WHAT TO DO WHEN IT LOOKS LIKE WE'RE LOSING THE BATTLE?
"Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. 2 And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. 3 When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also." It seems that Herod's intention was to execute Peter as well but Jewish customs required him to wait until the end of Passover (see vv. 3-4). So Herod was mistreating believers, killed the apostle James (this is the first time an apostle is killed) and arrested Peter, the ring leader, to probably execute him. So it appears that evil men (Herod and the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus) are winning and God and His people are losing the battle. And when we face trials and tragedies today we can feel the same way and say, faith in God doesn't work! But…. let's look at the rest of the story here in Acts 12 and the rest of the Bible. God and His people ultimately always win!!!! So what do we do when it looks like we're losing the battle? Let's learn from the saints here in Acts 12.
Pray fervently – "but prayer for him (Peter) was being made fervently by the church to God." (v.5) Even though these believers were shocked when God actually answered their prayers (v. 15) God honored their obedience to pray and to pray fervently. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. 17Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months." (James 5:16-17) We'll never fully understand the mystery of how God's sovereignty and man's responsibility work together to accomplish His purposes so we simply do what He tells us to do, pray fervently, and follow the example of the saints as seen here and throughout the Bible who prayed and saw God answer their prayers. So pray fervently! "Keep on asking and it will be given you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking [reverently] and [the door] will be opened to you. 8For everyone who keeps on asking receives; and he who keeps on seeking finds; and to him who keeps on knocking, [the door] will be opened." (Matt. 7:7-8) In this case, God literally opened the prison door!
Believe God's promises – "The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers." This might be a stretch but Jesus told Peter in John 21:18 that he would die in his old age by crucifixion. Well Peter is not old at this point and ancient writers say he died 34 years later. So Peter believed what Jesus said and had such an assurance that he went to sleep (a very sound sleep at that – see v. 7) while chained to two guards and awaiting execution. Wow! God promises us that He will give us all we need to do His will while we're alive (Phil. 4:11-13; 19) and that we should not even fear death because He is with us and will take us immediately into His presence. (Psalm 23:4; 2 Cor. 5:8)
Believe in God's supernatural power – "And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter's side and woke him up, saying, "Get up quickly." And his chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, "Gird yourself and put on your sandals." And he did so. And he said to him, "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me." 9 And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him." Ever since the so-called Age of Enlightenment (actually it brought spiritual darkness) even many believers exalt reason above faith and become practical atheists. (Share the story of God's miraculous provision of a job at the very last minute as I stepped out in faith.) As I meet with men and hear their stories of God's acts in their lives I am strengthened in my own faith of the supernatural power of God. God calls us to use reason (Isa. 1:18) but we are not to exalt reason over revelation (Scripture) or over God's supernatural power. (See Abraham – faith over reason in Heb. 11:19)
Remember what God has done in the past – Peter also surely recalled an earlier miraculous angelic deliverance from prison (Acts 5:18-23) and knew that God could surely do the same in this trial. We too need to recall how many times and ways God has helped us in our past trials and trust Him to either give us a supernatural peace in the midst of the trial (Phil 4:6-7) or deliver us out of the trial. We need to have memorial stones (Ebenezer – "thus far God has helped us") like journals of how God has helped us in the past to encourage us that He will help us now and in the future.
Remember God punishes those who oppose Him – "On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22 The people kept crying out, "The voice of a god and not of a man!" 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died." From Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar in the past to Hitler and Hussein in the present God punishes those who oppose Him and their full justice is meted out in eternity. As the psalmist in Psalm 73 lamented over the seeming injustice of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous (the saved) he comes to this realization: "So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is! 17 Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked. 18Truly, you put them on a slippery path and send them sliding over the cliff to destruction.19In an instant they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors." (Psalm 73:16-19) ["The secular historian Josephus verifies this, saying that Herod "did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. A severe pain arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. And when he was quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and seventh of his reign." This would have been about 44 A.D." http://www.simply-christians.com/development/agrippai3.html]
Remember God's overarching and eternal purposes even in the midst of temporal suffering – "Meanwhile, the word of God continued to spread, and there were many new believers." "His truth is marching on" and no one can or will thwart His purposes: "I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it." (Matt. 16:18) Often "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church" (Tertullian) and our hope and peace and obedience in the midst of suffering is a powerful testimony to the reality of the living God. In The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, the demons call God the Enemy and here is what they say about our trust and obedience even in great trials. "Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."
Develop and live with an eternal perspective – James was killed, believers were mistreated and Peter was arrested. Sometimes our little story does not seem to fit with the big story of God's ultimate victory over evil and suffering. But God loves and rewards those who trust Him and thus obey Him even when it looks like faith doesn't work. True faith always works if you follow the advice of Scripture and, as Paul Harvey says… now for the rest of the story. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. 3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, God's home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. 5And the one sitting on the throne said, "Look, I am making everything new!" And then he said to me, "Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true." (Rev. 21:1-5) "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." (Revelation 22:12) Do you believe Him?
Stay active in the battle – "In the spring of the year, when kings normally go out to war, David stayed behind in Jerusalem. Late one afternoon, after his midday rest"… and he fell into deep and serious sin. "An idle mind is the devil's workshop" – though this is not a quote from the Bible there is much warning in the Bible about idleness. And the best activity that keeps us from the snares of Satan is the good fight of faith. This includes the inner life of personal spiritual disciplines and the outer life of ministry to others. "Don't be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. 6 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. 8 And now the prize awaits me-the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:5-8)
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND APPLICATION
1) Pray fervently – God commands us to pray (e.g., Matt. 7:7-8) and Scripture frequently reveals how God answers earnest prayers of faith as seen here in Acts 12 and in James 5:16-17. What could you do to increase your fervency and faith in prayer?
2) Believe God's promises – Peter believed what Jesus said and had such an assurance that he went to sleep while chained to two guards and awaiting execution. Paul was content (satisfied with God alone) in good and bad times and always ready and willing to do what God called him to do, knowing that God would give Him the resources he needed to carry out His purposes. (Philippians 4:11-13, 19) What secret had Paul learned and how did this give him both peace in trials (he wrote this in prison) and power to do God's will?
3) Believe in God's supernatural power – What can we learn from Abraham's great example of revelation (what God says in Scripture) over reason? See Hebrews 11:19
4) Remember what God has done in the past- Do you keep a journal of God's faithfulness to you in trials in the past to build your faith that He will help you now and in the future?
5) Remember God punishes those who oppose Him– Do you ever get upset with how some unethical unbelievers keep prospering especially when you're trying to be honest and God-honoring in business and yet are having financial struggles? Read Psalm 73:1-19 and discuss how this can help.
6) Remember God's overarching and eternal purposes even in the midst of temporal suffering – "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church" and our hope and peace and obedience in the midst of suffering is a powerful testimony to the reality of the living God. Do you believe C. S. Lewis' quote above?
7) Develop and live with an eternal perspective – God loves and rewards those who trust Him and thus obey Him even when it looks like faith doesn't work. True faith always works if you follow the advice of Scripture and, as Paul Harvey says, now for the rest of the story…. "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." (Revelation 22:12) Do you believe Him?
8) Stay active in the battle – David fell into sin when he was idle versus being on the battlefield where he belonged. We need to fight the good fight of faith as Paul did all the way to the end. This includes the inner life of personal spiritual disciplines and the outer life of ministry to others. Why does Paul call it a "good fight"? (2 Tim. 4:5-8)