The Gospel vs. The Opposition
The world is constantly changing; sometimes a certain fashion is in, then it’s out. So also there are certain ways of looking at the world, certain objections to the gospel, that likewise come and go. The gospel itself, however, prevails over any opposition.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
Do you remember what it was like to be in middle school? I’m getting older but I’m not that old, so I do. I remember one of my big goals was to be cool, but the challenge I quickly found was that the definition of cool was always changing. Now that was middle school, by God’s grace I’m kinda over that and I’m sure to some extent you are too, but what about your deepest held convictions and beliefs? What about your life purpose? Well, it turns out there are trends there too, things that go in and out of style, so it can be really dangerous to be controlled by the whims of the majority culture of which you are a part. Like imagine if you’d just gone with the majority in Nazi Germany. So how do we avoid that? How do we get free from the whims of the moment and build our lives on what will truly last? Well today as we look at this passage in Acts, we’re going to see that there are points in it where it seems very unpopular to believe the gospel, the central message of Christianity. The gospel faces opposition, but the gospel prevails over opposition, even though sometimes it doesn’t look like it, sometimes it does, and ultimately it will.
Sometimes it doesn’t look like it
The passage at which we’re looking today begins with the report of Herod the King, also known as Herod Agrippa, king of Judea, the region in which Jerusalem was located. At this time Judea was under Roman rule, so Herod had his position as king from the Roman Empire. However, he was known in the extrabiblical history as a king who did everything he could to ingratiate himself to the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Here we see him laying violent hands on some in the church, notably James the brother of John, who he killed with the sword. James was one of the twelve apostles, those set apart by Jesus to transmit the testimony they witnessed with their own eyes of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He was one of Jesus’ first followers and remained even among the twelve one of Jesus’ closest companions, often appearing with Jesus along with John and Peter at key junctures in Jesus’ ministry.
In other words, as far as the church goes, he was kind of a big deal. Yet this king Herod has the power to kill him with the sword. Then, when Herod saw this pleased the Jewish people whose favor he sought, he proceeded to arrest Peter also, another of the apostles, another of the “big deal” leaders in the early church. Not only did Herod put him in prison, he delivered him over to four squads of soldiers. Not one soldier, not four soldiers, four squads of soldiers. I mentioned that James, Peter, and John were kind of the big 3 within the 12 apostles, but when we get to the end of verse 4, one of those big three is in prison, and the other is dead. Sometimes it doesn’t look like the gospel is prevailing over the opposition. At that point, it sure looked like this powerful King Herod can and will do whatever he wants to stop the spread of the gospel.
Sometimes it feels like that today. In the area around where we’re meeting right now, depending on the numbers you read, the number of people who now identify with no religious preference is up to 40%, an increase of 5-10% over the past 5 years. The number of professing Christians is declining nationally, and we have even fewer of them here. Historic Christian beliefs ranging from belief in the miraculous to sexual ethics are regularly ridiculed in popular media and in the lunch room. Many of you probably feel a measure of fear that if you were open and honest about your beliefs, it would damage your reputation and hinder your progress in your career. And that’s just Philadelphia. Let’s not forget the imprisonment of pastors in China or the beheading of Christians by terrorists in the Middle East, among other contemporary examples.
What does God say to us who face these fears and realities? “But it’ll never happen to you. Be faithful to me and I’ll deliver you.” No; he doesn’t say that. We have no indication whatsoever that James wavered in his faithfulness to the Lord, and yet James was killed. The Lord was clearly capable of delivering James; we see him deliver Peter in this passage, and yet for reasons the text simply does not tell us, God didn’t do that in James’ case. Even Peter was only delivered after imprisonment. If you are faithful to Jesus in this life, persecution will come in some form or fashion. It may be as small as insults or as big as martyrdom, but it will come. And sometimes, the Lord may not deliver you immediately. Sometimes you may take the step of boldness to speak up about your Christian faith, and the person will insult you. Sometimes you may hold firmly to your Christian conscience and refuse to do something your boss tells you to do, and you may just lose your job. And there may come a time in America where professing your faith in Christ publicly will lead to legal repercussions and even death.
