I want to begin by reading you a section out of the travel diary of Samuel Marsden, who was the second Chaplain to Australia. He came out, I think, in 1794 and stayed for 44 years, ministering in Australia and over in New Zealand. And I love this quote from his travel diary. Marsden has been seriously maligned, as a Christian, but you can see from this what a great man he was, and therefore, it explains so much of the opposition.
He says – “I had come from a distant country and was at the ends of the earth upon which no civilised foot had ever before trodden. My companions I could not but feel attached to them. What would I have given, to have had the Book of Life opened, which was yet a sealed book to them, to have shown them the God who made them, and to have led them to see the Redeemer, who had shed His blood for the redemption of the world? But it was not in my power to take the veil from their hearts. I could only pray for them, and entreat the Father of mercies to visit them with His salvation. I knew that the Son of God had come, and believed that He had made a full and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of a guilty world. With a compassionate feeling for my companions, under a grateful sense of my own mercies, I lay down to rest, free from all fear of danger. The great news of the Gospel, coming to the shores of this country.”
We have been studying, on these Sunday mornings, the foundation in the Book of Acts of the spread of the Gospel. We have been not just looking at the history of what happened; we have been thinking about the theological principles that are laid out in the Book of Acts in those early chapters. And if you were here last week, we saw Peter come to realise, slowly but surely, that God desired the Gospel to go to all sorts of people. And we also saw the strict section of the Church, the strict element of the Church, loosen up a bit, and love to see the Gospel go to all sorts of people as well. We read in Chapter 11 of Acts Verse 18: this strict element of the Church had no further objections when they heard the Gospel had gone to the Gentiles, and they praised God. It’s a fantastic shift that took place in them, and it’s a little bit like the prodigal son’s older brother suddenly getting excited and saying, ‘Yes, it is great to have you home!’
Now we have got a couple of questions because we have come to our last morning in the first half of the Book of Acts. The first question goes like this: what if the permission is not always given from the Church leaders? What if the authorities don’t always give their approval? What if human goodwill, for the spread of the Gospel, goes low? And the second question is this: what if the opposition to the Gospel gets too great? What if the powers against the Church are too strong? Will Christianity survive if there is great secular hostility? And they are two good questions. Let me put it like this: what if there isn’t goodwill for us? And what if there isn’t the protection that we need? And Acts Chapters 11 and 12 answers these two questions.
We are looking at Acts 11, Verse 19. I hope when you read the Bible, you not only say to yourself, ‘What does it say?’ But you also ask yourself, ‘Why does it say it?’
Because, you see, Luke is a great historian, and of all the things he could have recorded in the early Church, he selects like a genius, under the leadership of God. And we have seen from the last weeks, the green light goes on for the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles, and if we went ahead further, we would come to Chapter 13, and the Apostle Paul on the missionary journeys. Now there are two little things Luke wants to tell us in between. First, there is great, a great blessing to be had from God. Second, God is the great rescuer.
The first little story, from Chapter 11, Verse 19 and following, tells us that God blesses the Church in Antioch hugely. The second, Chapter 12 – God rescues His servant. I hope that you will see from these two vignettes this morning, which God is not dependent on Church authorities. I know you knew that, but I am just reminding you. God is not dependent on some guru to unlock the door. And although Peter is about to leave the scene – we are not going to hear much about Peter again in the Book of Acts – he will just pop up very briefly in Acts 15 at the Council. Peter is about to leave the scene. The great Apostle has opened the door for the Jews, and the Samaritans and the Gentiles, and he is going to leave the scene. Well, what hope is there, if Peter leaves the scene? Answer: sovereign God.
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Remember Samuel Marsden, in the face of huge difficulty. What did he do?… I’ll ask the Father of mercies to visit them with His salvation.
So, two points this morning. First of all, the sovereign grace of God (Chapter 11, Verses 19-30). Second point, the sovereign power of God (Acts Chapter 12). And the point is, of course, that nobody can sustain the work but God and no-one can overpower the enemies but God. The sovereignty of God is our great joy.
The Sovereign Grace of God
I am bringing this to you, in case there is anyone here this morning (and I am bringing this right down to personal issues) who asks the question every now and again – what if God is unwilling? And secondly – what if God is fairly powerless in the face of the problems? Luke answers those two absolutely. The sovereign grace of God – look at Chapter 11, Verse 19. Those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. We have suddenly gone back to the scattered people – the people who were kicked out of Jerusalem after Stephen was martyred. And we read here that they travelled around, and they landed in cities like Antioch.
