The Gospel Versus King Agrippa
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, October 25, 1998
Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
The kingdom of God is always opposed by the kingdom of Satan. That ought not to be a surprise to us. Satan desires the destruction of all people, but God's eternal purpose is to save some through the proclamation of the word. In this passage of Scripture we see God's salvation manifested in his dealings with King Herod Agrippa I and the increase and spread of the word of God, despite Herod's persecution of the church.
Persecution, Prayer, and Deliverance
God doesn't save all people, but he will save those whom he has chosen to be saved. To this end the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church so that the church could go into all the world and preach the gospel. As we study the book of Acts, we see how the Sanhedrin persecuted the apostles, telling them several times, in essence, "Don't you ever preach the gospel again!" That was their singular command to the apostles. But what did the apostles say? "No deal. We cannot stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard."
Saul of Tarsus tried to stop the spread of the gospel by dragging Christians out and arresting them, intending to punish and kill them for their faith in Christ. In Acts 8:1 we read that Saul gave his assent to the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church. But God had a plan to save Saul of Tarsus, and he did so, transforming him from an enemy of Christ into a battle-scarred veteran of the cross who declared the gospel with all passion especially to the Gentiles.
In Acts 12 we find King Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, determining to torment the church in order to please the Jews. First Herod had the apostle James killed, and then he arrested Simon Peter and kept him in prison under maximum security to await execution. But was King Agrippa able to destroy the church by these efforts? Was he able to silence Christ's disciples from preaching the gospel unto the ends of the earth? In other words, is a man ever able to frustrate God's eternal purpose to save sinners? Absolutely not!
In response to the persecution by Agrippa, the church began to exercise its most important power: the power of prayer. The church assembled in various houses and began to pray. How did they pray? They prayed earnestly. They prayed all night. They prayed with fasting. They prayed weeping. They prayed to God. They prayed together. They prayed specifically for Peter. They prayed in the will of God. They prayed in the Holy Spirit. They prayed in faith.
Why did the church pray? Because although the church may be weak, the Lord of the church is not. He is sovereign and almighty, and his will shall be done. Whenever the church faces a trial, it should pray.
In Acts 4, beginning with verse 24, we read a prayer the church prayed, along with the apostles, during another time of severe persecution:
"'Sovereign Lord,' they said, 'you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One." Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant, Jesus.' " (Acts 4:24-30)
What happened after they prayed? "The place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31). This is a recurring theme in the book of Acts: "The word of God grew" and "the word of God multiplied" and "they spoke the word of God with boldness."
In the twelfth chapter of Acts we see persecution, prayer, and deliverance. The Lord sent an angel and delivered Peter from the clutches of King Herod Agrippa I. The chains fell from his wrists, the soldiers were incapacitated, the doors of the prison opened automatically, and Peter was free.
The Unbelievableness of God
Even though they were praying for it, the church could not believe that Peter had been released from prison. When Rhoda the servant girl reported to the church that Peter was knocking at the door, the church told her, "You are mad! Peter cannot be outside." But it was true: Peter was free. Peter himself had thought he was dreaming when God delivered him, and now the church thought it was dreaming as well.
When God comes to our aid and delivers us from serious situations, sometimes it seems so incredible that we think we are dreaming. Remember when Joseph was in prison? He was there for two years, forgotten by all, as we read in Genesis 41. But in verse 14 we read, "So Pharaoh sent for Joseph." God remembered Joseph. God had given a dream to Pharaoh, but no one could interpret it except Joseph. Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was brought from the dungeon so quickly that he barely had time to clean up. At one moment Joseph was languishing in prison, but the next moment God raised him up and made him the premier of Egypt. Such deliverance by God was so wonderful and mighty that Joseph, no doubt, thought he was dreaming.
In Genesis 41:41-43 we read, "So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.' Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph's finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. And he had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command. And men shouted before him, 'Make way!' Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt." If this happened to you, you would think you were dreaming, wouldn't you? In other words, sometimes when God acts, we cannot believe what he is doing. It is exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine.
