Monday, May 30, 2016

Extraordinary

My Life Group lesson for May 29, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

So who here has a Fitbit or something like it?

How many steps per day do you try to reach?

Does it matter how you get there? Running or moseying?

Our Christian walk is the same. We try to get in a full 10,000 steps before we are called to heaven, finish the race, as Paul wrote.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 12:1-25

*** This is our final lesson for the spring and the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts.

*** Chapter 12 is the last record in Acts of the followers in Jerusalem. Chapter 13 begins a shift to recording the ministry of Paul.

*** Chapter 12 begins with growing persecution by Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born and ordered the infants killed in Bethlehem. Herod Agrippa was brought up in Rome and made king in Judea and surrounding territories by Gaius the emperor.

He ruled as king of the region from A.D. 41 to 44 and sought favor with the Jewish leaders by going after Christians, including the execution of James, brother of John.

This was the first recorded instance of persecution from secular authorities. Before it had been from Jewish leaders.

*** Peter was arrested next and scheduled for execution following Passover. But God ...

DELIVERANCE (Acts 12:7-10)

7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” Then the chains fell off his wrists. 8 “Get dressed,” the angel told him, “and put on your sandals.” And he did so. “Wrap your cloak around you,” he told him, “and follow me.” 9 So he went out and followed, and he did not know that what took place through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they passed the first and second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went outside and passed one street, and immediately the angel left him.

*** A supernatural Get Out Of Jail Free card.

--- It's the middle of the night, Peter’s scheduled to be killed, sleeping between two soldiers.

--- Sleeping soundly, it appears, since he’s half-asleep as all this happens. Which in itself is astounding since he was about to be put on show trial and killed.

--- An angel appears to Peter, divinely removes the chains, tells Peter to put on his sandals and leads him right out of jail, with the guards none the wiser.

--- The Roman guards were ready for traditional opposition with weapons, but that’s not how the early church reacted to persecution. They knew they had a higher power in the Lord who could flick off shackles and ignore locked doors.

--- God can deliver us physically and spiritually from all forms of bondage.

*** When God's People Pray. (“And take the pains of earth to the doors of heaven” … “There is hope reborn, there is sin forgiven. And miracles you can't explain away.”)

--- While Peter was in prison he was benefiting from the prayers offered on his behalf from the church.

---The faithful prayers of God’s people combined with the will of God resulted in Peter’s deliverance.

--- It's easy to scoff at prayer and think, "If God's will is done, what does it matter if I pray?" But the Bible makes clear, prayer matters.

--- When Christians hear of persecution or suffering by Christians in our world today, we should pray, knowing that our prayers make a difference. We cannot enter the countries or prisons where many believers today are held, but we can pray for them.

--- We should also note that it's not always God's will to deliver his faithful servants from harm, as we saw with early martyrs Stephen, then James.

--- God has different plans for different lives. The death of James and the deliverance of Peter both accomplished God’s purposes for their lives.

*** Question - What does it say to you about Peter’s faith that he slept so soundly on the night before his scheduled execution?

DELIGHT (Acts 12:11-12, 16-17)

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” 12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. ... 16 Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astounded. 17 Motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he explained to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. “Report these things to James and the brothers,” he said. Then he departed and went to a different place.

Amy Grant sang all about this in her song "Angels:"

"Take this man to prison," the man heard Herod say
And then four squads of soldiers came and carried him away
Chained up between two watchmen, Peter tried to sleep
But beyond the walls an endless prayer was lifting for his keep
Then a light cut through the darkness of a lonely prison cell
And the chains that bound the man of God just opened up and fell
And running to his people before the break of day
There was only one thing on his mind, only one thing to say..."

*** "He's got His angels watching over me, every move I make."

--- Once Peter snapped out of his sleepy angelic stupor did he realize the miracle that had just happened.

--- Peter notes that God freed him through supernatural means.

--- He then heads to a home where Christians were praying for him.

--- John Mark was a relative of Barnabas and would soon play a major role in the first international mission (Acts 12:25). John Mark was also the author of the Gospel of Mark.

