Who here remembers King Herod?
Hmm, no, no not the King Herod who met with the wise men and then ordered all the infants in Bethlehem killed. That was his grandfather.
No, not the King Herod who ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wanted to see Jesus perform a miracle. That was his uncle.
I’m talking about the King Herod who put the first apostle of Jesus to death and tried to do it again shortly after.
Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were all the same king, right? The time-span is short enough that they could all be the same man and more to the point, they all behave very similarly. They have no regard for the true God. At best they are apathetic about it, and at worst they actively work against it just to further their own means.
And that’s exactly what’s happening in our reading today. This particular Herod, Herod Agrippa I, was just trying to secure his position as king. He was “king” of the Jews, but not in any way the Jews really recognized. He was put there by the Roman conquerors. The Jews hated the idea of any nation being over them, and this puppet king was just an ongoing reminder of it. So Herod had to deal with this constant distaste from them.
However, at this time, there was something else the Jews were starting to hate just as much. There were these men who were trying to subvert the Jewish religion. Followers of what was sometimes called The Way, but recently had started using the term “Christians”. The Jews hated these guys, too. And as the old saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Herod realized that if he attacked this new church movement, he’d earn himself some points in the polls with the Jewish people and that would make his job that much easier.
The first major target? James. Son of Zebedee, brother of John. Same John who later wrote the gospel of John, a few letters, and the book of Revelation. James was one of the original twelve, he’d walked with and learned from Jesus himself. And Herod, in true dictatorial power, had him executed. No trial or any sort of legal cause. Just, “you die.”
It’s not like being a Christian was a picnic so far, but this stepped it up even more. Yes, he wasn’t the first to die for Jesus, but he was the first of the twelve who was martyred. And this time it wasn’t just the Jewish leadership acting out, it was the Roman government. And not even because they opposed the message of Jesus, but because the king wanted to be popular.
So, if things weren’t already tense in Jerusalem for Christians, this was going to raise the bar. And it only went higher. The next target was Peter, probably the most prominent leader of the early church. And there was nothing Peter could do about it. Nothing any of them could do about it. Herod had all the authority, all the power. His word was law. He said kill somebody and it happened. Reasons didn’t matter. There was no law to protect from that. No justice. Herod was just in control of the situation and the Christians, the apostles were not.
And so, it happened that after his friend and travelling companion of the last four or so years was essentially murdered that Peter found himself in prison waiting a similar fate. Guarded by a rotating squad of soldiers, actually chained to the soldiers in the prison. The next day, probably, he was going to die. And it wasn’t going to stop there. Herod would keep on going until there wasn’t anyone left.
The rest of the believers, what could they do? They couldn’t storm Roman soldiers and force Peter free, they were just people, not fighters.
It’s a desperate situation. One of the most public leaders of the church was waiting to die. A man who opposed everything they stood for was in complete control. And the message of the gospel was in danger of being snuffed out by that man’s actions.
So why is Peter sleeping soundly? It wasn’t because he knew what was going to happen next. Because when an angel jarred him awake and the chains fell from his wrists, when he was led out of the prison unseen by any of the guards watching, Peter didn’t actually believe his eyes. He thought it was a vision, a dream. It wasn’t until he was out in the city proper when the angel left him, when he was hit by the cold of the night air and the silence that hung there after the angel left that he realized this was really happening. It was real.
Peter escapes. God rescued him. The believers had not sat idle but had prayed continuously for his rescue. God answered those prayers. He was free, and he would live to see another day.
And shortly after this event, Herod himself was struck dead by God. Go ahead and read the rest of the chapter when you get home today. Herod, being puffed up by some sycophants, was called a god. And he just soaked it in. God had enough and struck him down for such arrogance. The man in “complete control” died, just like that.
And the gospel spread. News of Herod’s death only set it further ablaze as it burned through the nations. Everything that seemed hopeless was overturned.
Brothers and Sisters, this is why Peter was sleeping soundly that night. Because he had utter confidence that it was God, not Herod that was in control. Peter thought he would die, but that didn’t matter to him because God is unstoppable. Peter knew that Herod’s plan couldn’t succeed in wiping out the gospel truth of Jesus because it was God’s gospel, with the power of God behind it. He knew for a fact that the gospel, by God’s power, is unstoppable.
Peter, by God’s power, was unstoppable. Every earthly power and authority came against him and it didn’t work because God didn’t allow it.
