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Bible and crossThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 12:20-23

The Death of Herod

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain,[a] they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

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Last week’s post described Herod Antipas’s ire and humiliation over the disappearance of Peter, who makes no more significant appearances in Acts, other than in Chapter 15.

As my post explains, Herod Antipas — i.e. his men — searched for Peter but could not find him. Herod then sentenced his 16 guards assigned to Peter to death.

Matthew Henry thought that their sentence was commuted — because of the events in today’s post. John MacArthur says that they did die.

Regardless, my post said that the death penalty was Roman law for a guard who, even inadvertently, allowed a prisoner to escape.

In any event, Herod Antipas was completely humiliated. He wanted to put Peter on stage for a kangaroo trial and bloody death after Passover that year. He had already had the apostle James — St James the Great — beheaded in a more low-key way. Peter was to be the great public spectacle, akin to Jesus before the Crucifixion.

However, God foiled Herod’s evil plan for Peter at every stage.

And God wasn’t finished yet.

As I wrote last week, after Herod was humiliated, he left Judea for Caesarea, where he staged lavish performances praising Caesar, who had just returned from a triumphant trip to Britain. He was surrounded by the great and the good of the day. They went to sponge off Herod, enjoying his hospitality. They went to honour Caesar, not Herod.

Herod Antipas was saturated with sin. Not only was he angry with the most devout followers of Christ, he was also infuriated by others, as Matthew Henry’s commentary tells us, possibly for trivial reasons.

In verse 20, we discover that he was angry with the people of two ancient cities, Tyre and Sidon. Those cities appear occasionally in both the Old and New Testaments. In 2015, I wrote about Matthew 11:20-24, saying that Sidon was a Phoenecian port city, first mentioned in Genesis 10. The Egyptians sent their wheat to Sidon. From there, ships sent the wheat to Mediterranean ports. Tyre was a nearby fortified city, mentioned in Judges 19. It provided the cedars of Lebanon for Solomon’s temple. The two cities were — not surprisingly — steeped in idolatry, corruption and vice. This is why Jesus’s comment about the two cities — a judgment against the Jews of his time — was such a stinging curse (i.e. ‘Woe to you’):

21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.

Also see the parallel in Luke 10:13-15, with more about the two cities.

MacArthur explains that, at the time of Herod Antipas, who was their king for all intents and purposes:

Tyre and Sidon are two free cities north of Caesarea. Caesarea is right on the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem. And up north in Syria, north of Galilee is Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities, free cities, technically belonging to Syria. They were the neighbors of Galilee and of Herod’s territory, so there was a necessary interdependence.

That interdependence had to do with foodstuffs passing through those cities. Both depended on food from Galilee. Tyre and Sidon did not produce their own, as they traded.

MacArthur tells us:

Herod was mad. Maybe he didn’t like the duties or the tariffs that Tyre and Sidon were charging him for his movement of materials. So he got mad at them and he cut off all supplies and they were hurting badly. Herod was very angry and when Tyre and Sidon couldn’t get the food they needed and the supply they needed from Galilee and Israel they were in trouble. And so they knew they needed to make a treaty with Herod.

The people of Tyre and Sidon made an ally out of a man named Blastus, the king’s chamberlain — his trusted attendant or treasurer — who acted as their intermediary. Henry wrote that they likely used bribes.

In any event, they asked for peace, because they were in danger of going hungry.

Herod agreed a date to speak to them. This was a situation he must have relished: having two powerful ports — comparable to city states — being forced to grovel at his feet.

Herod made sure he donned his most royal robes, looked majestic on his throne and delivered an oration to them (verse 21). He milked this for all it was worth. MacArthur says:

He decided that the whole world would know how super he was, how great he was, and watch these two nations bow at his feet, these two cities.

MacArthur adds that all the great and the good who saw the performances lauding Caesar were likely to have been in attendance. The performances had taken place the day before.

Henry agrees with MacArthur that the Jewish historian Josephus also wrote about this event (emphases mine):

he had all the mucky mucks and the leaders all arriving in Caesarea and they met in the amphitheatre that had been built by his grandfather, Herod the Great. I was in that place where that is, big massive amphitheatre and there he had his big throne and all the people were sitting around cheer upon cheer cheering people and he comes out splendid in his royal apparel and Josephus said he had a silver robe on, made of silver. And the sun just came and splattered off of that thing and he just looked resplend[ent] in all of his glory, which is just what he wanted. He was going to get out there and sit in his throne and the cheering people, and he was going to watch all the Tyre and Sidon people bowing down to him and … eat up every second of it. This was day one, the tip of the hat to Caesar, day two my day, see. So he got day one out of the way and the second day comes in his silver robe and he’s the glory of man at its pinnacle. All the Rome pomp and circumstances there, the soldiers, the whole shot, everything is set up and all the little mealy mouth favor seekers are sitting in the chairs cheering, crowds lining everywhere.

This was a big deal. If this were to happen today, it would have been discussed for days on all the cable news channels, on Internet sites, tweeted about and hyped beyond reason. It would have been in all the newspapers and analysed endlessly. It would have been filmed live as a great televisual showdown.

So, duly puffed up with himself, Herod Antipas gave an oration. Henry paints the picture for us:

He made a speech to the men of Tyre and Sidon, a fine oration, in which, probably, after he had aggravated their fault, and commended their submission, he concluded with an assurance that he would pass by their offence and receive them into his favour again–proud enough that he had it in his power whom he would to keep alive, as well as whom he would to slay; and probably he kept them in suspense as to what their doom should be, till he made this oration to them, that the act of grace might come to them with the more pleasing surprise.

If that had occurred today, there would have been a lengthy commercial break between oration and conclusion of perceived mercy.

Amazingly, those who heard the oration — and, frankly, this isn’t too different to our times — pronounced the ‘voice of a god, and not of man’ (verse 22).

Immediately, an angel of the Lord struck him down. He breathed his last, but not before being eaten by worms (verse 23).

N.B.: Herod Antipas was sentenced to death by worms. Those worms did not eat him in his grave. They ate him alive. We all know how hideous maggots and grubs are. Imagine being eaten by them. Talk about a spectacle. That was God’s — and Jesus Christ’s — message to him, those watching and us.

Henry analyses this for us, including Herod’s quasi-Judaism:

his fault was that he said nothing, did not rebuke their flattery, nor disown the title they had given him, nor give God the glory (Acts 12:23); but he took it to himself, was very willing it should terminate in himself, and that he should be thought a god and have divine honours paid him. Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur–if the people will be deceived, let them. And it was worse in him who was a Jew, and professed to believe in one God only, than it was in the heathen emperors, who had gods many and lords many.

This brings us back to Jesus’s curse on Chorazin and Bethsaida cited above. If we know and ignore God’s will and Christ Jesus, we will surely perish.

We cannot know God unless we truly believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour.

As Henry explains:

Now he was reckoned with for vexing the church of Christ, killing James, imprisoning Peter, and all the other mischiefs he had done.

Also:

The angel smote him with a sore disease just at that instant when he was strutting at the applauses of the people, and adoring his own shadow. Thus the king of Tyre said in his pride, I am a god, I sit in the seat of God; and set his heart as the heart of God; but he shall be a man, and no God, a weak mortal man, in the hand of him that slayeth him (Ezekiel 28:2-9), so Herod here. Potent princes must know, not only that God is omnipotent, but that angels also are greater in power and might than they. The angel smote him, because he gave not the glory to God; angels are jealous for God’s honour, and as soon as ever they have commission are ready to smite those that usurp his prerogatives, and rob God of his honour.

Henry adds the following for his audience, as the microscope was in its infancy then. His words are also pertinent for us today, four centuries later:

Surprising discoveries have of late been made by microscopes of the multitude of worms that there are in human bodies, and how much they contribute to the diseases of them, which is a good reason why we should not be proud of our bodies, or of any of their accomplishments, and why we should not pamper our bodies, for this is but feeding the worms, and feeding them for the worms.

Yes! A thousand times yes!

Of the worms, MacArthur tells us:

Josephus says they ate him for five days before he died. That’s a sickening debasing terrible way to die. Just when a man thinks he has exalted himself to the place of glory God crushes him to a place of humility. And I say to you, you can’t fight God because his power can’t be contested and His punishment can’t be avoided. Don’t fight God. He was painfully smitten. The pompous fool done in by worms.

God will never be defeated by unbelievers or mockers.

Next time — Acts 12:24-25

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bible-wornThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 12:18-19

18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.

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Last week’s post discussed Peter’s visit to the house of Mary, a relative of Barnabas and mother of John Mark — Mark of the Gospel — to tell those praying in her house for him that he was safe and well. Recall that an angel of the Lord released him from prison. Those chains were there for all to see and were passed down through the centuries. Peter left quickly to get out of Jerusalem and continue his ministry out of reach of Herod Antipas and his men.

The day referred to in verse 18 was to be that of Peter’s public trial and beheading. However, the soldiers were in an uproar over Peter’s disappearance and the broken chains.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that, under Roman law, letting a prisoner escape was a capital offence.

The guards did not know an angel led Peter out of the cell. There were 16 men guarding him at various points in the prison to prevent his escape, which took place in the middle of the night. There were divine ways to turn their attention away from their prisoner, e.g. sleep. St Luke, the author of Acts, did not tell us how God worked through the angel.

