Reading: Acts 12.
I came to cast fire
upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!
But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I
straitened till it be accomplished!
In our first message we
were mainly occupied with the cup and its consequence in
the scattering of the fire, with a view to taking fresh
account of the relationship between those two things:
that there is no scattering of the fire, and all that
that means of the progress of the Gospel and the growth
of the Church, except in so far as the meaning of the cup
is established as the foundation of everything, right at
the very heart of the life of the people of God.
We are now going to look
at the twelfth chapter of the book of the Acts, for this
chapter is a microcosm of the history of the cup and the
fire. That, of course, is true of the whole of this book:
it is the cup, undoubtedly - the Church in suffering
relationship with the Lord. But it is also the book of
the scattered fire. This chapter, as I have said, is a
miniature of that whole great truth; indeed, it is a
miniature of the struggle of the ages between the powers
of evil and the invincible spiritual forces which
eventually triumph. The tremendous amount of history and
truth packed into this chapter never fails to move and
stir us when we read it. I wonder whether there is a
chapter in the Bible so pregnant with phrases and
clauses, piled one upon another, every one of which
could, without exaggeration, occupy our whole chapter.
Take some of these
clauses, only a few of the many: "Now about that
time..." What a key that is, and what a lot that key
opens if you stay with it! We shall probably make use of
it presently. "Herod the king..." There is far
more in that than you recognize. "To vex certain of
the church..." The vexation of the Church or the
attempted vexation of the Church. "Killed
James..." We pointed out previously that it was this
James and John who came to the Lord requesting places on
the right hand and on the left in glory, to whom the Lord
immediately uttered the challenge: 'Are you able to drink
of the cup that I drink of, and to be baptized with the
baptism wherewith I am baptized?' And they said: 'We are
able.' 'You shall...' "And he killed James with the
sword..." "When he saw that it pleased the
Jews..." 'It pleased the Jews!' There
is a lot in that. "He proceeded further..." And
so we might go on. The whole chapter is full of phrases
and clauses like that which are just packed with meaning.
Let us look at the
message of this chapter. "Now about that
time..." About what time? It is full of significance
to put your finger on that and note the time. The answer
is a very large one, but it has two main features. There
is the answer lying within Herod himself, and there is
the answer which lies behind Herod, much more deeply -
the answer of Satan. let us consider the answer in Herod.
king" (verse 1). There were six Herods in the Bible.
All of them were Idumaean in origin: they are gathered
under that symbolic name of 'Edom'. That is, they were
descendants of Esau, not of Israel. All that is very
significant. This man before us was the first and the
last of them properly to hold this title of 'king'. None
of them up to him had officially held that title, and
after he died the title of 'king' was taken away.
We are witnessing here
the heading up of a long history. The prophecies of
Obadiah should be read in order really to get the
substance of this - this historic antagonism between the
flesh and the Spirit, between heaven and hell, between
Esau and Israel. There is a long history here, headed
right up to this man who now takes the title of 'king'.
What irony that the Jews should come to be ruled by a
descendant of Esau and not of Israel, and that that ruler
should be appointed by pagan Rome! It is something to
think about. We are in the presence of a tremendous drama
here, profoundly fascinating - but oh, how deeply
"About that time
Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of
the church... And when he saw that it pleased the
Jews..." (verses 1,3). Now why should Herod do this
Jew-pleasing thing at that time? It might look just like
a human story, it might seem to be something very simple,
but we are in the unfolding of this much deeper thing.
Satan, as we know, is very deep, but God is deeper still,
and that is what is happening here. If you look back to
the chapter before this, you will find that there was a
great famine. "Now in these days there came down
prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up
one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit
that there should be a great famine over all the world:
which came to pass in the days of Claudius... Now about
that time..." (Acts 11:27,28; 12:1).
The simple answer is
this: the Jews were a very difficult people to rule. That
is perfectly clear, of course; we know that. But add to
the normal, usual, common difficulty a famine. You know
there is nothing that leads to revolution more quickly
than famine and hunger. We are told later in the story
that the people of Tyre and Sidon, in Phoenicia, were fed
from King Herod's province (verse 20). It is a question
of food, and it has become very acute. There is a
seething and surging and a rising, and Herod must do
something to get these people diverted from their
troubles, get them preoccupied. Something must be done
for them; there must be some diversion. He cannot provide
the food and avoid the famine; it has come, it is a fact.