And then look at Verse 20: some of the men from Cyprus and Cyrene (not from Jerusalem) went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the Good News. Look at Verse 21 – the Lord’s Hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. So we are being introduced to a city called Antioch. Antioch was called ‘Antioch the beautiful’. After Rome and Alexandria, it was the third largest city. It was considered to have about 500,000 members, and many of the people there were from countries like Persia and India and even China. And I don’t need to tell you that many of the unreached peoples of the world are in the cities. Some of the cities like Teheran, Istanbul, Karachi. They have huge, huge numbers of unreached people. And I don’t need to tell you that many of the reached but unconverted people are in the big cities, like Calcutta, Tokyo and Bangkok – big cities, with churches, but many unconverted people. Cities are concentrated areas for mission. When the city is affected, the country is affected. If you want to see how a country goes, watch and see how a city goes. The Apostle Paul devoted a lot of his time to the cities because he could see the cities were the way to reach the country.
And here in Acts 11, people are travelling to the city of Antioch, and God is blessing their mission. Many are believing, and many are turning to the Lord. But look at Verse 22: news of this reached the ears of the Church at Jerusalem. Why is this surprising? Well, because Jerusalem didn’t organise the mission. It’s a surprise to them. This mission has nothing to do with the Jerusalem headquarters. It was not instigated by the Jerusalem headquarters. But the Jerusalem headquarters are delighted. It was the Lord’s hand (Verse 21), and the Jerusalem Church didn’t send an Apostle this time, they sent Barnabas. And when Barnabas arrived, he didn’t authenticate the work that was going on. It was going on anyway. He just acknowledged it. And you see what it says in Verse 23/24: he arrived… he saw the evidence of the grace of God… he was glad – and he encouraged them to remain true to Jerusalem? No, he encouraged them to remain true to the Lord, with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Why are we told this about Barnabas? Not just what are we told, but why are we told? Are we being told about Barnabas so that he will join the list of heroes of the Bible? Well, maybe, but I suggest that primarily, we are being told about Barnabas because Barnabas represents a God who loves to bless. As God Himself loves to pour out blessing, Barnabas recognises it, and he rejoices in it. If you multiply Barnabas by a million, you are getting somewhere towards what God is like when it comes to blessing. He loves to outpour blessing. And so the progress, you see, of the Gospel, the progress of the Christian life, is not dependent on the human resources or the human movements, or the human plans, but on the sovereign grace of God.
During the week, I was listening to some radio talkback, and I heard a man from Queensland say that he was trying to put one of these rainwater tanks in his backyard. And he was ringing up to say that the Council (this is Queensland) had sent him an 18-page document that had to be filled out before the Council would consider the water tank. And then, it would go to the second, and then the third, and then the fourth committees. Now they will die before that water tank goes in. You know, bureaucracy can be like that, can’t it. You can kill the plans that are good with bureaucracy. And if we were to wait until somebody planned or organised or approved the mission field work, you would just wait forever. And when God decides, in His sovereignty, to pour down rain (perhaps in answer to our prayers this morning), if He decides to pour down buckets and pools of rain, nothing will stop it.
Does that mean that we are to be passive spectators when the blessing falls? Look at Verse 25: Barnabas left Antioch, went to Tarsus… found Saul. Why did he find Saul? Because Saul was a great teacher. He was a great preacher. And Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch, and, for a whole year (Verse 26) they met with the Church and they taught great numbers of people. And they became disciples, because, you remember, that the commission of Lord Jesus was not just to watch and see converts, but to turn converts into disciples. They need to be taught, and grounded in the truth, and made into real followers. And the disciples in Antioch were first called Christians – probably not by the Jews, probably not by the Christians themselves – probably by the secular cynics. It was a term of sort of semi-abuse, to be called a Christian. And it began in Antioch. So there you see the sovereign grace of God, falling on the mission. And there you see the human responsibility, as Barnabas and Saul quickly work, to ground the believers into the Scriptures.
Now not only is this Church a happy bunch, gathering to hear the Word, but (look at Verse 27 & 30), they are transformed. They are turned inside-out. They hear from some Prophets that there is to be a famine over the entire Roman world (Verse 28). And they decide (in Verse 29) – each, according to his ability – that they would provide help for the brothers living in Judea. So, do you see what is happening? It is the absolute opposite of Jerusalem to Antioch as if Antioch depends on Jerusalem. We are being told this is an Antioch mission… and now it is an Antioch to Jerusalem contribution because God has not only converted the people and disciplined the people, but He has revolutionised them, and He causes them to start to think for themselves and to act for themselves.