Henry says the guards no doubt played the blame game in an attempt to avoid the death penalty:

They thought themselves as sure as could be of him but last night; yet now the bird is flown, and they can hear no tale nor tidings of him. This set them together by the ears; one says, “It was your fault;” the other, “Nay, but it was yours;” having no other way to clear themselves, but by accusing one another.

Herod — i.e. his men — searched for Peter in vain (verse 19). They might even have conducted house-to-house searches in a concerted effort to protect their lives. Luke did not give us details.

Incidentally, Acts 16:27 mentions a Philippian jailer who feared for his life when he thought Paul and Silas had escaped during an earthquake. That is how awful this was.

He was ready to commit suicide rather than be executed (emphases mine):

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer[e] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.

The experience was so significant that he converted then and there:

30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Herod sentenced the guards to death. MacArthur says that the guards were executed. However, Henry’s commentary says that they might not have died, because Herod died before the sentence could be carried out. We’ll get to Herod’s death next week — not to be missed.

Herod then left Judea for Caesarea. He was completely humiliated. If you’ve been following this series, you will recall that Acts 12 opens with Herod’s beheading of James the Apostle, the brother of John (sons of Zebedee).

James’s beheading proved popular among the Jews, so Herod wanted to create a bigger spectacle with Peter after that Passover, putting him on trial before the people and executing him.

Henry offers this analysis:

He was vexed to the heart, as a lion disappointed of his prey; and the more because he had so much raised the expectation of the people of the Jews concerning Peter, had told them how he would very shortly gratify them with the sight of Peter’s head in a charger, which would oblige them as much as John Baptist’s did Herodias; it made him ashamed to be robbed of this boasting, and to see himself, notwithstanding his confidence, disabled to make his words good. This is such a mortification to his proud spirit that he cannot bear to stay in Judea, but away he goes to Cesarea.

Herod’s departure entered the annals of the historian Josephus:

Josephus mentions this coming of Herod to Cesarea, at the end of the third year of his reign over all Judea (Antiq. 19. 343) …

Josephus recorded that, in Caesarea, Herod attended plays that honoured Caesar. Herod was rubbing shoulders with the wealthiest and most powerful people there. MacArthur puts it this way:

It was very likely under the pretense of a celebration for Claudius Caesar, because to throw a party for Herod, for Herod to throw a party for himself was really ridiculous. Nobody would come. And it wasn’t official enough to bring the big wheels, so he threw a big thing for Caesar. Caesar had just returned safely from Britain. Hail Caesar his great work in Britain. Not only that some historians tell us it was Caesar’s birthday.

The moral of this episode is that God will not be challenged. He also protects His people. MacArthur tells us:

His power can’t be contested. Herod amassed all the power that he had and it was nothing, it was a drip against the ocean of God’s power.

That is something to keep in mind at all times — especially for unbelievers and mockers.

God had more plans for Herod. Tune in next week for drama.

Next time: Acts 12:20-23

Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 12:12-17

12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.”[a] Then he departed and went to another place.

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Last week’s post discussed Peter’s dramatic escape from prison. An angel of the Lord appeared in his cell in the middle of the night before his trial, where he was chained to two of Herod Antipas’s guards — one on each side. The angel told Peter to wake up and stand. When he stood, his chains fell from him.

The broken chains were real. Matthew Henry mentions that a soldier kept them for many years as a religious relic. They were then given to an empress by the name of Eudoxia. Wikipedia says that the Venerable Bede, an early historian, wrote about them:

According to a letter quoted by Bede, Pope Vitalian sent a cross containing filings said to be from Peter’s chains to the queen of Oswy, Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria in 665, as well as unspecified relics of the saint to the king.[103]

The angel then led Peter out of the prison, past the guards and out of the gate, which opened by itself. Once they turned a corner onto a street familiar to Peter, the angel vanished. Peter thought he was receiving a vision during this time until he realised that he was a free man.

He went to the house of a lady named Mary, the mother of John Mark, where people were praying for Peter’s safety and freedom (verse 12).

Mary was related to Barnabas. Barnabas was the Levite in Acts 4:36-37 who gave all of his assets to the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 9, he convinced the disciples in Jerusalem that they should accept the converted Saul of Tarsus, their greatest persecutor — later Paul — into their church.

John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. We will read more about him and Barnabas in Acts. They were cousins who spread the Gospel message together. Barnabas also worked with Paul. These are the references to John Mark and Barnabas.

Of Mary, John MacArthur tells us that she (emphases mine):

was wealthy. She had a maid, Rhoda, she had household servants, it was large enough to have prayer meetings and gatherings. Her son, whose surname was Mark, is the same Mark who wrote the gospel of Mark and he was a companion and buddy of Peter and got most of his information for the gospel of Mark from Peter. Of course, the Holy Spirit gave it to him, but it comes out of experiences that he had in the time of Peter. And so here’s the house of Mark. Incidentally it’s the same John Mark that accompanies Saul and Barnabas on the missionary journey at first and is finally sent home and later restored.

Matthew Henry surmised that there was a 24-hour prayer vigil at Mary’s house for Peter:

They were many that were got together for this work, as many perhaps as the room would hold; and first one prayed, and then another, of those who gave themselves to the word and prayer, the rest joining with them; or, if they had not ministers among them, no doubt but there were many private Christians that knew how to pray, and to pray pertinently, and to continue long in prayer when the affections of those who joined were so stirred as to keep pace with them upon such an occasion. This was in the night, when others were asleep, which was an instance both of their prudence and of their zeal. Note, It is good for Christians to have private meetings for prayer, especially in times of distress, and not to let fall nor forsake such assemblies.

Peter knocked at the gate, and Mary’s servant Rhoda went to answer (verse 13). MacArthur gives us the meaning of Rhoda:

The name means Rose.

Henry outlines the danger of a call in the middle of the night with Christians in jeopardy in Jerusalem:

A damsel came to hearken; not to open the door till she knew who was there, a friend or a foe, and what their business was, fearing informers.

He also thought that Rhoda was probably a Christian, as St Luke — the author of Acts — named her:

Whether this damsel was one of the family or one of the church, whether a servant or a daughter, does not appear; it should seem, by her being named, that she was of note among the Christians, and more zealously affected to the better part than most of her age.

She was so thrilled to hear Peter’s voice that, instead of opening the gateway door to him, she ran inside the house to tell everyone (verse 14).

Everyone told her she was out of her mind (verse 15). When she persisted, they said it was Peter’s angel, meaning his tutelary angel, a Jewish belief. MacArthur explains:

They believed that every Jew had an angel of his own, a guardian angel, and that angel could materialize in the form and the face of that person.

Henry points out that angelos was also frequently used to mean messenger. He adds that there was also a common belief that before someone died, a spirit in their likeness appeared presaging death.

Imagine Peter’s anxiety about having to wait while Rhoda and Mary’s household were discussing all of this. Peter was known throughout Jerusalem and was in grave danger should anyone see him in the street.

MacArthur points out the irony:

And what are they doing in there having an all night prayer meeting for Peter and she says your prayers are answered. He’s at the gate. And meanwhile Peter’s going, “Where did she go? Open the gate.” Standing in the middle of the road and she’s in there having a debate. And you know this is what’s so humorous here is because they’re so typically like the Christians today who pray with all the zeal in the world but none of the faith to believe. You know you hear a guy give his testimony and you know the Lord answered my prayer. Well shock! But anyway verse 15, “They said unto her, You’re crazy.” Now isn’t that unbelievable. Oh God get Peter out of Jail. Peter’s here! Oh you’re crazy. He’s in jail. I’m glad God answers the prayer of zeal as well as the prayer of faith. I think sometimes mine are mostly zeal and not always faith.

Finally, they opened the door of the gateway and let him in (verse 16). MacArthur points out:

“And when they had opened the door they saw him and they were astonished,” which shows you how much faith they really had.

As in, more zeal than faith.

Peter motioned with his hand for everyone to be quiet, that he wanted to stop by and tell them about the angel freeing him (verse 17). He specifically asked them to tell James — the Lord’s brother, the author of the letters of James in the New Testament — as well as the rest of the disciples. Then, Peter left.

Henry thought that Peter either went in to pray in thanksgiving with them before departing or he instructed them to do so while he left Jerusalem in great haste. He did not have much time.

Henry tells us Peter was wise to seek safety:

Note, Even the Christian law of self-denial and suffering for Christ has not abrogated and repealed the natural law of self-preservation, and care for our own safety, as far as God gives an opportunity of providing for it by lawful means.

MacArthur says:

We don’t know where he went, but wherever he went we know what he did just because the kind of person he was. He wound up stirring up trouble everywhere and wound up getting crucified upside down. But nevertheless he departed and went another place and that’s the fade out of Peter. Good-bye Peter, that’s him. Brief appearance in Chapter 15, but that’s all. He goes off.

I wrote about his letters to his flock in 1 Peter and 2 Peter. These are available near the bottom of my Essential Bible Verses page.

Early writings of the Church says that Peter and Paul — along with Peter’s wife — were martyred on the same day in Rome. Cruelly, the Romans forced Peter to watch his wife’s martyrdom. His last words to her were:

Remember the Lord.

