This is a poem written by one of our church members, Gemma (and shared with her permission):
Life seems somewhat different behind my closed house doors.
With fear at the heart of everyone, not knowing what’s to come.
Life can be dark and lonely, but I know my Saviour’s love.
Though the battle is in full swing,
And we fight what we can’t see,
We know our God is faithful
And He will never flee.
With faith as small as mustard seeds,
We (digitally) come together to pray,
With words of encouragement that in our hearts will stay.
With people at a distance, we’ve never been so close.
It makes our hearts grow stronger while we are fighting away this ghost.
Our world may seem in pieces,
But our God’s forever strong,
Guiding us through these dark days,
Filling our hearts with song.
Sorrow may try to hold us, but will never keep us down
As night will turn back to day,
We know God has gifted us a crown.
Be blessed with joy and faith,
Knowing God is all in all,
Keeping tight hold of you,
He will never let you fall.
God’s loving kindness, compassion and mercy are all wrapped up in His grace – not just not giving us what we do deserve (judgment and punishment) but pouring out blessings which we don’t deserve. Grace is one of those delightful words which take a lifetime to unpack. Grace turns all our understanding of equations upside down; the quid pro quo which rules the world is banished in favour of blessing and love.
Again, we can only embrace grace if we’ve received it. If we don’t understand the lavish love of God and that our whole standing with God is through His unmerited favour rather than from our good deeds or self-righteousness, we will struggle to show grace to others. But if we have received grace, we can dance gleefully and can afford to respond in the same currency.
Two of my favourite verses regarding grace are that God’s grace is sufficient for us: ‘it’s all you need’, as the Message version puts 2 Corinthians 12:9, and that ‘He gives us more grace.’ (James 4:6) When we may feel we’ve run out of grace, God is there to pour more in.
One thing is clear from Acts 12 and that is that God is a God who saves and rescues. The Bible is full of the stories of God’s deliverance, most notably the Exodus from Egypt. Here, we see the story of Peter’s deliverance from jail, a deliverance involving angelic intervention, chains falling from wrists, guards mysteriously asleep and doors unexpectedly opening. It’s a story full of humour (the idea that the church is praying earnestly but is so stunned by Peter’s arrival that they leave him outside for a while is ironic!) but one which demonstrates to us that God can do anything. Nothing is too hard for Him.
We need to be confident in God’s ability and desire to save us, to rescue us, to deliver us and we need to pray for people in that vein. This chapter reminds us that ‘the church was earnestly praying to God for him.’ (Acts 12:5) To be sure, they were as surprised as Peter when God actually did deliver him, but they were praying for him. We must not let what we perceive to be unanswered prayers stop us from continuing to pray for God to intervene in supernatural ways in situations for people. We need to understand that prayer is our greatest weapon and that ‘the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.’ (James 5:16) It’s good to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer at these times and especially to pray ‘deliver us from the evil one.’ (Matt 6:13) God is able to deliver us. He’s able to keep us and our loved ones safe. He’s able to intervene in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Paul says God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. (Eph 3:20) Let’s keep praying for God’s miraculous intervention in our lives and into the situations which are currently gripping the world.
I was once told by another Christian that he had never had a moment of doubt since giving his life to the Lord. That may well have been true for him, but for the vast majority of people, faith walks daily alongside doubt, uncertainty and bewilderment. Some days, we believe the word of God easily and rejoice in victory; the Lord seems so close to us and life seems easy. Other days, we feel like we’re walking through the darkest tunnel with no sense of God’s presence and no answers to our questions. Most days, I suspect, are a mixture. We pray but still doubt. We believe but still wonder.
I don’t think there is anything abnormal about that, and the reason I say that confidently is because we find so many examples of it in the Bible. Elijah’s faith saw rain held at bay for three years and then he called God’s fire down onto the altar to get rid of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18); the next time we meet him, he’s on the run from Jezebel, terrified for his life and asking God to let him die. (1 Kings 19) Abraham, our ‘father of faith’, lied about his relationship with his wife and slept with his wife’s servant– hardly great examples of faith! So it’s perfectly human to find life a bit like a yo-yo or a roller-coaster with its up-and-down motions.
