. I have no doubt that the church prayed. Would James have lived if the church had prayed harder? Well certainly the Scripture is full of teaching us not only about the importance of prayer but the importance of labor in prayer, struggling in prayer, battling in prayer. We think about the parable of the importunate widow who kept on coming back to the judge and kept on coming back to the judge and kept on coming back and he finally heard and granted her petition and he said, “I am not righteous, and I don’t fear God, and I don’t fear man, but I’ve got to have some relief from this lady! I’ve got to get her off my back!” And Jesus is using that parable to encourage us to pray and pray and pray. He says, “Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep on knocking.”

Persistence in prayer is certainly taught in the Scriptures. We think about Moses and Aaron and Hur as Joshua is leading the armies of Israel against the Amalekites and Moses, in a posture of prayer – I don’t think it was just a matter of where Moses’ arms were; I think Moses was praying and he had his hands up praying. And as long as his hands were up, the victory was going to the Israelites. When he would get tired and began to droop, the victory was going to the Amalekites. So I think the teaching is – pray and don’t get tired. Don’t get tired of praying. Don’t stop praying. So surely the Scripture teaches us to labor in prayer.

But God has a secret will. God had a plan for James. Jesus kind of talked about it, didn’t He? Remember, James and John came to Jesus and said, “We want to sit, one on Your left hand and one on Your right when You come into Your kingdom.” And this is in the closing days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And their mother was part of that request too. And Jesus said to them, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism I am going to be baptized?” “Oh, yes Sir. Yes, Sir. We can do that. We’re right there!” “Well you will drink the cup that I will drink from and you will be baptized with the baptism I am going to undergo.” He promised them suffering, just like He promises all of us suffering. He promised them suffering. James is drinking that cup, not out of wrath or dissatisfaction from the Father in any way. It was his time, as we come to understand and know that God marks our days and measures our days. It is unsearchable. It is part of the unsearchable will of God.

Nevertheless, I believe it is fair to say that James’ death galvanizes the church in a way that they might not have been galvanized because they wouldn’t have recognized that, “Oh, we’re in a new day. We’re in a new day.” And so when it’s Peter’s turn to be arrested and jailed, then they know what’s happening. Maybe they didn’t quite know as well what was about to happen with James because it hadn’t happened that way before. But now it has and they know this man’s life is in danger. And so James’ death, I think it’s safe to say, galvanizes the church to pray earnestly. That word is very interesting because in the Greek it means “to strain.” “To strain.” They’re straining in prayer. They’re groaning in prayer. They’re laboring in prayer. They’re herding in prayer more so perhaps than before. They’re straining in prayer. They’re meeting together now in homes for the purpose of prayer which is dangerous on its face because now the times are different and there may not be freedom of movement. Certainly there is an interest in keeping the door shut and the gates locked as they gather for prayer. It’s dangerous on its face for them to meet like that together as the church for fear of Herod’s government. It is a new day for them.

It’s a new day for them, which tells us something that we need to recognize about the school of prayer. And let’s not overlook it. Pain is a great inducement to prayer. When do we pray hardest? When do we strain in prayer? When we hurt. When our loved ones hurt. When our church hurts. When we know our need. When we know we are at the end of ourselves. “There is nothing I can do. There is nothing I have to offer. If there is help, it’s got to come from God Almighty.” Pain is an inducement to prayer. It’s not the only inducement, and we pray lots of times we’re not hurting, but the greater our pain, the more willing I think we are to strain. The greater our pain, the more engaged in prayer we are and the more willing we are to strain. So I’m delighting we’re talking about prayer this year. I’m delighted that we’re going to be strained to become a church more committed to prayer and practicing prayer individually and by families and by a church family. But in the words of Bette Davis, who has probably never been quoted in this pulpit before – I think it’s safe to say I’m doing something brand new here! “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” because pain, pain is our school, is a part of our school for prayer.

I want you to notice this too – that God’s rescue of Peter, how does it come – when there’s lots of time, days and days before he’s about to be tried and executed? No, verse 6 – “When Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers.” Peter, treated as a maximum security prisoner, Luke was telling us by the four squads and the way that he is doubled chained and all the guards around him that he is treated as a maximum security prisoner. There is no way out for Peter. And it’s interesting to note that here he is in his last night, what he’s sure is pretty much his last night as far as he knows in this world, and what is he doing? He is not fretting. He is not tearful. He is not distracted. He is not howling at the moon. He is not doing anything. He’s sleeping. He’s sleeping because he knows the next day he sees God do something amazing on his behalf or he sees Jesus. He sees God do something amazing or he sees his Friend and his Savior whom he loves. He’s at rest. He’s at rest in the hands of God.