If you missed reading about Peter’s ministry when I originally posted the following, you might enjoy these entries:

John MacArthur on St Peter

John MacArthur on Peter’s leadership qualities

More from John MacArthur on Peter’s leadership journey

Next time — Acts 12:18-19

Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 12:6-11

Peter Is Rescued

Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. 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 the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

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Last week’s entry discussed St Luke’s — the author of Acts — account of Herod Agrippa’s beheading of James, the brother of John (the sons of Zebedee). Herod then went after Peter during Passover in order to please the Jews. He had Peter imprisoned and watched by 16 guards. Meanwhile, the church in Jerusalem prayed earnestly for his safety and that God would somehow release him.

John MacArthur preached that such prayer was an extreme spiritual effort. The Greek word used is ektenoce, which he explained is a medical term used when describing muscles stretched to their limit.

Matthew Henry believed that there was a rotating prayer vigil by the people for Peter (emphases mine):

It was an extended prayer; they prayed for his release in their public assemblies (private ones, perhaps, for fear of the Jews); then they went home, and prayed for it in their families; then retired into their closets, and prayed for it there; so they prayed without ceasing: or first one knot of them, and then another, and then a third, kept a day of prayer, or rather a night of prayer, for him, Acts 12:12. Note, Times of public distress and danger should be praying times with the church; we must pray always, but then especially.

It was nearing the time for Herod to release Peter for a show trial then sentence him to death (verse 6). That night, Peter was sleeping between two of the soldiers, chained to each of them. Sentries were outside guarding the prison.

An angel of the Lord appeared in Peter’s cell, a divine light brightening the area (verse 7). The angel gave him a sharp blow to awaken him immediately — and enough to function. When Peter stood, he found his chains broke and fell to the ground.

Herod thought his scheme was literally iron-clad, but God always has the upper hand on His creation, especially evildoers who think they are more powerful than He.

Furthermore, God does not forget His own. We see that clearly illustrated in this event. Henry tells us:

He seemed as one abandoned by men, yet not forgotten of his God; The Lord thinketh upon him. Gates and guards kept all his friends from him, but could not keep the angels of God from him: and they invisibly encamp round about those that fear God, to deliver them (Psalms 34:7), and therefore they need not fear, though a host of enemies encamp against them, Psalms 27:3. Wherever the people of God are, and however surrounded, they have a way open heavenward, nor can any thing intercept their intercourse with God.

The angel told Peter to put on his clothes and sandals and to wrap a cloak around himself. The King James Version is more specific:

And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.

Readers might recall Jeremiah 1:17-19 in the KJV:

17 Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them.

18 For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land.

19 And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee.

John MacArthur describes girding of the loins:

they used to wear an inner garment that hung very loosely and in the daytime they’d cinch it up with a belt. At night they’d loosen the belt and let it hang loose.

There is also a connotation of preparing to act. The Free Dictionary provides this definition:

gird (up) (one’s) loins
To summon up one’s inner resources in preparation for action.

Once Peter was dressed, he followed the angel but thought he was receiving a vision (verse 9). One can imagine he had probably dreamt of being released, and, in a possibly groggy state, believed this was too good to be true.

Henry reminds us of Psalm 126:1. I included the next two verses as this was probably how Peter felt later when he realised what had happened:

126 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
    we are glad.

Verse 10 tells us that they passed the first, then the second, guard. The iron gate opened by itself. As they went along one street, the angel suddenly left Peter. That was because Peter was now free and knew his surroundings.

Henry discusses the gate:

And probably the iron gate shut again of itself, that none of the guards might pursue Peter. Note, When God will work salvation for his people, no difficulties in their way are insuperable; but even gates of iron are made to open of their own accord. This iron gate led him into the city out of the castle or tower; whether within the gates of the city or without is not certain, so that, when they were through this, they were got into the street.

This is more than history. Henry gives us much to consider:

This deliverance of Peter represents to us our redemption by Christ, which is often spoken of as the setting of prisoners free, not only the proclaiming of liberty to the captives, but the bringing of them out of the prison-house. The application of the redemption in the conversion of souls is the sending forth of the prisoners, by the blood of the covenant, out of the pit wherein is no water, Zechariah 9:11. The grace of God, like this angel of the Lord, brings light first into the prison, by the opening of the understanding, smites the sleeping sinner on the side by the awakening of the conscience, causes the chains to fall off from the hands by the renewing of the will, and then gives the word of command, Gird thyself, and follow me. Difficulties are to be passed through, and the opposition of Satan and his instruments, a first and second ward, an untoward generation, from which we are concerned to save ourselves; and we shall be saved by the grace of God, if we put ourselves under the divine conduct. And at length the iron gate shall be opened to us, to enter into the New Jerusalem, where we shall be perfectly freed from all the marks of our captivity, and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

The broken chains remained in the cell:

Tradition makes a mighty rout about these chains, and tells a formal story that one of the soldiers kept them for a sacred relic, and they were long after presented to Eudoxia the empress

When Peter was fully alert, he then realised that he had experienced a miracle that delivered him from Herod and the Jewish people who wanted the Apostle dead (verse 11).

This is the KJV:

11 And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.

The Bible MacArthur used for his sermon has the word ‘considered’. He provides this interpretation:

“And when he had considered,” I love that word considered soonhedon, soon means together and hedon means to see. To consider means to see together. It means to take all the parts of something and see it together in perspective.

Now we can see that Peter might have been thinking along the lines of Jeremiah 1:19 above.

The story continues next week.

Next time — Acts 12:12-17

Bible penngrovechurchofchristorgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 12:1-5

James Killed and Peter Imprisoned

12 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

——————————————————————————————–

In Acts 11 — read here and here — St Luke described how the Church expanded into Gentile lands, particularly Antioch.

The end of the chapter mentions a famine affecting Judea during the Emperor Claudius’s reign. Paul and Barnabas, who were teaching in Antioch at the time, collected charitable donations from the church there which they personally delivered to the church in Jerusalem.

They were there as the events of Acts 12 unfolded.

A period of peace for the church in Jerusalem — Acts 9:31 — ended with Herod’s persecution of converts in Jerusalem.

This Herod is not the one who had John the Baptist beheaded. That was Herod Antipas. This Herod was Herod Agrippa I. He was Herod the Great’s grandson. Herod the Great was the one who ordered infant boys to be killed at the time of Christ’s birth.

The Herods were Edomites, descended from Esau who sold his birthright to Jacob. GotQuestions.org tells us that they were pagans until the Maccabean wars. (The Books of the Maccabees are not in Protestant editions of the Bible but are still in Catholic versions.) GotQuestions states:

During the Maccabean wars, the Edomites were subjugated by the Jews and forced to convert to Judaism. Through it all, the Edomites maintained much of their old hatred for the Jews. When Greek became the common language, the Edomites were called Idumaeans. With the rise of the Roman Empire, an Idumaean whose father had converted to Judaism was named king of Judea. That Idumaean is known in history as King Herod the Great, the tyrant who ordered a massacre in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Christ child (Matthew 2:16-18).

Herod the great sent young Herod Agrippa to Rome to study. He resided in the imperial court. Tiberius, the emperor at the time, was most fond of him. Agrippa studied alongside Tiberius’s son Drusus and the future emperor Claudius. Agrippa was tetrarch when Claudius was emperor.

Agrippa decided to persecute the church (verse 1), no doubt to curry favour with the Jews and, possibly, Rome.

He beheaded James, the son of Zebedee, John’s brother (verse 2). The King James Version tells us that Jesus called the two brothers the sons of thunder (Mark 3:17):

17 And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:

It is possible that having had such a moniker he was forceful in his preaching and made many converts, thereby angering Herod Agrippa. The Church designated him St James the Great.

Both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur say that James’s martyrdom could have been a fulfilment of Matthew 20:23. Not all versions have this expanded verse, but the King James Version does (emphases mine below):

20 Then came to him the mother of Zebedees children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.

21 And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.

22 But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.

23 And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.

John, possibly because he was at the Crucifixion, did not die a martyr but as an exile on Patmos.

However, James did receive a bloody death by beheading. That is what the two commentators are referring to.

Beheading someone was a rare occurrence in Jewish society. Matthew Henry says that the Romans considered using a sword more demeaning than an axe:

He was slain with the sword, that is, his head was cut off with a sword, which was looked upon by the Romans to be a more disgraceful way of being beheaded than with an axe; so Lorinus. Beheading was not ordinarily used among the Jews; but, when kings gave verbal orders for private and sudden executions, this manner of death was used, as most expeditious; and it is probable that this Herod killed James, as the other Herod killed John Baptist, privately in the prison.

John MacArthur adds another interesting detail:

according to the Talmud, people died of the sword when they had led people after false gods. They had accused then perhaps James of leading the people after false gods, a false god in Christianity, not the true God, and therefore they executed him. And the interesting thing about it, the irony is that it’s all political by Herod. That Herod is not anti church or anti Christian in the pure sense, he is just pro Herod and so it’s a political thing. He was a typical Roman playboy adventurer.

After beheading James, Herod Agrippa decided to go further and have Peter imprisoned during Passover, ‘the days of Unleavened Bread’ (verse 3). Recall that the whole of the Jewish world travelled to Jerusalem for Passover, so this would have attracted much attention.

He seized Peter and had him put in prison, guarded by 16 soldiers (verse 4). The squads referred to were comprised of four guards each. From the KJV:

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.

‘Quaternions’ begins with the number ‘four’ in Latin. Four multiplied by four is 16.