Not only is it important for us to see this historical moment – no Apostle turning up, no Apostolic confirmation service, no Peter to give the tick to the work. God is at work – but it is also important, I think, pastorally, for us to see what God is doing when we ask the question every now and again – is God sovereignly gracious? Is He generous? Does He just let out blessing in small parcels for very, very suitable and appropriate people? Because we are tempted to think like that every now and again. And I want to ask you to remember Antioch – God sovereignly blessing a city, and Barnabas rejoicing about it. The Lord, as the Old Testament says, longs to be gracious… and therefore, beware of two dangers. One – and this applies specially to clergy – beware of thinking that all God’s work must pass through our approval. And beware also – and this applies to lay people and clergy – beware of thinking that all blessing is mature. Lots of blessing is immature, and that is why a wise Barnabas finds an able Saul (Paul) and begins to ground the converts into the Scriptures to make them disciples. The sovereign grace of God.
Now we need to know this because we are tempted to have small thoughts of God every now and again. We are tempted to wonder whether God is willing to bless, whether there is a block to blessing. It is very easy, isn’t it, to assume the worst of God. And that’s why Jesus, I think, gave us lessons in generosity. He said to the crowd one day – you fathers here, you know how to plan presents for your kids … how much more your Heavenly Father, who has no evil, is able to plan good things for you. And He expands, you see, by this teaching: moving from the human father to the Heavenly Father, He expands our grasp of God’s generosity. No greater example of this, of course, than the cross, when the Apostle Paul (Romans 8, Verse 32) says – He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not, along with Him graciously give us all things. So, the sovereign grace of God. That is the first thing this morning.
The Sovereign Power of God
This is Chapter 12, where Peter is released from prison. And this time, the question that I think is behind the story, is not so much – is God small or stingy, but – what if the opposition is too great? Can the world block the Gospel? Our world is very tough… and thinks it’s very tough. Acts 12 is a lesson in the Sovereign hour of God. It’s a beautiful story of God bringing His servant Peter out passed sixteen Roman soldiers. Sixteen Roman soldiers, whose job is so important that if they lose their prisoner, they lose their lives – and they do. That’s Roman law. But God effortlessly brings Peter out, passed these sixteen soldiers. So it is a lesson in the sovereign power of God. And the word ‘sovereign’ is very important, because if you look at Verse 2, in the sovereign plan of God, James died. Herod had James (the brother of John) put to death with the sword. But, look at Verse 7. In the sovereign purposes of God, Peter is brought out of prison.
The reason that this sovereignty of God is so important for us is that God works to a script, which we can’t see. I can’t see His script. You can’t see His script. The only script we have, is the one that is sufficient for us, which is the script of the Scriptures, which He has given so that we might trust Him, and know Him to be good, and know Him to be wise, and know Him to be powerful. The Will of God, for James or Peter, is withheld from us. We only see what He does with them. This is Peter’s third time in prison in the Book of Acts so far. In Chapter 4, he was in for a night and then was brought out for trial. In Chapter 5, Verse 18, he was in for a night, with all the Apostles and he was delivered by an angelic messenger. And now, here in Chapter 12 Verse 4, he is in again. He is in alone and has obviously been in for a few days, and he is heavily guarded. He is heavily guarded because Herod doesn’t want any more of those pesky Angels stealing the prisoners.
Why does the Lord rescue Peter? And why is it told at such length? It is a very unusual story because the angel moves into the cell and he kind of gets Peter dressed – you know: put on your socks, come on put on your shorts, put on your t-shirt. And then, as Peter is being brought out, he is confused, he is not sure if it is reality or vision. And then Peter turns up at the house and the girl there is so excited, she doesn’t open the door. And the people in the house, they are so astonished, they don’t even believe it is Peter. And the whole story is told at great length, and very unusually. And we have to ask why. It is, incidentally, very encouraging that the Church is at the prayer meeting, praying that the Lord will get Peter out. You can imagine the prayer – Lord, please get Peter out. You can do it. We trust You. We trust You. We are expecting You to get Peter out. It is easy for You to get Peter out. …And then, one second later – how did you get here?!!
The reason we are told this in such an unusual way is that Peter – you remember, from Acts 11, was slow to learn the plan of God… and the Church was slow to learn the plan of God. And here, in Chapter 12, we discover that Peter is slow to learn the power of God and the Church is slow to learn the power of God. It doesn’t strike Peter immediately that this is God, at work. It doesn’t strike the Church immediately that God has the power to do it. It is a slow Church. We are a slow Church. God is quick. We are slow. He teaches the plan and the power, and we slowly, slowly get it. But there is the sovereignty of God, deciding that He will bring Peter out. And it is beautifully told, as well as humorously told, because they walk passed this guard, and passed this guard, and passed the guards on the outside… and he is out. It is effortless for God. This is the sovereign plan of God.