Our hope in this life as Christians cannot be in the positive thought that nothing bad will ever happen to me, or in the false thought that if God really loved me, He’ll never let anything bad happen to me. God loved James, He clearly had the power to prevent James’ death, and He didn’t. Our hope must rather be that because this God loves us, we can trust Him with our future, even though He doesn’t tell us what that future holds, or why He disposes it the way He does. We never get an explanation why James was killed while Peter was delivered. We never get an explanation why later Peter too would be killed while John would die in peace on the island of Patmos. We simply entrust ourselves and our future to our sovereign Lord, trusting that He knows best how to work all things together for the victory of the gospel.
And we pray. When it doesn’t look like the gospel is prevailing, when James is dead and Peter is in prison, we read in verse 5 that “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” So notice that when Herod came at the church with a sword, the church didn’t gather up their swords in response. They’d been equipped with a different weapon: The ability to talk to the one Psalm 46 describes when it says: “he breaks the bow and shatters the spear” (Psalm 46:9). When the world uses insults, twitter, legislation, and swords against us, we must not respond by simply taking up the same weapons and trying to beat them. Our weapon is prayer, because the to whom we pray is more powerful than their weapons. The prayer was made “to God.”
Notice also that it was earnest prayer. Their prayer was not a mere religious show. They felt the reality that they were in a battle, one in which they were hopeless without God’s power intervening on their behalf. As a result, they also teamed up. The prayer was made by the church, not merely by scattered individuals. A big part of why we have Citygroups is to provide another space to pray together. When you see the power of the opposition to the gospel, you can let that drive you to despair and simply assimilate into the dominant culture. If you can’t beat them, join them, as the saying goes. When you see the power of the opposition to the gospel, you can let that drive you to revenge, because hey, maybe you can beat them, you think. But another option is presented to us, the only option that really makes sense for the church: When you see the power of the opposition to the gospel, let it drive you to come together as a team and depend in new ways on the one with unlimited power. Are you responding to opposition to praying together? When you even see problems within the church, is prayer your first response or your last resort? May it be our first response. And sometimes, especially in response to prayer, it does look like the gospel prevails over the opposition.
Sometimes it does
So we come to verse 6 and what do we find Peter doing? He’s sleeping. He knows Herod killed James, and now he’s been imprisoned by Herod. What would you be wondering if you were Peter? “Is he going to kill me too?” How well would you sleep? If you know the sovereign and wise hand of God is ordering all that happens to you, you could sleep just fine, as Peter did here. Just like the church, he’s not renouncing his faith, plotting his revenge, or plotting his escape. He just goes to sleep. Despite sleeping between two soldiers and bound by two chains, an angel of the Lord comes to him and breaks him out, somehow past the guards, even opening an iron gate to a city.
When Peter finally comes to, he says in verse 11: “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod…” He sees the hand of the Lord in his deliverance. Do you see the hand of the Lord in all your deliverances? Now you say, “Well sure, if an angel of the Lord appeared to me, a light shone in my jail cell, and the gate to a whole city opened up in front of me, I’d be sure that the Lord delivered me too.” Remember though, Peter had his own dose of skepticism. At first, he assumes he’s just having a vision. I know my own heart; if this happened to me I’d have gone up to the angel and said, “Hey how’d you do the whole light shining thing?” “I’m an angel” “No really though, how’d you do it?” Belief on the other hand says “Now I know that the Lord has sent His angel.”
Opposition to the gospel is normal. Sometimes it even appears to be winning, but other times, God brings a visible deliverance, especially in response to prayer. Do you see what He’s capable of here? What would be too hard for this God? Let that guide your prayers. Sometimes He lets us see the victory of the gospel over opposition, and when He does, we should recognize His hand in it, and praise Him for it. He doesn’t promise us which will be the case in any specific situation in our lives, but we can pray with great expectation that He is able to deliver us from even the most powerful schemes of the most powerful people, and go to sleep trusting Him to dispose of our individual case according to His wisdom. And we both sleep and pray knowing that whatever happens in our individual case in this life, ultimately, the gospel will prevail over all opposition.