--- This shows how important it is for believers to assemble as the body of Christ.

*** Guess who!

--- Even though the servant girl Rhoda ran to tell everyone the good news, no one believed that Peter was really there, so Peter had to stand outside for a few minutes until the gate was unlocked.

--- They likely prayed that God would help Peter during his impending trial. They could not imagine that God would take him from the prison and release him miraculously.

--- Peter thought he was dreaming and his friends were astounded, because even as we pray for miracles we're still amazed by what we think is impossible.

--- Peter’s deliverance was again a testimony to the power of faith and God’s grace.

--- We can be thankful that God’s willingness to answer our prayers is not always limited by our faith.

*** Go tell it on the mountain.

--- Peter’s comment to tell James and his brothers is a reference to James the brother of Jesus.

--- From here Peter would depart Jerusalem to an unknown place and James would take leadership of the church there.

*** Question - What makes people skeptical of God working in an unexpected way? How would you feel if you knew people were gathered together praying for you?

DISTURBANCE (Acts 12:18-19)

18 At daylight, there was a great commotion among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. 19 After Herod had searched and did not find him, he interrogated the guards and ordered their execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

*** You had one job.

--- Roman practice was that soldiers who lost their prisoners were subject to the same penalty due to the prisoners. (Wonder if they drew straws to decide who got to tell Herod of their failure?)

--- Herod wouldn’t have seen a supernatural explanation for Peter’s escape any more than Pharaoh allowed for God to get credit for the plagues, so he would assume someone was helping him or of sleeping on the job, literally and figuratively.

--- Herod, therefore, executed those who were supposed to watch Peter.

--- Notice that no one realized Peter wasn’t there until daylight, giving Peter plenty of time to get out of town.

*** Peter’s ministry.

--- Following the death of Herod not long after this, Peter returned to Jerusalem (Acts 15:7). Peter later produced two epistles (1 and 2 Peter), and the early church historian Eusebius credited Peter as the primary source of information for Mark’s Gospel.

--- Jesus had predicted that Peter would be killed when he was old (John 21:18-19).

--- Tradition says that Peter was executed during Nero’s reign about A.D. 64, and crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy of crucifixion in the same position as Jesus.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Adrian Rogers tells of a little boy who was trying to roll a rock as his father watched from a distance.

The boy was trying his hardest, but he couldn’t turn the stone over.

His dad said, “Son, are you using all of your strength?”

The boy said, “Yes, Daddy, I’m using all my strength.”

And the father said, “No, you’re not, because you haven’t asked me to help you. My strength is your strength.”

Sometimes we wrestle with problems and say, “I don’t know what to do.” Our Heavenly Father wants us to say, “I’ve run out of my strength,” and run to His.

There is no problem too big for Jesus to solve.

We’ve seen in our study of the first 12 chapters in Acts that there were many attempts by religious and secular powers to halt the progress of the early church.

All of them ultimately failed because of the power and will of God. In fact, we saw where every time the gospel was advanced and the church grew.

No matter what your circumstances are, you can rest assured that God is at work.

God often uses our dire circumstances to work in an extraordinary way for the advancement of the gospel.

Some Christian leaders suffer martyrdom while others experience miraculous deliverance. James died by the sword, while Peter was delivered from prison.

If you’ve never met resistance, ask yourself why. Is it because you aren’t openly sharing your belief in Jesus Christ and looking for opportunities to witness to others? Or, is it because you stay in your comfort zone without opposition?

All of these events can encourage us to be just as bold in our witness as the early Christians were.

We can be encouraged that our efforts are always accompanied by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

*** Pray specifically and with purpose for someone this week. “Pray for God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.” (Bobby Richardson, former NY Yankees 2B)

*** When we pray, remember:

--- The love of God that wants the best for us.
--- The wisdom of God that knows what is best for us.
--- The power of God that can accomplish it.
(William Barclay, Prodigals and Those Who Love.)

*** Share with someone who needs encouragement, tell them about how God has been extraordinary in your life.

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