How many times can we say, “I am at rest in the hands of God?” “Whate’er my God ordains is right.” It’s His choice. It’s His will. It’s not mine. I’ll rest in Him. What a beautiful picture of trust. What a beautiful picture of faith. May you and I be sleeping soundly at death’s door. May you and I be sleeping soundly at death’s door, awaiting God’s disposition to call us to Himself or restore us to life in this world. May you and I sleep soundly, as Peter does, at death’s door.

Well we see what happens here. God is rescuing Peter and sends the angel. The angel gets to club him in the side. I think that’s comical! Peter is obviously awake but he’s not awake enough to really respond to what is going on. He’s awake enough to know there is a light on in here somewhere. “Where did the light come from?” And the next thing you know the angel is kicking him in the side – “Get up! Get up! The chains are off. You’ve got to get up and get dressed!” Because God is not only fulfilling His will, but as David told us this morning, God intends that our prayers be useful to Him. And so our prayers have causality. God is not only doing His holy will, He is responding to the prayers of the church. The prayers of the church have power, and so Herod, for all his interest in promoting himself – and I think that’s exactly what Herod is doing here; he is promoting himself. He’s keeping his people calm. He wants Rome to be happy with him. How many people does he have to kill to keep Rome happy with him? That’s the bill of fare. That’s what has to happen. That’s the toll. “How many lives do I have to take so that my people are calm and Rome is happy with me?” It’s all about Herod. It’s not really about the good of his people. It’s all about Herod and how he looks to Rome and how secure his position is with his Roman friends because they can bring him more money and bring him more power as he wants it. But not if they’re unhappy with him. This is not about a pursuit of the truth as Herod understands it. Herod is a Jew and so he is not in favor of what Jesus stands for and what Jesus claims about Himself and what these people claim about Him. He is about Herod! “I want to preserve my position with Rome so I’ve got to keep this population stable and happy. How many of them do I have to kill to do it?” So Herod is about pursuing himself.

I make that point because of what we’re about to get into when Peter, when he goes to Cesarea toward the conclusion of this chapter. In the meantime, we’ve got a spot where we see Peter knocking at the door at his friend Mary’s house – Mary, who is the mother of John Mark. They eventually realize, “We don’t have time to get into all the ins and outs of this.” But he tells them, “Tell James” – that is, James, the Lord’s brother – “that I am leaving.” So he hides. He goes into hiding. He can’t be found anymore, indicating to us that now James, the Lord’s brother, is the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Verse 18 – “Now when day came there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter.” Herod searched for him, did not find him, examined the centuries, ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there. “Put these men to death. They have cost me a great deal. They have cost me a great deal.” To say that he examined the centuries, I think it means he tortured them. That’s a euphemism for torture. Trying to get out that last piece of information. “You know something that you’re not saying.” They didn’t know anything because the angel kept them asleep as he delivered Peter!

God’s Unfailing Vengeance

Here’s what I want to say about God’s vengeance. Here is a man who is the enemy of the church and willing to spill the church’s blood for his own purposes and for his own safety. Here is a man who is the enemy of God and the enemy of God’s people. And God deals with His enemies. God deals with His enemies in His own time and in His own way, but at this moment Herod is about to face the justice of God. Look at verse 20. Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. This was a different matter; it’s an economic matter. They came to him with one accord having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain. They asked for peace because their country depended on the king’s country for food. Galilean corn, Judean grain – they all went to Tyre and Sidon and those Phoenician seacoast cities. Maybe the folks in Tyre and Sidon, the government there – and they’re self-governing; they’re not part of the empire, they’re self-governing – maybe they upped the shipping charges. Maybe they upped the tax for the use of the harbor. At any rate, there is an economic issue. Herod has instituted a boycott. “There is no more of our grain coming to you until you make some adjustments here.” And so that’s what they’re there to do. They’re there to, cap in hand, to make the adjustments that Herod wants so that Herod can get what he wants.

Well, Herod has won. He has won this one. He is in triumph here. And so he puts on his royal robes. The historian, Josephus, says that the account was that the robes were woven with silver thread so he glittered in the sun. He glittered in the sun. And he goes to the games that were held there in Caesarea in Caesar’s honor and makes this great speech, makes this great oration, and people were shouting, “The voice of a god and not a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down because he did not give God the glory. He was eaten by worms and breathed his last. Modern medical folks will tell us probably that was a ruptured appendix that became peritonitis with an infestation of intestinal parasites. You don’t want to know more about that! And Josephus again, the history of record, tells us that Herod writhed in agony on his bed for five days before he died because he would not give God the glory. He would not restrain the people. “This is the voice of a god and not a man!” He would not restrain the people because he really wanted to appear almost god-like to them. Here is a man, here is a man who had no thought and no care. Although particular about the law of God in his practice, no heart, no heart for God and His ways at all.