In Exodus 1 we read that the people of God became slaves in Egypt. A king who did not know anything about Joseph came to power and tormented the people of Israel until they were reduced to slavery. I am sure these people thought they were forgotten by God. But God remembered them, and in Exodus 3:7 we read, "The Lord said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.'" No doubt the Israelites thought they were dreaming when God's word came true and they were delivered from Egypt. One moment they had been slaves--hopeless, groaning, and burdened--but the next moment God began to redeem them from the land of Egypt with miraculous signs and wonders. I am sure many of these Israelites thought they were dreaming when their exodus began.
In Psalm 126:1-3 we read the reaction of the Israelites when the Lord brought them back from the Babylonian captivity: "When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, 'The Lord has done great things for them.' The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy." There again the amazement they experienced is described as dreaming. Why? It is such a great deliverance.
We also read of God's gracious deliverance in Isaiah 9, beginning with verse 1: "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles . . . .The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned."
These people were living in great darkness, gloom, and misery. All of a sudden a bright light came to them in the person of the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what happens when the gospel comes. In verse 3 we read, "You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice in the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder." And in verse 6 we read, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end."
God always delivers his people. Despite his determination to persecute the church, King Agrippa I would be defeated, put away and forgotten, because God is the Sovereign Ruler and his purposes shall ever stand. Of Jesus we read, "Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end." He himself said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And in Ephesians 3:20 we read, "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."
I believe in this great God, who mightily works in his people by the power of his Spirit. That is why I refuse to be depressed, whatever my circumstances may be. I know that nothing in all the world can separate me from the love of God. I serve a mighty God, the Sovereign Lord of the universe, the Creator of the ends of the earth, the Redeemer of his church, and the one who will bring everyone to judgment on that day, including King Agrippa I.
God Does Amazing Things
But let me tell you, sometimes we cannot believe what God will do on our behalf. We must all confess, "Lord, we believe; help thou our unbelief!" That is what the church did in this twelfth chapter of Acts. When Rhoda reported that Peter had been delivered, the church told her, "You are mad! We cannot believe." This news was too wonderful, in other words, but it was true.
In his commentary on the book of Acts, James M. Boice tells the story of an Indian man named Sundar Singh who became a Christian and went to Nepal to preach the gospel. He was forbidden to preach in certain places, but he kept on preaching, so the priests arrested him and threw him into a dry well, closed the lid and locked it securely. This was their form of capital punishment.
On the third day Sundar Singh was praying, sitting on top of the bones of people who had died before. Suddenly he heard a noise. Someone opened the lid of the well and threw down a rope with a loop on the end. Sundar Singh grabbed the rope, put his feet into the loop and held on and was drawn out. Then the person who had thrown the rope to him closed the well, locked it, and disappeared.
Sundar Singh went into the city and started preaching the gospel. Again, he was arrested and brought before the priest, who had earlier condemned him to the well of death. People began to look for the key to the lid of the well, supposing that someone must have taken it to open the well and let Sundar Singh out. Finally, the key was found--on the priest's belt! At that moment Sundar Singh realized that God himself had delivered him from the well of death (James M. Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997], 207).
Even today God performs his mighty miracles sovereignly as he sees fit. And when he does so, his people think they are dreaming and their mouths become filled with laughter. God still does exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine.
Acts 12:14 tells us what happened to this slave girl Rhoda. "When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, 'Peter is at the door!'" Overjoyed! That is what happens to the church when God does his work. "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning" (Ps. 30:5). Those who receive grace will rejoice because the word "rejoice" comes from the word "grace." Christianity promises to change our weeping into rejoicing, our death into life, our curse into blessing.