In Acts 12, we find the church facing a desperately difficult situation: one of its leaders (James) has been killed by King Herod Agrippa I and its most important leader (Peter) is in prison, awaiting execution. The church is ‘earnestly praying’ for Peter (Acts 12:5) – presumably for his protection and deliverance. Yet when he turns up at the house where they are praying, Rhoda the servant girl is so stunned to hear his voice that she leaves him standing outside and the church members don’t believe her, saying she is out of her mind or it must be his angel! (Acts 12:15) This is hardly the picture we would expect of a faith-filled, victorious, powerful church!
So I find it tremendously reassuring that as we journey through life, often confused, bewildered, doubtful and uncertain as well as confident, faith-filled and rejoicing, we are in the company of so many others who have experienced all these emotions and still remained true to God. John says (the same John who lost his brother in this chapter) in his first letter, ‘If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.’ (1 John 3:20) What more, ultimately, do we need?
Life is made up of many certainties and even more uncertainties. We are creatures who tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, and as a result often indulge in speculation to try to move from one state to the other. Speculation is the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence, and it’s something that’s been rife over the past few months!
There are many things in Scripture which are crystal clear… but many which are not. That can often be very frustrating for us, for we much prefer certainty to doubt. But many things which God does baffle us. We can’t understand why some die and others are healed, why God intervenes miraculously in some situations and appears to leave us floundering in others. This is nothing new: the early church had to work with the fact that devout leaders Stephen and James were martyred (Acts 7:54-60, Acts 12:1-2), but Peter and John were spared (Acts 4, Acts 12:5-11).
So often, we speculate about things like this; we wonder if one person is more deserving than another, if God has favourites. The truth is that we do not know why. We cannot say that Peter was spared because the church was praying earnestly for him and therefore James was killed because the church didn’t like him as much and didn’t pray! Such speculation is harmful and will never be satisfactory because we simply do not know. As the commentator Maclaren says, ‘this is a question easily asked by us but one that simply cannot be answered by us.’ Tom Wright says this chapter shows us how God’s providence ‘remains both remarkable and inscrutable.’ (‘Acts For Everyone’ Pt 1, P 184)
This is very hard for us to accept. When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness or dies, when we lose a job we were convinced was God’s position for us, when tragedy strikes, we want answers to the question ‘Why?’, but so often, we simply do not have the answers we crave. Instead of then wasting our energy and time on pointless speculation, we need to learn to accept God’s sovereignty and rest on His goodness. Even if life seems unfair and we cannot work out what God is doing or why, we need to cultivate a heart that leans on all we know of His nature and trust in His unfailing love.
Acts 12:1-24 gives us further glimpses into the life of the early church and reminds us that this was a dangerous time to be a Christian. Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great who slaughtered the innocent boys at the time of Jesus’s birth, was no more favourable towards God’s people, trying to keep the Roman peace in the area and therefore wanting to put down any minorities which seemed to threaten this peace. As a result, he had James (brother of John, one of the ‘Sons of Thunder’) executed (Acts 12:1-2) and intended to do the same by Peter (Acts 12:3-4).
It’s striking in this chapter that one of the first disciples (James), who is always linked with his brother John and who was an important apostle, is dismissed from the narrative so swiftly in one sentence (‘He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword’) when the martyrdom of Stephen (whom we only meet in Acts) takes up over a whole chapter! It’s also striking that God intervenes in miraculous ways to deliver Peter from prison, not allowing him to be martyred at this stage in history. We can often feel bewildered as we try to fathom God’s purposes.
Suffering – whether through persecution, imprisonment or even martyrdom – is an inevitable part of the Christian life (see Matt 5:10, Matt 24:9, John 15:20, 2 Cor 4:9, 1 Thess 3:4, 2 Tim 3:12). It’s inevitable because we live in a sinful world among sinful people and because the perfection of the Garden of Eden has been destroyed by sin. But suffering has to be seen in the context of eternity and in the context of God’s glory. Paul said, ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ (Rom 8:18) He said, ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ (2 Cor 4:17-18) Whether by death (James) or by life (Peter’s deliverance from prison), what really counted was that God’s name was glorified. We do well to heed Paul’s words to the Romans: ‘If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.’ (Rom 14:8) Ultimately, that’s all that really matters.