Then, if he is going to maintain his position and hold
these people and keep them in check, he must do something
to please them. And there is your answer!
It sounds like a human
story, a bit of trickery, politics, or whatever you like
to call it; but that is one part of the answer. "Now
about that time..." Why must he please the Jews?
Well, that is the answer. How will he please the Jews? He
knows their hatred for the Christians - that is a long
story, too - and so he will "put forth his hands to
afflict certain of the church." The Christians were
being used to buttress up this ramshackle, false kingdom
of Herod, to keep his throne intact. He is using them for
his own ends. Well, that is only part of the answer -
Herod's part. It is a very simple one.
But let us get behind
Herod, because Herod is not acting alone. There is
something more, something deeper. The deeper and the more
real answer to the question is found in the satanic realm
behind the man. Let us look at chapter 11 again, verse
19: "They therefore that were scattered abroad
upon the tribulation that arose about Stephen travelled
as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking
the word to none save only to Jews."
"They... that were
scattered abroad upon the tribulation that arose
about Stephen..." That is a profoundly inclusive
word. There is something happening. Oh, what a lot has
been happening! That takes us back to chapter seven - the
martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen is stoned; that is the cup.
It looks like an immense triumph for the devil. Stephen
was a mighty man of the Spirit; there were tremendous
hopes for the Church bound up with the life of that young
man. Some have said, after reading his discourse and
studying it, that he was the equal of Saul of Tarsus at
least. And there he is, murdered. It looks as though
Satan has really triumphed.
But what after that?
From that very point there was a scattering of the
believers far and wide, and they went everywhere,
testifying. Saul of Tarsus is converted, and what a
tremendous thing that is! Peter is led to the house of
Cornelius, away up there in the north; and we know what
happened there - the door is opened to the Gentiles.
Things of the greatest significance are coming out of the
cup, the cup of the Lord; out of the baptism and passion
into which the Church has been baptized. Believers were
constantly added to the Church (9:31,42; 11:21,34). The
thing is growing. The fire is spreading; Satan's kingdom
is being shaken. The kingdom of Satan is being stirred to
its depths, and something must be done about it.
Someone tersely put it:
'The men that have turned the world upside down have come
hither' (17:6). "Now about that time Herod
the king..." You see? That is the explanation. Out
of this baptism of the passion of the Lord into which the
Church has been brought, the fire is spreading; but the
enemy is moved - deeply moved. Herod 'puts forth his
hand' - and there is a hand behind that hand - "to
afflict certain of the church. And he killed James...
with the sword. And when he saw that it pleased the
Jews..." he proceeded further. I would like to stay
with all those fragments, because there is a message in
every one of them. Herod is carried on by his own
momentum. Have a little success, and see what it will do
However, we turn away
from that for a moment to the other side - the aspect of
this that we may call a drama indeed, that of the
sovereign Kingship of the Lord. It is all summed up in
three things: "Herod... put forth his hands to
afflict... an angel of the Lord smote him... But
the word of God grew and multiplied"
(12:1,23,24). That is tremendous, is it not? We begin the
story with Herod putting forth his hands; we end the
story with Herod eaten of worms and giving up the ghost.
You begin with the Church a victim and martyr; you end
with the Word of God growing and multiplying. This is the
story of another King. It is the story of two kings
pitting themselves against each other. It is, as I said
at the beginning, the microcosm of this long history of
the conflict between the forces of evil and those
invincible forces of the Spirit, which always triumph in
the long run.
But here a pressing
question arises. When you think of the beginning - that
he killed James with the sword, and when he saw that it
pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also
- the question that clamours for an answer is: Why does
God allow this kind of thing? Why did He not intervene
before James was killed with the sword? Why did He not
stop this thing before Peter was thrown into prison? Ah,
that is another key to another large history, is it not?
The mystery of God's permissive will: God allowing His
servants, His so useful servants, to be killed or cast
into prison; allowing the Church to suffer like this. Why
does God allow it?
