Acts 12: End of an era

Application

A single, anticlimactic verse. After playing the de facto leader of the church almost since the day he was recruited by his brother Andrew and Jesus as a disciple, through three and a half years of Jesus’ public ministry and another untold number of years following Pentecost, Simon Peter is transformed from prominent leader of the chuch to exile and fugitive in a single, anticlimactic verse.

But is it really that anticlimactic?

Of course, we as Americans like to take for granted a relatively smooth transition of power from one elected official to the next, but in so many places around the world, that truly is the exception, rather than the rule. And in fact, even here in America, there are far too many leadership transitions which are not at all smooth.

Consider, for example, the recent departure of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner. It took an act by the president of the United States to get him to step aside, and the American economy will be picking up the pieces of General Motors and the rest of the Big Three for years to come.

Speaking of the president, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the electoral vote  – the vote that counts to elect the president – a months-long legal battle ensued.

And in the church that I lead, there are still people reeling from the words and actions of a pastor who announced his resignation from the pulpit by proclaiming that the church was the most unfriendly congregation he’d ever seen, that he and his wife had done everything to see the church grow to no avail, and that there was really no point in continuing. After only eighteen months of ministry.

No, enough ink has been spilled over these and countless other less-than-smooth transitions of leadership to convince me that there is something significant about a torch-passing which merits only one verse in the Bible. In Acts 12:17, Peter recognized that his time as leader was done, and so he willingly surrendered the mantel of leadership and quietly exited stage right, virtually disappearing into the mists of time. But there are a number of things that I think were key to this decidedly anticlimactic transfer of power.

The first was that Peter motioned for the believers at Mary’s house to be quiet. It meant that he wanted them to stop talking, shouting, shrieking, and laughing, all of which I suspect was going on as they rejoiced together at his escape from prison. But I think it also meant that he wanted them to quiet their hearts and minds so that they would be at peace. In this moment, as he prepared for his exit, Peter did not want them to be reveling in the accomplishments of the past or worrying about the challenges of the future. He wanted them to be quiet, a state which would require both great humility – after all, God was the one who had accomplished everything; Peter was just His instrument – and tremendous faith – God could and would use the next leader of the church to continue the work and do even more. Yes, the fact that Peter motioned for everyone to be quiet was certainly important!

A second thing that Peter did, which I believe was critical, was to tell them all that had happened to restore him to them. In other words, he was transparent with them about what was going on. So often, as leaders, we neglect to be transparent because we think no one will understand or it’s not their business. Certainly, in some cases, that’s true. But the key here wasn’t that the church understood all that Peter had gone through. And this wasn’t about him letting them pry into his personal affairs. Rather, this was him letting them know what they needed to know about why he was leaving at this time. Peter’s explanation in vs 17 stands in stark contrast to a pastor at my home church who, just five months into his ministry there, approached the pulpit one day and simply announced that he was done. After a holiday trip to visit family, his wife and kids had not returned with him. To my knowledge, to this day, no one really knows why, and the effects on the church were catastrophic. Perhaps worse, after I entered the ministry, a colleague at a church near us who was struggling with depression did something similar, but rather than acknowledging his own struggles, he let the church believe that it was their fault. He explained that they hadn’t paid him enough, they hadn’t ministered enough, they hadn’t followed enough, they hadn’t grown enough. Not surprisingly, after staggering along for a couple more years, that church closed. Yes, Peter’s transparency here was key!

Third, Peter acknowledged his successor. Rather than just storming off in a huff that he wouldn’t be the leader anymore, or even just drifting silently into the night, he made a point to bid the disciples, “Tell James about this.” Now, he included the other apostles in this, and rightfully so. Together, they comprised the leadership team of the church. But Peter knew that, even though he hadn’t been around since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, James was the man for the job. The brother of Jesus, James had not believed until after the crucifixion and resurrection. Since then, though, his faith had grown by leaps and bounds thanks, in large part, to his intimate knowledge of Jesus as a brother. By mentioning James, specifically, Peter sent a very simple but powerful message: James is in charge now. I’m not. Do not underestimate the significance of this. Under ordinary circumstances, it can take years for authority to fully transfer from one leader to the next. It takes that long for the new leader to establish rapport enough to be most effective. Until then, he/she may have the authority of an office or title, but that doesn’t compare to the authority of someone who is known, understood, and trusted by the people he/she leads. In my own experience, I will be forever grateful for the actions of Dr. Merne Harris. After spending a lifetime as a pastor, teacher, missionary, professor, and even Bible college president, Dr. Harris and his wife became the interim pastor of our church after the pastor who railed on the church for being unfriendly. They had been in the church for years, and in the aftermath of the previous pastor’s explosion, the congregation was eager to latch onto someone they knew they could trust. After several months, the church called a new pastor, who stayed for four years before choosing to leave the ministry due to what he himself has described to me as burnout. Again, people were hurt, and the congregation naturally gravitated to Dr. Harris and his wife for leadership. Another interim pastor came, but Merne was still the one everyone looked to for leadership. And then Nicole and I arrived. Even though we were fresh out of Bible college, ministerial newbies in every sense of the term, Dr. Harris and his wife referred to me deliberately as “Pastor” every time they spoke to us or of us, and they showed by their actions that they meant it. It was a simple thing, but the effects of that simple title uttered from their mouths was profound in the congregation. In fact, I wholly believe that any success that we have had as a pastoral couple in the last seven years is due in large part to the fact that Dr. Harris recognized me as pastor, and so everyone else did, too. Truly, to acknowledge the new guy was an essential courtesy which Peter gave to James!