Both commentators point out that the KJV compilers should not have put ‘Easter’ in that verse, by the way.

While Peter was in prison, the church in Jerusalem prayed for him (verse 5). The KJV expresses their prayer as follows:

Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.

The church in Jerusalem understood the primacy of prayer, which we, today, so often forget, trivialise or ridicule. Yet, prayer can move mountains and, next week, we will see that it did for Peter.

It would not surprise me if they had round the clock prayer vigils. However, MacArthur says:

That word just doesn’t mean without ceasing nearly as much as it means intensely. It’s the word ektenoce. It comes in the form of ektenace and so forth and what it means it’s a medical term and it has to do with stretching a muscle to its limit. It means total effort. They were totally lost in prayer.

Herod Agrippa’s idea was to keep Peter in prison until Passover ended then put him on trial. Henry offers this analysis:

Herod’s design was, after Easter, to bring him forth unto the people. (1.) He would make a spectacle of him. Probably he had put James to death privately, which the people had complained of, not because it was an unjust thing to put a man to death without giving him a public hearing, but because it deprived them of the satisfaction of seeing him executed; and therefore Herod, now he knows their minds, will gratify them with the sight of Peter in bonds, of Peter upon the block, that they may feed their eyes with such a pleasing spectacle. And very ambitious surely he was to please the people who was willing thus to please them! (2.) He would do this after Easter, meta to pascha–after the passover, certainly so it ought to be read, for it is the same word that is always so rendered; and to insinuate the introducing of a gospel-feast, instead of the passover, when we have nothing in the New Testament of such a thing, is to mingle Judaism with our Christianity. Herod would not condemn him till the passover was over, some think, for fear lest he should have such an interest among the people that they should demand the release of him, according to the custom of the feast: or, after the hurry of the feast was over, and the town was empty, he would entertain them with Peter’s public trial and execution. Thus was the plot laid, and both Herod and the people long to have the feast over, that they may gratify themselves with this barbarous entertainment.

James was the second martyr in Acts, the first being Stephen (Acts 7), whose death involved Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8).

Acts is a fascinating book about the growth and expansion of the Church. It is indeed a treasure to read again and again.

Next time — Acts 12:6-11

Hand of God leedsacukBefore I get to my next Forbidden Bible Verses instalment, coming tomorrow, it is important to mention that the word ‘Christian’ appears in the Bible, specifically Acts 11:26.

I wrote about the first half of Acts 11 last week. The second half of Acts 11 is in the three-year Lectionary for public worship (emphases mine below):

The Church in Antioch

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists[c] also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers[d] living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

This reading is not only interesting but also important to the development of the early Church. Before discussing it in full, I will go into the use of the word Christian in Antioch. The city was pagan, and those who did not convert used ‘Christian’ as a derogatory term. John MacArthur explains:

That’s a new name and it was a term of derision, iani, i-a-n-i had to do with the party of. A Caesariani would have to do with Caesar. Christiani would be of the party of Christ, and this was a derisive mocking term. Oh he’s a Christian. He’s one of those Christ-party ones. The fact that Agrippa said, “… persuadeth thou me to become a Christian. And Peter says in I Peter 4, “If any of you suffer for being a Christian don’t be ashamed.” That was a term of derision. Those blessed people turned it into something courageous or something lovely, didn’t they? And you know something people, you and I bear the name that they died to preserve in purity. You know so many people call themselves Christians so glibly. Listen, if you’re a Christian, my friend, wear it well. It was given to the finest.

It is not so different today, particularly in parts of Europe where Christians are derided every day. It’s one of the reasons why I very much enjoy the opportunity to bring Christianity as a topic into a dinner party conversation.

The first part of Acts 11 records Peter’s account of the Holy Spirit descending on the Gentiles — namely Cornelius and his household — which was followed by baptism. Peter had to justify this to the Jewish converts in Jerusalem, because they were angry with him for teaching and associating with Gentiles. These were hardliners, known as the circumcision party, who believed that one could only believe in Jesus by becoming a Jew first, including the rite of circumcision. Once Peter explained everything, they not only calmed down, they also praised God.

The second part of Acts 11 records the expansion of the Church further into Gentile territory. We also see the re-emergence of Barnabas. St Luke, the author of Acts, was truly divinely inspired to write such a fascinating account of the Apostles’ and the disciples’ work.

Verse 19 reminds us that after Stephen was made the first martyr for Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 7), which Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) was involved in (Acts 8), many of the Jews who converted there left the city. The original Apostles remained for those who stayed. Among those who left were Hellenist (Greek) Jews. The scattered converts went near and far to convert more Jews. They would have long been out of Jerusalem by the time Peter returned to the city after his visit with Cornelius. They probably would have been out for six or seven years at that time.

MacArthur explains their various journeys in light of verse 19:

Now Phoenicia is the coastal plain of Palestine right along the Mediterranean Sea. Two famous cities there: Tyre and Sidon. And from either of those port cities you could catch a ship and go west and you’d come to the island of Cyprus. So that’s what they did. They went up to Phoenicia, Tyre, and Sidon and some of them got on a ship and west to Cyprus.

Some of them didn’t go west they just kept going north. If you keep going north on the coast you come to Antioch. Antioch became the capital of Syria and Antioch was then a strategic place and some folks came there. But notice this: that they were preaching to Jews only. Why? Because they still believe that salvation was for the Jews and they were still hung up on a nationalistic view of salvation. But God was about to bust them out of the shell.

However, some spoke to the Gentiles — Hellenists — in Antioch of Jesus (verse 20).

MacArthur describes Antioch, a largely pagan city full of commerce, culture and depravity:

Now Antioch is a very interesting city, 15 miles or so from the mouth of the Euphrates River, founded in about 300 B.C., later was made a free city. And when it was made a free city under the Roman government in 64 A. D. it has its own self-government. It became the capital of the Province of Syria. It became very famous, grew like crazy. It was the third largest city in the world. First was Rome, then was Alexandria, then was Antioch, had 600,000 people at least. It was famous for culture, it was famous for business. It was just a very very very large city. The network of Roman roads crisscrossed Antioch so it was a place where the all the caravans of the East unloaded their wares and all the wharves and warehouses of Antioch. Cicero said it was a land of most learned men in liberal studies. But with all this good thing it was basically known as an evil city. In fact, Juvenal, a Roman writer said that the Euphrates River spilled its garbage into the Tiber, and what he meant was that Antioch corrupted Rome.

Now if Rome was rotten you can get an idea about how rotten that which corrupted Rome must have been. Antioch was gross to put it mildly. The people lived for their pleasures. One writer said that life there was a perpetual festival of vice revolving around the baths, brothels, the amphitheatre and the circus. And so it was an evil place.

There was a goddess by the name Daphne, who was supposed to be the lover of Apollo and they built a garden that was so big it was 10 miles in circumference and it was populated by prostitutes and you went in and indulged yourself in the garden and the prostitute activity and all kinds of sick immoralities. That was worship in the city of Antioch. When they wanted to expand their religious opportunities they hired magicians, sorcerers, charlatans and Babylonian astrologers made a fortune off the people of Antioch. So it was a vile place.

Converts preached to the pagans in the city and ‘the hand of the Lord was with them’ (verse 21). Many pagans — Gentiles — converted. MacArthur reminds us of the significance of ‘the hand of the Lord’ in Scripture:

It means two things: first of all it means power. The hand of the Lord means power. In Exodus 14:31, the Bible says, “And Israel saw that great work, which the Lord had done.” And the word work is the word hand. It expresses power and the Egyptians were shocked at what God had done. They said, “Look it is the finger of God.” His hand extended means power. But it always means power with blessing. There may be something happening in it, but ultimately He’s blessing. It may be something of an evil nature initially, but blessing is the end of it. And it’s more qualified in Ezra. Ezra 7:9, Ezra 8:18, Nehemiah 2: 2,8, 18. All of that in there you can read sometime not now. But in that passage you have the statement, “The good hand of the Lord.” And it’s repeated at least four or five times. The hand of the Lord then means blessing.

So the hand of the Lord is power for blessing. And so the hand of the Lord moved into Antioch with power that resulted in salvation, power with blessing. And look at the harvest. A great number believed.

News of these great conversions in Antioch reached Jerusalem. The church there sent Barnabas to join the disciples in Antioch.

Barnabas appeared early in Acts, specifically Acts 4:36-37:

36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Barnabas was one of the Hellenist Jews who converted in Jerusalem. There is a further explanation on him by John MacArthur in this post. In short, he was a kind, generous, devout man.

He also lacked prejudice. In my post on Acts 9:26-31, when Saul of Tarsus — the fiercest persecutor of the Church in Jerusalem — returned a convert and attempted to join the disciples, only Barnabas came to his defence. It was thanks to Barnabas’s efforts that they accepted Saul:

27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.

That passage states that Saul had to leave Jerusalem, because the Jews wanted to kill him. So, he went back to his native Tarsus for a few years.

When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he was delighted to see such a manifestation of God’s grace, but some of the converts were discouraged — no doubt ridiculed, perhaps harmed. Barnabas encouraged — ‘exhorted’ — them to keep the faith (verse 23).

Here’s a note from MacArthur on the meaning of ‘exhortation’:

Positive encouragement. It’s not the idea of browbeating. There are some people who think they’re exhorting when all they’re doing is browbeating, crushing people. This is positive encouragement.

