Devotional # 52. 9/16/13. Peter: in and out of prison
This week’s Reading: Acts 12:1-25.
Introduction. This marks 1 year of our Devotional! What a blessing it has been to write these and to hear your comments and exhortations through this.
Last week we read about Peter’s vision that Gentiles (anyone not an Israeli) were part of God’s plan also. That they should be reached with the gospel and could become believers if they chose to. We are going to skip chapter 11, although as always, I suggest you read it (especially notice verse 26!) Now we move into Peter’s arrest and escape…
vv. 1-2. The “Herod” here is the nephew of Herod Antipas, who was the one that executed John the Baptist and Jesus. This Herod was Herod Agrippa I and in the past had gotten in a lot of debt in Rome and had made careless comments so he was at odds with Rome. Here we see that to protect his power he tries to gain favor with Jews by persecuting Christians (Source 1, p. 1655). This chapter is sandwiched between the last days of Herod.
Regarding “James,” this was James known as “son of Zebedee” and “James the Greater” (to distinguish him from the other James), circa 44 AD. He was the first of the apostles to be martyred (killed for your beliefs). Before his death James preached in Jerusalem and Judea, modern Israel. A later Spanish tradition is that James preached the Gospel there sometime before his death” (Source 2). “History records that James’s testimony bore fruit right up to the moment of his execution. Eusebius, the early church historian, passes on an account of James’s death that came from Clement of Alexandria: ‘[Clement] says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian. They were both therefore, he says, led away together; and on the way he begged James to forgive him. And [James], after considering a little, said, ‘Peace be with thee,’ and kissed him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time.’ Thus in the end, James had learned to be more like Andrew, bringing people to Christ instead of itching to execute judgment” (Source 3, p. 109).
vv. 3-6. So Peter is imprisoned and had four squads of soldiers assigned to him. These squads were made of four soldiers each, on a rotation. There would be two soldiers handcuffed to Peter at all times and two outside, guarding the door (Source 1, p. 1655). Notice the quick phrase in the middle “but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.” Sometimes when things seem really bad we focus on the bad but in the middle is a group praying. This is where we belong! We are the ones holding back unspeakable evil in the world. Why? Because we have the Holy Spirit and God promises that the Tribulation will not happen while His children are still on earth (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8). So we are in the world, we feel the pain, we see the horrors, we may be threatened with death but we don’t fear – we pray. Whether two or three when we gather in prayer God is there with us (Matthew 18:20) answering in real time. This was the night before Peter’s execution and he’s sleeping soundly! So stand strong and pray and expect God to move. As we read on here do you think this group of believers expected God to answer their prayer?
vv. 7-10. An angel shows up to break Peter out of prison. Why does the angel strike “Peter on the side”? Henry says it was “a gentle touch” but with the intensity of “arise up quickly” (Source 4, p. 480). Peter is told to put on his shoes and coat but it all seems to good to be true – he thinks he is dreaming. Can you imagine being in prison? Your shoes are off, your coat is thrown to the side and you’re chained to two huge guards. You expect to be there for a while. But as you sleep you see a bright light and an angel says, ‘hey, let’s go’, knocks off your handcuffs and the door swings open. You would think you were dreaming!
vv. 11-17. At the point that the angel leaves Peter is aware that it’s not a dream but he really is in the city street, free from prison. Where do you go when every confinement has been heaped on you but God has broken you out? You would go to the nearest house of meeting for your secret church. This was Mark’s (the writer of the gospel that we studied this last year) mom’s house. They were actually having a prayer meeting praying for the release of Peter (v. 5) at that house. So Rhoda is on watch to answer the door and make sure no one discovers they are meeting.
I love this part of the story! Peter knocks at the gate and Rhoda, recognizing his voice, rushes into the prayer meeting to tell everyone Peter is at the front door. She is so excited she forgets to let him in. So the people (not exercising much faith!) tell her it can’t be Peter. In fact they even describe a Jewish superstition, telling her it’s Peter’s personal guardian angel* (Source 1) but the knocking continues. So they go answer the door and when they see him they were “astonished” that their prayers had been answered. Can you imagine the believers excited yelling and crying that followed? It was loud enough that Peter had to tell them to keep it down (v. 17). He doesn’t stay there (possibly worried that if he was caught they would all be considered accomplices) but before he goes he accomplishes two things: 1. Proof that prayers are answered and God is all-powerful and 2. He encourages them by giving the details of his God-given escape.
Has God healed us from cancer but although thankful did we forget to tell the people who have been praying? When our parent finally peacefully goes home to be with the Lord do we flippantly mention it? Even when we are in a hurry we must prioritize the encouragement we give others. We must be intentional about telling our friends and family some of the details when God answers prayer. Make it as enthralling and miraculous as it truly is! You have no idea how this will strengthen another Christian’s faith or intrigue a searching soul.
*guardian angels: I’ve never found any Scriptural proof for personal guardian angels, if you’d like to see my research just email me.
vv. 18-19. The next morning Herod finds that his prized prisoner has escaped and demands that the guards are executed. This was common practice. If a Roman guard allowed their prisoner to escape they paid with their life. This practice is one proof for Jesus’ resurrection because the soldiers charged with guarding the tomb left. They would never have risked their lives if there was still a body to guard.
So these two verses show us that wicked Herod was robbed of his prize and it was his pride that suffered. It didn’t matter that he searched people’s homes and the city, how could he find whom God had hidden?
vv. 20-23. Herod is “very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon” for some small reason (Source 4, p. 481) but they are trying to get back into his good graces. They need to find his favor because they get their food from his country. So he dresses in shining robes made from silver (Source 5) and when the sun hits him he is a shining beam of light. When he speaks they act like he is a god because they need his food. But Herod’s wounded pride was pleased with his shining outfit, an eloquent discourse and being called a god. He does not give glory to God but accepts God’s glory. An angel appears and strikes him once, killing him. The subservient people immediately saw who the true King of heaven was. And Herod’s body is eaten by worms. The historian Josephus said that Herod suffered for five days with horrible stomach pains before finally dying (Source 5). We must make the comparison that what was on the inside of Herod, rotting pride and sin, God made into literal rot where worms ate him.
vv. 24-25. We see that regardless of what evil and rot was surrounding His people God’s prophesies and calling continues to see people come to Him. The church is growing. We hear again about Saul now with Barnabas and Mark in Jerusalem. Remember James (Jesus’ brother), the father of the church in Jerusalem was killed at the beginning of this chapter. So Saul and the others go there to take care of the church and help out with the famine (11:28-30).
Conclusion. As always there are many people’s lives and stories intertwined in the pages of God’s love letter to us. But these vines weaving shows God’s plan and the beautiful crimson vine of Jesus’ life intertwining in the middle of it all. We read about James dying for Jesus and Peter being spared (although in 64 AD he would be killed with his family for the Lord). Peter was miraculously broken out of prison starting a chain reaction of the awful end of Herod. Every person has a choice. We can be like James and Peter and say God’s will be done with my life. Or we can be like Herod and try to hold our life saying I will that I am God.
We know the end of these paths. Every human’s body becomes worm food but not every soul is received into heaven. We know the end of these paths. You choose.
Source 1: John MacArthur, the John MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1655.
Source 3: John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2002.
Source 4: Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, NT, p. 480 – 481.
Source 5: David Guzik’s Commentary: http://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/guzik_david/StudyGuide_Act/Act_12.cfm?a=1030001