And the fourth and final thing that Peter did which I believe was so important was that “he left for another place.” Obviously, this was due in large part to the fact that, come morning, the entire Roman army in Jerusalem would be looking to string him up, but I think there was something more to this. You see, while he would make a couple of cameo appearances here and there, even write a couple of letters that would be incorporated into the New Testament as 1 and 2 Peter, after this, Peter virtually faded into history. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even record where he went, what he did there, or how he died. Once the transfer of leadership was done, Peter didn’t try to maintain control over things. He didn’t pull a Vladimir Putin and establish James as a puppet leader. He didn’t pull a Bill Clinton and try to manipulate people by his own popularity. He just went away, allowing James to establish himself as the new leader without Peter shadowing over him every step of the way. As leaders, this can be a very difficult thing to do. When I was in high school, a friend and I worked to organize a chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes at our school. Before I graduated and moved on, we held elections to choose a new leadership team for the group. I had been very careful in choosing the young woman who would succeed me, and she was in fact, by the grace of God, elected. After my graduation and subsequent departure, I kept tabs on her and the group from afar, but I made absolutely certain to not interact with any of them except as a friend. My time as leader was done, and I knew that it was her turn to lead. The next year, a new leadership team was elected. And for at least a few years after that, the group continued. Honestly, I have no idea if the group has survived these past 10+ years, but I still count the fact that I allowed her to lead as one of my greatest accomplishments. Was it easy? I wanted to know what was going on every single day! And to be fair, the group ultimately made some decisions that I don’t think I would have made. But they worked out. And as amazing as it sounds, God blessed without me at the helm! Peter left for another place. I believe that simple action was ultimately key to the survival of the church. And I think it still is a critical component of leadership today.

As leaders, the sunset of our time in leadership can be difficult to swallow. But as someone wise once said that a pastor’s greatest legacy is not in who comes to the church while he’s there but in who stays at the church after he’s gone, we must remember that how we transition out of leadership is just as important as – and quite possibly even more important than – how we lead. I can only hope that, when I leave Debra Heights Wesleyan Church and, ultimately, the ministry, the only thing that will be said about the transition will be that I called on everyone to be quiet, was completely transparent with what was going on, established my successor by acknowledging him/her as the new leader, and then found a quiet place out of history’s way so that he/she could actually lead.

Notes

  • (3) When persecution is the politically correct thing to do, expect politicians to persecute. Really, how far are we from this point right now?
  • (3-4) So it’s been at least one year – and probably several – since Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the Jews are still willing to bend the rules to put the hurt on Christians. Should it really surprise us that people today just don’t apply the same ruleset to Christians?
  • (5) I love this statement. Peter was in prison. I.e., Peter was in serious trouble, quite likely looking at the same fate as James… “but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (NIV). How often do we give up after one day or night of prayer? How often do we fail to pray earnestly at all? How often do we fail to believe that God is bigger than any trouble we might face? This church believed in the power of prayer because they believed in the power of God, and they practiced it, too.
  • (8-10) At first glance, it seems funny that Peter wouldn’t realize that this was really going on, but when you really sit down and think about it, can you really blame him? I mean, he could see the soldiers sitting there, wide awake. And he knew that chains didn’t just fall away. Further, he understood that locked gates don’t just open themselves. This was all ridiculously dreamlike, and I certainly can’t blame him for thinking it was a dream!
  • (12-14) I guess I had always read this a little different, thinking it was Rhoda who believed this to be Peter’s angel. But the servant girl is the one who actually believes it to be Peter. The rest of the believers gathered at Mary’s house are the ones who believed her to be nuts!
  • (12-14) Apparently, God doesn’t fault us for disbelief when we’re praying for the unbelievable? The church had been praying for Peter; had they not believed that he could be set free? Probably not in this manner, I suppose!
  • (17) So the transfer of power from Peter as leader of the church to James the brother of Jesus as leader of the church is completed. There no pomp, circumstance, or even ceremony. Nor was there struggle or jealousy. Peter recognized that his time as leader was done; he couldn’t perform the task as a fugitive in hiding. And so he passed it on. What humility and poise!
  • (19) The tragedy here is that Peter’s miraculous escape led to the execution of the entire watch. We can only assume that Peter witnessed faithfully to them, and they chose to harden their hearts to the gospel.
  • (23) According to Charles Ryrie, “Josephus states that Herod was struck down while delivering his oration and, after five days of suffering, died” in AD 44.
  • (24) The contrast here is notable. Herod, who had been persecuting the Christians, died. But the gospel continued on. Persecution may come and go, but the gospel will persist, even if by a mere remnant.
  • (25) And just in case we didn’t believe the words of vs 24, we see here the practical implementation. Despite James’ execution and Peter’s exile, Barnabas and Saul, along with John Mark, return to Antioch, as committed to the gospel message as ever. We must not let a little persecution deter us from what we must do as Christians!
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1 Response to “Acts 12: End of an era”


  1. 1 Keith Isley October 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I’ve always believed that a mark of a great leader is NOT one who gathers people by the force of his personal charisma, or fear, or whatever…but one who builds something that lasts well beyond him or herself, and makes those around better as a result. This includes being able to bow out/move on gracefully without making it “about them.” It’s a mark of Christian maturity, in my opinion – recognizing that Kingdom work is bigger than any one indvidual.


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