In verse 16 we read, "But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished" and the Greek word has the meaning "they came out of themselves." Why? God had done an amazing thing. It is the business of our God to do amazing things. He spoke, and the universe came into existence. That is an amazing thing, isn't it? The Bible is filled with records of the amazing things God does. The most amazing thing God did was to raise Jesus Christ from the dead. Why do you think he did it? So that you and I may be raised from the dead. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!"
The disciples finally opened the door and let Peter into the house. He told them what happened and then said, "Tell James and the brothers about this." Then he left Jerusalem to go to another place.
From this time on we read that James, the Lord's brother, was the head of the church. James had not always believed in Jesus Christ, as we read in John 7:5. But 1 Corinthians 15:7 tells us the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ appeared to his brother James and he believed. In Acts 1:14 we find James praying with the other disciples for the Holy Spirit to come upon the church and, like the rest, he was baptized in the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 2 Paul says James was a pillar of the church, and in Acts 15 we see him presiding over the council of leaders of the church.
God Deals with Agrippa
At the end of this passage we find out what happened to King Agrippa, the man who arrested God's people for the purpose of tormenting them, who ordered the apostle James killed, and who arrested Peter and put him in prison under maximum security.
Herod Agrippa I was a powerful man. He had the same degree of power as his grandfather, Herod the Great, but at this point in time, he was frustrated. He looked for Peter in his cell, but Peter was not there, so he had the guards executed for their failure to guard him. Then the Bible tells us he traveled to Caesarea in great anger and frustration.
Let me assure you, everyone who resists God will be frustrated. God is never frustrated because he is God, he is Lord, he is mighty, and he does what he wants when he wants how he wants. But all those who resist him will become frustrated.
The Bible tells us Agrippa had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were free cities which were part of the Roman empire, but did not belong to Palestine. The people of Tyre and Sidon depended on Galilee for wheat, olive oil, honey, and other foodstuffs, and here we learn that for some unnamed reason, King Agrippa was angry at them. He ordered a grain embargo against them. These people depended on food from the king, so they bribed his chief of staff named Blastus and sued for peace.
During this time King Agrippa I appeared in the theater in Caesarea. Robed in a shining silver garment and seated on the throne, he addressed the crowd. The sun was shining and the crowd saw a great spectacle of glory, splendor, and brilliance, as the rays of the sun reflected upon his garment. Desiring to flatter him, the people cried out, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man."
The crowd's declaration of Agrippa as a god/king was in accordance with the pagan customs of the East at that time. Even the emperor Claudius was beginning to enjoy the title, "Lord." But God does not tolerate anyone to exalt himself above God.
In Josephus' history we have a secular account of this story, which occurred around A.D. 44:
After the completion of the third year of his reign over the whole of Judaea, Agrippa came to the city of Caesarea, . . . [where] he celebrated spectacles in honour of Caesar. On the second day of the spectacles, clad in a garment woven completely of silver so that its texture was indeed wondrous, he entered the theatre at daybreak. There the silver, illumined by the touch of the first rays of the sun, was wondrously radiant and by its glitter inspired fear and awe in those who gazed intently upon it. Straightway his flatterers raised their voices from various directions. . . addressing him as a god. "May you be propitious to us," they added, "and if we have hitherto feared you as a man, yet henceforth we agree that you are more than mortal in your being." The king did not rebuke them nor did he reject their flattery as impious. . . . At once he felt a stab of pain in his heart. He was also gripped in his stomach by an ache that he felt everywhere at once and that was intense from the start. . . . He was overcome by more intense pain. They hastened, therefore, to convey him to the palace; and the word flashed about to everyone that he was on the very verge of death. . . . Exhausted after five straight days by the pain in abdomen, he departed this life in the fifty-fourth year of his life. --The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 9 (John-Acts), (Regency Reference Library, Grand Rapids, Zondervan), 1981, p. 413.
God Always Wins
Agrippa had persecuted the apostles. He arrested them, imprisoned them, tormented them and killed them. Why? He wanted to put an end to all Christianity. But God dealt with Agrippa. I warn you: Don't resist God, because you will never win.