Through Barnabas’s exhortations, many more souls in Antioch were added to the Lord (verse 24).

There were so many converts now that Barnabas needed help from another powerful teacher. So, he left for Tarsus in search of Saul (verse 25). Barnabas also did not want to lose any of the converts. They had a hard time living in a depraved metropolis — not so different to big cities today:

First thing, he exhorted them to cling to the Lord. That’s the first thing necessary, I think, in dealing with a new Christian. You’ve led somebody to Christ, what’s the thing that concerns you the most? That they hold on to Christ, right? That their faith be real. You say, “I hope you mean this.” And then you begin to think, “Oh I hope they read the Word, right? and I hope they pray, and I hope it’s real.” Isn’t that what you think, always? Sure. That’s your first reaction when you lead somebody to Christ. I hope it’s real. I hope they hang onto to Christ and that they secure that faith by, that they secure that salvation by real faith …

Number two, if you are real, stay close to Jesus Christ. Practice His presence. You know the greatest joy for me when I lead somebody to Jesus Christ to see that person really getting involved with Jesus Christ. Isn’t that your joy? How many times have you led somebody to Christ and you can’t find them? Just discourages and breaks your heart. They’ve wandered off somewhere and you don’t know where they are. You try to track them down, it’s a sad thing. And so the first thing He does is come on, “Continue, continue,” He says. “Hold on to the Lord with all your strength.”

Once Barnabas found Saul, he brought him to Antioch. MacArthur says that Saul was preaching and teaching in and around Tarsus. He was not popular with many and got into a lot of trouble for his faith:

He went all over Cilicia starting churches. Well, in the meantime according to II Corinthians 11 says, he was being beaten up mercilessly and all the things that he suffered in II Corinthians 11, probably many of them or most of them even occurred in these years we don’t know about, the quiet years of Paul.

During that time he had really been working for the Lord and he was not easy to find. The word seek in the English doesn’t help you at all. What it means in the Greek is to search for something with difficulty. He couldn’t find him. Why? He probably long ago had been kicked out of Tarsus, and long ago kicked out of every other town that he traced him to. He finally caught up with him. He was so busy preaching. He might have been glad to get out of there by now and the Lord knew that and the timing was right.

This marks the beginning of the preaching duo of Saul and Barnabas. The two stayed with the expanding church in Antioch for a year (verse 26). We will read more about their ministry elsewhere in Acts.

The final verses of Acts 11 point to famine, backed up by historians of the day, and distant relief efforts made by the early Church, which created a framework so characteristic of Christianity: charitable giving to those far away who need help.

Prophets travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch (verse 27). One of them, Agabus, foretold a great famine that would overtake much of that part of the world during the reign of Claudius (verse 28).

MacArthur tells us more:

The Jerusalem church sent up some prophets. There were prophets in the New Testament. They were foundational like apostles Ephesians 2:20 tells us. And they spoke for God, and they preached, and their preaching is described in I Corinthians 14, if you want to check it out. But they preached and also spoke and sometimes predicted the future for God. They have ceased as an office.

The gift of prophecy still goes on, which is preaching. But the office of a prophet is ceased. But then it happened so some prophets came to Antioch and they stood up one of them come to speak for God and tell the church at Antioch some things they needed to know and his name was Agabus and he signified by the Spirit that there should be great famine throughout all the world, which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Incidentally, history says Claudius ruled from 41 to 54 and during the year 45 and 46 there were great famines in Israel. No crops came through, they all failed. Terrible famines are recorded by Chassidus, Josephus, Yesevias, Cassius, and there were times of famine.

The church in Antioch decided to give whatever they could to the church in Judea, sending it via Barnabas and Saul (verses 29, 30). Those who could give more generously did so. Those who gave what little they had out of necessity received no criticism.

In closing, I wanted to return to MacArthur’s recipe for church growth: doctrine and Scripture, about which I wrote the other day.

He is quite certain that is how Barnabas and Saul were able to increase the church in Antioch so dramatically:

Let’s see what they do? What kind of program they had? Boy I want to know because I got a church too. I want to find out what kind of program you need to get that thing going. And it came to pass for a whole year they assembled themselves together with the church, and had a lot of soup suppers, and had several contests, and lots of musical extravaganzas. That what it says? You say, that doesn’t say that. No, no. It says some of them together for one year and together they did what? Taught! You want to know what the church is for? It’s for teaching. If you never learn anything else about the church you learn that you’ve learned enough. The church is for teaching.

And I want to give you another salient point that I think you need to understand. When it came to pass that for a whole year they assembled themselves with the church. The word with is in, in the Greek it’s in. They assembled in the church. Apparently they had a large place where they all came together. The word assemble means they were all brought together. This idea that you can only teach in little groups isn’t so. Here in Antioch they had a big mass meeting where Paul and Barnabas taught them all the time for a year, that was their minister. You say well I’ll never forget one guy said one time he says, “What makes your church grow?” I said, “It’s just the teaching.” He says, “Oh that’ll never do it. I tried that. You got to do more than just teaching.” Well they spent a year teaching and the results are still going on. That’s my whole commitment. I don’t think the church really needs to set itself to do much else but teach. Teach. Teach. Teach. At every level, in every way, through every avenue, teach the Word of God.

The apostles said in Acts 6, “We will give ourselves continually to the ministry of the Word and prayer.” Teach. Teach. Teach. For one year they just taught and the fruit of their teaching, oh beloved fruit.

I really do wish today’s clergy realised this: preach the Word and they will come! No gimmicks necessary!

Forbidden Bible Verses continues tomorrow.

John F MacArthurThe other Sunday, a group of parishioners who had attended an Anglican diocesan series on church growth spoke after the service.

Oh, dear, I thought. Church growth programmes are so wrong, so very, very wrong.

John MacArthur explains how to get people coming in the doors and get them out again, evangelising. It involves teaching doctrine and the Scripture at every church service.

This excerpt is from a 1973 sermon I cited in my post on Acts 11. MacArthur had been at Grace Church for a little over four years at the time. This is his gimmick-free formula (emphases mine):

For four years, plus, I have endeavored basically to do one thing and that is to teach doctrine. Now we teach through the Bible verse after verse after verse, but really what we’re doing is taking Scripture and framing a doctrine, framing a principle. Doctrine is just principles. And we’ve endeavored for four plus years to build a strong doctrinal base.

I believe in my heart for all the time I’ve been here this has been my goal, my one single desire. And I really think that God in His wonderful providence has blessed His Word here. It’s not me. I’m the first one to know that. It’s the Word of God. But as you teach the Word of God strength is built, doctrine becomes firm and strong. That’s the very basis. The Word is established and my commitment has been to do just that, to spend the time establishing with the Word.

During that same time I feel God has prepared instruments and I prayed this would happen. I prayed that we wouldn’t just have a good theology on paper, but that we’d have a lot of people who had grown up with that theology and who were a part of it, and who lived it, and who would mature, and I prayed that this would happen …

I think the last two months have been one of the most exciting times in my life. I couldn’t begin to remember the names or even count the people who come to me and say, “John, I’ve had enough. I’m full. I’ve learned. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to take it somewhere. What can I do?” You wouldn’t believe how many people have been coming and telling me this. Everyday I hear this.

Sat down last night playing basketball, a guy on the basketball team says to me, “God wants me to go on the mission field. I never dreamed this could even happen. I just feel in my heart I have to go on the mission field. I got to share. I got to get out.” That’s just one in a long chain. A lady came in my office the other day and she says, “Is there a place for me in this church? I just want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to evangelize women.” I can count on my hand five people I can think of who told me they’ve got to go to the mission field soon. God’s just leading them. God’s calling.

People come to me and say, “I got to start a work of evangelism. I want to do this. Can I work here?” We trust God by the time fall comes around we’re going to have a campus evangelist on almost every high school campus in the Valley, people establishing Bible studies and winning people to Christ and nurturing Christians. We’re going to do the same thing on every college campus and I haven’t generated any of it, haven’t invented a program, haven’t done one single thing, just teaching and praying that God will raise some people up. You know what they do, they knock my door down and finally I just tell them, “Go ahead and do it.” Shows you what kind of an administrator I am. But anyway, that’s the way everything works around here. Just wait till people get excited about it. They’ll do it. Get them praying about it. A guy prays long enough the Lord will shoot him out and that’s the supreme joy for me I’m telling you.

Somebody told me the other day that by next semester we have 24 young men at seminary, Calvin Seminary. You don’t know what a joy that is. That’s reproduction. See that’s reproduction. Those men are going to affect thousands of people in their lifetime. And that’s what I hoped would happen, and I praise God that we’re beginning to see the little murmurings of it beginning to happen. People are coming to me and say I feel God’s calling me to begin a work over here and over there. Will you help support us?

I think our church is going to have to catch a vision, people, because we’ve come to the place now where we’ve got prepared people and they’re going to demand, by the Spirit of God, that we turn them loose on this world, and we’re going to have to be ready to handle it and it’s going to mean sacrifice to do it financially. But oh the dividends are eternal, amen? We got to be ready. It’s coming. Believe you me if I come up here in the next month and tell you there’s ten new staff members. You’d better be ready to handle that. Don’t laugh, it might be. The way God’s working right now I’m just drowning in them. You don’t know what a joy this is.