Ultimately it will
In verse 20 we read of Tyre and Sidon’s appeal to Herod’s chamberlain, who’s kinda like his chief of staff, to intercede for them with the king for peace. So on an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. The speech was apparently well known, as the event is also recorded in the historian Josephus. It had such an impact on the people and Herod appeared in such grandeur that the people began to ascribe deity to Herod, saying that what they were hearing from him was the voice of a god, not of a man. That must have felt really good for Herod. He was seated on a throne above all the people, decked out in the best clothes, and being applauded by them all. Of course we’re good enough Christians in the room to never desire such praise from people. If anyone ever called me a god, I know the right answer: It’s what Peter did when Cornelius tried to bow down and worship him: “Don’t do that. I’m just a man like you.”
But, if I may confess it to you, I’ve daydreamed fondly of a day when everyone knows my name and speaks well of me, where I’m the invited speaker at a great conference or the name on the front of a best-selling book. In other words, I’ve longed for a day where people view me like these people viewed Herod, though I’d never want them to call me a god. Have you longed for the day where the people in your profession praise you? Perhaps it’s your family or friends instead. One of the easiest ways to spot this in yourself is to see how you respond when others are praised. Because on the one hand, a desire to be used by God to accomplish some good is a very good desire and will sometimes lead to people recognizing you for it; nothing wrong with that. But if someone else is recognized for accomplishing good and you’re mad about it, what’s that indicate about your desire? It indicates that it was more about the praise you’d get than the good you’d accomplish. Peter was famous in his own right for his role in the advance of the gospel, but when someone bowed down to worship him, Peter rejected it, and in the rest of the story of Acts, Saul will become more of the leader, a fact in which Peter rejoices, though it means less spotlight for him. Herod, on the other hand, gladly receives the praise of people for himself, and we too have so often joined him.
The word for what Herod does here and the sin of which we’re so often guilty is called pride. It’s the desire for people to make much of us, and it is quite literally a deadly sin. In verse 23 we read that immediately after Herod enjoyed this wonderful praise of people, the Lord struck him down, worms ate him, and he breathed his last. The phrase that “worms ate him” likely refers to some kind of particularly gross stomach disease, as Josephus records that Herod became ill for 5 days after this speech before dying. But the wording here on Luke’s part is intentional to show the humiliating nature of Herod’s death. This man who was so powerfully wielding the sword against the greatest of the church’s leaders, who in his beautiful robes sat upon his throne and received the praise of people, ends up eaten by animals who make their homes in the dirt. Thus is the Lord’s judgment on the proud, announced by Jesus Himself in Luke 14:11 – “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” Here Luke even gives us the reason: “Because he did not give God the glory.”
That is why pride is so offensive to God. It steals from God what is rightly His. He is the one being who is actually worthy of praise; any good we have comes to us ultimately from Him. I happened to catch a bit of the Oscars this year, and at the Oscars they give awards both to individuals and to movies, things like best actress to individuals, best picture to movies. Imagine if when Parasite won best picture, instead of Bong Joon-Ho, the director coming up to receive the reward, some extra with one appearance in the movie came up to accept it. Say he accepted all the accolades and never once mentioned Joon-Ho’s name. Wouldn’t that bother all of us watching? Why? Because we all know the movie wouldn’t have been great, and that actor would have had no role in it, were it not for the director. And so God brings just judgment on the proud who desire and accept praise from people for things that are ultimately His doing, in the lives of people who only exist by His creation.
Pride is and will always be the ultimately opposition of the gospel. Remember why Herod put Peter in prison? He saw it pleased the people. The gospel is the ultimate enemy of human pride, because the gospel is a story with God as director and His Son at center stage. It’s about something He’s done, not something we do, and therefore when it advances, God gets more glory, not us. And yet, while the gospel is the ultimate enemy of human pride, it’s also in the end the only ultimate cure for human pride, because in the gospel story, the one at center stage, the true King, Jesus Christ, was the one king who was actually worthy of all praise, one in being with God the Father. When He was born, this Herod’s grandfather, Herod I, called him the king of the Jews, and asked three wise men to tell him where the child was, so that he might “come and worship him” (Matt 2:8). He’s the one to whom even kings should bow, and the wise men did (Matt 2:11), but they weren’t rebuked for it, nor was Jesus rebuked for receiving it, because this was the King of Kings, the one truly worthy of glory.
