Peter’s Life Is Saved
Acts 12 : 1 - 19
Christianity was breaking out in many places. However, it never got a free run anywhere. Opposition and persecution have always accompanied Christian evangelisation. Arguably, Christianity has always struggled against greater odds to become established in any community or country. King Herod started to arrest Christians and had James, one of the original disciples and brother of John executed.
Which Herod was this? There was Herod the Great who had ruled from 41 - 1 BC. He is the Herod of the birth stories of Jesus. He met the wise men and he ordered the slaughter of the little boys. He was married 10 times. That was an expression of the combination of lust and unchallenged power which he possessed. There were his sons, Herod Philip the first husband of Herodias who had John the Baptist beheaded. There was Herod Antipas who was Herodias’s second husband before whom Salome danced and who consented to John the Baptist’s death. It was this Herod to whom Pilate sent Jesus at his trial. There was Archelaus who ruled Judea and was such a tyrant that he was deposed. There was Herod Philip the Second, ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis. There was Aristobulus who was murdered by his own father, Herod the Great. He had a son Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great who is the Herod of this passage in Acts 12. It’s Dallas, Dynasty, East Enders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale rolled into one.
This Herod Agrippa had been educated at Rome and he kept all Jewish observance and the Law. He was popular for so doing. Queen Elizabeth’s popularity is in no small measure due to her Christianity. People like and trust her for being a Christian even if they themselves are not Christian. Charles does not share the same popularity because he has not clearly demonstrated faithfulness to Christianity in his personal life and conduct and other royals are even less popular for appearing to have no Christianity at all. It seems that Jewish agitators had lobbied Herod Agrippa to stop the spread of Christianity. Herod Agrippa began persecuting Christians because it bought him more popularity with the Jewish people. It was for practical self-interested reasons that he used his power arbitrarily against Christians. Having dealt with James, he arrested Peter. Because it was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he did not kill Peter immediately but imprisoned him until the end of the Festival Week. There was the first link to Peter’s survival. The Church held a prayer vigil for Peter, praying continuously for him. To lose James was bad enough but to lose Peter would have had a devastating effect of the early Church. Herod Agrippa sought to decapitate the Church and cut down its leadership thereby wrecking its coherence and discouraging its members.
The normal practice in prisons at the time was that a prisoner was chained by his right hand to the guard’s left hand. But they were taking no chances with Peter. He was chained on both hands to two guards. In all sixteen guards looked after Peter, four for each four hour watch. The other two guards kept the door entrance secure. There are two explanations of how Peter escaped, one is easier to understand and both reflect the intervention and providence of God. The word for angel can also mean messenger. Just as we say ‘You’re an angel’, it is possible that it was a human agent who freed Peter. The light could have been a torch, the chains falling off due to him having the keys. The detailed instructions make common sense, get your clothes on, put your cloak on, follow me. The text says that Peter who told his story to the Church, was dazed and confused and not even sure if he was dreaming. They passed the inner and outer guards and then passed through the city gate which opened for them. Then the angel disappeared. Is it credible that this was a human agent? There could have been Christian sympathisers who arranged this escape. Did they pay bribes to the guards? Were some of the guards Christians? That does not seem so likely. Were all the guards complicit? That seems unlikely also.
There is the account as read which suggests supernatural intervention and divine ordering. We only have Peter’s account. But what he says is consistent with the accounts of others in Scripture who received angelic visitations. Jacob at Bethel says 'God was here and I did not realise it'. The relationship between our human consciousness and our apprehension of God speaking to us is hazy. Even Mary was confused at first by Gabriel’s message. Angelic visitations do not happen often and so are special and difficult to describe successfully. Lots of people today believe in angels in some form or another. Even Abba mentioned it in one of their pop songs. New Agers claim to communicate with angels. Christians have always included the idea of guardian angels in their thinking. Many people testify to being helped and guided and saved from some difficulty through some higher power than their own wits and intelligence. ‘Someone up there was looking after me’, they say.
I myself can testify to such an angelic experience which, although it happened a long time ago, is still fresh and detailed in my mind today. In 1979 I visited New York to be interviewed for a ministry in a tough area. My hosts put me up in a hotel in the city centre. With some time on my hands I went out to explore. I got lost. I did not know what bus to take to get back to the hotel. I did not speak to anyone or ask anyone for help. But I remember a young well dressed man with a spiritually inspiring presence smiling at me and guiding me across a busy street and along to one bus stop among others and then disappearing. He never spoke. But I got on the next bus that arrived and found my way back. I cannot explain that any further. Neither can I say with 100% certainty that this was indeed an angelic visitation, but I think it must have been. I could have been mugged and robbed or worse. I was saved.
So I am inclined to think that Peter’s escape from prison was indeed the result of a supernatural intervention from beginning to end. In the Bible, angelic visitations are sometimes accompanied by light. How the chains on Peter’s hands came off supernaturally I have no idea. The guards could all have been asleep. They were not guarding a terrorist or murderer. How did they get through the locked doors? I don’t know. The city gate, we are told, opened of its own accord. Then Peter found himself safe but alone at night.
The next part of the story in 100% credible. Peter realised that he had been miraculously delivered from certain death. He gathered his wits and came down to earth as is reasonable to understand after an angelic visitation. He went to the house of Mark’s mother Mary. An awfy lot of women in the Bible were called Mary. This could well have been the upper room house where Jesus held the Last Supper. They were praying for Peter constantly. There was an outer door to the street and usually an inner passage - what we would call a garden area - and then the inner door to the house itself. Usually, someone was employed to answer the outer door. Peter therefore had to knock heavily and loudly. That must have made him a bit nervous. The last thing he wanted was to wake people up and draw attention to himself. A servant girl called Rhoda - we even know her name - came and open the little square at eye height on the door to see who was on the outside. She recognised Peter’s voice. Instead of letting Peter in however, she ran back to the meeting to tell them Peter as there outside. Meanwhile, Peter is getting more and more nervous, looking up and down the street to see if he had been followed, still not safe. The others did not believe the girl. Minutes passed with their arguing. They thought Peter was probably dead and Rhoda had had a vision of his resurrected life. Meanwhile Peter is hammering on the door and since he had been used to industrial language in he past, it is not impossible that he let slip an oath or two here. Or perhaps not. He had just experienced a miraculous divine intervention and no doubt his mind was far from bad language. Eventually, some of the company came down to the door and opened it. The text says they were astonished. That’s an understatement, I suggest. Peter went in and bid the commotion to cease. He went SHHHHH! The Peter recounted what had happened. Their prayers had been answered. He had been miraculously delivered from prison and from death. He asked them to tell James, Jesus’ brother who led the Jerusalem congregation and then he went into hiding.
As was the Roman procedure, the guards responsible for Peter were given the punishment that the escaped prisoner had been meant to receive. They were executed. This causes us some problems. We live in a time when equalities are imposed on us and when anti-discrimination legislation even extends to our conversations. Sixteen guards lost their lives when Peter escaped. God does make distinctions. Christianity was to expand. Peter’s life was to be saved for further work and witness and eventual martyrdom. Christianity was established in a hostile and violent environment. Christianity today is still a distinct alternative. It is not just a religion. It is not the same as other religions and philosophies. To be a Christian today is to be distinctive.
But this passage is about the over-arching undefeatable power and providence and grace of God. If you trust in Him, he will protect and save you.
Ask the Saviour to help you,
Comfort, strengthen, and keep you;
He is willing to aid you,
He will carry you through.