I think it’s a similar thing right here in this situation in this text. The groundwork was laid and it took seven years. For us it’s been four years of teaching and teaching and teaching and teaching and we’ll keep doing that because there’s new people coming all the time and we’ll just keep flip flopping them over and someone says, “Do you want more people in your church?” I want more people in here for a little while so I can send more people out of here. That’s what I want. I don’t people want to just come here and stay. I want people to come here and leave. Now some of you can stay because we need some of you here to train the people to leave. Don’t everybody go so next Sunday I’m here alone, right? …

Some people have talked to me about beginning pastorates; about outreach on campuses, about adult evangelism mobilizing people for reaching out, all kinds of things. I’m just thrilled and I think we’re seeing a phase like we see here in the 11th Chapter of Acts. As a church, when the groundwork is laid, begins to move out. And you know it’s not something you have to generate. Amazingly the Spirit of God does it. He does it.

So, one of our local Anglican churches is opening a café as part of church growth. Big deal. Our area has half a dozen cafés.

I told a good friend of mine — Anglican, but no longer a churchgoer — about the café. He thought it was absurd to think that it would bring more people to church. I agree.

He said he no longer goes to church because the services have been watered down such that there’s no more mysterium tremendum that takes you out of the world and puts you in God’s presence.

He also complained about the poor preaching.

He said that if the Church of England wants people coming back in droves, they will have to go back to basics regarding the liturgy and the sermons. In short, have more 1662 Book of Common Prayer services and robust preaching that gets one thinking about the state of one’s soul.

In short — my friend’s advice is not far from what John MacArthur advocated in 1973 and continues to advocate today. His Grace Church in California is jam packed every Sunday. His Masters Seminary is also highly successful. His Grace To You Ministries is international. That is because MacArthur is doing what the Apostles did.

Church growth programmes do not work. Return to doctrine and Scripture instead for real, lasting growth in the Spirit.

Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 11:1-18

Peter Reports to the Church

11 Now the apostles and the brothers[a] who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party[b] criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

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Last week’s post concluded the visit of Peter to Cornelius’s house where the centurion and those present received the Holy Spirit then baptism.

I also wrote about Cornelius’s life afterwards. He was the first Italian saint, by the way. God gave him that vision so that he could accomplish great things in Christ’s holy name.

John MacArthur says that the events in Acts 11 — particularly the second half of the chapter, describing the establishment of the Church in Antioch — occurred seven years after the first Pentecost. He says that the Apostles did a lot of preaching and teaching to establish Church doctrine (emphases mine below):

Number one, apostolic authority had to be established. Now when God spoke to the early church through whom did He speak? The apostles, right? They were the teachers. They were the ones who were the spokesmen for God. And they were the ones who laid out the doctrine. It says that in 2:42, that they spent their time in the study of the apostles’ doctrine. God spoke to them and they spoke. They had no Bibles. They had no New Testaments. They hadn’t been written yet.

So when the early church came together what was their standard? I mean how did they know whether this is right, and this is wrong? How did they know how to do this, how to do that, what are God’s standards, what are these things unless they had to listen to the apostles through whom God spoke. And so there needed to be time for the apostles to lay down a solid doctrinal base. Can you imagine if they all got saved and then just shot out all over the world without any foundation? They would run into problems they wouldn’t be able to answer because they wouldn’t know what their own theology was. They wouldn’t have a Bible.

Yet, atheists believe that the first converts just bolted out with no rhyme or reason. I’ve heard it before, many times.

There is more:

What happened was for seven years the apostles laid that doctrinal foundation. They spoke, they taught, and these things were compiled and collected in the minds and hearts of men and the framework of doctrine was based as a foundation. And once that foundation was firm then somebody could start the building of the Gentile church on it. But they had to be able to run into a problem and turn around and say, “Hey, there’s an answer because the apostles have thus said.” You see. In other words doctrinal purity, friends, is at the very basis of a church. If it goes the whole building crumbles, right?

So we teach doctrine. That’s everything at the base and so there had to be doctrine and there wasn’t any Bible for everybody to read so they had to hang in and learn from the apostles. And then once it was in them in total they could move out and teach it to somebody else until such a time as the Scripture was completed. There were absolutes that had to be learned and they had to come to the apostles from God and the process was slow and it took time.

The second reason I believe there was a delay of many years before they moved out was because the right instruments had to be prepared. Nothing worse than sending out an unprepared person to do a job. It took time to mature these people

So the third thing you might add to that is that they needed time for prejudice to come down. And so for these reasons the Spirit of God delayed and at least seven years went by before they ever began to move toward Antioch, but believe me when the groundwork was done it was done right. And when that church moved out to build, they really built; they really built.

We wonder then, why St Luke, the author of Acts, did not make the timeline clearer. MacArthur explains:

… the average papari that they used, there was a paparus plant, a kind of a bulrush plant from which they made a long scroll, which they used to write on. This was before book form had come into vogue, and the longest ones that we could ever find; assuming that this would be about the maximum was 35 feet. Now that’s a good-sized scroll, 35-foot scroll. But on a 35-foot scroll you could probably crowd about the content of the book of Acts, 28 chapters to 30 chapters and that would be pushing it.

So Luke had a limited amount of space. He was going to put the whole thing on the scroll. He also had a tremendous amount of things to select from just from a human standpoint. There were many incidents in the church that had happened. There were many miracles. There were many signs and wonders done by the apostles and prophets. I imagine there were some fantastic conversion experiences. I just think about all the three thousand saved on the day of Pentecost. Just imagine what their testimonies could have been like. And all of the other thousands that were being saved all over the place, they could have been included.

As we know, they were not. However, St Luke did include the story of Peter and Cornelius — including their respective visions. We read three repetitions in Acts 10 and the first part of Acts 11:

There were so many fabulous things yet he spends all this space saying the same thing three times just filling a whole chunk of that scroll with this Cornelius account.

That means that Luke believed it was essential to the history of the early Church: the branching out and acceptance of Gentiles into membership.

This brings us to today’s reading.

Incredibly, news of what happened at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea travelled quickly back to the Apostles and other members of the church in Jerusalem (verse 1).

Upon Peter’s return to Jerusalem, he got an earful from the circumcision group who were deeply unhappy he associated and ate with Gentiles (verses 2, 3).

The circumcision party — group — believed that no one could become a Christian unless they became a Jew first. That included circumcision. As we saw from the past few weeks of Acts 10 study, there is no basis for that in Scripture. The Book of Hebrews discusses it in more detail.

MacArthur has more:

I just want you to pick up a few points. Keep in mind that as Peter comes back to report the word has already beaten him there and so they’ve already made up their preconceived ideas. That’s verse one. They’ve already heard and Peter’s going back into a storm. The ultra conservative Jews, particularly of the circumcision party, those former Pharisees who were now Christians who thought that Judaism was all in all and wanted everybody to become a Jew and get circumcised before he could become a Christian, they had already made up their mind that Peter made a wholesale sell out. Peter was probably on the outs because he’d even gone into Samaria and he’d preached all over Samaria and people got saved when the Holy Spirit came. So he was probably in trouble already and this was a wholesale washout on the part of Peter.

So when he came back they started a big argument. They really hassled him badly and they hassled him repeatedly. And you know orthodoxy can get mad. I remember when I was in Jerusalem they said don’t drive your cars in the orthodox section on the Sabbath unless you want it to get stoned. They get upset when someone violates the law, and I mean they got upset then too. And Peter had done exactly what their ceremonial law forbade and they were really upset that he would have anything to do with these Gentiles.

Verse 4 tells us about Peter’s mindset. He did not lord it over them, saying he was the rock on which the Church was built, as Jesus had told him. He approached them with the facts:

You know why? Because the issue explained itself. If the facts are on your side you don’t have to pull rank. Just recite the facts. He could have pulled spiritual rank. He could have said, “I was led of the Spirit,” you know which is a common statement for crackpots to make.

And, Peter went on to recite the facts ‘in order’ (verse 4). Verses 5-12 recount Peter’s vision and his obedience in journeying from Joppa to Caesarea with Cornelius’s men, which I discussed at length here and here.

Peter provided an interesting detail in verse 12, which we did not discover in Acts 10: six men from Joppa accompanied him. We knew there were men from Joppa who went with him, but we did not know the number.

MacArthur explains why there were six:

This is very important. Here’s a principle that you can grab a handle on and use: number one, he didn’t act alone. He took six people with him. Why? Because he didn’t want to be mistaken in what was going on. He wanted the testimony of six others to confirm his own. The Jews knew well Egyptian law and Egyptian law said that where there are seven witnesses the case is closed. And Roman law said that on any will or any testament there had to be seven seals, so seven became a kind of a number of sealing the authoritativeness of something. So Peter had six guys go along with him and that made seven and he was verifying in his own mind from the testimony of others that this thing in fact was true.

In verses 13 and 14, Peter related Cornelius’s vision as the centurion explained it to him, discussed in more detail here.

In verses 15 through 17, Peter explained to those in Jerusalem how the Holy Spirit descended on all present and that he saw no reason to deny baptism to Cornelius and the other Gentiles. I wrote about that last week.

So, Peter recounted the facts of the situation of how Gentiles were admitted into the young Church.

Peter’s legalistic critics fell silent (verse 18). Instead of arguing further, they glorified God and said:

Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.