And before him, James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, by God’s power, was unstoppable.
You remember James, right? He was the first one Herod arrested and succeeded in killing.
Wait, let me rephrase that. He was the first one Herod tried to kill.
Maybe this whole time you were thinking about him. Maybe you were thinking “Great for Peter, what about James? God didn’t seem so keen on miraculously rescuing him!”
He didn’t? James was a sinner after all. We can even find that in the Gospels, like the time he and his brother arrogantly asked for a higher position than the rest of the twelve with Jesus. James deserved to die. And more than die, he deserved to be cut off from God and his mercy forever. He deserved hell.
But instead of that, God himself endured hell for James. He went in James’ place. And in return, he gave James the credit of a life lived without sin, in complete obedience to God. Jesus did those things for James. He lived and he died for James.
Herod did everything in his human power to stop James. But it didn’t work. The Roman sword that pierced him was what ushered him into the eternal arms of his Father. He didn’t die. He lives, forever, free of all pain and suffering and most especially free from the burden of sin. Peter was rescued from a cell. James was rescued from this life of pain and tears.
Peter’s time for that came eventually of course, but the point is that neither of these men were failed by God. And neither of them were overcome by the forces of this world. By God’s power, by the power of the gospel message, the message about Jesus, they were unstoppable.
I hope, by now, you realize this is not just a story about Peter and James. This is about you, too.
The gospel is unstoppable.
Peter, by God’s power, was unstoppable.
James, by God’s power, was unstoppable.
You, by God’s power, are unstoppable.
I don’t mean you can leave this building and go do whatever you want; that’s relying on your power and it’ll fail you every time. But the power of the gospel in you cannot be stopped.
It is this simple. You know the truth, that God lived for you, died for you, and rose to life for you. Because Jesus lived, died, and rose for you, you are forgiven and God will take you to be with him forever. That’s the good news that you know and trust, that is the gospel.
And there is no power here on earth that can stop you. Nothing can tear Jesus away from you. No human or natural agent can separate you from God’s love. And literally nothing that happens to you here on this earth can take away the salvation that God has given you freely by this truth. You are already saved. You are already rescued. Nothing can take that away from you. With the gospel truth in you, you are unstoppable.
It’s important to remember this perspective when your life seems anything but unstoppable. I doubt any of us will experience a night in prison awaiting execution, but that doesn’t mean we don’t find ourselves in situations where we feel beaten down, pushed around, and tempted to lose hope because whatever earthly situation we find ourselves in is not looking like it’s going to work out.
The message here is not “that earthly situation is going to work out”. It’s not “God will definitely miraculously free you from that earthly prison.” The message is that God has already freed you from a much more deadly prison. And that even if things don’t go our way here, it all leads to the same end – victory.
The troubles, the trials, the forces of this world will scream that they are in control of your life, and they will try to imprison you and beat you down. It may even seem like they are in control. Things we value, people we care about, even our own health might be taken away. But they can’t stop you. Because you have God and he cannot be stopped. Because of Jesus, you have already won. And the message continues.
I’m not saying God will never help you here and now either. He absolutely will. But that’s not where our hope is. Our hope is not in being delivered from bad bosses or car troubles or crushing debt or inoperable cancer. When it seems like he isn’t helping, when it’s like he’s not trying to rescue you at all, remember: he already has. Come what may, you are already saved.
God’s goal is to get you and anyone else he can to know and trust the gospel message so you can be safely brought to heaven with him. That mission will not be stopped. And while you are still here, God has chosen you to carry out that mission. Share the message that makes you unstoppable. The message cannot be stopped. No matter what powers try to stifle it, they will never succeed. Share it with confidence and share it out of love for those who need it.
You are saved, you are unstoppable in him. Share the truth so others may know the same rock-solid comfort. That is the path God has put before you: to speak his truth so long as you can. You will not be stopped on that path so long as God wants you to run. You cannot be stopped from sharing the truth so long as you are here.
Brothers and sisters, our God saves. Nothing in heaven above or on the earth below can stop him from carrying out his mission in you and through you. The gospel will continue.
Brothers and sisters, our God has saved you. Nothing in heaven above or on the earth below can stop you from being welcomed into his arms when this is all over.
Brothers and sisters, go out today, wake up every day after this absolutely secure in the certainty of this truth: God and his gospel are unstoppable.