Throughout the Scriptures we read about God's dealings with arrogant people. In the book of Daniel we read about Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In Daniel 4:29-30 we read, "As the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, 'Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?'" You know what happened. PGM He became like an animal and lived like that in the open field for seven years until God restored his sanity to him. In Daniel 4:34 we read, "At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation."
In Ezekiel 28, beginning with verse 1, we read how God deals with the king of Tyre, who arrogantly wanted to be a god:
The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: "`In the pride of your heart you say, "I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas." But you are a man and not a god, though you think you are as wise as a god. Are you wiser than Daniel? Is no secret hidden from you? By your wisdom and understanding you have gained wealth for yourself and amassed gold and silver in your treasuries. By your great skill in trading you have increased your wealth, and because of your wealth your heart has grown proud.
"'Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: "'Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god, I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations; they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom and pierce your shining splendour. They will bring you down to the pit, and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas. Will you then say, "I am a god," in the presence of those who kill you? You will be but a man, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you. You will die the death of the uncircumcised at the hands of foreigners. I have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.'" (Ezekiel 28:1-10)
Why do you think people don't want to believe in Jesus Christ? Pure arrogance. They are proud of what they have and what they have accomplished. But, as Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4:7, "What do you have that you have not received?" Our very beings are given to us by God, and we are upheld by God. When God determines, we shall breathe our last and face him in judgment. How, then, can we be arrogant before God?
"You are a god!" the people shouted to Agrippa. "You are no mere man. You are God!" And Agrippa enjoyed this acclamation. But in Exodus 20:5 the Lord says, "I am a jealous God." God will not give his glory to anyone else, and so he will deal with every person who is arrogant. He will push them down until they fall and lick the dust.
What should we do? We should come to God and acknowledge, "O God, I am just a man. I am a sinful, weak man--a big zero--but you showed mercy to me." When we do this, we will praise God for his mercy to weak creatures like us. This is what we see people doing in Revelation 4:10-11: "They lay their crowns before the throne and say, 'You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.'"
We read about another king, Sennacherib of Assyria, who wanted to destroy the Lord's king, Hezekiah. Sennacherib wanted to wipe Hezekiah and his kingdom from the face of the earth. But in 2 Kings 19:35 we read that God took care of Sennacherib's arrogance and pretension. He sent one angel who killed one hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers of this Assyrian king. And later on we read that Sennacherib went home and was killed by his children as he was worshiping in the temple of his god.
When Agrippa threw Peter into prison, God sent the angel of the Lord to deliver him. Now God sent this same angel of the Lord to King Agrippa I, who had persecuted and tormented the church of Jesus Christ in an effort to destroy it. "Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died" (Acts 12:23). God always wins.
The Gospel Always Wins
In Acts 12:24 we read, "But the word of God continued to increase and spread." We see this written several times in the book of Acts--in Acts 6:7; Acts 9:31; Acts 12: 24; and Acts 19:20. In fact, the whole book concludes by declaring that Paul preached the kingdom of God without hindrance and with great boldness.
Do you want to oppose the gospel? If so, you will fail and fall. Why? It is the intention of the Sovereign Lord of the universe to spread the gospel so that some may be saved, and nothing can stand in his way.
Notice, then, we read in verse 24, "But the word of God continued to increase and spread." You see, God killed King Agrippa I, but the word of the Lord spread and multiplied. In other words, the church continued to proclaim the gospel and people believed in it and were saved.
In Isaiah 55:10-11 God tells us something about the effectual nature of his word: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."
Heaven and earth may pass away, but the word of God remains forever. It is eternal. People may try to block the word, frustrate the word, and prevent the word from going forth, but they will never succeed.