The answer lies deep
down within the cup. If you get deep enough into the cup,
you will find the answer. Let me put it the other way -
it is deep within the Cross. God, in the mystery of His
will and His ways, uses the Church as He used Israel, to
draw out the evil forces to their own destruction. 'God
moves in a mysterious way...' Is it the Church, or is it
the forces against it, that are destroyed eventually? You
see the answer in history. It is here in this chapter, in
representation. Here you have Israel in Egypt. What a
tremendous extending of Pharaoh - drawing him out,
drawing him to the limit of his own resources to give an
answer through the magicians, and then going on and going
on, further and yet further, all Pharaoh's resources are
exhausted, and then God smashes him. The sum total of his
whole resource is broken and destroyed - and God has used
a suffering people to draw it all out.
That is the story here.
In the mystery of God's ways the Church suffers, but its
suffering comes from the enemy, whom God is drawing out
by means of the Church - drawing him out and extending
him. And when his cup of iniquity is full, God will smash
him beyond repair. That is the issue of Herod. It is the
Church that has brought this about. It is the sufferings
of James and Peter and the Church in these days that have
accomplished that. But is that not found right in the
Cross? Look at the Cross! Is the Cross the extending of
all the powers of evil in earth and in hell? It is that!
When you see Him there on the Cross, dead, and know how
it is brought about, and all that has gone to bring it
about - the whole story of human and satanic malice and
spite - you ask: Is there anything more that they can do?
No! What is the answer? The scattered fire! That is the
answer. It is in the cup, it is in the Cross; it is an
integral part of this whole matter. The sufferings of
Christ which abound unto us, unto the Church, are working
Satan's undoing - and for us a 'far more exceeding and
eternal weight of glory' (2 Cor. 4:17).
Why does God allow it?
Wait, if you can, in patience and in faith. "Here is
the patience of the saints" (Rev. 13:10; 14:12). Do
you remember that word? If you can wait, you will see
that, on the one side, your suffering, or your
sufferings, wrought havoc in the kingdom of Satan,
brought him to an end of his power: they drew him out,
they were the marks of his coming out. On the other side,
the sufferings have worked glory for you. And in the
meantime there has been spiritual increase, spiritual
progress, scattered fire.
God uses the work of
Satan for Satan's undoing. But it is the Church and it is
the saints who are the instrument. It is in their soul
that this battle is fought out. "Now unto the
principalities and the powers in the heavenlies... made
known through the church the manifold wisdom of God"
(Eph. 3:10). Something is happening in the unseen.
The progress of the Word
of God is a costly thing. It involves much suffering - it
involves the cup; but that is His way. Here, then, we see
God using Satan's work - on the one side for Satan's own
undoing and overthrow, and on the other side for the
progress of the Word, for the Church's advance and for
the glory of God. And that is wrapped up in this anguish
of fellowship with His sufferings.
You and I have had a
good deal of difficulty in understanding why Paul should
long to know the fellowship of His sufferings. It is one
of the most difficult prayers for us to pray, is it not?
But Paul knew this secret, that that is the way of the
progress of the Gospel, that is the way for the
destruction of this that is set against it: the
fellowship of His sufferings; for that is the heart of
the Cross of the Lord Jesus Himself.
And all this is inherent
in the cup. The cup ceases to be an object, it ceases to
be just a thing: it becomes something living, something
potent. That cup is a mighty force in this universe. When
you and I come to the Lord's Table next time, may God
give us some larger conception of what a tremendous thing
is there, touching every realm in His universe. It is the
representation of something living. This blood speaks,
this blood tells, this blood counts. Blood is vital; it
is a terrific force in this universe. When we take the
cup, and thereby accept the baptism, the passion, let us
recognize that in faith we take also the tremendous
victory that it sets forth. It is costly!
Let us now see where
this was all wrought out. On the one side, Herod -
wicked, wicked Herod, with all the cruelty of his long
history, going back to Esau; the Jews, delighted that
action was being taken against the followers of Jesus;
the prison, the chains, the strong guard within and
without - four quaternions of soldiers. These are things
that represent great forces and great difficulty - all
the things which are against. They are not just words;
they are tremendous things, all of them, viewed from the
natural standpoint. That is on the one side. On the other
side, "an angel of the Lord": and Herod, and
the Jews, and the prison, and the chains, and the guard,
are as nothing.
Where is it wrought out?