We will see that, for now, that concluded the matter. However, the issue of Gentiles comes back in Acts 15.

The reason the Apostles needed to build a strong doctrinal foundation was, as MacArthur said, to open the Church to Gentiles and to prepare the Jews for that eventuality. MacArthur explains:

They couldn’t argue with the testimony of seven reputable witnesses. They couldn’t argue with the testimony of Jesus Christ. Peter built his foundation on the Word of Christ. And so they had nothing to say.

As for their statement about Gentiles, MacArthur tells us how significant that was:

That statement right there is one of the most shocking statements in Jewish history. That’s a statement for which Jonah, the failure for Jonah really in his whole life was the fact that he wasn’t willing to make that statement. And there weren’t very many Jews who were in the history of Judaism. What was the statement? Simply this: God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life. Shocking for a Jew to make that admission. Gentiles can get saved, guys. How can we argue? Look at what happened up there. Fantastic admission and people I want you to know that the importance of that statement is hardly able to be measured. You say why? Because until the Jews who were Christians made that statement they could never begin the work of evangelizing the Gentiles, you see. They had to come to that.

Matthew Henry points to this as a fulfilment of a prophecy of Zephaniah:

Now those who prided themselves in their dignities as Jews began to see that God was staining their pride, by letting in the Gentiles to share, and to share equally, with them. And now that prophecy was fulfilled, Thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain, Zephaniah 3:11. 2. They turned them into praises. They not only held their peace from quarrelling with Peter, but opened their mouths to glorify God for what he had done by and with Peter’s ministry; they were thankful that their mistake was rectified, and that God had shown more mercy to the poor Gentiles than they were inclined to show them, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life! He hath granted them not only the means of repentance, in opening a door of entrance for his ministers among them, but the grace of repentance, in having given them his Holy Spirit, who, wherever he comes to be a Comforter, first convinces, and gives a sight of sin and sorrow for it, and then a sight of Christ and joy in him.

I will cover the establishment of the church in Antioch separately. It is in the Lectionary, but it picks up where Acts 8 left off. It also brings back someone we have not read about since Acts 4: Barnabas.

Next time — Acts 12:1-5

If you have been reading my Forbidden Bible Verses series over the past few weeks, you are acquainted with Acts 10, starring St Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, a student of Rembrandt’s, painted ‘Vision of Cornelius the Centurion’ in 1664. Eeckhout learned well from his master. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a newer subscriber, here are the posts about Cornelius and Peter:

Acts 10:1-8Cornelius, divine vision, angel, Peter, God-fearer

Acts 10:9-16Peter, divine vision, allegory, animals, Gentiles, forbidden food is now clean

Acts 10:17-23Peter, Holy Spirit, obedience, Gentiles, hospitality

Acts 10:24-29Peter, Cornelius, Jewish converts, Gentile converts

Acts 10:30-33Peter, Cornelius, Jew, Gentile, Jesus Christ

Acts 10:44-48 Peter, Cornelius, the Holy Spirit, baptism, Jew, Gentile

Acts 10 formally brought Gentiles into the Church, beginning with Cornelius, his family and friends.

John MacArthur tells us that Cornelius was a powerful man who believed in the God of Israel before he met Peter, who preached about Jesus Christ (emphases mine):

Now, Cornelius is a Gentile, a ruler, really in a real sense, because he ruled over a hundred men in the army of Rome

Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea and was part of the Italian Cohort (Acts 10:1).

It is strange that, having attended Catholic schools for nearly all of my academic career, I never heard of Cornelius — until I read the Bible in its entirety a few years ago.

I am not alone. Many Catholics have not heard of him.

Angelo Stagnaro wrote an article for the National Catholic Register in February 2017. I highly recommend reading ‘What Do We Know About St Cornelius the Centurion?’ It’s factual as well as being witty and warm.

Stagnaro opens by describing what happened at a Sons of Italy meeting he attended wherein the men and women assembled were thinking of a name for a new chapter of the organisation. The chapter had to be named after an Italian or an American with Italian ancestry.

Stagnaro offered what he thought was a brilliant suggestion:

How about St. Cornelius the Centurion?” I suggested.

“Who’s he?” came back the reply.

That’s not an uncommon question considering the Church has more than 17,000 saints and beati―no one could know all of them. So, I explained.

“St. Cornelius the Centurion is the first gentile, that is, non-Jew, who converted to Christianity. He’s Italian.”

All one-hundred people in the parish hall froze amid cannoli and snapped around to look at me. The gentleman leading the meeting had an almost panicked look on his face.

“Wait! What!?!” he demanded. 

“The first non-Jew to convert to Christianity was Italian,” I reiterated.

More accusatory silence.

“Where did you get this information?!” asked the group’s elected leader.

I was half expecting someone to yell out, “Leave the gun―take the cannolis.”

“From the Bible,” I replied, surprised at the crowd’s reaction

Stagnaro read them Acts 10 from his tablet.

The upshot is, how could so many Catholics — especially those with Italian heritage — not know of Cornelius? Stagnaro describes what it was like after the meeting ended (emphases in the original):

… twenty people came up to me after the meeting to verify what they thought I had said. 

“Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

“I went to a Catholic school in an Italian parish and no one told me this!”

I know the feeling! I agree! How could it be?

Back to the life of Cornelius now. There was a lot of information for St Luke to put into the Book of Acts, so we do not hear any more about the centurion after Acts 10.

Wikipedia tells us (emphases mine):

Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman Empire’s Cohors II Italica Civium Romanorum which was stationed in Caesarea, the capital of Roman Iudaea province, to keep the Pax Romana.

Coptics believe that Cornelius retired from the Roman army after receiving the Holy Spirit and baptism:

Afterwards, Cornelius left the military service and followed the Apostles. St. Peter then ordained him a Bishop over the city of Caesarea of Palestine. He went there and proclaimed the Name of Christ, showing them the error of worshipping idols. Their minds were illuminated with the knowledge of God and they believed in Him. He strengthened them with the signs and miracles he performed before them and he baptized them all and among them was Demetrius the Governor. Then he departed in peace and received the crown of glory of the apostles.

We have no way of verifying if Cornelius performed these miracles, although the Orthodox Church in America also believe that he left the Roman army for ministry. Their site has a longer story about the conversion of Demetrius the Governor — or prince — excerpted below:

When the Apostle Peter, together with his helpers Saints Timothy and Cornelius, was in the city of Ephesus, he learned of a particularly vigorous idol-worship in the city of Skepsis. Lots were drawn to see who would go there, and Saint Cornelius was chosen.

In the city lived a prince by the name of Demetrius, learned in the ancient Greek philosophy, hating Christianity and venerating the pagan gods, in particular Apollo and Zeus. Learning about the arrival of Saint Cornelius in the city, he immediately summoned him and asked him the reason for his coming. Saint Cornelius answered that he came to free him from the darkness of ignorance and lead him to knowledge of the True Light.

The prince, not comprehending the meaning of what was said, became angry and demanded that he answer each of his questions. When Saint Cornelius explained that he served the Lord and that the reason for his coming was to announce the Truth, the prince became enraged and demanded that Cornelius offer sacrifice to the idols.

Cornelius asked to see the idols. Upon entering the temple, Cornelius said a prayer. Then:

There was an earthquake, and the temple of Zeus and the idols situated in it were destroyed. All the populace, seeing what had happened, were terrified.

Demetrius was furious and had Cornelius imprisoned. One of Demetrius’s servants told him that his wife and child had perished under the temple rubble. Some time later, a pagan priest, Barbates, told Demetrius that his wife and child had survived and could be heard praising the Christian God.

Demetrius, relieved and happy, rushed to the prison, said that he, too, believed in the one true God and freed Cornelius, asking him to try and rescue his family from the temple ruins. Cornelius went and prayed until Demetrius’s wife and child were able to emerge from the rubble.

Demetrius asked Cornelius to baptise him, his family and his entourage:

Saint Cornelius lived for a long time in this city, converted all the pagan inhabitants to Christ … Saint Cornelius died in old age and was buried not far from the pagan temple he destroyed. 

Again, we have no way of verifying this, except that he must have done something very special, because his feast day is commemorated in the Orthodox churches (September 13), the Catholic Church (February 2) and the Episcopal Church in the United States (February 4 or 7). In fact:

When Governor’s Island, New York, was a military installation the Episcopal Church maintained a stone chapel there dedicated to him.

These are the lessons that the Episcopal Church has for Cornelius the Centurion:

The Collect: O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles; Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 56:6-8: The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant–

these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Psalm 67Deus misereatur:

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

2 Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

6 The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.

7 May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

The Epistle is Acts 10:1-18, which is the account of both Cornelius’s and Peter’s visions.

The Gospel reading is Luke 13:22-29:

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, `Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, `I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, `I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

Bill Kochman has a good article about Cornelius’s life and purpose. He points out that not many people in the Bible received visions. Therefore, God had a plan:

How often is it that people receive a heavenly visitation? The Scriptures seem to indicate that such events are reserved for those who have a very special calling from the Lord such as Moses, Gideon, Joseph and Mary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Paul, etc. Another point worth considering is that Peter was the chief of the Apostles, yet the Lord didn’t think him too big or too busy, or too important to send to these lowly Gentile believers. In fact, the Lord specifically gave Peter his vision to convince him of the importance of his mission to Caesarea. The Lord knew that Cornelius and his family were an important part of His overall plans. Another fact to consider is that this family received the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is very important.