Because the time has come for James to die, James dies. It’s very, very wonderful to be able to rest in the sovereign plan and power of God. Nobody snatched James away. If God had wanted James to go three seconds earlier, he would have gone three seconds earlier. If He had wanted him to go three seconds later, he would have gone three seconds later. If He had wanted him outside of prison and free, like Peter, he would have been outside and free, like Peter. The sovereign plan of God takes place perfectly. The time has not come for Peter, and so the time has not come for Peter, and it is nothing for God to protect and deliver Peter.
And what is the Church doing all the time? The Church is doing what it has to do – which is to pray. It says in Chapter 12 Verse 5 – earnestly praying. Praying on the stretch. And this is the way that we learn to pray. We learn to pray with two lessons. One, God is gracious and powerful. Two, we are helpless. If I could get those of you who are parents, and me as well, and grandparents, or aunts, uncles… if I could get those of you to learn two lessons about the children under your care… I would want you to learn, along with me, that God is gracious and powerful and you are helpless to get them on the path. And therefore, you must pray. If I could get you who run small groups, or teach Sunday school, or youth groups or whatever… if I could get you to learn two lessons, it would be one, that God is gracious and powerful and two, you are helpless to disciple the people in your care. And therefore, we must pray. We must ask God to do what we can’t do. Because we can shout and blather all we want, but unless God does His work of changing minds and changing hearts and changing direction, nothing will happen. And so the mark, you see, of wisdom, of common sense, is not that we organise and we plan and we shout, but that we get down on our knees and pray. And that is why I am so thankful for the people who come to the regular prayer meeting at St Thomas’s. I recognise that the people who come to the regular prayer meetings at St Thomas’s are the wise people. I rule out, of course, those people who are prevented from coming – you may be wise and prevented. But those of you who are not prevented and come to the prayer meeting, you are the wise people of the Church. You have learnt two lessons. One, God is gracious and powerful. Two, we are helpless. And so, we are on the stretch before God.
And God answers the prayer of the early Church in two ways. I wonder if you can see the first answer to the prayer in Verse 6. The short-term answer of the Church prayer meeting in Verse 6 is that Peter was asleep between two soldiers the night before he was to be executed. I don’t think this was an accident were told this. If you want to ask the question – I am praying for my friend, in a difficult situation. I am praying for that Church in a very hostile context. What is the short-term answer from God? It is the peace that passes understanding. I am sure that is behind Verse 6. That God has given to Peter this wonderful ability to trust Him, to rest. He is between two soldiers. It’s the night before the execution. And there is nothing more wonderful in the short-term from our prayers than to know that God is at work, causing a person who is in a very difficult circumstance in hospital, or in grief, or under some great trial, to be wonderfully marked by peace. What more could we ask for a friend, that they would be peaceful, and joyful, and faithful… nothing more we could ask for in the short-term. And then you see, in the long-term, of course, for Peter, is that he is wonderfully delivered.
James – the prayer is ‘Look after James’ … and he goes to glory. Peter – the prayer for Peter is ‘Look after Peter’ … he goes out the door of the gaol.
Now friends, what a terrible thing, if God were not sovereign. What if the future was a surprise to God? There is quite a bit of thinking today, in parts of the Church, which is called ‘Open theism’. I want to tell you about this, because it is going to trickle into the books, pretty soon, and you will find yourself reading books that are very persuasive on the subject of open theism. And open theism teaches this: that all reality is known by God, but not ahead of time – in this particular area… that He does not know how you will freely make your decisions. He doesn’t actually know how you will decide on things, how you will act out all the possibilities. He knows all the possible outcomes, of course, but your freedom, according to this teaching, means that you are able to create ‘de novo’, original, and your choice may surprise Him.
Now why is this so popular – and it is popular among many people? I will give you two reasons. One, it elevates us. It promotes what is called ‘ultimate self-determination’… and ultimate self-determination is very popular, very heady stuff – I determine my future… I am the master of my destiny… very heady stuff. But the other thing, more searchingly I think, is that this open theism teaches that there is a kind of compassion in God (a false compassion, I think) which is that He is shocked and surprised, like you are, by what has happened. And therefore He kind of fellowships with you. He doesn’t realise how things have turned out, and so He is caught up in the sadness with you. Now the reason that He is caught up in the sadness is that He doesn’t have all the data. If He doesn’t have all the data, He can’t make mistakes. And therefore, He is able to grieve with you about the way that things have turned out.