In a prayer meeting, as it were right in between those
two. Between the forces of hell and of heaven was the
Church at prayer. The thing would not have happened
otherwise. Those forces of evil would not have yielded to
the heavenly authority of the ascended Christ through an
angel, if it had not been for what was going on in that
room. "But," it says, "prayer was made...
of the Church..." But... But... Away all the forces!
Calculate them, take their full strength and meaning, and
then put one word over it all - 'But'. 'The Church
prayed...' And in response to that the angel - and all
the other was as nothing.
The Church at prayer.
What do you think about that? It says that "prayer
was made earnestly," but that English word
does not really convey the force of it at all. The Greek
word means literally 'extendedly', 'stretched out'. The
Church prayed in a stretched out way; the Church was
extended. Satan was extended, heaven was extended, and
these two powers came into collision because the Church
was extended. It will never come about in any other way;
it is just like that. What a tremendous thing is wrapped
up with the Church at prayer!
As I dwell upon this
story, many, many thoughts that are not in the story
crowd into my mind. How different it might have been if
the Church, instead of getting together and focusing upon
the situation in oneness and in prayer like this, had
said: 'Oh, if only Stephen had not said those things! If
only so-and-so had been a little more discreet... If
only...!' and a thousand other things of blame: blaming
one and another and holding people responsible for this
and putting it down to that, and that, turning in on
themselves until they had got a whole situation of
questions and reproaches and recriminations, and a
'case'. And the whole thing is sabotaged! Dear brothers
and sisters, whenever this kind of thing happens we must
look deeper. Behind all that is the strategy of Herod to
frustrate the scattering of the fire. When the devil can
get us turned in on ourselves and on our own problems,
and upon one another's faults and weaknesses and
failures, and so on, he has defeated the whole business
of the Lord. You may pray and pray and pray, but if there
is the contradiction of division in the background, you
pray in vain. The Lord will not come in.
They prayed as the
Church in this 'stretched out' way. There is no other
thing in mind; they are of one mind and heart. They are
concentrated upon a satanic issue. There is a lesson in
that. Oh, how our prayer is paralysed by a thousand and
one things which, if we only knew the truth, are not
really the trouble - they are things that Satan has got
hold of. There may be faults. Was any one of the Apostles
faultless? There may be weaknesses; but if only you are
on the Lord's business, the Lord takes action.
It has been said
concerning the disciples' disputing with Rhoda about
Peter, that they had prayed and prayed and prayed all
night, and then when their prayer was answered they did
not believe it; and some people have said that they could
not have prayed in faith. But there are other points of
view. Some of us pray with all our might about a dear
brother now in prison. I beg to suggest that, if someone
came to us and said: 'Brother... is at the door!' we
should say: 'He can't be!' We should want a good deal of
verification - not because we did not believe that the
Lord could do it or would do it; but, somehow or other,
when the Lord does the very thing that we ask for, our
breath is taken away and we cannot believe it. Have mercy
upon these believers, and do not impute unbelief. The
fact is, that, though they may have prayed like that, and
though there may have been faults and weaknesses, they
were on the business, and they were one in it, and the
Lord moved in.
How much came out of
this! They saw through the whole situation and got to the
real issue; they pushed aside all other considerations,
and out of their travail something was born. You remember
what follows after chapter twelve. In the previous
chapter (11:19-30) Antioch had come into view: and now
from Antioch Paul and Barnabas are sent forth, and on and
on you go. The fire is scattered to the ends of the earth
- out of this: The Church prayed.
It is a wonderful story,
but I find much difficulty in seeking to convey it. It is
so true to life. There is always so much room for the
mystery of God's ways. Why? Why? Why? If you stay with
the 'why's' of God's wisdom, you will be paralysed. Let
me recall what we were saying at the beginning of our
first message. Here is a law enunciated, declared,
established - that there is no scattered fire without the
cup, and that cup is always a mystery. It always
expresses itself in ways concerning which you can say:
'Why this...?' 'Why that...?' 'Why does He allow
this...?' Those 'why's' will paralyse you if you have not
reached the established, settled position, that the cup
has come to stay; it will be with us to the end.
But, in the mystery of
suffering permitted by God, and in all that that cup
means in a crucified Son of God and a crucified Church -
in all that is the way of Satan's undoing and the
establishment of the heavenly Kingdom. May God settle it
in us, and give us grace!