If this is true, brothers and sisters, let's preach the gospel. Let us not be afraid or ashamed, but let us boldly, faithfully proclaim the word of God wherever we go. It is the will of the Lord Jesus Christ that we do so until he comes again. We can be confident that when we preach the gospel, it will bring forth fruit. When we say the word is multiplying, it means many people will come to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ through the preaching of the gospel. And when we say it is spreading, we remember that verse from Isaiah 9, "Of the increase of his government there is no end." No one can block the progress of the word of God.
What About You?
Now let me ask you a very important question: What is the greatest sin that a person can possibly commit in the whole world? It is to refuse to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We speak much about knowing God, and the knowledge of God comes to us through the preaching of the gospel. The gospel alone tells us that Jesus Christ died in our place, and that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.
So I must ask you: What is your response to the word of God? Are you blocking the gospel? Are you pretending to be a god--a very wise, very educated, very sophisticated, very politically correct person? Are you saying, "Oh, this gospel is just an old-fashioned thing. We have come a long way, haven't we? How can any modern person believe that Jesus Christ is God and man without sin, and that he died on the cross as the Savior of those who will trust and believe in him? How, in this day and age, can anyone believe that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world? Oh, no, we believe there are so many ways to salvation. How can we believe in Christianity anymore?"
Are you ridiculing the gospel and treating it with contempt? Are you putting off trusting in Jesus Christ, saying, "Well, maybe I will believe sometime, but not now"? You see, King Herod Agrippa 1 had many great opportunities to believe in the gospel, but he never believed. God gave him being and made him king. He gave him favor in the eyes of the Romans and enabled him to know of the gospel through the apostles themselves. Did Herod Agrippa I believe in Christ? No, he was too arrogant to believe. His pride in the blessings God had bestowed on him kept him from believing in Christ.
So I must ask you: are you arrogant and proud? Does your pride cause you to mock the gospel? Do you say to me, "Pastor, you need to read more books. Then you would understand how limited your ideas of God are." Are you saying the gospel of Jesus Christ is just for old-fashioned, simple, unintellectual people? If you believe these things, I have news for you: God will not tolerate any resistance to his sovereign power. He who resists him shall experience a great, irremediable fall.
We are all going to die some day, aren't we? But death is not the end. God will raise us all up to stand before him for judgment. It might surprise you to realize that the one who declared the doctrine of an eternal hell is Jesus Christ himself. Why do you think Jesus spoke about hell? Because he is gracious and kind. Jesus wants all people to know that there is a real wrath of God, a real judgment, and a real hell, where the fire shall never go out and their worm shall never die.
Are you still wondering about the gospel? If so, I urge you to consider this profound truth: God has prepared a hell as well as a kingdom--a kingdom for everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, and a hell for everyone who treats the Lord Jesus Christ with contempt. When we refuse to believe in Jesus Christ, we are treating him with utmost contempt.
Contempt or Honor?
We need to deal with the gospel very seriously because it is the very word of God. When we receive it, welcome it, obey it, and trust it, we are honoring God. But when we reject it, ridicule it, and say it is too old-fashioned, we are treating God with contempt.
When we read Ezekiel 6 and 7, we see that God will manifest himself to us either in salvation or judgment. Why? So that all may know that he is God. You see, no one can escape knowing God. Knowledge of God is unavoidable. The question is, will we know him as Savior or as Judge?
I plead with you to welcome the gospel. Let the word of God multiply and spread in your life! May you receive the Lord Jesus Christ, that you may know God, trust in him, taste him, hope in him, pray to him, love him, rejoice in him, be justified by him, be forgiven all your sins and receive eternal life in him. And he will receive you, as we read in John 6:37, "Whoever comes to me I will never drive away."
May God grant you the knowledge of him as Savior and Lord. May he enable you to know that the wrath of God has been removed from your head, that your sins are forgiven, that you have been made a child of God and removed from hell into heaven to the kingdom that is prepared for us. May you be granted the privilege of being in his presence and delivered from all fears and enabled to rejoice even in the midst of troubles and tribulations, knowing he is your shepherd, and his rod and staff will comfort you. May you experience all of these things as you believe and receive the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
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