I hope we remember Cornelius’s faithful devotion to God, which brought him into contact with Peter.

I also hope we can draw inspiration from Cornelius’s example as a Christian.

Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 10:44-48

The Holy Spirit Falls on the Gentiles

44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

—————————————————————————————-

Last week’s post discussed Cornelius relating his divine vision to Peter, explaining why he — a Gentile — sent for him.

Peter, too, had a divine vision revealing that nothing — and, by extension, no one — is unclean.

Peter took heed and, immediately afterward, met Cornelius’s men who had just arrived at the house where he was staying. He went with the men without complaint from Joppa to Caesarea.

The Holy Spirit was working wonders in Peter after that first Pentecost. Acts 2 gives us his first sermon and says:

41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

In Acts 3, Peter healed a lame beggar, who then went on to witness himself. Although Peter and John were arrested at the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 4):

But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

There were thousands more, but it was not the custom in society to count women and children in those days.

These three posts explain how the Spirit transformed Peter into a great leader of the early church:

John MacArthur on St Peter

John MacArthur on Peter’s leadership qualities

More from John MacArthur on Peter’s leadership journey

Therefore, by the time Peter met Cornelius, the resulting experience was going to be powerful. And, so it was. Last week’s post has Peter’s sermon, which is included in the Lectionary, but, unless the clergyperson preaching about it puts it into context, a lot of the power behind it is lost.

In today’s reading we have Cornelius, a faith-filled Gentile — accompanied by his household and friends — who has just learned more about God and Jesus Christ from Peter.

Peter hadn’t stopped preaching when the Holy Spirit fell upon all assembled — the converts among the Jews from Joppa as well as Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles (verse 44).

Matthew Henry has a good analysis (emphases mine below):

When the Holy Ghost fell upon them–while Peter was preaching. Thus God bore witness to what he said, and accompanied it with a divine power. Thus were the signs of an apostle wrought among them, 2 Corinthians 12:12.

Also:

Though Peter could not give the Holy Ghost, yet the Holy Ghost being given along with the word of Peter, by this it appeared he was sent of God.

Now consider that there were many witnesses in that room — Jew and Gentile.

Henry also tells us that the God follows no prescribed method:

The Holy Ghost fell upon others after they were baptized, for their confirmation; but upon these Gentiles before they were baptized: as Abraham was justified by faith, being yet in uncircumcision, to show that God is not tied to a method, nor confines himself to external signs. The Holy Ghost fell upon those that were neither circumcised nor baptized; for it is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.

The Jewish converts were ‘amazed’ to see that the Holy Spirit was ‘poured out’ on the Gentiles (verse 45):

Those of the circumcision who believed were astonished–those six that came along with Peter; it surprised them exceedingly, and perhaps gave them some uneasiness, because upon the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost, which they thought had been appropriated to their own nation. Had they understood the scriptures of the Old Testament, which pointed at this, it would not have been such an astonishment to them; but by our mistaken notions of things we create difficulties to ourselves in the methods of divine providence and grace.

John MacArthur tells us:

Well, Jesus was in the business of smashing fences, and this was one that had to go; and so as you come to the 10th chapter of the Book of Acts, the Lord adds to the church Gentiles. The pagans who were despised by the Jews and who, incidentally, despised the Jews, as well, who were thought to be unclean, in whose home Jews would never go, whose food Jews would never eat, and so forth and so on. He includes them into the church, into the one body with the Jews. Now, this is not going to be an easy thing, but our Lord had already designed to build one body. As Ephesians 2 says, “To make one new man, to join together Jew and Gentile. As Ephesians 3 said, “The mystery of the church was Jew and Gentile one in Christ.”

MacArthur says this was not going to be easy, and we will see next week that Peter caught flak for it.

Then the group spoke in tongues and extolled God (verse 46). Henry explores what this means:

They spoke with tongues which they never learned, perhaps the Hebrew, the holy tongue; as the preachers were enabled to speak the vulgar tongues, that they might communicate the doctrine of Christ to the hearers, so, probably, the hearers were immediately taught the sacred tongue, that they might examine the proofs which the preachers produced out of the Old Testament in the original. Or their being enabled to speak with tongues intimated that they were all designed for ministers, and by this first descent of the Spirit upon them were qualified to preach the gospel to others, which they did but now receive themselves. But, observe, when they spoke with tongues, they magnified God, they spoke of Christ and the benefits of redemption, which Peter had been preaching to the glory of God. Thus did they on whom the Holy Ghost first descended, Acts 2:11. Note, Whatever gift we are endued with, we ought to honour God with it, and particularly the gift of speaking, and all the improvements of it.

Then Peter asked if anyone — the Jews present — would deny these Gentiles baptism (verse 47). St Luke, the author of Acts, does not describe their reaction, but I would not be surprised if there wasn’t a moment or two of stunned silence.

Henry analyses Peter’s question:

The argument is conclusive; can we deny the sign to those who have received the thing signified? Are not those on whom God has bestowed the grace of the covenant plainly entitled to the seals of the covenant? Surely those that have received the Spirit as well as we ought to receive baptism as well as we; for it becomes us to follow God’s indications, and to take those into communion with us whom he hath taken into communion with himself. God hath promised to pour his Spirit upon the seed of the faithful, upon their offspring; and who then can forbid water, that they should not be baptized, who have received the promise of the Holy Ghost as well as we? … Thus is there one unusual step of divine grace taken after another to bring the Gentiles into the church. How well is it for us that the grace of a good God is so much more extensive than the charity of some good men!

Peter then commanded his companions from Joppa to baptise the Gentiles (verse 48). By doing so, those men became an active part of welcoming Gentiles into the Church through baptism.

Henry has more:

The apostles received the commission to go and disciple all nations by baptism. But is was to prayer and the ministry of the word that they were to give themselves. And Paul says that he was sent, not to baptize but to preach, which was the more noble and excellent work. The business of baptizing was therefore ordinarily devolved upon the inferior ministers; these acted by the orders of the apostles, who might therefore be said to do it.

Verse 48 also tells us that the Gentiles asked Peter to remain with them for a time. Cornelius, as we saw at the beginning of Acts 10 a few weeks ago, had a devout thirst to know and love God better. His friends and family gathered there with him were sober of spirit and he rightly believed they should share in that experience themselves. Once the Holy Spirit had descended and they were baptised, it follows logically that they wanted Peter to teach and preach to them about the Jesus he knew. It must have been a spirtually enriching period of time for them, one which further deepened their faith.

In closing, I wanted to look deeper into the verb ‘poured’ in verse 45. John MacArthur has a beautiful analysis of living water used in Scripture:

John chapter 7 introduces us to the Spirit of God in a very unique way; and I’m gonna take this as kind of a kickoff point; and then show you how important it is for us to have the Holy Spirit and why I believe, unequivocally with no contradiction, that we absolutely, at the moment of salvation, receive the Spirit.

John 7:37, feast of tabernacles is going on. The…the pouring of the water, symbolizing, of course, God’s sustenance of Israel in the wilderness. People have been saying Isaiah’s words about drinking at the wells of salvation. And, at that moment, when everybody’s looking at water, Jesus stands up in verse 37 and says, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink.” In other words, Jesus takes the whole illustration, the whole deal, and turns it to Himself and takes advantage of this. You know what He’s saying? He’s saying that if you’re thirsty, you can drink. You know that salvation could come at that day to those people if they would turn to Jesus Christ? They could’ve received the water. Remember the water that He gave the woman at the well? He said, “If you believe in Me, I’ll give you water, and you’ll never thirst again.”

And so there was the promise that they could have spiritual water, spiritual refreshment, a spring of pure cleansing water of life inside of them; but He goes a second step, 38, powerful statement. “He that believeth on Me.” Notice, what is the qualification? He that does what? Believeth on Me, no other qualification. “As the Scripture hath said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Now you have a twofold promise. Hang on here. No. 1, you’re gonna receive the water. No. 2, it’s gonna gush out of you. Not a trickle, but a what? Rivers, gushing rivers of water. Two promises. Spiritual refreshment for Me, and a flowing of the water of life that comes out of Me to the world. That’s evangelism, beloved. That’s what He’s talking about. “That the life that is in me by Christ flows out of me to reach others.” That’s the promise; but watch verse 39. Here’s the key.

But this spoke He of the Spirit, whom they that believe on Him should receive.” Future tense, it’s coming. “For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Now watch here, your thought here for a moment. This is saying this…Jesus says, “People, you can now believe, and you can drink the water of life. Someday, you will gush with the water of life to the world; but that can’t happen until the Spirit comes in.” You see? Look at it again. “This spoke He of the Spirit, whom they that believe should receive; but He was not yet given.” The principle is this. All who believe will receive the Spirit.

And, the Holy Spirit is a free gift to all who believe that Jesus is Lord and Saviour:

And where is Christ right now? He’s right there where He can be to send the Spirit, and every moment in the man…in the life of a man, that very moment that he believes, wherever that man is in the world, the Spirit of God is dispensed to that man’s heart.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide us in our faith and to witness — as we are called, in our own ways — to the world. Without the Holy Spirit’s presence, we cannot love God, we cannot obey Him. Without the Holy Spirit, we will fall away from our Christian faith — and eternal salvation.

Next time — Acts 11:1-14

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