God deals with His enemies. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t get cynical. And don’t be an enemy. God deals with His enemies. God brings justice. This is what the justice of God looks like. It consumed Herod. It consumed Herod. God loves His people. He loves His Church. She is the apple of His eye and He will protect Her, He will keep Her, and He will put away all His enemies. He will put away all His enemies.

The Gospel’s Unhindered Progress

Well we’ve got one more point and we should go. All of that, our chapter begins with James dead and Peter about to be dead and Herod triumphant. And here our chapter ends with Herod dead, Peter is free, and the Word of God, according to verse 24, the Word of God “increased and multiplied.” Here is Herod, the enemy of the church who thinks he is going to stand across the road and stop the progress of the church and stop the progress of the Gospel and stop any more talk about this Jesus fellow, and God takes him away. He’s gone. But the Word of God multiplied. The Word of God increased and multiplied. It grew. It grew! It’s purchase on people’s lives grew. It grew deeper in people’s hearts as people more and more in the marketplaces and in the roadways and in the roadway inns and around the wells and the watering troughs, wherever people gathered, somebody was going to be there who would be talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Somebody was going to be there who had heard the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. Somebody was going to be in all those places who trusted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah sent from God who paid for sins and made reconciliation with God possible. Somebody was going to be there because the Word of God, against all the odds, against all the opposition, against all the powerful enemies, the Word of God was multiplying and growing with regular folks, nameless people in the history books. We don’t know their names. We’ll share glory with them! People you can’t read about. People who are just doing their business day by day, living among their neighbors, buying and selling, making, producing, farming, harvesting. They’re just doing life.

And along the way they’re talking to people about Jesus because they love Him and they trust Him. They know Him and they’re going to the places where His Word is read and they’re going to the places where the Law is read and they’re hearing the Law for the first time in a different way. They’re going to the places where they hear the Word of God and the teaching of the apostles. It circulates. It circulates. It’s roaming around and beginning to be in written form because they want the truth. They want the truth. They’re hungry for it. The Word of God multiplies and increases.

And one more thing. Look at verse 25 – “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.” Well what’s their service? Chapter 11 of Acts tells us about the prophecy of Agabus who, he’s talking about a great famine to strike the Roman world. And the believers in Antioch say, “Let’s collect some goods. Let’s collect some money so that the suffering, famine-ridden folks in Judea, the believers in Judea can buy food, because the empire will send food, they’ll get food around but it’s going to be costly. So let’s get some money.” So that’s exactly what Paul and Barnabas have gone to Jerusalem to do – to deliver this money to the church, to the apostles, so that it can be distributed and used to buy food as hungry people need it.

Herod, standing across the road, blocking the way of the church. And what did the church do? The church does what God made the church to do. The church does her business. In this case, it’s Saul and Barnabas bringing money to Jerusalem for saints to buy food. They did it. They delivered it. And now they’re going back home. Herod? What Herod? Where’s Herod? Herod? Did you say something? Did he want something? They don’t care for Herod. Herod didn’t stop them. Herod took somebody they loved. Herod almost took another they loved. He did not stop them. He did not stop the church. The church continued her business that God had called her to do. The church marched on.

And you know what’s about to happen. Saul and Barnabas don’t know what’s about to happen in verse 25, but you know what’s about to happen. The whole Roman world is going to be lit up as the Spirit calls them to that first missionary journey that starts the whole missionary enterprise of the church. The Gospel spreads west. There’s blood, there’s pain, there’re tears, there are trials, but it does not stop. Why? Because the Word of God increases and multiplies, this day, as in that day.

And so church, what do we do? What’s the takeaway? We pray. We pray. We move forth with confidence. We’ve got enemies all around us and those who would block our way, but the church will do Her business. The church will do what God has made Her to do, in big ways and small ways, right here locally and around the world. And we pray. And we pray with confidence. We pray with vigor. We pray with strain, earnestly. Sometimes because we hurt. Always because we know we need it. David said this morning if Jesus needed to pray, I need to pray. I need to pray. We don’t need pain to teach us that, but pain will come and we will pray.

Let’s do so now.

Father, we give You thanks for Your Word. We give You thanks for Your truth. We give You thanks for the fact that it increases and grows. It increases right now. It’s increasing this day. Would it have more purchase on our hearts in the days to come this week than it did last week. Would it grow and prosper in us as well as around the world. Hear us, our Father. We make our prayer in Jesus’ name and for His sake. Amen.

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