Although it may sound good, and there are certain Bible passages which give the impression, on the surface, that God is a God who is taken by surprise…there are verses, for example, in the Scriptures, which talk about God changing His mind, or God being sorry that He had done something or saying sorry, or God testing people. And if He is going to test people, then perhaps He doesn’t know the way it will work out. But I want you to know that those texts are abused by people who give the impression that God does not know what is going to happen. They are presented to us so that we might see something of the present tensions in the whole process.
The fact of the matter is that it is part of God’s honour to know the future, and it is part of God’s deity to know the future. I will give you one of many examples, from Isaiah 46, Verses 9 & 10, which says this – I am God, and there is no other. Listen to the next sentence – I am God, and there is none like me. I am God, He says. And then – I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. You see what He is saying? It is part of My deity to know the future and to tell, in the present, what needs to be told. The crucifixion is an example of course, isn’t it, of all these details being put in place by a whole lot of people who are absolutely responsible for their actions – Judas, people, soldiers – and God, totally sovereign over the whole process, knowing exactly how it will work out, and planning that it will work out, for salvation of people and glory to Him.
Jesus said in John’s Gospel Chapter 14: I am telling you this, so that before it happens, so that when it happens, you will know.
I want to say again to you…there are two train-tracks on which you must travel your Christian life, and you will not be able to bring them together properly, mentally, in this life. And one is that God is totally sovereign. And the other is that we are totally responsible. You can never remove one of the tracks and say, ‘It is all up to us’ and you can never remove one of the tracks and say, ‘He is sovereign, and we are robots’. The Bible continues to say – He is sovereign, and we are responsible. And friends, I want to say, as lovingly as I can – live with it! Travel on it. Hold them together. Don’t remove one from the other. The two of them are presented totally in Scripture.
And so the sovereign power of God is seen in Acts Chapter 12. He delivers exactly as He wants to. And even if Peter is slow to learn and the Church is slow to learn, God is not slow.
Now not only does He protect His own, but you will see at the end of Chapter 12, He brings down His enemies. Herod, who seemed so powerful in Chapter 12, Verses 1 & 2, is easily, effortlessly, brought to his end. We discover at the end that Herod is kind of ‘on show’ and he is bragging and he is quite happy that glory be given to him, and not to God – and the Lord strikes him. Do you see Verse 23 of Chapter 12: he did not give praise to God, and an angel of the Lord struck him down. Now the word ‘struck’ in Verse 23 is exactly the same as the word ‘struck’ in Verse 7 (the angel struck Peter, and woke him). And the angel struck Herod and finished him.
Of course, if we were to ask ourselves where the great deliverance of the new Testament takes place, where the people of God are protected, and the enemies of God are taken from their thrones, the answer, of course, is at the cross – Colossians 2 tells us that there at the cross, God, through Jesus Christ, disarmed the principalities and the powers and brought forgiveness and redemption. If you were to ask yourself the question – where have I got a great rescue? Where is God going to give me a great rescue?… the primary answer in the New Testament is through that crucifixion. And, as I have said many times from this pulpit, when the day comes, when the believers who are here this morning find themselves travelling through the judgement of God, safely, effortlessly, securely, wonderfully, joyfully, you will turn around and say, ‘What we heard and believed was absolutely top priority. We could not have been given anything more wonderful’. That’s the great deliverance.
So we ask the question at the end – if God is sovereign in His grace and sovereign in His power, is there any danger for the people of God, and any danger for the work of God? Look at the last two verses of Chapter 12, the Word of God continued to increase and spread. Of course. What could stop it? And Verse 25 – Barnabas and Saul finished their mission, returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, called Mark. Their little team has expanded.
Well, the sovereign grace of God, the sovereign power of God. Is God unwilling? The sovereign grace of God is the answer. The – is God powerless, hopeless, helpless – in the face of the problems, the sovereign power of God is the answer. John Newton, who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, wrote another hymn once, and it had a verse in it which says this, ‘Though dark be my way since He is my God, ‘tis mine to obey, ‘tis His to provide. Though vessels be broken, and creatures all fail, the Word He has spoken shall surely prevail.’
Our Heavenly Father, we lift up to You our praise and our honour, that You are much much greater in grace and power and sovereignty than we have appreciated or grasped. And we pray that You will continue to teach us how gracious You are and how powerful You are. We especially thank You for the grace and power that has been shown to us in the Lord Jesus and His work on the cross. And we pray that You would help us to meditate on Your goodness, on Your greatness, and to overflow with thankfulness and trust and faithfulness. So we thank You for this part of Your Word, and we pray that You would help us to live in the light of it. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.