And yet, what did He do? He humbled himself. He took off His royal robes to become a human, and on His appointed today, he was stripped of all his robes, and they cast lots for his clothing. Instead of taking a seat upon a throne, He was lifted up on a cross. Instead of delivering an oration, He cried out in agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As shameful as a death by worms is, nothing was more shameful in the Roman world than death on a cross. But the worms never got to His body, because on the third day He rose again, to the throne above all thrones, given the name above every name, glorified in heaven until the day He will come again to be glorified on earth. And He did this so that we, the proud, would not have to suffer the same fate as Herod.
As long as you’re still alive today, God has been merciful on your sin, but the day is coming when the judgment executed on Herod here will be executed on all the proud of the earth. No matter how much glory you get in this life, it will not last. No matter how many generations after you praise you, eventually it will end. The gospel ultimately will prevail over all opposition; don’t oppose it with your pride any longer. Humbly confess your sin, trust Jesus as your King, and you will find in Him forgiveness for your pride, freedom from its condemnation, and the power to become truly humble. If that’s happened in your life, if it’s happened today, you’ve experienced a deliverance greater even than Peter’s. The hymn writer Charles Wesley, describing his own conversion, spoke of it in terms similar to Peter’s release in this passage: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” Do you see that it’s the same Lord who by His angel struck Herod down who has rescued you from that same judgment? So, even if we are not delivered in this life, we have hope of life to come. James wasn’t delivered in this life, but when he died, he went to be with the Lord, and when Jesus comes again, James will rise from that grave in a way Herod never will, as will all who believe.
And that gospel will ultimately prevail. Just after Herod breathes his last, we read in verse 24 that the word of God increased and multiplied. In verse 25, we read of Barnabas and Saul returning to the work of ministry, and even recruiting a new worker to go with them. The gospel doesn’t just survive opposition; it prevails over it. Thus far in Acts we’ve read of the number of disciples multiplying and we’ve read of the church multiplying, in each case in ways connected to the gospel message, but this is the first time we hear of the message itself, the word of God, increasing and multiplying. It’s showing us wherein the power really lies. This word, because it is the word of God, the gospel concerning His Son, in which He’s chosen to be glorified, will ultimately prevail. History has proven it: Not only Herod, but the Roman Empire itself would eventually crumble, and this word that we read of in Acts would increase and multiply. Today as the number of adherents to Christianity declines around us, we see people converting to Christ, getting baptized, and joining this church. Today as the number of adherents to Christianity declines in America and Europe, the number of adherents is growing explosively in South America, Africa, and China. These things happen in the life of the church: There are times of persecution and decline, where it looks like the gospel isn’t prevailing; there are times of deliverance and revival, where it’s visible that the gospel is prevailing. But the final word will be victory. The word of God will increase and multiply.
As the great Pastor John Newton said, “What a comfortable thought this is to the believer, to know that, amidst all the various interfering designs of men, the Lord has one constant design, which he cannot, will not miss, namely, his own glory in the complete salvation of his people; and that he is wise, and strong, and faithful, to make even those things which seem contrary to his design, subservient to promote it!” The crucifixion of Christ seemed contrary to God’s design; in the end it promoted it. The persecution of Herod seemed contrary to God’s design; in the end it promoted it. Don’t get caught up in the latest fad that all the cool, smart, educated people are promoting. What’s obvious to everyone around you now will be ridiculous to everyone around you in a generation or two. There’s one constant design that will never fail. Nothing will stop God from his own glory in the full salvation of His people. So pray hard, sleep easy, and give yourself to the advance of this gospel for the glory of this great God, whatever opposition it brings. In the end, the opposition will die, and the gospel will remain.