Meditations on M’Cheyne 2

27 07 2009

World Leader Eaten by Worms – Acts 12 (25th July)
Acts 12 is big picture teaching on the part of Luke, but as is so often the case we have a tendency to domesticate the application of Scripture. Many times when this passage is expounded the focus is on the prayer meeting for Peter that is mentioned in 12:5. It truly is wonderful that when God’s people prayed things turned around for the Apostle and it is astonishing that they were so flabbergasted by the fact that God answered (12:15-16). This does reflect our own unbelief in prayer, and it should serve as a rebuke to our lack of faith. But if I might be permitted to say so, this isn’t the main thing in chapter 12.

To simply draw this application and move on is something akin to spending all our time admiring an envelope, without realising that if we opened it there is a cheque contained within which would settle all of our financial worries for life! The context of the chapter is the church, but this is not all that Luke is seeking to show by writing of Peter in prison. This chapter is about persecution, about power, and about an omnipotent God whose hand moves history, whose power is unsearchable, and whose church will ultimately prevail – despite appearances.

Verses 1-5 introduce Herod, who is hounding the church and putting believers to death. The power described here is seemingly unassailable. With ‘violent hands’ James is captured along with some others ‘who belonged to the church’, and he is brutally killed. Martyrdom is a spectator sport for the ‘Jews’ (v3) and hearing the cheers from the crowd spurs Herod on to harder treatment for the people of God. Peter, in all his prominence, is captured.

It is so important when we think of this that we dispose of all of the flannelgraph images we have of these kinds of narratives in Scripture. This was a dreadful experience for Peter. He was seized, put in prison, and delivered to ‘four squads of soldiers’ (v4). In a cruelly ironic twist Peter would be offered to the Jews after the Passover – a Christian being sacrificed after the ceremonies of Judaism. There must be no mistake – these were dreadful days.

This is where the context of the church at prayer really matters. Look at this scene merely from the vantage point of externals – the Church is doomed. Herod with all of his heavy handed force is going to destroy God’s people, and he is going to do it by demolishing their ‘pillars’. ‘But earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church’.

God’s means of deliverance is nothing short of breathtaking. The dramatic entrance of an angel the night before Peter’s destruction, and their chain breaking, door opening exit from the midst of Herod’s military elite even caused Peter to think it was a vision – and the church to imagine that such an event couldn’t take place. How ironic that those who surrounded the Apostle to keep him from escape are themselves cut down by Herod’s hand, in his fury at Peter’s escape.

But this is not the only irony of this narrative. Herod’s power is so complete, so corrupt, so idolatrous, that when he is approached by the people of Tyre and Sidon and acclaimed for his god-like oration he accepts such praise glibly and obliquely. Herod has big ideas about himself. But God has even bigger ideas for history. How profound that this man with ‘violent hands’ with squadrons of soldiers, with absolute power is devoured by the lowest and smallest of creatures at God’s command. The king is overcome by the supremacy of God, and His absolute intolerance of all that stands to take His glory. You can imagine the headline in modern terms – ‘World Leader Eaten by Worms’.

But Luke is perhaps more interested in the punchline than the headline. Verse 24 states with kingdom shattering, Sovereign establishing, humanity abasing simplicity – ‘but the word of God increased and multiplied’. There has been a contest described over 24 verses, and God’s Word inevitably prevails, his helpless people victorious in spite of the human odds. The Church will be built and the gates of hell, and even less the threats of Herod, shall not prevail against it.

The parallels to our own time are obvious. Let us not insult the word persecution by rushing to apply this to Western Europe. Rather let our minds be drawn to places on our planet where the issues of Acts 12 are being played out with chilling reality. We could think, for instance, of North Korea where even the BBC are reporting the wholesale slaughter of Christians. The secular media reporting the public execution of a woman for distributing Bibles, and the detention of her whole family circle in a prison camp, gives us some sense of the profundity of persecution which is taking place within that secretive state. One feels that this might merely be the tip of the iceberg.

However, Kim Il-sung nor his son Kim Jong-il need not deceive themselves into thinking that their actions have gone unnoticed. Nor that the worship they gladly garner to themselves will remain unpunished. North Korea is a political conundrum that even major states like the US cannot unravel. But it is no mystery to God. His Word, His Gospel, His Church shall be prevail – regardless of how many gallons of Christian blood might flow through its streets. Every drop absorbed by Korean soil is marked, and it may be that even before eternity dawns the leaders of Korea might be consumed by the all prevailing purpose, power and dignity of God. If not then there kness will bend, their hearts will break, and their souls will be damned before the bar of God’s immaculate justice at the end of all things.

We have no need to fear that God will not master those who martyr His people. Although the human evidence might hint otherwise – God’s hand is at work to help the humble, and to humble the haughty. What a God.

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