Turn to Acts Chapter 12, It’s the year 44 AD, just before Passover, lets go to Herod’s prison, Herod the king has stretched out his hands against the church and sees that the unrepentant Jews were pleased with the persecution of the Christians. Herod’s men apprehend Peter and throw him into prison, heavily guarded with two guards chained to him.
Now Peter has a pretty good memory, especially since 11 years prior in his final conversation with Christ, Peter was promised that he would be a martyr, but not until old age; and as he sat in Herod’s prison, Peter was confident he would see another day.
This is faith; because while it’s been a while since the great persecution by Saul of Tarsus, who had Stephen stoned to death, just days prior James the Lesser was killed by the sword by the same men that now held Peter.
I especially like the book of Acts because before I became a Christian, I was a great lover of world history; I abhor soap-opera’s, and I try to avoid unnecessary drama in my own life, but when it comes to gossip in history, for some reason I can’t get enough. James dying by the sword reminds me of another person who died by the sword which is pertinent to this sermon.
In the early 1500’s a young English woman by the name of Anne Boleyn was living one of histories greatest soap-opera’s, her first marriage arrangement fell through as she, at the age of 15, cheated on her fiancé; this affair was quickly stopped, not by her fiancé, but by the King of England, Henry VIII, who saw not only a pretty young woman, but a political opportunity in wedding a person with ties to French nobility. But Henry was married already; so whilst he sought an annulment with Catherine, Anne had another affair, this time with a married poet. During this time we are fairly certain that Anne avoided Henry’s sexual advances, perhaps maybe because she saw the merits in Reformed Christianity, but based on her actions over the next eight years, it is hard to say she was a Christian. In a great battle with the Pope, Henry finally was able to divorce Catherine on a few technicalities, quite convenient because Anne became pregnant shortly before the divorce, and Henry married Anne, the two marriages overlapped by three months. Following the marriage of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Anne gave birth to Elizabeth I, the future Queen of England. As the years passed, desperate for a male heir, Henry ceased to ignore Anne’s incessant infidelity; and six men were brought to trial, including Anne’s own brother, on charges of adultery and incest. One man was released, while the other five where given merciful executions via beheading under the axe.
Anne was found guilty as well, and with one of her last rights as Queen, requested an expert swordsman from France conduct the beheading. Kneeling over the execution block Anne was heard to say, “Oh Lord have mercy on my soul, to God I commend my soul, to Christ I commend my soul, Lord Jesus receive my soul.” And the swordsman unsheathed his sword, Anne had commented days earlier that the executioner would have it easy, saying, “I have a little neck.” The executioner, in order to prevent Anne anticipating the blow, asked “Now where is my sword?” as the execution commenced; Anne was correct in her little neck statement, it only took one stroke and it was over.
I tell this story in order to lead into Peter in captivity; ever faithful in Christ that he would see old age, verse six tells us on the very night Peter was taken, he was sound asleep, not fearing Herod or his men. Since the moment Peter was arrested, prayer began, and went unceasing, and God sent an angel who visited Peter in prison. The angel shined light on Peter but we see that Peter was so fast asleep that it didn’t awaken him, and the angel had to hit Peter to wake him up. As Peter became awake and saw the light and the angel, his chains fell off, the doors of the prison were opened, and following the angel, Peter was made free.
The stories of Peter and Anne are related in being unaware of captivity to the law; but I’m going to use each to shine some light on the Gospel. Peter was fast asleep in his captivity, just as Paul tells us in Ephesians that we were once dead in our transgressions, but are now made alive in Christ. Before the light could be seen by Peter, the angel had to smite him to wake him up; this is symbolic of telling the sinner about the Law so that they can see the light.
I find it very unlikely that anyone ever opened up the 10 Commandments to Anne Boleyn and preached to her about #7, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery; nor showed her the exceeding sinfulness of infidelity. Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount that “Whosoever looks upon someone to lust after them has committed adultery already with them in their heart.” Or showed her in Revelation where it says that the sexually immoral will have their place in the lake of fire, or in First Corinthians where fornicators are cut off from the inheritance of Christ and of God. No one related to her how wrathful and jealous God became when Israel played the Harlot. It’s a good thing Anne didn’t have access to the internet, lest she multiply her whoredom even farther. In Anne’s final speech she told her subjects that under the [English] law she was guilty and condemned to die, that if any should meddle in her affairs afterwards they should always think the best of her. This speech proved that no-one had ever told her that Godly sorrow leads to repentance, nor that God resists the proud, and especially that there is none good but God.
Despite all of these transgressions against a single commandment, Anne knew that where sin increased, grace abounds all the more, and that Jesus Christ became the propitiation for her sins on the Cross at Calvary, she called out to the Father and the Son to receive her spirit, but her unrepentant heart stood between her and forgiveness; she knew she had transgressed the worldly law, and her horizontal sorrow can be an example to us when Paul said there is a godly repentance the leads to life and a worldly grief which leads to death. Having studied Anne Boleyn’s departing prayers, I hope and pray that she was convicted of her sin against God while kneeling on the execution block, that she awoke to recognize the light that is the Gospel and was set free from her sin; but I’ll have to wait until I get to Heaven before I know her final fate.
Today we are at the hands of an executioner, the universal statistic is that 10 out of 10 die, James reminds us that life is but a vapor which exists for a moment then vanishes, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, we could hear, “Now where is my sword?” at any moment. God could grow weary of our harlotry and unfaithfulness at any moment; make sure you’re in good standing with Him, don’t step out of this world without Christ, flee to God in godly sorrow, and repent of your sins against Him; our Lord Jesus Christ has paid your fine on the Cross, put your trust in Him to receive your soul.
God will hear you and you will be forgiven; you will be set free just as Peter was from Herod's prison.